Tag Archive for: Jesus


Resurrection – tragedy and triumph

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. Why did the women go to the tomb?
  2. What did the women find at the tomb?
  3. What did the women do when they saw the empty tomb?

In brief:  Notice that the Resurrection itself is never described in the gospels. There was no-one there to see it. Instead, the evangelists tell us how Jesus’ resurrection was discovered. They knew they were describing something incredible, and they wanted to do so in as credible a way as possible – hence the witnesses, people who were there at the scene.

The witnesses were specific people – Mary Magdalene, John, Peter, etc. As with all eye-witness accounts there are differences in details, but the main points are clear.

Why did the women go to the tomb?

The Three Marys by Henry Osawa Tanner, 1910In the ancient world it was women, usually family members, who washed a corpse and laid the body out for burial. In this case, the task was given to Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. They had cared for him in life, and now they would care for him in death.

The normal thing was to wash and clean the body first. In Jesus’ case, this would have been a difficult task, since his body was heavily matted with dried blood. In the second stage of this cleansing, the women would have added spices to water and gently smoothed this liquid over the body. Then they would bind the arms and legs so they were held firmly, and wrap the whole body around with a long strip of linen cloth – the shroud. This was the simple, gentle act performed by women for the people they loved.

And this was what the two Marys and Salome expected to do.

The empty tomb of Jesus, with discarded shroud lying on a stone benchBut when they reached the tomb, they were greeted by an unexpected sight. The stone that covered the entrance of the tomb was no longer in place, but rolled sideways so that anyone might enter the tomb.

They were frightened and astonished by this unexpected sight. When they had left the tomb on the evening before the Sabbath, they had placed Jesus’ dead body on one of the stone slabs inside the tomb, and then the entrance to the tomb had been firmly closed.

But now the body was missing, with no sign of where it had gone.

Read the blue Gospel text at bottom of page

What did the women find at the tomb?

Angel, by Abbott Handerson Thayer, 1887, paintingA normal reaction would have been to think that someone had stolen the body – Peter might have done it. He had a reckless streak and was ashamed of his denial of Jesus at the house of Caiphas.

But the body had not been stolen by anyone, friend or foe, and the women were perplexed.

The answer came swiftly. In the place where the women expected to find Jesus’ body, there were instead one (Luke says two) beings whom the gospels call ‘angels’, dressed in the white garments associated with heavenly beings.

This is a difficult concept for modern readers to understand. ‘Angels’ do not form part of our way of thinking. The modern reader can perhaps better understand this gospel passage if they think of angels not as messengers from God, but as the message itself, given and accepted.

  • Something in their experience of this moment convinced the women that not only was Jesus not there, which they could plainly see, but that he had undergone some transformative experience that meant he was alive, even though they had known him to be truly dead
  • if they wanted to see him (which of course they did) they should look for him not in Jerusalem, but in the rural villages of Galilee where he came from. There, away from the sophisticated city of Jerusalem, they would find him
  • they should tell others about this – especially the disciples and Peter. Peter would later gain comfort from the fact that, despite his earlier denial, Jesus singled him out as a key figure to be told.

How the women gleaned this information or from whom, we do not know, other than that the gospels point to the source of information as an ‘angel’. What did they mean by ‘angel’? They were simply but emphatically stating that the information was irrefutable. They believed that God (or God’s messenger) knew all that happened, and would not lie. They knew that Jesus had risen, and they wanted to give this truth the weight of God’s backing.

Read the green Gospel text at bottom of page

What did the women do?

The Women at the Tomb, BouruereauThe women were horrified by the loss of Jesus’ body, and dazed by the alternative possibility that he was alive. They were sensible  peasant women, not given to flights of fancy. The idea that someone could be dead and then not dead must have seemed utterly incredible. They knew it would certainly seem so to anyone who heard about it. What did ‘risen’ mean? Who would believe them when they described their experience?

At the same time the women were elated, and ran back to the house where they were staying, where many of Jesus’ disciples had gathered. They offered hope in place of despair. Mark’s gospel says they told no-one, but presumably this means no-one other than the disciples.

They were greeted with disbelief. This was surely a fantasy dreamed up by hysterical women, the disciples reasoned. Women’s testimony was not given the same weight in a court of law as men’s was, and no doubt the male disciples thought at this moment it was a good idea that it should be so.

Read the red Gospel text at bottom of page

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What  the  Gospels say

1. Why did they go? Read the blue text

2. What did they find? Read the green text

3. What did they do? Read the red text

Matthew 28:1-10

1 Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulchre.

2 And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. Lo, I have told you.”

8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.Events in the life of Jesus Christ 9 And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Hail!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

Mark 16:1-8

1 And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.

2 And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. 3 And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?” 4 And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back; –it was very large. 5 And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. 6 And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.”

8 And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.

Luke 24:1-11

1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared.

2 And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel; 5 and as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.”

8 And they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles; 11 but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

You might like to compare the parallel accounts of the births of Jesus and John the Baptist in Luke’s gospel. You can find the gospel texts at http://www.womeninthebible.net/Elizabeth_bible_text.htm

Notice especially statements about

the pregnancy reaching term, Luke 1.57 and 2.6

the birth statement, Luke 1.57 and 2.7

marvelling onlookers, Luke 1.63 and 2.18

the taking to heart of what had happened, Luke 1.66 and 2.19

circumcision and name-giving, Luke 1.59 and 2.21

John’s birth is clearly a prelude to the birth of Jesus.

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What is an 'Angel'?


Jesus is nailed to a wooden cross

Questions for Bible study groups

  • What happened at a crucifixion?
  • Where was Calvary (Golgotha)?
  • What crimes was Jesus accused of?

Crucifixion: the punishment

The Centurion by Cyril Edward Power, circa 1929Crucifixion was a shameful punishment inflicted on slaves, criminals and rebels. No Roman citizen could be crucified without the personal authorization of the emperor himself. The suffering in this form of execution is still reflected in the English word ‘excruciating’.

For a Jew, crucifixion had an extra, terrifying dimension: according to Deuteronomy 21:22-23 a man who was crucified was cursed by God: ‘And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death and you hang him on a tree his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God…’

The crucified man was tortured and demeaned in every possible way. Throughout the Roman world, men were crucified naked – though this may not have been the case when Jesus died. Jewish laws stipulated that if a man was stoned to death he must be allowed to wear a loincloth. Did the Romans respect Jewish law when Jesus was crucified, and allow him to wear a loincloth? There is no way of knowing.

Calvary (Latin) Golgotha (Greek)

After a battle, the Romans hung a cuirass on a horizontal pole as a sign of victory

The exact location of Calvary is unknown, but Jewish and Roman practice was to perform executions outside the walls of a city or town. The site of Jesus’ death must have overlooked a main road outside Jerusalem, since the gruesome spectacle was meant to frighten as many people as possible.

The site of execution was called the ‘place of the skull’, but not because there were skulls or bones lying on the ground there, as is sometimes shown in paintings. The Jewish people were scrupulous in their treatment of human remains, and would not have allowed such a thing.

The Aramaic name suggests a rounded bare hill, like the rounded top of a skull. The hill could not have been a high one, since passers-by who mocked Jesus must have been close enough to read the inscription placed above his head.

What the cross looked like

There was some variety in the shape of crosses, but the one used for Jesus was probably similar to the traditional cross shown in Christian paintings.

The main upright beam was permanently fixed in the ground; it had a detachable cross-beam which the condemned man was forced to carry to the place of execution.

Crucifixion, drawing by Charles PickardThe cross-beam was fixed so that the victim’s feet were off the ground. There might be a small wooden projection which he could straddle, though in Jesus’ case this does not seem to have been the case: the projection was meant to prolong a man’s life and suffering, but Jesus died quickly.

Both the cross-bar and the upright were re-used many times, and they and the whole area would have been covered with blood and body-fluids, a magnet for flies and vermin.

Jesus, as he died, was tormented not only by his wounds but by swarms of biting flies.

