Was Jesus’ Last Supper the “Real” Passover?

When Jesus ate his last supper with his disciples he did so on the night before the Passover lambs were slain. It is well attested that Jesus had asked the disciples to go ahead to prepare the Passover meal (Mat. 23:17-20; Mk 14:12-17; Lk. 22:7-14). He also prefaced his “last supper” with the statement, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfilment in the Kingdom of God.”

Because Jesus appears to call his last supper a “Passover,” many who followed the teachings of the late Herbert W. Armstrong believe that Jesus kept the “real” Passover, while the entire Jewish people of Jesus’ day slew the Passover lamb at the wrong part of the day.

God gave the Israelites the following instructions in Ex. 12: 6 “You shall keep [the lamb] until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight [literally: between the evenings].”

Herbert Armstrong believed, as many modern Christian translators do, that “between the evenings” means that twilight portion of the day between sunset and dark. The belief comes from the idea that Jewish people believe that the Sabbath begins on Friday night at sunset.

They then interpret Jesus’ last meal with his disciples at the beginning of Nisan 14 as the proper time for Passover and project that onto Moses’ Passover before the Exodus. Meanwhile the Jewish people killed the Passover lamb toward the end of the 14th of Nisan.

Attempts to make the slaying of the original Passover lamb happen in the very brief period between sundown and dark at the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th run into problems for the following reasons:

1) God gives this command in Ex. 12: 11 “This is how you will eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the Passover of the Lord. ” Why eat it in a hurry and dressed for travel if they don’t leave until after sundown on the 15th, about 20 hours later?

2) The unleavened bread that the festival is named after reflects the speed with which all of the events took place. Notice what is explained in Ex. 12: 33-34.  “The Egyptians urged the people to hasten their departure from the land, for they said, ‘We shall all be dead.’ So the people took their dough before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders.” They literally did not have time to make their bread before leaving Egypt. That makes it hard to argue that they spent 12 hours despoiling the Egyptians before leaving.

3) Not only is the night they eat the Passover meal the night the death angel passes over the Israelites, it is also the first day of Unleavened Bread, according to Ex. 12:12-17. You can only make the meal the day before if you stop reading between verses 14 and 15.

Notice that the first day of unleavened bread is the actual day that they left Egypt. They dressed to leave in a hurry. The destroyer killed the firstborn at midnight, while the blood on the doorposts protects the Israelites. They are dressed and ready for travel. God also tells them that the Egyptians will push them out of the country so fast that they won’t have time to cook bread …

4) Verses 24-27 indicate that Passover is both the day of the deliverance from the destroyer and also deliverance from Egypt.

5) Verses 29-34 indicate that Moses and Aaron are called upon that same night to roust the people out of Egypt. They do not have time to provision themselves with bread, but are packed and ready to move.

6) Exodus 12:18-19 uses the expression “on the fourteenth day of the month at even” to indicate when the days of unleavened bread begin. That is why the Passover meal is to be eaten without leaven.

Exo 12:18  In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at even, ye shall eat unleavened bread, until the one and twentieth day of the month at even.

Exo 12:19  Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses: for whosoever eateth that which is leavened, even that soul shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he be a stranger, or born in the land.

7) Nisan 14 does not begin at sunset. It begins when the day turns to night – at dark. Where the confusion comes in is that Jewish people do begin the observance of Sabbath at sunset on Friday. Christians then make the completely natural assumption that Jews believe that days begin at sunset.

What Christians are not generally aware of is that Jews understand every other day to begin at dark. Only the Sabbath is considered to begin at sunset. Because they do not want to inadvertently work on the Sabbath they give themselves the few minutes between sunset and dark as a “hedge” around the actual Sabbath, which actually begins at dark (apparently when you can see at least three stars in the sky).

When you clear up the misunderstanding about when days actually begin, you understand that eating the Passover lamb during the night of Nisan 14th would require the sacrifice to take place before dark on Nisan 13, not Nisan 14.

8) According to the Paleo Times website Jewish interpreters do not share this confusion about when the Passover lamb is slaughtered and eaten. “Between the evenings” is a term that has only one meaning to Israelites and Jews. It refers to the late afternoon period between about 3 pm and nightfall. That is precisely why we know Jesus was killed at the time of the Passover sacrifice. The link above provides the most reasonable and complete explanation I have seen about the meaning of the Hebrew expression “between the evenings” that is usually translated as “twilight” or “dusk” by modern Christian translators.

It is apparently known that the Samaritans kept Passover the day before the Judean Jews. Some Christian scholars have speculated that Sadducees agreed with the Samaritans, but they do not have proof that the priesthood actually performed the sacrifice a day early. Why we should prefer the timing of the dissident Samaritan sect over that of the people who passed the Old Testament on to us is a mystery to me.

9) Jesus is no shrinking violet when it comes to telling the Scribes, Phariseees and Sadducees when they are in the wrong. At no point is it recorded that he tells them they missed the date of Passover by one day when they eat the meal on the 15th of Abib/Nisan instead of the 14th.

10) Jesus did ask his disciples to prepare a place for them to eat the Passover meal and did eat a meal with them the night before the Passover that the rest of his countrymen ate. He did tell them that he desired to eat “this Passover with them before” he “suffered.” What is not certain is that the meal they were eating was actually called a Passover meal. He may well have been referring to the following night’s meal as the Passover he had desired to eat with them before he suffered.

For example, we are given no specifics about what the meal consisted of. Was it lamb? Was the bread they ate unleavened? Had they cast leaven out of the room?

Jesus’ closest disciples refused to violate the Sabbath even to anoint him for burial. Would they not have said something or at least have inquired if Jesus were asking them to observe a Passover on a day that violated the sensibilities of their upbringing?

As per point 7 above, the lamb certainly would have been sacrificed on the wrong day to be a Passover meal. It would be safest to just consider it Jesus’ Last Supper.

Conclusion: The Passover lamb was killed and cooked in the late afternoon on Nisan 14 and  eaten after dark on the 15th. In other words, the Israelites left Egypt on the same day as the Passover meal was eaten, the 15th a Abib (the month later renamed Nisan).

Finally, the image of Jesus as the Passover lamb works much better if he was killed at the same time as the lambs were killed on Nisan 14. The Gospel writers agree that Jesus was killed at “the ninth hour, or midafternoon on Nisan 14. This agrees with the traditional time the Passover lambs were sacrificed for the Passover meal to be eaten that night.

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Passover: Jesus and the Second Exodus

This post represents the gist of a two-part message given during Passover week about how Jesus fulfils the promise of a second exodus of God’s people after what the prophet Daniel refers to as the “times of the Gentiles.” He does so in ways that those who carefully read the Scriptures should recognize that Jesus functions as a type of Moses, as Moses himself predicted in Deuteronomy 18: 15. (In case anyone wonders where this particular interpretation of Deut. 18:15 comes from, Peter (Acts 3:22) and Stephen (Acts 7:37) refer to exactly this verse when they speak about Jesus being sent to the people of Judea.

