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    Buy Direct from CSS Publishing Company is a free website that provides brief yet probing exegetical commentary for:

  • Pastors who need inspiration and idea starters for their sermons
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  • Anyone who wants deeper insight into each week’s lectionary passages

These background notes cover every assigned text in the Revised Common Lectionary for each Sunday and major observance throughout the year.


Writer Mark Ellingsen

Mark Ellingsen, Pastor, Theologian, AuthorMark Ellingsen, author of Lectionary Scripture Notes, is a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and a professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated magna cum laude from Gettysburg College and has received four degrees from Yale University. He has authored many titles, most recently Lectionary Preaching Workbook for CSS Publishing Company….read more


Passion Sunday, Cycle B

God’s love shines through the cross and changes us. Sermons on our sinful condition and how through the cross God overcomes and changes our condition (Justification by Grace and the Atonement) are what this Sunday’s theme is all about.


Psalm 31:9-16
This is a prayer for deliverance from personal enemies, attributed to David. Since it is not likely that David is the author or even the agent in collecting this and other psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512), it seems appropriate not to contend that the song is only about David, but rather to read it as a pertaining to the Davidic line, to pertain to Jesus as a prophecy of his sufferings. The psalmist begins by articulating his distress and grief/anger [kaas] while pleading for Yahweh’s graciousness/mercy [chanan](v. 9). The reference to soul [nephesh] in this verse is not an embrace of the notion of soul in Greek philosophy or as most of us understand the term, but a mere reference to the life-source. The psalmist proceeds, claiming to be in sorrow — scorned, a broken vessel, and the object of schemes (vv. 10-13). He prays for vindication that we may be saved [yashad, also translated, “given safety”] by God’s steadfast love or mercy [chesed]. Awareness is expressed that our whole life is in God’s hands [yad] (vv. 14-16).

Application: One possible sermon direction with this text is to read it prophetically as referring to Jesus, to highlight the suffering Christ endured for us to save us (Atonement). Another possibility is to highlight God’s love and mercy for us, illustrated in his giving us Christ but in his kindness to us in the trials we face (Justification by Grace).

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Isaiah 50:4-9a
This lesson probably has its origins in the second oldest of the three distinct historical strands of prophecy that comprise the book. It seems quite clearly not to have been the work of the eighth century BC prophet Isaiah who worked in Judah (the Southern Kingdom), but to have emerged soon after the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 539 BC and so during the Babylonian Captivity. The text is taken from the Book of Consolation, a series of eschatological prophecies. It is the so-called Third Servant Song. There is much dispute about the identity of the servant in these songs (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:1-6; 52:13–53:12). Historically the church has claimed the referent of these texts is to an individual (the Messiah, and specifically to Jesus). But many scholars understand them to refer the role the nation of Israel would play in propagating God’s mission.

The servant says that God made him a teacher, to sustain the weary (exiled Israelites) (v. 4). The servant is said to do the Lord’s bidding and accepts the insults received (vv. 5-6). Using a law-court image, the servant expresses unshakable confidence that God will vindicate him. The one who justifies [tsadaq , declare right ] the servant will come near, so none will condemn [rasha] the psalmist (vv. 7-9).

Application: Sermons on this text will proclaim God’s long-standing plan to overcome sin and evil in Jesus (Atonement) and in the lives of the faithful (Justification by Grace).


Philippians 2:5-11
This letter was written by Paul while a prisoner to Christians in a province of Macedonia. There is some debate about whether the epistle in its present form might be a combination of three separate letters (for an early theologian of the church named Polycarp spoke of several of Paul’s letters written to Philippi [Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 33]). Its immediate occasion was to thank the Philippians for their gifts, by way of the return of Paul’s co-worker Epaphroditus to Philippi (2:25-30), the church member who had brought these gifts to Paul. The main purpose of the apostle is to urge persistence in faith in face of opposition.

After urging the faithful to love and be concerned with the interests of others (vv. 2-4), Paul exhorts them to have the mind of Christ Jesus (v. 5). Christ is depicted (in hymn form, probably of pre-Pauline origins) as divine (in the form [morphe] of God), but also as one emptying [ekenose] himself into humanity in the form of a slave [doulos] and to death on the cross (vv. 6-8). In turn, God has exalted [huperupsose] him. The confession that Christ is Lord [kurios] is central to this letter (vv. 9-11; v. 29; 3:8, 20; 4:1, 2, 4). It is possible that the hymn is inspired by the Fourth Servant Song of Isaiah 52:13–53:12).

Application: Sermons on this text might focus on Christology, on Christ’s Atoning Work, or on the implications of Christ’s self-sacrificing ministry for the faithful to live this way (Sanctification).


