James Patrick’s Blog

September 5, 2009

The Law of Moses completely abolished [I&NC #4]

Filed under: Prophecy — alabastertheology @ 7:29 pm
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New Testament writers clearly recognised that Jesus fulfilled the Mosaic covenant with all its regulations.  The death of Jesus paid in full the fines of the ‘old covenant’ and also served as the sacrifice needed to confirm the ‘new covenant’, as promised by Moses and all the prophets after him.  The old covenant which had been fulfilled and replaced by the new covenant had therefore become obsolete, and the destruction of the temple in AD70 demonstrated its abolishment.  This did not, however, include abolishment of the promise of land which had been given to Abraham and his physical descendants six centuries before the covenant through Moses.

Matthew 5:17-18 – Jesus rejected accusations that He was intending to abolish the Law or the Prophets; He declared instead that He had come to fulfil and accomplish everything in the Law.  The equivalent would be if a fiancé was accused of trying to end his engagement, when actually he planned to fulfil it by marrying his betrothed; once the wedding happens, the engagement relationship is done away with.  Jesus didn’t break a single command of the Law of Moses, nor did He teach that any of the commandments be broken; rather, He accomplished the purpose for which it had been given, and was therefore authorised to establish a new law of the Spirit.  Throughout Matthew’s Gospel we find ‘fulfilment’ quotations, demonstrating how Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures throughout His ministry (cf. 1:22-23; 4:12-16; 8:17; 21:4-5; 26:54-56; etc.).

Luke 22:20 – Just before His death, Jesus explained His coming death as establishing “the new covenant in my blood”.

Hebrews 8:1-13 – The whole book of Hebrews was written to urge Jewish believers to put their trust in Jesus for their future inheritance of promises, rather than in the Mosaic covenant for the present.  This is because Jesus has completely fulfilled and therefore abolished that covenant of Moses.  In this passage the writer expressly says that the establishment of a “new” covenant makes the first covenant “obsolete”.  That means the regulations (laws) of the first are also done away with:

(1)   Hebrews 4:14–5:10; 6:19–8:6 – The writer to the Hebrews carefully demonstrates how the Levitical priesthood, connected to the Mosaic Law, was weak and useless and has been set aside because now Jesus is our permanent high priest, according to an eternal priestly order.

(2)  Hebrews 8:1-5; 9:1-28 – The writer to the Hebrews here shows that the earthly sanctuary with its sacred objects and vessels of ministry, instituted through Moses, has also been superseded by Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary of which the earthly was just a pattern.

(3)  Hebrews 10:1-18 – The writer to the Hebrews explains that the third element of the Mosaic Law, the sacrificial system, has also been done away with once and for all by the sacrifice of Jesus’ own physical body.  10:19-21 then summarises these three parts of the abolished Law.

Hebrews 3:1–4:11 – Before considering the above three ways in which the Law had been abolished, the writer to the Hebrews first dealt with the question of the promised land.  He showed that trusting in Jesus for inheriting the land is more reliable than trusting in Moses, because Moses bore witness to future things (3:5) and then died with his generation in the wilderness because of their unbelief and disobedience.  However, Joshua’s generation had clearly not fulfilled Moses’ prophecy of a permanent ‘rest’ in the promised land (4:8), because David and later prophets still spoke of a future time of restoration (4:7).  Furthermore, even in the present generation there was still ‘work’ to do throughout the world (4:10), and the future ‘Sabbath rest’ for Jewish believers [as for those from every nation] was a promise that would only be inherited by trusting in Jesus ‘until the end’ (3:14; 4:3, 11).  Believers might still ‘today’ be disqualified from inheriting the promise through unbelief and disobedience (3:19–4:2).

Obviously the writer here is not saying that the promise of ‘rest’ has been withdrawn now that the Mosaic Law has been abolished, nor even that it has been ‘spiritualised’.  On the contrary, the entrance into the land under Joshua is treated as the most plausible possible fulfilment of that promised ‘rest’ so far in the history of Israel;  if even Joshua’s inheritance of the land was not the fulfilment, how much less could Jewish believers in the mid-first century AD think that their generation was the final fulfilment (a proposal Jesus denied / postponed in Acts 1:6).  The true ‘Joshua’ (same name as ‘Jesus’ in Hebrew) was the promised One who would come at the end of the age to conquer the promised lands of all nations including Israel, and then assign to each nation their territory (Rev 2:26-27; cf. Psa 2:7-9).

