By: Kevin L. Howard
Passover is an ancient feast, one that spans some thirty-five centuries of human existence. Set in the time of Egypt’s great pyramids, the Passover story is impassioned by fiery accounts of: a death sentence
for Jewish infants; a baby floating in a basket; Jewish slaves; a burning bush; Egyptian sorcerers; tense confrontations with the Pharaoh; divine plagues; a pursuing army; the parting of a sea; and the
birth of a nation at the foot of a thundering wilderness mountain.
Passover carries a powerful message for today. This holiday forms the primary background for understanding the events of the Upper Room, the symbolism of the Lord’s Table, and the meaning of the Messiah’s death.
The Biblical Observance
The Meaning of Passover
For more than 400 years, the Jewish people had lived in Egypt (Ex. 12:40). The time had come for God to bring them back to their land as He had promised (Gen. 46:3-4; 50:24). In Exodus 11, God detailed,
through His servant Moses, the tenth and final judgment plague which would befall the Egyptians and their false gods. At midnight, the Lord would pass through the land and kill the firstborn of each family and all the cattle.
With this final, climactic plague, God would dramatically free His people from the bondage of Egypt.
In Exodus 12, God outlined explicit steps to be taken by those who trusted in Him so that they, unlike Pharaoh and the Egyptians, would not be struck down by the final plague. They were to select a year-old
male lamb in its prime. It was to be a perfect lamb without any flaw or defect. It was to be taken out from the flock on the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Nisan and kept until the fourteenth day of the month. This would allow time for each family to observe the lamb and confirm that it was fit. This would also allow time for each family to become personally attached to their lamb so that it would no longer be
just a lamb (Ex. 12:3), but their lamb (Ex. 12:5). This would deeply impress upon them the costly nature of the sacrifice. An innocent one was to die in their place.
On the evening of the fourteenth, as the warm afternoon sun was setting, the lambs were to be publicly killed by “the whole assembly.” All the people were to be responsible for the death of the lambs. Yet,
in contrast, each family was to individually apply the blood of their lamb to the doorposts of their own home as a visible sign of their faith in the Lord (Ex. 12:13). At that moment, the innocent lamb
became their substitute making it possible for the Lord’s judgment to “pass over” them. And so the Lord instituted Passover as “a night to be much observed unto the LORD for bringing them out from the land of Egypt” (Ex. 12:42).
The Time of Passover
By biblical definition, Passover is a one-day feast that is immediately followed by the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread. Both feasts today are usually blurred together as a single entity and simply called
God ordained that Passover be observed each year on the fourteenth day of the Hebrew month, Nisan (March-April), the day that God delivered His people from Egypt (Ex. 12:6; Lev. 23:5; Num. 9:3; 28:16). His deliverance was so mighty and awesome that Israel’s religious calendar was forever altered. In commemoration of this miraculous deliverance, the month of Nisan (also known as Abib before the Babylonian captivity, Ex. 13:4; 34:18) became the first month of the Hebrew religious year from that time forward (Ex. 12:2; Num. 9-,5; 28:16).
The Record of Passover
By all biblical accounts, the lamb was the core requisite for Passover (Ex. 12; 34:25; Dt. 16:1-7). It was the centerpiece of all that was accomplished. If there was no lamb, there would be no deliverance. So
central was the lamb to Passover observance that the term “the Passover” came to be used interchangeably of the lamb as well as the holiday (Ex. 12:21; Dt. 16:2, 6; cf. Lk. 22:7; 1 Cor. 5:7). One could not exist without the other. The lamb embodied the holiday, and without it, the holiday was meaningless.
In all, God required three symbolic foods to be eaten that Passover night – the lamb, matzah (unleavened bread), and bitter herbs (Ex. 12:8). The sacrifice was to be a young lamb, depicting innocence. It
was to be roasted with fire portraying the judgment that would befall it instead of the firstborn. Matzah (unleavened bread) was to be eaten symbolizing the purity of the sacrifice since leaven, with its souring
characteristic, was often a symbol of sin (I Cor. 5:6-8). Bitter herbs were to be eaten as a reminder of the suffering of the lamb.
