Every year we celebrate Easter with symbols of spring while modern reenactments of holy week portray the proverbial characters.
But if you think you know the Easter story, you may want to think again.
The last week of Jesus’ life was filled with conspiracy, corruption, power-plays and a host of Jewish symbolism. We can easily miss the rich cultural details surrounding his death and resurrection.
If you want a deeper understanding of the Bible this Easter, check out these profound yet often missed details.
Before the Cross
1. Jesus likely saw mass crucifixion as a kid. Before he ever died on the cross, Jesus knew what it entailed. While Mary and Joseph were in Egypt, Herod the Great’s son Archelaus claimed kingship and within a few months of his reign killed 3,000 Jews during the Passover festival1. It was likely this event that caused Joseph to return to Galilee instead of Judea (Matt 2:22).
Around the time of their return, a Galilean revolt erupted near Nazareth, resulting in the burning of Sepphoris, enslaving its inhabitants, and crucifying 2,000 people throughout the countryside2. As a boy, Jesus lived 4-5 miles from where this took place and likely witnessed the method that would one day be his own death. He also likely assisted his father as a carpenter in rebuilding the city of Sepphoris3.
2. The political climate was a tinderbox. By the time of Jesus, Judea had only been a Roman province for roughly 20 years. The political peace was a delicate 10 year collaboration between Pilate (the Roman governor) and Caiaphas, (the Jewish High Priest)4. But the people were restless, resentful of Roman rule and the corruption of their leaders. They longed for the days of the Maccabean Revolt and autonomous rule once again. Factions broke out in the region with talk of insurrection and military uprisings5. The people expected a political Messiah, not a spiritual one, to deliver them from Rome.
Enter Jesus, who performed miracles, taught the Kingdom of God, and attracted massive crowds. The religious leaders saw popular Jesus as a personal and political threat (Matt 27:18). A crowd-turned-riot would mean Roman reinforcements, bloodshed, and a loss of power for both Pilate and Caiaphas. Yet their fears still came true 40 years later when the Zealots sparked the Great Revolt, leading to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
3. Not your ordinary donkey ride. The last week of Jesus’ life happened during Passover week. Tens of thousands of Jews made a pilgrimage once a year to Jerusalem and the city was bursting at the seams with people from all over the region when Jesus entered the city.
By riding a donkey, Jesus made a plain-as-day statement that he was the long-awaited Messiah6. Which is why the crowd went wild. It fulfilled the 500 yr old prophecy of Zechariah 9:9. Ecstatic, the crowd laid down cloaks and palm branches, symbols of homage and worship (2 Kings 9:13, Lev 23:40). They shouted “hosanna” which literally means “save us now”. Little did they know Jesus had come to save them, not from the Romans, but from sin.
In ancient times, kings rode horses in military conquest and donkeys in processions of peace. Jesus was on a peaceful mission to save, not to judge or rule with might (John 3:16-17). However, when Jesus returns to earth a second time he will be riding a horse prepared for war, bringing his judgment with him (Rev 19:11-20).
4. Judas was greedy long before he betrayed Jesus. No spur of the moment decision here. As treasurer of the money box, Judas was secretly embezzling finances, stealing the disciples’ money and pocketed it for himself (John 12:6). Eventually, his years of greed gave birth to betrayal and death. Perhaps Jesus was also speaking directly to him when he said “you cannot serve both God and money” (Matt 6:24).
5. Jesus was severely anxious before he died. He knew the gruesome way he was about to die (Matt 26:2) and the agony of bearing the world’s sin and the full wrath of God. He was so distressed he experienced hematidrosis, a rare medical condition that occurs under extreme physical and emotional stress, causing him to sweat blood (Luke 22:44). Yet Jesus submitted to God’s will and voluntarily walked the road of suffering and death (Luke 22:42).
6. The High Priest was corrupt. The high priesthood oversaw the Temple treasury, Temple police, religious rituals, and the Jewish court. By the time of Jesus, the position was being bought with bribes by wealthy, elite Sadducees who agreed to be allies of Rome7.
