While browsing through a bookstore recently, I noticed a gaudy yellow book with the lightning-rod title of “God is Not Great”. I had heard of the book, and a wave of other popular books like it, written by a few authors referred to as “evangelical atheists”—folks who don’t believe in God, and who will do whatever they can to convince others not to believe, either. They are fervently unbelievers. Zealously nonreligious.
I flipped through the book out of curiosity, and came upon a chapter on the “evils” of the New Testament. One of the things that really got the author riled up about Christianity, it turns out, was his belief that the events in Jesus’ life that clearly fulfilled Old Testament prophesies were engineered by Jesus and the disciples. At least, that seemed to be the gist of his arguments—I didn’t buy the book to read it, and just gave it a quick skim. He thought that the various places in the Gospels where it was stated that such-and-such happened “so that the prophesy would be fulfilled” indicated that people were consciously doing those things to match what was predicted. Of course, that would mean that Jesus’ killers were in on the conspiracy, and that the disciples later all died rather than simply admit they made it up—but, again, I wasn’t interested in paying money to read how this author might have explained it.
It seemed like a good challenge, though, to look at Jesus’ crucifixion to see if it would stand up to scrutiny. Could it have been the world’s greatest scam? If Jesus’ death really was what the gospels claim it to be—a sacrifice made by an omnipotent God, a sacrifice that alone could save all mankind—it seems likely that it could not be explained away as a conspiracy by mere humans, or a highly fortuitous coincidence. It would instead be covered with fingerprints of the supernatural.
So, for now I’ll ignore the many places where small events happened “so that the prophecy would be fulfilled”, and just look at how the overall story of Easter week indicates something eternally world-changing.
The Passover Sacrifice
The events of Easter week happened during the week leading up to Passover. Passover commemorated the time that all the firstborn children in the land died in a single night. The only people who were spared this fate were those who sacrificed a lamb the day before. Animal sacrifice was a regular thing in Israel, and symbolized the forgiveness of sins by substituting a flawless animal for the punishment that would otherwise be due. The original Passover sacrifice was a bit more specific, since without the sacrifice, someone would literally die.
The obvious initial question about Jesus’ sacrifice is, why did it matter? Why did Jesus have to die? The Passover makes it a bit clearer: somebody had to die, as depressing as that is. That’s just all we deserve, and that is why everyone does, eventually, die. If anyone else had been sacrificed—say, Peter, or Pilate, or even Judas (who did sacrifice himself)—their death would have been simply what they deserved, and the balance would not have changed. If someone were perfect, though, and had literally never done anything worthy of punishment, he would not have to die—just as an eternal God never dies. Except Jesus did die. Since He did not have to die, the punishment He willingly took on belonged to someone else: you and me. That is why His death mattered.
The when and how of His death is evidence supporting that argument.
Jesus could have been killed anytime, and would have been, if he was just some wackjob fundamentalist or revolutionary. The religious leaders had already tried to kill Him a couple of times, but Jesus effortlessly eluded their grasp (John 8:20 & 8:59). So, He was still alive and able to enter Jerusalem to much fanfare on the 10th of the month of Nisan—the day on which the Passover lamb was traditionally chosen out of the herd and set aside for later sacrifice. And He was killed on the afternoon before Passover, which is when the Passover lamb was required to be sacrificed. The day was not even a convenient one for the people who wanted Him killed, and required them to stay up all night and rush the process in order to meet that culturally significant time. They were not trying to set up Jesus as the Passover sacrifice; if they had realized what they were doing, they would have planned it a different time to avoid giving significance to a religious movement they were trying to squelch. In other words, the timing was perfect, and the timing was determined by the last people on Earth who would be conspiring to make Jesus look like a savior.
There is also the little issue of which Passover Jesus was sacrificed on. See, the Old Testament was amazingly specific when talking about the coming Messiah, and in Daniel 9:24-27, it stated that the Messiah and atoning sacrifice would come 483 years (69 seven-year periods) after the Persian decree to rebuild Jerusalem. I will spare you the details of figuring out dates on ancient calendars, but it seems likely that this 483-year period ended not only the same year as Jesus’ death, but on the same month and possibly the exact same day.
The Kingly Sacrifice
The Jews were waiting for a Messiah, but they were expecting a Messiah who would be king. In their minds, that meant someone who would wield power and free the people from rule by the occupying Roman forces. They didn’t recognize Jesus because He didn’t fit that profile.
But Jesus was the Messiah, and the king, and God Himself. And the events of Easter week point to that.
First off, He was anointed at the start of the week, the day before He entered Jerusalem (John 12:1-11). In Israel, anointing was the equivalent of crowning, and was used to declare someone as king, high priest, or prophet (1 Samuel 9:15-16, for example). Israeli kings typically did not wear crowns, so anointing was a clear and powerful signal. The Messiah was also sometimes referred to by prophets as “the anointed one” (Daniel 9:25-27).
Jesus then entered Jerusalem as king, with the crowds shouting His praises:
When He came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,” He replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
At this point in the story, I’ve always felt slightly disappointed that Jesus did not order the disciples to be quiet, because I want to see the rocks start talking. I mean, how cool would thatbe? What would that look like, exactly? And what a great proof that would be of Jesus’ kingship! It would be great to see the look on the Pharisees’ faces if that happened. At that point, they would pretty much have to give up and admit that Jesus was the Messiah—though that also means they would not have crucified Him a few days later.
Sadly, the rocks did not cry out. However, something else very interesting happened a few days later, on Good Friday. At one of Jesus’ lowest points, when the followers who had proclaimed Him to be king had been scattered and frightened into silence, the Bible records this passage:
Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around Him. They stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on His head. They put a staff in His right hand and knelt in front of Him and mocked Him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said.
Other than speechless, inanimate objects, who would be the least likely to proclaim Jesus as king? Um…probably the people who tortured and killed Him, right? Yet here, exactly those people are seen crowning Him, bowing down to Him, and verbally proclaiming Him as king. Sure, they were mocking Him, you might argue, and it doesn’t seem that sarcasm should count. But look again at what Jesus said on Palm Sunday: basically, that He would be acknowledged as king no matter what, even if that required stones or, heaven forbid, murderous Roman soldiers to proclaim the truth.
And it did not end there. Pilate, who as governor was the closest thing Israel had to a king before that time, repeatedly referred to Jesus as king (John 18:37, 18:39, 19:14, and 19:15). Even the cross He was crucified on proclaimed Jesus to be king:
Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.”
Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”
So, in the course of one week, we have Jesus proclaimed as king by anointing, by His disciples, by the governor, by His killers, and by a “typo” repeated in 3 languages on the cross itself. Explain it away or dismiss it as coincidence if you want, but those are some interesting coincidences.