It’s a question that haunts anyone who’s ever lived through bad news on a holiday.
It’s bad enough, of course, when tragic deaths occur on Christmas Day, Mother’s Day, Easter Sunday or any of the multitude of important holidays. But an intentional execution on such a day?
Political leaders are sensitive to the needs of their people to enjoy a few holidays throughout the year. Many of those holidays have sacred foundations. Think “Holy-days.” Add to the fact that prison guards and authorities want to enjoy a little time off themselves, and it’s no surprise that we rarely hear of an execution on the Fourth of July, New Year’s Day or Thanksgiving.
And yet Jesus was crucified on Passover.
Could it have really happened? Could Jewish and Roman authorities have been so insensitive to the needs of the people that they would have ordered the execution of a rabbi on what might be called the most important Jewish holiday of the year?
The Gospels paint a picture of Jesus and the disciples – and presumably the rest of the country – having their Passover meal on Thursday night. By Jewish timing, once the sun set, it was actually Friday. By 9 a.m. the next morning – which was also Friday, of course – Jesus is hanging on a cross. He was left there for six hours to die a horrible death.
This simply should not have been allowed on such a sacred day.
It just seems wrong to us. If something so cruel has to happen at all, why not wait a few days?
Enter the story of Archelaus, one of the sons of Herod the Great.
Not long after Jesus was born, Herod the Great died. Archelaus was given control over Judea and Jerusalem, though he had not yet been confirmed king by Rome.
As Passover arrived, protestors looked to Archelaus to lower the oppressive taxes of his father, and to also bring to justice those who had murdered two much-loved rabbis and their disciples. The slaughter of the rabbis had been ordered by Herod the Great just before his death. Already in town for the Passover, thousands of protestors gathered on the Temple Mount.
As night fell, the protests on the Temple Mount became more and more disruptive. A security detail was sent to quiet the crowd. Stones flew and some of the security troops were killed.
Archelaus responded by ordering Roman troops into the Temple grounds. It was a violation of the sacred. It was a power play of immense overkill. But the new ruler simply could not tolerate the slightest threat to his reign.
By the time the slaughter ended, 3,000 people were dead.
When we read the Bible with modern eyes, it’s not surprising that we envision a more gentle environment for the Gospels.
But for those who lived in the times, heavy-handed violence was a fact of life.
No wonder the people were longing for the Messiah.
No wonder they were following Jesus.
And when the people in power killed Jesus, too, it’s no wonder they felt that all hope was lost. No wonder they were profoundly changed when they saw him alive again on Sunday morning.
In time, those who followed Jesus would look back on the timing of his death with awe and wonder. As they looked for ways to describe their Savior, some of them settled on the most obvious phrase of all.
Introduced as the “Lamb of God” by John the Baptizer (John 1:29, 36), executed during the very 24-hour period of the Passover celebration, Jesus had died so that others could live. As surely as the story of the original event had insisted that the only way to live was to be marked by the blood of a sacrificed lamb, this would forever be the purpose of Jesus’ death. Only by his blood, his followers said, could a person be saved.
This is why his first, Jewish followers called Jesus the ultimate Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). Even in Revelation, he would appear repeatedly as a “lamb that had been slain.”
Did Jesus believe he was the human equivalent of the Passover lamb or did people just get a little carried away with the ironic timing of his death?
“While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.’ And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.'” (Matthew 26:26-28, NASB)
The bread and the cup of wine came from the world’s oldest and most symbolic meal. It was the Passover.
“This meal,” Jesus told his stunned disciples, “has always been about me.”
Perhaps you call it “the Lord’s Supper.” Perhaps you know it as “Communion” or the “Eucharist.”
This year on the Week of Passion, remember it for what it was.
It was Passover, and it told the story of how God was providing a way of salvation for anyone who would accept the gift.
Previously: When did Jesus die? It’s complicated.