The family of Annas ruled the land. Think less priest, more “the godfather”. His power and influence was so great he virtually ruled through his son-in-law, Caiaphas, and other sons long after he left office. Their concern wasn’t for the Jewish people but for their own pockets, power and prestige – receiving a kickback of perks by cooperating with the Romans. Historians describe Annas’ family as extremely corrupt, greedy and perverting justice8. Even the Jewish Talmud curses them (Pes 57a).
During big feasts like the Passover, Annas and his priestly family inflated prices for sacrificial animals, extorting the poor and stealing funds that belonged to other priests. Hence why Jesus angrily overturned tables in the Temple calling it a “den of thieves” (Luke 19:46), a direct rebuke against the house of Annas. It was Annas and Caiaphas who conspired against, arrested and tried Jesus by the judicial court of which they were also president. The family of Annas also tried to silence news of the resurrection (Matt 28:11-15) and were responsible for the deaths of Jesus and his brother James, the stoning of Stephen (Acts 6:12), and the commission of Saul (Paul) to kill Jesus-followers (Acts 9:14; 26:10-12).
7. The arrest and trial of Jesus were illegal. Jewish Law stated that trials could not be at night, during festivals and capital offense could not be reached in a day9. The accused were permitted counsel for defense. Yet Jesus was arrested at night, during the Passover festival, accused by biased judges, and tried in secret so no one could testify on his behalf. Think that’s shady? The trial took place at Caiaphas’ house, not a courtroom, away from the eyes and ears of the people (Matt 26:47-75). This small group of religious leaders conspired against Jesus and made a mockery of justice.
8. Peter’s denial was within earshot of Jesus. Peter watched Jesus’ trial in the nearby courtyard of the house. After being singled out three times for being a disciple, Peter disowns Jesus by calling down curses upon himself…and then Jesus turns and looks at him. Peter, mortified, breaks down sobbing (Luke 22:60-62). In the midst of his unjust trial, Jesus heard one of his closest friends disown him.
9. Jesus likely spent his last night in a dungeon. After being accused, condemned and beaten, Jesus does not appear before Pilate until the next morning. So where did he hole up until dawn? A dungeon was discovered beneath the historical site of Caiaphas’ house10. Scholars believe Jesus was likely chained in this damp, dark stone pit until morning.
10. Barabbas was a radical extremist. He likely belonged to a group known as the Zealots and had been arrested during an insurrection, probably for an assassination (Mark 15:7). It was likely his cross that Jesus was instead crucified on.
Ironically, Barabbas and Jesus also had the same first name11. The word Barabbas is a generic term meaning, “son of a father”. Pilate asked the mob if they’d rather release Jesus Barabbas or Jesus the Messiah. Jesus was condemned of the very crime of which Barabbas was guilty. The “son of a father” was freed while the Son of God was condemned. Jesus not only became the substitution for one sinner but for all mankind.
11. Jesus was verbally and physically abused. Flogging was preliminary to crucifixion and sometimes fatal, causing serious blood loss, shock and skin hanging in ribbons. The Romans used a flagellum, a whip with shards of metal, glass and bone at the end of leather thongs. When whipped, the lacerations would tear into skeletal muscle, leaving the back brutally mutilated, exposing muscle and bone12. Jesus was flogged naked. Afterwards, he was mocked, his beard ripped out and beaten over the head with a rod by up to 600 soldiers in the nearby barracks (Matt 27:27-31). They threw on a scarlet robe (signifying royalty) as his blood was clotting, only to rip it back off. Then Jesus was forced to walk two miles carrying a 100 lb wooden crossbeam on his back to the execution site while being verbally assaulted by the crowd (Mark 15:29-32, Matt 27:39-44, 55). This fulfilled prophecy of the suffering, rejected Messiah (Ps 22:6, Mic 5:1, Isa 50:6, 53:4-5, Mark 10:32-34).
On the Cross
12. Jesus was crucified naked. All those paintings depicting Jesus in a loin cloth? Not quite. It was normal Roman custom to strip their prisoners completely naked before crucifixion, adding to their shame and humiliation. The Book of Matthew states that Jesus was paraded through the streets in his garments but at the crucifixion site those garments were off and being divided among the Roman soldiers (Matt 27:28-31, 35, Mark 15:24). This public spectacle of humiliation fulfilled prophecy (Ps 22:17-18).
