James Patrick’s Blog

October 12, 2009

Promised Land in Romans, part two [I&NC #12]

The three chapters of Romans 9-11 deal with the biggest objection Gentile believers might have to his ‘gospel’ of first Jews and also Gentiles receiving the inheritance of salvation.  They explain why Paul can be so confident that his own nation will experience ‘salvation’, despite all present evidence to the contrary.  Within these chapters, the verses at the beginning and end of his explanation offer the clearest evidence of Paul’s conviction that the covenant of land remains in effect for Israel.

Romans 9:4 – So far Paul has presented thoroughly the gospel message that both Jews and Gentiles are equally slaves to sin, but to show His love God sent His Son to pay the penalty of death on behalf of both Gentile and Jew, so that both alike could put their trust solely in His resurrection and thereby receive the Spirit now and inherit ‘salvation’ in the age to come.  This promise of ‘salvation’ inheritance, for the Jew first and also for the Gentile, is undermined however by Israel’s apparent failure as a nation to confess their Messiah and so inherit their promises.  Paul’s solution to this problem is to demonstrate how God has purposely delayed the inheritance of Israel so that the spiritual descendants of Abraham might be first gathered from all nations, and only then will Israel, along with the elect of every nation, together inherit their promised lands.

Paul is very open about his ‘unceasing grief’ about the hardness of his own Jewish nation toward their Messiah, quite the opposite of those who presume unwisely that God has simply moved on to bigger things (11:25).  Although he is the Apostle to the Gentiles, he would prefer to be personally cast out from the Messiah’s people in order that they as a nation might receive their inheritance of salvation (9:3).  Not only is this what the Messiah Himself chose to do, but Paul is surely recalling the plea of Moses to this effect in Exodus 32:32 (cf. Deut 9:14).  Twice God gave Moses the option of allowing Him to destroy Israel completely and instead make a great nation of Moses himself, once when the people made the golden calf before they received the Ten Commandments (Exod 32:9‑10), and a second time when they refused to go in and possess their promised land (Num 14:11‑12; cf. Deut 9:13‑14, 22‑23).  In both cases, Moses appealed directly to God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that He would multiply their descendants and allow them to inherit the promised land for ever (Exod 32:11-13; Num 14:15‑16; Deut 9:27‑29); if God didn’t do this, the nations would question God’s own power to fulfil His promises.  Such is again the situation in Paul’s time.

In response to the threat of destruction on Israel, therefore, Paul likewise appeals to God’s choice of the nation, listing a series of nine ‘advantages’ of the Jews (9:4‑5; cf. 3:1‑2).  Paul appears to have deliberately ordered this list according to the story of the Exodus of the Israelites from slavery.  Thus he starts with their descent from ‘Israel’ (Exod 1:1‑7), followed by six specific gifts: their ‘adoption as sons’ (Exod 4:22‑26), the ‘glory’ (Exod 13:21‑22; 16:10; cf. 24:16‑18; Num 14:10), the ‘covenants’ (Exod 19:3‑6; 20:1–23:33; 24:3‑8), the ‘giving of the Law’ (Exod 24:1‑2, 12; 31:18; 34:1‑4, 27‑29), the [tabernacle] ‘service’ (Exod 25:1–31:11), and the ‘promises’ (Exod 32:13, 32:31–33:3, 12­‑17).  He then appeals, as Moses did within the section on promises, to ‘the fathers’ (Exod 32:13; 33:1), but takes it even further than Moses did, appealing to the Jewish descent of ‘the Messiah… who is over all” (cf. Exod 33:2, 12; 23:20‑23).  The precise order of these nine elements according to the book of Exodus, concluding with the very passage where Moses asks, like Paul here, that he be blotted out in place of the nation, is strong evidence of Paul’s meaning.  The ‘promises’ that were given to ‘the fathers’ are spoken of in this passage (Exod 32:13 etc.) specifically as the multiplication of Israel ‘as the stars of the heavens’ and their inheritance ‘for ever’ of ‘all this land of which I have spoken’.  The blessings on the nations are not referred to here, apart perhaps from the way the nations will doubt God’s love and power if He fails to fulfil His promises.

