Reading the Easter Story on the Shoulders of Giants

Voices from the Past, Wisdom for the Present

The ESV Church History Study Bible is grounded upon the basic point that we have much to learn from those who have gone before us. Charles Spurgeon once encouraged his students to read commentaries, noting that the Holy Spirit is not an exclusive or individual gift to any one believer. Since we know that the Holy Spirit teaches us, we can know that the Holy Spirit teaches others. And the Holy Spirit has been teaching the church throughout the corridors of time. We stand downstream from two millennia of gifted teachers and teaching. This study Bible aims to introduce readers today to these teachers from the past.1

Read below selections from the four Gospels along with commentary notes from giants of the faith such as John Calvin, Martin Luther, Augustine, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Spurgeon. Reflect on the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus with insight offered into these events by these gifted teachers from church history.

ESV Church History Study Bible

The ESV Church History Study Bible is designed to help believers in all seasons of life understand the Bible—featuring 20,000 study notes from church history’s most prominent figures.

Mark 15:1-5

1And as soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. And they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate. 2And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” 3And the chief priests accused him of many things. 4And Pilate again asked him, “Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you.” 5But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed. —Mark 15:1-5

Great is the contrast between the second Adam and the first! Our first father Adam was guilty, and yet tried to excuse himself. The second Adam was guiltless, and yet made no defense at all. —J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Mark

Think what a sight was here, the eternal Son of God in human nature, the Lord of life and glory, the Prince of the kings of the earth, standing before a heathen governor! He stood before the governor to receive the sentence of condemnation on himself so that, sin being condemned in his flesh, the whole righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in them. He stood here, that they might stand before God, and at the throne of his grace with boldness and intrepidity. —John Gill, Exposition of the Bible

Luke 23:18-24

18But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”— 19 a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. 20Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, 21but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” 22A third time he said to them, “Why? What evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” 23But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed.24So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted.—Luke 23:18-24

What kind of people crucified the Lord of glory! Those that violently demand the death of an innocent man fittingly seek the release of a murderer. Wickedness has such laws as to hate innocence and love guilt. The interpretation of the name gives the likeness of the image, because Barabbas means “son of the father.” He belongs to those to whom it is said, “You are of your father the devil.” They were about to choose the antichrist as son of their father, rather than the Son of God. —Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke

John 19:1-3

1Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. 2And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe.3They came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands. —John 19:1-3

We see Christ’s complete and perfect substitution for sinners. He, the innocent sin-bearer, wore the crown of thorns, that we, the guilty, might wear a crown of glory. Vast is the contrast there will be between the crown of glory that Christ will wear at his second advent and the crown of thorns he wore at this first coming. It was, moreover, a striking symbol of the consequences of the fall being laid on the head of our divine substitute. In Leviticus it is written that “Aaron shall lay his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgression in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat” (Lev. 16:21). —J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of John, vol. 3

Jesus answered to the type of Abraham’s ram that was caught in the thicket, and so offered up instead of Isaac (Gen. 22:13). Thorns signify afflictions (2 Chron. 33:11). These Christ put into a crown, so much did he alter the property of them to those that are his, giving them cause to glory in tribulation and making it to work for them a weight of glory. —Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible

John 19:16-22

16So he delivered him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus, 17and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. 18There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.19Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 20Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. 21So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” 22Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”—John 19:16-22

This Mount Calvary was that mountain in the land of Moriah (and in the land of Moriah it certainly was, for so the country about Jerusalem was called) on which Isaac was to be offered, and the ram was offered instead of him, and then Abraham had an eye to this day of Christ, when he called the place Jehovah-jireh—“the Lord will provide,” expecting that so it would be seen in the mount of the Lord. —Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible

As if the severity of the punishment had not been sufficient of itself, Christ is hanged in the midst between two robbers, as if he not only had deserved to be classed with other robbers, but had been the most wicked and the most detestable of them all. —John Calvin, Commentary on John

