Webster's Dictionary defines Passover as "the exemption of the Israelites from the slaughter of the firstborn in Egypt (Exod 12:23-27) or a Jewish holiday beginning on the 14th of Nissan and commemorating the Hebrew's liberation from slavery in Egypt".
Cruden's Complete Concordance says "This word comes from the Hebrew verb, pasach, which signifies to pass, to leap, or skip over. They gave the name of Passover to the feast which was established in commemoration of the coming forth out of Egypt, because the night before their departure, the destroying angel, who slew the firstborn Egyptians, passed over the Israelites, who were marked with the blood of the lamb, which was killed the evening before; and which for this reason was called the Paschal Lamb."
As a part of the Jewish celebration of Passover, the youngest children would have the honor of asking the Four Questions of Passover. The answers to these questions would explain the meanings behind the special foods and customs of the Jewish Passover celebration.
So far, in examining the traditions of Passover, we have discussed only the Jewish customs. So what significance does Passover have for Christians? We will get to that point eventually, but first, let's examine the Four Questions of Passover from a Christian perspective.
Question 1: Matzoh, unleavened bread, or bread without yeast.
In the Passover story, one might say that the Passover was a crucial pivoting point marking the end of the Egyptian oppression of the Jews and the beginning of their journey to becoming an independent and sovereign nation.
For the Jews, preparing bread without yeast was a matter of convenience during that particular time. Because when Pharaoh finally decided to let the Jews go, he practically pushed them out of the country. There was such urgency that the Jews had no time to wait for the yeast to cause the bread to rise. In addition, unleavened bread was flat, easy to store, and did not take up a lot space, which was a precious commodity while traveling.
For Christians, bread and yeast both play a significant role in religious doctrine. Pharisees and Saducees were the religious leaders during the time Christ walked the earth. The Pharisees were strict observers of Jewish law. They were so strict that they expounded upon the law magnifying every detail and making it impossible for anyone to follow. Christ often criticized them for their outward pride while inwardly they were hypocrites. Luke 18:10-14 contrasts the prideful prayer of a Pharisee with that of a humble publican. Christ's conclusion in the story was that "this man (the publilcan) went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted."
The Pharisees emphasized the law rather than faith "But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster" (Gal 3:23-25). This was to say that we are no longer under the law, but are justified by faith in Christ.
In Luke 12:1, Christ says "Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy." In Chapter 5 of 1st Corinthians, Paul admonishes members of the church in Corinth regarding their prideful behavior and their hypocrisy of fornication. In his admonition, he metaphorically describes this hypocrisy as leaven by saying "Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (1 Cor 5:6-8).
Several times during His ministry, Jesus warns us about hypocrisy. He uses the metaphor of leaven to illustrate how dangerous hypocrisy can be and how quickly it can spread. Paul uses the same metaphor in the passages referenced above and in Galatians 5:9, which says "A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump." So, just as the Jews are to avoid leaven to the point of discarding it from their homes during Passover, Christians are to avoid the poisonous leaven of hypocrisy.
Bread also takes on a significant role in Christian doctrine in that Christ taught His disciples that He is the "Bread of Life". In John 6:30-35, a group of disciples were asking Jesus for a sign so they could believe His teachings (or rather, they wanted Jesus to "prove Himself"). They cited a period in their history, during their wandering in the wilderness, when their "...fathers did eat manna in the desert" and "...He gave them bread from heaven to eat." This discussion continued as Jesus said to them "Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world. Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread. And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst."
The significance of bread in the Christian life is that bread is a metaphor that represents the Bread of Life, which represents the Body of Christ, which represents the Christian church. Christians who participate in the Lord's Table, a commemorative ceremony done in remembrance of the Lord's Last Supper, view the bread as a metaphorical symbol of Christ's body. The fruit of the vine (or grape juice) metaphorically represents Christ's blood. Thus, we partake of the Lord's Table as a remembrance of Him until He returns.
Question 2: Bitter herbs of slavery.
For the Jews, the bitter herbs were a reminder of the cruelty inflicted upon them by their Egyptian slave masters. Often their workloads were doubled whenever a new Pharaoh came to power or new buildings needed to be constructed.
For the Christian, bitter herbs can remind us of the cruel deceptions of Satan and the cruelty of having been enslaved by sin.
Question 3: Dipping the herbs twice, hard work, salty tears, new life.
