Tuesday, 22 April 2014

He is Risen! part 3

He is Risen!
Part 3

Last time, we saw how Constantine and the Bishops at the Council of Nicaea changed the time Easter was celebrated. Today, I would like to look at the significance of this change.
The date chosen for Easter was the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox, rather than associating the day with Passover. It was also the time the word ‘Passover’ was replaced with the word ‘Easter’. It is unlikely to be coincidence that this date coincided with the ancient day to honour Oestre (also spelled Eastre and pronounced ‘Easter’), the goddess of Spring, renewal and fertility/new birth:

“The name [Easter] probably comes from Eastre, the Anglo-Saxon name of a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility, to whom was dedicated a month corresponding to April....Traditions associated with the festival survive in the Easter rabbit, a symbol of fertility, and in coloured Easter eggs, originally painted with bright colours to represent the sunlight of spring, and used in Easter-egg rolling contests or given as gifts...” – [Encarta Encyclopaedia]. 

So while Constantine and the Bishops did not wish to be associated with the Jews and a Jewish festival, they were quite content to be associated with a pagan festival.
In fact, we can see from letters written later that the coincidence of the dates and times was deliberate:

Pope Gregory I “verified the practice of the conversion from Passover to Easter in a letter to Saint Mellitus, who was then on his way to England to conduct missionary work among the heathen Anglo-Saxons. The Pope suggests that converting heathens is easier if they are allowed to retain the outward forms of their traditional pagan practices and traditions, while recasting those traditions spiritually towards Christianity instead of to their indigenous gods, whom the Pope refers to as "devils". "to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God... It would have been suicide for the Christian missionaries to celebrate their holy days with observances that did not coincide with celebrations that already existed. To save lives, the missionaries, in a devious clandestine manner, spread their religious message slowly throughout the populations by allowing them to continue to celebrate pagan feasts, but to do so in a Christian manner. Even the name of the ancient celebration, Eastre was adopted and eventually changed to its modern spelling, Easter.(Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, "Ecclesiastic History of the English People") 

And thus we see the start of the paganising of the Christian church. The Apostles and believers of the New Testament, along with the believers in the church pre-Constantine, would have recoiled at this association:

Tertullian had much to say on this subject:

“furthermore, you Christians have no acquaintance with the festivals of the Gentiles.”

 “What less of a defilement does he incur on that ground than does a business...that is publicly consecrated to an idol? The Minervalia are as much Minerva’s as the Saturnalia is Saturn’s...Likewise, New Year’s gifts must be caught at. The Septimontium must be kept. And all the presents of Midwinter and the feast of Dear Kinsmanship must be exacted. The schools must be wreathed with flowers...The same thing takes place on an idol’s birthday. Every ceremony of the devil is frequented. Who will think that these things are befitting to a Christian teacher?"

“We must now address the subject of holidays and other extraordinary festivities. We sometimes excuse these to our wantonness, sometimes to our timidity – in opposition to the common faith and discipline. The first point, indeed, on which I will join issue is this: whether a servant of God should share with the very nations themselves in matters of this kind – either in dress, food, or in any other kind of festivity....”There is no communion between light and darkness”, between life and death...If men have consecrated  for themselves this custom from superstition, why do you participate in festivities consecrated to idols?”

“The Saturnalia, New Year, Midwinter festivals, and Matronalia are frequented by us! There are New Year gifts! Games join their noise! Banquets join their din! The pagans are more faithful to their own sect!...For even if they had known them, they would not have shared the Lord’s Day or Pentecost with us. For they would fear lest they would appear to be Christians. Yet we are not apprehensive that we might appear to be pagans!” [Emphasis in the original]

Origen agreed with him:

“The so-called public festivals can in no way be shown to harmonise with the service of God. Rather, on the contrary, they prove to have been devised by men for the purpose of commemorating some human events – or to set forth certain qualities of water, earth, or the fruits of the earth. Accordingly, it is clear that those who wish to offer an enlightened worship to the Divine Being will act according to sound reason and not take part in the public feasts.”