The Importance of Passover
Several important facts must be understood regarding the observance of Passover. There was only one Passover when the Lord passed through the land in judgment. Every observance since then has been a memorial commemorating that occasion (Ex. 13:3).
Passover holds great distinction among the religious feasts of the world. Passover is the oldest continuously observed feast in existence today, celebrated for some 3,500 years. Passover was celebrated in the Sinai wilderness one year after Israel left Egypt (Num. 9:1-14); it was celebrated as the Jewish people came into the land of Israel (Josh. 5:10-12); it was celebrated in the days of King Hezekiah (2 Chr. 30) and King Josiah (2 Ki. 23:21-23; 2 Chr. 35:1-19); it was celebrated after the return from Babylonian captivity (Ezra 6:19-20); and Passover was celebrated extensively in the days of Jesus Jn. 11:55). Even
today, more Jewish people keep Passover than any of the other Jewish holy days. It is a strong, cohesive force within the fabric of Jewish culture and community.
The observance of Passover was so important that God graciously gave an alternate date for those who were unable to observe Passover on Nisan 14. Those who had become defiled by touching a dead body or were away on a long journey could celebrate Passover thirty days later on the fourteenth of the second month (Num 9:1-14; cf. 2 Chr. 30:2, 15). None of the other divinely appointed feasts had this accommodation.
The Service of Passover
God commanded that Passover be observed as a memorial forever (Ex. 12:14). He also declared that it was to be kept by a service (Ex. 12:25). This service was to incorporate the lamb, matzah (unleavened
bread), and bitter herbs and to raise questions in the minds of the children so that the Exodus story could be rehearsed from generation to generation (Ex. 12:26-27). The Lord, however, did not detail the order of the service, only that it was to be kept.
Several centuries before Christ, a somewhat traditionalized Passover service began to emerge. This ritual Passover service was called the Seder (pronounced SAY-der) from the Hebrew word meaning order.” It
prescribed the traditional order of the Scripture readings, prayers, symbolic foods, and songs in the Passover service. The basic order of the Passover Seder today remains much as it was 2,000 years ago even though the service continued to be embellished with more songs and traditions up through the Middle Ages.
The Modern Observance
The Table of Passover
1) A pillow is placed near the left arm of the leader on which to recline during the Seder. The custom of reclining while eating is of ancient Persian origin. It symbolizes freedom, since slaves ere never
permitted to recline in leisure at a meal.
2) The Haggadah (Hebrew – “the telling”) is so named from the Lord’s command to “show (tell) they son” (Exodus 13:8). It is the book which relates the Passover story through readings, songs and prayers in the traditional prescribed order.
3) Salt Water symbolizes the Jewish tears shed during Egyptian bondage and God’s miraculous parting of the Red Sea.
4) Elijah’s Cup is the extra cup of wine poured in the hope that the prophet Elijah might come and announce the arrival of the Messiah. Rabbinic tradition holds that the Messiah will come during passover, the season of redemption, to bring about the final redemption, to bring about the final redemption from dispersion. However, according to Malachi 4:5, Elijah must appear first.
5)Candles are lit at sunset and a prayer pronounced over them by the mother of the house to begin the Passover service. The candles, with their bright warm glow, symbolize the solemnity of the occasion and set Passover apart as a special day.
6) The Kippa (Hebrew) or Yarmulke (Yiddish) is the small head covering worn by Jewish males to show reverence for God. There is no command for such a practice in Scripture, but it arose by tradition in
7) Wine is a symbol of joy. Rabbinic law commands four cups of wine to be taken during the Seder to symbolize the fourfold expression of the Lord’s promised deliverance (Ex. 6:6-7). According to rabbinic law, this wine must be red.
8) Three Matzahs (unleavened bread) are placed on the Passover table with one in each pocket of the embroidered matzah tash (linen bag). Some rabbinic authorities suggest that the three matzahs represent the three groups of Jewish people: the priests, the Levites, and the Israelites. However, there is no biblical basis for this explanation.
9) The shankbone of a lamb is a stark reminder of the Passover lamb sacrificed each year in the days of the Temple. The sacrificial system ceased with the Roman destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.
10) Maror (bitter herbs), usually ground horseradish, is a mandatory item for Passover. It is a reminder of the bitterness which the Israelites suffered as slaves in Egypt.