Jesus nailed to the cross

A metal nail is driven through the hand of Jesus as he is nailed to the cross. From the film The Passion of the ChristJesus would have been made to lie with his back on the ground and his arms stretched out so that the soldiers could nail through his lower forearm or wrist into the wooden cross-beam.

In the case of Jesus, they may have damaged the Ulnar artery running down his forearm, causing severe loss of blood: this would explain why Jesus died relatively quickly.

After this the cross-beam was hauled up, with Jesus attached, and fixed to the upright beam of wood. Then a nail was pounded through his foot or ankle, anchoring it to the upright wood behind. Finally the inscription detailing his crime was placed above his head.

For hours, and sometimes days, a condemned man was trapped in this position, naked and struggling to breathe. His position made his lungs constrict, but if he pushed himself up to make breathing easier the pain in his hands and feet was unimaginable. He eventually died through a combination of heart failure, suffocation and brain damage caused by lack of oxygen.

The Tortured Christ, Guido Rocha, 1975, Brazil

The Tortured Christ, Guido Rocha, 1975, Brazil

Pilate’s notice/inscription on the cross

Transcript of the words written on a board and placed above Jesus' head as he hung on the crossOn his way to the place of execution, a condemned man carried a wooden board, whitened with chalk or gypsum, on which was written his crime.

In Jesus’ case, this notice bore the inscription ‘King of the Jews’ – written in Aramaic, Greek and Latin. Jesus was thus named as a political rebel against the authority of imperial Rome. The ‘INRI’ in traditional paintings was a shortened version of the Latin Iusus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum – Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

Almost all 1st-century Jewish men could read, and many could write, so the passers-by had no trouble in understanding what was written on the sign.

Some of the Jewish leaders objected to the words ‘King of the Jews’. They thought it should read ‘he claimed to be King of the Jews’. But Pilate was tired of being hounded by them and refused to co-operate with their wishes.

Spanish statue of Jesus on the Cross


Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic, have often concentrated on the sufferings of Jesus on the cross, but if you read the gospel accounts you will see that the evangelists did not. They recorded the facts of what happened, and did not dwell unduly on Jesus’ sufferings. It was his redemptive death that mattered.

What happened next? See Jesus Died

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What  the  Gospels say

Matthew 27:33 …they came to a place called Golgotha, which means Place of a Skull…

Mark 15:22 Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha, which means the place of a skull.

Luke 23:32 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.

John 19:17 So they took Jesus, and carrying the cross by himself he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew (Aramaic) is called Golgotha. 18 There they crucified him with two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

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Death Sentence

Death sentence for Jesus

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. Why did Pilate offer to release Jesus?
  2. Why did the crowd choose Barabbas?
  3. Why did Pontius Pilate sentence Jesus to death?
  4. Who was ‘Procla’? See her story at ‘She warned him’

Why did the crowd in Jerusalem choose Barabbas, not Jesus? Because Barabbas, a political terrorist and criminal, was the Sanhedrin’s preferred candidate.

Pontius Pilate did not realise that the people of Jerusalem, who hated the Roman presence in Jerusalem and were fiercely loyal to their leaders, would never accept Pilate’s choice.

The Passover amnesty

Apparently it was the custom to release a prisoner at Passover. Josephus, the Jewish historian, says that the Romans sometimes gave an amnesty to prisoners in Judaea for political reasons.

This practice is not mentioned outside the gospels, but that is no reason to doubt it. It may have been Pilate’s invention, occurring only while he was governor. He was always looking for ways to mollify the people and gain popularity for himself. Jerusalem was a notoriously difficult posting for any governor.

Who was there?

On this particular morning a crowd had gathered outside Pilate’s Jerusalem headquarters. It was early, but the city was swollen with Passover pilgrims from all over Israel.

Barabbas, film stillA substantial crowd came from the lower city, the less affluent part, to the praetorium. They were there to support their preferred candidate for amnesty. Some may have been Galileans, but not many. The arrest and trial of Jesus had taken most of his supporters by surprise, and they probably did not know his whereabouts, let alone the danger he was in.

Most of the people there would have been supporters of

  • the Sanhedrin, the Temple authority that hoped Pilate would sentence Jesus to death, or
  • Barabbas, a man who led an uprising and committed murder, who many ordinary citizens of Jerusalem saw as a patriotic freedom fighter.

Because he had opposed the Romans, Barabbas would be a hero to many of the Jews; they would prefer him to Jesus, a religious reformer from remote Galilee.

Read the blue Gospel text at bottom of page

Ecce Homo (Behold the Man), Antonio Ciseri, 1871

Ecce Homo (Behold the Man), Antonio Ciseri, 1871

Pilate gives the crowd a choice

Pilate saw this as an opportune moment. He was convinced Jesus was innocent, and he clearly did not want to release Barabbas, who was more of a political threat to the Romans than Jesus was.

He wanted to play the crowd against their leaders, the Sanhedrin, and deflect its members from a choice he deemed madness – the murderer Barabbas. He believed the people would fall in line with his proposal, and free the comparatively harmless Jesus.

By doing so he showed himself to be out of touch with local sentiment.

Read the greenGospel text at bottom of page

The crowd chooses Barabbas – why?

Why was the Jewish Sanhedrin determined to get rid of Jesus?

  • Some of them were genuinely nervous of the crowds Jesus attracted. Jerusalem was always combustible, particularly at festival time, and as far as they were concerned, Jesus was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
  • Some may have been jealous of his popularity and influence.
  • Most if not all of them resented Jesus’ blistering attacks on the Temple priesthood, from which the Sanhedrin came
  • They, highly educated men, may have felt humiliated that a peasant from nowhere had made such an impression on the people, and was influencing them to ask questions about the established hierarchy; was this the Establishment versus a grassroots reform movement?

What was Pilate’s position?

Pilate and Jesus, from movie The Passion of the ChristBoth Philo (a philosopher) and Josephus (a Jewish historian) make it clear that Pilate detested the Jews. Whenever he had to deal with them he inevitably took the opposite position to what they wanted. He did this when the Sanhedrin brought Jesus to him.

But he was no fool. He saw that the Sanhedrin were using legal processes to get rid of someone who was causing them trouble.

What happened?

The crowd had to choose between two candidates, one proposed by Pilate, representative of Rome, and the other by the Sanhedrin, their leaders. It was no contest. Choosing Jesus would have been disloyal to their Jewish leaders. So Jesus became a victim of the political forces that swirled around Israel/Judah.

Pilate may have seen Barabbas as a terrorist but elements of the crowd, on that particular morning, in that particular place, saw him as a freedom-fighter. They clamoured for Jesus’ execution – virtually a lynch mob. There was the unspoken assumption that if Pilate was a good governor, he would bow to their wishes, rather than provoke a revolt.

Pilate offers a choice between Jesus and Barabbas, from the film The Passion of the Christ

Pilate offers a choice between Jesus and Barabbas, from the film The Passion of the Christ

Pilate was clearly amazed by the people’s choice of Barabbas. Although he was unhappy, he nevertheless went along with it. He knew Jesus had not violated any Roman law. Thus even though he might symbolically wash his hands and declare his own innocence, he was as guilty as anyone else, perhaps more so, because he had the responsibility of a leader. He sent an innocent man to a hideous death.

Read the red Gospel text at bottom of page

The death sentence

Pilate's wife tells him about her dream and warns him not to hurt Jesus of Nazareth. From the film The Passion of the ChristGiven the choice between Jesus, a social/religious reformer, and a festival riot in Jerusalem, Pilate decided that one death was better than a possible revolt – and all the deaths that would cause. He succumbed to Jewish pressure.

He made his proclamation from the judgement seat of the praetorium. He did it reluctantly.

His wife – tradition calls her Procla – sent her husband an urgent message that she had had a dream, more like a nightmare, that he was not to condemn this innocent man. This might seem a trivial reason to a modern person, but Romans and Jews saw dreams as divine revelations, sent to guide humans, and Pilate would have ignored his wife’s dream with great reluctance.

