Every year at this time the Christian focus becomes the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, along with His resurrection to life and then rising to sit at the throne with the Father in heaven. This sequence of events is the center of Christian faith, giving hope for eternal life and the abolition of sin and death in the world.
What’s easy to miss, though, is the ancient Hebrew context of Jesus’ sacrifice in the biblical festival of Passover. It’s a mistake to think that the Passover was simply a Jewish feast that happened to coincide with Jesus’ crucifixion.
The Passover, with all of its history and symbolism, is actually the centerpiece of Christ’s offering of Himself and subsequent ascension to the throne of God to serve as High Priest and Intercessor. By thinking about this central event in the Christian faith in the same way that Jesus Himself thought about it—as the ultimate fulfillment of what was practiced every year in the Passover—we can gain a much deeper and richer perspective on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and on what it means for Christians today.
The Lamb of God—from the Exodus to the crucifixion
During this season you’ll likely have opportunity to see Charlton Heston in full beard and desert garb in his role as Moses, prophet to the Israelite people in their oppression in the land of Egypt. The famous Hollywood classic The Ten Commandments gets airtime every year because it’s the story of the Passover, and Jews and Christians alike look back to the Exodus and remember the thrilling account of the plagues, Israel’s flight and the parting of the Red Sea.
The Exodus is just a part of the entire message of what the Passover is all about. The main symbol of the Old Testament Passover, the sacrificial lamb, points us in the right direction. God instructed the Israelites in detail about what to do with the Passover lamb:
“Pick out and take lambs for yourselves according to your families, and kill the Passover lamb. And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. And none of you shall go out of the door of his house until morning. For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you” (Exodus 12:21-23 Exodus 12:21-23 21 Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel, and said to them, Draw out and take you a lamb according to your families, and kill the passover.
22 And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two side posts with the blood that is in the basin; and none of you shall go out at the door of his house until the morning.
23 For the LORD will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when he sees the blood on the lintel, and on the two side posts, the LORD will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in to your houses to smite you.
American King James Version×).
The Passover lamb was sacrificed, its blood painted on the doorposts of the Israelite houses, so that God would pass over those homes and spare their firstborn children. The act of the lamb’s sacrifice and the blood covering the household was directly tied to the salvation of the people. It is within this context that we find Jesus’ work on earth.
Just before Jesus of Nazareth began His ministry in the early first century, He sought out His cousin, John the Baptist, who was baptizing people in the Jordan River. As Jesus approached the shore, John looked at Him, gestured to his followers and said: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 John 1:29The next day John sees Jesus coming to him, and said, Behold the Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world.
American King James Version×).
In this declaration John foretold and explained the role Jesus would have as Israel’s Messiah in His first coming—a role far greater than any of His followers at the time would have imagined!
Fast forward about three years from John’s proclamation of Jesus as the Lamb of God, and His disciples would see a fulfillment of their Master’s identity as that Lamb as He was tortured and crucified. (God’s plan for salvation actually goes much further back than Jesus’ crucifixion, the Israelite Exodus from Egypt, or even the creation of the universe. To get the rest of the story, read “The Lamb Foreordained Before the Foundation of the World ” .)
Before we get back to the eternal lesson of the sacrifice of Jesus, we need to talk about how we commemorate this central event in Christianity.
The Easter problem
By far the most common way that those who identify as Christians seek to honor Jesus as their Savior is by commemorating His resurrection on Easter Sunday.
But there are big problems with Easter itself, including its traditional origins in extrabiblical celebrations (search for “Easter” at ucg.org/learnmore or download or request our free study guide Holidays or Holy Days: Does It Matter Which Days We Observe? ). Even without the problems of Easter’s pagan throwbacks and unbiblical trappings (such as rabbits and eggs—ancient fertility symbols), there are deeper, fundamental theological problems with how Easter presents the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection.
When Easter Sunday is celebrated instead of the Passover, the biblical context is stripped from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the richness of the entire biblical narrative of God’s plan of salvation for all mankind is watered down and lost. The apostles recognized how important it was to remember Jesus’ sacrifice in the context of the biblical Passover, and the apostle Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth prove it.