11) Karpas, usually parsley, bitter lettuce, or watercress, is considered a bitter herb. Its green color is a reminder of the springtime during which Passover occurs and also of the hyssop plant used to apply the blood to the doorposts.
12) Hazeret is a whole bitter herb such as horseradish, radish, or onion. It is in addition to the maror since the biblical command in Numbers 9:11 is to eat the meal with bitter herbs (plural).
13) Haroset is a sweet mixture of finely chopped apple, nuts, cinnamon, and wine made to resemble the red-brown clay and mortar used by Israel in building the bricks of Pharaoh’s pyramids. It sweetness is a
reminder of the sweetness of God’s redemption from slavery.
14) The roasted egg in some traditions represents the required peace offering in the Temple for the second day of Passover.
15) The Seder tray is a tray or platter which usually has six circular indentations so that the symbolic Passover foods may be individually displayed. It is the central item on the modern Passover table.
The Passover Seder
Before the arrival of Passover, painstaking preparation takes place within the Jewish home to rid it of all leavened bread and related products. Houses are scrubbed, pockets turned inside out and laundered, cooking utensils are scalded, and everyday dinnerware and flatware are replaced with the finest Passover china, silver, and crystal.
The Passover service itself is usually quite lengthy as the Passover story unfolds through the many prayers, songs, and narrative readings in the Haggadah. The Seder sometimes lasts until midnight or even the early hours of the morning before tired family members wander off to bed.
As the family is seated, special seating arrangements are observed. The leader sits at the head of the festive dinner table. The youngest sits at his right side in order to fulfill a special role later in the
Seder service. To the left of the leader, the guest of honor is seated, or sometimes the place setting is reserved for the prophet Elijah.
The mother of the house ushers in the holiday by lighting the Passover candles. She then covers her eyes with her hands and recites a Hebrew blessing over the candles thanking God for the special occasion:
“Blessed art Thou, 0 Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has set us apart by His Word, and in whose Name we light the festival lights.”
The First Cup
The Lord used four expressions to describe His promised deliverance from Egypt: “I will bring you out”; “I will rid you out of their bondage”; “I will redeem you”; and “I will take you to me for a people” (Ex. 6:6-7). Since wine is often a symbol of the joy of harvest, four cups of wine are taken during the Passover service to reflect the fourfold joy of the Lord’s redemption.
To begin the service, the father pours the first cup of wine and asks everyone to rise from the table. The father then lifts his cup toward heaven and recites the Kiddush (“prayer of sanctification”) to set the
day apart to God.
Blessed art Thou, 0 Lord our God, King of the universe, Who createst the fruit of the vine. Blessed art Thou, 0 Lord our God, Who hast chosen us for Thy service from among the nations…. Blessed art Thou,
0 Lord our God, King of the universe, Who hast kept us in fife, Who hast preserved us, and hast enabled us to reach this season.
It was the Messiah, as the leader of the Seder service observed in the Upper Room, who said the Kiddush. “And he took the cup, and gave thanks” (Lk. 22:17).
The Washing of Hands
The second ceremony of the Seder is known as the “washing of the hands.” One of the family members brings a pitcher of water, bowl, and towel to each person at the table to wash his hands. The ceremony is a symbolic act of purification as they prepare to handle the food.
It was probably this ceremony in the Seder that the Messiah used to teach His disciples an object lesson. “He [Jesus] riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments, and took a towel, and girded himself.
After that he poureth water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded” (Jn. 13:4-5). His object lesson demonstrated that He was about to become the suffering Servant of the Lord, and as such, He would be the One to cleanse them.
The Green Vegetable
If After the hands are O@ washed, the karpas (green vegetable) is dipped into the salt water and eaten. The green vegetable is a reminder occurs in the springtime. The salt water is a reminder of the tears of pain and suffering shed by the Jewish people in slavery.
The Middle Matzah
Next, the leader removes the middle matzah from the linen bag to break it in half. Half is replaced, and half is in a linen napkin and hidden away in the house while the children cover their eyes. It reappears
later in the service to illustrate a very important truth.