The sentence proclaimed was crucifixion, a death that was meant to terrify the general populace and deter them from committing a similar crime. Rebels against Rome were usually executed in this manner.

Read the black Gospel text at bottom of page

What happened next? See Way of the Cross

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What  the  Gospels say

1 The Passover amnesty: Read the blue text

2 Pilate presents Jesus and Barabbas to the crowd: Read the green text

3 The crowd chooses: Barabbas Read the red text

4 The death sentence: Read the black text

Mark 15:6-15

6 Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked.

7 And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas.

8 And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he was wont to do for them. 9 And he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 10 For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. 12 And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man whom you call the King of the Jews?” 13 And they cried out again, “Crucify him.”

14 And Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” 15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas.

Matthew 27:15-26

15 Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted.

16 And they had then a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas.

17 So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Barabbas or Jesus who is called Christ?” 18 For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up. 19 Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream.” 20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the people to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. 21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified.” 23 And he said, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified.” 24 So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 25 And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”

26 Then he released for them Barabbas, and delivered him to be crucified.

Luke 23:13-25

13 Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him; 15 neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Behold, nothing deserving death has been done by him; 16 I will therefore chastise him and release him.” 17 [No text] 18 But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”–

19 a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city, and for murder.

20 Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus; 21 but they shouted out, “Crucify, crucify him!” 22 A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no crime deserving death; I will therefore chastise him and release him.” 23 But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed.

24 So Pilate gave sentence that their demand should be granted. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, whom they asked for; but Jesus he delivered up to their will.

John 18:38-41, 19:1, 6-16

38 … Pilate went out to the Jews again, and told them, “I find no crime in him. 39 But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover; will you have me release for you the King of the Jews?”

40 They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!”

Now Barabbas was a robber.

5 Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!” (Jesus) 6 When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no crime in him.” 7 The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God.” 8 When Pilate heard these words, he was the more afraid; 9 he entered the praetorium again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave no answer. 10 Pilate therefore said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.” 12 Upon this Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend; every one who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar.” 13 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, and in Hebrew, Gab’batha. 14 Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” 15 They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!”

Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” 16 Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.

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The wife of Pilate

Gospel text for this story

Maps Nazareth & Jerusalem


The way to Calvary

The Money Changers

Jesus attacks the money-changers

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. What was the Temple in Jerusalem like at the time of Jesus?
  2. What sort of people were there on that day?
  3. What did Jesus do? Why were his actions so shocking?
  4. Why was Jesus so angry?
  5. What was the reaction of the authorities?

In brief: There was an angry confrontation between Jesus and the money-changers and guards in the great Temple of Jerusalem. Jesus said they had turned the sacred place into a den of robbers, and he evicted them.

Reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus

Reconstruction of the central part of the Temple of Jerusalem, built by King Herod the Great. The courtyard outside the walled area is the Court of the Gentiles, where Jesus attacked the money-changers

The Temple in Jerusalem

What was it like? The first thing Jesus did when he got to Jerusalem was to go to the great Temple, newly built in shining white marble, and vast, about 450mx300m. Jesus probably offered sacrifice there and prayed. But what we hear about is the action that happened in the Court of the Gentiles.

White dovesThere was a market there selling sacrificial animals and birds. There was also a money exchange, since the Temple dues had to be paid in Tyrian coinage, and most people had Jerusalem coinage only. This meant:

  • that the atmosphere in the Court of the Gentiles was like an oriental bazaar where merchants haggled with Jewish pilgrims – like souvenir shops clustered round modern-day cathedrals
  • the Temple-appointed merchants/money changers probably cheated or over-charged people.

To add to the unholy din, tradespeople used the Court of the Gentiles as a short-cut between the city and the Mount of Olives – the Temple precincts could be entered from all four sides.

All this was harmless enough, but it meant that the Court of the Gentiles was something less than a place of prayer. Jesus was not the only one to object: there was widespread criticism of the 1st-century Temple scene among Jewish writers.

Fragment of a stone sign advising that Gentiles could not enter past this point, on pain of deathAt right is an excavated stone sign found at the site of the Temple of Jerusalem. It advises that Gentiles must not enter past this point, on pain of death, and was presumably at the entrance separating the Court of the Women from the Court of the Gentiles (see ground plan below).

What sort of people were there on that day?

Josephus, the Jewish historian, says

The outer court was open to all, foreigners included; women during their menstruation were alone refused admission. To the second court all Jews were admitted and, when uncontaminated by any impurity, their wives; to the third male Jews, if clean and purified; to the fourth the priests robed in their priestly vestments. The sanctuary was entered only by the ruling priests, clad in the raiment peculiar to themselves. (Josephus, Against Apion, 2.8:104)

When did it happen? John puts this event at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and the other three evangelists place it right at the end, just before Jesus was killed. Who is correct? And does it matter?

It is quite possible that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice. We know he went there a number of times. Several years may separate the two cleansings – to judge by Jesus’ anger in Matthew, the first incident had not been effective, which is why Jesus was so angry.

But we also know John tried to supplement the other gospels, and this may account for the differences. John may have deliberately used a different narrative structure, one that did not rely on historical sequence. The message may have been more important to him than the order in which events happened.

Read the blue text at end of page

Women's Court

View from above of the Women’s Court (upper left with patterned floor) and surrounding Court of the Gentiles in the Temple at the time of Jesus (from a reconstruction built by Alec Gerrard)

Alex Gerrard's model of the Jerusalem Temple

Alex Gerrard’s model of the Jerusalem Temple shows how large the Court of the Gentiles was

What Jesus did: his shocking actions

How many people were there?

The incident took place in a very large area – so large that many people would have been unaware of what was happening. Thousands of pilgrims were crowded into the courtyard, together with the tables of the money changers and stalls to keep the sacrificial animals. There were Temple police who kept order; a large number of them would have been present at this major festival. Had there been a large-scale fracas, these police would certainly have acted. So Jesus could only have attacked some of the money-changers’ tables.

Giotto's painting of the Cleansing of the TempleBut the scale of what happened is unimportant, both to us and to the disciples who witnessed it. Its real significance lay in two things:

  • Jesus openly showed his disgust with religious practice polluted by money-grubbing
  • it gave Jesus’ enemies, the high clergy and the aristocracy of Jerusalem, the chance to bring a grave and specific charge against him.

What was happening?

You can understand this passage in a number of ways:

Jesus saw trade in the Temple as a desecration of its true purpose so, maybe with the help of others, he tried to shut down the trade in sacrificial animals and the money-changing that was going on

He saw the Court of the Gentiles as a sacred place, part of God’s Temple. The general hullabaloo of the area made this impossible, and it angered him

He made an assessment that the trade and money changing exploited people, especially the poor, by making excessive charges, so he intervened

Jesus thought the priests and Temple personnel were abusing their sacred roles by being involved in business in a sacred area

There was already a conflict going on between the Sanhedrin and the High Priest Caiaphas in AD30, when Caiaphas allowed traders to set up markets in the Court of the Gentiles as punitive competition against markets controlled by the Sanhedrin.

Read the red text at end of page

What Jesus said: why was he so angry?

For this part of the story, see the red text in the Gospel passages at the bottom of this page.

Ground plan of the Temple area and buildingsWhat Jesus said at the time is as important as what he did. He was objecting to trade being carried out in the Temple not because of profiteering, but because the Temple precincts have been turned into a place of business, thus violating its divinely intended purpose. He bases this on the words of the prophet Isaiah ‘my house shall be called a place of prayer’. Now it is a ‘den of thieves’- again, a phrase from another prophet, Jeremiah 7:11.

To emphasise this point, all of the gospel writers include Old Testament prophecies in their description of the event.

Jesus’ references to Isaiah and Jeremiah would have been provocative and offensive to the priests, since he was using the words of Scripture against them. Only the presence of so many supportive pilgrims stopped them from taking immediate and public action against him.