To set the stage let us review a little bit of what happened immediately before and during the original exodus of Israel from Egypt. I have highlighted some key words that will be significant during Jesus’ later ministry.

In Exodus 10:21-29 God sends the 9th of the 10 plagues on Egypt, a plague of darkness so deep that people do not dare leave their homes for 3 days. This is followed by the plague of the death of the firstborn of all Egyptian people and livestock in Exodus 11.

They are thrust out of Egypt by a very frightened populace that very night or early morning. And proceed to the shore of the Red Sea (or Reed Sea?). Exactly 3 days after they have been freed from  Egyptian slavery they emerge from the sea and the Egyptian army is drowned in that sea at daybreak.

They proceed to Mt. Sinai, where God speaks to them, giving them His commandments and statutes. In Exodus 24:3-8 they formally agree to enter a covenant with their God by saying “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” The priests ratify the covenant by sprinkling the “blood of the covenant” (from sacrificial animals) on them in a mass ceremony. Moses then goes up on the mountain to receive the stone tablets that the covenant is written on. (These tablets probably contain everything written in Exodus 20-23.)

After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness due to disobedience they finally are set to enter the Promised Land. Moses knows, however, that they will disobey and eventually be ejected from the land once again. The book of Deuteronomy records Moses’ final sermon to the Israelites before they enter the land. Chapter 28 outlines the basic blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience to the covenant. The section on curses is much longer than the one about blessings.

Deuteronomy 30:1-7 offers bad news and good news for the people of Israel. The bad news: they will disobey and be ejected from the land, suffering under a succession of Gentile kingdoms. The good news: there will be a re-gathering of the people of God promised after the long and arduous captivity.

The “gathering” will be characterized by three things: a gathering from all nations that God has scattered them to; a change (“circumcision”) of heart; and curses being sent upon the peoples who persecuted God’s people.

In time the people of Israel began to disobey God and his covenant, and these prophetic curses began to come to pass. The prophet Jeremiah lived during the final years of the decline of Judah, the last remaining part of Israel. Jeremiah predicted that the Babylonians would destroy the Temple and take Judah into captivity, confirming Moses’ prediction in Deuteronomy. Like Moses, he also predicts in Jeremiah 50:4-9 a second exodus. Interestingly, Jeremiah predicts that the “remnant” will be instructed to “leave “Babylon” before its destruction. He notes in Jeremiah 31:31-34 that this “exodus” will involve a new covenant with God that is “not like” the previous covenant.

Features of this “new covenant” include God putting his law into their hearts (instead of tablets of stone) and forgiveness of their sin, including not remembering it anymore.

Roughly 6 centuries later a Bethlehem-born Galilean prophet named Jesus, a descendant of King David, approaches a small band of fishermen. He recruits them to spread good news about the Kingdom of God in Matt. 3:18-19 with the statement, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

He gathers a group of disciples around a mountain (reminding onlookers of the gathering at Mt. Sinai) to teach them, and a multitude gathers around to listen. In his famous Sermon on the Mount in Matt. 5-7:28 Jesus’ outlines a set of principles that look a lot like covenant stipulations, including blessings and curses. Jesus later condensed these principles for his disciples during his last supper with them in John 13:34-35. “Love one another as I have loved you.”

The disciples confirm that they will obey him in John 16:29-30 and Jesus tells his Father that he accepts their agreement in 17:6-8. This is the equivalent of their saying “everything the Lord has said we will do.”

During that meal Matthew records in 26:28 that Jesus tells his disciples that the wine they were drinking together represents his “blood of the new covenant” which was to be shed for them to deal with sin.

For 3 hours before Jesus’ death on the cross the entire land is covered in darkness according to Luke 23:44-49. Immediately following this darkness is the death of the firstborn of God. Here we have a plague of darkness followed by the death of the firstborn – reminders of the Exodus that had also occurred during the original Passover/Exodus events more than a millennium before.

Jesus dies during the time that the Passover lambs are being sacrificed for that evening’s ceremonial meal. John 19:33 records that Jesus’ blood was shed, just as Jesus had predicted. His blood replaces the blood of the lamb that had been placed on the doorposts and jambs to protect the Israelites from the “destroyer” of the firstborn. It becomes Jesus’ blood of the new covenant that is shed for the remission of sin for all who believe in him.

Jesus rises the third day at dawn, at precisely the time the waters of the Red Sea covered the Egyptian army so many centuries before, completely assuring their freedom from bondage. Jesus’ resurrection eventually assures the disciples of freedom from sin and freedom from the fear of death through the promise of resurrection.

A few days after his resurrection Jesus is at a meal with his disciples. In John 20:19-23  he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Spirit.” He then tells them that he has given them the power to forgive sin or withhold forgiveness of sin. This is powerful stuff! Yet the gospel message is about precisely that: God accepting repentance and forgiving sin so that human beings and God can finally work together in harmony as one. The disciples are being commissioned to reach out to others and offer them forgiveness in God’s name and entrance into his redeemed community.

Jesus’ disciples decide to try to go back to their old lifestyle and re-enter the fishing trade. John 21:1-25 records how Jesus confronts them with this question, “Have you caught any fish yet?” They hadn’t, even though they were experienced fishermen and had been at it all night. Jesus tells them to drop the nets from the opposite sides of their boats, and they soon fill to almost the breaking point.

By the time they come to shore Jesus already has a fish and bread dinner ready for them. (He managed to get fish without a boat or a net!) He then resets Peter’s attitude to ministry by telling him three times that he must demonstrate his love for Jesus by feeding Jesus’ sheep. Now they are willing to go back to work, but need extra help to get the job of being “fishers of men” done.

Jesus provides that help by sending his Holy Spirit, as recorded in Acts 2. Acts 2:42-47 demonstrates the new covenant in action. “Fish” are now being caught. People are loving one another as Jesus loved them. Jesus’ word is being taught throughout the area.

Where & when is the gathering? As an example, in Exodus 12:37 Israelites gathered in Ramses before journeying to Succoth. In his ministry Jesus had commissioned his disciples to become “fishers of men.” People are obviously being gathered into discipleship of Jesus in the book of Acts. How and when does the gathering predicted in Deuteronomy 30 happen?

The gathering happens over time but culminates in resurrection at the appointed time, according to the Apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 15:20-26. “Those who are Christ’s” are gathered “at his coming.” In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 Paul reveals that this gathering of both the living and the dead in Christ happens in the air at Jesus’ return. It is a literal “lifting up” of the people of God out of the grave into new life.

In other words, being called into fellowship with Jesus and his church is the beginning of the gathering from all the nations. We begin our journey, not by leaving the physical territory, but rather by leaving the system of this world by following Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

What we are called to leave behind is symbolically referred to in Rev 18:1-5 as “Babylon the Great,” the great human civilization that opposes God’s will. We make a choice instead to dwell in the City of God, among God’s other saints who comprise a completely different civilization. Notice that curses do eventually come upon the city that opposes God and persecutes God’s faithful people.

