“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).
What did Jesus mean by fulfilling the law? The easy answer is to say He means to do those things the law mandates to be done and not do anything the law prohibits. He obviously lived that way as a man, but I don’t think that is only what He was getting at. Jesus came to fulfill both the spirit and the letter of the law. The key word He used is fulfill.
Notice He did not say follow. While similar in meaning, there is enough of a difference to really matter. Looking at the same passage in the Complete Jewish Bible, the word He used translates as complete. It also translates that way in the Orthodox Jewish Bible, and the Expanded Bible reads “I have not come to destroy them but to bring about what they said [fulfill/complete them].”
We know He meant more than to just physically do or not do what the law mandates since that would lead to a works based salvation. That is not to say the correct physical fulfillment is not an important requirement, but that it isn’t the only requirement. We know He meant that He would actually complete, in total; what until then had only been done in type. I want to focus on the biggest fulfillment He has done so far: Passover.
The specific directives for Passover can be found in Exodus 12 and Deuteronomy 16. In the interest of space I won’t list them all here. We know that a reading of these and all other OT prophecies concerning the crucifixion then comparing them to the gospel accounts show they were fulfilled in how it was done. However, there is one part of the gospel accounts that some might think appear to NOT be in accordance with the specific directives of Exodus and Deuteronomy; the day it is supposed to occur.
The NT is quite clear the Last Supper was the Passover feast; therefore our perfect Passover Lamb was sacrificed the next day. So, how could Jesus fulfill both the spirit and the letter of the law if He died on the wrong day? He didn’t, because the Jewish calendar is off by a day.
When the Last Supper and the crucifixion took place, the Jews, as they still do, used a sundown to sundown day. However, the early Hebrews used a sunrise to sunrise day just as God did/does. The creation account of Genesis1:1-31 shows that God uses a sunrise to sunrise day. These creation passages lay out for each day in order; creative event of that day, then evening, then morning and then the beginning of the next day.
This shows that God reckons a day from sunrise to sunrise. If He used the current Jewish practice of a sundown to sundown day then it means He began the creative process before the beginning of the first day. That would mean that He didn’t use 6 days and therefore the Bible, and therefore God, are in error right from the beginning. We know that is impossible.
Next, look at Exodus 12:6-12. This is where God instituted the Passover. Verse 6 reads: “And ye shall keep it up until the fourteenth day of the same month: and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening.” The Orthodox Jewish Bible reads “And it will be with you for mishmeret (examination, checking for blemishes) up until the fourteenth day of the same month; and kol Kehal Adat Yisroel shall slaughter (shachat) it in the afternoon [before dark].”
Jewish custom has the actual slaughtering occurring at around 3:00 in the afternoon. Verse 8 begins “And they shall eat the flesh in that night…” referring to the night of the day in which it was killed in vs. 6. Also verse 12 begins with “For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night…” meaning the same night it is eaten. These passages (emphasis added) show that the Hebrews at that time still used a sunrise to sunrise day. If they didn’t then how can you kill the lamb in the afternoon and then eat it “in that night,” and how could He “pass through the land of Egypt this night”? So why did they change to a sundown to sundown day? Thanks to the Babylonian captivity, that’s why.
Thirty minutes or so on Google will get you a ton of information about the ancient Egyptian, Babylonian and Persian Empires. In order to keep this short I won’t go into detail. Bottom line, the multitude of websites I looked through on this all say that the Egyptians used a sunrise to sunrise day for their calendar while the Babylonians used a sundown to sundown day.
They also say the Persians initially used the Babylonian calendar system after they conquered them. Deuteronomy 16:1 is one of the few places in the pre-exilic books that actually names a month of the Ancient Hebrew calendar. It starts with “Observe the month of Abib, and keep the Passover unto the Lord thy God…” Abib is the original name of the first month of the Hebrew year, which is now called Nisan. Nisan is derived from the Babylonian Nisanu.
