“Thus the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, ‘Now, let the sons of Israel observe the Passover at its appointed time. On the fourteenth day of this month, at twilight, you shall observe it at its appointed time; you shall observe it according to all its statutes and according to all its ordinances.’ So Moses told the sons of Israel to observe the Passover. And they observed the Passover in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, in the wilderness of Sinai; according to all that the Lord had commanded Moses, so the sons of Israel did” (9:1-5).
Culturally, our nation is not a homogeneous group. Therefore, few national holidays, which are observed in this country, have the exact same meaning and significance to everyone. How many of us celebrated “Fat Tuesday” this year? You probably would not know about this holiday unless you were accustomed to being in New Orleans during Mardi-Gras season. Everyone does not celebrate even Thanksgiving and Christmas in the same way. How, for example, does an atheist celebrate Thanksgiving? To whom does he bow his head?
In our study of the Book of Numbers, we have witnessed the birth of the nation of Israel. Jehovah God has chosen them to be His people and they have agreed to follow Him, as their God. In this covenant God has made with Israel are instructions, which involve holidays and times of national celebration. In all of these celebrations God has given a positive and uplifting spirit. Even on the Day of Atonement we see the celebration of God forgiving the sins of the nation. The focus of this lesson is the Passover celebration that Moses is instructed to institute.
The Passover, or Feast of Unleavened Bread, is remembered and celebrated for the night which preceded Israel’s departure out of the slavery of Egypt (Exodus 12). The Israelites, however, had traveled hard and fast to arrive at Sinai, and they had not, as yet, been able to celebrate that feast. We will examine the parts of this celebration because of its significance to the Lord’s church.
In 1 Corinthians 5:8, Paul instructs the Corinthian brethren, “Let us therefore celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” The reason for this admonition flows from the preceding verse: “For Christ, our Passover, also has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7b). We share, with the Israelites of the Old Testament, a Passover heritage in our relationship to God. Our attention will be given, not so much to the elements of the Lord’s Supper that we all partake of on the Lord’s Day, but rather, to how Christ, Himself, is like the Passover Feast. Thus, we will need to look back to see what composed that original Passover and how the Jews have celebrated it over the centuries.
I. The Passover for ancient Israel.
Four specific Old Testament passages make mention, in detail, of the Passover. In Exodus 12:1-13, 21-27, 42-51, the origin of the Passover is explained and detailed for Israel. In Leviticus 23:5-8, the priest’s laws, regarding the feast, are listed for their reading. In Numbers 9:1-5, the first opportunity to celebrate the feast is given by Moses. In Deuteronomy 16:1-8, Moses rehearsed what the people had celebrated, through those forty years of the wilderness wanderings, as they prepared to enter the Promised Land.
Ten specific instructions were given regarding the original feast. First, a one-year-old male lamb, without defect, or in cases of poorer families, a goat, had to be chosen by each family. Second, the lamb was to be selected on the tenth day of the month of Nisan. He was set aside until the fourteenth day of that month. Third, all the animals selected were to be killed at or after sundown on that fourteenth day. It was, therefore, a public slaughtering of the animals. Fourth, a bowl of the animal’s blood was to be collected and sprinkled on the sides and top of the doorframe of the house where that meal was to be later eaten. Fifth, the animal was not to be quartered or a bone broken, and after skinning, it was to be roasted whole, with head and entrails intact. Sixth, if one family was too small to consume the whole meal, then more than one family could eat together. Nothing was to remain of the feast; all of the food was to be consumed. Seventh, along with the roasted lamb or goat, unleavened bread and bitter herbs were to be served. Eighth, it was not to be a leisurely meal, but one eaten in haste with the family fully dressed for traveling. They were to have shoes on and staff in hand. Ninth, they were to remain indoors the whole evening; no one was to venture out of his house after the feast had started. Tenth, if anything remained from the feast, it was to be burned the next morning. Nothing was to be carried over for another meal.
What was the religious significance of all this? Pharaoh had stubbornly refused to let God’s people go from Egypt. God, through Moses and Aaron, had brought nine great plagues upon the Egyptians; but Pharaoh had thus far been unmoved from his resolve to keep Israel in slavery. Therefore, God was going to bring a tenth and final plague upon Egypt at whose severity even Pharaoh could not withstand the freedom God had demanded. It was to be the death of the first born in all of Egypt, including the animals (Exodus 11:5). With the blood on the doors of Israel’s houses, even though they resided in Egypt, God would “pass over” them and they would be spared the plague (Exodus 12:13). The elements were all fresh and pure. The lamb or goat was not aged as meat generally is; but, it had been slain, immediately roasted, and eaten within hours. Bread, generally fermented, was made fresh and eaten within hours of its making. The herbs were to symbolize the bitterness of the years of slavery Israel had endured. Research into their further significance suggests that the herbs also served as a cathartic, a laxative. Thus, Israel was cleansed and saved by the meal and cleansed from the meal.