The Four Questions
At this point, the youngest child is called on to recite his diligently rehearsed part. The child asks the traditional Passover questions to fulfill Exodus 12:26: “When your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service?” Beaming with joy and accomplishment the child will ask:
Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights, we eat either leavened or unleavened bread, but on this night, only unleavened bread? On all other nights, we eat all kinds of herbs, but on this night, only bitter herbs? On all other nights, we do not dip even once, but on this night, we dip twice? On all other nights, we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night, we eat
Often the youngest will recline upon the leader. This was the context of the apostle John reclining upon Jesus at their Passover supper. John recorded, “Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his
disciples, whom Jesus loved” (Jn. 13:23). This would indicate that John sat to the right of the Savior and was the youngest at the meal, a position consistent with early Church tradition that John was the
youngest apostle. John would have had the honor of asking the questions that night.
LORD” (Mal. 4:5).
Many believe that Elijah will be one of the two messianic witnesses mentioned in Revelation II since one of them will perform the miracles of Elijah. Although the Scripture teaches that Elijah will return in
the future, it does not name the two witnesses, and one cannot be absolutely dogmatic about their identification.
The Fourth Cup
The fourth cup of wine, called the Cup of Acceptance, or Praise, is poured and taken. It was this cup that the Messiah said He would not drink until He drank it with the disciples in the Kingdom (Mt. 26:29).
He knew that the hour of His acceptance by His Jewish nation was yet future, and therefore His joy would not be full until then.
The Closing Hymn
At the conclusion of the service, a hymn is usually sung or recited. This was also the tradition in the day of Jesus. Matthew states, “And when they had sung an hymn, they went out” (Mt. 26:30). Perhaps since
Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience, he knew that they would know the name of the hymn since, by tradition, every Seder ends with the latter half of the Hallel (Ps. 115-118).
How ironic that just hours before Jesus was betrayed and went to the cross, He sang the prophetic words of Psalm 118: “The stone which the builders refused is become the head of the comer. This is the LORD’s
doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day which the LORD hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it. Save now, I beseech thee, 0 LORD! 0 LORD, I beseech thee, send now prosperity! Blessed is
he that cometh in the name of the LORD” (Ps. 118:22-26). The Messiah sang these words just hours before He fulfilled them in becoming the stone that was refused by the religious leaders (cf. Mt. 21:42; Mk. 12: 1 0; Acts 4:11
How utterly tragic that the majority of the Jewish nation did not realize the truth of this Psalm, that the Messiah would first be rejected and suffer before He would reign on David’s throne. How doubly tragic, since Psalm 118 was generally viewed as messianic and was even sung to Jesus proclaiming Him the Messiah at His so-called triumphal entry. Matthew recorded: “And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna [Hebrew for ‘Save now’] to the Son of David [a messianic title]! Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord!” (Mt. 21:9).
Since the entire Passover service is woven with rich symbolism, it must be asked: “Why three matzahs?” One rabbinic tradition holds that they represent the three groups of Jewish people: the priests, the Levites, and the Israelites. Another tradition holds that they represent the three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yet rabbinic tradition is at a loss to explain why the middle matzah must be broken. Why must the Levites be broken and not the other groups? Or, why must Isaac be broken and not Abraham nor Jacob? Rabbinic tradition is silent on such an important issue.
Neither explanation fits the symbolism behind this breaking ceremony. In reality, the triunity of the Godhead is being symbolized – three persons within the oneness of God, just as three matzahs are in the
oneness of the linen bag. The second person of the Godhead, the Son, came to earth as the Messiah. He was broken (died), wrapped, and hidden away (buried), and brought back at the third cup of wine
(resurrected the third day).
At first glance, this assertion may appear to be a fanciful attempt toChristianize the Jewish Passover, but the evidence overwhelmingly argues to the contrary. First, the afikomen was not present in the day
of Jesus. It was a later addition to the Passover. The last solid food taken in that day was the lamb at the dinner. Rabbinic tradition holds that the afikomen now represents the lamb, and therefore everyone
must eat of it.
Secondly, there is much debate among the rabbis concerning the meaning of the word afikomen. The problem is compounded since afikomen does not exist in the Hebrew language. It is just not there! Rabbinic concensus usually explains that it means dessert since it is eaten after the meal where the dessert would normally be eaten. Amazingly, afikomen is the only Greek word (the common language of Jesus’ day) in the Passover Seder. Everything else is Hebrew. It is the second aorist form of the Greek verb ikneomai. The translation is electrifying. It simply means – He came.