Paul delivered specific instructions to the mostly gentile church in Corinth on how to commemorate Jesus’ death: “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’” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 23 For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered to you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread:
24 And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.
25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do you, as oft as you drink it, in remembrance of me.
American King James Version×, emphasis added throughout).
This is clearly not an Easter celebration or service. Paul wasn’t instituting something new or coming up with a new way to honor Christ. He was looking directly back to what Jesus Himself did on Passover night, where He affirmed Himself as the Lamb of God and gave instructions on how to honor His sacrifice as the Passover Lamb.
Easter loses the deep meaning and symbolism embedded in what Christ Himself was doing and teaching His disciples—in which He told them, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” It ignores His explicit instruction on the proper context for commemorating His death and substitutes in its place something totally different—a supposed celebration of His resurrection that actually is loaded with symbols adopted from ancient fertility rites!
What does this mean for you and me? What Paul wrote earlier in the same letter points us in the right direction: “Indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 7 Purge out therefore the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, as you are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us:
8 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.
American King James Version×).
Commemorating the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus Christ through the symbols of bread and wine as His body and blood is a responsibility Christians should take very seriously. Easter ignores the biblical context of why Jesus instituted these symbols. Because of this it also misses the boat in helping us see where the sacrifice of Christ will eventually take us.
Next we’ll see how the Passover imagery of the Bible points to a glorious and hopeful future that we should be looking to right now.
The Lamb of God—from here to eternity
To really understand the depth and breadth of Christ’s sacrifice for us, we need to look not only to the past but to the future. We’ve seen that Jesus’ followers recognized His identity as the fulfillment of what was symbolized in the Passover in Egypt by the lamb that was killed to save the people. He fulfilled His role as the sacrificial Lamb by offering His life for us so that we could repent of sin and be freed from death. Yet Jesus’ role as the Lamb of God didn’t end when He died. His sacrifice, though made once, is ever available to give freedom.
And where does the Bible’s narrative of the Lamb of God take us? To the very end. Jesus is referred to as the “Lamb of God” or the “Lamb” repeatedly in the book of Revelation—the last book of the Bible, which takes us far into the future.
The apostle John was given an incredible vision of a time when the people of God would come before the throne of God. Here is what he saw: “I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ …
“Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, ‘Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?’ And I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’ So he said to me, ‘These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb … for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’” (Revelation 7:9-17 Revelation 7:9-17 9 After this I beheld, and, see, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands;
10 And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.
11 And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God,
12 Saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honor, and power, and might, be to our God for ever and ever. Amen.
13 And one of the elders answered, saying to me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and from where came they?
14 And I said to him, Sir, you know. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sits on the throne shall dwell among them.
16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.
17 For the Lamb which is in the middle of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them to living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.
American King James Version×).
The reality is that, at His crucifixion, Jesus’ role as the Passover Lamb was only beginning. He was raised from the dead and ascended to the throne of God where He currently sits as our High Priest and Intercessor before God the Father (Hebrews 8:1 Hebrews 8:1Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens;
American King James Version×). His continued ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18 2 Corinthians 5:18And all things are of God, who has reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation;
American King James Version×) is what gives us hope that we can be forgiven of our sins through acknowledging those sins and repenting before God. This is the only true hope that we can hang our faith on, and only God can provide it through the sacrifice of the Lamb!
The biblical thread of the Lamb goes straight through to the end of the book—and the end of God’s plan for mankind. The end of John’s vision takes us to a time in the future when God’s plan of salvation for mankind is complete and God begins a new creation:
“Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Revelation 21:1 Revelation 21:1And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.
American King James Version×). Notice John’s description of the new creation: “But I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light” (Revelation 21:22-23 Revelation 21:22-23 22 And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. 23 And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.
American King James Version×).
Jesus’ role as the Passover Lamb of God, sacrificed for your sins and mine, continues on today and has eternal significance. No wonder Jesus instituted the New Covenant Passover ceremony for Christians to observe every year in His honor! No wonder the apostles continued in this practice and taught the Lord’s commandment so faithfully!
Here’s a question to ask yourself as you ponder the life and death of Jesus Christ, as well as His continuing role as the Passover Lamb: Will you faithfully follow His commandment as well?