Jesus’ call to all of us is “Come out of her my people.”

We leave behind the sin.

We leave behind the pride.

We leave behind the greed.

We leave behind the selfishness.

We leave behind everything that hurts others and wrecks our lives.

Instead we do as Jesus taught his disciples. We love each other as Jesus loved us. We become “fishers of men.” In Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.”

Or in Jesus’ own words on the mountain, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”

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When Did Jesus Die? Part 2

What year did Jesus die?

Several proposals for solving the Passover dating of Jesus’ death rely on astronomical calculations that are tied to the calculated year that Jesus died.

Three researchers whose work appeared long before I began to even think about these things are Roger Rusk, a former professor of Physics and two Christian ministers, Arthur M. Ogden and Jack W. Langford. The former two, writing in 1984 and 1987 respectively, seem to base their astronomical data on the work of Rusk in 1974. Rusk and Langford use similar reasoning to my own to come up with a Thursday Passover, while Ogden is uncertain of whether Jesus died on Thursday or Friday, but concludes with the other two that Jesus died on Passover, just before the First Day of Unleavened Bread in A.D. 30.

 

Dating From the Start of Jesus’ Ministry

A direction many have tried to start from is to calculate the year of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Luke 3:1-3 provides a clue by mentioning that John the Baptist’s ministry began in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. There are complications regarding exactly which year Luke is using as the start of Tiberius’ reign, since he was co-regent with his predecessor for about one year. Did Luke begin with his co-regency (11 A.D.) or with his solo reign (14 A.D.)? The former would place the start of John’s and Jesus’ ministries in 26 or 27 A.D. The latter would begin the ministries in 28 or 29 A.D.

Also, we are not told exactly how long between John’s ministry start and that of Jesus’. We are not told exactly how long Jesus’ ministry was, though the mention by John of three Passovers in his Gospel implies a 3 year or 3.5 year ministry. This would narrow the range of Jesus’ death from 29 to 32 A.D.

In an article in Truth Magazine (Volume 28, no. 10, pp. 296-297, May 17, 1984) Arthur Ogden points out another clue, found in a rebuttal to Jesus’ statement “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2:19-20). They reply, “Forty and six years was this temple in building, and will thou rear it up in three days?”

As Ogden notes, “There statement is significant because the temple at that time was still under construction and was not completed until A.D. 64. The temple work was started by Herod the Great in the eighteenth year of his reign, or 19 B.C. Counting forty-six years from 19 B.C. brings us to 27 A.D. Jesus was in Jerusalem for the observance of the first Passover of His ministry (A.D. 27) when this discussion took place (Jn. 2:13). It is thought that John records three other Passovers observed by Jesus during His ministry (Jn. 5:1; 6:4; 12:1). If so, Jesus’ death came in 30 A.D. three years after His first Passover observance.”

Ogden also tells that a table reconstructing Passover dates for the years 27 to 34 A.D. appeared in the March 29, 1974 Christianity Today. According to historical sources A.D. 27 is too early and A.D. 34 is too late, so it must be between 28 and 33 inclusively. In A.D. 30 Passover (Nisan 14) fell on a Thursday according to that calendar. He also notes that A.D. 30 is the only year between 28 and 33 in which Passover falls on a Thursday.

At this point Ogden does not know for certain whether Jesus died on the 14th or 15th of Nisan, which correspond respectively to April 6 and 7, A.D. 30. But he is certain he has the right year.

The table that Ogden refers to is available online. It was compiled by Roger Rusk for the Christianity Today article titled “The Day He Died” that was mentioned by Ogden. A similar table has been published by the United States Naval Observatory. The USNO chart indicates that the full moon following the new moon after the spring equinox occurred on Thursday, April 6 in A.D. 30, following a March 22 new moon at 6:00 p.m. It seems to confirm Rusk’s chart.

Rusk is also certain that the year was A.D. 30. He also used reasoning similar to mine to conclude that Jesus died on the Thursday at 3:00 p.m. A Friday crucifixion would have Jesus making the journey from Galilee to Bethany on the Sabbath, which is exceedingly unlikely.

A Thursday crucifixion would allow Palm Sunday to be the 10th day of the Jewish month, making it the day Jews separated the Passover lambs from the herd. Doing the math and checking against astronomical calculations of new moons from A.D. 26 to A.D. 35 (the years of Pilate’s Governorship) he concludes the most likely date was April 6, A.D. 30.

As noted in the previous post, Jack W. Langford also used similar reasoning to arrive at a date of April 6, A.D. 30 in his Bible study (originally compiled in 1984) “Christ Our Passover: A Harmony of Events at the Death of Christ With the Annual Jewish Passover.” Not only does he harmonize the Passover lamb separation on the 10th with Jesus’ triumphal Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem, he also goes so far as to coordinate Jesus’ resurrection on Sunday morning during the Jewish priestly offering of the “wave sheaf” with the 7-week countdown to Pentecost Sunday.

It is good to know that this information has been available in print for up to four decades now. I was simply re-inventing the wheel with my own investigation.

Dating From the Fall of Jerusalem

A direction that some church historians have tried to work from is to count the time from the destruction of Jerusalem backward to Jesus’ death, based on some clues from history and the Babylonian Talmud.

On the 10th of August, in A.D. 70 — the 9th of Av — in Jewish reckoning, the very day on the Jewish calendar when the King of Babylon burned the Temple in 586 B.C., the Temple was burned again. Titus took the city and put it to the torch, burning the Temple.

According to the Babylonian Talmud, Mishna, Yoma 39a, four series of unusual events took place over the 40 years before the destruction of the Temple.

1 – The lot used to select the goat “for the Lord” for the ceremony of the Day of Atonement always came up in the left hand of the priest, and never the right hand. (Before this, during the leadership of a priest nicknamed Simeon the Righteous it had always come up in the right hand and never the left as in indicator of God’s blessing. After Simeon’s death and prior to the 40 years it alternated between left and right hands.)

2- The red thread or “strap” that had usually become white on the Day of Atonement during the leadership of Simeon the Righteous never became white again during the 40 years prior to the destruction. This apparently indicated God’s displeasure.

3 – The Temple doors, which normally would require 20 strong men to open or close, would swing open at random intervals for no apparent reason at the beginning of those 40 years, until a Rabbi rebuked them.

4 – A bright light that had begun appearing from the west at specific times during Simeon’s tenure never appeared again during that 40 year span until the Temple was destroyed.

If the Talmudic source is correct, Jesus’ death probably occurred about 40 years before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., making 29 or 30 A.D. the most likely years that Jesus died. Note that the Day of Atonement prior to Jesus’ death would have had to be when the strange events began happening if A.D. 30 was the year of Jesus’ death. Nobody would have noticed anything strange until at least the second or third year.

