Easter is the most significant moment in history for Christians. It was when Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was executed in Jerusalem by being nailed to a cross. His crucifixion, in around 30AD, was brutal and bloody. He was beaten and lashed before he was crucified. But he was innocent of any crime. He had been betrayed by one of his followers, Judas, and convicted on trumped up charges. Yet as he was dying, Jesus publicly forgave his killers. Then, three days after his dead body was taken down and laid in a tomb, he rose from the dead. Over the following six weeks he appeared to hundreds of people. Christians believe the death and resurrection of Jesus enables people to be forgiven for all the bad things they have said and done – because God’s punishment for evil was taken by Jesus on the cross that day 2,000 years ago.
The word ‘Easter’ has no Christian connection. One theory links it to a pre-Christian pagan goddess who was commemorated in Spring. It is known that Jesus was crucified at that time of the year.
Jesus knew he was going to die
Jesus spent three years on the road with his closest followers, who are known as his disciples. He taught people and he miraculously healed people of illnesses. But he knew his mission was to lay down his life. On three occasions he told his disciples that he was going to be killed. He also said he would be resurrected.
The Bible book, Mark, quotes him saying ‘the Son of Man [a name for Jesus] is going to be betrayed into the hands of me. They will kill him and after three days he will rise’.
The part of the Bible before Jesus – the Old Testament – has many ancient Hebrew writings about a Messiah who would come to rescue his people. They laid the groundwork for the idea that the Messiah would suffer, writing of an innocent victim who suffers because of his faithfulness to God. (See, for example, Isaiah 53.) Christians believe that the crucifixion of Jesus is the fullest realisation of that prophecy.
Christians believe the death and resurrection of Jesus enables people to be forgiven for all the bad things they have said and done.
The first Easter week
The events of Easter took place over a week. Some Christians refer to it as Passion Week.
It began on Palm Sunday. After all his teaching and healing, Jesus had built a following. On the Sunday before he was to die, Jesus and his followers arrived at Jerusalem. The city was crowded. Jewish people were arriving from to celebrate Passover. This commemorates how they had escaped from slavery in Egypt nearly 1,500 year earlier. (Jewish people all over the world still commemorate Passover.)
Jesus rode into the city on a young donkey. He was greeted like a conquering hero. Cheering crowds waved palm branches in tribute. He was hailed as the Messiah who had come to overthrow the Roman occupiers and re-establish a Jewish kingdom.
The next day they returned to Jerusalem. Jesus went to the temple, the epicentre of the Jewish faith, and confronted money-changers and merchants who were ripping off the poor. He overturned their tables and accused them of being thieves. The religious authorities were alarmed and feared how he was stirring up the crowds. On the Tuesday, they challenged Jesus, questioning his authority. He answered by challenging and condemning their hypocrisy. Later that day Jesus spoke to his disciples about future times. He warned them about fake religious leaders; the coming destruction of Jerusalem; wars, earthquakes and famines; and how his followers would face persecution.
The timeline of Passion Week is not always clear. But it is evident that by midweek the Jewish religious leaders and elders were so angry with Jesus that they began plotting to arrest and kill him.
One of Jesus’ disciples, Judas, went to the chief priests and agreed to betray him to them. Jesus and the 12 disciples gathered on the Thursday evening to celebrate the Passover meal. This is known as the Last Supper. During the evening, Jesus initiated a ritual still marked by Christians – Holy Communion – which commemorates his death. Jesus broke bread and shared it and a cup of wine with his disciples. Judas then left to meet the other plotters. Jesus continued to teach the others and then went outside into an olive grove to pray. He even prayed for all future believers. He agonised over what was to come but chose the way of obedience. The Bible book, Luke, records him praying, ‘Father if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done’. Minutes later Judas arrived with soldiers and the chief priests and Jesus was arrested.
The trial of Jesus
In the following hours, Jesus had six separate hearings before the Jewish and Roman authorities. First, he went before the ruling and honorary Jewish high priests. Both hearings took place in secret at night, which was illegal under Jewish law. After daybreak on Friday, Jesus was taken before the 70-member council, the Sanhedrin. Witnesses lied to back up the bogus charges. The Jewish authorities accused Jesus of blasphemy and demanded the death penalty. But this could not be carried out without permission of the Roman authorities and so Jesus was taken before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The Jews claimed Jesus was leading a rebellion, but Pilate saw he was innocent. Next he went before Herod Agrippa, the Roman governor of Jesus’ home province, Galilee, who was in Jerusalem. Herod sent him back. There was a custom that a prisoner could be released to mark Passover. Pilate wanted to free Jesus. But the Jewish leaders whipped up the crowd to demand Jesus was crucified and another man was freed. Pilate caved in and handed Jesus over to be executed.
Jesus is crucified
Jesus was severely beaten and mocked for his claim to be king of the Jews. The soldiers made a crown of thorns and pressed it on his head. They stripped him and cast lots for his clothes. They made him carry his cross through the streets of Jerusalem, until a man called Simon was forced to carry it instead. Jesus was nailed to the cross, the nails driven through his hands and feet. The cross was set up on a hill just outside Jerusalem. Two criminals were crucified beside him. Onlookers, including the chief priests, mocked Jesus. The Bible book, Luke, tells how one of the criminals realised Jesus was innocent and said to him, ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom’. Jesus replied, ‘I tell you the truth, today yo uwill be with me in paradise.’
The crucifixion of Jesus took place on the Friday – remembered in the Christian calendar as Good Friday. It began at 9am. At midday, the Bible says it became dark and stayed dark for three hours. The Bible books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell us Jesus’ final words… ‘my God, my God why have you forsaken me?’; ‘It is finished…’ and ‘Father into your hands I commit my spirit…’. At 3pm Jesus died. The earth shook, rocks split apart and the curtain which separated the most holy place inside the temple from the rest of the building was ripped from top to bottom. A Roman soldier pierced his side to confirm Jesus was dead and informed Pilate. Jesus body was taken down and placed in a tomb which was sealed with a huge boulder. Soldiers guarded the tomb to stop anyone stealing the body and claiming Jesus had risen.
‘It is finished…’
Jesus rises from the dead
It is fundamental to the Christian faith that Jesus not only died but rose again. On the Sunday, two women followers, Mary and Mary Magdalene, went to anoint Jesus’ body as was the Jewish custom with the dead. They discovered the stone had been rolled away and the body was missing. There are slight differences in the Bible accounts of what happened next: Matthew reports an angel appearing to the women; Luke writes of two men whose clothes gleamed like lightning speaking to them. But the message about the missing Jesus was the same… ‘why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he has risen!’ In the weeks that followed, Jesus appeared on several occasions, including to a crowd of 500 people, before he ascended back to heaven.