The slain Lamb lives
As Jesus’ body was taken down, wrapped and placed in the tomb, His disciples must have wondered what it all meant. Here was the one who would be Messiah—the Savior and King— dead. What did it mean for His teachings? What did it mean for the strange and touching meal He shared with them the evening before? What did it mean for them? Doubt, fear, anger—all of these emotions and more must have filled the scattering disciples in the hours after the crucifixion.
But Jesus did not stay in the grave. He did not stay dead! His body did not “see corruption” (Psalms 16:10 Psalms 16:10For you will not leave my soul in hell; neither will you suffer your Holy One to see corruption.
American King James Version×). He was raised by the Father to eternal life and accepted to dwell at the throne of God. And He is alive today, interceding for His people and actively living in them through the Holy Spirit (Galatians 2:20 Galatians 2:20I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
American King James Version×).
The Passover ceremony He instituted that momentous spring calls all this and more to our attention. It points us to the future time when God will redeem the whole creation and His people will live with Him for all eternity.
Jesus is the Passover Lamb of God, and He was sacrificed for you and for me. Just as we have been given the awesome privilege of knowing this truth, we have also been given an awesome responsibility to worship our Lord God in spirit and truth (John 4:24 John 4:24God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
American King James Version×).
Will you respond to that responsibility by worshipping God in the way and at the time that He directs? The Passover is that time, while Easter cannot claim to be. I hope you’ll choose to honor your Lord and Savior as the Passover Lamb, just as He intended!
How is the Passover Ceremony Commemorated Today?
The biblical observance of the Passover is a memorial of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins. The original Passover was a reminder of how God spared the firstborn of His people from death in Egypt. As the ultimate fulfillment of what the Passover pictures, the New Covenant Passover reminds us that Christians are saved from sin’s penalty of eternal death by Christ’s sacrifice as the Lamb of God.
Members of the United Church of God, publisher of Beyond Today magazine, approach this period of the year with deep spiritual introspection, recognizing the enormity of that sacrifice. We commemorate the Passover with a solemn service based on the instructions of the apostle Paul and the New Covenant Passover ceremony that Jesus instituted as recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The Passover service begins after sundown the night before Passover day on the Hebrew calendar, according to Jesus’ example. The service starts with a brief explanation of its purpose and readings from the Gospels. Then, following Jesus’ example and instructions in John 13, Christians wash one another’s feet.
This is followed by an explanation of the symbols of the Passover, unleavened bread and wine, which represent the body and blood of our Savior. Each baptized member of the Church eats a small piece of the unleavened bread and drinks a small cup of the wine, showing acknowledgment of and need for that sacrifice. After further readings from Jesus’ teaching on that last night before His arrest and crucifixion, the service is concluded. (See Exodus 12; Leviticus 23:5 Leviticus 23:5In the fourteenth day of the first month at even is the LORD’s passover.
American King James Version×; Matthew 26:17-30 Matthew 26:17-30 17 Now the first day of the feast of unleavened bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying to him, Where will you that we prepare for you to eat the passover? 18 And he said, Go into the city to such a man, and say to him, The Master said, My time is at hand; I will keep the passover at your house with my disciples. 19 And the disciples did as Jesus had appointed them; and they made ready the passover. 20 Now when the even was come, he sat down with the twelve. 21 And as they did eat, he said, Truly I say to you, that one of you shall betray me. 22 And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began every one of them to say to him, Lord, is it I? 23 And he answered and said, He that dips his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me. 24 The Son of man goes as it is written of him: but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born. 25 Then Judas, which betrayed him, answered and said, Master, is it I? He said to him, You have said. 26 And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. 27 And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink you all of it; 28 For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. 29 But I say to you, I will not drink from now on of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom. 30 And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives.
American King James Version×; Mark 14:22-24 Mark 14:22-24 22 And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. 23 And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. 24 And he said to them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.
American King James Version×; 1 Corinthians 11:23-28 1 Corinthians 11:23-28 23 For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered to you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: 24 And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. 25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do you, as oft as you drink it, in remembrance of me. 26 For as often as you eat this bread, and drink this cup, you do show the Lord’s death till he come. 27 Why whoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. 28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.
American King James Version×.)