Passover (Hebrew Pesach) is the most widely observed Jewish holiday. It commemorates and celebrates both God’s freeing of the Israelite slaves from Egypt and the beginning of the Nation of Israel (Exod. 12:14). Although originally one of the pilgrim feasts which required worshipers to travel to Jerusalem (Deut. 16:16), since the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 Passover has become a family observance. The Passover service (Hebrew Seder) takes place in the home and is led by the family head, usually the father. The Seder service includes the reading of the Haggadah, the biblical story of the exodus accompanied by interpretation and elaboration of God’s deliverance of His people from bondage.
This year Passover begins on the evening of April 14th (Erev Pesach with the Seder service) and is followed by the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In Jewish tradition these are combined into one observance that includes Passover and the seven day observance of Unleavened Bread. During Pesach and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, all leaven products are forbidden and are not available for purchase in Jewish grocery stores. In the weeks preceding Passover, houses are systematically cleaned and all leavened products (khametz) are removed. (Someone once remarked that the Jews actually invented spring cleaning in their diligent efforts to remove all leaven from their homes before Passover.)
Although early Christians celebrated Passover in keeping with the biblical instructions and Jewish tradition, during the reign of the “Christian” emperor Constantine, the Sabbath was changed from Saturday to Sunday and the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection was separated from the Jewish observance of Passover. Justifying his actions, Constantine expressed his desire “to separate ourselves from the detestable company of the Jews“ (Vita Constantini iii.18).
And yet Passover is a biblical celebration which has great significance for followers of Jesus. It was during a Passover Seder that Jesus took elements from the meal and instituted the Lord’s Supper with some unleavened bread (matzah) and wine (Luke 22:19-20). It was on Passover that Jesus, the Lamb of God (John 1:29), shed His blood for the sins of the world. It was on the following Sunday, the Jewish Feast of First Fruits, that Jesus rose from the grave as the first fruits of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:29).
The Passover Seder teaches and illustrates much about the person and work of Jesus the Messiah. Thankfully, many believers today, including Messianic congregations, have disregarded the words of Constantine and are joyfully celebrating God’s provision of redemption through their observance of Passover. The apostle Paul affirms this with his words to the Corinthians, “For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast . . . (1 Cor. 5:7).
I will be observing three Seders this Passover season—one with a Jewish family and two with local congregations of Jesus followers. We will eat good food, tell the story of redemption, sing of our deliverance and celebrate what God has done for His people. There are great on-line resources that will help you observe a Christ-centered Passover. Pesach isn’t just a Jewish holiday. It’s for Christians as well. Let’s celebrate the feast!
About J. Carl Laney
J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Loving Your Enemy: A Biblical Alternative to Revenge” (Ministry: International Journal for Pastors, July 2011).