The Timeline of Christ’s Passion
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
Jesus Christ paid the ultimate price for the sins of humanity with His own life. He laid down His life to show His love for us. Did you know that the end of Christ’s earthly life occurred during the Passover season? This was the season in which God chose to show His love for the world. The timeline of events from His last Passover through His resurrection is sometimes called the Passion of Christ.
Before we can understand this timeline of events, we must first understand the Passover Season. To delve deeper in this subject, we must first review some details from the Old Testament. The Old Testament is the foundation of knowledge for the New Testament. It is the backdrop for all events in the New Testament. The Old Testament is quoted hundreds of time in the New Testament. Thus, to FULLY understand events in the New Testament, we need a grasp on the Old Testament. This will make the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ come to life.
The second detail we must grasp is how time is reckoned in the Bible. When Jesus was on earth, He only gave us one sign. “39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, but no sign will be given it but the sign of Jonah the prophet. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:39-40). In Jonah 1:17, the Bible records that Jonah “…was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”
If this was the ONLY sign, it seems that it would be important to know it. What does three days and three nights really mean? The Roman Catholic timeline of Christ’s Passion is as follows: He had Passover and was arrested on a Thursday evening. He then suffered and died on Friday afternoon; lastly, He resurrected on Sunday morning. Many non-Catholic Christians also accept this view. Do we simply accept the traditional view? Only the Bible can direct us in the proper understanding of days and nights and the timeline of Christ’s Passion.
Old Testament Background
Our examination of this subject will start with an understanding of the first Passover. In Exodus chapter 12, the children of Israel honored their first national Passover. On the fourteenth day of the first month on the Hebrew Calendar they killed a one-year old lamb and placed its blood on the top and sides of the door post outside their homes. That same night they ate a meal of lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs. That same night the death angel came through the land of Egypt to slay the first born of those who did not follow these instructions. The people were commanded to stay in their homes until daylight (Exodus 12:22).
After the Passover is a seven-day period called the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The First and Last Days of this seven-day period are annual Sabbaths. Annual Sabbaths are special days in a year in which no work or labor is to be performed (this is in the same manner as the weekly Sabbath, which is from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset).
Altogether, Passover and Unleavened Bread are eight days. Sometimes they are listed separately and at other times the entire eight-day period is called Unleavened Bread. We have some Biblical examples below:
“5 In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month in the evening, is the LORD’s Passover. 6 On the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread to the LORD. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. 7 In the first day you shall have a holy convocation. You shall do no regular work. 8 But you shall offer an offering made by fire to the LORD seven days. In the seventh day is a holy convocation: you shall do no regular work” (Lev. 23:5-8).
“Observe the month of Abib, and keep the Passover to the LORD your God; for in the month of Abib the LORD your God brought you out of Egypt by night…3 You shall eat no leavened bread with it. You shall eat unleavened bread with it seven days, even the bread of affliction; for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste; that you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life” (Deut. 16:1, 3).
“Three times in a year all of your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which he chooses: in the feast of unleavened bread, in the feast of weeks, and in the feast of tents. They shall not appear before the LORD empty” (Deut. 16:16).
“14 You shall observe a feast to me three times a year. 15 You shall observe the feast of unleavened bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month Abib (for in it you came out of Egypt), and no one shall appear before me empty…” (Exodus 23:14-15).
These details provide the necessary background information to understand the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Sometimes Passover is listed separately from Unleavened Bread (Lev. 23:5-8; Deu. 16:1-3). In Deuteronomy 16:16 and Exodus 23:14-15, God gives a summary of the three Holy Day seasons. While it is not specifically mentioned, Passover was still observed the day before the Seven Days of Unleavened Bread.
As we read the gospels, we learn that Christ was not just keeping “the last supper” with His disciples. They were keeping Passover.
The Meaning of Three Days and Three Nights
The next step is to understand how time is calculated in the Bible. Christ said He would be in the tomb three days and three nights. There has been a debate about the meaning of these words. Was Jesus in the Tomb parts of three days (such as part of Friday, Part of Saturday, and Part of Sunday) or was He in the Tomb three whole days and three whole nights (72 hours). A series of verses will provide clarity.