The priests showed their piety by saying that Jesus should have been shocked by the sing-song words of the children calling him ‘Son of David’, and should have stopped them. But the children had spoken the truth, and Jesus accepted the title.

Jesus was by no means alone in his criticism of the ‘system’. Many Jews viewed the high priesthood as corrupt. The ‘Testament of Moses’, written at about the same time, describes the high priesthood:

They consume the goods of the poor, saying their acts are according to justice (while in fact they are simply) exterminators, deceitfully seeking to conceal themselves so that they will not be known as completely godless because of their criminal deed (committed) all day long, saying “We shall have feasts, even luxurious winings and dinings. Indeed, we shall behave ourselves as princes.” They, with hand and mind, touch impure things, yet their mouths will speak enormous things, and they will even say “Do not touch me, lest you pollute me in the position I occupy.”

Read the green text at end of page

A reconstruction of one of the entrances to the Temple area;

A reconstruction of one of the entrances to the Temple area;
this entrance led to the Court of the Gentiles

Reaction of the authorities

For this part of the story, see the black text in Gospel passages at the end of this page.

Jesus entered Jerusalem on a happy, triumphant note (see Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem). But now an escalating series of accusations and charges began. His actions and words in the Temple that day triggered the events that led to his death a few days later. But at that moment in the Court of the Gentiles the authorities could not take action against him, because

  • he was not only popular, he was very much in view when he visited the Temple precincts. There was a crowd around him all the time, and any attempt at arrest could cause a riot.
  • every evening during his last visit to Jerusalem, Jesus went out of the city as darkness fell – possibly to the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. This made it difficult to arrest him. Perhaps he felt unsafe in the city. But there may have been a more prosaic reason for his departure each evening: Jesus, along with the thousands of other Passover pilgrims, would find it hard to find lodgings for himself and his followers – or perhaps this large group could not afford high-priced accommodation.

Read the black text at end of page

19th century of Jerusalem showing the city and the contours of the land, especially the Kidron Valley and Mount of Olives

Photo of 19th century Jerusalem; at the end of each day Jesus probably left the city, crossed the Kidron Valley (lower right) and walked up the Mount of Olives (extreme lower right corner)


Jesus mounted a protest against the commercial activity going on in the Temple. The money-changing and selling of sacrificial animals interfered with the proper use of this most sacred of spaces, and Jesus was outraged at a sacrilegious use of this place of prayer. He took sudden, dramatic action. It was not the animal vendors and money-changers he criticised as much as the Temple establishment who allowed it. The ruling priests, especially the high priest himself, gave permission for these commercial activities to take place. They were ultimately responsible for this desecration of a holy place.

What happened next? See Betrayal by Judas

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What  the  Gospels say

 The Jerusalem Temple: read the blue text

2 The dramatic actions of Jesus: read the red text

3 What Jesus said: read the green text

4 The reactions of the Temple authorities: read the black text

Mark 11:15-19

15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons; 16 and he would not allow any one to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he taught, and said to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and sought a way to destroy him; for they feared him, because all the multitude was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they went out of the city.

Matthew 21:12-17

12 And Jesus entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.

13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you make it a den of robbers.”

14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them.

15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant; 16 and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?”

And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast brought perfect praise’?”

17 And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there.

Luke 19:45-48

And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.”

46 And he was teaching daily in the temple. 47 The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people sought to destroy him 48 but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people hung upon his words.

John 2:13-16

John 2:13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business. 15 And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.

16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.”

You might like to compare the parallel accounts of the births of Jesus and John the Baptist in Luke’s gospel. You can find the gospel texts at http://www.womeninthebible.net/Elizabeth_bible_text.htm

Notice especially statements about

the pregnancy reaching term, Luke 1.57 and 2.6

the birth statement, Luke 1.57 and 2.7

marvelling onlookers, Luke 1.63 and 2.18

the taking to heart of what had happened, Luke 1.66 and 2.19

circumcision and name-giving, Luke 1.59 and 2.21

John’s birth is clearly a prelude to the birth of Jesus.

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Maps of Jerusalem

Entry into Jerusalem

Jesus comes in triumph to Jerusalem

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. What was significant about the road Jesus took into Jerusalem?
  2. What was the significance of the colt that Jesus rode into Jerusalem?
  3. Why was this event so important? What did it say (a) about Jesus and (b) to the people in Jerusalem at the time?

Jesus entered Jerusalem a few days before his death. He was acclaimed by a great crowd of people, many of whom believed he was the long-awaited Messiah.
You can’t appreciate the terrible grief of those words that Jesus spoke on the cross ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ unless you remember the joyful tumult of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem just a few days before.

The first Palm SundayPhotograph of the head of a donkey

In the week before he died Jesus came to Jerusalem with his retinue of disciples. It was a dangerous move and would prove fatal, but he believed it was his destiny.

He approached the city from the east, from the Mount of Olives, where the Jewish people expected the Messiah to appear – and where the sun rises.

At Bethphage (the house of figs) he and his friends made a halt. It was just a small village, probably on the east side of the hill, not in a direct sight-line with Jerusalem. To put it in modern context, it was like an outer suburb of a large city. Nearby was Bethany, where Jesus often stayed with his friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus. He had been in the area recently when he resurrected Lazarus from the dead, and was well-known, a celebrity and an object of curiosity.

A map of Jerusalem and the surrounding towns

A map of Jerusalem and the surrounding towns and countryside. Bethany and Bethphage are east of Jerusalem on the southern end of the Mount of Olives, which runs roughly parallel to the city. The two hills/mounts are separated by the Kidron Valley. For more, see MAPS

Getting the colt

By the time Jesus reached Jerusalem he was travelling with quite a large group of people. He chose two of them and told them to go to Bethphage, and once there to look for a young donkey that had never been ridden. They were to bring it back to him. If anyone objected, they were say that Jesus of Nazareth needed it and would send it back immediately. No doubt that promise was later honoured.

On a surface reading this seems rather a high-handed thing to do, but Jesus probably had a previous arrangement with friends in the village, disciples whose names we will never know. He often stayed in Bethany, which was close to Bethphage, and may well have met people from this neighbouring village. Certainly they would have heard about him, and been impressed and curious.

Read the blue text at end of page

The significance of the colt

For this part of the story, see the green text in the Gospel passages at the bottom of this page.

Once mounted on the colt, Jesus joined the throng of pilgrims walking and riding into Jerusalem. Down the hill, then up again through the city gates and up the winding streets to the Temple.

Photograph of a donkey carrying a wooden frame, used to support loads

A donkey usually carried a wooden frame that could be used either as a saddle or a base for a load. In this gospel story the donkey is a colt, unused to the framework or to a rider. So the disciples threw their cloaks over its back to make a kind of informal saddle for Jesus.

Why did Jesus stage this event so carefully? Why not just walk beside his friends as he had been doing for years?

There was a prophecy that a king would come to Jerusalem, humble and riding a young donkey. Jesus wanted to signal to people that the words of the prophecy were actually coming true.

There was also a Roman tradition of a triumphal military procession – with horses, chariots, and soldiers. Everyone knew this. In stark contrast, Jesus deliberately entered Jerusalem on a peaceful, useful, humble little animal. The message was clear: though the Romans glorified war, Jesus stood for peace.

It seems a laudable idea, but in fact it was very dangerous. People who criticised the status quo, even if it was justified (perhaps especially so) seemed like rebels to the authorities, rather than prophets. They incited the people to change, which to the authorities meant destabilisation and possible rebellion. No wonder the Pharisees were nervous when they saw what Jesus was doing.

Palm leavesNote: there is some confusion about the number of donkeys Jesus used. He is described as ‘mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass’: Obviously he could not have been riding two animals. The answer lies in the fact that Hebrew poetry often makes the second line repeat the first, but in different words – poetic repetition. John, using information from the other evangelists, takes it a step further by saying that Jesus had an ass and a colt.

