Most professing Christians see the Passover as an aspect of the Old Covenant that is unnecessary for New Covenant Christians. But Jesus instituted a new administration of the Passover service for His followers that has deep meaning for us today.
Source: Shaun Venish
Every year, towards the end of Abib 14 of the Hebrew calendar, many in the Jewish community gather for the Passover seder. This special meal includes a shank of lamb, herbs, wine and an egg. A place is set for Elijah and during the ceremony children formally ask why this night is observed.
Passover customs at the time of Christ included formal temple ceremonies as well as a meal. The "Last Supper" recorded in the three Synoptic Gospels is a Passover celebration. But Christ's practices on that night opened a whole new dimension for Christians.
God's Covenant With Abraham
Understanding the history and theology of the Passover begins with God's dealings with Abraham. Genesis 15 records God's recommitment to an earlier covenant promising Abram that his descendants would be numerous and prosperous (Genesis:12:1-4). In Genesis:15:2-3 Abram reminds God that because he has no natural heir, the promises remain unfulfilled. God then instructs Abram to present animals suited for sacrifice.
The unusual rituals found in Genesis 15 are not explained in the Bible but are found in ancient Middle Eastern covenant rites. The Kiel & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament states: "The transaction itself was not a real sacrifice, since there was neither sprinkling of blood nor offering upon an altar, and no mention is made of the pieces being burned. The proceeding corresponded rather to the custom, prevalent in many ancient nations, of slaughtering animals when concluding a covenant, and after dividing them into pieces, of laying the pieces opposite to one another, that the persons making the covenant might pass between them" (Vol. 1, 1996, pages 136-137).
God, as the initiator of the covenant, is represented by the "smoking oven" and "burning torch" of Abram's vision. (Fire and smoke are common manifestations of God's presence.) It is interesting that Abram didn't pass between the cut animals as was customary in a covenant between equals but was incapacitated. The covenant ultimately includes a promise of the land of Canaan (Genesis:15:18-21).
Genesis:15:13-14 contains a prophecy concerning Abram's descendants spanning over four centuries: "Then He said to Abram, 'Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions."
The rest of the book of Genesis details the lives of Isaac (including the near sacrifice of Isaac with its foreshadowing of Christ's sacrifice—Genesis 22), Jacob and Joseph and how Abraham's descendants migrated to Egypt. The book of Exodus begins hundreds of years later when Israel is enslaved just as God predicted.
The Exodus Passover
The 400-year prophecy of Genesis 15 is fulfilled during the life of Moses as Israel's deliverer, making the Passover of the Exodus a prophesied event of the Abrahamic covenant. Exodus chapters 1 through 11 outline God's judgment on Egypt leading to the 10th plague of killing the firstborn. In Exodus 12 God institutes the Passover sacrifice:
• Verses 1-6: A lamb, without blemish, to be selected on the 10th day of Abib and held until the 14th when it is to be killed.
• Verse 7: The blood of the lamb to be spread on the doorposts of the houses.
• Verses 8-9: The Israelites are to roast the lamb.
• Verses 10-11: The Israelites are to eat it with sandals on their feet and staff in hands.
• Verses 12-14: This is to be a memorial of when God passed over them in Egypt.
• Verse 21: The lamb itself is called the Passover.
• Verses 22-28: The Israelites trusted God and obeyed Him.
Instructions in Exodus:12:43-49 specify that the Passover could only be eaten in households where the males were circumcised. No one could participate in the Passover without entering into God's covenant and accepting the sign of that covenant.
Since the Sinai covenant, or what is often called the Old Covenant, hadn't yet been instituted, the reference here is to the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis:17:21-27). To be a participant in the Egyptian Passover, a person had to be a participant of the Abrahamic covenant. The death angel "passed over" those who placed the lamb's blood on their doorposts, and the Israelites left Egypt for the Promised Land as God had prophesied.
The Deuteronomy Passover
Months later, as Israel camped before Mount Sinai, God instituted a new covenant with them that was an extension and fulfillment of promises made under the Abrahamic covenant. The Sinai covenant eventually involved a formalized priesthood and tabernacle, which necessitated some changes in the Passover administration as recorded in Deuteronomy:16:1-7:
• Verses 1-4: These instructions encompass the sacrifices of the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread (notice verse 2 mentions both flocks and herds or cattle, while cattle were not to be slain as the Passover), but also seem to specifically deal with changes in the administration of the Passover.
•Verses 5-7: Under the Deuteronomy administration the Passover lamb was to be slain at a central place, which later became Jerusalem, the site of the temple.
The Torah also emphasizes that events of Abib 14, specifically the killing of the Passover, are distinct from events of Abib 15 (Leviticus:23:4-8; Numbers:28:16-17).
Jesus Institutes a New Covenant
Biblical scholars debate on whether the "Last Supper" was a traditional seder. The Gospels contain very specific language signifying that these events were in fact, if not a seder, a Passover meal. Notice Luke's account in Luke:22:7-23:
• Verse 7: The Passover was to be killed on Abib 14. Jesus' instructions are on the 13th because the next day was the 14th. Since biblical days begin at sunset, the meal and ceremonies that night would be after sundown and occur on the 14th.
• Verse 8-13: The wording here is definite in declaring that Jesus and the disciples are participating in a Passover service.
• Verses 14-16: Jesus says that He has desired to eat this Passover with His disciples before His "suffering." Jesus clearly calls this meal with His disciples a Passover.
• Verses 17-23: Jesus now institutes a new Passover observance. The administrative elements of the Passover were to take on a new meaning because a new covenant was being established.
