The Middle Passovers
“There was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (John 5:1). “The pass‑
over, a feast of the Jews, was nigh” (John 6:4).
by David Rice
All four Gospels narrate the experiences of Jesus in a generally sequential fashion, but not entirely. Matthew sometimes aggregates subjects by topic. For instance, his account of our Lord’s Great Prophecy in Matthew 24 joins things together that apparently were said on three separate occasions, as reflected in Luke chapters 12, 17, and 21.
Matthew was originally written in Hebrew, with a Jewish audience in mind. Its successor, the Gospel of Mark, follows the order of Matthew, but it was written in Greek for access by an expanded Christian community. Mark condenses and clarifies things in Matthew. For example, reading Matthew 21:12 in context, one may suppose that Jesus cast out moneychangers from the temple complex on the same day that he received Hosannas from the people. But Mark 11:11,15 shows that it was the day following. Thus, it was an action taken by Jesus after deliberate consideration. Peter, Mark’s source, would have clarified that for him.
The Gospel of Luke came later, researched from firsthand witnesses, probably while his companion Paul was imprisoned for two years in Caesarea after Paul’s third missionary journey (Luke 1:1-4). Luke took care to write “in order” (Luke 1:3), rendered “in an orderly sequence” in the NASB.
However, it is John’s Gospel that distinguishes four Passover seasons in the ministry of Jesus. This helps us distinguish which years were involved in the various episodes. Three of these seasons are marked directly, in John 2:13, 6:4, and 11:55 — Passovers 1, 3, and 4. The second Passover season is indicated by John 5:1, “After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” Did John mean the Passover feast? Perhaps. The previous chapter mentions a time “four months” before harvest, and the passing of time between those two chapters may have bridged that time.
However, it may also have been the feast of Purim, in month 12. That would explain why John did not specify “Passover” here, as he did for example in John 2:13 and 6:4. Either way, John 5 would have occurred at approximately a Passover season.
John 5 — Passover Season Two
On the occasion of this visit to Jerusalem, Jesus healed a man “which had an infirmity thirty and eight years” (John 5:5). The time of this infirmity is composed of 7s and 12s, two of each, suggesting that this healing pertains to the Gospel Age, when spiritual healing comes to the saints. We think this is the symbolic meaning of the passage. If so, then the fact that this healing occurred on a Sabbath day would connect to the Gospel Age rest of the saints, obtained by their faith in the atonement provided in Christ Jesus. “We which have believed do enter into rest” (Hebrews 4:3).1
(1) There were seven miracles of Jesus recorded in John’s Gospel. We think that these seven connect to the works of Jesus for believers during the Gospel Age. The seven miracles were (1) Water into wine, (2) Nobleman’s son at Capernaum, (3) Paralytic at the pool of Bethesda, (4) Feeding the 5000, (5) Walking on water, (6) Healing the one blind from birth, (7) Raising Lazarus.
This miracle occurred near the Sheep Gate (John 5:2, most translations), reminding us that we are the sheep of our Good Shepherd, Jesus (John 10:14). It was the pool of Bethesda, meaning “house of mercy,” appropriate to the mercy that comes to us through the service of Jesus (2 John 1:3). At this pool were five porches, a number often connected to the Gospel Age Church, redeemed by the blood of Jesus, and favored with the Spirit of God. The numbers for redemption and the Spirit are three and two, and their sum is five.2
(2) Respecting redemption, Jesus was in the tomb for 3 days, his life was valued at 30 pieces of silver, he was anointed for his death with 300 pence of ointment, and those baptized into Christ at Pentecost were 3000. A similar pattern for the holy Spirit of 2, 20, 200, 2000, begins with the two olive trees of Zechariah 4.
Jesus was not implored for this miracle, as in some other cases. This miracle was initiated by Jesus, just as our healing and undeserved calling was initiated by Jesus. The question Jesus asked the paralytic is pertinent to each person today who sees their need: “Wilt thou be made whole?” (John 5:6). If we wish it, we can receive it. The afflicted man did not answer directly but reflected upon his despair. “Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool.” He did not yet recognize, in Jesus, the answer for his concern.
Jesus kindly responded, “Rise, take up thy bed, and walk” (John 5:8). Similarly, he speaks to us. Are we aware enough of our need? Do we wish to be healed? The answer does not lie in an enchanting pool. We would have no idea how to be healed. But our Master gently directs us, “Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.”