Therefore we have in Romans 9:4 a clear reference by Paul to God’s enduring covenant promises of multiplication of the Jewish nation ‘as the stars of the heavens’ and their eternal possession of the specific territory promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Sequence of Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11

Paul’s first argument against the idea that God’s promises have failed for Israel is that God is entirely at liberty to choose some and harden others.  Ever since Abraham, God has deliberately and consistently ordained that the most unlikely child will be the ‘seed’ of promise, independent of the actions of this chosen ‘seed’, simply to prove that it is all about God’s mercy rather than man’s effort (9:6-13).  Paul therefore has to address two objections to the idea that God has hardened the majority of the nation of Israel entirely of His own choice (9:14‑22; cf. Isa 64:6‑9).  The only reason he gives for this hardening is that God uses it to demonstrate His glory to those on whom He shows mercy, both Gentiles and the remnant of Jews (9:23‑29).

His second argument raises the question of why Israel who pursued righteousness according to the Law of Moses did not arrive at their goal.  His answer is that however zealous they were for God, they were trying to accomplish their own righteousness and so they stumbled over their own Messiah, who demanded that they put their trust solely in His resurrection (9:30–10:13).  Even the Law itself was meant to be observed by faith (9:32), because Moses himself wrote that the commands he was giving were not a matter of hard work; rather, people could only accomplish these commands by allowing the Lord their God to circumcise their hearts so they could love Him and live (Deut 30:6‑14).

His third argument concerns whether Israel has actually been told about this good news of the Messiah, as the Gentiles had.  His response was, ‘Of course!’  Many apostles had gone to Jerusalem and the Jews announcing the ‘good news’ that not only has redemption come for Israel, but the Gentiles can now also rejoice in the ‘salvation’ of the Jewish God (Isa 52:7‑10).  Gentiles have been told of God’s glory (Psa 19), and because they found the God they weren’t even seeking (Isa 65:1­‑2), He would use them to make His own people jealous, the very people who had made Him jealous by worshiping idols (Deut 32:16‑21).

His fourth argument applies the first argument more specifically to the present day; God has not completely rejected His people, because there is still a believing remnant [and by implication, there will always be such a remnant].  Paul himself is Jewish (11:1), and not only him, but as in Elijah’s time so at this time God has chosen thousands of Jews, entirely according to His own grace (11:2‑6).  As in the time of Moses, David, and Isaiah, God Himself had decreed a hardening over the majority of the Jewish nation, choosing a small selection to obtain righteousness (11:7-10).

Finally Paul comes to his fifth and greatest argument, that the nation has not stumbled so badly that they will not rise again (11:11-32).  Moses had prophesied that Gentiles would become believers precisely so that His own people might be made jealous and return to Him (Deut 32:21, 36, 43).  For this reason Paul, an apostle to the Gentiles, boasted to the Jews about Gentile conversion to try to make them jealous and perhaps save some of them (11:13‑14); he saw his own Gentile mission as a method of reaching out to Jews.  What Paul recognised was that God had enslaved Israel to sin in order to redeem Gentile sinners, and was now redeeming Gentile sinners in order to redeem Israel also; God has made all nations slaves to sin so that by His choice and power alone He can redeem them all (11:30‑32).  What is more, if God’s anger towards Israel was a blessing for all nations, His favour towards Israel will certainly bring even more blessing to all nations, in the form of “life from the dead” (11:12, 15).  Israel is promised not just ‘reconciliation’ when they return to their own God (11:24), but ‘life from the dead’ also – thus we can conclude that their national restoration will result in the return of Jesus and resurrection of all believers.

Romans 11:29 – Paul’s Gentile listeners were rebuked for being ‘arrogant’ towards the Jewish nation, whether believers or unbelievers (11:17‑18).  Gentiles must not forget that although they are now able to inherit the promises as adopted ‘sons of God’ and the ‘seed of Abraham’, the Jews are ‘sons of God’ and ‘seed of Abraham’ by birth, and will all the more naturally be restored to their own covenant promises (11:24).  The ‘mystery’ of the gospel  (11:25‑27; cf. 16:25‑26) is that Israel has been temporarily hardened to allow all nations to enter into the covenant also, but when the full number of nations are present, this will cause the whole nation of Israel to be ‘saved’, both from sin and into their inheritance.