In conclusion to this series, my analysis of the 3 days/3 nights of Jesus’ prophecy led me to the conclusion that Jesus was probably killed on a Thursday afternoon at about 3:00 p.m. If the Christianity Today Passover calendar by Rusk, and Ogden’s, Langford’s and my analyses are correct, Jesus died Thursday, April 6, 30 A.D. and rose from the dead just before dawn on Sunday, April 9, 30 A.D.

It is not necessary for salvation to know exactly when Jesus died. It does, however, enable me to confidently tell people that Jesus Christ was a real, living person who changed the world with a revolutionary life, death and resurrection.

Since Sunday, April 9, A.D. 30 Jesus has been alive and leading his church from his seat at the right hand of the God Father.

I am pretty confident that, just as his first coming, death and resurrection fulfilled many Old Testament types and prophecies already, his return will also fulfill any remaining biblical types and prophecies. I am completely confident that God knows exactly what he is doing.

He promises. He delivers.

When his work of saving is fully completed, he will be fully glorified.

And all of humanity will be in complete awe of our amazing God’s grace and justice.

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When Did Jesus Die? – Part One

When it comes to spreading the gospel, a very important point that must be made is the historical truth of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection. We need to believe that Jesus was truly a human being who was also the Son of God. For many modern people the whole “Son of God” part will be quite a stretch. It would help if we could at least establish that Jesus did live among us. While it is not necessary for salvation, it would be good to be able to at least give people some historical date from his life or ministry to establish his historical existence.

The eyewitness accounts in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke provide many details about how and where he was born, though no date as such. They are very specific, however about the timing of his death and resurrection.

He died on Passover Day (Nisan 14 of the Jewish calendar) at about 3:00 p.m. and was resurrected the following Sunday just before dawn. Translating that into a date and year on our modern Gregorian Calendar, on the other hand, is quite a challenge.

The commonly accepted date for Jesus’ death (at least at the start of the 20th Century) of Friday, April 3, 33 A.D. was based on the work of Dionysus Exiguus in the Sixth Century. It was later discovered that he miscalculated the date of Jesus birth by placing it four years after the death of Herod the Great. Since Herod the great attempted to kill Jesus as an infant, this is understandably problematic. (I have noted other problems with the December 25th date for Jesus birth in a previous post.)

An advantage to A.D. 33 is that Passover is on a Friday, which works according to the “Good Friday/Easter Sunday tradition we have been taught in churches around the world.

Since I was raised by wolves theologically I find that I have to check almost everything for myself so that I can at least have a logical reason for what I believe. (It may not always be correct, but hope it is at least logical.) To this end I tried to apply logic to various clues in the Gospels, early Christian writers and even a bit of more modern scholarship about when Jesus died.

This post will approach the question of when Jesus died from scriptural clues about which day of the week Jesus died, and a later post will attempt a historical reconstruction of the year of his death. Both will be based on scriptural clues tied to historical events.

I would like to take the opportunity to thank the members of Wascana Fellowship for their sharp critique of my original presentation. By no means do all agree with my reconstruction of the events of that week. Their incisive comments forced me to tighten up and modify at some points the argument They also caused me to remove extraneous, confusing ideas from this presentation.

1. What Weekday did Jesus Die?

Theory 1: The traditional view that Jesus died on Friday – with Saturday as First Day of Unleavened Bread

Inconsistencies between this theory and the Gospel accounts:

  • You cannot fit three days & three nights into it as per Matt. 12:40. This objection is typically met with a statement to the effect that Jewish people at the time counted inclusively, that is, that even a part of a day counts as a day. Therefore part of Friday, all of Saturday and part of Sunday count as three days.
  • Jewish days are not counted primarily in hours but rather in dark/light cycles as per Gen. 1:5
  • Jewish days began when dusk turns to darkness, not at midnight.
  • Even if only parts of days are counted, you can only get the day portion of Friday, plus the night and day of Saturday plus most of the night portion of Sunday – effectively “2 days and 2 nights” instead of even parts of 3 days and three nights.
  • John 19:31 notes that the Sabbath in question is a “great Sabbath,” implying a feast day or annual Sabbath rather than a normal weekly Sabbath. Some posit that Saturday was also the First Day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread to get around this.
  • Another indicator that the week had two distinct Sabbaths is the plural form of “Sabbath” in the Greek version in Matthew 28:1, indicating that Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” went to the tomb after “the Sabbaths” had passed. It seems unlikely that two Sabbaths compressed into one day (annual and weekly) would be referred to in the plural. It is still just one Sabbath.

Theory 2: Jesus died Wednesday – with Thursday as First Day of Unleavened Bread.

Inconsistencies between this traditional Worldwide Church of God theory that Jesus doed on Wednesday afternoon and the Gospel accounts:

  • While this theory accounts for a full 72 hours, it leaves Jesus in the grave, alive, overnight (from before sunset on Saturday) before he is released near dawn on Sunday. Not impossible, but it seems to be a bit strange to leave Jesus “in the heart of the earth” for an extra half day.
  • Even if Jesus had been released from the grave before sunset on Saturday, we are not told where he was or what he was doing until the women met him in the predawn of Sunday.
  • Jewish days are not counted primarily in hours but rather in dark/light cycles as per Gen. 1:5. An insistence on a set number of hours is not necessarily a priority for people of that time.
  • It is apparently true according to the best scholarship available today that Jews of that time counted days inclusively, so a portion of a day or a portion of a night might well have been legitimately counted as a day or night respectively. This makes the insistence upon a full 72 hours less necessary than those who hold this view may think.
  • In addition to Jesus’ statement about being “3 days and three nights in the heart of the earth,” he also says he will rise “on the third day” as per Matt. 20:28; Mark 8:34; Luke 18:33. This implies that it could be somewhat less than a full 72 hours.
  • It only took Nicodemus about 3 hours at most to purchase and prepare 100 lbs. of spices in time for Jesus’ burial as per John 19:38-40. Even assuming the women only started preparations on the Friday between the annual Sabbath and the weekly Sabbath, why didn’t the women visit the grave in good time on Friday? I do not believe that it would take experienced women 12 hours to prepare a smaller quantity of spices than it would take men only 3 hours to prepare. (Unlike Nicodemus, Mary and Martha had even “practiced” on their brother Lazarus just days before according to John 11:21, 39-44.)
  • Luke 23:55-56 has the women following the Joseph and Nicodemus to see where they lay the body. They then went home to prepare the spices, but could not return before the “Sabbath.” There is no mention of a day in between following the men to the tomb and preparing their spices and ointments. This suggests that their preparation took place before dark on the day Jesus was buried. The earliest they could go was Sunday morning. Why not Friday morning?
  • As noted above, this particular week seems to have had two distinct Sabbaths, judging from the plural form of “Sabbath” in the Greek version of Matthew 28:1. Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” went to the tomb after “the Sabbaths” had passed. If they had been preparing spices all day Friday it would not have been necessary to indicate plural Sabbaths. They would have rested for only one Sabbath. It would make more sense to indicate a plural Sabbath if they had to wait for two Sabbaths back-to-back.
  • Even if one assumes that the spice preparation took place on Friday between the Thursday and Saturday Sabbaths, there is still no explanation as to why the women literally took all day to buy and prepare spices and ointments when Nicodemus bought and prepared a far greater quantity in less than three hours in time to bury Jesus on the day he died. They should have been able to get to the tomb on Friday if this theory were correct.

