Theology in 3D

I Will Pass Over You

Ken Casillas | May 29, 2018
Old Testament

Regardless of the weekday on which Jesus’ crucifixion actually occurred, tomorrow Christians worldwide will observe Good Friday. At sundown that very day, Jews worldwide will begin a beloved annual celebration of their own—Passover. While the Feast of Trumpets starts the Israelites’ civil year, by God’s design Passover signals the beginning of their religious year (Exod 12:1). That’s because the original Passover initiated the founding of Israel as Yahweh’s holy nation.

JEWISH TRADITIONS

In dealing with Passover especially, I find myself wrestling with a tension that I’ve felt throughout this series on Israel’s feasts. The Jewish customs for observing their various festivals are rich with symbolism, and without too much imagination many of the symbols can be related to Christian truth. I’ll illustrate with one feature of the traditional Seder (Seder meaning “order” and referring to the ordered ritual used to celebrate Passover).

At a certain point in the Seder the leader breaks a piece of matzah, unleavened bread, in two pieces. He puts one piece in a white pouch or wraps it in a white material and then hides it. After the Passover meal the children are sent to find the bread. The one who finds it takes it back to the leader, who gives the child a prize in exchange for it—a sort of redemption. Many have seen here a picture of Christ, the Bread of Life, who was hidden in the earth and then resurrected for our redemption. This idea is only strengthened by the fact that the hidden-and-found bread is called the afikomen, a Greek word meaning “I come,” which suggests Christ’s coming into the world to accomplish our salvation.

These connections are intriguing and can work well as illustrations of gospel truth. The problem is that such customs evolved over centuries on the basis of more general biblical instruction. They aren’t stipulated by the Torah, and scholars debate the degree to which they were current even during the time of Jesus. If our observations about the Jewish feasts are to carry divine authority, we need to derive them from the Scriptures themselves. And when we look at what the Bible says, we have plenty of truth with which to feed our souls.

THE ORIGINAL PASSOVER

The Passover Feast (pesakh) commemorates Yahweh’s passing over/sparing (pasakh) of the Israelites from his execution of the firstborn of the Egyptians (Exod 12). After Pharaoh had resisted nine plagues that had devastated his country, only an extreme and personal judgment would bring him to his knees.

The Lord commanded each Israelite household to select an unblemished one-year-old male lamb on the tenth day of the month Abib (which later came to be called Nisan). Then at twilight on the fourteenth day the lamb was to be slaughtered and some of its blood applied to the doorposts and lintel of each house. Each family was to roast the lamb whole and then eat it along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The Israelites were to eat the meal in haste, dressed for travel.

At midnight Yahweh executed the firstborn of every Egyptian household but spared the firstborn in the Israelite homes that had been marked by lamb’s blood. Crushed, Pharaoh immediately expelled the Israelites from his country, delivering them from his degrading oppression. Israel began their journey toward Sinai, where they would be formed into a nation by covenant with Yahweh.

THE ANNUAL COMMEMORATION

When giving the instructions for the first Passover, Yahweh commanded Israel to commemorate the event annually with a meal mirroring the original meal (Exod 12:14). He graciously permitted foreigners to participate if they expressed their allegiance to him and his people through circumcision (12:34-39). To the Passover proper the Lord added a week-long observance, the Feast of Unleavened Bread (12:15-20; 13:3-10). The people were to remove all leaven from their homes and were to eat only unleavened bread for seven days. Both the first and the seventh days of this week were Sabbaths, during which they gathered for holy convocations. The unleavened bread recalled the haste with which Israel left Egypt (12:34). The feast vividly memorialized Yahweh’s freeing of his people from bondage and was to be used as a tool to teach younger generations this incomparable work of God on their behalf (13:8). The remembrance would motivate the Israelites to obey the Lord’s law (13:9-10).

That law went on to provide more detail about Passover/Unleavened Bread. This was one of three feasts that required Israelite men to travel to the central sanctuary, the other two being Pentecost and Booths (Exod 23:14-17Deut 16:1-17). Various sacrifices were stipulated (Lev 23:5-14Num 28:16-25). In addition, Leviticus 23 seems to connect with Passover a further celebration to be observed in the Promised Land: the Offering of the Firstfruits (vv. 9-13). The people were to bring the sheaf of the firstfruits of the barley harvest to the priest. The priest waved the sheaf before the Lord and then offered a burnt offering. This rite was an act of thanksgiving at the beginning of the harvest.

During their second year out of Egypt, Israel faithfully observed the Passover (Num 9:1-5). In fact, here the Lord allowed some who were ceremonially unclean to celebrate the feast a month late—demonstrating some flexibility with details in cases where other concerns of the law needed to be addressed first (vv. 6-14). As with other Old Testament feasts it’s unclear how faithful the Israelites were in carrying out the Passover in their later history. Certain key turning points were marked by Passover celebrations, however: at Gilgal, after the crossing of the Jordan River (Josh 5:10-12); during the reforms of Hezekiah (2 Chron 30:1-27) and Josiah (2 Kings 23:21-232 Chron 35:1-19); and at the dedication of the Second Temple (Ezra 6:19-22). In addition, Ezekiel anticipates a Feast of Unleavened Bread to be held in the eschatological Temple (Ezek 45:21-25).

