Jerusalem was preparing for the yearly feast of the Passover. The first Passover took place near the beginning of Israel’s history as a nation when God raised up Moses to lead them out of Egypt. Pharaoh had refused to let them go. A series of plagues was thrust on Egypt the last of which was designed to strike at the heart and will of the Egyptians, from Pharaoh on down. God told Moses he would pass through the land of Israel on a certain night and take the life of the firstborn of every household. To protect against the catastrophe, God ordered the killing of a lamb and the placing of the lamb’s blood on the doorposts and lintel of the house. When God saw the blood on the doorposts, he would “pass over” that house and not bring the destruction to the firstborn of that home. Exodus 12:1-6 sets up the sequence for this event.
“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, ‘This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.”
Notice particularly that the lamb would be selected on the tenth day of the month, inspected, and then killed on the 14th day of the month. This month, made the first month of the Hebrew calendar according to verse 2, was Abib. So the sequence of events was as follows:
Abib 10 – lamb chosen
Abib 11 – }
Abib 12 ––}–> lamb inspected
Abib 13 – }
Abib 14 – lamb killed
Exodus 12 goes on to describe how they were to eat the Passover meal. “In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste” (12:11). The haste or readiness to depart was because it would be that very night when Pharaoh, affected by the slaying of all Egypt’s first born (including his own), would order the Israelites to depart. And this is what happened as recorded in the same chapter, verses 29 through 33.
“At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians. And there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead. Then he summoned Moses and Aaron by night and said, ‘Up, go out from among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve the Lord, as you have said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone, and bless me also! The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste.”
Notice that Pharaoh rises in the night when his son is killed. He calls for Moses and Aaron in that same night. He orders them to leave that night. And the rest of the Egyptians urge the Israelites to leave in haste. All of this was foreseen (foreordained) by God as he told the Israelites to eat their Passover meal with feet shod and staffs in hand, ready to go.
That very night the Israelites gather at Succoth, most traveling from Rameses to Succoth (Exodus 12:37). The next night we are told they camp at Etham (13:20). The next night God leads them to Pi-hahiroth, which is right by the Red Sea (14:2). By this time, Pharaoh realizes that the Egyptian economy will suffer a terrible blow without the vast enslaved workforce of the Israelites. He changes his mind about letting them go and takes off after them with his army. But that night, God first blocks Pharaoh’s army with a cloud and then opens up a path through the sea by which the Israelites can escape. After they go through, the cloud is removed, Pharaoh’s army charges down the same seabed path, but finds destruction as God returns the waters to their normal course in the sea. Exodus 14:21-27 recounts the events as follows.
“Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. The Egyptians pursued and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. And in the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic, clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily. And the Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from before Israel, for the Lord fights for them against the Egyptians.’ Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.’ So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal course when the morning appeared.”
Again, notice that this event takes place through the night. And by morning, the enemy is defeated and the Israelites have their salvation—begun at Passover—completed. So adding these details to our sequence yields the following.
Abib 10 – lamb chosen
Abib 11 – }
Abib 12 ––}–> lamb inspected
Abib 13 – }
Abib 14 – lamb killed; Passover meal eaten; God strikes the firstborn of all households, but passes over those with the blood; Israelites leave and camp at Succoth
Abib 15 – Israelites travel, camping at Etham
Abib 16 – Israelites travel, camping at Pi-hiharoth
Abib 17 – Israelites realize final salvation from Egypt
Now notice this sequence of days. If Abib 10 were a Sunday, these days represent about a week—from a Sunday to the next Sunday. This was the original Passover week. In our study of Matthew, we are approaching the last God-sanctioned celebration of this Passover week. And the events miraculously and intentionally parallel those of the first.
We must remember that the Hebrews understood a day as beginning and concluding with the sun setting in the evening. Therefore it is at sundown of the 13th that the day ends and the 14th—the Passover—begins.
Sunday, Nisan 10, daytime — Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem
Evening (beginning of Monday) — Christ returns to Bethany (Mark 11:11)
Monday, Nisan 11, daytime — Christ acts with authority in temple
Evening (beginning of Tuesday) — Christ leaves Jerusalem (presumably to return to Bethany – Mk 11:19)
Tuesday, Nisan 12, daytime — Christ teaches and answers questions in temple
Evening (beginning of Wednesday) — Christ anointed in Bethany (Mk14:1-11)
Wednesday, Nisan 13, daytime — Christ prepares for Passover
Evening (beginning of Thursday) — Christ’s Last Supper; Arrest; Sanhedrin trial
Thursday, Nisan 14, daytime — Christ is crucified
Evening (beginning of Friday) — Christ in tomb
Friday, Nisan 15, daytime — Christ in tomb
Evening (beginning of Saturday) — Christ in tomb
Saturday, Nisan 16, daytime — Christ in tomb
Evening (beginning of Sunday) — Christ in tomb
Sunday, Nisan 17, daytime — Christ is resurrected
Two questions pop out from this list of days. First, why did the name of the month change from Abib to Nisan? The second question is more subtle because it is based on a knowledge of John’s account. If Christ celebrated the Passover on the evening after Nisan 13 (beginning of the 14th), why does John 18:28 tell us that the Jews who took Jesus to Pilate (obviously after the Last Supper and arrest) did not enter the governor’s headquarters (a gentile house) “so they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover”? Did Jesus eat the Passover early? Did the Jews eat it late? Both the question of the Passover timing and the month change are connected. The answers relate to the Babylonian exile years earlier.