The complete abolishment of the Mosaic Law in this era of the new covenant is further reinforced when we consider what the New Testament says about two further aspects of it – kashrut and festivals:

(4)  Mark 7:14-23 – In verse 19, Mark introduces an editorial comment of explanation into his account of Jesus’ teaching on washing of hands, noting that by this teaching Jesus “declared all foods clean”.  Such a wholesale abolishment of all the commandments about purity and kosher food from the Mosaic Law was evidently not immediately understood by the disciples.  Years later Peter was shocked that Jesus would instruct him to eat non-kosher animals (Acts 10:10‑16), and he appears to have initially interpreted the vision as purely metaphorical (Acts 10:28).  Some time later, he could still be persuaded by fellow Jews that the strict Jewish dietary laws must be followed even by believers (Gal 2:11‑13).  Nevertheless, these laws too had been abolished along with the entire ‘old covenant’ of Moses (Col 2:16‑23), and Paul was convinced that no food is inherently ‘unclean’ (Rom 14:14, 20; 1 Tim 4:1‑5).  Even so, he would be willing to eat only vegetables if it would protect a weak fellow believer from doing what he considered sinful (Rom 14:2, 15‑21).

(5)  Romans 14:5-6 – Paul similarly taught that the special commemorative feasts, or ‘Sabbaths’, instituted by Moses in the Law, were now a matter of personal conviction and no longer commanded for God’s people.  Festivals, beginnings of the month (‘new moon’), and Sabbath days (cf. Exod 34:18-27; Lev 23:1–26:2; Num 28:1–29:40) are described along with the rest of the laws of Moses as “a shadow of what is to come; but the substance is of Christ” (Col 2:16-17).  Although Paul himself still chose to celebrate some feasts (Acts 20:6, 16), he and others interpreted the Jewish festivals as fulfilled by Jesus:
e.g. Passover – 1 Cor 5:7-8 (cf. Luke 22:15-16)
Firstfruits – 1 Cor 15:20
Trumpets or Jubilee – 1 Thes 4:16 (cf. Lev 23:24; 25:9; Mat 24:31)
Atonement – Heb 13:11-13.
Of course, when Jesus returns, He is perfectly at liberty to institute festivals that are associated with dwelling permanently in our lands, the first of which will be the ‘marriage feast of the Lamb’ (Rev 19:7-9).  In the present age, however, believers do not have an obligation to treat certain days as more holy than others, which includes even the weekly Sabbath.  Observing it is not wrong, but neither is it necessary, as Romans 14:5-6 clearly teaches.

More explanation will be given in later posts for which particular parts of the five books of Moses count as the ‘Mosaic covenant’ that was abolished, with clear demonstration of what Moses said about the reasons for this coming fulfilment and the introduction of the new covenant that would supersede it.

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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 8, 2009

Good Thursday? part 4 – Lazarus, triumphal entry and temple cleansing

Filed under: History — alabastertheology @ 11:11 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

In Part 3, we considered the significance of the ‘Passover’ meal that Jesus ate with His disciples, one evening too early and therefore without the lamb.  This observation would hold true even if one were to maintain a belief in ‘Good Friday’, because in that case, the 14th of Nisan would be the Thursday evening / Friday, followed by the (extra special) normal Sabbath, and then the resurrection on the Sunday.  As it is, I am proposing that there were two Sabbaths in a row, a ‘special’ Sabbath (15th of Nisan) on the sixth day of the week that kicked off the Feast of Unleavened Bread, followed by a normal Sabbath on the seventh day.  That means Jesus celebrated the Passover meal early and was then arrested and crucified all on the evening and morning of the fifth day of the week, the Day of Preparation (14th of Nisan = Wednesday evening / Thursday).  If this is so, how does it affect our understanding of the days prior to the Last Supper?

The ‘four days’ of Lazarus
The progression of events recorded by John in his Gospel seems to lay particular weight on the story of Lazarus as a ‘sign’ of Jesus’ own death and resurrection, which makes it worth considering carefully.  From chapter ten of John’s Gospel onwards there is a clear focus on Jesus’ power over death.  In John 10:18 Jesus says, “I have authority to lay [my life] down, and I have authority to take it up again.”  Then in 10:38, He says, “…though you do not believe me, believe the works [I do], that you may know and understand that the Father is in me…”  Chapter eleven is all about the death and resurrection of Lazarus, and Jesus tells His disciples in 11:4, “This sickness is …for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.”  This is part of a theme of glory found throughout John’s Gospel, and in particular, the glorification of Jesus that came through His death (see 12:23-33).

In 11:25, Jesus tells Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  When Martha then pointed out at the tomb that Lazarus had been dead for four days, and would be rotting behind the stone, Jesus replied to her, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (11:40).  At the beginning of the next chapter is the story of when Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with pure nard, which Jesus justified by referring to “the day of my burial” (12:7).  This story begins the Passion narrative in John’s Gospel, culminating in Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Perhaps the clearest contrast between the resurrection of Lazarus and that of Jesus a few weeks or months later is the fact that when the weeping women went to Jesus’ tomb on the fourth day, the stone was already moved, the graveclothes folded neatly rather than wrapped around the body, and the body itself had no hint of rottenness about it.  God had not allowed His “Holy One to see decay” (Acts 2:27); Jesus had risen before the start of the fourth ‘day’.  This ‘evidence’ for a ‘3 days and 3 nights’ burial is perhaps less than conclusive, but taken together with John’s interest in clarifying details of Jesus’ death and resurrection seen elsewhere, it may gain more weight.

