All references from NASB.
In the year of Jesus’ death, Thursday was a very important holy day in the Jewish lunar calendar. The week of the Passover (or Pesach) was under way. According to Leviticus 23:3, there was a Sabbath day to be celebrated every week on the day called Shabbat which commemorated the seventh day of creation – the day God rested from all His work. However, there were a number of other “holy convocations” that were held throughout the year. Every Shabbat was a holy day, but these other holy days were really “high” holy days. They might be called “great” Sabbaths (John 7:37). Please consult Leviticus 23:5, 23:7, 23:21, 23:24, 23:27-32, 23:35-37 for more insight, paying particular attention to verses 31-32.
In the gospel accounts, the religious authorities were really in a bind. They wanted the death of Jesus to happen as soon as possible, but they also had to attend to the high holy day of the week of Pesach (John 19:31). They were worked up and probably had the Roman government on their side and could not wait to tend to the matter of the killing of Jesus, but it would be inappropriate for them to be involved in an execution on a high holy day. The Romans could not be trusted to do this alone, because they had no motive to execute Jesus other than relations with the religious rulers. So the ruling religious authorities decided to press ahead and follow through while they had the momentum. For their purposes, all the pieces were in the right places. Timing, though, proved to be a bit tricky. The betrayal occurred when it did – on Tuesday. Jesus was not likely to remain in Jerusalem after the holy week, so go ahead they must.
We, of course, remember that the Pesach (Passover) has to do with the death of the firstborn (Exodus 12:14-20). Further, we know that Jesus was the only-begotten and the first born of God. He was First Son in Eternity and He was the only Son whom God the Father sent through the womb of a woman without the involvement of a man. The religious rulers had long since lost sight of the potency of the days in which they were involved and were very focused on the forms they had developed to memorialize the events in Egypt. At the same time, the nuisance, this disturber of order, was in custody. Hence, they were in a bind.
Things were a bit tricky with the Romans and with the Idumean (read Edomite) tetrarch, but it all worked out. Part of the process was to be sure to be present to keep emotions high during the deliberations. The heightened emotions worked sort of like an election. Most of the crowd members were probably indifferent and even ignorant of what was happening, but once whipped into an emotional lather, could be counted on to make enough noise to keep the attention of the authorities, so priests had to be sent to the public trial – and they were – with that purpose. The emotional furor was enough to tip the scales and produce the desired result.
They had kidnapped Jesus on Tuesday night. That had gone almost without a hitch. Arrangements had been made to frame Him so that the requirements were met to accuse Him of a serious religious infraction – blasphemy – for which the call for His death would seem somehow justified. But, now it was Wednesday morning and time began to run out. The leaders decided to keep the momentum and push forward as rapidly as possible with the civil authorities. The sooner they could cause the execution to begin, the sooner He would be disposed of and they could go back to the business of the holy week.
A High Holy Day was to occur that year on Thursday. Things were really so close. There was probably an agreed-upon division of effort. Some of the most loyal priests would be sent to the Roman trial. Most of the most essential, though, needed to attend to the preparations for the High Sabbath that was to occur on Thursday. This would take careful coordination for everything to work as it should.
It worked. They pulled it off. By late Wednesday morning the process of the crucifixion was under way. Something quicker would have been desirable – perhaps an arrow or a sword-thrust, but the Romans liked the shock effect of crucifixion. To them the crucifixion sent an effective message. The lingering death in a public place sent the correct message. They might compromise on the actual site but not on the very public nature of the event itself. The duration of a crucifixion was now the focal problem for the religious leaders. They would want the matter to end before sunset that very day. At sunset, the High Holy Day of Pesach would commence. If He had not died by then, His lingering death would cast a pall over the festivities of that very important day. After the civil trial, the people would inevitably know the religious leaders were behind the whole thing. If He were dead before sunset, though, attention would be diverted from that event to the prosecution of the holiday of sacred memory. Once attention was diverted from the execution, it would likely become only a faint memory. Order would be kept.
But, how could they assure a timely death on such a short deadline? The solution would be to petition the Roman ruler to see to the death ahead of schedule. This would likely go against the wishes of the Roman ruler, but if he would compromise, all would be well. It would not be of particular interest to him because he preferred the lingering impact, but he might want to go ahead in the interest of maintaining good relations with the priests. It worked! In the interest of good relations with the priests, the Roman would go ahead and insure the death and permit the removal of the body before sunset.
The risk of the late arrest on Tuesday evening (technically it was Wednesday already), followed by the hurried and secret religious mockery of a trial, would be followed by a wrapping up of the affair in less than a day. That made it possible to keep things on track for the High Holy Day of Pesach. I realize this conflicts with some of our assumptions and traditions so let’s get the chronology right.
- Tuesday, near midnight, Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane (the Olive Press). Technically the Jewish day begins at sunset, so it was really Wednesday.
- A hurried and secret religious trial takes place as soon as possible. The time was used to arrange the false accusations from persons with “no interest” in the outcome.
- As soon as possible, the trial moves on to the second phase, the first appearance before Pilate. This might even have occurred before daylight, but unless that was prearranged it would have been hard to pull off. Pilate decided to involve Herod at that point (Luke 23:6-12). Herod was persuaded to not stand in the way, suggesting the matter was previously discussed with him, in outline form at least.
- Herod agreeing, the trial moves to phase three. Very early in the day, the priests had been able to get Pilate to agree to hear the matter (Luke 23:1-7). This involved the beating by the Romans, more severe than Jewish law would have allowed, and the actual public events. Events suggest that Pilate might have also known in advance, at least in principle, of what was coming if not the timing of it.