A Surprising Reaction
John 5:18 is surprising. “Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him [Jesus], because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father.” Jesus had not broken the Sabbath, for no law forbids kind acts of mercy on the Sabbath. Additionally, Jesus had spoken truthfully that God was his Father.
Already, about a year and a half into his ministry, Jesus had aroused some ill will with an act of mercy. The hostility toward him seems odd to us. Perhaps it was built upon their observations about Jesus a year earlier, when he purged the temple at the previous Passover (John 2:13-15). That would have caught the attention of Jewish leaders. Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus, in John 3, suggests that Jesus was already a public figure by that time. John 4:1 also records, “the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John,” even before John had been imprisoned (John 3:24).
The narrative continues in John 5:17-47, showing that Jesus was open and direct with the Pharisees about his relationship with his Heavenly Father, and his service to him. As God had life in Himself (enabling Him to give life to others), so He had given Jesus to have life in himself, that “the dead” world then visited might “hear the voice of the Son of God … [and] live” (John 5:26, 15). Even more remarkable, the hour would later come when “all that are in the graves” would hear and be enlivened (John 5:28).
These were not small claims. Presumably they were said in pleasant tones, for good reception. But such claims would call for earnest judgment in the mind of a hearer, either for or against them. They were remarkable claims and would understandably cause some poor reactions. But Jesus’ ministry of 3½ years was relatively brief, and it seemed to call for clear pronouncements.
John 6 — Passover Three
There seems to be a notable gap in the narrative between the end of John 5 and the opening of John 6. Jesus would have returned to Galilee after his visit to Jerusalem for the feast and had various experiences there in the intervening year.
John 6 is now one year before the final Passover, at which Jesus would give his life. Whether Jesus did go to Jerusalem on this occasion is not apparent from John, or the other gospels. But it seems that he did not. John 6:17 mentioned Capernaum. Verse 59 mentions the same again, and the verses through the chapter’s end at verse 71 seem part of one narrative without any change of location.
Perhaps the reason for Jesus not going to Jerusalem on this occasion is explained in John 7:1. “After these things Jesus walked in Galilee: for he would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him.” Indeed, they had sought to kill him a year earlier. “Therefore, the Jews sought the more to kill him” (John 5:18). Jesus did attend the Feast of Tabernacles in the autumn of that year, but even then, he went up “as it were in secret” (John 7:10) and took care. In John 7:25, some said “Is not this he, whom they seek to kill?” This affirms that enemies of Jesus were at hand.
A Feast of Sorts
In John 6, at the third Passover season, a year before Jesus would die, he was pressed by the crowds in Galilee. “A great multitude followed him” (verse 2). So “Jesus went up into a mountain, and there he sat with his disciples” (verse 3). Verse 4 says that the Passover “was nigh.” We remember at the last supper that Jesus initiated a remembrance of his coming death with the emblems of bread and wine, symbolizing the body and blood of Jesus. These symbols represent the wholeness of Jesus’ human life, as a father might say of his son, “he is my own flesh and blood.”
On the occasion of John chapter six also, presumably not on Passover day, but during Passover season, Jesus spoke of the same emblems in his interchange with the crowds. John 6:5 says, Jesus “lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him.” It was indeed a large company. The narrative later explains that there were 5000 men (verse 10), an overwhelming assembly. Perhaps there were some women and children in addition — notice the mention of a lad in verse 9.
The count of 5000 probably represents for us the opening of the Gospel Age, as did the five pillars at the entrance to the Holy of the Tabernacle. The subsequent feeding of 4000, recorded in Matthew and Mark (but not in Luke or John), take us in picture to the close of Gospel Age, as do the four pillars leading to the Most Holy of the Tabernacle.
Of interest in this connection is the interior capacity of the Holy. Some brethren compute this to have been 1845 cubic cubits.3 If the door beginning the Holy represents the time Jesus began his walk as a New Creature with his baptism in 29 AD, then 1845 years later — a year for each unit of volume — takes us to 1874 for the harvest period of the Gospel Age, gathering the saints into glory.