If that was their view, then how much would they have detested the paganising of the church in this way, a deliberate act, by those who were supposed to be leading the very church of God?

So how and when should we celebrate Easter? For my own part, there is a compelling argument that we should celebrate the resurrection on the first Sunday after Passover. This would be the day of the feast of first fruits, in the Jewish calendar, which supports the idea of Jesus being the first fruits from the dead. But I would not begrudge those who wished to celebrate it at Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. However, I believe that it is entirely inappropriate for Christians to attempt to worship God at a time set apart for the honouring of a pagan goddess. Oestre is depicted with a hare and surrounded by eggs as symbols of life and fertility. Today, Christians exchange ‘Easter eggs’ and talk of the ‘Easter bunny’ as if it is just a pleasant diversion. But it is quite clear both from Scripture and the early writings (pre-Constantine) that such mingling of paganism with Godly worship is to be avoided.

The early church did not celebrate with chocolate, eggs, bunnies or any other paraphernalia. They spent the day before Easter (ie the day they celebrated the resurrection) in fasting and prayer. They even stayed up all night, praying on their knees (as a sign of their penitence) and reading their Bibles. Then at sunrise, they rose from their knees and began a joyous celebration, which lasted all day, including an assembling of themselves together, whether they held that day on the Sunday following Passover, or on another day, associated with the Passover itself.

“They will assemble together at easter, that most blessed day of ours. And let them rejoice!” [Commodianus (c240AD)]

 “you have sent to me, most faithful and accomplished son, in order to enquire what is the proper hour for bringing the fast to a close on the day of Easter. You say that there are some of the brethren who hold that it should be done at cockcrow. However, others say that it should end at nightfall....It will be cordially acknowledged by all that those who have been humbling their souls with fasting should immediately begin their festal joy and gladness at the same hour as the resurrection...” [Dionysius of Alexandria (c262AD)]

 “it is your duty, brethren...to observe the days of Easter exactly...You should not, through ignorance, celebrate Easter twice in the same year, or celebrate this day of the resurrection of our Lord on any day other than a Sunday.” [Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c390AD)]

“Break your fast when it is daybreak on the first day of the week, which is the Lord’s day. From the evening until the cock-crows, keep awake; assemble together in the church; watch and pray; entreat God. When you sit up all night, read the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms – until cock-crowing....And from that point on, leave off your fasting and rejoice! Keep a festival, for Jesus Christ, the pledge of our resurrection, is risen from the dead!” [Apostolic Constitutions]

Christians should not be adding pagan rituals to their celebrations, such as Easter eggs, Easter bunnies, sunrise services and even calling it ‘Easter’. And it seems appropriate to celebrate the resurrection on the Sunday following Passover, as the symbolism of the feast of firstfruits is important to the Christian message. Does it matter? Yes, I believe it does!

Next article: The Necessity of the Cross

Monday, 21 April 2014

He is Risen! Part 2

He is Risen!
Part 2

In my last post we concluded with a brief look at the ‘Paschal Controversy’. In this post I want to explore the reasons that Easter is no longer associated with the time of the Passover (though from time to time the two coincide, as this year 2014). This will necessitate a glimpse of the Jewish calendar, and what happened at the Council of Nicaea that changed everything.

The Jewish calendar is based on the cycles of the moon. They have twelve months, each one being either 29 or 30 days long, alternating. The problem is that there are 12.4 lunar cycles in a solar cycle. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to work out that 12 months of 29 or 30 days gives a year of 354 days, eleven days short of a full year. That means the Passover comes eleven days earlier each year than the previous year. Without some adjustment, Passover would soon be happening in December, October or at any other time during the year. So, to balance the lunar cycles with the solar year, an extra month (a ‘leap month’) is added every two or three years. This has the effect of Passover moving around, but only within the months of March and April. Therefore, Passover, being on the 14th day of Nisan (the first month in the Jewish calendar) always falls around the middle of the lunar cycle in March/April. Just as a birthday for example in our calendar will be on the same date each year, but a different day, so too is the 14th of Nisan. The difference is that the day is not simply one day different from the year before, but will be eleven days earlier for two or three years, then will jump forward when the additional month is included.

