The Passover, Old and New

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This entry is part 3 of 22 in the series The Thread: God's Appointments with History

When I see the blood, I will pass over you.

Exodus 12:13

How is it possible that a Christian church, about 25 years after the ascension of Christ, was observing the oldest known Jewish holyday? That they were is easily demonstrated. And this wasn’t a Jewish church. It was mostly Gentile.

We have a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth about 55 A.D. Scholars generally agree that the letter was written about Passover season (see chapter 1). Paul was addressing a problem that was disgracing the church, and almost in passing, as though he took it for granted, he remarked on the observance of the Passover.

Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).

There is no way to misunderstand this. The Corinthian church, mostly Gentile, was observing the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. How is the sacrifice of Christ connected to the Old Testament Passover, why was this church observing it, and why was Paul advocating it?

There is a clue to this in a statement made by John the Baptist. One day as he was baptizing people along the Jordan River, he looked up and saw Jesus walking toward him. And he said, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

As a Christian, you might hear that statement and say, “So?” But if you had been a Jew standing near John at the time, this would likely have been the first time you had heard anything like this. What do you mean, “Lamb of God”? It was not that they weren’t familiar with the idea of a lamb as a sin offering. The law made provision for that.i So the idea of a lamb taking away one man’s sins was not strange to John’s companions.

But the idea of a man as a sacrificial lamb was utterly foreign. And just as foreign was the idea of taking away the sins of the whole world. Judaism was not a world evangelizing faith. It was a Jewish faith. And contrary to anything in the Law and the Prophets, Judaism had become an exclusive faith. For Jewish Christians, that was about to change, and the key to that change was the Lamb of God that takes away the sin, not of a man, but of the world.

That theme is also found in one of the favorite scriptures of the Christian faith: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

But gave him how? He gave him as “the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” He gave him as “Christ our Passover.” But we still haven’t established the Passover connection. To do that, we have to take a step back into what appears to be the original Passover observance. The story is told in detail in Exodus 12.

On the tenth day of the first month, every household was to select a male lamb or kid. They were then to keep it up until the 14th day and kill it in the evening. They would then take a little blood of the lamb and strike it on the lintels and doorposts of their houses. They would eat the lamb on that night, roasted, with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They were to leave none of it to the morning. And then there is this curious bit: “And thus shall ye eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste: it is the LORD’S Passover.”

These people were not even going to bed that night. And by the time they got the lamb killed, dressed and roasted, they were eating it very late. The events to follow were not going to give them much time for leisure.

For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD. Now the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you; and the plague shall not be on you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt (Exodus 12:12-13).

And from this comes the name of this great festival, the Passover. As I noted earlier, this day may well have been one of the appointed times of Yahweh even before this time, but the events of this occasion stamped themselves indelibly on the feast. The day was declared to be a memorial, to be observed by a feast, forever. The Passover is not going to go away. It will take on new form and meaning with Jesus Christ, but it will never stop being celebrated.

Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses. For whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. On the first day there shall be a holy convocation, and on the seventh day there shall be a holy convocation for you. No manner of work shall be done on them; but that which everyone must eat; that only may be prepared by you (Exodus 12:15-16).

The seven days of unleavened bread run from the 15th through the 21st of the first month of the Hebrew calendar. The first and the last days are actually Sabbath days, no matter what day of the week they fall on.

For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses, since whoever eats what is leavened, that same person shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a stranger or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwellings you shall eat unleavened bread (Exodus 12:19-20).

Hence, Paul’s statement to the Corinthians:

Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).

There was no thought of doing away with the festival. Paul was rather explaining the meaning of the season to Gentiles who otherwise might not know. But the Passover is still connected to the original in name and in practice.

Moses gave his instructions to all the elders: “And ye shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two side posts with the blood that is in the basin; and none of you shall go out at the door of his house until the morning” (Exodus 12:22).

Why not? “For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when he seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you.”

The implications of this are far reaching. It is the blood of the Lamb applied that enables God to pass over us and spare us the destruction around us. Some Christians have long understood the connection between the blood of the Passover Lamb and the blood of Jesus. There is an old hymn I remember singing in church when I was a boy:

Christ our redeemer died on the cross Died for the sinner, paid all his due, All who receive him need never fear Yes, He will pass, will pass over you. When I see the blood, when I see the blood, when I see the blood, I will pass, I will pass over you.

This hymn represents an understanding of the Bible by an earlier generation of Christians that seems to have faded with time. There was a time when the great hymn writers had more of a sense of connection between old and new. They realized that there is a strong tie between the death of Jesus and the Passover of the Jews, and it often found expression in the hymns of the church. But just as that connection presented problems for the early church, it presents problems today as well. Some Christian folk don’t like the idea of anything Jewish connected with their Christianity. Yet here is this old hymn that ties Christ firmly to the Passover.

