Christian Observance of the O.T. Passover

The Old Testament Passover meal was instituted at the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12). It is observed each year on the evening of Nisan 15.

Some modern Christian commentators feel that this observance originally occurred on the evening of Nisan 14. But at the time of Jesus, it was definitely on Nisan 15. For example, the 2nd Century B.C. Book of Jubilees, 49:1, states "Remember the commandment which the Lord commanded thee concerning the Passover, that you should celebrate it in its season on the 14th of the 1st month, that you should kill it [the lamb] before it is evening, and that they should eat it by night on the evening of the 15th from the time of the setting of the sun."

The Passover is the symbolic annual renewal of the Mosaic ("Old") Covenant for those under that covenant of physical blessings (mainly the Jews of today). For those under that Covenant, observance is mandatory.

The word Passover, Heb. Pesach, properly means "protect", not "pass by". The significance is that God "protected" the Children of Israel, and continues to protect us, see Isa. 31:5. George Wolf, "Lexical and Historical Contributions on the Biblical and Rabbinical Passover. New York: Moriah Offset, 1991, p.1-4.

Christians are under a different covenant, the "New Covenant". It's annual renewal occurs at the Lord's Supper, on "the night He was betrayed". This is the night of the 14th, the day before the Jewish Passover meal.

If one is a Jewish Christian, one is under both covenants, so one observes both renewals. Paul and Peter must have continued to observe the O.T. Passover for they were allowed entrance to the Temple precincts (see Acts of the Apostles).

The modern Jewish passover ceremony is the Seder. This was instituted after the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. and the mass sacrificing of lambs no longer occurred. [Josephus gives details of more than 200,000 lambs sacrificed at the Temple in 67 A.D.]. Jesus never participated in a Seder, but he did observe the "Jewish" Passover.

Modern Christians wonder what to do when the Jews observe the Passover. First, it is the evening (from sunset) of the First Day of Unleavened Bread, one of God's annual Holydays (Lev. 23). This means that this is the start of a special day of worship and fellowship.

Traditional Jewish unleavened bread, called Matzoh

Second, this day starts the week of Unleavened Bread, so your house should be deleavened (i.e., contain no baker's yeast nor bread etc. baked with yeast). Yeast symbolizes sin. Yeast is alive and is passed from one to another (as with "starter" lumps). The original sinner was Satan, the Devil. He is the "god of this world". He passes sin along to his spiritual children.

Third, Christ is our Passover sacrificed for us. He was placed in the tomb just before sunset. The Passover lamb symbolizes Christ. The blood on the doorposts which deflected the original death angel symbolized Christ's blood. The unleavened bread, "eaten in haste", symbolized Christ's broken body. The original Passover was a time of sorrow (as the Egyptians wept over their dead) and of joy (as the children of Israel prepared to depart). This evening is also ambivalent for Christians because our deliverance began even as Jesus's body was placed in the garden tomb.

Fourth, the Seder does provide a helpful model for Christian observance. We too can have symbols, questions, answers and scripture readings integrated into a meal. Incorporate into the table setting and meal thought-provoking symbols of the Exodus from Egypt and their Christian significance. For instance, leaves can indicate hyssop for cleansing and for placing blood on the lintels, or palm branches for a kingly procession. Of course, eat unleavened bread picturing both the haste of the Exodus and the sinlessness that is available through Christ. The "wine that cheers God and man" has many meanings. Even a pitcher of water can symbolize the Red Sea. The Children of Israel (and Christians at baptism) pass through it. The Egyptian army (and sin) are washed away. Turn these into questions and answers. Have the children choose something on the table and ask about it. Use your imagination. How about "leeks and garlic"? The children of Israel lusted after these when they were in the desert. Their example warns us not to lust after sin once we are delivered through Jesus.

Fifth, show forth your praise to God through music and hymn singing. The songs of Moses and Miriam (Exodus 30) after their deliverance encourage us to sing about ours.

The Seder provides ideas, but do not become tangled up in Jewish traditions. Keep Jesus and the New Covenant clearly in view even as you remember God's mighty deeds in earlier times.

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