In the gospels, Old Testament allusions and fulfilments are all over the text. And without a doubt the early church used two kinds of arguments to argue for Jesus’ Messianic credentials: his resurrection and Messianic prophecy. One of these famous arguments from prophecy was to say that Jesus was our Passover Lamb, fulfilling the types and shadows found in Moses’ Law. And these details get strangely specific. Let’s take a look.
The timing of Jesus’ death
For starters, it’s virtually undeniable that Jesus died during Passover. This fact is reported by all four Gospels and Paul alludes to it when he calls Christ the Passover lamb. This isn’t a detail that the gospel authors could possibly have misremembered. This notion of Jesus being the Passover lamb is also mentioned in 1 Peter and Revelation. When you think about it, this correspondence seems a bit too neat and tidy to be the result of mere chance. The Romans’ crucifixion of Jesus during Passover is a remarkable coincidence that would have been difficult for a faker to design.
The selection of the lamb
But wait, there’s more! According to the Jewish calendar, Passover occurs on the fifteenth day of Nisan. We read about God giving instructions to the people of Israel concerning the first Passover in Exodus 12:3. God says to Moses and Aaron, “Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month (i.e. Nisan) every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household.” Five days before Passover, the lamb was to be chosen and brought into the household of the men of Israel on the tenth day of Nisan. Now let’s look at the Gospel of John, which tells us about Jesus’ famous entrance into Jerusalem.
John 12:1-2,12-13 says:
“Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave him a special dinner there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at the table. The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”
Here John gives us an incredibly specific and seemingly unnecessary detail that the Synoptics don’t include, namely that Jesus made it to Bethany six days before Passover, and the next day rode into Jerusalem on a donkey (which would have been five days before Passover). I’ll spare you the boring details, but you can actually verify John’s timing with Mark. It requires some detective work but the results are quite satisfying and I’ll leave the particulars in a pinned comment down below.
The point is that the earliest and latest Gospel both agree on the timing of the Triumphal Entry even if Mark doesn’t give us the explicit timestamp John does, and they do so in a way that isn’t plausibly the result of mere copying. So what we have here is that Jesus, the Passover lamb, arrives in Jerusalem 5 days before the Passover sacrifice. Is this just a coincidence, or design? I’d think if it were by design, Mark and John would be much more overt. But I’ll let you be the judge. But things get even more interesting as we dig deeper.
The temple of Jesus’ body
At Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, people accused him of having “threatened this temple that is made with hands.” and that in three days he’d build another, not made with hands. (Mark 14:58) If we only had the Synoptic Gospels, we wouldn’t have a clue where Jesus’ accusers got this statement. John 2:18-21 fills us in.
“[After Jesus cleansed the Temple], “the Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body.”
Here John casually and unrelatedly fills us in where this statement came from. He gives us the original statement of Jesus, but not its use as an accusation. In the Synoptics we get the accusation, but not the original statement. Neither of these is copied from the other. Now let’s move all the way to the crucifixion scene set in John 19. John gives us some vivid details about how one of the Roman soldiers pierced Jesus’ heart with a spear to make sure he’s dead. When the soldier did this, something strange happened:
“The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe.”(John 19:33-35)
This is clearly a big deal to John because he goes out of his way to say he saw it. Why is he so emphatic? Let’s think about this for just a second. Passover was celebrated in Jerusalem for a reason, and that was because it was about the temple sacrifice, not just a meal as it is today. The Jews would travel far and wide to reach Jerusalem in order to sacrifice the Passover lambs in the temple. During that time, Josephus describes up to 256,000 lambs being sacrificed. (Jewish War 6.423-37) That’s obviously a lot of bloodshed. What happened to all that blood?
According to the Mishnah (Mishnah Middoth 3:2), the blood was poured into a drain that flowed down from the altar of sacrifice to merge with a spring of water that flowed out of — get this — the side of the mountain on which the Temple was built. Now we understand why John pointed this out to his audience. This seemingly insignificant detail about Jesus’s side reveals something about who he is. He is not only the lamb, he is also God’s holy temple from whom blood and water flows. In other words, he is the Lord’s dwelling place on earth.
In Matthew 12:6, Jesus calls himself greater than the Temple. What could possibly be greater than God’s dwelling place on earth? Only God himself, present in the flesh. These details could have been made up, or the gospel writers could have been mistaken, or they could have been telling the truth. I suppose that it could be a combination of all three, but the fact that we find these striking similarities between the narratives and the Old Testament is a strong argument against the belief that the gospel writers were mistaken. There seems to be a design behind these strong correlations that we’ve seen here. But who designed them? Were the gospel authors carefully crafting a story in order to make Jesus’ life conform to the Hebrew Scriptures, or did God orchestrate the events in a way that would get our attention?
Christ, our passover lamb
I’ve argued at length on this blog that the Gospel writers repeatedly show themselves to be honest and close up to the facts. If I’m right about the Gospels’ reliability, what we have in these stories is that Jesus is rather spectacularly fulfilling Old Testament types. His body was the Temple, and he was the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were by divine design in a way we can recognize with some knowledge of the Old Testament background.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.