As we saw previously, some of the early Christians celebrated Easter at the time of the Passover, while others celebrated it on the Sunday following Passover. Also as we saw, while there were differences, these did not detract from the unity it enjoyed; the early Christians did not allow those differences to become divisions.

Earlier in the history of the church, it was clearly established that certain days were celebrated by Christians. Origen states:

“We ourselves are accustomed to observe certain days. For example, there is the Lord’s Day, the Preparation, Easter, and Pentecost...they require some sensible (ie things appealing to the senses) memorials to prevent spiritual things from passing completely away from their minds.”

However, by the end of the fourth century (390AD and following), the Christian calendar had developed to include more ‘holy days’ than these only:

“Brethren, observe the festival days. First of all, there is the birthday that you are to celebrate on the twenty-fifth of the ninth month [ie December 25th]. After that, let the Epiphany be to you the most honoured, in which the Lord made to you a display of His own divinity. And let that feast take place on the sixth of the tenth month [ie January 6th, by our calendar]. After that, the fast of the Lord is to be observed by you as containing a memorial of our Lord’s manner of life and teaching. But let this solemnity be observed before the fast of Easter, beginning from the second day of the week and ending at the Day of the Preparation. After those solemnities, breaking your fast, begin the holy week of Easter, all of you fasting in this week, with fear and trembling...From Easter, count forty days, from the Lord’s Day to the fifth day of the week, and celebrate the feast of the Ascension of the Lord.” [Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c AD 390)]

So what changes did the Council of Nicaea introduce? The Council of Nicaea was convened to discuss heresy that was infiltrating the church at that time. They also addressed other issues, one of which was establishing a more set date for Easter.

The Roman Emperor Constantine was the son of a Christian mother (Helena) and a pagan father. Constantine himself professed conversion to Christianity and declared that there would be no more persecution of the Christian church in the Roman Empire. This was good news for the Christians who had suffered greatly for their faith under Constantine’s predecessors. But not content with simply allowing religious freedom, Constantine wanted a say in how the church was run. He convened Councils of Bishops from time to time, over which he appointed himself overseer, or ‘chair’, to discuss matters of doctrine and practice. One of these Councils was the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. The original purpose was to discuss what to do about certain heresies that were infiltrating the church at that time, but the Council members also discussed many other issues, including the date that Easter was celebrated. Between the Emperor and the Bishops, they determined that Easter should no longer be tied to the Jewish Passover, but should be the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox (established in the ecclesiastical calendar as 21st March).

“Easter was first created during the First Council of Nicaea, in 325 AD, which was the first ecumenical conference of bishops of the Christian Church convoked by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, just 13 years after his conversion to Christianity following the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312AD. Constantine declared Easter would replace the Hebrew Passover and be observed the annual Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox.”  [Eusebius, Life of Constantine]

An important historical result of the difference in reckoning the date of Easter was that the Christian churches in the East, which were closer to the birthplace of the new religion and in which old traditions were strong, observed [the Resurrection] according to the date of the Passover festival. The churches of the West, descendants of Greco-Roman civilization, celebrated Easter on a Sunday. 

Constantine the Great, Roman emperor, convoked the Council of Nicaea in 325. The council unanimously ruled that the Easter festival should be celebrated throughout the Christian world on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox; and that if the full moon should occur on a Sunday and thereby coincide with the Passover festival, Easter should be commemorated on the Sunday following. Coincidence of the feasts of Easter and Passover was thus avoided.”  [Apologies – forgot to make a note of where this quote came from].