Even the cross itself, if you consider it well, was a judgment seat, for the Judge being set up in the middle, one thief who believed was delivered, the other who reviled was condemned. Already he signified what he is to do with the quick and the dead: some he will set on his right hand and others on his left. That thief was like those that shall be on the left hand, the other like those that shall be on the right. He was undergoing judgment, and he threatened judgment. —Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, no. 31

What a marvelous providence it was that moved Pilate’s pen! The representative of the Roman emperor was little likely to concede kingship to any man, yet he deliberately wrote, THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS, and nothing would induce him to alter what he had written. Even on his cross Christ was proclaimed King in the sacerdotal Hebrew, the classical Greek, and the common Latin, so that everybody in the crowd could read the inscription. —Charles Spurgeon, The Gospel of the Kingdom

Luke 23:34

34And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments.—Luke 23:34

How striking is this passage! While they are actually nailing Jesus to the cross, he seems to feel the injury they did to their own souls more than the wounds they gave him and, as it were, to forget his own anguish out of a concern for their own salvation. And how eminently was his prayer heard! It procured forgiveness for all that were penitent and a suspension of vengeance even for the impenitent. —John Wesley, Wesley’s Explanatory Notes

Matthew 27:39-42

39And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads 40and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. —Matthew 27:39-42

In order to prove himself to be the Son of God, it was necessary that Jesus should hang on the cross. And now those wicked men affirm that the Redeemer will not be recognized as the Son of God unless he come down from the cross and thus disobey the command of his Father and, leaving incomplete the expiation of sins, divest himself of the office that God had assigned to him. But let us learn from it to confirm our faith by considering that the Son of God determined to remain nailed to the cross for the sake of our salvation until he had endured most cruel torments of the flesh, and dreadful anguish of soul, and even death itself. —John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Gospels

Such words pierced his very heart, hurting him more than all his other sufferings. Still, he suffered all this with patience. He wept over his enemies, because they would have no part in the great benefit to be derived from his death—yea, he prayed for their sin. And in the face of this we are ready to snarl and growl over the least trifle when asked to yield even a little to our neighbor. Here you see how far we are still from Christ. It is indeed necessary to suffer with Christ if we would enter with him into glory. —Martin Luther, “Sixth Sunday after Trinity, 1523”

The Lord, knowing the snares of his adversaries, remained on the cross that he may destroy the devil. —Jerome, Commentary on Matthew

Luke 23:44-47

44It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. 47Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!”—Luke 23:44-47

Creation itself bewailed its Lord, for the sun was darkened, the rocks were rent, and the very temple assumed the garb of mourners, for its veil was rent from the top to the bottom. And this is what God signified to us by the voice of Isaiah, saying, “I will clothe the heaven with darkness, and wrap it around with sackcloth” (50:3). —Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, sermons 154–156 [fragments]

The veil that was “torn in two from the top to the bottom” denoted three things. First, that the rending of Christ’s body was the means of bringing us nigh to God; next, that the mysteries that had hitherto been hid in God were now fully revealed; and lastly, that a new way of access to God was now opened for all people. —Charles Simeon, Horae Homileticae, vol. 11

It was not in reference to himself alone that Christ committed his soul to the Father, but that he included, as it were, in one bundle all the souls of those who believe in him, that they may be preserved along with his own, and not only so, but by this prayer he obtained authority to save all souls, so that not only does the heavenly Father, for his sake, deign to take them into his custody, but, giving up the authority into his hands, commits them to him to be protected. —John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Gospels

The death of Christ gives us the best discovery of ourselves, in what condition we were, in that nothing could help us but that, and the most clear discovery of the dreadful nature of our sins. For if sin be so dreadful a thing as to wring the heart of the Son of God, how shall a poor wretched sinner be able to bear it? —John Bunyan, Mr. John Bunyan’s Dying Sayings

To see him who is the wisdom of God and the power of God, always beloved of the Father, to see him, I say, fear, and tremble, and bow, and sweat, and pray, and die, to see him lifted up upon the cross, the earth trembling under him, as if unable to bear his weight, and the heavens darkened over him, as if shut against his cry, and himself hanging between both, as if refused by both, and all this because our sins did meet upon him—this of all things does most abundantly manifest the severity of God’s vindictive justice. —John Owen, Communion with God