Read the green text at end of page

And the crowd went wild…

As Jesus rode down the hill, the crowd swelled in numbers. Jesus’ disciples had cushioned the seat on the donkey with their cloaks, a thick padding of fabric, but the people went a step further. They lay their cloaks down on the ground so that the donkey walked over them, and spread branches of trees beneath the animal’s hooves. The practice of waving palms and branches held high in a procession was an act of honour for a revered leader, a way of welcoming him and signalling to the people around that something important was happening. Many people in the crowd may have expected that Jesus was about to lead some sort of political coup.

Read the red text at end of page

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem, Hippolyte Flandrin, 1842

Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, Hippolyte Flandrin, 1842

Welcome/entry into Jerusalem

The season of Passover attracted large crowds from all over the ancient world – as Mecca does today. On this particular day just before Passover, the road into Jerusalem was packed with pilgrims. Some of them knew about Jesus, some had never heard of him. But there was a holiday atmosphere. Hundreds of people? Thousands? Impossible to say. Most walked, but a number of them rode donkeys. It was a scene of organised confusion.

As they walked, the people chanted or sang a number of prayers, among them Psalm 118:25. It was traditionally sung by pilgrims as they walked the final leg of their journey up the hill towards Jerusalem, and contained the words ‘Hosanna to the son of David. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’. Luke says they sang ‘Peace in heaven’, perhaps because he was writing for Gentile readers who might not understand what ‘Hosanna’ meant.

They also shouted that Jesus was ‘King of Israel’, a very dangerous thing to say, especially in the context of a crowded, combustible Jerusalem.

Read the black text at end of page

Why was this event important?

There is far more to this event than meets the eye.

Previously, the centre of worship had been the Temple in Jerusalem. It was the central sacred place for the Jewish people. But in 1st century Palestine this supremacy was being challenged. Synagogues were springing up all over Israel – there was even a synagogue in unfashionable little Nazareth. These autonomous centres of worship were run by local men – educated and respected to be sure, but not of the official priestly class. So power had already started shifting away from Jerusalem, away from the blood sacrifice offered in the Temple.

John the Baptist and people like the Essenes were part of this process. They challenged the authority of Temple worship, moving the axis of power away from Jerusalem.

Jesus, and later the early Christians took it a step further. They developed the idea of a sacred person, a divine man. The focus of the sacred was no longer cantered on a fixed location, Jerusalem. The synagogues, and then Jesus, offered a powerful alternative to traditional Temple worship, and in so doing threatened the status quo.

The Temple priesthood were acutely aware of what was happening, and took steps to maintain their traditional power and authority. They would not let a peasant from rural Galilee upset centuries of religious tradition.

Reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus

A model of the inner courts of the Temple of Jerusalem, built by King Herod

What happened next? See Jesus and the Money Changers

What  the  Gospels say

There are two descriptions of the birth of Jesus. Matthew focuses on Joseph, Luke on Mary.

1 Getting the colt: Read the blue text

2 Significance of the colt: Read the green text

3 Garments/palms/branches: Read the red text

4 Welcome/entry into Jerusalem: Read the black text

Mark 11:1-11

1 And when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples,
2 and said to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat; untie it and bring it.
3 If any one says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.'”
4 And they went away, and found a colt tied at the door out in the open street; and they untied it.
5 And those who stood there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”
6 And they told them what Jesus had said; and they let them go.

7 And they brought the colt to Jesus, and threw their garments on it; and he sat upon it.
8 And many spread their garments on the road, and others spread leafy branches which they had cut from the fields.

9 And those who went before and those who followed cried out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
10 Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!”
11 And he entered Jerusalem, and went into the temple; and when he had looked round at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Matthew 21:1-11

1 And when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples,
2 saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.
3 If any one says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and he will send them immediately.”

4 This took place to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet, saying,
5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass.”

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;
7 they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon.
8 Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

9 And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
10 And when he entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, “Who is this?”
11 And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.”

Luke 19:28-38

28 And when he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 When he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples,
30 saying, “Go into the village opposite, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat; untie it and bring it here.
31 If any one asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this, ‘The Lord has need of it.'”
32 So those who were sent went away and found it as he had told them.
33 And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?”
34 And they said, “The Lord has need of it.”

35 And they brought it to Jesus, and throwing their garments on the colt they set Jesus upon it.
36 And as he rode along, they spread their garments on the road.

37 As he was now drawing near, at the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen,
38 saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

John 12:12-18

12 The next day a great crowd who had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.

13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”

14 And Jesus found a young ass and sat upon it; as it is written,
15 “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on an ass’s colt!”
16 His disciples did not understand this at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that this had been written of him and had been done to him.
17 The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead bore witness.
18 The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign.

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Famous paintings of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem


Transfiguration. Is Jesus God or man?

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. Just before the Transfiguration, something important happens that unnerves the disciples of Jesus. What is it?
  2. What actually happens at the Transfiguration?
  3. What does the voice of God say at this crucial moment?
  4. What important idea about the nature of Jesus is locked into the story of the Transfiguration?

The Transfiguration is a key moment in Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee. Jesus has just predicted his suffering and death: doesn’t that mean failure, wonder the disciples? No. The Transfiguration shows them that Jesus is God’s agent of redemption.

Gold icon showing Jesus at the moment of his Transfiguration, 1300’s, Byzantine

Jesus transfigured on the mountain

Just before this story starts, Peter says that he believes Jesus is the Messiah. It is a momentous statement.

But then Jesus says something totally unexpected, something that leaves the disciples badly shaken. He predicts his impending suffering and death – not at all what the disciples are expecting. Until this moment they looked forward to a glorious future when Jesus announced his Messiah-ship. When that happened, they expected to take honoured places in the coming kingdom. Now Jesus demolished their hopes, and they were shaken and demoralized.

But something even more dramatic was about to happen, something that would confirm Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. It is so central to the story of Jesus that all three Synoptic gospels include it.

This is what happened

Jesus had taken three of his closest friends, the disciples Peter, John and James, up onto a lonely mountaintop. This isolated location, away from the ordinary setting of the Galilean and journey stories, gives it a special quality.

The three men were Jesus’ inner circle, the ones he trusted most. They had been present at the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and they would be present again with him in the garden of Gethsemane. Now they stood beside him at this seminal moment.

When they reached the summit Jesus prayed – probably standing up. As he prayed, the first of three extraordinary things happened. His face became as radiant as the sun, as if he were a source of light, dazzling to look at. Something of his true nature as God shone through. His clothes became uncannily bright, whiter than any ordinary cloth could be.

This visible alteration of Jesus demonstrated that he was more than merely human. It was the same Jesus, but now with a brightness ‘like the sun’ and ‘like light’.

See blue text in What the Gospels Say, at end of page

Moses and Elijah appear

Then, the second phenomenon. Suddenly two men appeared beside Jesus. The disciples recognized them as two of ancient Israel’s greatest figures, Moses and Elijah:

  • Moses who had lead the Hebrew tribes out of slavery in Egypt, and was the recipient of revelation from God
  • Elijah the great prophet of the Last Judgement.

Together, these two Old Testament figures represented the Law and the Prophets. Neither of them had a known grave, and both of them had spoken with God on a high mountain. Now they spoke to Jesus on a high mountain, both of them appearing ‘in glory’.

They were speaking to Jesus about his coming departure, in other words, about his coming death in Jerusalem. Their deference to Jesus showed clearly that he was the Messiah. In Exodus 34:29-35 we learnt that Moses’ face shone for a time with reflected glory after he had seen God; Jesus shone with his own glory.

Then Moses and Elijah appeared to move away. The disciples were dumb-founded, but frightened as he was Peter was the first to recover. Impetuous and well-meaning as ever, he offered to build three shelters/bowers, similar to the ones used to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. There would be one for each of the glorious figures before him.

It was a mistake. Impossible as it seemed to these 1st century Jews, Moses and Elijah were not on an equal par with Jesus. He far transcended them. Building three equal bowers was not appropriate.

