In the time of Jesus, Jerusalem was considered to be the holiest city in the world. It was the location of the Jewish temple, but it fascinated Romans and Greeks. It had been rebuilt, starting with King Herod, and the lavish scale and costly accouterments would astound us, even today. The temple was one of the grandest buildings of the ancient world, and would surely have been on Herodotus’ list of the Seven Wonders if it had existed in his day. The temple was made to be the focal point of grand festivals, much beloved by the Jewish people. It had a spacious courtyard and covered porticoes, capable of holding hundreds of thousands of pilgrims for the festivals.
The biggest and most important annual festival was Passover, celebrated each year on the 15th day of the spring month of Nisan (the Jews had a lunar calendar of 28 day months). Every Jew in the cities all over the Roman Empire desired to be in Jerusalem for this festival. (Today, some observant Jews still end their Passover celebration by saying, “Next year in Jerusalem.”) Josephus, the Jewish historian of this period, claims that one year there were 100,000 lambs slaughtered for Passover in Jerusalem. If each lamb serviced a meal for ten men, Josephus’ implicit claim is that over a million pilgrims had packed the city for the celebration. Imagine a city of maybe 50,000 people swollen to twenty times its usual population! (like Los Angeles, 4 million people, ballooning to 80 million in the summer!)
Raising suitable lambs and having them available for sale was big business in those days for the villages surrounding Jerusalem (including the shepherds of Bethlehem). It was like the Christmas season for merchants today, they could make a year’s income in a few days. There was one special lamb, though. On the 10th of Nisan, the High Priest would go outside the city to a lamb seller and choose a perfect lamb to be the Lamb of Israel. One tradition says that this lamb was led by the High Priest into the city in great ceremony, with pilgrims lining the streets, singing, shouting, and waving palm branches in worship. Traditionally, they sang the lines of Psalm 118, “Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.” This Lamb for Israel would be penned within the Temple courts, and during the week of Passover, all the visitors in town could go and view it. It had a huge role as a “celebrity” lamb, scheduled to die by the hand of the High Priest.
On the week of Jesus’ death, he ate a Passover meal with his disciples on Thursday night, a meal he modified to become our basis for the Lord’s Supper. He went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, and there Judas, the betrayer, led a squad of temple police and other rabble to arrest him. Jesus was seized, and given a series of trials. He was condemned and led to the place of the Skull, and there he was crucified. His nailing to the cross took place about 9:00 a.m. on Friday morning.
Meantime the Temple was buzzing with activity. Thousands of pilgrims were bringing their Passover lambs to be ritually killed and this went on for hours with gallons of blood being spilled. The blood ran out the Temple’s drain system into the Kidron, the little stream between the Temple and the Mount of Olives, turning into a crimson flow. The killing of these lambs went on for six hours, until about 3 p.m. At that time, all the lambs were sacrificed except one, the Lamb of Israel. With great pomp and ceremony, this lamb was brought to the High Priest himself. He stood before the great altar and taking the ceremonial knife, he killed the final Passover lamb, proclaiming in a loud voice, “It is finished.”
At about the same time, there was a small group of Jesus’ disciples who gathered around his cross on a hill called Calvary. They had witnessed Jesus’ agony on this evil tree for about six hours. Then, about 3 in the afternoon, Jesus raised himself one last time and wheezed, “It is finished.” The perfect Lamb of God had been slain, not just for Israel, but for the sins of the world. Jesus statement meant both that death had come and that his mission of atoning sacrifice had been accomplished.
But it was not the end. Jesus died, and was buried, but on the following Sunday, God raised him from the dead. He who was dead lived again. Death had not won and our world will never be the same. It is not finished. Celebrating the Resurrection means it is only beginning.
Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College