Proposal: What if Friday was First Day of Unleavened Bread?

  • Many commentators note that Jewish reckoning of time is inclusive, meaning that any portion of a day still counts as a day. Any portion of a night would also count as a night. Even so, his death on a Friday would count as too few days and too few nights.
  • Jesus mentions that he will be “in the heart of the earth” three days and three nights. This is the reverse of the normal sequence of night followed by day by which Jewish days are reckoned. Assuming a literal intent on Jesus’ part, the three-day countdown would probably start during the daylight portion of the first day. It would end during the night-time portion of Sunday. Given the 3 day/ 3 night promise of Jesus the most likely time of his death would have been Thursday at 3:00 p.m.
  • The daylight portion of Thursday would be the first day, followed by Thursday night as the first night.Dawn on Friday would have ended the first day, dawn on Saturday would have ended the second day and dawn on Sunday would end the third day.
  • This is how there can be three days and three nights, and yet Jesus can say that he will rise on the third day (less than 72 hours later).
  • It should be noted that the death sentence was delivered by the council before dawn of the day Jesus was crucified. He was handed over to the Gentiles first thing in the morning and the sentence was carried out the same morning. Jesus was on the cross well before noon. He was as good as dead the entire daylight portion of the first day.
  • Having Friday as the First day of Unleavened Bread also accounts for the inability of the women to go to the grave until Sunday morning. Having two Sabbaths in a row would prevent them from going to the grave for two days. Luke notes, as above, that at least some of the spices and ointments of the women were already prepared before dark on the day Jesus was buried.
  • If Luke and Mark are both correct, some of the spices were prepared on the day Jesus died, and the rest were bought and prepared “after the Sabbath.”
  • While Theory 2 presupposes that the Sabbath they prepared spices after was the annual Sabbath, this theory suggests that the remainder was bought after the weekly Sabbath ended at dark on Saturday. Spices were bought and preparations were finished Saturday night. The women then brought their spices to the grave site Sunday before dawn to start as early as possible before too much decomposition occurred.
  • As with Theory 2, this theory also explains why “after the Sabbath(s)” in Matthew 28:1 is pluralized in the Greek original. The women had to await two Sabbaths in a row to complete their mission to anoint Jesus for his death.

A further advantage to this theory is that it meshes quite well with another Old Testament type: setting apart the Passover lamb for special treatment on the 10th day of the first month, 4 days before the sacrifice, as per Exodus 12:1-6, 14. The Passover lamb was killed on the 14th of Nisan, after the lamb had been set apart on the 10th. They were to do this every year. If Jesus died on a Thursday, the Passover lambs would have been set apart on the previous Sunday.

We are told quite explicitly that Jesus arrived in Bethany from Galilee 6 days before Passover. Counting back from a Friday Passover, Jesus would have completed the long journey from Galilee with his disciples on the previous Sabbath (John 12:1). If Jesus’ disciples would not so much as prepare spices on the Sabbath, what is the likelihood is that he would have walked most of the day with his disciples on the Sabbath?

Counting back from Thursday, however, allows Jesus to arrive before the Sabbath, rest on the rest day (during the evening of which Mary anointed his feet), and be proclaimed Messiah on the Sunday we now refer to as Palm Sunday. In this scenario Palm Sunday also happens to occur on the 10th of the month – the very day the Passover lambs are set apart in preparation for the sacrifice.

I like the symmetry of Palm Sunday being the day that Jesus fulfils the type of the setting apart of the Passover Lamb.   The following two references are by people who arrived at the same conclusion long before I did. Their reasoning will differ at some points from mine.

Christ our Passover: A Harmony of the Events at the Death of Christ with the Annual Passover By Jack W. Langford. In 1984 he made the connections with the Friday Passover and Christ’s death on Thursday, as well as noting the Palm Sunday connection with the separation of the Passover lambs on the 10th day of the first month. He even gratuitously offers a section about the significance of Jesus’ resurrection at about the time of the Wave Sheaf offering! The timeline chart on page 33 is worth reviewing.

The Day He Died, by Roger Rusk, emeritus professor of physics at the University of Tennessee, where he taught from 1943 to 1971. This article appeared in Christianity Today, March 29, 1974 .After positing a Thursday execution of Jesus and making a timeline of the events he makes this summary statement: “In this chronology, all the time is accounted for, all the requirements of the Law governing the Passover are met, and all the types of the Passover Lamb are fulfilled.”

The following two references are by people who rejected specific years as the year of Jesus’ death precisely because they would have met my criteria for a Thursday crucifixion.

The Year of the Crucifixion – by Joseph F. Dumond 

Passover Dates for 30 A.D. and 31 A.D. by Frank W. Nelte.

It is my firm belief that the third theory best accounts for all the data about the day of the week of Jesus’ death. The next, related question needs to be answered next time to wrap it all up. What year did Jesus die?

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Covenants of Christ: The Sign of the Covenant of Promise – Part 2

In this post we will attempt to apply insights about Abraham and the sign of circumcision from The Christ of the Covenants by O. Palmer Robertson to the Mosaic Covenant. We will also see how circumcision applied in the life of Jesus Christ, and what his circumcision meant for moving God’s plan of salvation forward.

Circumcision wasn’t only about the physical relationship of Israelites to one another. It was a reminder of a relationship between God and Israelites. Even at God was leading the people of Israel into the Promised Land he knew that the relationship would need extra grace.

Only the LORD had a delight in thy fathers to love them, and he chose their seed after them, even you above all people, as it is this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked. (Deut 10:15-16)

Moses tells the people up front that they will break the covenant, so that God will be required to repair it himself by going a step further than a physical circumcision of cleansing. In his final word, Moses addresses the people in a prophecy that God will redeem them once they have utterly broken the covenant of Moses and received its curses.

And the LORD thy God will bring thee into the land which thy fatherspossessed, and thou shalt possess it; and he will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers. And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live. (Deut. 30:6-7)

Robertson writes, “To be heirs of the land which is God’s holy possession, the people must also be holy. This holiness finds its symbolic accomplishment in the nation’s circumcision at Gilgal.” This implies that the symbolic holiness must be translated into real holiness in order for them to retain God’s holy possession. “Circumcision of the heart” seems to be how God intends this to happen, according to Moses and Jeremiah. (Jer. 4:4)

Jesus is first circumcised and then baptized by John “to fulfil all righteousness” even though he was born of the Holy Spirit and knew no sin. He even receives his name, “Yahweh saves” (Luke 2:21) at the time of his circumcision, indicating that he was undergoing these rites for the sake of the sinful people he came to save.

