Everyone who could was going to Jerusalem, making plans for their Passover there, or at least watching the festive processions. It was a gathering of all Israel, the memorial of the nation’s birth-night, of its Exodus. Friends from afar would meet, and new friends be made; offerings long due would be brought, and purification long needed obtained; and all would worship in that grand and glorious temple, the largest such structure on earth.
Last evening a solemn search had been made with lighted lamp throughout each house for any leaven that might have been hidden or have fallen aside by accident. In some households, the search was repeated this morning.
It was with a view to preparing the ordinary Passover supper that Jesus now sent Peter and John to town. Jesus’ obscure answer to their question of where to prepare it (‘a man carrying a water jug will encounter you’) might indicate that neither the house nor its owner was to be named beforehand within hearing of Judas. Jesus would not have this important occasion interrupted by the authorities until he had said all he needed to say to his faithful disciples, and said his last prayer in Gethsemane.
It was not uncommon, as crowded as Jerusalem was at this time, for landlords to put people together who were unknown to each other. Hence Jesus phrasing of the question (‘where is the roomfor me to celebrate’) indicates he wanted Peter and John to make sure they would not be sharing this upper room with strangers, or, for that matter, even his other disciples, or his friend and likely host for the week Lazarus, or his mother and brothers.
While Jesus asked only for ‘a room’ the landlord had apparently held out for Jesus his best, upper, room. Since no one, even the poorest guest, could eat the Passover standing, it was an important detail that the room was ‘furnished and ready.’
‘Ready’ would also have included the wine and all the food, except for the lamb. The lamb may have been purchased the previous afternoon by Judas. It would not have been left to the last minute. Nor is it likely that Jesus would have wanted one bought from one of the merchants in the temple – he’d driven all of them out of the temple just two days before! So possibly the purchase of the lamb from a suitable merchant and taking it to the temple for inspection was Judas’ excuse yesterday to go to town, so that he would have the free time to approach the priests and ask ‘What will you give me to betray him to you?’
Thus, after Peter and John had secured the room, no doubt again storing in their hearts Jesus’ miraculous foreknowledge of the landlord and the near-miraculous availability of a large room at such short notice, all they had left to do was to take the lamb to the temple to be slaughtered.
They start up to the temple mount about 1:30, joining a dense crowd of joyous, chatting pilgrims. Imagine how alone they felt; no doubt understanding of some of the things Jesus had told them began to dawn. This was to be his last Passover. He had told them plainly he was going to be killed on this trip to Jerusalem. When Peter had taken him aside like a dutch uncle, perhaps shaking his finger at him and saying, ‘You stop that negative talk, nothing bad is going to happen to you,’ Jesus had turned his back on Peter and said ‘Get behind me, Satan.’ And just two days ago he had told them that this magnificent temple, the centerpiece of worship throughout their entire lives, was destined to be demolished.
The crowd packed into the courtyard of the temple hails from every corner of the known world and they are happily chattering away in dozens of languages. The Courtyard of the Priests is packed with its white-robed occupants, as all 24 courses of priests are on duty during the festivals. Starting about 2:30 the priests begin to chant or sing Psalm 81 in three sections, interspersed by triple blasts of the silver trumpets. Can you imagine what Peter and John felt as they heard:
I am Jehovah thy God,
Who brought thee up out of the land of Egypt:
Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it.
But my people hearkened not to my voice...
The crowd is divided into thirds. The first third is admitted to the Courtyard of the Priests, the massive gate between the Courtyard of the Jews and the Courtyard of the Women is shut, and the lambs are slain – trumpet blasts let those outside know what was going on inside. Then the first group files out and the next group files in.
When Peter and John’s group is in and the gates closed, each man slits the throat of the lamb he’s holding. In two rows, a ‘bucket brigade’ of priests catch the blood in golden bowls and passes them forward for the blood to be poured out at the base of the altar, and the empty bowls are passed back. While all of this is going on, the Levites sing the hallel, Psalms 113 through 118. These are the ones that keep repeating the phrase, depending on your Bible version, Hallelujah! or Praise the LORD, or Praise ye Jehovah.
So, Peter and John listen, perhaps with new understanding to the words:
...Precious in the eyes of Lord Jehovah is the death of his righteous ones!
...The stone which the builders rejected Is become the head of the corner.
...Blessed be he that cometh in the name of Jehovah: We have blessed you out of the house of Jehovah.
At each break, the crowd chants 'Hallelujah!' No doubt Peter and John think back to Sunday, when the crowd chanted those last words, waving palm branches as Jesus rode into the city.
And now, surrounded by the smell of the blood and offal and the thousands of lamb carcasses, the men must begin to realize that Jesus, ‘the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the World,’ was prefigured by all these thousands of slaughtered lambs. Suspending their lamb carcass on a stave resting on their shoulders, the lamb is flayed and cleansed, and the parts of it that will be burned on the altar are removed.
They take it back to the house with the upper room where a spit of pomegranate wood is run through the body, carefully, so as to avoid breaking any of its bones and allowing it to be roasted whole without touching the oven. The table is set with the ‘bitter greens’ – think spinach or kale – the charoseth, a mixture of chopped nuts into which the greens are dipped, wine, and unleavened bread.
Every open space and rooftop in Jerusalem is dotted with tents. As the sun sets, the white tents light up yellow from the lamplight. As Jesus and the other ten apostles walk down the road from Bethany to join Peter and John, the city glows before them not only in the setting sun but with lamplight and laughter, as the crowds began to celebrate – for the last time that had any validity – their most joyous day of the year.