By Robin Benson
Many of us are so familiar with the events leading up to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that we miss some intriguing elements of the narrative.
For instance, Jesus spent most of his three or so years of public ministry “up north” in Israel’s Galilee region. Messianic fervour was at its most intense in Galilee and many of the revolts against Rome’s occupation started here.
So although Jesus travelled, taught and healed in this atmosphere of febrile expectation, he downplayed any attempts to proclaim that he was the long-awaited Messiah, or Saviour.
But as he, his disciples and his family join the caravan of people making their way up to Jerusalem for his final Passover festival, he seems to have set aside that caution and shows himself openly. So by the time they all reach the descent from the Mount of Olives and approach the Eastern Gate, the crowd is at fever pitch and explodes into a raucous welcome, waving palm branches with loud shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9).
“Save us, please!”
These acclamations originate in Psalm 118:25-26 and are not in fact shouts of praise. “Hosanna” is a transliteration of the Hebrew “Hoshi’ah na” which means “Save us, please!”
Thus this crowd acclaims Jesus as the Messiah, calling out to him to save them from the Romans.
They hope that the God of Israel, in the highest heavens, would hear their “Hosanna!” cry and come to deliver them through their Messiah.
In the light of such a welcome for a non-establishment rabbi from out of town, it is little wonder that vocal criticism comes from some of the religious leaders.
But Jesus is willing to receive this acclaim from the people. In the midst of this very large, over-excited crowd, there he sits on a young donkey, with its mother by its side. Hardly what we might expect for the arrival of the King of kings…the conquering Messiah.
This young donkey had never been ridden before (Mark 11:2). But with its mother by its side, this not-yet-broken-in foal allowed its Creator to ride through noisy crowds into Jerusalem, fulfilling a centuries-old prophetic sign of the coming Messiah. (Zechariah 9:9)
Jesus’ entry begins four days during which he will be “examined” by the religious leaders of his day. This mirrors the inspection given to a Passover lamb, which had to be a perfect specimen to make it suitable as an innocent sacrifice (see the original exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt in Exodus 12:1-6).
Then there is his cursing of a fig tree (Mark 11:12-14), apparently for failing to bear fruit even though it is in leaf. One interpretation is that he was giving a visual parable about those who have all the outward signs of “fruitfulness” (the “leaves of religion”), but no repentance, nor the power of God to produce genuine, spiritual fruit that honours and glorifies God (John 15:4-6).
Later there is the incident of the man carrying a jug of water as a sign for two of Jesus’ disciples to follow him and find the place where they would celebrate the Passover together (Mark 14:13-15). Was this another prophetic sign, meant to point the disciples to the home of a co-operative host?
Who actually gathered for that Passover meal? The fact of its being a large, furnished room indicates that Jesus’ and his disciples’ families were also there, possibly at other tables, as it was traditionally a family feast.
This meal also foreshadows the coming great feast of the Messianic Kingdom.
Then, into that expectant atmosphere, Jesus drops the verbal bombshell of his coming betrayal by one of them.
Jesus has to comfort them: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:1-3, ESV)
Jumping forward several hours, there is the curious incident of the “rooster” crowing after Peter’s denials of his Master. At the time, Jewish law forbade keeping smelly, messy chickens in Jerusalem, home to the holy Temple.
But Jesus warns Simon Peter that he would deny his teacher “before the rooster crows today…”, which seems to imply that this “rooster” was due to crow at a specific time. But a rooster crows when it wakes up – whatever time that is!
In the days of the Second Temple, there was a Temple crier who watched for the dawn from the highest point of the Temple. The priests could not prepare for the first sacrifice of the day until this crier called out: “It is daylight! The whole eastern sky is lit!”
In some ancient Jewish texts, this call of the Temple crier is labelled “the time of the cock’s crow”, and in the Mishnah, the Hebrew for rooster (the word ‘gever’) can also mean “man”.
Thus it seems more plausible that Peter’s denials were actually around the time that this Temple crier was about his business, ensuring that those responsible for the morning sacrifices were about their duties.
Once Jerusalem’s corrupt religious/political leadership passed sentence on Jesus and managed to get the Romans to impose and carry out the death penalty, the timeline moves to the final hours in Jesus’ life, as he hangs on a Roman execution stake.
Beforehand Jesus had been whipped to within an inch of his life. Now he is nailed to the crossbeam that he (and then Simon of Cyrene) had been forced to carry to the execution place, and that crossbeam was then hoisted on poles up on to the upright stake. Traditionally the cross is depicted on a hill, but Jesus, as he hung there – suffering the further indignity of being completely naked – would have been almost at eye level with those observing his torturously painful death.
As the end approached, a soldier offered Jesus sour wine soaked into a sponge on a stick. But the sponge and the stick almost certainly came from the “hygiene” kit of one of the Roman soldiers on duty that day. These items he would have used to clean himself any time he used the latrine: just one more indignity heaped upon Jesus as he took upon himself the sins of the human race.
The actual sequence of all these events is still debated. On what days of the week did they really occur? Each side can produce its own timeline, but there are holes in all of them. In the end, we have to acknowledge that Scripture tells us all we need to know, so that in repentance we can come into a living faith in the Lord Jesus: the Messiah of Israel and Saviour of the world.
The most important aspect of all that happened during Jesus’ final week is that death could not hold him – he rose again! He defeated sin, death and the grave and is alive!
His return will fulfil the cry of his followers down the ages: “Come, Lord Jesus!” or “Marantha!”
Then the reign and kingdom of God in this world will be realised at last.
Robin Benson has been involved in Christian ministry and service for most of his working life, including periods with Operation Mobilisation, Capernwray Bible School and Christian Friends of Israel (both in the UK and Israel). Currently he divides most of his time between a local Christian media production company and leading online Bible studies for The Shekinah Legacy. He is also a frequent guest on Revelation TV’s ‘Politics Today’ programme.