Although Israel as a whole is presently far from God so that Gentiles can be saved, nevertheless, within the purposes of God the nation is still “beloved for the sake of the fathers” (11:28).  The reason for this is that God cannot and will not revoke either His gifts or His calling.  What are the gifts and calling of Israel?  The calling of Israel is to be a blessing to all nations, and the gifts are a multitude of faithful Jewish descendants and an eternal inheritance of their promised land [see discussion of 9:4 above].

I am convinced that Paul believed the promises to the Patriarchs of multiplication and territorial inheritance to have endured into the new covenant.  Although in writing to Gentiles he usually had no reason to defend the promise of land to the Jews, the letter to the Romans was a clear and important exception.  Even so, he certainly never claimed that Jewish believers such as himself had a claim to the promised land in this age, before every nation had received the good news.  Jews in the land, and probably even Jewish believers, did make such a claim, which was something even Jesus had to address (cf. Acts 1:6‑8).

If Paul were to write to a Jewish majority church, therefore, he would almost certainly have urged them to trust God for the future inheritance of the land rather than trusting the obsolete Temple system of Moses to qualify for inheritance in this age.  Enduring persecution from fellow Jews for rejecting the Temple was preferable to risking divine judgement for despising the Messiah’s greater sacrifice and priesthood, even if it meant the seizure of one’s family inheritance of land (Heb 10:34).  In every generation of Israel there had been the faithful remnant who had longed for the fulfilment of the promised inheritance, but had instead chosen suffering for the sake of the rest of God’s people.  God would certainly fulfil His promises, but not yet.  This is precisely the message written to the Hebrew believers in Israel probably just a few years after the letter to the Romans, as we shall see in the next post.

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April 12, 2009

Good Thursday? part 6 – Summary of the arguments

Filed under: History — alabastertheology @ 1:33 am
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Early celebrations of Jesus’ death and resurrection were held either on the fourteenth day of the lunar Jewish month of Nisan (the date Jesus died) or on an appropriately located Sunday (the day Jesus rose again).  Disputes over which to celebrate were apparently known by around 120AD, but the Council of Nicea in the fourth century insisted that all celebrate Easter Sunday rather than the 14th of Nisan, despite ancient apostolic authority for the latter in Asia Minor.

Gentile misunderstandings about the Jewish background to Jesus’ death and resurrection were already evident enough in the first century for the apostle John to include in his Gospel a number of clarifications intended to correct the ways in which many were wrongly interpreting the three earlier Gospels.  One of these clarifications was John’s observation in 13:1 and 18:28 that the meal Jesus ate with His disciples was “before the Feast of the Passover”.  Another in 19:14 and 19:31 was that the ‘Day of Preparation’ on which Jesus died was preparing not for the regular Jewish Sabbath (Friday night through Saturday), but for the Passover and the ‘special Sabbath’ that kicked off the Feast of Unleavened Bread on the 15th of Nisan.  The 15th was observed as a Sabbath rest in much the same way as today we celebrate the 25th of December with a holiday, regardless of the day of the week on which it falls.

Nevertheless, a lack of awareness in the Gentile church about the Jewish regulations for the Passover in Exodus 12 meant that soon those who celebrated Easter Sunday simply assumed that the ‘Day of Preparation’, on which Jesus died, could only be a Friday before the normal Jewish Sabbath.  While this could be reconciled with an inclusive counting of resurrection ‘on the third day’, it seemingly ignored Jesus’ explicit prediction in Matthew 12:40 that He would be buried for “three days and three nights”, according to the ‘sign’ of Jonah the prophet.  A crucifixion on Friday and resurrection on Sunday can at most be described as three days and two nights, although if Jesus did indeed rise ‘while it was still dark’ on the Sunday (John 20:1), this could make it as little as two days and two nights.

On the other hand, if we consider the possibility of the ‘special Sabbath’ on the 15th being followed by a normal Sabbath on the 16th, this naturally leads us to a crucifixion on the Thursday afternoon (the first ‘day’), followed by two more ‘days’ on the Friday and Saturday, and three nights also (Thursday-Friday, Friday-Saturday and Saturday-Sunday).  Although none of the Gospels speaks of plural ‘Sabbaths’ on which the women rested, they also do not preclude this possibility with their wording.  In fact, the request of the chief priests on the day after Jesus died (Matthew 27:62-66) that the tomb be made secure “until the third day” (rather than ‘until tomorrow’) does imply two full days of inactivity before the resurrection.

