The Passover is an important celebration in ancient Israel that is largely overlooked by Christians today as ancient history. Nevertheless there is much that we can learn from the first Passover that applies to Christians still today.
The first Passover came as a part of the tenth and final plague upon Egypt that would deliver freedom to God’s people who were held in captivity. Exodus 13 addresses the Israelites and gives them instructions on what is going to happen. Although this day would be the worst in the history of Egypt, it would be a day of celebration that the Jews celebrate to this very day, thousands of years later.
1 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, 2 “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. 3 Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. 4 If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. 5 The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. 6 Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. 7 Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. 8 That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. 9 Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. 10 Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. 11 This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the LORD’s Passover.
There are three times each year that the Israelites were called together to celebrate – the Passover, the feast of weeks (which is when Pentecost took place), and the feast of tabernacles which follows the Day of Atonement. While sacrifices are a part of all three celebrations in the Passover and the Day of Atonement blood sacrifice is central to what takes place.
On the Day of Atonement a sacrifice was made on behalf of all the people of Israel. But it hasn’t been instituted yet in Exodus. As opposed to the Day of Atonement, the Passover is a very personal matter. Each family must sacrifice a lamb. This is not something that is bought at a market and is ready to eat. This is a lamb that the family has raised for the last year. The father would personally have to slaughter the lamb. The blood from the slaughter – on this first Passover – was used to cover the doorpost of the household. In the following years the lamb was slaughtered in remembrance of what the Lord did when the Israelites left Egypt but as they place the blood on their doorposts, during this first celebration, they are literally covered by the blood of the Lamb as we like to say in Christian circles.
The Passover is an important celebration that wasn’t to be taken lightly. In the book of Malachi the Israelites are reprimanded because they were bringing worthless sacrifices. They sacrificed crippled and diseased animals that had no value to them. In Jesus’ day the priests had made a mockery of the system because they had to approve of each lamb that was sacrificed. Often they would reject the lamb that a family had brought from afar and force them to purchase a lamb from the temple at exorbitant prices.
The unblemished lamb is a picture of the sinlessness of Jesus. Sacrificing anything else is the equivalent of saying that Jesus didn’t have to be perfect or that God accepts sin. Aside from the general taking advantage of people, the priests of Jesus’ day turned the sacrifice into an issue of money and made salvation available for purchase, but worst of all, only through them.
The Passover points to a personal need for Jesus. Just being an Israelite didn’t save anyone on the night of the Passover. Only those who were covered by the blood of the lamb on their doorposts were spared on the night of Passover. Were there some Israelites who didn’t take part in this or who didn’t believe it? The answer is most likely yes. The angel of death passed through all of Egypt and it didn’t discriminate based on nationality, it struck down the first born male of every household that didn’t have the blood on the doorposts.
There is some archaeological evidence that suggests that there were hurriedly dug graves in the region of Goshen – where the Israelites were – that date back to around the time of the Exodus. It’s likely that not all of the Israelites listened and they had to hurriedly bury their family members before they left Egypt.
Exodus 13:14-28 gives instructions for not only the night of the Passover but also the week surrounding it. The entire time was a festival known as the feast of unleavened bread. Unleavened bread is bread made without yeast in it. It is an important reminder of the Passover.
There are two significant reasons for using unleavened bread in this festival – one practical, the other theological. For practical reasons, yeast takes time to rise before you bake it. This is a remembrance that the Israelites left Egypt in a hurry and didn’t have time to wait for yeast to rise. When God acts, He does so according to His timetable which may be years or at a moment’s notice.
The theological issue with yeast is that it is a picture of sin. The modern equivalent to this is an apple. You’re probably familiar with the phrase “one bad apple.” The entire phrase is that one bad apple spoils the whole bunch. If a rotting apple is next to apples that are fine, then the rot will spread to the apples that are fine more quickly than if the apples are left on their own. Yeast works similarly. It spreads quickly. If there is even a small bit of yeast, it will quickly grow and spread over everything. This is the way that sin works as well. If we clean up our life but leave just a bit of sin left, that sin is going to grow and spread and soon we’ll be consumed by sin again. As the Israelites left Egypt to go and worship the Lord they were to rid of their lives of sin.
As Christians we know that Jesus was crucified on Passover. But He also celebrated Passover the night before with His disciples in what we know as the Lord’s Supper. This isn’t a mistake by the biblical writers. By Jesus’ day there were so many Jews who came to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover that it was impossible to sacrifice all of the lambs on one day. As it was blood flowed like a stream from the temple mount where the sacrifices were performed. As it became impossible to do all of the sacrifices in one day the northern Jews from Galilee celebrated the Passover feast on one day and the southern Jews celebrated the Passover the following day. So Jesus was able to celebrate the Passover with His disciples and hang on the cross the following day as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered as well.
The Lord’s Supper that we as Christians commemorate was the celebration of the Passover that was initiated in Egypt. It too was the result of blood sacrifice. Of course Jesus was the Passover lamb. Like the previous lamb, He too was spotless and perfect. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper in order to remember Jesus’ sacrifice, His body broken and His blood shed. The Passover was a commemoration of the day that the Lord rescued the Israelites from the hand of Pharaoh but it also looked forward to Jesus. In Exodus, the people were saved from physical death thanks to the sacrifice of the lamb. In Jesus we are also covered by the blood of the lamb as we are saved from spiritual death.