Now look at Jeremiah 29 and his letter to the captives in Babylon. In it he basically tells those in Babylon to get on with their lives and not to worry because God will bring them back after 70 years (vs. 4-7, 10-14 and 28). We know from the OT that those who went into captivity did get on with their lives and integrated into the society. Not only did they integrate, they flourished. Think of Esther and Mordecai, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, et al.
These examples show that some of the captives held important and powerful positions in government. I think it safe to assume that there were probably others who also took on positions in government. Not only that, but those not in government positions still had to deal with the government as part of their daily lives and businesses. This is important because in order to deal with or work for the government you must be on its calendar.
Over time this necessity could easily cause the old system to fall into disuse and then be forgotten. This also means that when the captives returned they had no reason to change their calendar back because even if they did remember it, they were still under the control of a people who used the Babylonian calendar system, the Persians. This shift in when the day begins, from sunrise to sundown, causes the day to begin 12 hours earlier or later. All the information I found says it was an earlier shift. This shift affects the calculations of when feasts should occur, making them be celebrated a day early.
This means that Passover was done one day before what God said when He wanted it celebrated according to Exodus 12 and Deuteronomy 16. Because the crucifixion happened the next day, then our true Passover Lamb was correctly sacrificed in accordance with the law God handed down. Not only was it on the correct day, but it was also at the correct time. The first three gospels (Matthew 27:46-50, Mark 15:34-37, Luke 23:44-46) are clear as to the time of day when He died. They all say soon after the beginning of the ninth hour, or shortly after 3:00 pm. This too is in line with the hour of the day this is supposed to occur.
Okay, now that we know He died at the right time on the actual day of Passover, how do you get three days and three nights out of from Friday afternoon through Sunday morning? Jesus Himself said He would be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matt 12:40). Since we know He rose again Sunday morning, He had to have been crucified on Thursday and not Friday. How can it be He was crucified on Thursday? All accounts point out that the day He died was the day of preparation before the Sabbath and the Sabbath is Saturday. It is because this Sabbath refers to not the normal weekly Saturday Sabbath but the special Sabbath to begin the Feast of Unleavened Bread, as found in Leviticus 23:4-8.
Now we need to try and figure out what day of the week Passover fell on in the gospel accounts. We need a Wednesday Passover in order to get from a Thursday crucifixion through three days and nights and an empty tomb on Sunday morning. Matthew chapters 21-26 indicate just this, a Wednesday Passover. This is based on His triumphal entry into Jerusalem having to be on the Sunday before Passover.
A Saturday triumphal entry is out of the question. He would never violate the Sabbath like that. Monday or later is also out of the question since it does not allow for all the recorded things He did prior to the Last Supper and still leave room for the three days and nights in the tomb. Also of note, according to the Jewish calendar Passover fell on a Wednesday 6 times during the period 20 AD thru 40 AD (years 24, 25, 30, 31, 34 and 37) but not once on a Thursday during that 20 year period.
No Thursday Passover rules out a Friday crucifixion, and all we are left with is a Wednesday Passover. Another thing to remember is what is meant by the day of preparation. The preparation is the removal of all leaven from their homes as instructed in Ex 12: 15-20 and Ex 13: 4-8. Since Passover was Wednesday, this has the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which has a special Sabbath to start and end it, beginning at sundown Thursday. That makes this a double Sabbath of Friday and Saturday. No way was this going to be violated. Now that we know His death was on Thursday, this shoots down “tradition” with its Friday death on the cross.
This means that not only did He fulfill the spirit of the law by being our perfect Passover Lamb; He also correctly fulfilled the letter of the law in the timing of His sacrificial death. This includes it being on the real day of Passover. This also shows that He really did spend three days and three nights in the tomb, just like he said He would. All the small details add up. God made sure of that, but we already knew He would.
All Scripture references are from the King James Version unless otherwise noted.
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