See green text in What the Gospels Say

God speaks

Then the third phenomenon. As Peter was speaking, a cloud descended on to the mountain top, covering and enclosing them in a thick mist. In the Old Testament the presence of God is described as a cloud, one with fire and light. This cloud seemed to be God’s response to Peter’s offer to build the booths: they were not needed, since God had wrapped them all in his glory and his presence.

Understandably, the men were terrified. They sensed that this cloud was a sign of the Divine Presence. They were right. A voice coming from nowhere and everywhere said ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’

The only similar event in the gospels is at the baptism of Jesus, when the voice from heaven, speaking the same words as here, shows an other-worldly reality. Heaven has invaded earth.

See red text in What the Gospels Say

The aftermath

Then suddenly everything changed back to normal.

The cloud was gone, the Voice was silent, and Jesus looked as he normally did. Matthew makes a point of saying that Jesus touched them: this was the real Jesus whom they knew, not an illusion.

Together, he and the disciples wended their way down the mountain, back to the plain and to everyday life.

See black text in What the Gospels Say


Many Christians today favour an image of Jesus as a divine creature who was not fully human in the way that we are. Jesus has been so elevated that he is acknowledged to be God, but not truly man.

The Transfiguration shows that he was both: fully human, fully divine. On the one hand he appeared in glory; on the other, he touched the disciples, perhaps even shook them a little, to calm their terror – a very human act of reassurance.

What happened next? See Parable of the Good Samaritan

What the Gospels say

1. Jesus transfigured on the mountain. Read the blue text

2. Moses and Elijah appear. Read the green text

3. God speaks. Read the red text

4. Aftermath. Read the black text

Matthew 17:1-9

1 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light.

3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

5 He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe.

7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” 8 And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. 9 And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of man is raised from the dead.”

Mark 9:2-8

2 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves; and he was transfigured before them, 3 and his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them.

4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses; and they were talking to Jesus. 5 And Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid.

7 And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”

8 And suddenly looking around they no longer saw any one with them but Jesus only.


Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white.

30 And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” –not knowing what he said.

34 As he said this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silence and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.

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Jairus’ daughter

Jesus restores a young girl to life

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. Who was the girl in this story, and what happened to her?
  2. What did her father do?
  3. What did Jesus do? What sensible suggestion did he make?
  4. How does this miracle story link to the story of Dorcas?

This miracle shows Jesus’ authority over death. It also illustrates later Christian teaching about death: it is a sleep from which we will one day awake, when we hear the Savior’s voice.

The daughter of Jairus is dying

Jairus was an important man in the community. He was the ‘ruler’ of the synagogue, and thus a man of learning (much valued by the Jewish people) and some organizational skill. Synagogues were a recent innovation in 1st century Palestine, and the men in charge of them were presumably the best and brightest.

But he had been hit by the worst tragedy a person can face: the death of a child, in this case a beloved young daughter on the threshold of womanhood. She was twelve years old, and had been struck down by some unnamed illness or disease.

Jesus, reputed as a great healer, was in the neighbourhood, and Jairus sought him out in a last-ditch attempt to save his daughter. In his anguish he cast aside his dignity and fell at Jesus’ feet. He begged Jesus to come and heal the girl. She was at the point of death, but even now it might not be too late.

Jesus responded immediately. He would come. Jairus was relieved, and they started the journey to his house, accompanied by a large crowd of curious people. Walking close to Jesus were Peter, James and John, the three core disciples who would be with him later, at the Transfiguration and in the garden of Gethsemane.

Read the blue text at bottom of this page

Jairus’ daughter dies

Before they reached the house the girl died. Her anguished father was overcome by grief, but Jesus reassured him. She was not dead, Jesus said, but merely sleeping.

People in the crowd around him were no doubt sceptical, but they kept going until they reached the house.

There they found the official mourning already underway. Among the throng were flute-players and professional mourners hired for the funeral. So we can assume that the journey to the house has taken some time (Jesus and the people with him were on foot). In the meantime the girl had died, been certified as such, and her body prepared for burial.

Jesus told the professional mourners to leave. There was no need to pay for services that were not required. The girl was not dead but sleeping – in a coma? All three gospels make a point of saying that the people at the house laughed out loud at his naiveté. They were quite capable, they thought, of telling when someone was dead.

This was fair enough. Family members, with the help of people with specialised skills, prepared a dead body for burial; they would certainly have seen and prepared other dead bodies before this day. Moreover, funeral rites took place quite quickly after death in the hot climate of the ancient East.

Read the green gospel texts at bottom of this page

Jesus lifts the girl up from death

But Jesus persisted. He called for silence, then he ejected the crowd of mourners, allowing only her parents and his three disciples to remain. The room became calm, silent. Into the stillness came Jesus’ voice. “Ta’litha cu’mi” he said – Get up, little girl.

As Luke, a practiser of medicine, notes, her ‘spirit’ returned. Life came back into her inert body. And not just life but strength. She got up from the bed and walked.

Read the red text at bottom of page

‘Give her something to eat’

Then Jesus showed he was not just a miracle-worker, but a practical and kindly man as well: he told her parents to give her something to eat. She had not eaten for some time and must be hungry. People often forget that Jesus was a peasant from an ordinary rural community. He healed people, but he also cared about their well-being.

The story has what seems like a strange addendum: Jesus told the people who were present not to talk about it with others – a faint hope in the circumstances. We wonder why, until we realise that at this stage Jesus was attracting more attention than he wanted. Attention meant crowds, and crowds could mean danger if the authorities saw Jesus as a potential rebel against authority, Jewish or Roman.

Read the black gospel text at bottom of page


There are echoes of this story in the raising of Dorcas in Acts 9:36-43Peter, who has been present at the raising of Jairus’ daughter, had enough faith in the power of Jesus to raise another woman out of death.

What happened next? See Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes

What the Gospels say

1. The young daughter of Jairus is dying. Read the blue text

2. Jairus’ daughter dies. Read the green text

3. Jesus lifts the girl up from death. Read the red text

4. ‘Give her something to eat…’ Read the black text

Matthew 9:18-19, 23-26

18 While he was thus speaking to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” 19 And Jesus rose and followed him, with his disciples….

23 And when Jesus came to the ruler’s house, and saw the flute players, and the crowd making a tumult, 24 he said, “Depart; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. 25 But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose.

26 And the report of this went through all that district.

Mark 5:22-24, 35-43

22 Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name; and seeing him, he fell at his feet, 23 and besought him, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” 24 And he went with him. And a great crowd followed him and thronged about him…

35 While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” 36 But ignoring what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37 And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James.

38 When they came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, he saw a tumult, and people weeping and wailing loudly. 39 And when he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a tumult and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40 And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41 Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Tal’itha cu’mi”; which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” 42 And immediately the girl got up and walked (she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement.

43 And he strictly charged them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Luke 8:40-42, 49-56

40 Now when Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him. 41 And there came a man named Jairus, who was a ruler of the synagogue; and falling at Jesus’ feet he besought him to come to his house, 42 for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying…

49 While he was still speaking, a man from the ruler’s house came and said, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher any more.” 50 But Jesus on hearing this answered him, “Do not fear; only believe, and she shall be well.” 51 And when he came to the house, he permitted no one to enter with him, except Peter and John and James, and the father and mother of the child.

52 And all were weeping and bewailing her; but he said, “Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.” 53 And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. 54 But taking her by the hand he called, saying, “Child, arise.” 55 And her spirit returned, and she got up at once; and he directed that something should be given her to eat. 56 And her parents were amazed;

but he charged them to tell no one what had happened.

The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter, Vasiliy Polenov, 1871

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Rejection at Nazareth

Jesus rejected in Nazareth

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. What happened when Jesus arrived in Nazareth, the town where he had grown up?
  2. Why did the people of Nazareth take exception to Jesus?
  3. How did Jesus respond?
  4. Why was this story reassuring for the early Christians?

In brief:  Jesus returned to Nazareth, the town of his youth. He spoke in the synagogue, but the townspeople did not like what he said. They hurried him unceremoniously out of the town.