(3) The author agrees with this computation. The interior width of the Tabernacle was nine cubits (6 boards x 1½ cubits each, Exodus 26:16,22). For the outside width to be 10 cubits (half of the 20 cubit width of Solomon’s Temple, 1 Kings 6:2), then the side “boards,” which may have been hollow, were 1/2 cubit thick. These were set in sockets of silver, of the same sort that also supported the four pillars leading to the Most Holy. This suggests that those pillars, presumably square pillars, also measured 1/2 cubit in width and breadth. If the Vail was hung on the back side of those four pillars, then from the beginning of the Holy to the Vail would be 20½ cubits. That would make the internal capacity of the Holy 20½ cubits long x 9 wide x 10 tall — 1845 cubit cubits.
The exterior length of the Tabernacle was 30 cubits (20 boards of 1½ cubits each). Subtracting from this length 20½ cubits up to the Vail, and the 1/2 cubit of thickness for the boards ending the Most Holy, provides a square interior of the Most Holy of 9 x 9 cubits. The height was 10 cubits, giving an internal capacity of 810 cubic cubits. The Ark of the Covenant (without the Cherubim) measured 1½ x 1½ x 2½ cubits — which means that the volume of the Ark, times 144, would fill the Most Holy.
We think the feeding of the 5000 represents the feeding of the saints at the opening of the age and feeding the 4000 represents feeding the saints during the harvest. In the first case, 12 baskets of remnants were gathered. In the second case, 7 baskets were collected. Perhaps this shows that after the first feeding the residue is in the teachings of the apostles — and after the second feeding, we have the additional accumulated help of the seven messengers.
In John 6:14, “those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world.” Thus, after the work of the First Advent, and the spiritual nourishment provided, many recognized that Jesus was indeed the Messiah of promise, the redeemer of mankind.
Because it was premature for Jesus’ royal elevation, when Jesus perceived that the multitude would make him a king, “he departed again into a mountain himself alone,” apparently without his disciples (John 6:15). Similarly, after his First Advent, Jesus went into the mountain kingdom of God for 18 centuries, because it was not yet time for him to assume royal authority over earth. That would await his return (Revelation 11:15).
Jesus’ disciples, meanwhile, remain here among the sea of humanity. This age ends with a tempest of trouble (Acts 27:14). John 6:18 tells us that “the sea arose by reason of a great wind that blew,” perhaps representing the closing “storm” of the harvest. The parallel account of Matthew 14:25, properly rendered, tells us that Jesus appeared to rescue the disciples at the approach of the fourth watch (tetarte, to or toward the fourth watch). That time can connect prophetically with the close of the harvest.
Counting from daybreak, Israelites of Jesus’ day divided the daylight hours into four parts (the lesser and greater morning, the lesser and greater evening). Adding three night watches takes one to the end of seven periods of time, and the approach of the fourth watch. Because this scene is about the rescue of the saints, these seven periods may represent the seven stages of the Gospel Age Church. That is when Jesus intervenes to take those remaining of his Bride class to safety, to glory, as God took Elijah.
After Jesus and his disciples came ashore, they were later joined by the crowd who followed him across the sea to Capernaum. These were the ones who had wished to make Jesus a king. Therefore, Jesus proposed a test of their faith. He said, “Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled” (John 6:26). He advised them to “Labour … for the meat which endureth unto everlasting life” (verse 27). When they inquired what they should do, Jesus replied, “believe on him whom He hath sent” (verse 29).
That did not seem difficult, for they were already prepared to make him their king. But their interest in spiritual things, particularly their faith in him as one sent of God, was not up to the task. Jesus replied, “I am the living bread … the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world … except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you” (verses 51, 53).
This was a hard saying. The crowds faded away. Their faith was insufficient. So great was the departure that Jesus asked of the twelve, “Will ye also go away?” (verse 67). But they would not. Their understanding was incomplete, but their faith was stable. We also might wonder, as we pass through the experiences of life, is God mindful and caring? If so, why is He allowing us a particular difficulty? Our understanding of God’s purpose may be incomplete. But let our faith remain.
An engaging observation is that at this third Passover season, though there is no record of Jesus returning to Jerusalem for the occasion, the symbols that Jesus would later provide at the last supper were introduced here, one year earlier. We must receive the bread and blood — the body and life of Jesus — or we “have no life” in us (John 6:52).
Unlike the crowds who turned away, let us proceed. Let us keep the feast. Let us accept, with gratitude, what Jesus gave for us. His own life.