What is Going On?
Have you ever come into the middle of a conversation, and it sounds really interesting, and you try to get what everyone is talking about by quietly gathering information from the context?
I mean, first you are silent, and you just nod your head, “mmhhm, mmhhm,” trying to look like you understand. You hope no one has noticed you came in late and slipped into the group.
But inside your head you are scrambling to piece it all together!
At some point, you realize there is simply too much you do not know. You have too few puzzle pieces to understand what the conversation is about.
That is what I felt like the first time I read the gospel accounts of what is called Jesus’ Passion Week, the seven days leading up to his crucifixion. Each gospel seems to tell the story a little differently, adding or subtracting what feels like important information, and stating some things in a way that seems to imply we should understand the significance.
The truth is, if we were living in first century Palestine, we would certainly understand the significance! We would have felt patronized if someone laboriously told us every background detail. But today, a full two thousand years later, we do need some extra help.
So, I am going to tell you four stories. Each story will help with understanding the significance of what was happening as Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time. When we finally get to what has become known as Jesus’ Triumphal Entry, I will also be pulling from two Gospels—John and Mark.
This is a term coined—I am pretty sure—by Dr. Paul Anderson, a leading authority on the Gospel of John. With this term, Dr. Anderson contends (and I heartily agree) these two Gospels have many links between them because they were preached side-by-side by Peter and John in the earliest days of the Jesus movement.
There is a significant quote, recorded by Luke in his account of the Acts of the Apostles, which underscores how Peter and John preached together, and influenced each other:
But Peter and John answered [The Sanhedrin],
Peter “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge.”
John “For we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”Acts 4:19-20 (NRSV) with my own insertion of Peter’s and John’s names, and the bracketed item.
Luke quoted a very Peter-like saying and a very John-like saying, judging from the material we have that is attributed to these two apostles.
It is thought John’s gospel was published in a shorter form pretty early on, then re-released in its current longer version probably a good thirty or so years later, after John had died. Both versions seem to be in conversation with the gospel Mark wrote after Peter died, faithfully chronicling everything he had heard Peter preach, but not always in correct chronological order. John sought to give a better chronology on some things, and also sought to nuance, inform, and expand on some of the other things found in Mark’s gospel.
Because Matthew and Luke also contain material not found in the other two gospels, I will, from time to time, refer to them. However, the final version of John’s gospel was written in a certain way to convey some important concepts and truths, so although for historical purposes, referring to the synptics will be helpful, for spiritual purposes, I will be continuing with John.
Story #1: A Lamb
Since the days of Moses, all Jewish families had been celebrating certain festivals every year. You all know what they are, so call them out:
- Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread
- Feast of Firstfruits
- Feast of Weeks—Pentecost, celebrating the end of the grain harvest
- Rosh Hashanah— Feast of Trumpets, The New Year
- Yom Kippur—Day of Atonement
- Sukkot—Feast of Booths
There were three festivals, I put them in boldface, that required every man of Jewish descent and faith to come to Jerusalem to celebrate, and to bring his family with him when possible. That is important to know.
The first feast, Passover, was the oldest.
During the Exodus, God had instructed the Hebrew people to single out from their flocks the handsomest, healthiest yearling lamb without any blemish. A yearling is a full-grown sheep, but it would still look young, and be playful.
Each family was to bring this beautiful, playful yearling lamb into their home, watch over it carefully to make sure it was healthy and perfect in every way, and love it like a cherished pet for three days.
Then, on the fourth day, they were to slaughter the lamb, paint the doorposts of their home with its blood, to protect them from God’s coming judgment. The Angel of Death was coming that night, to claim the firstborn of every household, but would pass over every home where a yearling lamb had already been slain, and its lintel publicly marked by the blood of the lamb.
Finally, the people were to roast the lamb and eat it, in preparation for the journey they were about to embark on, God’s deliverance from the bondage of slavery so they could be the people of God, and have relationship with God.
Now, take a moment to imagine loving that yearling, keeping it clean and well fed, the children playing with the lamb, cuddling with the lamb. Then think how hard that must have been to have to slaughter their precious lamb, paint its blood on their doorframe—and roast and eat it.
(The remainder of the stories will be told tomorrow)
 This is known from an ancient Bible commentator named Eusebius (265- 339 AD) who was quoting an even earlier Bible commentator named Papias (60-135 AD). Papias had learned from John the Elder, who was a disciple of the apostle John and most likely was the editor and publisher of John’s gospel, that
“Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not indeed in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things done or said by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely.” (Eccles. Hist. 3.39)
Quoted from John Anderson’s book, The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel, page 146.
[Peter and John, running to the tomb | Eugène Burnand, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]