It’s now Wednesday of Holy Week. And as the people of Jerusalem begin to gather for the Passover and the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, tensions are higher than ever. So high, in fact, that the religious leaders were now plotting to kill Jesus stealthily (Matthew 26:3-5, Mark 14:1-2, Luke 22:1-2). To truly understand why the timing here is so significant, we need to take a moment and try understanding these Jewish holidays. A backdrop can help bring the scene to life and show us why all of this is good news.
The Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were, at their core, celebrations of redemption. Every year, they gave the Jewish people a chance to remember what the Lord had done to bring them out of Egypt and save them from oppression (Exodus 12:21-28). God told his people to observe these holidays because he knew they were tempted to forget (Leviticus 23:4-8, Deuteronomy 16:1-8). Everything, from avoiding leaven (yeast) in their bread, to sacrificing an unblemished lamb in the evening, was supposed to point people back to the saving power of their God.
The Jews worshiped a God who was serious about redeeming his people. So serious in fact, that he sent his own Son, Jesus Christ, to die the death we deserve (John 3:16). Jesus, in line with prophecy and in spite of all his enemies, was going to be the ultimate Passover sacrifice (Isaiah 53:7, John 1:29, 1 Cor. 5:7). He was going to take the sin of the world upon his shoulders, and defeat death once and for all. And this was only a few days away.
Let’s not make the mistake of believing Jesus was vague about any of this. Already, on several different occasions, Jesus predicted his death was near (Matthew 16:21, 17:22, 20:17-19, Mark 8:31, Luke 9:21-22, 9:43-44, 13:33). He knew it was going to be in Jerusalem, and that he would be rejected by the chief priests and elders. He knew he’d be handed over to the Gentiles, mocked, flogged, and crucified. He even knew that three days later, he’d be raised to life again. And while it seems Jesus couldn’t have been any clearer, even his closest followers didn’t understand him yet (Luke 9:45).
In the 21st century, it’s easy to look back at the warnings and the timing of all this and say, “It’s so obvious!” or “How could they have not known?!” However, before we do that, let’s look back a few days. Many people in Jerusalem, Jesus’s closest friends included, were still hoping for a conquering king to drive out Rome and re-establish an earthly kingdom. One of the reasons Jesus was so warmly welcomed on Palm Sunday, is because people believed Jesus had arrived to violently strike down Israel’s enemies. But after cleansing the Temple and teaching to the crowds, some were beginning to realize this wasn’t the case. The true Savior King, Jesus, was still going to defeat the powers of death and oppression, but not in the way anyone expected or wanted. This Savior King was going to die for his people. He was going to willingly lay down his life. If there would be violence, it would he himself experiencing that violence. If there was going to be upheaval, it was going to be Jesus himself flipping the world upside down. If there was going to be revolution, it would be because following Jesus was a completely new way of being human.
To the religious leaders that opposed Jesus, all of this was incredibly intimidating. These chief priests, teachers, scribes, and elders saw Jesus and his teaching as dangerous. Jesus was far too “radical” for them and far too inspiring of change. His way of living and his call to true repentance meant that their special status was simply a show. Their made-up rules didn’t actually make them more holy. All of a sudden, the Pharisees and Sadducees were no better than the leper or the widow. It was the condition of your heart that mattered, and only this new teacher Jesus, had the power to change the heart.
So, what needed to happen? Turns out exactly what God intended from the beginning. As the religious leaders plot to kill Jesus, they actually move the mission forward. Jesus was going to rescue his people and he would accomplish this with his death on the cross. Even through the most wicked act ever conceived, God’s purposes would be fulfilled.
Sitting here, halfway through Holy Week, how are we preparing for the good news of this coming weekend? When do we, just like the crowds, want Jesus to be something of our own creation? Do we understand the significance of Jesus going to die on our behalf? There is much to look forward to, and Holy Week is far from over.
If you missed a day in the Holy Week series, read the previous entries here.