Later Jewish celebrations, after that dreadful night of God’s Passover, were times of joy and remembrances of freedom. Changes were made after the original institution. For example, we find no indication that the lamb had to be shared. In fact, under Levitical law the fat portions of the entrails were to be burned by the priest on the altar. Apparently, then, it was no longer roasted whole. The blood was sprinkled on the altar and since Israel was dwelling in tents, no indication is given that they had to sprinkle it on their temporary shelters. Third, the meals were now eaten in leisure and not in haste. Children were to ask questions about the night, which would give way to an evening of storytelling (Exodus 12:26, 27). Hymns were later added (cf. Matthew 26:30) and no prohibition of leaving the house before the next day remained; for, Jesus left with His disciples, shortly after midnight, the night He ate the Passover in Jerusalem (Matthew 26:30).
Today when Orthodox Jews celebrate the Passover, other significant changes are noticed. Since Jerusalem’s destruction, sacrificial offerings can no longer be made. Three cakes of unleavened bread are placed in one dish, and a fourth one is prepared in case one of the three should be broken before the feast begins. In another dish a shank bone of a roasted lamb is placed with a roasted egg. The egg signifies the lamb was roasted (although not served) whole.
Besides all of this, a cup of salt water or vinegar is added in memory of the passage through the Red Sea, as well as bitter herbs and sauce. An extra cup of wine is also placed on the table for Elijah the prophet, expected as the forerunner of the Messiah, to visit them sometime during the feast. In fact, at the drinking of the last cup, the door is opened so that Elijah may symbolically enter.
II. The Passover for spiritual Israel.
In 1 Corinthians 5:7, 8, Paul identifies Christ as our Passover, even the Passover of Gentiles, as well as Jews. It is also of interest to note that he uses the word “celebrate.” The Greek suggests that it means to “keep a festival.” In remembering Christ, then, one is to have a very real sense of rejoicing. Even in the solemnity and holiness of a reverent Lord’s Supper, expressions of joy and praise of Christ, as our Passover, are in order. This is also suggestive that the elements of the Supper, just as they were for Israel, are simply vehicles to a deeper and more spiritual significance. The expressions Christ used, when He instituted the Supper, (Matthew 26:26; 1 Corinthians 11:23f.)— “This is My body”; “This is My blood”; etc.—link us to Christ, Himself. The deeper meaning of our spiritual life is found in this link to Him.
How is it that Jesus is our Passover? Several poignant, New Testament passages correlate the life of Jesus with the elements used in the Passover: lambs and bread. In John 1:29, the forerunner of Jesus exclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” In 1 Peter 1:18, 19, Peter says that our deliverance from the slavery of sin was through the precious blood of a lamb, the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ: “Knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things . . . but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.” John portrays in a theological way that Jesus died at the time the Passover lambs were being slain (John 19:31). In John 6:51, 53-56, Jesus spoke of Himself as “the living bread” and mentioned that in order for one to spiritually live, one must eat His flesh and drink His blood. In 1 Corinthians 5:7-9, Paul says, plainly, that Christ is our Passover.
What does having Jesus, as our Passover, mean for our lives? In no less than five New Testament passages, Paul relates how we have been saved, through Christ, from the wrath of God. In Romans 1:16f, he shows how the gospel has justified us before God and saved us from His wrath, as opposed to those (Romans 1:18) who suppressed the truth and revelation of God and brought destruction upon themselves by doing so. In Romans 5:8, 9, he continues to discuss our being justified and saved from the wrath of God. In Ephesians 2:1-3, Paul mentions the “sons of disobedience” and “children of wrath,” both of which applied to the Ephesians before their obedience to the message of Christ. In Ephesians 5:6, 7, he says, implicitly, that God’s wrath will come upon the sons of disobedience. The same theme is repeated in 1 Thessalonians 1:9, 10; 5:9 and Revelation 6:16, 17. Jesus, our Passover, saves us from God’s wrath just as God saved Israel from death in two significant ways. Most important was the blood, which was on the doorposts. God looked down and saw the blood. In 1 John 1:7, the apostle states that if we remain in Christ, God continues to see the blood and not our sins. Second, we, like Israel, must remain in the house. Have you ever wondered if any Israelites ventured outside their houses during that night? If they did, they were found dead the next morning because of their disobedience. We are in the church, God’s house, which the blood of Christ has purchased and protects (Acts 20:28). What happens to one who ventures outside the protection of the house and the blood? Like the people of Israel, they will be “dead” again in their sins and subject to the wrath of God as a “son of disobedience.”
Jesus remains as our Passover, and we should be able to celebrate that victory in our lives. Are you able to partake of the Lord’s Supper each Lord’s Day because Christ is your Passover? The protection, celebration and victory over sin are all found in Him. Where are you to be found? Why not seek the protection found in the blood of God’s Lamb, Jesus Christ, and in His house, the church of Christ?