The Story of Passover (Pesach)
“In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight is the Lord’s Passover. Then on the fifteenth day of the same month there is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not do any laborious work. But for seven days you shall present an offering by fire to the Lord. On the seventh day is a holy convocation; you shall not do any laborious work.’” Exodus 23:5-8
The story of Passover is definitely an exciting one, set in the background of a death sentence for Jewish infants; a baby floating in a river; Jewish slaves; a burning bush; Egyptian sorcerers; tense confrontations with the Pharaoh; divine plagues; a pursuing army; the parting of a sea; and the birth of a nation at the foot of a thundering wilderness mountain (Rosenthal & Howard, 49).
Of all the feasts of Israel, none foreshadows our redemption in Jesus in such beautiful detail as the festival of Passover. The meaning of Passover is found in Leviticus 23. The Hebrew word “pesach” means “to spring, jump or pass over” something.
The Meaning of Passover
For 430 years the Jewish people had lived in Egypt (Ex. 12:40). It was finally time for God to do what He promised to bring them out to lead them to Canaan, the promised land (Gen. 46:3-4; 50:24). In order to convince the Pharaoh in the 15th century B.C. to let the people go, he brought 10 devastating plagues upon Egypt.
In Exodus 11 God gave details of a tenth and final plague that He would bring upon the Egyptians and their false gods. At midnight, the Lord would pass through the land and kill the firstborn of each family and of all the cattle. With this final, climactic plague, God would dramatically free His people from their bondage to Egypt.
In Exodus 12, God outlined explicit steps that the Israelites who were believers in the Lord should take so that they wouldn’t be struck down by the devastating last plague. They were told to choose a male lamb eight days old to a year, in its prime. It was to be perfect without any flaw or defect. It was to be taken out from the flock on the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan and kept until the 14th day of the month. This would allow time for each family to carefully watch the lamb to make sure it was fit and without any flaws.
This would also allow time for each family to become personally attached to their lamb so that it would no longer be just a lamb (Ex. 12:3), but their lamb (Ex. 12:5). This would deeply impress upon them the costly nature of the sacrifice. An innocent one was to die in their place!
On the late afternoon or early evening of the 14th day of Nisan the lambs were to be publicly killed by “the whole assembly.” Everybody was responsible for the death of the lambs. But each family was to individually apply the blood of their lamb to the doorposts of their own home as a visible sign of their faith in the Lord (Ex. 12:13). When they did this, at this moment the innocent and spotless lamb became their substitute making it possible for the Lord’s judgment to “pass over” them. And so the Lord instituted Passover as “a night for solemn observance to the LORD for bringing them out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 12:42).
According to the Old Testament (OT), Passover is a one-day feast that immediately precedes the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread. Today both feasts are usually blurred together as a single entity and simply called “Passover.” In the NT Passover seemed to be used as a synonym for the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Luke 22:1). Today Israelis and Reform Jews still keep the feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days, while most Jewish people in the Diaspora observe the feast for eight days.
The first and last days of the festival were considered holy days during which, like the Sabbath, no work was to be performed (cf. Ex. 12:16). Orthodox Jews today apply the work prohibition to the intermediate days of the festival as well. While the Temple stood, special burnt offerings, grain offerings, and sin offerings were presented to the Lord during the days of Unleavened Bread (Num. 28:17-25).
The Lamb was the core and center of Passover (Ex. 12; 34:25; Deut. 16:1-7). Without the lamb there would have been no deliverance. So important was this lamb that the term “the Passover” came to be used interchangeably of the lamb as well as the holiday (Ex. 12:21; Deut. 16:2, 6; cf. Luke 22:7; 1 Cor. 5:7).
In all, God required three symbolic foods to be eaten that Passover night – the lamb, matzah (unleavened bread), and bitter herbs (Ex. 12:8). As mentioned before, the lamb was to be a young lamb, depicting innocence. It was also to be roasted with fire symbolizing the judgment that would fall on it instead of the firstborn. According to the Mishnah (oral traditions of the Jewish people), Pesahim 10:5, Rabban Gamaliel (who was Paul’s teacher in Rabbinics) said: “Whosoever has not said (explained) these three things at Passover has not fulfilled his obligation.”
