April 17, 2014

Jesus Knew That His Hour Had Come (Maundy Thursday)

Passage: Exodus 12:1-7, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11:23-36, John 13:1-35
Service Type:

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

“Now before the festival of the Passover.” In this clause John indicates when this last supper with is disciples took place. So begins a difficult problem for modern interpreters. All four gospel writers say there was a last meal. Matthew, Mark, and Luke explicitly state that the last supper was a Passover meal. So was the meal a Passover meal or not?

It is challenges of interpretation like this one that enemies of the gospel like Richard Dawkins point to in order to assert, “The only difference between The Da Vinci Code and the gospels is that the gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction.” (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2006, p.123) Biblical scholar and great friend of the gospel F.F. Bruce wrote that this the thorniest problem of the New Testament. It has often been noted that if this was Thursday evening there isn’t enough time for all the events of Jesus’ various trials to take place and have the crucifixion begin around 9:00 A.M. of Friday morning (Mark 15:25).

Now we could conclude, as some commentators, that the Apostles in their writings were rather loose with certain details. Here is another way to think of this; is it possible that there is some practise for how they regarded calendar events--something they all knew and assumed—and this assumed local knowledge in not known by us.

1. My father had a bill of sale hanging in his home of a poster announcing a farm auction sale. It was the sale of the estate of my great-great-great grandfather. On it are listed the farm implements and various animals that were to be auctioned on the appointed day. The reason I know it is my great-great-great-grandfather’s is because one of the executors listed on the document is my great-great-grandfather—a name I know. When my father died we had copies made of this document and have given them to each of his sons and grandchildren. My son has a copy of this document in his home. Now, when my granddaughter sees this document how will she know her relationship to the person named on it? It is her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. My brothers and I (my generation) all know who it is but this piece of information it is our heads. What will happen when we are gone and pieces of information like this are lost because they died with us? My granddaughter will see the document but lack the detail assumed by my brothers and me that will help unlock the mystery of how she is related.

Back to the question of, was this last meal with the disciples a Passover meal. Before I am willing to conclude that the Apostles were sloppy with respect to time details like this it might be prudent to ask another question. Is there something they all knew and assumed—some detail of how their calendar worked—that is lost to us and would render an answer to this question? Is the problem with us and our assumptions? I am more than willing to live with a few ambiguities acknowledging that I may lack before I would hurry to the conclusion that these first century writers lacked accuracy or care.

To this question I commend a wonderful book by Colin Humphreys The Mystery of The Last Supper. He puts forward a very convincing thesis that answers this problem. He argues that there were two calendars in operation among the first century Jews which impacts how they marked the festivals, the Passover among them. The Jews in Jerusalem used a different calendar than the Jews in Galilee.

To get to the heart of it, Humphreys shows that the Galilean Jews used a pre-exilic (before the Babylonian exile) calendar that Moses would have used (consistent with how the Egyptians calendar worked); it was a lunar calendar with a sunrise to sunrise day. The Jerusalem Jews (official calendar) used a post-exilic calendar consistent with the way the Babylonian calendar worked (the place of exile). It was also a lunar calendar with a sunset to sunset day. The Passover was observed on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nissan. According to the Galilean calendar the date for Passover in the year 33—the most likely year of Jesus crucifixion—was from sunrise, Wednesday, April 1 to sunrise, Thursday, April 2. According to the official Jerusalem calendar it was from sunset, Thursday, April 2, to sunset, Friday, April 3.

He believes that Jesus and his disciples celebrated Passover according to this pre-exilic calendar; the exact anniversary of the first Passover meal described in the book of Exodus. This means that this meal Jesus had with his disciples was a Passover meal and occurred on Wednesday evening—this resolves the difficulty of adequate time for all the trials to take place. It is interesting to note how John speaks of the Passover; he speaks of it as the Passover of the Jews (John 11:55); when John says “the Jews” he typically means the Jewish leadership. Humphrey says that John notes it this way so his readers will know which calendar he is referring to.

Humphreys’ solution does solve the apparent discrepancy between John and the other gospel writers. It is a well-researched scholarly proposal and there is much to commend it. One other point I wanted to make. It also means that the crucifixion was on Friday. We are told that at three in the afternoon on that Friday Jesus, on the cross, utters the cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? It is followed in short succession with three other statements by Jesus—“I thirst,” “It is finished,” “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”—and then breathed his last. It was also at three in the afternoon that the lambs would have been slaughtered for the Passover (official). The gospel writers all point out that this was “the day of Preparation”; this was when the lambs were sacrificed for the celebration of Passover that evening. Jesus death coincides with the sacrifice of the Passover lambs. The coincidence is no accident. God is acting deliberately here.

