Jesus’s Last Weeks
We all know the Passion narrative that details the events during Jesus’s last week, from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. Yet, most Christians would be hard pressed to answer this question: Where was Jesus in the weeks leading up to his arrival in Jerusalem?
While it may seem a trivial question, it is an important one in that three major events occurred during that time that would mark (1) the culminating moment in his public ministry, (2) a power struggle among the apostles, and (3) a final miracle that sealed his fate.
Mount Tabor: The Transfiguration
Six miles from Nazareth stands Mount Tabor, the site where Deborah and her small Israelite army defeated the mighty Canaanites 1,100 years before Jesus’s birth. It was here that Jesus brought his most trusted inner circle—Peter, and James and John (sons of Zebedee)—to pray. It was not unusual for the three to accompany Jesus alone. They had been with him when he had raised Jairus’ daughter, one of the many miracles Jesus had performed. However, on this day, Peter, James, and John would witness the miracle that was Jesus: the moment of disclosure of his divine glory.
Shortly before the Transfiguration, Jesus had begun teaching his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to be killed and then raised on the third day. However, the disciples dismissed this teaching; they were planning for the new Davidic kingdom that Jesus would rule over. Even though Peter, James, and John saw the transformation of Jesus on Mount Tabor—into a dazzling white light with Moses and Elijah at his sides—they did not realize its import. They recognized the divine spirit that he was, but they did not understand all that was about to unfold in Jerusalem.
But Jesus did. He had prayed fervently to his Father to learn what course his ministry should take. His conclusion, as he taught his disciples, was truly terrifying. The Transfiguration, in addition to revealing the true nature of Jesus to his trusted apostles, was also an opportunity for Jesus to confer with Moses and Elijah to confirm his own conclusion. Moses and Elijah “spoke of his departure…at Jerusalem”—that is, they talked with Jesus about his coming passion, crucifixion, and resurrection. Jesus was thereby strengthened for the ordeal that lay ahead and “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
Jericho: The Attempted Coup
After the Transfiguration, Jesus and the Twelve headed to Jericho. The apostles still believed at this point that Jesus was to usher in a new kingdom on earth, and that they would play major roles in this new government.
With this new kingdom in mind, James and John, urged on by their mother, Salome, asked Jesus for the two highest ministerial portfolios in his imminent government. This request would effectively push Peter, the third member of the trusted inner circle, to a position subordinate to the brothers. One can understand why this maneuvering occurred. Salome was related to Jesus, his first cousin or step-cousin. If there was to be a new kingdom ruled by Jesus, his family should naturally play key roles in the dynasty. They would reasonably anticipate having precedence over Peter, a non-kinsman. However, Jesus denied their request, saying the appointments were not his to give, but “those for whom it is to be prepared.” Jesus intended the Church to be run by believers, not to be a family dynasty. This is evidenced in the selection of Matthias by lot over Joses Barsabbas, Jesus’s step-brother, after the Ascension.
Of course, when James’s and John’s petition became known to the other disciples, dissension followed, which could not have pleased Jesus since he was fully aware of what lay ahead. It is interesting to note that while James accompanied Jesus to Gethsemane, along with Peter and John, James is not as prominent in scripture after this episode. As the older brother, Jesus would have held him primarily responsible for the dissention caused. John redeemed himself during Jesus’ lifetime by his subsequent courage during the Passion, his care-taking of Jesus’s mother, Mary, and by his deference to Peter. James’ repentance, and Jesus’ forgiveness, did not occur until Jesus’s appearance to him in a private epiphany after the Resurrection.
Bethany: Raising Lazarus
While in Jericho, Jesus received an urgent message from the sisters Mary and Martha: Lazarus was dying and needed his help. We know that Lazarus and his sisters were close friends of Jesus; he stayed with them whenever he was in Bethany. Yet, John tell us that Jesus, upon hearing the news, hesitated; he remained where he was for another two days, and only then began to head to the village. By then, Lazarus was already dead.
Why would Jesus hesitate so when Lazarus was like a brother to him? The answer is that Jesus, who knew he was about to die, was to perform one last miracle—his greatest—so all would see the power and glory of God. Upon arriving in Bethany, Jesus went to Lazarus’s tomb, asked for the stone laying upon it to be removed, and then ordered Lazarus to “come out.” Lazarus did, bound in bandages and his face covered by a cloth. Jesus’s promise to Martha—“your brother will rise again”—was fulfilled, first on earth and years later when Lazarus did “fall asleep.”
As one might imagine, the news of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead spread quickly, soon reaching the ears of Caiaphas. Jesus was already a wanted man. The Sanhedrin had taken note of his teachings—particularly his threats against them and the Temple—and his ever-growing number of followers. This final miracle was the last straw for them: Jesus must be killed.
Have you ever wondered why Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary, were not at the Crucifixion? The reason was Caiaphas. He put out a death warrant on Lazarus. The best way to disprove Jesus’s greatest miracle was to simply remove the evidence. Most likely, a sympathizer within the Temple bureaucracy alerted Lazarus or a disciple of Jesus to the issuance of the order for his death. So, Lazarus and his sisters, after saying their goodbyes to Jesus, fled from Bethany. Tradition says that the family ended up in Cyprus.
Bethpage: Last Stop before Jerusalem
After leaving Bethany, Jesus and the disciples turned toward Jerusalem. Along the way, they stopped in Bethpage, near the Mount of Olives. It was here that the disciples secured a donkey’s colt for Jesus to ride into the holy city. This action had nothing to do with using the animal for transportation; it had everything to do with fulfilling the prophecy in Zechariah: “Behold, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious as he is, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey.”
At the gates of Jerusalem, throngs of people welcomed Jesus, waving palm fronds and singing “Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.” The symbolism of the donkey was not lost on them. Sadly, it was not lost on the Sanhedrin either. Five days later, after sharing a final supper with his apostles, Jesus was arrested by the Sanhedrin. The following day, he was tried and crucified.