13. Nails were driven into wrists and ankles, not hands and feet. Roman soldiers were masters of crucifixion and went at great lengths to make it as painful and humiliating as possible. It was considered the “most wretched of deaths” and an “act of state terror”, reserved for insurrectionists and slaves with one main political message: don’t mess with us.
The weight of a fully grown man was suspended against gravity by 4-7 inch iron nails. Since death could take a few days, nails would have ripped clean through the soft tissues of hands and feet. Instead, the Romans pounded nails into the wrists, then secured the crossbeam to the already vertical pole. The legs were bent at a 45 degree angle while the heels/ankles were nailed to either side13.
Scholars tell us that as more body weight was placed on the nails, the legs eventually gave out, causing the shoulders, elbows and wrists to be pulled out of socket14 (Ps 22:14-16). This redirected the weight onto his extended chest, “forcing him into an almost perpetual state of inhalation”. Asphyxiation, organ failure and heart attack soon followed15. If the soldiers were in a hurry, they would break the legs to speed along death. However, when they went to do this to Jesus, he had already died. None of his bones were broken, fulfilling prophecy (Num 9:12, Ps 34:20).
14. The thief on the cross was not a robber. The Greek word for “robber” did not refer to an ordinary thief but an “insurrectionist”, someone who may have taken part in guerrilla warfare against Rome. They were men who hid daggers in their cloaks and killed anyone not part of the Roman resistance16. In short, they were terrorists. It is likely the two people crucified on either side of Jesus were co-conspirators with Barabbas. Jesus was assigned a criminal’s death, fulfilling prophecy (Isa 53:9).
15. Jesus actually died. Some argue today that Jesus didn’t hang on the cross long enough to die, thereby making the resurrection null in void. But to assure he was dead, the soldiers thrust their sword into his side and out flowed blood and water – a medical condition called pericardial and pleural effusion, testifying to his death (John 19:33-34).
16. The location and timing of the crucifixion were significant. According to Roman custom, Jesus was crucified outside the city gates along a well-traveled road making his death a public spectacle during the Passover (Matt 26:2). The Passover festival celebrated God’s deliverance of the Jews from Egypt, death, and slavery through the blood of a lamb. Jesus’ death fulfilled prophecy, full of Jewish symbolism. He died around 3 PM, the same time Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple (Ex 12:5-6, Matt 27:45, John 19:30). Jesus was both the spotless red heifer sacrificed outside the camp to purify people from sin (Num 19:1-10, Heb 13:11-12) and the Passover Lamb sacrificed to save his people from death (Ex 12:13, Is 53:7, 1 Pet 1:19). He is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).
17. Four significant, supernatural events occurred when Jesus died. Jesus hung on the cross from 9 AM to 3 PM before he died (Mark 15:25). There was a total solar eclipse the last three hours of Jesus’ life (Matt 27:45). In ancient times, total darkness was a sign of judgment, used as one of the plagues in Egypt (Ex 10:21-22).
When Jesus died, the curtain veil in the Temple tore from top to bottom (Matt 27:51). This thick woven curtain separated the Holy of Holies, the room where God’s presence and the ark of the covenant dwelt; a room only the High Priest could enter once a year17. It split from top to bottom, not from the bottom up where man could have torn it.
At the same time, there was a massive earthquake (Matt 27:51). In Jewish history, earthquakes accompanied special, divine acts of God like when God gave His Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. (Ex 19:18). At the same time as the earthquake, ancient Jewish saints came walking out of their graves (Matt 27:52).
The point? Jesus not only fulfilled many ancient prophecies in death but all of creation testified of him. The supernatural events showed that Jesus took God’s judgment and wrath on the cross for our sin; through Jesus as High Priest we now have access to God’s presence; Jesus has perfectly fulfilled the Law of God on our behalf; the resurrections show Jesus’ victory over death.