An observation related to the Jewish background of Jesus’ death and resurrection, which would hold true regardless of whether one held to Good Friday or Good Thursday, is that the meal Jesus ate with His disciples cannot have been eaten on the ‘correct’ night, as we noted with John’s Gospel above.  Rather, Jesus ensured quick preparations for the meal in order to celebrate the Passover with His disciples before He died, as His comments at the start of the meal in Luke’s Gospel make clear.  The meal was a Passover meal even if its timing was wrong, much in the same way one might eat a Christmas dinner one day early.  However in the case of Jesus’ meal, since the lambs were to be sacrificed the following afternoon, they must have been eating a vegetarian meal, which focused on the unleavened bread as the representation of Christ’s body to be commemorated by His followers, rather than the lamb.

Further arguments supporting a Good Thursday understanding can be found in the preceding week, as described in the four Gospels.  Immediately preceding this week, John deliberately tells the story of Lazarus’ resurrection as a foreshadowing of Jesus’, although it is the contrasts that are in focus: in the story of Jesus women found the stone already rolled away, graveclothes already unwrapped, and no decay because the dead man had risen just before the start of the fourth day.

John also notes that Jesus arrived in Bethany six days before the Passover (12:1).  If one starts with Good Friday, Jesus must have arrived in Bethany the previous Saturday, but travelling on a Sabbath was forbidden beyond a very limited distance (Acts 1:12).  If one works with Jewish days consisting of an evening and a morning, Jesus could have arrived on the Friday instead (taking the ‘Passover’ as the Thursday night – Friday), but this would have meant riding a donkey into Jerusalem on the Sabbath, an equally prohibited activity.

On the other hand, starting with Good Thursday as the 14th of Nisan, Jesus would have arrived in Bethany the previous Thursday night, and entered Jerusalem on the Friday rather than the Sunday – both activities entirely lawful.  Not only that, but this explains Mark’s little noticed observations that (1) Jesus looked around the temple that afternoon but then returned to Bethany, and cleansed the temple on the following day; (2) Jesus would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple courts; and (3) Jesus quoted Isaiah 56, saying “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”.

If the cleansing of the temple was on a Monday, none of this makes sense.  However, if Jesus returned to Bethany on the Friday night, to be with Lazarus for the Sabbath meal, it was the lack of change in the temple courts on the next day, the Sabbath, that so infuriated Him.  He refused to allow people to carry merchandise, as the law stated, and also taught from Isaiah 56, a passage that requires of foreigners only that they observe the Sabbath in order to be welcomed within the courts of the temple.

The next day, after another night spent in Bethany with Lazarus and his sisters, Jesus was confronted in the temple courts by every recognised religious ‘household’ in Israel, who tested Him to find fault with Him.  Passover regulations in Exodus 12 require that on the 10th of Nisan every household in Israel choose a lamb without blemish, and look after it until the 14th when it is slain.  On a Good Friday reckoning, the 10th of Nisan would be the day on which Jesus cleansed the temple, which shows no clear fulfilment.  On the other hand, with Good Thursday being the 14th, the 10th would be the Sunday on which Jesus was found by every ‘household’ in Israel to be a Lamb without fault.

Luke’s Gospel clearly records that following this ‘choice’ of Him by every religious household in Israel, Jesus no longer allowed Himself to be accommodated by His friends (although He did have a meal with Simon the leper on the Monday evening).  Rather, He spent every night from then on in the olive groves of Gethsemane, returning to the temple early in the morning to teach.  Since the households that had chosen Him failed to look after Him, He slept outside, as close to the temple as possible.  Having been there for the previous three nights, Judas knew exactly where to lead the chief priests’ officers on the Wednesday night (14th of Nisan), even though he had left the meal early (John 18:2).  At long last, the religious households were taking responsibility for their chosen Lamb.