What motivated Constantine and the Bishops to make this change? Constantine himself leaves us in no doubt about that – he did not want the Christian celebration of Easter to coincide with the Passover, because he held a deep hatred of the Jews. Following the Council of Nicaea, he wrote a letter to the Bishops in which he stated:

"... it appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, and are, therefore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul. ... Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd; for we have received from our Saviour a different way." (Eusebius, Life of Constantine)

From a letter to the bishops who were not present at the First Council of Nicaea Constantine stated:

"It was, in the first place, declared improper to follow the custom of the Jews in the celebration of this holy festival, because, their hands having been stained with crime, the minds of these wretched men are necessarily blinded. ... Let us, then, have nothing in common with the Jews, who are our adversaries. ... avoiding all contact with that evil way. ... who, after having compassed the death of the Lord, being out of their minds, are guided not by sound reason, but by an unrestrained passion, wherever their innate madness carries them. ... a people so utterly depraved. ... Therefore, this irregularity must be corrected, in order that we may no more have any thing in common with those parricides and the murderers of our Lord. ... no single point in common with the perjury of the Jews." (Theodoret's Ecclesiastical History”
“At the council we also considered the issue of our holiest day, Easter, and it was determined by common consent that everyone, everywhere should celebrate it on one and the same day. For what can be more appropriate, or what more solemn, than that this feast from which we have received the hope of immortality, should be kept by all without variation, using the same order and a clear arrangement? And in the first place, it seemed very unworthy for us to keep this most sacred feast following the custom of the Jews, a people who have soiled their hands in a most terrible outrage, and have thus polluted their souls, and are now deservedly blind. Since we have cast aside their way of calculating the date of the festival, we can ensure that future generations can celebrate this observance at the more accurate time which we have kept from the first day of the passion until the present time. (4.) Therefore have nothing in common with that most hostile people, the Jews. We have received another way from the Savior. In our holy religion we have set before us a course which is both valid and accurate. Let us unanimously pursue this. Let us, most honored brothers, withdraw ourselves from that detestable association. (5.) It is truly most absurd for them to boast that we are incapable of rightly observing these things without their instruction. On what subject are they competent to form a correct judgment, who, after that murder of their Lord lost their senses, and are led not by any rational motive, but by an uncontrollable impulsiveness to wherever their innate fury may drive them? This is why even in this matter they do not perceive the truth, so that they constantly err in the utmost degree, and will celebrate the Feast of Passover a second time in the same year instead of making a suitable correction. (6.) Why then should we follow the example of those who are acknowledged to be infected with serious error? Surely we should never allow Easter to be kept twice in one and the same year! But even if these considerations were not laid before you, you should still be careful, both by diligence and prayer, that your pure souls should have nothing in common, or even seem to do so, with the customs of men so utterly depraved.

(7.) This should also be considered: In a matter so important and of such religious significance, the slightest disagreement is most irreverent. (8.) For our Savior left us only one day to be observed in remembrance of our deliverance, that is the day of his most holy passion. He also wished his catholic church to be one; the members of which are still cared for by one Spirit, that is by the will of God, however much they may be scattered in various places. (9.) Let the good sense consistent with your sacred character consider how grievous and inappropriate it is, that on the same days some should be observing fasts, while others are celebrating feasts; and after the days of Easter some should celebrate festivities and enjoyments, while others submit to appointed fastings. For this reason Divine Providence directed that we put into effect an appropriate correction and establish uniformity of practice, as I suppose you are all aware.

(10.) So first, it was desirable to change the situation so that we have nothing in common with that nation of father-killers who slew their Lord. Second, the order which is observed by all the churches of the western, southern, and northern parts, and by some also in the eastern is quite suitable. Therefore, at the current time, we all thought it was proper that you, intelligent as you are, would also cheerfully accept what is observed with such general unanimity of sentiment in the city of Rome, throughout Italy, Africa, all Egypt, Spain, France, Britain, Libya, the whole of Greece, and the dioceses of Asia, Pontus, and Cilicia. I pledged myself that this solution would satisfy you after you carefully examined it, especially as I considered that not only are the majority of congregations located in the places just mentioned, but also that we all have a most sacred obligation, to unite in desiring whatever common sense seems to demand, and what has no association with the perjury of the Jews. (11.) But to sum up matters briefly, it was determined by common consent that the most holy festival of Easter should be solemnized on one and the same day; for it is not at all decent that there should be in such a sacred serious matter any difference. It is quite commendable to adopt this option which has nothing to do with any strange errors, nor deviates from what is right.”

