God commanded it to the children of Israel, but what is...

The Christian Meaning of the Lord's Supper and Passover

James F. McBride: Is Passover a Bible requirement for Christians? How does it relate to the "Lord's Supper"? Should you observe it?

One of the more enduring religious celebrations is that of "Passover". It commemorates the release from centuries long slavery in Egypt of the nation of Israel some three thousand five hundred years ago. And, of course, is at the heart of Judaism to this day.

Symbolism

The Exodus, commemorated in the Passover, is a historical event. The Israelites were saved by God from Egypt. But it went, symbolically, far beyond that momentous deliverance. God had instructed the Israelites to slay a lamb or a kid and to place its blood around their doors as protection from "the plague of death". That night they ate the lamb in preparation for their march from Egypt. They were to observe this "pass over" annually in he springtime.

But the sacrifice of an innocent lamb year by year also looked forward to the death of Jesus Christ some fifteen hundred years later. In God's continuing revelation to His people the eternal concept unfolded of one individual becoming a "lamb to the slaughter" (Isaiah 53). Naturally, Christians understood this of Jesus Christ and wanted to remember it, as Jesus instructed the disciples.

Jesus was called "the Lamb of God" by John the Baptist (John 1:29, 36), and the New Testament amply verifies the symbolism. Paul, for example, wrote "Christ our Passover [lamb] is sacrificed for us" (I Corinthians 5:7).

The Last Supper as Marriage Feast

It does not seem too much to claim that our Lord, in the Last Supper, was as much enacting a Marriage Feast as keeping the Passover. Essentially the Passover itself was nuptial. The foundation of the Marriage between Yahweh and his People was the Covenant between them. That Covenant was made and ratified by the Passover. It is therefore no playing with words, but the sober truth, to say that Jesus, if not enacting a marriage at the Last Supper, was solemnizing the Marriage between himself and his Church in this, the New Covenant.

Outwardly, too, the ceremonies of the Last Supper suggest a marriage of those days. The house was prepared as for the reception of the bridegroom who had absented himself with his friends; at a given signal, he and his party returned to find the room prepared for the wedding feast. The feast itself began with the prescribed hand-washing and benediction. Then the great wine-cup was filled, and the principal personage, taking it, and holding it, recited over it the prayer of bridal blessing. Then the men seated themselves. Only the men sat at the marriage supper (H. F. B. Mackay, Studies in the Ministry of our Lord, London, 1933, p. 60.). After the supper the bridegroom left the feast with the bride.

It was at the Last Supper that our Lord delivered the parable of the True Vine. Perhaps nothing, not even St. Paul's symbol of the `One Body', so illustrates the union of the Bridegroom and the Bride as this discourse:

Abide in me,
And I in you,
I am the Vine,
Ye are the Branches.
He that abideth in me
And I in him,
The same beareth much fruit,
For apart from me ye can do nothing.

(See also Ezek. 19:10, in which the sap of the Mystic Mother Vine is called Blood.)

The whole may well be based upon the Wedding Psalm:

Thy wife shall be as the fruitful vine upon the walls of thine house.

(Psa. 128. The allusion to olive branches in this psalm may have suggested St. Paul's simile of the olive-tree in Rom. 11.)

The Vine was a normal metaphor for Israel, the Bride. (Psa. 80, 8-14; Isa. 5:1-7; Jer. 2:11; Hos. 10:1; Matt. 21:33-41.) In this parable-poem our Lord so stressed his union with the true Israel that he could actually say, `I am the Vine.' In the Eucharist, the Church would abide in him, and he in her. Her fruit was to be good works. The members of the Church are her `members'-branches-real parts of her, not her offspring, separate from her.

There is no lack of evidence that throughout his Ministry our Lord was preparing the minds of his disciples for the Marriage-Feast of the Eucharist. The `beginning of his signs',' his first enacted parable, was the turning of water into wine at a wedding. His Hour was not yet come, but he made use of a human marriage to illustrate it; he turned the common water of purification into the wine of Marriage.

Woman, what have I to do with thee?
Mine Hour is not yet come.

'Mine hour': it is always of his last sufferings that he so speaks. He is thinking of them as his high nuptials in the upper chamber and on the Cross.

'Woman, what have I to do with thee?' I think that the `woman' addressed is not Mary. For the moment he see in all women, in Womankind, the type of the Bride. His hour for having to do with her is not yet come.

He kept the best, the great Marriage, for the end of his ministry, and in his doing so St. John saw that he manifested forth his glory.

In the parables of the king who `made a Marriage-Feast for his son' and of the Ten Virgins, it is difficult not to see a preparation for the Eucharist. In both of them the lesson is the same, that the unworthy are excluded. In the first the man who would not accept the wedding garment is thrown out; in the second we read:

They that were ready went in with him to the Marriage Feast, and the door was shut.

The same notion of the exclusive privilege of the Eucharist is found in the Apocalypse:

Blessed are they which are bidden to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

It has caused much speculation that our Lord at the Last Supper said, not `This is my Flesh', but, `This is my Body'. The normal complement of blood is not body, but flesh, as we find in the sixth chapter of St. John. But a bridegroom dedicates not his flesh but his body to his bride. `With my body I thee worship' may not be the words of the Jewish Wedding Service, but the sentence enshrines a central idea of Christian marriage.