THE LORD’S SUPPER

The Synoptics indicate and John’s Gospel strongly implies that “the Last Supper” of Jesus was a Passover meal (Matt 26:17ffMark 14:12ffLuke 22:7ffJohn 13:1). Christ connects this meal with his own salvific work, infusing elements of the meal with new meaning. These then constitute “the Lord’s Supper” that the New Testament church would celebrate regularly as a remembrance of Jesus’ substitutionary death (1 Cor 11:17ff). Note these points in particular:

  • In the Passover the unleavened bread reminded the Israelites of their haste as they were about to be delivered from Egypt. In the Lord’s Supper it symbolizes the body of Jesus that was sacrificially given to deliver people from sin.
  • The Old Testament doesn’t mention drinking a cup at Passover, and here Jewish tradition seems relevant. Luke references two different cups that Jesus served at the meal (22:17, 20), and these have been related to four cups used in the full Seder ritual. The four cups reflect the four divine movements in Exodus 6:6-7: (1) “I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians”; (2) “I will deliver you from slavery to them”; (3) “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment”; (4) “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God.” The first two cups are drunk before the meal, and the other two after the meal. The second cup mentioned by Luke comes after the meal (22:20). Jesus connects this cup with his impending death on the Cross, and this naturally reflects the third cup in the Jewish sequence—the cup of redemption.
  • More specifically, Jesus says the following about the post-meal drink: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Following upon the first Passover, the Old Covenant was ratified through the sprinkling of blood on the people (Exod 24:1-8). Likewise, the shedding of Jesus’ blood—symbolized by a drink whose color is the same color as blood—ratified the New Covenant. In keeping with Jeremiah’s New Covenant prophecy (Jer 31:34), Jesus highlights the forgiveness that would result from the sacrificial pouring out of his blood in the place of sinners (Matt 26:28). Though God will eventually fulfill for Israel everything he promised the nation in the New Covenant, the Epistles indicate that the spiritual blessings of that covenant are available today to anyone—Jew or Gentile—who trusts in Israel’s Messiah (e.g., 2 Cor 3).
  • Jesus also anticipates partaking of a Passover meal with his disciples when the kingdom of God comes in its fullness (Matt 26:29Mark 14:25Luke 22:18). Will this happen at that feast predicted in Ezekiel 45? Does it have something to do with the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:9)? Whatever the case, though Paul sees the Lord’s Supper as a memorial, he includes in it an anticipation of the return of our Savior (1 Cor 11:26).
  • Surprisingly, the accounts of the Last Supper don’t mention the Passover lamb. Yet John’s account of the crucifixion points us in the right direction: “But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. . . .  For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: ‘Not one of his bones will be broken’ [like the Passover lamb—Exod 12:46Num 9:12]” (John 19:36). And Paul says explicitly: “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7). Symbolically,  the blood of the Passover lamb protected the Israelites from divine judgment. Literally, the blood of Jesus protects us from God’s wrath by completely satisfying it!

MORE APPLICATION

The New Testament develops the significance of Passover feast beyond the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. Using the image of removing leaven for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Paul urges the Corinthian church to cleanse impurity from its membership (1 Cor 5:6-8). “The death of Christ makes them new; yet they must get rid of the old in order to be new, precisely because in Christ they are already new! Thus no ‘do in order to be,’ but ‘do because you are’” (Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed., 236).

This rooting of the imperative in the indicative is precisely what Peter has in mind when he alludes to the Feast of Passover (1 Pet 1:17-19):

And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.

So just like Israel through the Passover and the exodus, Christians have been “saved to serve.”

FROM PASSOVER TO GOOD FRIDAY

Perhaps, like me, you plan to participate in a Lord’s Supper service on Good Friday. I encourage you to reflect on the significance of the ordinance through the lens of the Passover. In your mind’s eye, picture an Israelite father, deeply concerned about the survival of his firstborn, slaughtering a spotless lamb and soberly daubing its blood on his door frame. What a gruesome business!

But it only gets more gruesome. Think of God the Father—not protecting his one and only Son but sending him into this cursed world for the very purpose of suffering our curse. Behold the blood of that sinless Son pouring out his nail-torn hands and feet. This is the punishment that our sin requires! This was the only way that we could be delivered from our bondage. See Jesus yielding up his all in order to exhaust the penalty of your sin . . . to secure your forgiveness . . . and to join you in covenant with your Creator for all eternity.

How can it be? Hallelujah, what a Savior!

Photo credit: katermikesch/pixabay.com


3 responses to “I Will Pass Over You”

  1. I sympathize with the tension you mention over symbolism. Ultimate authority is rooted only in clearly Scriptural connections. At the same time, I’d suggest the possibility that God exercises a certain providence over the development of such practices, even when that involves unwitting humans over centuries after the fact–symbolism that they may well look back on and recognize after they come to faith in the Messiah (whether individually or corporately, Rom. 11:26). Granted, identifying a providence (what some might call a serendipitous or happy coincidence) is not as definitive as seeing it in a text; but one thing my study of that doctrine has taught me is that providence is nonetheless a reality that goes “beyond chapter and verse,” one might say:)

    • Ken Casillas says:

      Agreed. I do see providence in some of the Jewish customs. Especially in the sense that Christ answers to what they are (perhaps even unwittingly) longing for. But as you say, this can be hard to nail down. If I find myself using a lot of words like “may,” “suggests,” or “perhaps,” I start to lose my zeal for the point. It’s also hard to know where to stop with this sort of thing. E.g., it’s cool these days to find redemptive themes in this or that secular movie (even raunchy ones). Maybe you should write on that topic sometime!

  2. […] were to journey to the nation’s central sanctuary to worship Yahweh (the other two being Passover and Booths). Earlier in the year, the Offering of the Firstfruits connected with Passover involved […]

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