Finally, we turn to consider the significance of the resurrection in light of Jewish regulations.  Leviticus 23 explains that the grain may be harvested immediately following the ‘sabbath’ which begins the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the harvest continues for seven weeks until the celebration for it on the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost.  Yet before any of this harvested grain may be eaten, the first sheaf must be presented in the temple as the ‘firstfruits’, hence the name of the Feast of Firstfruits.  Although on most years this feast would be celebrated on the 16th of Nisan, the day after the special Sabbath, on certain years when a normal Sabbath followed the special one the harvest could not be started until the 17th, the day after the Sabbath, pushing the feast a day later.

Therefore Jesus must have been aware that in order to completely fulfil the Feast of Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Firstfruits, and the ‘sign of Jonah’, rising on the ‘third day’ (using an exclusive counting) according to Hosea 6, there was only a certain year when the special Sabbath of the 15th of Nisan would be followed by an additional normal Sabbath.  Jesus knew He had to die on that year and so He ‘set His face toward Jerusalem’, becoming the perfect sacrifice chosen by the Jewish people, unleavened by sin, slain at the same time as the Passover lambs, His blood staining the wooden upright and crosspiece so that the wrath of God would pass over His people, buried in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights like Jonah as a sign of coming judgement on the unrighteous, and raised for our healing and life as the ‘firstfruits’ of the resurrection in which we will all share at His return.

What an awesome plan of salvation!  What a glorious Saviour!  Christ is risen – He is risen indeed!

April 9, 2009

Good Thursday? part 5 – Choosing the Lamb, and the Feast of Firstfruits

Filed under: History — alabastertheology @ 3:13 pm
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In Part 4, we found that starting with Good Thursday (celebrated this very day), we can make sense of Jesus’ arrival in Bethany and triumphal entry into Jerusalem six days earlier on Palm Friday.  Not only that, but Mark’s observation that Jesus cleansed the temple a day later fits perfectly with the next day being a Sabbath.  This brings us to the remaining days of the passion week of Jesus.

So what about the 10th of Nisan?
To make sense of the argument that follows, we must familiarise ourselves with some of the other regulations surrounding the Feast of Passover in Exodus 12:3-6.

On the tenth of this month they are each one to take a lamb for themselves, according to their fathers’ households, a lamb for each household.  Now if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his neighbour nearest to his house are to take one according to the number of persons; according to what each man should eat, you are to divide the lamb.  Your lamb shall be an unblemished male a year old; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats.  You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month, then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel is to kill it at twilight.

If we start with Good Friday, and accept Palm Sunday according to tradition, this means that the cleansing of the temple took place on the Monday, which would be the 10th of Nisan if the 14th was Friday.  In this case, there would be no apparent connection between the regulations for the 10th of Nisan in Exodus and the events of the 10th of Nisan during Jesus’ passion week.  However, if we start with Good Thursday and Palm Friday before that, the cleansing of the temple took place on the Saturday, the Sabbath, and the 10th of Nisan wasn’t until the Sunday of that week.  This unlocks the meaning of the Gospel accounts.

Confrontations with ‘every household’
Matthew’s Gospel clearly states that after cleansing the temple, Jesus “left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.”  He returned to Jerusalem the following day past the withered fig tree, and in the temple was challenged by the chief priests and elders of the people, the Pharisees, the Herodians, the Sadducees, and the lawyers.  Mark’s Gospel similarly records after the cleansing of the temple that “When evening came, they would go out of the city.”  The next morning they passed the withered fig tree on their return to Jerusalem, after which Jesus was challenged by the chief priests, scribes, elders, Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, and scribes again.  Luke also clearly separates Jesus’ cleansing of the temple from the confrontations between Him and the chief priests, scribes, elders and others “on one of the days while He was teaching the people in the temple”.  The evidence seems to suggest quite directly that Jesus’ confrontations with the various groups happened particularly on the Sunday, which would be the 10th of Nisan.

Although the Gospel writers themselves do not emphasise this point, when we compare the regulations concerning the choice of the Passover lamb in Exodus with the details of Jesus’ passion week, as revealed through an understanding of Good Thursday, we discover just how perfectly Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures.  On the very day that lambs were being selected by every household in Jerusalem, Jesus was in the same temple courts being selected by every religious ‘household’ of the Jewish nation.  Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians (too small a ‘household’ to select the Lamb on their own), chief priests and elders of the people – each in turn came to Jesus with their hardest questions, and to each group Jesus demonstrated Himself ‘without blemish’, a perfect sacrificial lamb.