The New Covenant Passover
It is important to notice the profound administrative differences in the Exodus, Deuteronomy and New Covenant Passovers.
The Exodus Passover entailed a slaying of a lamb on the 14th of Abib so that the death angel would pass over the Israelites. The Deuteronomy Passover entailed sacrificing lambs as a memorial of the Exodus Passover. In Israel's history it was also seen as a means of sanctification. Hezekiah's Passover included sprinkling the lamb's blood on those present (2 Chronicles:30:15-17). The New Covenant Passover entails the reality of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God (1 Corinthians:5:7).
The Exodus and Deuteronomy Passovers entailed eating a meal including a lamb. The New Covenant Passover entails eating bread and drinking wine as symbols of Christ as the Lamb of God. With the reality of Christ fulfilling the Passover sacrifice, it was necessary to change the symbols of the Passover service. It was no longer essential to sacrifice a lamb as a type of a future event.
On the night before He died, Jesus instituted bread and wine as symbols of His body and blood. Neither the Exodus nor Deuteronomy Passovers contain any instructions about drinking wine. The Jewish seder contains wine, but the seder is a Jewish tradition, not a scriptural injunction. Notice Paul's instructions to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians:11:17-26:
• Verses 17-22: Paul instructs the Corinthian church not to have a meal during this communal ceremony.
• Verses 23-25: Paul instructs the Church to follow Christ's example of taking the bread and wine on the same night He was betrayed.
The Exodus Passover involved the painting of the lamb's blood on the doorposts. The Deuteronomy Passover involved the sacrificial blood of a lamb. The New Covenant Passover involves its participants being "washed" in the blood of Christ (Revelation:1:4-6).
The Exodus and Deuteronomy Passovers contain no instructions for foot-washing. The New Covenant Passover contains instructions for foot-washing (John:13:1-17).
The Exodus and Deuteronomy Passovers entailed sacrificing lambs as a memorial of the Egyptian deliverance. The New Covenant Passover is a memorial to Christ's deliverance of Christians from the slavery of sin (Romans 6).
Participation in the Exodus and Deuteronomy Passovers was limited to families whose males were physically circumcised. The New Covenant Passover is only for those who have been spiritually circumcised symbolized by baptism (Romans:2:28-29; Colossians:2:11-12).
The Exodus and Deuteronomy Passovers involved the quick killing of the lamb. The New Covenant Passover involves the suffering of the Lamb of God (Isaiah:52:13-53:12; 2 Corinthians:1:3-7). Christ's sacrifice was more than the act of a Roman soldier stabbing Him around 3 in the afternoon of Abib 14. It included all the events that began the night before.
Typology of the Passover
Many of the types of the Exodus or Deuteronomy Passovers are celebrated in the reality of the New Covenant Passover.
The Exodus or Deuteronomy slaying of a lamb were types of Christ's sacrifice. Israel's leaving of Egypt is a type of the Christian leaving spiritual Egypt. Christians should gather on the anniversary of the night before Christ's sacrifice, not as a type of Israel's experience, but as a celebration of the profound reality of Christ's sacrifice and their deliverance from spiritual bondage.
It is important for Christians not to base their Passover observance on the Exodus or Deuteronomy administrations, but to follow Christ's instructions as the Passover Lamb and High Priest of a better covenant.
Controversy in the Early Church
Eusebius (A.D. 263-339) gives us a glimpse into the early church in The History of the Church. He records that in the early second century a bishop from Asia Minor named Polycarp confronted the bishop of Rome over the issue of observing the Passover on Abib 14 instead of celebrating Easter. Polycarp claimed to have been a disciple of the apostle John and taught that the Passover was the true observance of the apostles.
In the latter half of the second century the Passover controversy became critical and divided the churches in Asia Minor from those who observed Easter in the West. The Passover contingent, known as Quartodecimans, were led by Polycrates. In a letter to the bishop in Rome, Polycrates wrote, "We for our part keep the day scrupulously, without addition or subtraction. For in Asia great luminaries sleep who shall rise again on the day of the Lord's advent, when He is coming in glory from heaven and shall search out all the saints... All of these kept the fourteenth day of the month as the beginning of the Paschal festival, in accordance with the Gospel, not deviating in the least but following the rule of the Faith" ( The History of the Church, Eusebius, pages 230-231).
In the resulting conflict the churches in Asia Minor who observed the Passover on Abib 14 in accordance with the Gospel accounts were excommunicated by the bishop of Rome.
Henry Chadwick sums up the dilemma in The Early Church: "It was impossible in so weighty a practical question for diversity to be allowed, but there can be little doubt that the Quartodecimans were right in thinking that they had preserved the most ancient and apostolic custom. They had become heretics simply by being behind the times" (1985, page 85).
The Exodus, Deuteronomy and New Covenant Passovers all reflect God working out His plan of salvation. Each administration involves different ways of celebrating both the temporary realities of the people of those times and the future reality when Jesus Christ would become the Passover and administer the New Covenant as the High Priest of God.
Christ leaves a clear example of how the New Covenant Passover is to be observed. As Paul wrote, "For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, 'Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.' In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes" (1 Corinthians:11:23-26).
On the night He was betrayed, Christians are to gather together to conduct a foot-washing ceremony and take bread and wine as symbols of His sacrifice. Christians are to celebrate this special occasion as a reminder of Christ's sacrifice, our present relationship with God through the resurrected Christ and the future establishment of Christ's priesthood at His return.