How long was Jesus’ earthly ministry?
The Synoptic Gospels- Matthew, Mark & Luke- leave a gap between Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and His rejection in Nazareth, giving the mistaken impression that little time passed between Jesus beginning His ministry at His baptism and then calling the Four to be fishers of people. John 1-4 fills in that gap, telling us a bit of what transpired between those events and how much time might have elapsed.
If Luke is the Gospel writer intent on giving us an “orderly account,” then John is the Gospel writer most concerned with giving us a timeline for the life of Christ. He hinges his Gospel on the events the Jews anchored their calendar to, the annual Festivals, most specifically Passover. The first Passover during Jesus’ ministry happens about 3 months after His baptism.
IN YEAR ONE
1st Passover / Spring
“When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” John 2:13 NIV
IN YEAR TWO
2nd Passover / Spring
Unspecified Jewish Festival
“Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals.” John 5:1 NIV
This unspecified festival was likely either Passover or the Feast of Tabernacles, with the latter being suggested by Thomas & Gundry, along with their explanation of why it would fall in the 2nd year of Jesus’ ministry.
IN YEAR THREE
3rd Passover / Spring
“The Jewish Passover Festival was near.” John 6:4 NIV
Feast of Tabernacles / Fall
“But when the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles was near,” John 7:2 NIV
Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) / Winter
“Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter,” John 10:22 NIV
IN YEAR FOUR
4th Passover / Spring
“Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.” John 12:1 NIV
This fourth Passover would have occurred midway through Jesus’ 4th year of ministry, which is where we get about 3 1/2 years for the length of Christ’s ministry, which began around the age of 30.
We have records of Jesus being in Jerusalem for Passover only three times throughout the Gospels: at the age of twelve (Luke 2), at the beginning of His earthly ministry (John 2), and at the end of His earthly ministry (all four Gospels). Attendance for Passover celebration at the temple in Jerusalem was expected of Jews, and this was a custom Jesus would have observed up until His earthly ministry began.
“Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom.” Luke 2:41-42 NIV
After the first Passover of Jesus’ public ministry, recorded in John 2, we don’t see Him in Jerusalem for Passover again until Passion week. Could this be accurate? Why would Jesus miss the Passover celebration in Jerusalem?
After what happened the first time He went, where He caused great commotion and stirred up animosity by flipping over the tables of the money changers, it’s likely that Jesus would have done the same thing the next year had He returned to the Temple for Passover again. And the next time He did it, they’d make sure it was His last! So because Jesus’ work with the disciples wasn’t finished, because it wasn’t His time yet, the Father kept Him from Jerusalem during Passover until He would become the Sacrificial Lamb.
“In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” John 2:14-15 NIV
Jesus knew His purpose. He knew He was sent to die. He knew He was the Lamb of God. I believe He knew this day at the beginning of His ministry that His actions in the temple started the clock with the Jewish leaders. He predicted as much to them.
“Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”” John 2:19 NIV
The next time we see Jesus in the temple at Passover, when He tosses the corrupt money changers’ tables again, it will be His last. He’ll be arrested and crucified a few days later. They will “destroy the temple,” but He will raise it again on the third day.
“Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.” Matthew 21:12 NIV
Jesus’ disciples believed He was the Messiah based on the testimony of John the Baptist and Jesus’ own explanation from the Scriptures- prophecies from the Law, the Prophets and Psalms- concerning the identity of the Messiah. They believed before they’d seen anything supernatural. They believed before they saw Him heal anyone or perform any miracles. And then when they saw His first miracle, turning water into wine at a wedding, their belief in Him was strengthened. Their faith was reinforced.
“On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding…. What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” John 2:1-2, 11 NIV
This was a private miracle. Only a few saw what Jesus did. And this was in Cana, in Galilee. It wouldn’t be hard to contain the spread of this news. But what would happen soon in Jerusalem, there would be no way to contain it.
First, Jesus drew attention to Himself by flipping the tables of the money changers and getting into it with the religious leaders. Everyone would be paying attention to His every move during Passover now.
Then, during the Festival, Jesus performed many miraculous signs, likely healing people and casting out demons.
“Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name.” John 2:23 NIV
Jesus’ actions were hard to miss. And if you didn’t see them personally, word spread quickly and you certainly heard about them. But for those who saw, seeing was believing. Could He really be our long awaited Messiah?
Jesus could have capitalized on this moment with a massive evangelistic crusade. He could have preached, explained who He was, and called people to repent and believe right then and there. So what did He do?
“But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.” John 2:24-25 NIV
Jesus held back. The Father had a different plan. He would play the long game, build a movement by investing in disciples, and multiply His impact from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth.
That day in Jerusalem, with all the miracles Jesus performed, He had fans. That’s what was in their hearts. He knew that’s what they were. Fans.
Jesus wouldn’t build His movement with fans though. He would need followers.
Fans can be gained in a moment. And lost just as quickly.
Followers are built over time. They are trained, tested, proven. They produce fruit.
Jesus could have built a large ministry filled with a multitude of fans that very first Passover. He chose not to. Intentionally. Instead, He would take 3 1/2 years to cultivate faithful followers who would be willing to lay down their lives for Him as they took the gospel to the ends of the earth.
That was the Father’s plan. This was Jesus’ strategy.