After the Cross
18. Jesus’ burial was unusual. “Most crucified people were not formally buried, but left on a rubbish dump to be eaten by wild dogs and hyenas”18. To this day, archaeologists have uncovered the crucified remains of only one person, an iron nail still intact in his heel13. The fact that Jesus was buried after death was a big deal. Joseph of Arimathea had to act fast and personally appeal to Pilate for the body (John 19:38).
19. The men who buried Jesus belonged to the group that condemned him. The Bible tells us that Nicodemus (a Pharisee) and Joseph of Arimathea (a Sadducee) quickly buried Jesus before the Sabbath. They both belonged to the Sanhedrin, the secret night council that condemned Jesus, even though they secretly believed in Jesus and had disagreed with the decision (John 19:38-42) Joseph buried Jesus in the brand new tomb he had just built for himself (Matt 27:58-60), fulfilling prophecy (Is 53:9).
20. The timing of the resurrection was significant. During the festival, the Passover lambs were sacrificed on the 14th day of the month. Two days later, the Jews celebrated the Feast of First Fruits, that they would experience God’s redemption and be witnesses to the world. In the Jewish calendar, a new day begins when the sun sets, not when it rises. This means that when Jesus arose on the third day, it was the same day as the First Fruits – “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20-23). The resurrection proves Jesus’ victory over sin and death; those who believe in him have been redeemed and will also be resurrected when he returns (Dan 12:2).
21. The resurrection account was counter-cultural. There’s not enough time to cover all the resurrection details that prove its validity. The empty tomb was not disputed by anyone living at that time, not even the religious leaders who hated Jesus (Matt 28:11-15). Robbing the grave would have been impossible with the Roman guards, threat of death, and the time it would have taken to unwrap and leave 100 lbs of glued grave clothes in the tomb (John 20:6-7). The stone provided no leverage with which to move it. A woman’s testimony was inadmissible in court, yet women were the first to spread the news that Jesus is alive (Luke 24:10). It was more cultural for the disciples to claim first witness to make it believable. Yet the Bible reports the facts – even embarrassing and counter-cultural ones – as they happened because the account was true.
The empty tomb was “one of the best-attested facts in ancient history” with more than 500 eye-witness accounts that saw Jesus within a period of 40 days after he died (1 Cor 15:6). No one willingly dies a horrible death for what they know is a lie or hoax19. The resurrection “transformed the disciples from fearful deserters into faithful followers who endured great persecution and died horrible deaths for their faith [in the resurrected Jesus]”20.
22. The resurrection is proof of salvation. Jesus was beaten, mocked, abused, accused of being a blasphemer and died a criminal’s death. But God raised him from the dead, vindicating him and thereby proving his innocence. The resurrection proved that Jesus was telling the truth. God would not have accepted or resurrected a phony, a liar, or a sinner. Jesus was who he said he was. He is the Son of God, the Messiah, the Way, the Truth, and the Life (Matt 17:5, Rom 1:4, John 14:6). The resurrection proves that belief in Jesus is grounded in truth, not foolishness. The resurrection proved that Jesus had the authority to forgive sins and showed that God not only accepted Jesus’ sacrifice and payment for sin, but He declared Jesus victorious by raising him from the dead.
23. Jesus fulfilled more than 300 prophecies written 450+ years before he was born. Mathematically the odds of one person fulfilling that many proclamations is astounding. Jesus fulfilled each prophecy with 100% accuracy and all were announced and historically documented more than 450 years before he ever walked the earth. As predicted, Jesus the Messiah suffered and died making atonement for sin with his blood. Through Jesus alone, those who believe are reconciled with God and have eternal life (John 3:16). To see a list of these prophecies visit cbn.com, check out this article, or read about how Jesus fulfilled the Messianic timetable.
THE HOPE AND POWER OF EASTER
Easter is the celebration of Resurrection Day, a witness and testimony to the living Jesus! Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus…
- I am forgiven of all my sin and made right with God.
- I am secure and cannot lose my salvation or relationship with God.
- I am free from sin and can live for Christ.
- I am alive and can experience abundant life in Christ.
- I am fearless in both life and death.
It’s what makes the Good News so great!