John the Apostle had been a disciple of John the Baptist. Near the beginning of the Apostle John’s gospel he recalls how John the Baptist introduced him to Jesus, “as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’” (John 1:36). The Apostle Paul makes the connection between this Passover lamb and Jesus writing, “For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.” (1 Corinthians 5:7) The Apostle Peter concurs: “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.” (1Peter 1:18-19) In the Revelation of John he sees the heavenly throne room where the hymn of praise thunders, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered”. (Revelation 5:12) I remind you of how the disciples rejected Jesus’ teaching that Messiah would die. It was after the resurrection that he connects the dots for them with Older Testament scripture showing that all this must take place. Only Jesus carries this knowledge as he sits down at this Passover meal with his disciples. Only Jesus apprehends what agony is coming when he raises the cup and says “this is the new covenant in my blood”.

Let me put it this way. For Jesus these events aren’t mere symbols. He knows that he will actually bear that to which the sacrifice of countless lambs over the centuries of Passovers could only point. Imagine then, what is in Jesus’ mind, by way of anticipation, as he celebrates this Passover with his disciples. John puts is so very simply—Jesus knew that his hour had come. It is quite an understatement, but then again, could words possibly capture the immensity of what he will bear for our sakes?

2. Jesus knew that his hour had come. What does John mean by “his hour?” The word “hour” is used as euphemism for the culminating moment or the most revealing time. We sometimes speak of someone’s “shining hour”; in our fast paced age of short attention spans, we have reduced the time frame and instead speak of “15 minutes of fame.” But what is John indicating by “his hour?”

The first instance of this notion of Jesus’ hour in John’s gospel is at the wedding in Cana of Galilee where Jesus performed his first miracle. When Mary, Jesus’ mother, asked Jesus to do something about the diminishing wine supply he said “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” (John 2:4) Apparently Jesus hour is not seen in the performance of miracles. AS wonderful and beneficial and helpful as these miracles were in people’s lives this is not “his hour.” Jesus did not come primarily for this purpose.

The next instance is when Jesus is in conversation with the woman at the well. He says “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.” (John 4:23) He says something similar in the aftermath of his healing of a lame man at the pool of Bethesda. “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” (John 5:25) You can hear both that the hour is here but something about it is not yet—he is here but the fullness of the hour is to come. His ministry of healing and teaching has a role to play but is not the fullness of the hour.

The opposition to Jesus grows to the point that Pharisees sent temple police to arrest him but in the end couldn’t do it because of the crowds. John says; “Then they tried to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come.” (John7:30) John says something greater was going on here than immediately meets the eye. The hand of God is moving events to a culmination that has not arrived just yet. A similar incident occurs in the temple treasury after a difficult exchange between Jesus and some Pharisees. “He spoke these words while he was teaching in the treasury of the temple, but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come.” (John 8:20)

The next reference to his “hour” is during holy week, likely on Tuesday. Some Greeks have come to Jerusalem for the Passover. Likely what are known as God-fearers; people attracted to the monotheism of Judaism but who have not taken the ritual requirements (circumcision). They ask to meet with Jesus. In response to this request “Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:23-24) You can see what Jesus thinks his “hour” means—“unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies.” The thought is deeply troubling for Jesus. You can hear the turmoil in Jesus’ heart and mind in what immediately follows. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” (John 12:27)

The last two references Jesus makes to his hour are during this last meal with his disciples. “The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me.” (John 16:32) And then shortly after in the prayer he offers for himself, his disciples, and “those who would believe in me through their word” (us): “After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you”. (John 17:1)

Clearly his “hour” are the events that are about to unfold. When John introduces this last meal by saying “Jesus knew that his hour had come” the hour refers to the extraordinary nature of the events now to be described in his arrest, trials, conviction and crucifixion.

Despite the great importance of his teaching, his example, and his works of compassion and power, none of these was central to his mission, none of these are described as his “hour”. What dominated his mind was not the living of his life but the giving of his life. This final self-sacrifice was his “hour” for which he has come into the world. And the four Evangelists, who bear witness to him in the Gospels, show that they understood this by the disproportionate amount of space which they give to the story of his last few days on earth, his death and resurrection.

Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.