Ironically, in 2014, Passover fell on Tuesday April 15th, making Sunday April 19th (Easter Sunday this year), the first Sunday following Passover.

In my next post, I will be looking at the significance of this change. 

Sunday, 20 April 2014

He is Risen!

He is Risen!
Part 1

The word ‘Easter’ occurs in our New Testament only once. It is translated from the word ‘pascha’, which appears 29 times. Twenty eight of those times, it is translated ‘Passover’; once it is translated ‘Easter’, in Acts 12v4:

“And when he [Herod] had apprehended him [Peter], he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quarternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.”

To most people, the term ‘Easter’ refers to the whole period that includes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Easter Monday, or any part thereof. The early Christians used the word ‘pascha’ in their writings to refer only to the day they celebrated the resurrection. However, for convenience, I will be using the word ‘Easter’ to refer to the Christian celebration, meaning either the resurrection day. I do this for two reasons; first, in common usage, most people understand the word Easter to be referring to that period when the Christian church commemorates the death and resurrection of the Lord, Jesus Christ. Secondly, using the word Passover might cause confusion with the Jewish Passover, rather than the Christian festival. It is also the word used (for the same reasons) in the quotations from the early Christian church writings, even though the original in those works is also ‘pascha’.

In my last post, I put forward the idea that the crucifixion did not happen on a Friday, but rather on a Thursday. My intention was to show that the Bible does not support a Friday crucifixion with a Sunday resurrection. The early Christians fasted prior to the day of resurrection, but it would seem that their fast was held the day immediately prior to the resurrection day, rather than on the Friday (ie, two days before):

“Break your fast when it is daybreak on the first day of the week, which is the Lord’s Day. From the evening until the cock-crows, keep awake; assemble together in the church; watch and pray; entreat God. When you sit up all night, read the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms – until cock-crowing....And from that point on, leave off your fasting and rejoice! Keep a festival, for Jesus Christ, the pledge of our resurrection, is risen from the dead!” [Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c390AD)]

Dionysius of Alexandria (c262AD) wrote:

“You have sent to me, most faithful and accomplished son, in order to enquire what is the proper hour for bringing the fast to a close on the day of Easter. You say that there are some of the brethren who hold that it should be done at cockcrow. However, others say that it should end at nightfall....It will be cordially acknowledged by all that those who have been humbling their souls with fasting should immediately begin their festal joy and gladness at the same hour as the resurrection.”

So appealing to a traditional day of fasting by the early church does not teach us that the Christians fasted on the Friday, but on the day before Easter. If Easter was on a Sunday, then the day of fasting would necessarily be on a Saturday.

If therefore we can accept that the crucifixion did not happen on a Friday, what is there to say that the resurrection actually occurred on a Sunday? Have we got that day wrong as well?

Again, we need to appeal to the early Christian writings:

“Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which we all hold our common assembly, for it is the first day on which God...made the world. And Jesus Christ our Saviour, rose from the dead on that same day.” [Justin Martyr]

“We celebrate the Lord’s Day as a day of joy. For on it, He rose again.” [Peter of Alexandria: (c310AD)]

“On the day of our Lord’s resurrection, which is the Lord’s Day, you should meet more diligently, sending praise to God.” [Apostolic Constitutions]

Clement, a friend of the Apostle Paul, stated:

“Christ rose on the third day, which fell on the first day of the weeks of harvest, on which the Law prescribed that the priest should offer up the sheaf.”

From these references, we can see that the early Christians worshipped on Sundays because that was the day the Lord had risen from the dead. There is no mention of fasting, or meeting on Friday or each Friday, in acknowledgement of the death of the Lord.

So, having established that Christ rose on Sunday, and that He Himself said He would be three days and three nights in the grave, then we can safely assume that the crucifixion occurred on the preceding Thursday.

The next question we need to settle is: when is the proper date for the celebration of Easter? When did the early church celebrate it?

