Jesus and the Religious Leaders at Passover
Like every Passover during Jesus’ life, Jerusalem was full of pious Roman Jews coming from hundreds of miles in every direction. Roman authority was there too but only because their presence would ensure civility among the large crowds. The Jewish council of religious authorities, known as the Sanhedrin, was prominent that week, truly the center of attention in many ways – or at least they hoped. They were corrupt at best and they regularly misinformed the people for their own gain. They hated Jesus and wanted to ensure this would be his last Passover celebration. In stark contrast, he planned to confront them and reveal their corruption.
On Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem in what was a real show. All the people were so pleased that this man – this “messianic fulfiller” – was in their presence. The disciples shouted with joy; the people proclaimed praises to him. “This is living history” they must have imagined. They shouted “Hosanna”, meaning “save us!” They had heard about this healer and teacher and they had imagined that he would bring about their justice. After all, Rome had oppressed them and the temple priests were leading them into darkness. They truly were like sheep without a shepherd.
Indignant and angered by all the attention that Jesus was receiving, the Pharisees spoke up, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” (Luke 19:39). He refused. Even if Jesus had a reason to silence them, the rocks would have shouted in their place. There was no chance that they could win the war they were fighting; but evil is always stubborn. They had wanted to kill Jesus for some time now and that week they planned out their next move.
So that there would be no riot among the people, they decided it best to act against him after Passover (Mark 14:2). Of course, Judas Iscariot had already decided to betray his leader (cf. John 12:1-12 a chronological reference and Mk 14:3-12 a flashback). Judas would give them the munition they needed, but only if they moved quickly. With Roman officials stationed in Jerusalem, they would be able to sentence Jesus to death on the spot. Passover became their golden opportunity. This was too soon according to their own calculations, but they just couldn’t resist.
The disciples followed Jesus everywhere, as did a large crowd of faithful followers. Jesus’ mother, his aunt and many other close friends and relatives were with him too. These were people that Jesus loved and trusted and many of them had cared for him during his ministry. Some of them had even come to Jerusalem with him every year for at least twenty years, but he knew what they did not. His confrontation with the Jewish leaders would turn violent. This would indeed be his final Passover and worse, the blood required for this holy offering, would be his own.
Though none of them understood the danger, there was still a clear dichotomy of feelings in the group. One moment they were fearful for their lives and for their master’s too (Mark 10:32). At other times however, they were joyful and excited to be with Jesus in Jerusalem among the large crowds (Luke 19:37). There were clearly two realities for Jesus as well: he was popular among the people, but the religious leaders would not allow this man to make a fool of them any longer.
Jesus Clears the Temple
On a very late Sunday night, Jesus ended his first day in Jerusalem by looking around inside of the empty temple (Mark 11:11). This place was not a temple of prayer or worship, it was a place of manipulative religious robbery where evil men would take the money of the poor in exchange for worthless sacrificial animals. They would also charge outrageous amounts to exchange Roman coins for proper temple currency. No doubt this offended Jesus greatly. He had previously cleansed the temple of men like these. But since it was already late, Jesus would do what he did every night; he left Jerusalem and went with his disciples to Bethany for safety and rest (Mark 11:11,19).
The next day when he entered Jerusalem again, he cursed a fig tree that was not bearing fruit. At this the disciples were perplexed. “Whatever you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive,” he told them (Matt. 21:22). The people who knew him well recognized that something was different.
After cursing the fig tree, he said “Come on, we are going to the temple.” The disciples must have been on edge. They must have thought; “Does he really believe this is a good idea?” Certainly, they knew this wouldn’t end well for the money changers. Or worse, it could end badly for them, but they followed him there. Then, right before their eyes, Jesus acted. One table, another. He flipped them over. Currency was scattered across the floor. He kicked over a chair. Then he drove the men out through the doors (Mark 11:15). “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a robber’s den.” Onlookers were shocked, the disciples were alert and ready for whatever would happen next. This was a righteous indignation like they had never seen before. “Don’t let anyone else bring any merchandise into this temple again.” (Mark 11:16).
After he cleared the temple, the atmosphere there changed. The lame and the sick began to come to him and he healed them right there (Matt. 21:14). There were people – even young children – shouting with joy about the wonderful things he was doing. “Hosanna to the Son of David.” The Chief Priest and the scribes were furious and wanted to destroy him all the more. They even confronted him in front of the people. But the people were too amazed by this man named Jesus. They considered him a prophet and they believed that he would do great things for them.
Later the disciples marveled at the large crowds, they looked in awe at the large stones that made up the temple. “Look at how wonderful these stones and buildings are” one of them exclaimed (Mark 13:1). They did not know the true reason that they were in Jerusalem for this precious Passover. The people had no idea either. Early during that Passover, there was a sense of hope and excitement. It was an amazing moment for the people in Jerusalem.
The Lonely Servant
This is Monday. In just four short days, everything will change. The religious leaders will gloat over Jesus’ dead body. His closest friends and disciples will weep bitterly knowing that they cowered in fear while their best friend suffered in anguish and died alone. While she looks upon her oldest child’s lifeless corpse; Mary, Jesus’ precious mother, will remember the temple prophecy from Simeon some thirty years earlier: “Behold, [he] is appointed to cause the rise and fall of many in Israel… and a sword will pierce your soul as well.” (Luke 2:34, 35) Jesus will be buried on Friday and a heavy stone will seal his grave.
That final Passover Jesus was surrounded by thousands, but he felt painfully alone. The grief that he endured during his last few days was bearable by no one else but him. The complete and full weight of humanity’s sin rested on him. It was heavier than the wooden cross could have ever been. He bore it all when the Father’s horrific and unbearable anger burned fiercely against him, and this was why he died – no one else could bear the righteous fury of God; only Jesus. That was my sin on trial that day and it was my sin that offended God. That should have been me answering for my failures but Jesus was punished in my place. Had it not been for his great love for humanity and his perfect obedience to his Father, my punishment would still stand before me. While he suffered terribly, “the chastisement of my peace was upon him.” How can it possibly be, that my sin was paid for by “him who knew no sin?” When I think about these things, every problem I have seems silly, every pain in my soul feels bearable, every moment of loneliness feels blessed and surly every sin committed is pardoned.
I don’t mean to imply that our pain is not real, nor do I mean that our sin is not terrible but what I know is that his affliction is the true, pure and perfect hope for every human challenge. Thank you Jesus for being the final and perfect “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”