It seems to me to be at the point of circumcision that subsequent covenants find a great deal of overlap. The Mosaic/Sinai and Davidic/Kingdom both assume circumcision of their participants because they find their origin in the Abrahamic Covenant of Promise, to which the sign of the covenant applies.

Because the discussion by Dr. Robertson jumps directly to the New Testament fulfilment, he continues by saying:

“As with all essential elements of Old Testament revelation, the seal of the Abrahamic covenant finds its truth-in-symbol fulfilled in the New Testament…

…Of awesome importance in appreciating the significance of this rite is the fact of the circumcision of Jesus Christ. As the glories of the new covenant are being introduced , the ‘things of the old covenant are not recklessly cast aside.’ … Yet “to fulfill all righteousness,” he underwent the prescribed rites of cleansing (cf. Matt. 3:15). As a sign that he voluntarily was taking on himself the obligations of his people, Jesus submitted first to circumcision and later to the baptism of John.

The fact that Jesus formally received his name in conjunction with the rite of circumcision helps illuminate the significance of the act for Christ. His name is ‘Jesus,’ ‘Jehovah saves’ (Luke 2:21). His cleansing is not for his own sake, but for the sake of the sinful people whom he is saving.” (p. 157)

He goes from here directly to the book Acts to indicate how the symbolic cleansing and covenant initiation of circumcision is fulfilled in the New Testament baptism with the Holy Spirit. We will return to that subject later in this discussion.

Because of the increasing overlap of the covenants it is difficult to give a coherent account of the significance of Jesus’ circumcision without a detour from the order in which Dr. Robertson presents the covenants. It is important to note that Jesus entered into a Jewish nation at a specific time in its history. During that time it was operating under certain provisions of both the Mosaic and Davidic covenants.

If the Apostle Paul is correct in assessment of what circumcision means, entering the covenant at the time Jesus did introduces dire consequences to the participant (Gal. 3:10).

Executive Summary: At this point in its history Israel had already been judged and found wanting. That is why they were in thrall to the Romans. That is why they had been under successive domination by the Chaldean Empire, the Medo-Persian Empire, and the Greek Empires of Alexander, the Ptolemies and the Seleucids prior to the Romans. Entering the covenant via circumcision means entering a community under God’s curse.

More Detailed Explanation: The Mosaic covenant Jesus was entering into had blessings and curses denoted at its inception. Blessings and curses were conditional upon obedience or disobedience. One can get the flavour of how well they were obeying by checking what conditions were occurring in Israel’s life. Comparing Israel’s conditions with the checklist in Deuteronomy 28 yields a pretty accurate insight into whether they have been judged as obedient or disobedient. Let us look at some examples of the more extreme curses.

The LORD shall bring thee, and thy king which thou shalt set over thee, unto a nation which neither thou nor thy fathers have known; and there shalt thou serve other gods, wood and stone. (Deu 28:36)

The LORD shall bring a nation against thee from far, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flieth; a nation whose tongue thou shalt not understand; A nation of fierce countenance, which shall not regard the person of the old, nor shew favour to the young: And he shall eat the fruit of thy cattle, and the fruit of thy land, until thou be destroyed: which also shall not leave thee either corn, wine, or oil, or the increase of thy kine, or flocks of thy sheep, until he have destroyed thee. And he shall besiege thee in all thy gates, until thy high and fenced walls come down, wherein thou trustedst, throughout all thy land: and he shall besiege thee in all thy gates throughout all thy land, which the LORD thy God hath given thee. (Deu 28:49-52)

And thou shalt eat the fruit of thine own body, the flesh of thy sons and of thy daughters, which the LORD thy God hath given thee, in the siege, and in the straitness, wherewith thine enemies shall distress thee: (Deu 28:53)

And it shall come to pass, that as the LORD rejoiced over you to do you good, and to multiply you; so the LORD will rejoice over you to destroy you, and to bring you to nought; and ye shall be plucked from off the land whither thou goest to possess it. And the LORD shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other; and there thou shalt serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known, even wood and stone. And among these nations shalt thou find no ease, neither shall the sole of thy foot have rest: but the LORD shall give thee there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and sorrow of mind: And thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt have none assurance of thy life: (Deu 28:63-66)

This is only a sample of the curses. The chapter contains 14 verses of blessings and 54 verses of curses. The biblical record shows that every one of the curses has come to pass. Israel and Judah were both conquered by foreign nations from the north and taken into captivity. Ever since then the majority of their people have lived in foreign nations that frequently turn on them with little or no warning. Even when a few of them were resettled in their land under the Persians, their safety was usually in doubt, as recorded in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther.

Even their brief period of national sovereignty under the Macabees was characterized by corruption of the priesthood and political unrest that was brutally ended by a Roman invasion.

In other words, the covenant Jesus was entering at circumcision was under a state of curse. Becoming circumcised entitled him to shame among the nations and fear for his life due to persecution from the nations around. It entitled him to potential exile, torture and death at the hands of his national enemies.

As a direct descendant of King David, Jesus was also under greater stress. He also fell under the provisions of the Davidic Covenant. The basic covenant is described in 2 Sam. 7:11-16

Now therefore so shalt thou say unto my servant David, Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I took thee from the sheepcote, from following the sheep, to be ruler over my people, over Israel: And I was with thee whithersoever thou wentest, and have cut off all thine enemies out of thy sight, and have made thee a great name, like unto the name of the great men that are in the earth. Moreover I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own, and move no more; neither shall the children of wickedness afflict them any more, as beforetime, And as since the time that I commanded judges to be over my people Israel, and have caused thee to rest from all thine enemies. Also the LORD telleth thee that he will make thee an house.

And when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build an house for my name, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men: But my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee. And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever. (2Sa 7:8-16)

Since it was largely the fault of the Kings of Israel that the Mosaic Covenant was broken, it stands to reason that the “chasten with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men” provisions were in effect as well. By being circumcised, Jesus was being placed under that clause of the Davidic Covenant in addition to curses of the Mosaic Covenant. It was not until I understood this that I made the connection between covenant failure and Jesus being whipped and beaten. Jesus had to endure both beating and whipping to pay the price of the failure of David’s line to keep the covenant.

In an address to David’s son Solomon, God is more specific about the kind of punishment that will occur if the king or his descendants fail to be faithful to their covenant with God.

