Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: The Last Night of Jesus' Life

The final week of Jesus' life had come down to the last night. The public proclamation and the debates were over. Jesus changed his focus from the clamoring crowd and the devious religious establishment to the small group he called his own "who are in the world". They were his dearest and closest friends who, unbeknownst to themselves, were about to face the most shattering and reshaping experience of their lives. They had left everything to follow him - family, friends and vocations. He had become the exclusive focus of their lives. Their collective vision of the nature and length of this ministry of Jesus was about to fall apart. Whatever the future held, they expected Jesus to be alive, well, and personally in charge. They had rejected any and all suggestions by Jesus that he might die. He had said many things in the previous three years that they had not fully understood. Like every good teacher, Jesus had said things that would take on meaning only long after he had gone.

As he comforted and reassured them, he offered a novel idea which they had found difficult to understand at the time. He said: "It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate (Holy Spirit) will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you." (John 16:7) They wondered how that could be! How could they (or we) be better for his leaving, especially in the manner in which he left? While they would understand later, at that moment they were bewildered as to what he meant. Jesus was essentially telling them that there was a new divine power waiting in the wings, but that power would not come into the world until he left to send it back.

The disciples were not only a diverse group, they were also immature, unstable and unsure of themselves. Jesus had already given Peter the "Keys to the Kingdom", thus committing himself to the proposition that when all was said and done they would be able to function effectively in his absence. At that point in time and under the given circumstances, reasonable people might well have questioned the wisdom of leaving so important a task in the hands of such a shaky and unstable group. But for better or worse, they were it!!!

The manner in which Jesus was to continue to be with them was about to change. His death would trigger the change. From a two thousand year perspective, we have some grasp of what was happening, but at that time they had not the slightest idea.

The dynamic of how in death he would still be with them is suggested in a profound scene in John Masefield's play, "The Trial of Jesus". It is called "Dialogue between the Centurion and a woman". The woman's name is Procula. The wife of Pontius Pilate is not mentioned by name in Bible, but legend has it that her name was Claudia Procula. The Centurion's name in the dialogue is Longina. This the dialogue:

Procula: Centurion, were you at the killing of that teacher today?

Longina: Yes, my lady.

Procula: Tell me about his death.

Longina: It is hardly fit hearing for you, my lady.

Procula: Do not tell it all, then, but tell me what he said.

Longina: The people were mocking him at first, and he prayed God to forgive them. He said: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do".

Procula: Was he suffering much?

Longina: Well, my lady, he wasn't a strong man. The scourging must have nearly killed him. I thought he was dead by noon, and then suddenly he began to sing in a loud voice that he was giving back his spirit to God. I looked to see God come take him. He died singing. Truly, my lady, that man was the Son of God, if I may say that.

Procula: What do you think the man believed, Centurion?

Longina: He believed he was God, they say.

Procula: Do you believe it?

Longina: We saw a fine young fellow, my lady, not past middle age. And he was alone, and he defied all the Jews and all the Romans, and when we had done with him, he was a poor broken-down thing, dead on the cross.

Procula: Do you think he is dead?

Longina: No, my lady, I do not.

Procula: Then where is he?

Longina: He is let loose in the world, my lady, where neither Roman nor Jew can stop his truth.

That is how he continued to be with them - and continues to be with us.