Returning homeReturning home

Nazareth would have looked something like thisNazareth is famous for one thing, and one thing only: it was the home town of Jesus. Here Jesus spent his boyhood living with his mother and father, and here that he faced the sceptical townsfolk of Nazareth.

The village seems to have been held in some contempt in 1st century Palestine – a nondescript dot on the map with not much to offer, overshadowed by nearby Sepphoris, the luxurious Greek-style capital recently built by Herod Antipas. It is beguiling to think that Joseph and Jesus, as builders, may have traipsed daily over to Sepphoris to work on the new city.

But time had passed. There was no mention of Joseph in the gospels at this point; it must be presumed that he had died (life expectancy was low) or was away working as an itinerant craftsman.

Mary may have been a widow; she seems to have been head of the family.

Read the blue text at end of page

At first, a positive reaction

The adult Jesus must have returned to his village a number of times to see his family, but this time there was an incident recorded in all three Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).

NAZARETH_VILLAGE_SYNAGOGNazareth could not boast many celebrities among its population so when Jesus, now a charismatic and famous teacher, returned home he was at first greeted warmly. He had left Nazareth as a private person; now he returned as a Rabbi, accompanied by scholars and disciples.

He went to the tiny synagogue. The usual service consisted of prayers, readings from the Law and the Prophets, and a sermon. Any competent man present could lead the service.

Jesus’ audience was at first impressed by what he said.

Read green text at end of page

Nazareth rejects Jesus

But then things turned sour. People took exception to the Scripture passage he chose – it was Isaiah 61:1-2:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the oppressed; he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour…

Having read through the passage, Jesus gave a discourse on what the words meant, and how they had now been fulfilled – in him. He made several points:

  • that Isaiah’s prophecy was now finally coming true
  • that the One anointed with the Spirit was Jesus himself
  • and that the time of God’s salvation had arrived.Jesus preaches in the synagogue at Nazareth, by Greg Olson

The people of Nazareth (and we may assume the synagogue was full) were startled at first, then hostile. They took exception to one of their own making such grandiose claims.

It may have been that, like many men whose birth was shadowed, Jesus had never been entirely accepted by the people he grew up with.

But someone in the congregation must have urged the others to give Jesus a chance. If he could show some tangible proof of his claims, then they would give more thought to the matter.

They had heard he cured the sick in nearby Capernaum. Let him do the same here in Nazareth.

Read the red text in Gospel passages at end of page

The effects of their unbelief

But Jesus was not a magician doing tricks to amuse the crowd. His miracles were vitally related to the faith and the moral condition of the person. Jesus could not perform a miracle for someone who was sceptical about his power and his identity. His miracles relied on

  • the inter-related power of God
  • the saving presence of Jesus
  • unconditional faith on the part of the person who wished to be cured.

These were not present in the people of Nazareth, and the gospels record that Jesus ‘could do no mighty works’ at Nazareth.

The people of Nazareth turned on him and ran him out of town. One of the gospels says that, in the ensuing mêlée, the rougher element among the villagers tried to kill him.

Jesus rejected in Nazareth, by Jeff Watkins

The painting by Jeff Watkins (above) shows the tumult of the moment, as Jesus is hustled and jostled out of Nazareth. The artist has captured the energy of the moment: Jesus is trying to leave, but is hemmed in and urged forward by the vigorous, angry men who abuse him. Are these the people he grew up with?

It was probably someone in this group who referred disparagingly to Jesus as ‘the son of Mary’ and ‘the carpenter’s son’ (see the passages from Matthew and Mark below). A Jewish man was normally referred to as ‘the son of (his father’s name)’, and we would expect Jesus to be called ‘the son of Joseph’. Calling him ‘the son of Mary’ implied Jesus could not even name his own father.Family Walking with God, Morgan Weistling

This particular gospel story was reassuring for the early Christians. They too were being rejected by their Jewish neighbours. They could take heart, as we can, from the fact that even Jesus was rejected by people he had known and trusted all his life.

The incident at Nazareth cannot have been a happy experience for anyone, especially Mary, who may have understood the villagers’ resentment but was forced to watch her son being vilified.

Read the black text in gospel passages at end of page

Extra information: the synagogue at nearby Capernaum

Excavated ruins of the synagogue at Capernaum

Excavated ruins of the synagogue at Capernaum

Jesus was based at Capernaum during his ministry to Galilee, but the synagogue pictured above is from a later century – Jesus did not teach in this building. However, the layout and floor-plan would have been the same:

  • a central space, in which the rabbi or commentator stood to read and speak
  • surrounding columns supporting the roof
  • aisle space behind the columns, lined with seats and benches.

This magnificent lime-stone synagogue was one of the largest and best-built of the Byzantine Period. Its walls, pavers and columns were made of white limestone from further west in Galilee, and contrasted sharply with the dark grey basalt stone of earlier buildings on this site.
The main room was flanked by two tiers of seats on the eastern and western sides, divided by two rows of columns.

Note: Jews at that time, before synagogues became popular, met in other places – an open square, a large house’s courtyard, an affluent person’s residence. Nazareth, poor as it was, may only have been able to offer this sort of setting to Jesus when he returned to his home town. The word ‘synagogue’ refers primarily to a gathering of people, and only secondarily to a formal structure – something that Jesus would have understood.

Frontal view of the remains of the interior of the synagogue at Capernaum

Frontal view of the Synagogue at Capernaum

Plan of the synagogue at Capernaum

Plan of the synagogue at Capernaum. A synagogue at Nazareth
would have been smaller and more modest in design.

What  the  Gospels say

There are two descriptions of the birth of Jesus. Matthew focuses on Joseph, Luke on Mary.

1. Returning home. Read the blue text

2. At first, a positive reaction. Read the green text

3. Rejection follows. Read the red text

3. The effects of their unbelief. Read the black text

Matthew 13:53-58 53 And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, 54 and coming to his own country he taught them in their synagogue,

so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? 55 Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” 57 And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honour except in his own country and in his own house.”

58 And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.

Mark 6:1-6 1 He went away from there and came to his own country; and his disciples followed him. 2 And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue;

and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works are wrought by his hands!

3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

4 And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honour, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”

5 And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them. 6 And he marvelled because of their unbelief.

Luke 4:16-30 16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the Sabbath day.

And he stood up to read;

17 and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” 20 And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

22 And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth;

and they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

23 And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself; what we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here also in your own country.'” 24 And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country. 25 But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; 26 and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. 29 And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong. 30 But passing through the midst of them he went away.

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Mary of Nazareth Extraordinary woman

Maps: where it happened

Parables of Jesus Ten famous stories

Wedding at Cana

Jesus’ miracle – water becomes wine

In brief: This story is not as simple as it seems. Changing water into wine at the marriage feast of Cana was Jesus’ first miracle. But he transformed himself as well: from an anonymous Galilean scholar into the man who would be Messiah.

The marriage at Cana

The marriage at Cana

Color, noise, happiness – this was a Middle Eastern wedding at the time of Jesus

Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle at a village marriage feast, was about three days’ journey on foot from the place where John the Baptist was preaching, and where Jesus was baptised. It was the scene of Jesus’ first miracle.

It happened at a wedding to which Jesus, his mother Mary and some of Jesus’ disciples were invited. Mary seems to have been the reason for the invitation: the gospel text says that Mary was there, and Jesus and some of his disciples had also been invited. Mary was the main guest; Jesus and the disciples seem to have been tag-alongs.

Giotto, detail from 'The Marriage Feast at Cana'.

Giotto, detail from ‘The Marriage Feast at Cana’. One of the household servants tests the wine at the Marriage Feast, and finds it to be very fine indeed…

The wedding would have been a lively affair. It was a village wedding, so everyone knew everyone else. Unfortunately we know nothing about the bride and groom. Perhaps they were relatives of Mary’s.

Read the blue text at end of page

Mary, a Jewish mother

It would be embarrassing to run out of alcohol at a wedding reception you were hosting. But remember that this story took place in the Middle East, in an ancient peasant household. There, it was a disaster.