“Jesus answered, ‘Aren’t there twelve hours of daylight? If a man walks in the day, he doesn’t stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if a man walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light isn’t in him’” (John 11:9-10). These verses describe events that happened just before Passover. Jesus plainly said that there were twelve hours of day. Night is juxtaposed as a separate time from the twelve hours of day.
Some would use Jesus’ words to proclaim that only the hours of day are counted. However, the hours of night and day are both counted in the Bible. “For these aren’t drunken, as you suppose, seeing it is only the third hour of the day” (Acts 2:15). “Prepare two hundred soldiers to go as far as Caesarea, with seventy horsemen, and two hundred men armed with spears, at the third hour of the night” (Acts 23:23).
These two examples from Acts teach us that both the night hours and the day hours are counted. In fact, the night was divided into four watches of so many hours each. “In the fourth watch of the night, Jesus came to them, walking on the sea” (Matthew 14:25).
In Mark 5:5, we learn about the man of Gedara, who was possessed by demons. “And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying and cutting himself with stones.” Obviously, night and day are mentioned in the verse to describe a 24-hour period. The man was crying out at all times.
In Matthew 4:2, we learn that Christ fasted forty days and forty nights: “When he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was hungry afterward.” I have never heard anyone make the assertion that Christ fasted less than forty days with 24 hours each.
From these Biblical examples, the answer is plain. Jesus was in the tomb three days and three nights or 72 hours.
Now that we have the Biblical understanding of Passover and time, we will begin to map out the events that happened from the Passover through the Resurrection. One detail to keep in mind is that the Jewish people celebrated Passover on the wrong night in Jesus’ day (they celebrated it on the 15th of Nissan). This allowed Jesus to celebrate it with His disciples on the 14th of Nissan, after the Biblical reckoning, and still be sacrificed as the Passover Lamb according to common Jewish practice. As we go through the timeline, we will quote as many Scriptures as space allows. We will have references for summarized verses.
Tuesday Night – The Passover
Matthew 26:17-20 – “Now on the first day of unleavened bread, the disciples came to Jesus, saying to him, ‘Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover?’ He said, ‘Go into the city to a certain person, and tell him, ‘The Teacher says, ‘My time is at hand. I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’ The disciples did as Jesus commanded them, and they prepared the Passover. Now when evening had come, he was reclining at the table with the twelve disciples.”
The first day of Unleavened Bread mentioned in these verses is later clarified as the Passover. Matthew is clearly referring to the entire eight days as Unleavened Bread. Passover comes first. Notice that Passover began in the evening. A full day in the Bible begin and end at sunset (Genesis chapter 1 informs us that evening and morning are one day). While Jesus kept the Passover, the following events happened:
John 13:2-17 – As the meal was being served, Christ washed the feet of His disciples. He set an example for us to do the same.
Luke 22:17 – Jesus opened the Passover meal with the blessing of the first cup (historically this was called the Kiddush).
Matthew 26:23-25; John 13:18-30 – Judas eats the bread dipped in the dish. He left the meal to betray Jesus. “Therefore having received that morsel, he went out immediately. It was night” (John 13:30).
Matthew 26:26-28; Luke 22:19-20 – Jesus took the unleavened bread and the last cup; He revealed and instituted that these elements represented His body and blood. Luke noted that this cup was taken at the end of the meal.
Matthew 26:31-35 – Jesus told the disciples that they would stumble this same night. “Then Jesus said to them, ‘All of you will be made to stumble because of me tonight’…” (Matthew 26:31). Peter contended that he would never fall away. Jesus then prophesied that Peter would deny Him three times.
John Chapters 14-17 – Christ taught the disciples about the meaning of discipleship and the coming of the Holy Spirit. He prayed for all those who would believe in Him.
Matthew 26:36-46; John 18:1; Luke 22:39-44 – Christ went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray with the disciples. He took on the sins of the world and suffered in great agony. In this angst, He sweat great drops of blood.
Matthew 26:47-56; John 18:2-12 – In the Garden, Judas arrived with troops and soldiers to betray Jesus. Our Savior was arrested and the disciples were scattered.
Matthew 26:57-68 – Jesus was led before the high priest, elders, and Sanhedrin; He was hastily put on trial and falsely accused.
Matthew 26:69-75 – Peter denied Christ three times. The rooster crowed; he realized his sin and wept.
