THE LAST ACT BEGINS
The Feast of the Passover and of Unleavened Bread was due in two days’ time. And the chief priests and experts in the law were trying to find some way to seize Jesus by some stratagem and to kill him, for they said, “This must not be done at the Feast itself in case there should be a disturbance of the people.”
The last crowded act of Jesus’ life was now about to open. The Feast of the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were really two different things. The Feast of the Passover fell on 14th Nisan, that is, about 14th April. The Feast of Unleavened Bread consisted of the seven days following the Passover. The Passover itself was a major feast and was kept like a sabbath. The Feast of Unleavened Bread was called a minor festival, and, although no new work could be begun during it, such work as was “necessary for public interest or to provide against private loss” was allowable. The really great day was Passover Day.
The Passover was one of the three compulsory feasts. The others were the Feast of Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles. To these feasts every male adult Jew who lived within 15 miles of Jerusalem was bound to come.
The Passover had a double significance.
(a) It had an historical significance (Exo.12). It commemorated the deliverance of the children of Israel from their bondage in Egypt. God had sent plague after plague on Egypt, and, as each plague came, Pharaoh promised to let the people go. But, when each plague abated, he hardened his heart and went back on his word. Finally there came a terrible night when the angel of death was to walk through the land of Egypt and slay every first-born son in every home. The Israelites were to slay a lamb. Using a bunch of hyssop they were to smear the lintel of the door-post with the blood of the lamb, and when the angel of death saw the door-post so marked, he would pass over that house and its occupants would be safe. Before they went upon their way the Israelites were to eat a meal of a roasted lamb and unleavened bread. It was that “passover,” that deliverance and that meal that the Feast of the Passover commemorated.
(b) It had an agricultural significance. It marked the ingathering of the barley harvest. On that day a sheaf of barley had to be waved before the Lord (Lev.23:10-11). Not till after that had been done could the barley of the new crop be sold in the shops or bread made with the new flour be eaten.
Every possible preparation was made for the Passover. For a month beforehand its meaning was expounded in the synagogue, and its lesson was taught daily in the schools. The aim was that no one should come ignorant and unprepared to the feast. the roads were all put in order, the bridges repaired. One special thing was done. It was very common to bury people beside the road. Now if any pilgrim had touched one of these wayside tombs he would technically have been in contact with a dead body and so rendered unclean and unable to take part in the feast. So, before the Passover, all the wayside tombs were white-washed so that they would stand out and the pilgrims could avoid them. Ps.120-134 are entitled Psalms of Degree, and it may well be that these were the psalms which the pilgrims sang on their way to the feast, as they sought to lighten the road with their music. It is said that Ps.122 was the one which they actually sang as they climbed the hill to the Temple on the last lap of their journey.
As we have already seen, it was compulsory for every adult male Jew who lived within 15 miles of Jerusalem to come to the Passover, but far more than these came. It was the one ambition of every Jew to eat at least one Passover in Jerusalem before he died. Therefore from every country in the world pilgrims came flocking to the Passover Feast. During the Passover all lodging was free. Jerusalem could not hold the crowds, and Bethany and Bethphage were two of the outlying villages where pilgrims lodged.
A passage in Josephus gives us an idea of how many pilgrims actually came. He tells that Cestius, governor of Palestine round about A.D. 65, had some difficulty in persuading Nero of the great importance of the Jewish religion. To impress him, he asked the then High Priest to take a census of the lambs slain at the Passover in one year. The number, according to Josephus, was 256,500. The law was that there must be a minimum party of ten people to one lamb, so that there must have been close on 3,000,000 pilgrims in Jerusalem.
It was just there that the problem of the Jewish authorities lay. During the Passover, feeling ran very high. The remembrance of the old deliverance from Egypt made the people long for a new deliverance from Rome. At no time was nationalist feeling so intense. Jerusalem was not the Roman headquarters in Judaea. The governor had his residence and the soldiers were stationed in Caesarea. During the Passover time special detachments of troops were drafted into Jerusalem and quartered in the Tower of Antonia which overlooked the Temple. The Romans knew that at Passover anything might happen and they were taking no chances. The Jewish authorities knew that in an inflammable atmosphere like that, the arrest of Jesus might well provoke a riot. That is why they sought some secret stratagem to arrest him and have him in their power before the populace knew anything about it.
The last act of Jesus’ life was to be played out in a city crammed with Jews who had come from the ends of the earth. They had come to commemorate the event whereby their nation was delivered from slavery in Egypt long ago. It was at that very time that God’s deliverer of mankind was crucified upon his Cross.
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