It was a gross discourtesy and a shameful humiliation to have to admit that you had not provided enough wine for the guests who came to a marriage feast at your house.

Mary knew this only too well. She may even have experienced something similar in her own life, or in the lives of villagers from Nazareth. She was immediately sympathetic to the plight of her host, and wanted to help in whatever way she could.

  • The first way to help was, of course, to be discreet. The less people knew about the dilemma, the better.
  • The second was to remedy the situation. Mary approached Jesus. Help them, she said.

The Marriage Feast at Cana, by Jan Vermeyen

The Marriage Feast at Cana, painting by Jan Vermeyen. The face of Jesus (at right) is composed, almost drowsy, but his hands seem charged with energy. The people around him are already beginning to whisper…

The question is, why did she do this? She may have known her son was extraordinary, but why would she think he could solve this? Did she have an intuitive awareness of what he would become? Or of the power that he had?

And if he had these powers, why did he rebuff her? ‘What business of that is mine? My time has not yet come.’

Mary may merely have been prompting her son to do something to help in this crisis – like getting more wine from someone or some house nearby. It may be that guests, especially if they were close friends or relatives, brought along food and drink to supplement what the host provided.

But if so, what did Jesus mean when he said that his time has not yet come?

Read the green text at end of page

Marriage at Cana, Gerard David. No attempt at historical accuracy here – this woman is definitely not a Galileean peasant. But what splendor, what sumptuous beauty, what lavish color. Notice the delicate cloud of her hair. The food looks good too….

The miracle

Whatever the reason, Mary succeeded in nudging Jesus into activity. She was the traditional Jewish mother, unwilling to let her child remain inactive. She simply told the servants to do whatever Jesus told them.

There were six large stone water jars nearby. These were used for ceremonial washing – stone did not absorb impurities like clay, and so stone jars were used to store water was needed for ritual washing before a meal. They were apparently empty, the water in them used up by the many guests.


Wedding at Cana, Veronese, detail of the wine steward. The man is nearly as round as the barrel he holds, God bless him…

Jesus told the servants to fill six stone jars full of water, and they did so. Then he told them to scoop some of the water out and take it to the man in charge of the wedding. This they also did.

When the steward tasted the water, now turned into wine, he was impressed – not by the miracle, because he did not know about that, but by the quality of the wine.

This, you will remember, was on the third day of the wedding, and people had been drinking for three solid days. Usually the host would arrange for the best wine to be put out first; at that stage, people were cold sober, and could assess the quality of the wine.

Now it seemed that this custom had been ignored. Instead, the steward tasted high quality wine, something he did not expect at this stage of the wedding festivities.

Whether he ever found out the truth, we do not know.

It is at this moment that Jesus first allows the people around him to see what he really is: the Messiah, long-awaited and now here at last. The water is the past. He is the wine, the promised future.

Read the red text at end of page

What happened next? See Rejection at Nazareth

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. Why was Jesus at the wedding at Cana?
  2. Why was running out of wine so catastrophic for the hosts of this wedding feast?
  3. What did Mary do? What did Jesus do?
  4. Why was this event so important – for Jesus, and for us?

What John’s gospel says

1. The marriage at Cana. Read the blue text

Fine pictures higher up on this page, but now for the reality….

2. The Jewish mother. Read the green text

3. The miracle. Read the red text

John 2:1-11 1 On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; 2 Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples.

3 When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

6 Now six stone jars were standing there, for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the steward of the feast.” So they took it. 9 When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward of the feast called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

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Mary of Nazareth Extraordinary woman

Maps: where it happened


Satan, the Devil, tempts Jesus

In brief: Jesus had to face something we all face: temptation. 

Satan offered three things to Jesus: 

      • The ability to survive danger
      • Control over Nature
      • Absolute power

What did Jesus do? He rejected Satan. He knew that in fact the Devil had no control over any of these things. His promises were empty.

The lesson? The Son of God will always be victorious over the Powers of Darkness.

Into The Wilderness

Before Jesus could teach others, he had to face temptation: meet Satan face to face, confront him and defeat him.


Jesus looks out over the kingdoms of the Earth: the third temptation

The loneliness of this struggle was terrible. There were no friends to support him, only the wild beasts and the harsh desert.

The Devil encouraged Jesus to

  • misuse his divine powers
  • gain his purpose in the world by obeying the Devil instead of his Father
  • doubt the reality of his Father’s love and care.

The first temptation: stone to bread

temptation food

Jesus tempted to turn stone into bread

Jesus fasted for forty days.

What did that mean?

Fasting probably meant living off the land, not starving.

But there is very little food or water in the desert. Jesus survived, but he was physically weakened and mentally drained. This is when the Devil was most able to entice him – watch yourself and your actions when you are tired and drained. This is when you are tempted by Evil.

The first temptation urged Jesus to use his status as the Son of God to satisfy his hunger.

‘Make these stone into bread’, the Devil said to Jesus. ‘Your body needs you to do it. You are after all the Son of God. What’s the good of your power if you don’t use it?’

This was not simply about food. The Devil was urging Jesus to upset God’s pattern of creation by making something into what it is not meant to be, and using his power as Son of God for himself, and not in God’s service.

But Jesus would not do as the Devil suggested.

Stone to bread

Stone to bread, Christ in the Desert, Kramskoi

The second temptation

temple temptation

Jesus tempted at the pinnacle of the Temple

(Luke and Matthew place the temptations in a different order)

The Devil/Evil tried a second ploy. He took Jesus to the ‘holy city’- presumably Jerusalem. There he lifted Jesus and placed him on a ‘pinnacle’ of the Temple – probably some projecting turret or rooftop. (See Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem)

With breathtaking blasphemy, the Devil quoted God himself: ‘Jump’ he said. ‘God will surely protect you from harm, since you are His Son. He will send an angel to scoop you up and keep you safe.’

It was a seductive trick. But Jesus knew the quotation had been ripped out of its context – the Devil was actually mocking God’s words.

Jesus’ response was contemptuous. ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy. 6:14).

  • No-one, said Jesus, not even the Devil, could put God the Creator to the test.
  • We are God’s creatures. He is not ours.

model Jerusalem stairway

Reconstruction of a stairway leading to the Temple precincts, with what could be described as a ‘pinnacle’ above

The Third Temptation


The Devil offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world

The Devil/Evil then tried a third ploy.

He took Jesus to the peak of the highest mountain in the world (people at the time believed that the Earth was flat).

The world was spread out before them and the Devil, like a prospective seller, pointed out all the kingdoms of the world.

‘Worship me’ said the Devil, ‘give yourself over to me, and I will give you power over all this.’

Once again there are echoes of the Old Testament, when the People of God were dissatisfied with God and were tempted to worship the Golden Calf.

Here was the entire world, over which Jesus would exercise complete power. Think of all the good he could do!

But the world, Jesus knew, did not belong to the Devil. It was not his to give. Satan’s promise was not to be trusted. Bowing to him was incompatible with serving God.

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. What is the first temptation? Immortality – meaning nothing can hurt you, and you do not fear Death. Would this tempt you?
  2. What is the second temptation? Power over Nature – in other words, Magic. Would this tempt you?
  3. What is the third temptation? Power to do anything, have anything you want. ‘I’ll give you the world..’ Would this tempt you?

Which of the temptations is the most seductive for you?

What the Gospels say

1. The first temptation, read the blue text

2. The second temptation. Read the green text

3. The third temptation. Read the red text

Matthew 4:1-11

1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

2 And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry.

3 And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'”

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple,

6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'”

7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'”

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them;

9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

10 Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'”

11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him.

Mark 1:12-13

12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.

Luke 4:1-13

1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit

2 for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry.

3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”

4 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.'”

5 And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time,

6 and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will.

7 If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.”

8 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'”

9 And he took him to Jerusalem, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here;

10 for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you,’

11 and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'”

12 And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'”

13 And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.

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