- By mid-morning (around 9:00 AM to us) the crucifixion events were underway. A great darkness came at about noon.
- Jesus died about six hours after He was nailed to the cross. It was about 3:00 PM. He died by His own choice, not at the will of His tormentors.
- Because crucifixion victims often lived some considerable time, the worry about the day wearing away before the death of Jesus would occur, the priests would seek extraordinary cooperation from Pilate to see to the death well before sunset. This would allow time for the bodies to be removed from public view before the High Holy Day ceremonies would begin. They would begin by the time two stars could be seen in the evening sky.
- A tomb was offered some time during the day and the folks who wanted the body of Jesus were permitted to take His body from the crucifixion site. The priests who had been assigned the responsibility of being sure of His death could now hurry to the temple area to take part in the Pesach ceremonies that would soon begin.
- At about sunset on this Wednesday, everything was wrapped up to the satisfaction of the religious leaders.
While all this was playing out to the satisfaction of the religious leaders, they were also very busy prosecuting the business of getting ready for the High Holy Day of Pesach that would begin to occur at sunset on that same Wednesday. Thursday began at sunset. This was the heart of the Pesach festival week. The “problem” was solved and now full attention was turned to the blessed memorial of the end of the time of slavery in Egypt.
It is important to note that the entire sideshow (to them) of the killing of the disturber took place in the traverse of a single day – Wednesday, the “preparation day” (Mark 15:42-47).
Joseph of Arimathea, having arranged for custody of the body of Jesus, saw to it that He was in the tomb by the time sunset arrived. All was in order. Before actual sunset on Wednesday, the disturber was properly “disposed of” and all the minds of the religious leaders could turn to the ceremonial matters at hand. He was in the tomb when Thursday, the Great Sabbath, arrived. Of course, we know they went the next day, in the midst of the Pesach ceremonies to petition Pilate to assure His tomb remained secure so no one could come and steal the body, but that was not a violation of the holy day, so it was okay.
They were conducting some important holy days but had no idea of how important they were.
He was in the tomb. He would remain there throughout Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (the ordinary, weekly Sabbath). After three days, on Sunday which was the first day of the new week, those who loved Him would discover that He was no longer there. But what was He doing during those three days there in the tomb?
Do we assume that He merely lay there until the three days were done and then suddenly jumped up and escaped the tomb? Or was He about the prosecution of some business of His Father? The body of Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, was seriously broken. Had He not simply decided to die, death was nevertheless inevitable to His natural body. In a sense we might entertain the question of whether He Himself was honoring the Pesach by releasing His spirit when He did. But, He was to die. He was the one slain from the foundation of the earth (Revelation 13:8).
Who was there in the tomb? The body of Jesus was one of the inhabitants. The eternal Son of God (God the Son) had inhabited that body while it was still alive. I believe He, God the Son was present in the tomb also. It appears the Holy Spirit was also present, as He is in all things. The body, having been given and so broken by the events of Wednesday, was in a shroud. This place, though, became a kind of headquarters for the eternal transition that was occurring in the Creation. Once the new week began, the Creation would be forever different.
Ephesians 4:7-10 suggests that He went to a place where there was a “host of captives” whom He led forth from there. The dead body of Jesus did not transact that business. It must have been the Son of God (God the Son) who accomplished that feat. Going to the tomb freed God the Son from the confines of the flesh that He might fetch to the heavens all those who came to be known as the “host of captives.”
Who might this “host of captives” have been? It seems reasonable to propose they were those who preceded Jesus in life and were waiting for this particular point in the history of the Creation to come forth from the confinement of some phenomenon. They must have been held as captives to something in some place. When the work of Jesus was done, a time long anticipated in the Eternal became possible. They had all died in a world in which sin and death reigned. They seem to have remained in a kind of stasis ordered by the authority of God but never intended to eternally hold those who had found favor in His eyes in the days of their lives. This stasis met God’s requirements, but those requirements were now superseded. The incarnate Son of God had met the requirements which had held the “captives” in their stasis. When God the Son showed up, the stasis simply could no longer remain in place. It was broken. As a result, He could now lead them to the place they had so longed to go. They could now go into the Eternal as sons of God. Sure, they will return with the Christ when He returns, but they were now in the eternal having been released from their captivity. They might well be the “great cloud of witnesses” along with those who have died in the Lord since that day (Hebrews 12:1).
Meanwhile, I believe the Spirit of God remained focused on the tomb. In a sense, He might well have hovered (see Genesis 1:2) over the interface between the Creation and the Eternal that was made by the rending of the veil in the temple on Wednesday. This collision between the created and the uncreated would need His careful attention lest there be chaos. We cannot begin to know the emotions of God the Father in those three days. Jesus had entered the tomb for the glory set before Him. The Spirit was present to quicken that broken body when the three days were over. God the Son used that tomb as the point of launch for the leading forth of the captives. These are probably the matters that received the primary portion of the attention of the entire Godhead at that time.
It was probably on Saturday night, after sunset that the Spirit of God moved to quicken that body that had lain there for the three days. The new day, the new week, the new era of human history began right then. I sense that as soon as the two stars were visible in the sky that Saturday (common Sabbath) evening, the Spirit suddenly moved and the dead body was returned to life in an event that affected everything else. God the Son, in some sense, reentered what had been an inert, dead body and a new life came into it. This renewed body would be different. It would have the power of never-death. That body had died for a purpose different from all other instances of human death. It was now to be present again for another unique purpose.
In the tomb during that three days everything changed for eternity!
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