It seems a shame to me that some churches have lost touch with this great festival. They see Christ in it when they bother to look. But somewhere in their history, they stopped observing it annually on the anniversary. In observing communion, or the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, or monthly or quarterly, they forgot that it was originally an annual observance. And subsequently, they seemed to forget altogether that it was the Passover.

Moses told the elders of Israel:

And you shall observe this thing as an ordinance for you and your sons forever. It will come to pass when you come to the land which the LORD will give you, just as He promised, that you shall keep this service. And it shall be, when your children say to you, “What do you mean by this service?” that you shall say, “It is the Passover sacrifice of the LORD, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians and delivered our households.” So the people bowed their heads and worshiped (Exodus 12:24-27).

The lesson was passed on from generation to generation as the curiosity of children was answered year by year by the retelling of the story.

At midnight on that fateful night, the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of the captive in prison to the firstborn of Pharaoh himself and even of all cattle. There was not a house where there was not one dead.

Immediately Pharaoh “called for Moses and Aaron by night, ii and said, “Rise up, and get you forth from among my people.” Get out, he said, lest we all be dead men. This does not suggest that the people could have gone to bed and waited until daylight to leave. In every way, they had to be ready for immediate departure.

So the people took their dough before it was leavened, having their kneading bowls bound up in their clothes on their shoulders. Now the children of Israel had done according to the word of Moses, and they had asked from the Egyptians articles of silver, articles of gold, and clothing. And the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they granted them what they requested. Thus they plundered the Egyptians. Then the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. A mixed multitude went up with them also, and flocks and herds; a great deal of livestock. And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they had brought out of Egypt; for it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared provisions for themselves (vv. 34-39).

I think a lot of people look no further than this in considering why the feast is called the Feast of Unleavened Bread. We will look into this later, but first, there is this to consider.

Now the sojourn of the children of Israel who lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years. And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years; on that very same day; it came to pass that all the armies of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt (Exodus 12:40-41).

This is a remarkable statement, for it gives singular significance to a given day 430 years earlier. That day could not have been the day they came into Egypt, because the chronology does not work. The Septuagint version of Exodus says that “the sojourning of the Children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt and in Canaan, was four hundred and thirty years.” It isn’t clear exactly what that day was 430 years prior, but it lends credence to the idea that the Festivals of Jehovah are much older than the days of Moses. We can’t be certain, but if once again we follow the thread back in time, we come to a day that may well serve as a precursor of the Passover.

The word of the Lord came to Abram (later called Abraham) in a vision saying “Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.” But Abraham had something of a complaint. How, he wondered, could God fulfill his promises seeing that he was old and childless? God went on to promise him an heir, but he did something more. He promised him descendants beyond number along with the entire land over which he traveled. “Lord GOD,” Abraham asked, “whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?” (Genesis 15:8).

What follows falls strangely on modern ears, but it is a crucial point in our story. It is a prophecy of the sojourn of Israel in Egypt, and also of the judgment of Egypt. It is also one more thing. It is the moment of the covenant with Abraham.

So the LORD said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away. As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the LORD said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Genesis 15:9-16 NIV).

Here is the prophecy of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, of the time lapse of 400 years, of Israel becoming slaves, the eventual judging of Egypt, and the return to their home land.

When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates . . .” (vv. 17-18).

To understand what is happening here, we need to understand the customs surrounding ancient covenants. Everyone is familiar with the idea of blood brotherhood, even among American Indians. In ancient times, they went a little further than cutting themselves and mingling their blood with another. They sometimes actually drank the blood of their new brother, thus creating a new blood kinship. In later years, they shared the blood of a sacrificial animal or shared the meat from a sacrifice. iii What is described in Genesis 15 is the beginning point of the covenant between God and Abraham.

The events of the Exodus are the fulfillment of this promise, so I suspect this is the very day, 430 years before the Exodus, when the promises were made and the covenant entered. This day of Abraham’s covenant was, in an important way, a precursor of the Passover. And because of the symbolism involved, I suspect it was on an anniversary of this date that Abraham was sent to offer his only son as a sacrifice. It was a day when Abraham had an annual appointment with God.

And it came to pass, on that very same day, that the LORD brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt according to their armies (Exodus 12:51).

The very same day as what? Well, it would make sense if it was the very same day of the year that God told Abraham he would do this very thing. “And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance.” (Genesis 15:14 KJV)

Everything of importance seems to take place along this thread. Even the Passover of Christ.

i. See Leviticus 4:32-35.

ii. After midnight, when the destroyer had done his work, it was safe to go out. The Israelites were told not to go out of their houses until morning but, in a manner of speaking, it is morning after midnight. They did not go to bed that night.

iii. See the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, article “Covenant in the Old Testament,” for a complete explanation of how covenant customs developed. Two types of covenants are discussed, covenants between men and between God and man.

Series Navigation<< Judging EgyptThe Body of Christ >>


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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Image Credits: Joel Montes de Oca