Chosen, but no place to stay
One further observation that confirms this understanding can be recognised when we consider Jesus’ accommodation arrangement during that final week.  Matthew and Mark both record a meal Jesus had at the house of Simon the leper, after which the Passover would be coming two days later.  This implies that this meal happened on the Monday evening, the start of the 12th of Nisan, four days after the meal at Lazarus’ house where Jesus was similarly anointed with costly perfume according to John.  Simon the leper lived in Bethany like Lazarus and his sisters, but we don’t have evidence that at this point Jesus was actually staying with Simon.

On the contrary, Luke very specifically records at the end of the ‘Olivet Discourse’, which concluded the dialogues on the 10th of Nisan, the following (21:37-38):  “Now during the day He was teaching in the temple, but at evening He would go out and spend the night on the mount that is called Olivet.  And all the people would get up early in the morning to come to Him in the temple to listen to Him.”  Prior to the 10th of Nisan, Jesus had been staying in Bethany, passing the fig tree on two different mornings on His way into Jerusalem.  However after being ‘chosen’ by ‘every household’ of the nation, He was to be looked after by those who had chosen Him.  He could no longer be looked after by friends, but when none of those religious ‘households’ offered Him accommodation, He simply spent the night in the olive groves nearest the temple.  This is precisely the reason why Judas knew where to find Him on the 14th, even though Judas had left the others before the meal had ended (John 13:27-30) – Jesus had been sleeping there for the previous three nights (Luke 22:39; John 18:2).

Three feasts in three (or four?) days
The final aspect of our discussion of the Jewish background to Jesus’ death and resurrection involves that very resurrection on the first day of the week.  Regulations about the Passover are spoken of in Exodus 12, Leviticus 23, Numbers 28 and Deuteronomy 16, but only the Leviticus passage specifically mentions one further feast held at that time in addition to Passover and Unleavened Bread.  This is the Feast of Firstfruits.  Exodus mentions nothing of this feast, Numbers speaks of “the day of the firstfruits” in connection with the Feast of Weeks, Deuteronomy clarifies that the Feast of Weeks is calculated as exactly seven weeks “from the time you begin to put the sickle to the standing grain” (16:9), but Leviticus explains further.

When the grain first begins to be harvested, no bread nor fresh or roasted grain is to be eaten from it until a sheaf of the ‘firstfruits’ is brought to the priest who will wave it before the LORD.  Clearly the harvest must have been started for the first sheaf to be able to be offered, and being work this must take place on “the day after the Sabbath” (Leviticus 23:11, 15).  In Jewish tradition the ‘Omer’ is therefore counted from the special Sabbath that begins the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the 15th of Nisan.  Seven complete sabbaths are counted, or fifty days, until the Feast of Weeks is celebrated, also known as Pentecost.

We might then say that the Feast of Firstfruits must always be celebrated on the 16th of Nisan, the day after the special Sabbath starting the Feast of Unleavened Bread on the 15th, which itself is the day after the Day of Preparation, or the Feast of Passover, on the 14th.  However this is not quite correct.  As the Feast of Firstfruits must signify the start of the grain harvest, it cannot be held on a Sabbath, so on those very rare years when a normal Sabbath follows the special Sabbath of the 15th, the Feast must be delayed an extra day to the 17th.  This must be what happened on the year that Jesus died.

Christ our firstfruits
Although the Gospel writers do not emphasise the fulfilment of the Feast of Firstfruits, it was a widely known concept in the Early Church.  In 1 Corinthians, Paul mentions not only the Passover and Unleavened Bread in 5:6-8, but also the Feast of Firstfruits in 15:20-23.  Here Paul says, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who are asleep”, and again, “Christ the firstfruits”.  Paul recognised that in Jesus’ bodily resurrection was the ‘firstfruits’ promise that we too will receive resurrection bodies just like His.  Equally, the grain that features in the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, is first prefigured in the Feast of Firstfruits, much as the Holy Spirit who was poured out at Pentecost the year Jesus rose again, was first prefigured on the Feast of Firstfruits, the first day of the week when Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on His disciples (John 20:19-22).