St. Paul considers that unworthy reception of the Sacrament consists in not discerning the Lord's Body, which for him is a nuptial idea (2 Cor. 4:10, Rom. 12:4-5, I Cor. 7:4, Eph., Col.).

From "The Bride of Christ" by Claude Chavasse, London: Faber and Faber, 1939, pp.59-64.

New Testament Practice

Jesus himself instructed how we are to commemorate his suffering. The apostle Paul wrote (I Corinthians 11:23ff.): "For I have received of the Lord [i.e., the instruction came from Jesus Christ] that which I also delivered to you that the Lord, Jesus, in the same night in which he was betrayed took bread [note Paul's emphasis on the timing]; 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".

Timing is highly symbolic in the Scriptures. Jesus was born on time, "at the fullness of time" (Galatians 4:4). He was sacrificed at the same time as the Passover lambs. As the Firstfruits he was presented after His resurrection to the Father (John 20:17, 27) at the time the Firstfruits offering was made (Leviticus 23:10-14). The Holy Spirit came on time (Acts 2:1). And Jesus will return exactly on time.

As our Passover sacrifice. Jesus died at the time the Passover lambs were to be sacrificed in the Temple - as the sun was going down (mid-afternoon) on Nisan 14 on the calendar then in use (Deuteronomy 16:6). Josephus, the contemporary Jewish historian, pinpoints this as "the ninth hour", or 3 p.m. (Antiq. xiv.4.3). Careful reading of the Scriptures reveals that Christ's crucifixion occurred on Wednesday afternoon that year.

Nisan is a month of the Hebrew calendar; used in the Bible. On the 14th day of Nisan, the Passover lamb was sacrificed. The 15th is the first day of the seven-day long Unleavened Bread Festival in spring.

Momentous events accompanied the death of Jesus. Suddenly, all the magnificent ceremony, at the heart of which was the Temple service, was suspended. God marked the event by an earthquake and darkened skies (Matthew 27:51). More to the point, the great veil which guarded the Holy Place within the Temple was supernaturally ripped from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51 etc). As is made clear in the book of Hebrews (chapters 9-10), access to God the Father in heaven is now open to all who call upon Jesus Christ - both Jew and Gentile.

No More Sacrifice

Animal sacrifices, since then, were no longer required as part of the true worship. Jesus had forecast this to the Samaritan woman: "The hour comes when you shall neither in this mountain [in Samaria] nor yet at Jerusalem [in the Temple] worship the Father..." (John 4:21). The purpose of all the animal sacrifices was fulfilled in Christ (Hebrews 10). And this applied, too, to the Passover! Not until Jesus Christ re-establishes the new Temple at his return will there be a divinely approved sacrificial system (Ezekiel 43-46).

It's important to be aware that "the Passover" is the actual sacrifice of the lamb (Exodus 12:27, Mark 14:12). Passover never was a "holy convocation". That is, its focus is the sacrifice of the lamb. The essential element of the sacrifice was the shedding of the blood, and its application to the door-frame of the house where they gathered for protection. The Israelites were obliged to do this before "midnight". In modern times, however, the term "passover" is associated by the Jews with the entire seven-day period called, in Leviticus 23, the Days of Unleavened Bread.

Christian Remembrance

For Christians, the remembrance of the suffering of our Saviour is in the memorial observance held annually on the "night in which he was betrayed" at the beginning of Nisan 14. Christians assemble to share in the symbols of bread and wine, and the foot washing, which he himself instituted as he faced that awful night of agony, culminating in his death on the tree by a spear thrust into his side (John 13).

No more is there a "blood sacrifice", for Jesus Christ in his suffering and death perfectly fulfilled the Passover symbolism. By his blood - shed once, for all - he covers and forgives our sin, delivering us from eternal death, and by his indwelling Spirit releases us from the slavery of our human nature. Then by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus was credentialed as the Son of God, making possible our eternal redemption.

What more beautiful way to remember him than through the simple universal ceremony Jesus himself detailed. And at the very time of year when, all those centuries ago, he was about to suffer humiliation and an awful death on the stake for you and for me!

In the simple practice of the memorial Supper, the "Christian Passover", we identify - annually - with our Saviour in his terrible sufferings throughout that night and the following day. It's a solemn ceremony Christians can observe in any place and in any circumstance of poverty or abundance. Indeed the apostle corrected the Corinthians for turning the occasion into a binge, telling them to separate the memorial meal from any form of partying (I Corinthians 11:17ff)!

Celebration

But there's more to this festival season. For on the night of the Nisan 15th, the people of God are commanded to begin a special celebration - the Festival of Unleavened Bread. On that night, death passed by the children of Israel, protected in their blood-bedecked homes. In that night they began to leave Egypt after decades of enslavement - for freedom. Truly an event to celebrate.

And for Christians, in the Days of Unleavened Bread we celebrate ow personal day by day deliverance from sin through the in-dwelling Jesus Christ. In our eating of the unyeasted bread for seven days we focus on the life of perfection which is our Christian goal.


To comment on this article or request more information, please contact James McBride by e-mail at the comment form below.

For PDF or mailed copy, see CGOM. Excerpt from New Horizons Volume 4 Issue 2, March/April 2000. Edited by James McBride of the Churches of God, United Kingdom.


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