Traveling to Bethany on the Sabbath?
John starts the Passion week in 12:1-2 earlier than any of the other Gospels, by noting that “six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany where Lazarus was…  So they made Him a supper there,” and Lazarus’ sister Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with nard.  The following day Jesus approached Jerusalem over the Mount of Olives on a donkey, and the crowds came out with palm branches to meet Him (12:12-14).  Those who hold to Good Friday calculate backwards six days, and therefore have Jesus arriving in Bethany on the previous Saturday, which means that Jesus would have entered Jerusalem on what has therefore become known as ‘Palm Sunday’.

The problem with this is that Jesus must have therefore travelled from the city called Ephraim, “near the wilderness” (John 11:54), to Bethany on the Sabbath.  Scholars suggest Ephraim may have been a certain town about twelve miles north-east of Jerusalem.  Acts 1:12 tells us that the Mount of Olives where Bethany was located was “a Sabbath day’s journey” from Jerusalem (2000 cubits = 3/5 mile).  The Sabbath would have been the wrong day to choose to journey to Bethany from a town any distance away.

On the other hand, if we calculate six days earlier from the Day of Preparation (i.e. the Feast of Passover – 14th Nisan), which was Wednesday night / Thursday, we arrive at Thursday night / Friday of the previous week.  This would have Jesus arriving in Bethany on the Thursday night, and then riding into Jerusalem on a donkey on Friday.  We know it was against the Law of Moses to let even donkeys work on the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:14), so Jesus would not have ridden into Jerusalem on a Saturday.  But a Friday would have been perfectly acceptable.

Those who hold to Good Friday cannot calculate six days back from the Feast of Passover as John says, on the 14th of Nisan (Thursday night / Friday).  Rather, to avoid Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey on the Sabbath, they must adjust the timing John gives and push it a day later to the Feast of Unleavened Bread on the 15th of Nisan (Friday night / Saturday), therefore arriving at Palm Sunday.  As we saw above, this means that Jesus’ arrival into Bethany would have been on a Sabbath, which would have been equally unacceptable.  On the other hand, if one accepts Good Thursday, the entrance into Jerusalem naturally falls on Palm Friday.

Cleansing the temple a day late?
At this point we must observe that whereas Matthew (21:9-13) and Luke (19:37-46) both give the impression that Jesus cleansed the temple immediately on arrival into Jerusalem after His triumphal entry, Mark corrects this with a very valuable historical note in 11:11.  “Jesus entered Jerusalem into the temple; and after looking around at everything, He left for Bethany with the twelve, since it was already late.”  It was only on the following day that He returned and cleansed the temple.  One can hardly help wondering, if Jesus was so upset at what was going on in the temple courts, why would He merely look around and then leave?  Was He just a bit too tired to make a fuss?  Did it take Him a while to get zealous enough to go back and sort things out?  Had too many traders already closed up shop to make it worth His while to cause a scene so late in the day?

If one holds to Good Friday and Palm Sunday, cleansing the temple on the Monday makes practically no sense.  However with Good Thursday and Palm Friday, an explanation is immediately apparent.  Jesus saw everything in the temple late on Friday afternoon, but the Sabbath was drawing in (“it was already late”), and He wanted to be back in Bethany for the Sabbath meal with Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  The following day He walked into Jerusalem rather than riding, which was acceptable since it was “a Sabbath day’s journey” away (Acts 1:12), but the difference was that this time He was entering the temple on a Sabbath day.  What a difference!

Two details of Mark’s account of the cleansing of the temple support our interpretation.  The first is the note in 11:16, peculiar to Mark, that “He would not permit anyone to carry a vessel through the temple”.  Carrying was particularly forbidden on the Sabbath, and Jesus’ actions are reminiscent of Nehemiah’s in Nehemiah 13, when he rebuked those carrying “all kinds of loads” into Jerusalem on the Sabbath, and instead forbad traders from entering Jerusalem on the Sabbath.

Furthermore, when we consider the context of Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 56:7, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”, we find in Isaiah 56:2-8 that both eunuchs and foreigners are encouraged specifically to observe the Sabbath as their way of becoming acceptable to God, receiving a memorial “in my house and within my walls”.  In Jesus’ day, trading happened in what was known as the “Court of the Gentiles”, and when this took place on a Sabbath, foreigners who wanted to draw near to God were prevented from doing the very thing the Scriptures required of them.  How appropriate that Jesus cleared space for Gentiles to draw near, and prevented people carrying vessels through the temple.

One more post to follow, matching up the other events of Jesus’ passion week with regulations concerning the Feast of Passover, and then a summary of our argument.

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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