The Passover By Any Other Name

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This entry is part 5 of 22 in the series The Thread: God's Appointments with History

And when the hour was come, he sat down, and the twelve apostles with him. And he said unto them, 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 22:14-16

If it seems strange that the early church was still observing the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread some 30 years after the ascension of Christ, consider this. The vast majority of the Christian world still observes the “Passover,” in their own way.

The word for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, in Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, and all the romance languages is Pasca. And Pasca is the Greek and Latin word for Passover. This is also the word that is usually translated “Easter,” in English. So in Latin or Spanish, Resurrection Sunday is not called Easter. It is called “Passover.” Now why is that? And what is the connection of the Jewish Passover to Christianity?

The connection comes straight out of the ministry and work of Jesus himself. First and foremost, there is this simple fact. Jesus observed the Passover with his disciples.

Now it came to pass, when Jesus had finished all these sayings, that He said to His disciples, “You know that after two days is the Passover, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified” (Matthew 26:1-2).

Let me point out some peculiarities of language that cause a little confusion to the modern reader. The term “Passover” is used in a broad variety of applications in the New Testament. For example, the term can refer to the lamb that was sacrificed on the day of Passover. The lamb is sometimes called, simply, “the Passover,” without a qualifying word. Moses told the Israelites to “kill the Passover,” i.e., kill the lamb.i And Jesus said that he wanted to “eat the Passover” with his disciples.ii Hold on to this thought, because while we can kill time, we can’t really kill a day. We certainly cannot eat a day.

That said, the term “Passover” can also refer to the day the lamb was sacrificed, or it can refer to the entire festival of seven days in which unleavened bread was to be eaten. It even seems to be used for the season. In the Old Testament, the 14th day of the first month is called “The Lord’s Passover.” iii It was the day the Passover Lamb was killed. But the seven day feast, which is also called the Passover, begins on the 15th and continues for seven days.

It doesn’t take long to realize that this could lead to some confusion for the modern reader. It didn’t seem to confuse anyone in the first century, but the Passover was a part of their lives. They recognized the ambiguity of the term “Passover” and took its meaning from the context. They drew a distinction, though, when it came to the first day of unleavened bread. That was called “the Feast Day.”

Then assembled together the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders of the people, unto the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, And consulted that they might take Jesus by subtilty, and kill him. But they said, Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar among the people (Matthew 26:3-5 KJV).

“Not on the feast day.” This is important. The “feast day” was the 15th day of the first month of their calendar. It was a holyday, one of the “appointed times of Jehovah,” and it was a Sabbath day – that is, a day when no ordinary work was to be done and the people were to assemble. It was also called, “The Passover.” The 14th, the day the lambs were killed and the day Jesus was crucified, was not a Sabbath day, but it also was “The Passover.” iv

It was a day of preparation for the Feast. The priests made a deliberate decision not to kill Jesus on the holyday but to get it out of the way before the feast.v The effect of this was to bring about the crucifixion and death of Jesus at the hour the Passover lambs were being killed in the Temple. This underlines Paul’s expression, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” vi

But there is still room for the modern reader to misunderstand.

Now on the first day of the Feast of the Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying to Him, “Where do You want us to prepare for You to eat the Passover?” And He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is at hand; I will keep the Passover at your house with My disciples.’” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them; and they prepared the Passover. When evening had come, He sat down with the twelve (Matthew 26:17-20).

There is a parallel passage in Luke that is revealing. Luke puts it this way: “Now the feast of unleavened bread drew near, which is called the Passover” (Luke 22:1). Note that the entire festival is called the Passover. Luke continues to say, “Then came the day of unleavened bread, when the Passover must be killed” (v. 7).

It is very clear from the law, that the first day of unleavened bread was the 15th while the day the Passover was killed was on the 14th. Why then is the 14th called a day of unleavened bread? It is merely a matter of custom and usage. The custom of the Jews was to get all the leavening out of their homes on the evening before the Passover lamb was killed. Bear in mind that in Jewish custom, a day began at sunset, so the 14th day of the month, the Lord’s Passover, began at sunset. So in popular usage, the 14th was a day of unleavened bread as well. The law called for seven days. The Jewish custom led to eight days of Unleavened Bread. The entire time, the season, is also called “The Passover.”

And He sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat.” So they said to Him, “Where do You want us to prepare?” And He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him into the house which he enters. Then you shall say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with My disciples?’ Then he will show you a large, furnished upper room; there make ready.” So they went and found it just as He had said to them, and they prepared the Passover. When the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve apostles with Him. Then He said to them, “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:8-16).

There is no question but that Jesus called this meal they were eating “The Passover.” And this has posed a conundrum for scholars ever since. Why? Because the Passover lambs were not to be killed until the next afternoon, and the prevailing Jewish custom of the day was to eat the Passover the following night.

Samuele Bacchiocchi has a fascinating discussion of the problem of sacrificing all the Passover lambs in time for the beginning of the feast.vii When you take into account that, according to Josephus, there were between two and three million people in Jerusalem for the Passover, it should be obvious that not all the lambs could be killed at the time specified in the law. Dr. Bacchiocchi does the math and concludes that to finish sacrificing the lambs by Friday sunset, the priests might have had to start the task Thursday noon.

The priests naturally had to make judgments in how the law was carried out. The original Passover was sacrificed at every household and could be done all at once, at even, at the time of the evening sacrifice. When the sacrifices were later centralized, that became, quite simply, impossible. The priests would have begun the sacrifice of the lambs whenever it was necessary for them to be ready in time to be eaten the night of the Feast. Thus, it’s apparent that a Passover lamb might well have been available for Jesus and his disciples a night earlier than the time the Jews ate the Passover.