Oh, beloved, when the soul is brought as low as hell almost, then this consideration will be sweet, that Christ was forsaken as a surety for me; Christ overcame sin, death, God’s wrath, and all for me; in him I triumph over all these. What welcome news is this to a distressed sinner! Whenever your soul is truly humbled in the sense of sin, look not at sin in your conscience (your conscience is a bed for another to lodge in) but at Christ. If you be a brokenhearted sinner, see your sins in Christ your Savior taken away. —Richard Sibbes, Christ’s Suffering for Man’s Sins

O the divine mystery of that cross, on which weakness hangs, might is free, vices are nailed, and triumphal trophies raised. —Ambrose, “Three Books of St. Ambrose on the Holy Spirit”

Matthew 27:57-61

57When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. 58He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away. 61Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.—Matthew 27:57-61

Christ was laid in a disciple’s grave. He suffered that death that belonged to us, and he was laid in our grave. He entered into the state of death in our stead; he went down into that deep pit where we were to have gone. He had no sin of his own, so he had no death of his own; it was our sin and our grave, and our tomb hewed out in a rock. —Jonathan Edwards, Notes on the Bible)

Luke 23:54-56

54It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. 55The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 56Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.—Luke 23:54-56

We see in these women an example of godliness and diligent love, for as they had followed the Lord in his lifetime, so they do not forsake him when he is dead. They run and watch with a pious thoughtfulness, having an earnest care to anoint his body. This is an example we ought to follow, for we may yet bestow these pious attentions on Christ, but through his members, because after this he is no more with us in his body. —Ulrich Zwingli, On the Passion and Death of Christ

Matthew 28:1-6

1Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.” —Matthew 28:1-6

In the time of the old covenant the Sabbath was highly revered. Now under the gospel the Sabbath has been recast, now viewed as the Lord’s resurrection day. The Sabbath formerly had pertained to the pedagogy and rudiments of the law. When the great Master himself came and fulfilled them all for us, all that had prefigured his coming was transformed. The old Sabbath was like a candle lit in the night before the rising and appearing of the sun. —Athanasius, Homilies

That old Sabbath was not instituted till after the giving the promise of Christ (Gen. 3:15), and the rest of God on that seventh day was chiefly in having perfected the new creation in Christ, that also was the sabbatical rest of Adam. When therefore that was accomplished which was then promised, namely, the bruising of the serpent’s head by the resurrection of Christ, and that was fulfilled which was typified and represented in the old Sabbath, namely, the finishing of a new creation, the Sabbath could not but justly be transferred to that day on which these things were done. —John Lightfoot, Commentary on Matthew

This earthquake was a sign of triumph, or token of victory, given by Christ to the whole world, that he had overcome death in its own dominions and, like a conqueror, lifted up his head above all his enemies. So when the Lord fought from heaven for his people and gave them a glorious, though but temporal deliverance, see how the prophetess drives on the triumph in that rhetorical song (Judg. 5:4–5). Our Lord Jesus went out of the grave in like manner and marched out of that bloody field with a pomp and majesty becoming so great a conqueror. —John Flavel, The Resurrection of Christ

John 20:12-18

12And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.—John 20:12-18

The first appearance of the risen Lord was given to Mary for no other reason than that she needed him first and needed him most. And what more appropriate beginning could have been set for his ministry of glory than this very act? Nothing could better convince us that in his exalted state he retains for us the same tender sympathy, the same individual affection as he showed during the days of his flesh. —Geerhardus Vos, Grace and Glory

Let us cling firmly to the resurrection of Christ as one of the pillars of the gospel. It ought to produce in our minds a settled conviction of the truth of Christianity. Our faith does not depend merely on a set of texts and doctrines. It is founded on a mighty historical fact that the skeptic has never been able to overturn. It ought to assure us of the certainty of the resurrection of our own bodies after death. If our Master has risen from the grave, we need not doubt that his disciples shall rise again at the last day. —J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels


  1. Stephen J. Nichols, ESV Church History Study Bible, vii.

This article is adapted from the ESV Church History Study Bible: Voices from the Past, Wisdom for the Present.

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