For the Jews, dipping the herbs twice represented the hard work they performed as slaves of the Egyptians. The salt water they dipped the herbs into represented their tears while the fresh green herbs represented their hope for new life.
These symbols can be very similar for Christians as they work hard in the ripe missionary fields. They taste their own salty tears as they weep for lost souls while rejoicing in the promise of new life.
Question 4: Recline, relax in the comfort of freedom.
The Jews observe Passover by reclining while eating the Passover supper. They do so in recognition of their freedom from slavery in Egypt.
Although for a different reason, Christians can share this same sentiment as Jesus says in Matthew 11:28-30 "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." 6
Many of the stories told in the Old Testament are illustrations of Christ. Abraham was called upon to sacrifice his only son Isaac demonstrating Abraham's unfaltering faith while presenting a picture of our Heavenly Father sacrificing His only begotten Son. Joseph was thrown into an empty well or pit (representing the burial of Christ). His father Jacob was told that Joseph had been killed by a wild beast (representing the death of Christ). But in reality he was sold into slavery to the Egyptians (a metaphor for Jesus coming into the world). Joseph, however, was chosen by God and had prophesied in dreams that he would become a powerful leader. As the years went by in Egypt, Joseph found favor with Pharaoh by interpreting his dreams and avoiding a seven-year famine. As a result Joseph rose from the pit and was placed above all other Egyptians second only to Pharaoh himself (representing Christ's resurrection from the grave and His subsequent placement at the right hand of God).
In Old Testament times, lambs were often sacrificed as an atonement for sin (a compensation for wrongdoing, especially appeasing a deity). This lamb, as with the Passover Lamb, was required to be spotless and without blemish. The lamb was a forward-looking representation of Christ. The characteristics of being spotless and without blemish represented the sinless life Christ would live. On the eve of the Passover, the blood of the spotless lamb was placed on the wood door posts and side panels as a sign (or seal) indicating that the inhabitants had been obedient to God. Similarly, the blood of Jesus was shed on a wood cross demonstrating Christ's perfect and complete obedience to God His Father; an obedience that no human could ever achieve. Just as the Passover lamb had to be spotless and without blemish, so it was required of Jesus "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul refers to Christians metaphorically as a "new lump" (of bread dough) as he cautions them about the poisonous leaven of hypocrisy. He says to them "Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us" (1 Cor 5:7-8). Here, Paul refers to Christ as "our Passover" saying that He (Christ) "is sacrificed for us". Therefore, Christ is our Passover Lamb.
At the Lord's Last Supper, which was His final Passover prior to His Passion (crucifixion), He said to His disciples "With desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer: For I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God" (Luke 22:15-16).
The Passover will be fulfilled in the Kingdom of God when Christ is reunited with His church at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb as described in Revelation 19:6-9 "And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints. And he saith unto me, Write, Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb".
At His last supper, Jesus said that He would not eat the Passover again until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God. In saying that, He was referring to the feast of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb as discussed above.
While Christians do not celebrate the Passover according to Jewish customs, we do celebrate it every time we partake of the Lord's table. Some may call this "communion" some may refer to it as the "Eucharist", but regardless of what you call it, this is the Christian tradition for celebrating, or at least commemorating, the Passover.
Christ's last supper was not only His final Passover observance here on earth, but it was a transitional Passover where Christians now celebrate the New Covenant presented to us in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Whereas, the Old covenant involved continual sacrifices to cover or atone for sin, the New Covenant has provided the ultimate sacrifice; a once-for-all sacrifice that goes further than covering our sin. As mentioned previously, Jesus is "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world". In Christ, our sins are expunged.
Although there is nothing wrong with Christians observing the Passover according to Jewish customs, we must recognize that Christ is our Passover. Looking at it from that perspective, we can see that the Passover is a central theme in Christianity. Passover means everything to us because our Passover Lamb is none other than Jesus Christ Himself. The Christ, the Messiah, the Lamb of God, God's Passover Lamb, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the entire Gospel. The Good News is that Christ came to atone for our sins once and for all; our perfect and complete Passover Lamb.
1. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition © 2004.
2. The New Book of Knowledge © 1970, Grolier Incorporated, New York.
3. Cruden's Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testaments
by AlexanderCruden, A.M. © 1949, by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc, New York
4. WordWeb 4.5a, Freeware Version © 2006, Antony Lewis
5. QuickVerse 7.0 The Holy Bible, King James Version, Electronic Edition
© 1998, Parsons Technology, Inc.