“Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:7).
Passover is about redemption. It commemorates the physical redemption of the Jewish people from the bondage of Egyptian slavery. It also pictures the spiritual redemption of believers from the bondage of sin. The Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is celebrated together with the Passover, exemplifies the holy standard of living God desires of all the redeemed.
Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread are biblical feasts God instituted for the nation Israel. The Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years as God foretold to Abraham (Gen. 15:13). God raised up Moses to deliver His people from this bondage and to lead them toward the Promised Land. Although God showed His might and power over the false gods of Egypt through nine plagues, Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the children of Israel go. God was going to send one final plague—the death of the firstborn (Ex. 11)—to break the heart of Pharaoh. God told Moses and Aaron that on the 10th day of Nissan the Jewish people were to take one lamb per household. This lamb was to be a yearling with no blemish or spot. They were to keep it until the 14th day of the month and then kill it in the evening. The blood of the lamb was to be applied to the doorway of every house—the two side posts and the lintel above. Then they were to roast and eat the flesh of the lamb, consuming all of it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs before the next morning. God promised that as He went out to kill all the firstborn males of Egypt—the firstborn of all people and animals—when He saw the blood of the lamb applied to the doorposts of the houses, He would pass over them (Ex. 12:13). Although there was only one actual Passover—the day in which the Lord smote all the firstborn of Egypt—the Jewish people were to keep this feast as a memorial in perpetuity (Ex. 12:14-15).
In biblical times, the Jewish people kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days from the 15th through the 21st day of Nissan. The first and seventh days were considered Sabbaths where no work was to be performed except that which was necessary to sustain life (Ex. 12:16). Passover was one of the three pilgrim feasts when every adult Jewish male was to present himself in Jerusalem before the Lord (Ex. 23:14-19). While the Temple stood, they were to perform ritual sacrifice and offering to God (Num. 28:17-25). Since the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, these sacrifices have not been part of the Passover celebration.
An essential part of the feast is the consuming of only unleavened bread. This is bread containing no hametz (leavening agents). Traditionally, prior to the feast, the home was to be purged of all hametz in a ritual process called “nullification.” First, a complete spring-cleaning of the home was performed. All old dishes and utensils were put away, and special plates and cutlery used only for Passover were taken out. Then, on the evening of the 14th of Nissan, a final search for hametz was done using the light from one candle and a feather and spoon to sweep away any remaining leaven from the house. This leaven was then thrown into the fire and burned.
After the Passover lamb was brought to the Temple and sacrificed, the meat was taken home and consumed by the family that night. To show that they were a free people, the family would eat the meal while reclining on pillows, since reclining is the posture of free people. There was a particular order of service (seder) to be followed, listing and describing the various elements so the children would never forget how God set them free from Egyptian bondage.
Since the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the Passover celebration, although still very joyful, has undergone some changes but resembles Passover celebrations from long ago. Without a Temple or priesthood, there can be no actual sacrifice. As the family gathers for the Seder, the elements, which are placed upon a special plate, serve as a backdrop for the telling of the Passover story. To aid in the order of service, a booklet called the Haggadah is used. This booklet contains the Passover story, rabbinic commentaries, and songs. Originally, there were only three elements on the Passover table during the Seder—the lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs. Over the centuries, other elements have been added to symbolize the various aspects of the Passover story:
- Wine or Grape Juice: During the Seder, four cups of wine or juice are consumed. These four cups correspond to the four “I will” statements God made in Exodus 6:6-7.
- Elijah’s cup: According to Malachi 4:5, Elijah is going to come to usher in the messianic age. Because of this, a place setting is set for Elijah at the Seder table. At a certain point in the service, the door is opened to see if this is the night when Elijah will come. A special cup of wine corresponding to Exodus 6:8 is then poured into Elijah’s cup in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah.
- Parsley: This leafy herb is used as a reminder of the hyssop used to apply the lamb’s blood to the doorposts.
- Salt Water: This is used to represent the tears of affliction of the Jewish people during their years of bondage in Egypt.
- Charoset: This is a mixture of chopped apples and nuts and honey (delicious!), which symbolizes the mortar used in making the bricks in Egypt.