First of all, we ought to establish what we mean by ‘the early church’ or ‘the early Christians’. Until around the sixth century, the church was united. There were no separate denominations; all were one. The whole period is referred to as the time of ‘the early church’. However, there were two distinct phases within that period, separated by the Council of Nicaea in AD 325.

The first period is known as ‘pre-Constantine’; the second, ‘post-Constantine’. That is not to say that Constantine had died, but acknowledges that a change occurred in the constitution of the church at the time of the Council of Nicaea. When I refer to ‘the early church/ early Christians’, I am specifically referring to the time pre-Constantine. These Christians of the first, second and third centuries were much closer to the original biblical writers and some of them to the Apostles themselves. For example, Polycarp and Ignatius were personally acquainted with the Apostle John; Clement was known to the Apostle Paul. These men were taught personally by the Apostles and, in turn, they mentored the next generation of Christian church leaders, teaching them the things they themselves had been taught. Being so close, there was less likelihood of corruption of the practice of the church from the practice of the Apostles themselves and the churches they were overseers of. It makes sense therefore not only to look at what the Bible teaches us, but to see how those early Christians put the words of Scripture into practice. There is no shortage of material within those writings about the early church’s practice of the celebration of Easter. Therefore, the vast majority of quotes are taken from the writings of early Christians prior to the Council of Nicaea.

So let us return to the question of when is the proper date for commemorating the death and resurrection of Christ. Interestingly, the church before AD 325 had two opinions on this matter. This became known as ‘the Paschal Controversy’. Churches in the eastern parts of the region celebrated at the time of the Jewish Passover; churches in the east celebrated on the Sunday following the Passover. The one region thought it sensible to celebrate at Passover because Jesus is our ‘Passover Lamb’ and His death occurred at the time of the Passover. The other region believed that as Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday, then Sunday was the proper day to celebrate the resurrection. Also, the Sunday following Passover was the Jewish feast of first fruits (the early harvest) and Jesus was described as the first fruits from the dead – ie His resurrection was the first resurrection and guaranteed the resurrection of the saints on the last day (which is still to come):

But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept [had died].” (1 Corinthians 15v20)

David Bercot, in his book ‘Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs’ puts it like this:

“The Paschal controversy concerned the day on which the Passover (Gr Pascha), known today as Easter, was to be celebrated. In the pre-Nicene Church, the main issue about Easter was whether it was to be celebrated on a fixed date each year, Nisan 14, or whether it was to be celebrated on the Sunday following Nisan 14, regardless of the date on which that Sunday falls. In Asia Minor, Christians celebrated Easter on Nisan 14, and they testified that they received this custom from the apostle John. In most other places, the Christian Passover was celebrated on the Sunday following Nisan 14.”

Polycrates (cAD 190), states:

“As for us then, we scrupulously observe the exact day, neither adding nor taking away. For in Asia great luminaries have gone to their rest, who will rise again on the day of the coming of the Lord...These all kept Easter (Passover) on the fourteenth day, in accordance with the Gospel.”

Putting the other opinion, Anatolius (cAD 270) says:

“For the obligation of the Lord’s resurrection binds us to keep the Paschal festival on the Lord’s day."

And again:

“The one party, indeed, kept the Paschal day on the fourteenth day of the first month – in accordance with the Gospel, as they understood it. They added nothing of an extraneous kind, but kept the rule of faith through all things. The other party – keeping the day of the Lord’s passion as one replete with sadness and grief – hold that it should not be lawful to celebrate the mystery of Easter at any other time but on the Lord’s day, on which the resurrection of the Lord from death took place.”

Despite these differences, there was no division or disruption to the unity that was in the church at that time.

Firmilian [cAD 256) states:

“There are some diversities among the churches. Anyone may know this from the facts concerning the celebration of Easter...Nevertheless, there is no departure at all from the peace and unity of the universal church on this account.”

In my next post, we will explore further the date of Easter and why we celebrate it at the time we now do.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Good Thursday?

Good Thursday?

