passover

The Theology of Passover

This is the third in a three-part series on Passover. The first post gave a general overview of the Passover celebration, and the second provided a more detailed discussion of the Passover meal (Seder).

The observance of Passover is rich with theological imagery and symbol. Paul recognized this when he wrote, “For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). The promise of the perfect substitutionary sacrifice goes back go Genesis 22 when Abraham was ascending Mt. Moriah in obedience to God’s command to sacrifice his son. Isaac questioned his father, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burning offering” (Gen. 22:7). Abraham replied, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burning offering, my son” (22:8). That day on Mt. Moriah God provided a ram to take the place of Isaac. But God’s promise of the provision of a lamb was not realized until John the Baptizer introduced Jesus saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:19).

It is clear from a biblical perspective that Passover is all about Jesus. The lighting of the Passover candles at the beginning of the Seder service reminds us of Jesus, the Light of the world (Jn. 8:12). The unleavened matzah eaten during the Passover meal reminds us of Jesus who declared, “I am the bread of life” (Jn. 6:48). The ritual of washing hands reminds us of the “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5) and God’s promise to “cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). The wine that is served at the Passover meal reminds us of the blood of Jesus that was shed for the sins of the world (Eph. 1:7) and points to His inauguration of the New Covenant (Luke 22:20).

One of the most intriguing symbols of Passover is the Afikomen, a portion of matzah which is broken and served at the conclusion of the Passover meal. Jewish tradition has various explanations for this symbol, usually just regarding it as “dessert.” But the word “Afikomen” seems to be derived from the Greek word erchomai (“to come”) and is interpreted by Messianic believers to mean “He came.” Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Promised One of the Hebrew Scriptures, has come!  The Passover service is really an illustrated sermon about the coming of Jesus and his redemptive work! But there is more.

The Passover service is really an illustrated sermon about the coming of Jesus and his redemptive work!

The bondage of the Israelites in Egypt points to the bondage of humanity under the burden of sin (Rom. 3:23). And as the final plague promised death to the firstborn sons, so all people stand under the penalty of death because of sin (Rom. 6:23). But because of God’s grace and mercy, He did not pour out His wrath on humanity in a manner commensurate with their sins. Paul explains that because Jesus took God’s wrath upon himself, God “passed over the sins previously committed” (Rom. 3:25). Through the sacrifice of Jesus, God provided a means by which all humanity could be delivered from the sentence of death (Rom. 5:8).

The means of deliverance for the firstborn sons of the Israelites was substitution. An innocent animal took the place of the Israelite’s sons. And so Jesus took the place of sinners in his death on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24). The blood which Jesus shed for our redemption serves as a symbol of the death of the substitute (Eph. 1:7, Heb. 9:22). The application of blood on the doorposts and lintels of their homes by the Israelites (Exod. 12:7) reflects their faith in God’s provision of deliverance. The kind of faith that saves is a kind of faith that demonstrates its validity by actively responding to God’s gracious provision Jms. 2:14-26).

Finally, as Passover is followed by the Feast of Unleavened Bread, so deliverance from sin and death should be followed by separation from evil. Paul writes that since Christ our Passover has been sacrificed, the Corinthians should “celebrate the feast” (1 Cor. 5:8). What feast follows Passover? The Feast of Unleavened Bread, of course! Paul proceeds to exhort the Corinthians to live out the implications of their participation in Passover by living unleavened lives characterized not by “malice and wickedness” but by “sincerity and truth.”

While New Covenant believers are not commanded to observe Passover, the theology of Passover is foundational to an appreciation of the blessings of the New Covenant that Jesus inaugurated through his substitutionary death on the cross. It is no wonder, then, that Jesus took two elements from the Passover table to be used as a memorial to His person and work—the bread and the cup (Lk. 22:19-20). Communion is essentially a mini-Passover, reminding believers that Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of all that Israel’s first Passover anticipated. Because the Lamb of God has provided redemption from sin’s slavery, the followers of Jesus can enjoy true spiritual freedom.

 

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).