Joseph Gray was born and raised in a conservative Jewish family in New Jersey. Since 1986, Joe has been involved in full-time Christian ministry. He is an ordained Presbyterian pastor.
Why, you might ask, should a modern Christian take an interest in the Jewish Passover celebration? Other than a polite interest in comparative religions or the worthy motivation of seeking to understand and respect our Jewish neighbours and friends, what purpose is there for us in studying the Passover?
The Events of Passion Week leading up to Resurrection Sunday are some of the most powerful, beautiful and meaningful of the entire Christian year. Like the early Christians we recognize that the full significance of these events, including Jesus' atoning death and resurrection can only be properly understood within the context of the Passover festival and its promise and hope of redemption. Unfortunately, the passing of time, cultural change and accommodation have caused us to forget and separate these two great redemption celebrations (Passover and Resurrection). I like to compare the modern Church to a family which is suffering from amnesia and has lost the family photo album.
It wasn't always so. The early believers in Yeshua (Jesus), both Jew and Gentile celebrated the Resurrection in the context of the Passover (see 1 Cor 5:7,8). In fact, Christ's final earthly instructions to his disciples before his atoning death on the cross, and his institution of communion, took place during the Passover Seder. The Passover Seder is a special teaching meal in which the story of God's miraculous redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt is retold and lived out (Exod 13:8). The Seder which is celebrated on the first two nights of the Feast of Passover, is a Jewish tradition which goes back to the time of the Exodus itself (Exod 12: 1-20). It continued to be a part of Jewish observance through the time of Jesus and his disciples. Modern Jewish communities throughout the world continue to celebrate it.
You may be wondering, where did we as Christians lose our memory of the Passover celebration? It happened gradually but certain events from our history stand out. As more and more Gentile believers came to faith in Yeshua and joined with the original Jewish believers in Messiah (Christ), they soon began to outnumber their Jewish brothers and sisters. The memory of both the original meaning and context of the good news of Yeshua began to dim. In the context of heated apologetics and debate some of the early church Fathers began to preach that because of Israel's rejection of her Messiah the Church had replaced Israel as the recipients of God's promises. Under the Emperor Constantine, the decision was made to separate the celebration of Christ's resurrection entirely from the Jewish celebration of the Passover. A separate date was assigned to the celebration of the resurrection and it was renamed Easter after the Teutonic goddess of spring. From that point on Jews who converted to the Christian faith were strongly encouraged to leave their Jewish customs behind, often with the threat of imprisonment and death if they were found reverting to their former Jewish ways.
Thankfully we live in a time when Christian believers, both Jew and Gentile, are being encouraged to rediscover the richness and beauty of the Judaic roots and context of our faith. As we learn more about our own story, we are blessed to see a new kind of unity and love among Jewish and Gentile believers in Messiah unlike any we have experienced since the first century (Ephesians 2:14). As we prepare to share and celebrate the good news of Christ's death and resurrection, let's pause to again remind ourselves of this beautiful inheritance which we have received together by grace through faith in Messiah.
As Jesus taught and instituted communion at the Last Supper Seder meal he used already familiar symbolism to show their new meaning and fulfilment in his coming death and resurrection. What are some of the elements of the Passover Seder which still have meaning for us as Christians?
One of the key elements of the Passover is the Passover lamb. On the night of the first Passover (Exod 12:1-15), God instructed the Children of Israel to slaughter a lamb, one for each household, and to place the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of their homes. They were then to eat the lamb roasted together with unleavened bread (matzo) and bitter herbs. This was the first Passover meal. They were commended to do this each year in commemoration of God's miraculous redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The blood of the lamb covering their doorways was a reminder to Israel that they belonged to God and were under his covering of protection. On the first night of Passover as God carried out the tenth and most terrible plague, the slaying of the first-born, God protected the households of Israel from the effects of this plague because of the blood of the lamb which covered their households. Israel had done nothing to merit this protection; this was purely an act of God's mercy and grace. What a marvellous picture of the atoning work of Christ in our lives! Christ is the fulfilment of the Passover lamb. John the Baptist announced his coming with these words: "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:29).
Like the Passover lamb of Exodus 12 Christ was: 1) Set apart for sacrifice (Isaiah 53:7; 1 Pet 1:18-20); 2) Watched carefully to assure that he was spotless and without blemish (Deuteronomy 15:21; Luke 23:14; Hebrews 4:15); 3) Slain and became a willing recipient of the wrath of God for the sake of our redemption (Isaiah 53:4,5; 2 Corinthians 5:21); 4) Not a bone on his body was broken (John 19:31-33).
Passover is sometimes called the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Because of the haste in which the Children of Israel fled from Egypt, there was not time to allow the bread which they baked to rise. In commemoration of this flat unleavened bread, God commanded them to eat only unleavened bread during the Feast of Passover. All leaven and leavening products were to be removed from the Jewish home for Passover. What can we learn from this practice? Throughout the Scriptures leaven is often a symbol of the sin in our lives. Jesus tells the disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt 16:6). It is a wonderful reminder to us as believers that because we serve a God who is holy, we ought to use this season of preparation prior to Easter to remove the leaven from our lives. Paul makes this very application in 1 Corinthians 5:6-8.
Since the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the unleavened bread has also served as a symbolic reminder of the Passover sacrifice. The sacrifices ceased in 70 AD along with destruction of the temple. Interestingly, if we look at the matzo we are reminded of the piercing and stripes of Isaiah 53 by which we are healed of our sins. In the Gospel according to Luke we see the account of how Yeshua took this same matzo, blessed and broke it and gave it to his disciples saying, "This is my body which is given for you" (Luke 22:19).
There are four glasses of wine which are blessed and shared during the Passover Seder. Each glass has symbolic significance: 1) The cup of blessing; 2) The cup of judgement; 3) The cup of redemption; 4) the cup of praise. It is the third cup, the cup of redemption which is traditionally shared right after the Passover meal, which has particular significant to Christians. I believe we have an account of Jesus and the disciples sharing this cup in the Gospel according to Luke. "Likewise he took the cup after supper saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for you."
The full significance of these events did not become apparent to the disciples until after Christ's death and resurrection three days later with the celebration of First Fruits, the countdown to Shavuoth (Pentecost) along with its promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Thank God we have the perspective of faith and time along with the Apostles' faithful account and interpretation of these events to guide us. The events of Passion Week are filled with so many rich blessings if we are able together to receive them and apply them to our lives through faith. Our celebration of the wonderful joyous news of Christ's resurrection is too good to keep to ourselves. Like those early believers we live in a world which is dying to hear and believe the good news of Christ's death and resurrection. As the Apostle Paul reminds us "Christ our Passover has been sacrificed. He is risen from the dead, and has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep." He is risen indeed! What marvellous news!