Today is Good Friday. Traditionally, it is the day Christians, the world over, commemorate the death by crucifixion of their Lord, Jesus Christ.

If it commemorates such an horrific execution, particularly of Someone who did no wrong, then why do we call it ‘good’?
  • Some consider it to be a corruption of the word ‘God’ – ie, God’s Friday
  • Others suggest it comes from the German, ‘gute’ (good)
  • Still others believe it comes from the old meaning of good, which was ‘holy – ie Holy Friday. In some parts of the world, it is still known by the name ‘Holy Friday’.
There is no consensus regarding the reason why the day got the name ‘Good Friday’, but for those who believe, the death of Jesus Christ (and His subsequent resurrection from the dead), there is a good outcome, namely, the salvation of those who believe in the vicarious death of Christ on behalf of all who believe in His Name.

Yesterday, someone sent me a cartoon depicting two characters discussing this very issue:
‘I don’t like Good Friday’ said one, despondently.
‘Why’s that?’ asked the other.
‘Because it was the day Jesus was crucified. What was so good about that?’
‘Well,’ replied his friend, ‘imagine you were due to be hanged on a certain day, then someone came along and said he would be hanged in your place so you could go free. How would that make you feel?’
‘It would make me feel good,’ said the first character, brightening.
‘I rest my case,; said the second.

Furthermore, it has been the tradition of the majority of the western church to commemorate this event on the Friday following the Jewish Passover (see part 2 for further information about this).
  • The Gospels all mention ‘the Sabbath’ as the day following the crucifixion. As the Jewish Sabbath was held weekly on a Saturday, it naturally follows that the crucifixion was on the Friday.
  • After the resurrection, Jesus met two disciples on their way to Emmaus. As He came near to them He could see they were sad and He asked them what the problem was. Not recognising Him, they explained what had occurred in the preceding days, namely the crucifixion, ‘and besides all this, today is the third day since these things were done’ (Luke 24v21). As we are told that this was ‘the first day of the week’ (v1, cf v13), then it follows, counting backwards, that the crucifixion occurred on Friday (Sunday – Saturday – Friday – the third day).
But wait a moment. Didn’t Jesus say something about being three days and three nights in the earth, speaking about His burial?

‘Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall be no sign given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas. For as Jonas was three dyas and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’
         Matthew 12v38-40

The Jews calculated a day from 6pm one day to 6pm the next; the day from 6am to 6pm and the night from 6pm to 6am. If Jesus was crucified on Friday, then that only allows for one full day, one part day, and two nights. If you count part days as days, then that is only two days and two nights:

Friday afternoon (3pm-6pm) – day one
Friday 6pm-Saturday 6am – night one
Saturday 6am-Saturday 6pm – day two
Saturday 6am-Sunday 6am – night two

We know from the Gospel record that the women arrived at the tomb early on the first day of the week (Sunday) ‘as it began to dawn, toward the first day of the week’ (Matthew 28v1). In other words, as it says in John 20v1, the women arrived at the tomb ‘when it was yet dark’. Therefore, Sunday daytime cannot be counted as a day – and even if it were, that still only accounts for two nights. The stone was already rolled away; Jesus had already risen from the dead – some time between 6pm Saturday evening and 6am Sunday morning.

So did Jesus mean it literally when He spoke of ‘three days and three nights’? I have come across some who have said ‘it’s only one verse,’ as if it doesn’t matter. But we need to take into consideration ‘the whole counsel of God’, not leaving out the ‘odd verse’ because it doesn’t happen to fit with our theory or practice. If this is the case, then we have to allow for three days and three nights in the grave – which causes something of a dilemma for those who accept that the crucifixion occurred on Friday.

So let’s count backwards:
Saturday 6pm-Sunday 6am – night three
Saturday 6am-Saturday 6pm – day three
Friday 6pm-Saturday 6am – night two
Friday 6am-Friday 6pm – day two
Thursday 6pm-Friday 6am – night one
As we know that the death of Christ occurred at 3 in the afternoon, we then have:
Thursday 3pm-Thursday 6pm – day one

This places the crucifixion on Thursday afternoon and not Friday afternoon as previously thought. How can this be, especially when there are clear references to ‘the Sabbath’ in the Gospels?

