For most of us bread is an unheralded side dish in our everyday diet. In much of the Western world meals are centered around meat, pasta or casseroles, and unless we’re eating a sandwich, bread is an afterthought. That wasn’t true of the Middle Eastern cultures of biblical times.
In ancient Israel eating meals was a communal affair. Family and friends gathered to eat a meal while reclining on a floor mat. Each person would tear a piece of bread from a small loaf or thin round chunk and use it as a sort of spoon to scoop food from the various dishes offered at mealtime. This is why the Bible speaks of people eating a meal as “breaking bread.”
During Roman times couches and a low table replaced the mats, but the meal was eaten in basically the same manner.
Bread was made from different grains, including wheat, barley and millet, or even beans and lentils. Loaves were prepared by mixing flour with water and kneading it in troughs or bowls. Depending on where families lived or how wealthy they were, bread was baked on hot sand or flat stones over a fire, on a griddle or in an oven made of bronze, iron or, more commonly, clay.
The leavening process—the process for making bread dough to rise—is fascinating. A leavening agent, which causes tiny gas bubbles to form, is introduced into a batch of dough. This leavening agent permeates every part of the dough until the entire batch is leavened. A small amount can leaven a large amount of dough. The heat of baking causes the bubbles to further expand.
Today we commonly use store-bought baking soda or yeast, but that wasn’t the case then. Since bread was made daily, the easiest way to leaven it was to save a lump of yeast-leavened dough from the previous day. This lump would be added to the dough and left to stand until the yeast had permeated the entire batch.
Every spring ancient Israel observed the biblical festival of Passover and another festival over the following seven days called the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Just before the Israelites were delivered from their slavery in Egypt by great miracles, they were commanded by God not to eat leavened bread during this week-long period (Exodus 13:3-10).
Do these ancient observances have any meaning for Christians today?
“Let us keep the feast”
Many say that Christians are to live by the teachings of the New Testament and not by laws given in the Hebrew Scriptures.
They forget that the only Scriptures available to the apostles and Church of the first century were what we call the Old Testament. As the apostle Paul told Timothy of these books: “. . . From childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:15-17).
Paul was reminding Timothy to remember what he had been taught as a child from the Old Testament. In this context it’s not difficult to understand why the early New Testament Church observed the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. God’s inspired Word told them to!
Notice what Paul wrote to a predominately non-Jewish church congregation in 1 Corinthians 5: “Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (verses 6-7).
In the context of what he wrote, Paul uses leavening as a symbol of human pride and vanity. He understood the leavening process and applied it to the human condition. In verse 2 he told the Corinthians that they were “puffed up.” Remember, leavening fills dough with air bubbles to make it “puffed up.” Even today, we refer to someone preoccupied with self-importance as being “full of hot air.”
Now notice verse 8: “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” (emphasis added throughout). What feast is Paul speaking of? Obviously he’s talking about the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which these gentile Christians were observing (verses 7-8).
Jesus’ references concerning bread
Jesus Christ used leavening as a symbol of false teachings. Notice what He said to His disciples: “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees . . . How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?—but to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6, 11). Then they realized He meant the teachings of these religious groups (verse 12).
We see from the words of Paul and Jesus that leavening can serve as a symbol of spreading corruption and pride leading to false teachings and sins—the malice and wickedness Paul referred to.
On another occasion a group of Jewish religious leaders approached Jesus and asked Him to perform a sign to prove that He was sent from God. They referred to the time God provided ancient Israel with food called manna, which God had referred to as “bread from heaven” (Exodus 16:4).
Jesus explained the spiritual reality the manna fore-shadowed: “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ Then they said to Him, ‘Lord, give us this bread always.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst’” (John 6:32-35).
Jesus made the remarkable statement that He is the “bread of life.” He said that if you eat of this bread you will live forever (verses 50-51, 58). As we saw above, the apostle Paul also linked the Passover observance with the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Jesus Christ was offered as the New Testament Passover sacrifice, and He called Himself the bread of life.
Feeding on Christ’s flesh and blood?
Jesus then made the following perplexing statement: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed.
“He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:53-56).
What did Jesus mean by these statements? Did He really intend that a person eat His body and drink His blood to receive eternal life? This statement offended many people (verses 60-61, 66), yet Jesus didn’t attempt to explain Himself at that time except to say that His words were spirit and life (verse 63). But He would reveal more the night before His death.
Jesus at this later time assembled with the 12 disciples to observe what’s commonly referred to as the Last Supper. It was in fact the Passover, on which Jesus was about to suffer and die. During this meal He explained more of what He meant in His earlier statements about eating His body and drinking His blood:
“And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.’ Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins’” (Matthew 26:26-28).
Thus we must receive Jesus’ sacrifice—His suffering and death in our place. And recall that Paul said that unleavened bread represented sincerity and truth. Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). He was the Word of God made flesh. To feed on Him means internalizing His sacrifice along with His teachings and way of life as expressed through the whole of Scripture.
Which religious days should we observe?
As we have seen, the New Testament reveals that Jesus is the true Passover Lamb of God (1 Corinthians 5:7). So why do so few Christians actually observe the Passover and the accompanying Feast of Unleavened Bread?
Just where did the Western world get its present religious calendar? The New Testament Church didn’t observe Easter. Even the name Easter comes from an ancient pagan goddess, as almost any good encyclopedia will show. The Easter bunny and colored eggs have origins in fertility rites of antiquity and have nothing to do with the death and resurrection of Jesus the Son of God.
Why is it that so many in the Christian community ignore, or have no knowledge of, the Holy Days described in the Bible, the same Holy Days observed by Jesus and the apostles and observed by the early Church?
Why have so many ignored or abandoned these scriptural festivals and replaced them with holidays whose origins lie in dark, non-biblical antiquity? Let us keep the feasts God has given us in His Word!