Many traditions have developed around the afikomen. Moroccan Jews save a piece of the afikomen for use when traveling at sea throughout the year. They believe that if a piece of the afikomen is tossed into the stormy waves, it will still the waters. It is easy to see the origin of this tradition as Jesus spoke and calmed the stormy Sea of Galilee. It must be asked, “How could the afikomen, if it speaks of Jesus, make
its way into the Jewish Passover when the majority of Jewish people today do not accept Jesus as the Messiah?” The situation in the first century must be examined to shed light on this question.
At the Feast of Weeks (also known as Shavuot or “Pentecost”) in Acts 2, three thousand sons of Israel from many different countries believed on the Lord. The total count was actually much higher since the three thousand did not include the women or children. These Jewish believers would have taken the message of the Savior with them to their Jewish brethren as they returned to their homelands. Many undoubtedly came to the Lord as a result of their testimony. In Act 21:20, James and all the elders told Paul, “Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are who believe.” They were talking only about Jewish believers in Jerusalem and numbered them in the thousands. Some estimate that by
the end of the first century there were one million Jewish believers in the Messiah. While this was certainly not a majority within the nation, it was a large enough number to send shock waves throughout synagogues everywhere concerning the messiahship of Jesus.
Another first-century event not only set the stage but mandated a change in the Passover observance. The Roman war machine rolled into Israel and, in A.D. 70, leveled the breathtaking Temple. This was a
disaster of the highest magnitude since the majority of the Levitical law was based upon the Temple and its sacrifices. Without the Temple, there could be no more sacrifices. Without the sacrifices, there could
be no more Passover lamb, for the Lord had strictly commanded, “Thou shalt, therefore, sacrifice the passover unto the thy God, of the flock and the herd, in the place which the LORD shall choose to place his name there” (Dt. 16:2). Without the Passover lamb, the future of Passover observance was threatened. The Jewish people faced the dilemma of ceasing to observe Passover or changing it to be observed without a lamb.
In addition, Jewish believers had already broken away from the sacrificial system, believing that the Messiah had made a once-and-for-all sacrifice upon the cross. They were already celebrating Passover
without the lamb, choosing to incorporate the broken matzah (afikomen) into the service at the precise point at which the Lord had said, “This do in remembrance of me.” It is not difficult to imagine this tradition being borrowed by others seeking to switch to a “lambless” Passover without their even realizing the full significance behind the ceremony.
Ultimately, Passover foreshadowed the Jewish Messiah as the true Passover Lamb. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah spoke of the Messiah in terms of the Passover lamb and of the greater redemption that He would bring (Isaiah 53). He would be the innocent, pure Lamb upon whom the judgment of God would fall in place of the people. He would be the One who, with great bitterness of suffering and death, would shed His blood to provide the greater deliverance from sin.
How tragic that in millions of Jewish homes today the most obscure ceremony in the Passover (the afikomen) is the one that gives it its greatest and most powerful meaning. The afikomen (the “He came”) has been an annual reminder that the Messiah, the true Passover Lamb, has already come.
And so, year after year, the small voices of children drift through the night: “Why is this night different?” And the message of the afikomen echoes back in reply, “He came,” for it was on this holiday that the
true Passover Lamb was crucified, buried, and on the third day rose again to provide the greater redemption, the deliverance from sin. It is only in Him that the Passover message finds its fullness. The Lamb still cannot be separated from the holiday.
There is no question that Jesus is the Passover Lamb. Scripture records it. History echoes it. Yet one final Passover question remains, and it is the most important of all: “Is He your Passover Lamb
– have you placed your trust in the Messiah and His sacrifice as your only hope of Heaven?” Even as the ancient Israelite was required to individually apply the blood to his door, so, too, today men and women
must individually make a decision concerning the Lamb of God. There is still no deliverance without the Lamb.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED IN ZION’S FIRE, MARCH-APRIL 1996, BY KEVIN L. HOWARD, PP. 4-11. THIS MATERIAL MAY BE USED FOR STUDY AND RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.