The clue is given in John’s Gospel, ch.19v31:
‘The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.’

In short, this Sabbath was not the regular weekly Sabbath, but a special one. While the weekly Sabbath occurred regularly every Saturday, Passover and the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread were always on a fixed date, namely, the 14th and 15th days of Nisan (the first month of the Jewish calendar), respectively. On occasion, of course, the two days (Passover or the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the weekly Sabbath) might coincide, it was by no means the case that they would do so every year.

In order to accommodate Jesus’s statement that He would be in the grave for three days and three nights, we need to look at the institution of the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the book of Leviticus:

‘These are the feasts of the Lord, even holy convocations, which ye shall proclaim in their seasons. In the fourteenth day of the first month at even [evening] is the Lord’s Passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread unto the Lord: Seven days ye must eat unleavened bread. In the first day ye shall have an holy convocation [assembly]: ye shall do no servile work therein. But ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord seven days: in the seventh day is an holy convocation: ye shall do no servile work therein.’
         Leviticus 32v4-8

The first and last days are described as ‘an holy convocation: ye shall do no servile work therein’. A convocation is a gathering together – the people were expected to gather as a whole on that day; work was also restricted, thus making the day a ‘Sabbath’ – ie a day of ‘rest’ (the word Sabbath means ‘rest’). By the time of the New Testament, the ‘holy convocation’ caused the day to be referred to as a ‘high day’ – a special Sabbath and not the regular weekly Sabbath, which was not a ‘high day’.

Thus, the events of Holy Week are as follows:

Wednesday – the Jews celebrated the Passover; Jesus and His disciples also celebrated the Passover. For Christians, this has become known as the Last Supper and instituted the communion service. This meal would have taken place in the evening: ‘In the fourteenth day of the first month at even is the LORD'S passover.’ (Leviticus 23v5)

Thursday – the Day of Preparation. The Jews would be purging their homes of all leaven (yeast/raising agent). Leaven in the New Testament is explained as a symbol of sin. Thus the house of Israel symbolically removed all ‘sin’ from their homes. The crucifixion took place on this day. It is fitting that ‘the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world’ should be crucified on the day when Israel symbolically removed all sin from their lives. Jesus died at 3pm; the Jews requested that the legs of the other two men crucified with Him would be broken. This was in order that they would die more quickly, so that the bodies could be removed before the high Sabbath, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, began, at 6pm on Thursday.

Friday – the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This was the Sabbath referred to in the Gospels; the ‘high day’ mentioned in John’s Gospel, giving us the clue that this was not an ordinary Sabbath, but a special one.

Saturday – the regular weekly Sabbath. This particular year, the two Sabbaths were on consecutive days.

Sunday – the normal first day of the week. This was the first opportunity the women would have had to attend to the burial of Jesus. They came to the tomb as early as possible, after the Sabbath had finished, to embalm the body of their Lord, only to find the stone rolled away and the body gone!

Thus we can see that the crucifixion did not happen on a Friday at all, but on a Thursday. A Friday crucifixion does not allow for the words of Jesus that He would be three days and three nights in the earth. The question remains, does it actually matter?

In one sense, no. We commemorate the death of Jesus regularly in the communion service, as He commanded; and we can commemorate His death in a special way whenever we choose. There are those who say that if it isn’t in the Bible, then we shouldn’t do it (the ‘regulative principle’), however, the Bible does not forbid such a commemoration and says ‘One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alikeLet every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.’ Romans 14v5.

On the other hand, to ignore Jesus’s words where He explicitly says ‘three days and three nights’ is to suggest we can play fast and loose with the Bible. If we can ignore one verse because it is ‘inconvenient’, what else can we ignore and dispense with?

Far better to readjust our traditions in light of the whole counsel of God, not picking and choosing what we want to believe, but accepting what the whole Bible has to say to us.