And if thou wilt walk before me, as David thy father walked, in integrity of heart, and in uprightness, to do according to all that I have commanded thee, and wilt keep my statutes and my judgments: Then I will establish the throne of thy kingdom upon Israel for ever, as I promised to David thy father, saying, There shall not fail thee a man upon the throne of Israel. But if ye shall at all turn from following me, ye or your children, and will not keep my commandments and my statutes which I have set before you, but go and serve other gods, and worship them:

Then will I cut off Israel out of the land which I have given them; and this house, which I have hallowed for my name, will I cast out of my sight; and Israel shall be a proverb and a byword among all people:

And at this house [Solomon’s Temple], which is high, every one that passeth by it shall be astonished, and shall hiss; and they shall say, Why hath the LORD done thus unto this land, and to this house? And they shall answer, Because they forsook the LORD their God, who brought forth their fathers out of the land of Egypt, and have taken hold upon other gods, and have worshipped them, and served them: therefore hath the LORD brought upon them all this evil. (1Ki 9:4-9)

The fact that these things had already happened long before Jesus’ birth suggests that the kingly line seems to have been largely responsible for Israel’s woeful state.

The covenants that Jesus was brought into by virtue of birth and circumcision involved both curses and unconditional promises. On the surface, the condition of Israel made receiving the promise seemingly impossible. On the other hand, something had to happen in order for the unconditional promise to Abraham to be fulfilled or God’s oath would be void. Until that happened, Israel as a whole and Jesus in particular were under the “curse” provisions of their covenant.

This is why Paul states in Gal. 3:10, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.”

There is no fixing a covenant that is already broken (Heb. 8:6-13). The only thing you can do to bypass the broken covenant is replace it with a new, better covenant. This is what the prophet Jeremiah predicts in Jer. 31:31-34. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews quotes Jeremiah and elaborates on the ancient prophet’s prediction in the following passage, applying it to Jesus.

But now hath he [Jesus] obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah:

Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord.

For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away. (Heb 8:6-13)

Notice that verse 8 puts the blame for failure of the covenant directly on the people of Israel. They disobeyed, and are therefore under the curse. Only a new covenant that fulfils all of the requirements of the old can save them now.

The Letter to the Hebrews explains in great detail how the various symbolic elements and of all of the covenants come together in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

By his circumcision Jesus becomes a representative of Israel, as well as a representative of Israel’s royalty. Because he does not ever sin, he has kept in full the covenant. As the Son of God by birth through the Holy Spirit he is also a representative of God. All of these things make him the perfect sacrifice to pay for all of the covenant-breaking of Abraham’s physical descendants.

His beating, whipping and death at the hands of gentile oppressors makes perfect sense in terms of the covenant curses that needed to be applied to him as an Israelite royal seed in order to pay in full the curse of the law. This payment allows followers of Jesus to be free to enter into the new covenant predicted by Jeremiah and other prophets.

Future posts will establish the connection between circumcision as the sign of the Old Covenant and the sign of the New Covenant when we take up this series again, which will likely be shortly after the Passover/Easter season.

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Covenants of Christ: Abraham and the Sign of the Covenant of Promise

This post continues a series about material in O. Palmer Robertson’s book The Christ of the Covenants. The previous post looked at an overview of God’s “unconditional” covenant with Abraham. In this post we look at his treatment of the sign of the Abrahamic covenant of promise: circumcision.

Robertson notes that the context of the command for circumcision is Abraham’s lapse of faith in Genesis 16. Even though Abraham believes God, he still uses human reasoning to get an heir. Trust still seems to be an issue with him, so God gives him a sign as a permanent reminder of his promise to provide Abraham’s own offspring. Although Robertson does not put it quite this crudely, Abraham would be reminded of God’s unconditional promise every time he stopped to empty his bladder.

According to Robertson, in many other societies at the time circumcision was a rite of initiation into manhood. It was so widespread that societies that did not do so seem to have been considered particularly unclean. The Canaanites seem to have been unusual for their lack of circumcision.

I’m not sure how a theory of almost universal circumcision explains Abraham’s lack of circumcision, or why the Israelites needed to be circumcised after their lengthy sojourn in Egypt. Were the Chaldeans of Ur also considered unclean? For these reasons I doubt that circumcision was as ubiquitous as Robertson believes. In those relatively few societies that did practice it, it probably did function as an initiation into manhood.

Robertson notes several important points of significance related to Abraham’s sign of circumcision:

  1. God requires it of Abraham and all his descendants. This “sign” of the covenant becomes the seal of the covenant. Circumcision becomes inextricably tied to Abraham’s covenant of promise.
  2. It is symbolic of the purity required to be God’s people. It symbolically cuts off the unclean parts of human nature. “The application of circumcision to the first father of the family line of promise indicated that physical descent alone was ‘not sufficient to make true Israelites. The uncleanliness and disqualification of nature had to be taken away.’” (p. 150)
  3. It had special significance with regard to propagation of Abraham’s race.
    1. Applying it to Abraham before his seed is conceived indicates that all subsequent seed must receive the sign of the covenant in their flesh.
    2. It is the male reproductive organ that receives the sign, indicating a connection with reproduction.
    3. Since it is applied to children at eight days of age, it must be connected to reproduction.
    4. As opposed to using it as a manhood rite, Abraham’s circumcision is an expression of solidarity between parent and child, because it applies eight days after birth. God intends to deal with families. In his work of redemption God intends to restore the solidarity of the creation order of the family. God is not disrupting his created order to bring down sin, but instead is using grace applied to the created order of the family to bring an end to sin.
    5. Rather than being an initiation into adulthood, it becomes instead an initiation into the community of the redeemed.
    6. Rather than being a badge of racial superiority, its association with cutting off impurity should lead to a humble recognition of the need for God’s cleansing grace.
    7. Even gentile slaves of Israelite households were required to undergo circumcision, making them members of the covenant community. Gentiles who attached themselves to Israel could become Israelites by undergoing circumcision to enter the covenant. Using circumcision as a badge of gentile exclusion seems to go against God’s will. In fact, in ancient Israel’s law, any gentile wishing to participate in the Passover could do so upon circumcision.
    8. When used to enter into God’s covenant, it opens the bearer to the judgments of the covenant, a principle mentioned even by the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Galatians (Gal. 3:13-14).
    9. Ignoring this sign, once having entered into the covenant, brings judgment.

In the next post I hope to explore connections between circumcision as the sign of the Covenant of Promise and the Mosaic and New Covenants.

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Covenants of Christ: Abraham and the Covenant of Promise

This post continues a series of reflections on a book by O. Palmer Robertson about the unity-in-diversity of biblical covenants.

[I will also note that my choice of the King James Version of the Bible does not reflect a “King James only” commitment on my part or the part of Wascana Fellowship. It merely reflects the fact that the King James version is one of the very few that is in the public domain, and that we cannot violate any copyright laws by using it.]

According to O. Palmer Robertson’s The Christ of the Covenants the collapse of the original covenant between God and the first humans led to a “covenant of redemption” that has lasted throughout subsequent human history. He has identified seven phases of this redemptive covenant. In previous posts we covered the first two: The covenant of commencement with Adam and Eve and the covenant of preservation with Noah and his family.