Matthew 27:1-2 – “Now when morning had come, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death: and they bound him, and led him away, and delivered him up to Pontius Pilate, the governor.”
Matthew 27:11-26a; John 18:28-40 – Jesus was put on trial by Pilate; while many accusations came forward, Pilate declared Him innocent. The people refused this ruling and wanted a criminal released instead.
John 19:1-3; Matthew 27:26b-30 – Jesus was mocked and subsequently scourged by the Romans. He had a crown of thorns driven into his head. The people wanted His crucifixion; Pilate washed his hands of Christ’s blood and turned Him over to their demands.
Matthew 27:31-38; John 19:16-24 – Jesus was led out to be crucified; He began carrying his own cross. At some point along the way, Simon of Cyrene helped him carry the cross. He was crucified along with two convicted criminals, who were placed on either side of Him.
Matthew 27:39-51 – Christ was mocked while He suffered. Darkness covered the land from the sixth hour unto the ninth hour of day (12 pm to 3 pm in our reckoning of time). About 3 pm, Christ breathed his last breath and died. This detail is very important. Our countdown to His resurrection begins at this moment.
Wednesday Late Afternoon
John 19:31-33 – “Therefore the Jews, because it was the Preparation Day, so that the bodies wouldn’t remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a special one), asked of Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. Therefore the soldiers came, and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who was crucified with him; but when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was already dead, they didn’t break his legs.”
In Roman times, they broke the legs of those nailed to a cross because it hastened the process of death by suffocation. John’s gospel informs us why they wanted the bodies off the crosses.
John 19:31 reads: “…for that Sabbath day was a special one” The Greek word translated as ‘special one’ is megas. When megas is used with the word Sabbath, it refers to an Annual Sabbath (not the weekly Sabbath). Therefore, John 19:31 references the First Day of Unleavened Bread, which is the day after Passover. They did not want the bodies to remain on the crosses during this Holy Day. Jesus had already passed away before they could break His legs.
Matthew 27:57-61; Mark 15:42-47 – In the late afternoon, Joseph of Arimathea asked for Jesus’ body. He wrapped the body in linen cloth and laid it in his own tomb, which was carved out of rock. Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Sanhedrin. This means he had to bury Jesus’ body, wash with water, and still attend the public celebration of Passover after sunset.
Mark 15:47 – “Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Joses, saw where he was laid.”
Matthew 27:62-66 – On the First Day of Unleavened Bread, the priests and Pharisees asked Pilate to place a guard over the cover of the entrance to the Tomb for the next three days. They recalled Jesus’ words that He would rise from the dead after 3 days. Pilate agreed and sent troops. The tomb was also sealed to prevent anyone from rolling it away.
Thursday Evening or Friday Morning
Mark 16:1 – “And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.”
The Sabbath which passed was the First Day of Unleavened Bread. No shops would have been open, so they had to wait until the Annual Sabbath was over before they could buy and prepare them.
Luke 23:56a – “They returned, and prepared spices and ointments…”
Friday at Sunset
Luke 23:56b – “…On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.” The weekly Sabbath is a commandment.
Saturday Afternoon – Jesus resurrected from the dead. This was 72 hours after He died and was buried. Most Jewish people would have been at synagogue or resting at home.
Saturday Evening – “Now on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene went early, while it was still dark, to the tomb, and saw the stone taken away from the tomb. 2 Therefore she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have laid him!’ Mary came to the Tomb and found it empty. She ran to tell Peter and John. They ran to the tomb to see that it was empty” (John 20:1-2).
Recall that Biblical days begin and end at sunset. Therefore, early on the first day of the week while it was still dark would have been just after sunset on Saturday. As soon as the Sabbath ended they went to the Tomb. It was empty.
Thus, we can see that the only arrangement of time that allows for 72 hours to elapse from Christ’s death to His resurrection is a Tuesday night Passover and arrest, a Wednesday crucifixion/death, and a Saturday afternoon resurrection. This arrangement also allows for an Annual Sabbath and weekly Sabbath to be included.
Now we can better understand the gospel accounts describing the timeline of Christ’s Passion.
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – biblesabbath.org
Holy Bible. Kingdom Life Version.
Jewish Encyclopedia 1905: Kiddush; Seder