It’s no accident that the Christian celebration of Easter and the Jewish celebration of Passover fall close to one another each year. This year, the two events are occurring on the same week, nearly in perfect timing with the Passover week that coincided with the crucifixion of Jesus.
Tonight, all around the world, Jewish families will take their place around the Passover meal. Many Christian families will do the same. In the Fourth Century, early Christian leaders led a movement that essentially divorced Christianity from its Jewish heritage. At that point, Christians stopped celebrating the most symbolic meal in history.
Now it’s finally time to reconnect followers of Jesus with the meal he used to describe the purpose of his life. Here are 10 Things Christians should know about the Passover.
1. The “Lord’s Supper” is Passover. What Christians know as “The Lord’s Supper,” “Communion,” or the “Eucharist” came out of the Passover meal Jesus had with his disciples. More than 20 times in the Gospels, that “last supper” is referred to as the Passover. Jesus even said that night, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you …” (Luke 22:15)
2. There’s a story. The Passover meal tells a story through the order (“Seder”) of the meal itself. As participants eat greenery dipped in salt water, matzo dipped in horse radish, or count off 10 drops of wine, those around the table remember how God rescued the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery.
3. It’s a happy meal. As did all observant Jews, Jesus celebrated the Passover meal every year. Mary and Joseph were extremely committed to this practice, taking their family all the way to Jerusalem each spring for the holiday (Luke 2:41). Though Christians naturally think of the “Lord’s Supper” as an extremely solemn, quiet and serious meal, the Passover is actually a joyful meal that involves children, laughter and song.
4. It’s not an option. God commanded the people to keep the Passover. There would never be an option to forget what God had done to rescue his people from slavery.
5. The bread is “sinless.” The bread of a Passover meal has no leaven in it. On this holiday week, leaven represents all that was wrong with living in slavery. Whether the Israelites had to eat this tasteless bread on a regular basis, or whether they were in such a hurry to leave Egypt that they didn’t give the bread time to rise, unleavened bread is central to the Passover meal. In time, these unpleasant memories helped leaven morph into a symbol for sin. Unleavened bread, then, is “sinless” bread. It was this bread Jesus gave to his disciples, saying, “This is my body.”
6. There’s a lot of wine. There are four cups of wine in the Passover meal. In order, they are the “Cup of Sanctification,” the “Cup of Deliverance,” the “Cup of Redemption,” and “the Cup of Restoration.” Two cups come before the meal, and two cups come after the meal. After the meal, Jesus took one of the cups and said, “This is my blood.” He also put one cup aside and did not drink it (Matthew 26:29). Logically, he offered the Cup of Redemption as his blood, and did not drink the Cup of Restoration because of his promise not to drink it until he was reunited with his followers “in my Father’s kingdom.” (Mathew 26:29)
7. No one wants the fifth cup. There is also a fifth cup of wine in the Passover meal, but no one drinks it. This cup is reserved for Elijah, who is always invited into the room. Why? Because the return of Elijah will signal the imminent arrival of the Messiah! If Elijah were to show up, a time of God’s judgment would be imminent, too (see Jeremiah 25:15-17 and Malachi 4:5). The cup of Elijah, then, is also a “Cup of Wrath.” Perhaps this is the reason Jesus would use the imagery of a cup as he prayed so earnestly later that night. “Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me!” (Matthew 26:39) And don’t forget, Jesus referred to John the Baptizer as the “Elijah who was to come.” (Matthew 11:14) By this logic, Jesus was “drinking” the cup of God’s wrath. He alone would bear God’s judgment against sinful people.
8. Hundreds of thousands were there. Jerusalem filled to overflowing each Passover holiday. Was it possible for tiny Jerusalem to host the entire Jewish nation? Could half a million guests actually find places to sleep or eat in Jerusalem? Yes, they could. Think of it this way. We have cities like Washington DC that can adequately absorb hundreds of thousands of extra people for political events. Sporting events like the Indianapolis 500 can swell a local population far beyond its usual capacities. As long as a community knows the crowd is coming, it can prepare for them. Jerusalem was ready. The 35-acre-large Temple Mount, for instance, was enlarged specifically to hold the massive crowds! The point? When Jesus was crucified, it wasn’t just all of Jerusalem that saw the event. People from every corner or Israel were present! It was a national event.
9. Friday started on Thursday night. When the sun set on that critically important Passover night, a new day arrived. While Western, non-Jewish people think of a new day’s arrival coming either at midnight or with the morning light, Jewish families treat sunset as the beginning of a new day. If Jesus and the disciples were eating the Passover on Thursday night, it was actually “Friday.” Jesus was crucified on Friday, during the very 24-hour period when every Jewish family was remembering how God had once rescued his people from slavery. Christians believe Jesus died to set people free from the slavery of sin. The timing of his death appears to be incredibly symbolic, especially since Jesus told his followers repeatedly that he was going to die soon in Jerusalem. Jesus acted as if his death had been planned far longer than his lifetime.
10. All eyes were on the sacrificed lamb. At the center of every Passover table was a lamb. There was no more symbolic animal for Jewish families. The sacrificial system clearly said that “without the shedding of blood, there could be no forgiveness of sin.” (Hebrews 9:22) In the daily sacrifice at the Temple, in each of the holidays, and even with individual offerings, the lamb was the ultimate symbol of the blood sacrifice needed to make human beings right with God. Jesus had been introduced as “the Lamb of God” by John (John 1:29, 36). Paul referred to Jesus as “our Passover Lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7). And in Revelation, Jesus took on the symbolism again as the lamb slain for the sins of the world (Revelation 5:6).