- Horseradish: This is used as a bitter herb, reminding the people of the bitterness of affliction. Sometimes romaine lettuce is used instead for the bitter herb.
- Roasted Shank Bone of a Lamb: Since there are no Temple sacrifices, the shank bone is used as a memorial of the Passover sacrifice.
- Matzah: Matzah is unleavened bread used during the Passover Seder and throughout the seven days of Unleavened Bread. Three Matzahs are placed in a special pouch. According to rabbinic interpretation, these three pieces symbolize the three divisions of Israel: the Cohens (priests), the Levites, and the people. The middle Matzah is broken in half. Half is returned to the pouch, while the other half is wrapped in a linen cloth, hidden away, and later hunted by the children. This special piece of Matzah is called the afikomen.
Following a sumptuous meal, a prayer of thanksgiving is recited followed by the third cup of wine representing the third “I will” of Exodus 6, the cup of redemption. Just before the conclusion of the Seder, the children are released to search all over the house to find the afikomen. When it is found, the child is rewarded, usually with a small sum of money. The afikomen is then divided and eaten by all present as dessert. Curiously, the word afikomen is a Greek word meaning “He came.” Could it be that Jewish believers introduced it to the Passover Seder during the first century? Even so, the afikomen is part of every Orthodox Seder even today.
Prophetically, Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread represent the First and Second Comings of Jesus the Messiah. As an observant Jew, Jesus Christ celebrated Passover each and every year of His life. The most significant of these was the Last Seder, celebrated by our Lord with His disciples. It was during this Seder, described for us in Matthew 26:17-30, that Jesus applied two of the main elements of the Seder to Himself—the unleavened bread and the third cup of wine. Jesus said that this bread symbolized His body. How? Remember that leaven in the Bible represents sin. Jesus was without sin (2 Cor. 5:21). He was the Bread of Life (John 6:48). His body was to receive stripes and be pierced (Isa. 53:5, Zech. 12:10).
Jesus also said that the cup of wine—corresponding to “I will redeem you” from Deuteronomy 6—represented the cup of the New Covenant (cf. Jer. 31:31ff) in His blood. Jesus raised this cup with the disciples and drank it. In biblical times, when a Jewish man took a wife, the drinking of a cup of wine sealed the marriage contract upon paying the marriage price. The man then went back to his father’s house and prepared a place for his bride. He would come back in about a year to take his bride to be with him. Since the bride never knew when her husband would come, she always needed to be ready for that wonderful night. When Jesus raised the cup with His disciples in the upper room and drank it, He was saying in effect that He accepted the contract of marriage between Himself and His Church. The price He was going to pay was His own blood. Jesus said that the next time He would drink the cup would be in the Kingdom following His glorious Second Coming (Mt. 26:29), promising to come back one day for His Bride.
Passover is not only a reminder of the Jewish people’s deliverance from Egypt but also a time to remember that Jesus is coming again. As Christians, we do this when we observe the Lord’s Table. Paul taught that we must undergo self-examination before we partake of the Lord’s Supper lest we eat of the bread and drink of the cup unworthily (1 Cor. 11:27). In the Jewish tradition, the bride was to always be chaste and ready to meet her husband when he came for her. In the same manner, we can come to the Lord’s Table only after examining ourselves, confessing all sin to Him. Also, we must live lives of holiness, being ever ready for when Jesus comes back to take us home.
The one enduring truth that emerges from this feast is that nobody can go to heaven without a Passover. Just as the wrath of God was upon everyone in Egypt when God went about to slay the firstborn and God said “if I see the blood, I will pass over you,” in the same way, when a person dies, the wrath of God is upon him or her. If God sees the blood of the Lamb applied to the doorposts of a person’s soul, He will pass over that person, and the wrath of God will not be upon him or her.
Passover is a time to look back over the physical redemption of the Jewish people, to rejoice over the spiritual redemption of every believer, and to look forward to the coming of our Lord in glory. Someday all born-again believers will be in the Kingdom, rejoicing that eternal redemption has been bought with that high and lofty price—the blood of the Lamb of God!