However only on particular years would Jesus be able to die as a Passover lamb, unleavened with sin, and rise again after ‘three days and three nights’ like Jonah, as the Firstfruits of the resurrection from the dead.  Only on a year when a special and normal Sabbath were consecutive could Jesus spend the required length of time in the grave, delaying the Feast of Firstfruits for one extra day.  Jesus would have been able to calculate exactly which year He needed to die, quite a time beforehand.  No wonder that year He “set His face towards Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), knowing that this was the year He was to die.

Women waiting through a double Sabbath
Thus the women were made to wait a whole two Sabbaths “according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56) before going out to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body.  None of the Gospel writers say “the Sabbaths” plural: John avoids mentioning the Sabbath in connection with Jesus’ resurrection, Luke says that “on the Sabbath [the women] rested”, Mark says that “When the Sabbath was over [the women] brought spices”, and Matthew says that “after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first of the week…”.  None of these are evidence against a double Sabbath that year, but at best they are simply silent about this fact.

However, in Matthew’s Gospel we do find some evidence toward a longer period than one day separating the day of Jesus’ death from that of His resurrection.  Matthew 27:62-66 records a fascinating scene in which the chief priests and Pharisees approached Pilate on the 15th of Nisan, the day after Jesus’ death, and recalled Jesus’ promise to rise again “after three days”.  They therefore requested that the grave be made secure “until the third day”.  If it had been the following day they had been assuming, they should rather have said, “until tomorrow”, but as it is, it appears they were speaking of a day two days hence, and must therefore have been talking to Pilate on the Friday rather than the Saturday.

In the concluding post we will summarise the various arguments and also suggest a resolution to the ancient Easter controversy.

April 4, 2009

Good Thursday? part 2 – ‘Good Friday’ and the ‘Day of Preparation’

Filed under: History — alabastertheology @ 9:18 pm
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In Part 1 we noted that disagreements about commemorating the days of Jesus’ death and resurrection were openly acknowledged early in the second century AD, and apparently trace back even to the time of the writing of John’s Gospel in the first century.  One of these disagreements involved the different reasons for celebration of the date of Jesus’ death as the 14th of Nisan (Jewish lunar calendar) or instead the day of His resurrection as Sunday, or ‘the Lord’s Day’, the “first day of the week” as every Gospel records.  Another disagreement is more implicit, as Matthew’s quotation (12:40) of Jesus predicting a ‘three days and three nights’ period in the tomb does not fit with a belief that Jesus was buried on ‘Good Friday’.

The day before the Sabbath = ‘Good Friday’?
So where does the belief that Jesus died on a Friday come from?  Every Gospel writer quotes Jesus’ frequent references to resurrection “on the third day”.  If this is the case, a burial on Friday could naturally lead to Sunday being spoken of as the ‘third day’, if Friday counts as the first day.  However, a burial on Thursday would fit just as well.  In Luke 24:21, Cleopas as he walked to Emmaus on the Sunday said to Jesus, “it is the third day since these things happened”.  Had he been telling the story on Friday he could have said, “it is a day since these things happened”, or on Saturday, “it is two days since these things happened”.  The ‘Good Friday’ option uses an inclusive way of measuring time, whereas the ‘Good Thursday’ option uses an exclusive way of measuring.

Is there any further evidence that has led people to such a unanimous view that Jesus died on a Friday?  Clearly something must have been stronger than Matthew’s evidence of “three days and three nights”, which could only really fit with a crucifixion on Thursday.  The answer is found in Mark 15:42, where we are told that Jesus’ burial took place on “the preparation day, that is, the day before the Sabbath”.  A few verses later in Mark 16:1-2 we find that “When the Sabbath was over, …very early on the first day of the week…”, Jesus rose again.  From Genesis chapter two we know that the Sabbath is the seventh day, the last day of the week.  If, therefore, the regular Jewish Sabbath was the day after Jesus died, His crucifixion must have happened on a Friday, hence, ‘Good Friday’.  Every Gentile in the church would have known that the Jewish Sabbath was a Saturday, so few would have questioned whether Jesus died on a Friday.