Nisan is a Babylonian name for that month. It appears that the Hebrews adopted that name during the exile. Likewise, the Babylonians considered the evening to be anything after midday. Therefore, the Jews switched to killing the Passover lamb and eating it during the evening (afternoon of Nisan 14). Later possibly, the tradition merged more with the Hebrew understanding of evening being at twilight, forcing the meal even later on the 14th into the beginning of the 15th. And so, during the time of Christ most Jews—the Pharisees in particular—ate their Passover meal on the evening of the 15th, following the daytime of the 14th. The Sadducees kept the Passover as it appears recorded in Exodus—on the evening of the 14th prior to daytime of the 14th. This difference of opinion allowed Christ to celebrate the Passover with his disciples on the evening of the 14th, yet still be considered our Passover Lamb when he was killed during daytime of 14th.
One more trouble spot should be mitigated before we return to Matthew 21. John 19:14 tells us that Pilate presented Jesus to the crowds at the 6th hour. Mark 15:25, however, tells us that Jesus was crucified (put on the cross) at the 3rd hour. How could Jesus have been put on the cross seemingly 3 hours before Pilate presented him to the crowd?
Both the Hebrews and the Romans divided the day into two 12 hour periods. Since the Roman day began at midnight, the 6th hour of the day was 6:00 AM. The Hebrews counted 12 hours for the evening, from sundown to sunup, and then 12 hours for the day from sunup to sundown. Therefore, at sunup (about 6:00 AM), they began their 12 hour day count. So the third hour of the day for them was 9:00 AM. It is thought that Mark used the Hebrew time reference, and John (who wrote decades later, after the destruction of Jerusalem, to an audience living in the Roman world) used the Roman time reference.
Matthew 21 tells us that Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem. This was the 10th of Nisan. Mark lets us know this happened late in the day. Jesus looked around in the temple and then left to spend the night in Bethany (Mark 11:11). Next, Matthew discusses the cleansing of the temple and only after that does Matthew relate the incident with the fig tree. However, from Mark we learn that the fig tree incident actually occurs in two stages on two separate mornings. On Monday morning (Nisan 11), Jesus leaves Bethany to go to Jerusalem. He sees a fig tree that is full of leaves. Being hungry, he decides to get a few figs to eat. But coming up to the tree, he finds it lacks fruit. Jesus therefore curses the tree, saying, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” (12:19). This may sound a bit petty. Just because he is hungry and a tree doesn’t have fruit, he condemns it? Thinking that way misses the greater picture.
Remember that Jesus was fully man. We know later that day Jesus enters the temple and throws out the moneychangers and disrupts the sinful operation being conducted contrary to God’s intent for his temple. But remember also, that Jesus had just been in the temple the previous day, had looked around, and had left without such an angered display. What was the difference? The previous day, Jesus had entered the temple late in the day. Sacrifices were probably done for the day. Probably little to no activity of the buying and selling of animals was going on. Certainly remnants of that day’s activity could be viewed, but this operation was not in full swing. Jesus probably understood what had been going on and was disappointed at the activity. That’s what was going on when Mark tells us that in the temple Jesus “looked around” (Mark 11:11).
No doubt this false activity weighed on Jesus’ mind through the night. In the morning, possibly still thinking of it as he headed toward the temple, he sees the fig tree. Now, although it was not the season for figs, in the spring when the leaves first came out on the fig trees, they were accompanied by taksh, little pre-fig figs that were not so large or sweet as regular figs, but were still edible and could satisfy someone’s hunger. So it was for these that Jesus looked, expecting them because the leaves of the fig tree gave sign that they should be there. When he found no taksh, Jesus probably combined his thoughts of the temple activity—a religiosity in full bloom that produced no spiritual fruit—with the object lesson of this tree. His anger came out, more specifically against the false religious leaders, but using the tree as an object lesson for his disciples who were listening, he cursed it just as he would pronounce woes on the religious leaders the next day.
Jesus continues to Jerusalem and upon entering the temple, already feeling upset with the religious leaders, and now seeing the corruption of the religion taking place in full intensity in God’s temple, Jesus overturns tables and drives out animals with a whip in his fury at the sham of reinvented holiness into which the Jews had turned their covenant with God.