Jesus’ emphasis on “this Passover” and “before I suffer” may indicate that this was an exceptional Passover, eaten a night early because of his impending death. The unusual expression, “With desire I have desired,” (KJV) is very strong. Continuing:

Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you” (Luke 22:17-20).

I hope the significance of this is not lost on us. This ceremony which we may call “The Lord’s Supper” or “Holy Communion,” in its origins was “The Passover.” And this carries with it some important implications regarding the frequency of observance. The Passover was an annual observance. It was not done weekly or quarterly, or whenever you got around to it. The dropping of the name of the observance has allowed a variety of times of observance. The Passover, which should draw us all together on the same day, got changed to “The Lord’s Supper,” or some variant, and an important aspect of the day was lost.

Paul addresses this issue in his letter to the Corinthians. They were observing the feast, but observing it improperly.

Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you. Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk (1 Corinthians 11:17-21).

It is from this accidental reference that the term “The Lord’s Supper” passes into the language as the name of the event. But Paul is making the point that they are eating their own supper instead of the Lord’s Supper which, as we will see, is the Passover.

What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you. For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread (vv. 22-23).

Note well. Paul establishes the authority for this observance by quoting Jesus’ instructions given personally to him. An important part of what he received of the Lord was the time of Jesus’ observance: “the same night in which he was betrayed.” The Jewish day began at sunset, and Jesus was betrayed in the night leading up to the day of the 14th, the day of his crucifixion. Paul and his readers understood that this is an annual event, not an occasional event.

And when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes (vv. 24-26).

Once the observance is cut loose from its identity in the Passover, this can be taken to mean that you can do it often. But when you start from the premise that it is an annual observance, which the Passover was, then the passage doesn’t support occasional observance. The emphasis is on the meaning, not the time. Paul is simply saying that “When ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord’s death till he come.” And of course, the time to do this is on the anniversary of the Lord’s death.

Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep (vv. 27-30).

As noted in a previous chapter, this passage poses some problems. I think a lot of Christian folk observe this ceremony with full understanding of the Lord’s blood. But in many churches, not much is said about the Lord’s body, nor about Paul’s cryptic statement: “For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.” The failure to discern the Lord’s body, strangely, had led to death. How on earth could that be?

When I finally came to think this through, my search took me to Isaiah 53, which is widely understood to be a prophecy of Christ’s Passion. It is important, because it underlines the very question that bothered me. Why did Jesus have to suffer? Why wasn’t dying for us enough?

Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account (Isaiah 53:1-3 NRSV).

The prophet places himself among the Jewish leadership who, when the Messiah came into their midst, rejected him, despised him, held him of no account. Jesus himself was “a man of suffering,” but not for his own sins.

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed (vv. 4-5).

It is almost as though men look at Jesus and say, “Oh, he must have done something very bad. God has stricken him,” as though it had nothing to do with us. Yet he was wounded for our transgressions and by his bruises, by the stripes laid on his back, we are healed. Generally, when people look at this, they spiritualize it, they conclude that we are healed spiritually. But when you think about it, throughout his earthly ministry, one of the most important aspects of Jesus’ ministry was all the people he healed. People came from everywhere to be healed, people were carried on litters to him for healing. Jesus healed person after person, and the lame were not merely made to feel better, they were made to walk and run.

On one occasion, they tore up a roof to let a man down on ropes before Jesus. They couldn’t get through the crush at the door. When Jesus saw this man and the faith demonstrated by his friends, he said, “Son, your sins be forgiven you.” viii

This generated an immediate question among those present. How can this man forgive sins? Jesus replied, “For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:5-6). Jesus makes the point that he has the power to forgive sins, and right here he connects it to the power to heal people who were sick.

What it means is this. We mess up our lives in so many ways. We hurt ourselves in so many ways, and so many of the ways we hurt ourselves are physical. It was necessary that in bearing our sins and iniquities, Jesus not only had to die for us, he had to bear our suffering as well. He suffered, not only to give us eternal life, but so he could heal us.

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.

They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper (Isaiah 53:6-10 NRSV).

All this is said so you and I could understand. So that I, even as a teenager, could understand that it was necessary, not only that Jesus die for my sins, but that he suffer for my sins as well. When you think about the night in which he was betrayed, what was the first thing that happened to him, that sometimes happens to us as well? He was betrayed by one of his closest friends.

What else happened on that night? He was arrested, all of his friends ran away, one of them leaving his clothes behind, he was in such haste. Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens to us as well. We are betrayed, sometimes by friends who are close to us. We find ourselves in trouble, with the whole world coming down on our shoulders, and we look around for our friends and find that they are all gone.

On this night, Jesus suffered in all the ways in which you and I suffer. Through that long night he was beaten, he was humiliated, he was spit on. Why? Because those things happen to you and me. We, through our sins and our foolishness, put ourselves in situations where we are mocked, we are humiliated, where our lives come crashing down around our heads. And Jesus suffered the same way, on our behalf.

Never forget this. The thread links the Passover inexorably to the suffering and death of your Savior. And the thread comes directly to you.

i. Exodus 12:21.

ii. Mark 14:14.

iii. Leviticus 23:5.

iv. Leviticus 23:5.

v. It was about this time, when the priests were planning judicial murder, that Judas Iscariot came to them and cut a deal to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.

vi. 1 Corinthians 5:7.

vii. Samuele Bacchiocchi, God’s Festivals in Scripture and History, Part 1, The Spring Festivals, (1995), pp. 63-65.

viii. Matthew 9:2.

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Ronald L. Dart

Ronald L. Dart (1934–2016) — People around the world have come to appreciate his easy style, non-combative approach to explaining the Bible, and the personal, almost one-on-one method of explaining what’s going on in the world in the light of the Bible. After retiring from teaching and church administration in 1995 he started Christian Educational Ministries and the Born to Win radio program.

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