But which sort of Sabbath?
Someone has said, ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’, and it seems John was aware of the confusion that could have, or already had, arisen in the minds of Gentile readers of earlier Gospels, unfamiliar with Jewish customs.  Therefore in his own account of the crucifixion and burial, he quotes Mark verbatim that “it was the day of preparation” (19:31), but then emphasises that the Sabbath that followed “was a high day” (literally, “for the day of that Sabbath was great”).  That is, it wasn’t just any old Sabbath.  This was a special Sabbath coming up, and the day before it, on which Jesus was crucified, was that day known as “the Jewish day of preparation” (19:42).  Earlier in 19:14, John had referred to this day as “the day of preparation for the Passover”.

To understand what John was trying so hard to make his readers realise, we must look back at the regulations about observance of the Feast of Passover in the Old Testament.  In Exodus 12, we find the instructions about killing a lamb on the fourteenth day of the first month (i.e. Nisan), some of whose blood was to be put on the doorposts and lintels of each house, making the Angel of Death ‘pass over’ their houses (12:2-14).  This Feast of Passover was to be a permanent memorial, but it coincided with another Feast known as ‘Unleavened Bread’, during which no yeast (‘leaven’) was to be eaten at all, or even found in anyone’s house.  Exodus 12:15-20 describe this part of the feast:

On the first day you shall have a holy assembly, and a holy assembly on the seventh day; no work at all shall be done on them, except what must be eaten by every person, that alone may be prepared by you.  You shall also observe the Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt…  In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty-first day of the month at evening.

Just as the sacrifice of the lambs at twilight on the 14th of Nisan commemorated the ‘Passover’ of the Angel of Death, so the unleavened bread, eaten in a meal with that lamb and throughout the following seven days (15th – 21st), commemorated the haste with which God brought His people out of Egypt the next day.  Yet both the 15th and 21st of Nisan were set apart as holy days, special Sabbaths on which no work was to be done.  Preparing the lambs, and presumably also the unleavened bread, had to happen on the 14th, therefore, which naturally became known as the Day of Preparation of the Passover.

Two Sabbaths in a row!
One crucial point to note here, though, is that because the Feast(s) happened on a certain date every year, the day of the week would change from year to year.  Exactly the same thing happens with our western celebration of Christmas.  If the 25th of December happens to fall on a Saturday or a Monday, Christians may well attend church two days in a row.  If, on the other hand, the 25th was a Sunday, the special day of worship and the normal day of worship would coincide, and be celebrated together.  So with the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  On certain years the 15th and 21st of Nisan would happen to fall on the seventh day of the week, in which case the special Sabbath and normal Sabbath would coincide (the necessary situation if one is to hold to ‘Good Friday’).  On all other years there would be two additional Sabbaths to observe, with a normal Sabbath somewhere in between them.

What John is at pains to point out is that Jesus died on the day before a special Sabbath, not just on the sixth day of the week before a normal Sabbath.  But then, what if John is going further, and actually trying to indicate that it was not the sixth day of the week?  What if John is suggesting that the special Sabbath and normal Sabbath were different days that year, and that therefore Jesus was in the tomb on both the sixth and seventh day of that week?  This would fit perfectly with Matthew 12:40, and mean that Jesus was buried before sunset on the Thursday (first day, = 14th Nisan), spent that night (first night, = 15th Nisan), Friday (second day = 15th Nisan, + second night = 16th Nisan), and Saturday (third day = 16th Nisan, + third night = 17th Nisan) in the tomb, rising again before sunrise on the Sunday (John 20:1, clarifying Luke 24:1-2, Mark 16:2-4 and Matthew 28:1-2).

If the Day of Preparation was not a Friday (that term is not generally used by Jews for the sixth day of the week) but rather a Thursday, this would mean that Jesus died on the 14th of Nisan, the very day that the Passover lambs were slaughtered, and then the women were kept from going to the tomb for two full Sabbaths, ensuring that Jesus was in the grave according to the sign of Jonah for three days and three nights.

This solves the problem of the three days and three nights, but what then of the statements by Matthew, Mark and Luke, to the effect that Jesus celebrated a Passover meal the night before He was crucified?  That is the subject of the next post…

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