Mark 14:1–15:47
Again we consider a text in the first of the Synoptic Gospels to be written, a book that was perhaps the source of other gospels, perhaps based on oral traditions of the Passion narrative and accounts of Jesus’ sayings (the so-called Q-source). Probably written prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, this anonymous work is traditionally ascribed to John Mark, perhaps referred to as an associate of Paul (Acts 12:12-25, 15:37; Colossians 4:10) or as Peter’s scribe (1 Peter 5:13). Some speculate that the original audience was the church in Rome (especially Gentiles), as it presumes readers unfamiliar with Jewish customs and Palestinian geography (see 7:2-4, 31), but it also could have been written for Palestinian Christians. This text is the oldest account of Jesus’ betrayal, the Last Supper, Gethsemane, his capture, trial, crucifixion, and death.

The lengthy lesson begins with the chief priests and scribes initiating a conspiracy against Jesus before the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread (part of the commemoration of the Hebrews’ escape from Egypt). They do so for fear of a popular expression of support for him (14:1-2). Mark reports a long-standing plot against Jesus (3:6; 11:18; 12:12). In an account omitted by Luke and portrayed by John (12:1-8) as prior to Palm Sunday, the story of Jesus’ anointing by a woman at Simon the Leper’s home in the town of Bethany (about two miles southeast of Jerusalem) is reported (14:3-9).

The fact that the woman poured ointment on Jesus’ head connoted a royal anointment (cf. 2 Kings 9:6), implying that Jesus is an authoritative king. Jesus defends her actions from those critiquing her for not using the money spent for the ointment (the value of one year’s wages in that economy) for the poor [ptochos]. Jesus defends her, claiming that the poor will always be with us (cf. Deuteronomy 15:11) and that she had done the right thing preparing his body for burial. The account then is a prophecy of Jesus’ Passion.

Judas Iscariot conspires with the chief priests to betray Jesus (14:10-11). The meaning of Iscariot could relate to the Semitic term for “fraud” or the Latin work for “assassin.” The account of the Last Supper on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (commemorating the escape of the Hebrews from Egypt) follows. We learn of how Jesus came to hold the meal in the house offered for his use (by virtue of Jesus’ prophecy to his disciples). They are to use for a room a house where a man carrying water enters (14:12-16). At the meal (which may have only been a meal on Passover Eve), Jesus prophesies his betrayal by one of the disciples while dipping bread into a bowl with that person. He refers to himself with the Messiah.

The actual meal and Jesus’ Word of Institution, consecrating the elements, are reported (14:22-24). The reference he makes to new covenant ways is necessary, for Jews would never drink blood (Leviticus 17:10ff). Never again, Jesus says, will he drink wine until he drinks in the kingdom of God (14:25). After singing a hymn (probably Psalms 115-118, typical in the Passover meal), Jesus and the disciples leave for the Mount of Olives. Citing Zechariah 13:7, he prophesies that all will desert him, the shepherd [poimain] struck and the sheep scattered (14:26-27). Jesus claims that after being raised up he will meet his followers in Galilee (14:28). Peter protests, insisting that he will not desert, but Jesus predicts that he will betray him before morning dawns (14:29-31). The disciples and Jesus go to Jerusalem, leaving all except Peter, James, and John behind as he prays. He becomes distressed, agitated, and grieved petitioning that the hour might pass from him (14:32-35). He refers to God as Abba in his petitions, a familiar title no Jew would dare attribute to the Lord, resolving finally to do his will (14:36). On three occasions he returns to select disciples finding Peter and the others sleeping. The flesh [sarx] is weak, though the spirit [pneuma -- God’s energizing power] is willing/eager [prosthumon], Jesus claims. The third time he speaks of the hour [hora] coming for the Son of Man’s betrayal (14:37-42). The man Jesus stands in stark contrast to other human beings.

The betrayal by Judas’ infamous kiss of Jesus to an armed crowd follows next (14:43-46). Kissing a rabbi as a greeting was a common sign of respect in this era. One of Jesus’ followers takes armed action against the high priest’s slave, but Jesus submits, noting he was not arrested previously when teaching in the temple (14:47-50). The story of a young man who followed Jesus’ followers is next narrated. The lad is captured, runs away naked from captors holding on to his clothes (a linen cloth) (14:51-52). The story may have been narrated in order to function as a contrast of Jesus’ calmness facing death and the fear of the follower. Others claim that the young man is Mark and that the Last Supper was held in his mother’s home (Acts 12:12).