The third phase of the covenant of redemption is a “covenant of promise” that God makes with the patriarch Abraham. This covenant, like the ones with Adam and Noah, is established by a promise that begins with a command. Robertson immediately notes that God is entirely in charge of this relationship. This is not an “agreement” or a “contract” between equals. God dictates the terms of the covenant with Abraham. As I reread Genesis 12:1-3 I can’t help but get the feeling that saying “no” is not an option.

Gen 12:1  Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: 2  And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: 3  And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.

As Abraham continues to remain childless he becomes understandably concerned about passing on the inheritance God has promised. Even though God specifies that he will bear a son he seeks reassurance (Gen. 15:8). Robertson’s states the significance well, so please bear with the extended quote below.

The Lord graciously assures the patriarch by formal ratification of a covenant-bond. He orders Abraham to present certain animals before him.

The patriarch needs no further instruction. He knows the procedure well. In accord with the custom of the day, Abraham halves the animals and sets the corresponding pieces against each other. The birds he slays, but does not divide.

At this point, the narrative indicates that the symbolic meat of the slaughter attracts birds of prey which attempt to devour the flesh which Abraham has prepared. The patriarch finds it necessary to intervene, and to frighten away the wild creatures with their rabid appetites.

… At the conclusion of these words of prophecy, Abraham witnesses a most amazing phenomenon. A “smoking oven” and a “flaming torch” pass between the pieces of torn flesh which had been arranged earlier (v. 17).

What is the meaning of this striking ceremony? Why does a visible manifestation of the godhead “pass between the pieces”?

… By dividing the animals and passing between the pieces, participants in a covenant pledged themselves to life and death. These actions established an oath of self-malediction [self-cursing]. If they should break the commitment involved in the covenant, they were asking that their own bodies be torn in pieces just as the animals had been divided ceremonially.

… In the case of the Abrahamic covenant, God the Creator binds himself to man the creature by a solemn blood-oath. The Almighty chooses to commit himself to the fulfillment of promises spoken to Abraham.

Abraham probably expected God to tell him to walk between the pieces. He probably never expected God Almighty himself to be the one to walk between the pieces to swear an unconditional oath that powerful!

We will cover aspects of its contents a little later in this discussion, after some of Robertson’s comments about its connection with other covenants. This covenant is so important that allusions are made to it in surprising contexts later in the Old Testament and even in several places in the New Testament.

One example is found in Jeremiah 34, in which wicked King Zedekiah attempts to curry God’s favour by entering into a covenant involving the release by all slave owners in Jerusalem of Hebrew slaves in accord with the Sinai covenant at Israel’s founding. They soon go back on their oath and take their slaves back, angering God even more. In response, God says, 

Jer 34:18  And I will give the men that have transgressed my covenant, which have not performed the words of the covenant which they had made before me, when they cut the calf in twain, and passed between the parts thereof, 9  The princes of Judah, and the princes of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, and the priests, and all the people of the land, which passed between the parts of the calf; 20  I will even give them into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of them that seek their life: and their dead bodies shall be for meat unto the fowls of the heaven, and to the beasts of the earth.

Two things are striking about this description. The first is the description about cutting a calf and walking between the pieces. The people of Jerusalem probably did not literally walk between pieces of a calf, but God obviously sees whatever they did as the equivalent. God had made a promise with Abraham and had kept it. This allusion to walking between the pieces was a reminder from their own history that God keeps his promises. This reminder highlights the peoples’ failure to keep their own promise to God.

The second striking thing is the reference to the fowl and wild beasts eating their dead bodies. That brings to mind Abraham needing to chase away the wild animals from the sacrificial animals that had been cut in half. The implication is that there will be nobody (not even “Abraham”) to intervene on their behalf in the day of Jerusalem’s judgment. What has ceremonially been done to the sacrificial animals is what happens to the covenant-breaker, including what would have happened if Abraham had not intervened. Jeremiah is not the only prophet who is aware of the implied Abrahamic curse. The identical curse appears about bodies being eaten by wild animals in 1 Kings 14:11; 21:24 and 2 Kings 9:10. It also appears in a lament about the fall of Jerusalem in Psalm 79:2-3.

Robertson marks the equivalence of the covenant inauguration ceremony of sprinkling the blood of a calf on the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai with that of cutting the animals in half and walking between the parts. According to Robertson, “Sheer statistical considerations may have occasioned the substitution of the blood-sprinkling ritual for the ceremony of walking between the pieces. An entire nation hardly could be paraded between the pieces of slain animals.”

Contents of the Covenant of Promise

According to Robertson, God promises redemption to Abraham’s descendants. A cursory examination of what God promises in Genesis 15 initially made me wonder how he concluded that.

He had promised that Abraham and his descendants would inherit a land that he would show them in Gen. 12:1-3. Abraham would be great, and become a blessing to “all the families of the earth.” Those who bless him will be blessed and those who curse him will be cursed.

In Chapter 15 God elaborates on the promises, explaining a delay while promising to deliver Abraham’s descendants from foreign oppression after 400 years. God also promises that Abraham’s descendants will possess a specific piece of property – the land of Canaan. In no way does this nullify the promise that Abraham’s name would be great. Nor does it nullify the promise that Abraham will be a blessing to all peoples.

Somehow Robertson translates all of this into the simple statement, “By the solemn ceremony described in Genesis 15, God promised redemption.” The question of what Robertson means by “redemption” may be answered in more than one way.

Robertson may be referring specifically to the redemption of the descendants of Abraham from slavery in Egypt. God’s redemption would then be a very specific kind of liberation of a specific people at a specific time in their history. It certainly was an extremely important event in the life and history of Israel. It was certainly a turning point in their relationship with God.

But I doubt that this explanation is in keeping with Robertson’s contention that each covenant God makes with human beings is a step toward the greater redemption of all humanity from sin and death. Robertson seems to want to make this “covenant of promise” about a much greater redemption than that of Israel from Egypt.

No doubt he is following the lead of the Apostle Paul, who says, “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen [non-Hebrews] through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed” (Gal. 3:8).

Robertson sees Jesus’ sacrifice as fulfilling the type of the sacrifice of Abraham. Jesus, as God, puts his own body on the line and takes the penalty for disobedience to the Old Covenant onto himself. As true as that is, how Jesus fulfills that type actually belongs within the discussion of the Mosaic covenant of law. Outside of the Mosaic covenant Robertson’s analogy breaks down for the reason below.

The important point for this part of the covenant of redemption – the covenant of promise – is that Jesus’ sacrifice makes resurrection possible, enabling God to fulfil his promise to Abraham that his family will have a permanent inheritance and that all nations will be blessed through Abraham’s family.

In other words, far from sacrificing himself because he is defaulting on his promise to Abraham, God is actually dying in order to fulfill it!

That is truly an awe-inspiring act on God’s part!

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