The OT says the Israelites were to remove any leavened products from their household (Ex. 12:15). This was to remind them they had to flee Egypt so quickly the bread in their ovens didn’t have time to rise. Every spring in a traditional Jewish household, a furious housecleaning takes place to remove any leavened products before Passover begins. Houses are scrubbed, pockets are turned inside out and laundered, cooking utensils are scalded, and everyday dinnerware and flatware are replaced with the finest Passover china, silver, and crystal.
Matzah was to be eaten symbolizing the purity of the sacrifice since leaven, with its souring characteristic, was often a symbol of sin (1 Cor. 5:6-8). Bitter herbs were to be eaten as a reminder of the suffering of the lamb.
The Importance of Passover
There was only one Passover when the Lord passed through the land in judgment. Every observance since then has been a memorial to remember that important occasion (Ex. 13:3). So God established the holidays of Passover and Unleavened Bread for the purpose of remembering (Deut. 16:1, 3).
Passover holds great distinction among the religious feasts of the world. It is the oldest continuously observed feast in existence today, celebrated for almost 3500 years. It was celebrated in the Sinai wilderness one year after Israel left Egypt (Num. 9:1-14); as the Jewish people came into the land of Israel (Josh. 5:10-12); in the days of King Hezekiah (2 Chr. 30) and King Josiah (2 Kings 23:21-23; 2 Chr. 35:1-19); after the return from Babylonian captivity (Ezra 6:19-20); and extensively during the days of Jesus (Jn. 11:55).
It was so important that God gave an alternate date for those who were unable to observe Passover on the appointed day on Nisan 14. Those who had become defiled by touching a dead body or were away on a long journey could celebrate Passover 30 days later on the fourteenth of the second month (Num. 9:1-14; cf. 2 Chr. 30:2, 15). None of the other feasts appointed by God had this accommodation.
Why is it a great idea for followers of Messiah to understand the Passover?
1. The first reason is that Jesus celebrated Passover.
2. Passover forms the primary background for understanding the events of the Upper Room, the symbolism of the Lord’s Table, and the meaning of Messiah Jesus’ death.
3. We gain a marvelous insight into the very essence of Christianity – the sacrifice of the Lamb. God has already shown that a sacrificed lamb (Ex. 12:5) was sufficient for the redemption of an entire people back in Egypt. Passover is a living picture of how sacrifice is properly obtained.
4. So that we can better share the message of redemption available through Messiah Jesus with our Jewish friends. Jesus was Jewish; the disciples were Jews; all the people saved at Pentecost were Jewish; the first Christian church in the world, the church of Jerusalem, was entirely Jewish; the church sent missionaries out into the world to share the gospel with Gentiles. Every church, seminary, Bible college, missions agency, can be traced back to these early Jewish Christians. A knowledge of Passover will help you share with your Jewish friends because you will then have some common ground with them.
5. Studying Passover will help prepare you for the Kingdom to come. When the King of Kings, the Lord Jesus, comes, He will celebrate the Jewish feasts. We see from Zech. 14:16 that the Feast of Tabernacles/Booths (Sukkot) will be celebrated during the Millennium.
1.Several centuries before Christ, a somewhat traditionalized Passover service began to emerge. It prescribed the traditional order of the Scripture readings, prayers, symbolic foods, and songs in the Passover service.
2.The basic order of this Passover seder today remains pretty much as it was 2,000 years ago even though the service continued to be embellished with more songs and traditions up through the Middle Ages.
3. Originally in the OT, as mentioned before, the Israelites were to eat three things: lamb, matzah, and bitter herbs; Rabbis later added numerous other elements, including green vegetables, a roasted egg, (apple/nut mix) and four cups of wine. Later in history rabbis added a 5th cup called the Cup of Elijah; this cup is filled with the hope that the prophet Elijah will come, drink from the cup and announce that the Messiah has come (Malachi 4:5). Like most of the Jewish feasts, Passover features special foods. This fact reminds us that, from a Jewish perspective, theology is not only taught, it is also eaten.
4. The Passover seder has a theme – redemption or deliverance; Passover imparts more than God’s message of redemption; it imparts God’s means of redemption – through the sacrifice of a Passover lamb.
Compiled by David Brewer
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