Next Jesus appears before Caiaphas, the high priest. Peter only follows at a distance, warming himself at the fire (14:53-54). While he is comfortable, Jesus is grilled. The trial proceeds before the high priests and the whole counsel (the Sanhedrin [suhedrion]), all conspiring with false witnesses. Jesus is accused of threatening to destroy the temple and rebuild it without hands (14:55-58). This is a charge of wizardry [yiddeoni] — a capital crime (Leviticus 20:27). It is noted that the witnesses did not agree (14:59). After failing to get a response from Jesus, the high priest asks Jesus if he is the Messiah [Christos]. In contrast to Matthew’s account, Mark has Jesus respond affirmatively and speaks of his glorification as Son of Man, sitting at the right hand of the power [dunamis](God) (14:60-62). The high priest responds in grief (tearing his clothes), accusing Jesus of blasphemy and deserving death. All (presumably the Sanhedrin) condemn Jesus as deserving death. He is tortured (14:63-65; cf. Daniel 7:13-14; Psalm 110:1). Peter is then identified as one of Jesus’ followers and denies him three times before dawn. Remembering Jesus’ prophecy, he weeps (14:66-72).

Members of the Sanhedrin elect in the morning to hand Jesus over to the Roman prefect, Pilate. He asks Jesus if he is king of the Jews, and Jesus simply notes that that is Pilate’s confession (15:1-2). Hearing other accusations, Jesus gives no answer, astounding Pilate (15:3-5). There is no report of the death of Judas. That is only found in Matthew (27:3-10). In Luke (23:6-16), Jesus is passed on to Pilate. Though there is no historical evidence of such a practice, it is reported that it was common for Pilate to release a prisoner at Passover. He offers the crowd Jesus, king of the Jews (for he realized that the accusations against him had been trumped up over jealously) or Barabbas, who had committed murder during an insurrection [stasis] (15:6-10). The chief priests stir up the crowd to call for Barabbas’ release (15:11). The crowd, so stirred up, calls for Jesus’ crucifixion and wishing to please the crowd, Pilate complies (15:12-15). Pilate is here clearly portrayed as a mere pawn of manipulative Jewish leaders. According to Jewish law a curse was implicit in crucifixion (Deuteronomy 21:23).

The soldiers lead Jesus to a courtyard and mock him, making him wear purple, a crown of thorns, and calling him king of the Jews (15:16-20). Those outside the faith unknowingly witness to Jesus. On the road to the site of the crucifixion, Golgotha, Simon, from the African district of Cyrene (with a large Jewish population), is made to bear Jesus’ cross (15:21). It was standard practice in this era that condemned prisoners only carried the crossbar, not their crosses as a whole. In any case, Simon is given no credit for undertaking this task, as it is imposed on him. At Golgotha, Jesus refuses wine mingled with myrrh (15:22-23). When crucified, Jesus’ garments are divided by lot (15:24-25). This may be read as fulfillment of Psalm 22:18. An inscription of the charge “King of the Jews” [Ho Basileus ton Ioudaikon] is read. And many who pass by mock him (15:26-32).

Darkness envelops that land from noon until three. This may be a reference to Amos 8:9-10, where mourning for an only son is related to the sun going down in daylight. Jesus cries out, feeling forsaken by the Father (15:33-34). Some mistakenly say this call of anguish in Aramaic was a call to Elijah (15:35). (Later Jewish folklore regarded Elijah as a rescuer of the righteous [see 2 Kings 2:9-12].) Jesus is mockingly given a sponge with sour wine and dies (15:36-37), perhaps an allusion to fulfilling Psalm 69:21. At that time the curtain that closed off the Holy of Holies in the temple is torn (15:38). This symbolizes that in Jesus’ death God’s people have direct access to him (cf. Hebrews 10:19-20).

A centurion seeing Jesus breathe his last confesses Jesus to be God’s Son [huios tou theou] (15:39). The testimony by a Gentile completes the theme of the gospel — that Jesus is Son of God (1:1). The title Son of God was tied to the Messiah since 2 Samuel 7:12-16. The reference was to how this Son would reign on God’s behalf. Reference is made to some women, including Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother James, Joses, and Salome (15:40-41). The virgin Mary is identified elsewhere as the mother of James and Joses (6:3). A respected member of the council Joseph of Arimathea, expecting the immanence of the kingdom of God, asks for Jesus’ body. Pilate receives verification of the death and gives Joseph the body (15:42-45). Joseph takes the body from the cross, wraps it in linen, and lays it in a tomb with a stone at its door (15:46). Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus see where the body is laid (15:47).

Application: A number of sermon possibilities emerge from this text. Focus could be on the suffering of Jesus and his Atoning Work (like the Second Lesson), the hidden character of his ministry (that Jesus’ messiahship is better understood by outsiders than by his followers [Theological Method], or focus could be on what life looks like when we live it in the shadows of the cross of Christ (Sin, Justification by Grace, and Sanctification).

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Author of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen

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