Text: Ex. 12:1-11
Now the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, “This month shall be your beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you. Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying: ‘On the tenth of this month every man shall take for himself a lamb, according to the house of his father, a lamb for a household…
We’ve made it through the end of the famous plagues of Egypt, and this morning we come to the climax of the story, Passover. Some of our younger folks may not know a lot about this, but I’m sure everyone else has heard quite a bit about it over the years. While this won’t be the last great and mighty act of miraculous deliverance in Exodus, it is the one that becomes Israel’s foundational memory.
In the Passover, God passes through the land of Egypt destroying the firstborn, but He passes over the houses which have lambs’ blood on their doorposts. For their part, the people of Israel celebrate a religious feast to mark this action, and this feast becomes a lasting annual ritual for the Hebrew religion. It continues up until the New Testament, and we even see our Lord Jesus celebrating it. As such, it is perhaps the most important religious ceremonial feast for Israel, and it is one of the primary feasts which Jesus revolutionized when He instituted His Holy Supper.
This morning we will take a look at what it was like to celebrate Passover, and what it meant. Then we will see how Jesus transforms the Passover into something new for the Church. Finally, we will see how the Apostle Paul applies Passover, not simply to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, but to the whole of our Christian life. We are told to “keep the feast,” and that means living an “unleavened life” of sincerity and truth.
God’s Action in the Passover
To begin, we should notice that there are two fundamental “sides” to Passover. There is the divine side, where God Himself “passes over” His people. This is where the whole event takes its name, as is made clear by Exodus 12:12-13. There’s a parallel use of language. God says that He will “pass through the land” in order to bring this terrible plague of destruction, but He will “pass over” those of His people who have put the blood of the lamb on their doorposts.
This is the foundation of the Passover. God is bringing the last plague, the “destruction” on Egypt. He is also showing grace to His people and bringing their deliverance. They are commanded to use this lamb as something of a sacrifice, but it is clear that this sacrifice is only a “sign.” It is a sign that God takes notice of and therefore does not carry out judgment on those people. Thus the Passover is overwhelmingly a divine action, where the people of Israel trust that God will remember His word and honor this prescribed ritual.
The Passover Meal
That was all God’s side of the Passover. But notice what else God does. He commands Israel to keep a ceremonial feast. They are told to do this before the Passover occurs, and the blood from the lamb that they use to cover their doorposts will come from the lamb that they cook and eat.
Here are the instructions:
On the tenth of this month every man shall take for himself a lamb, according to the house of his father, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for the lamb, let him and his neighbor next to his house take it according to the number of the persons; according to each man’s need you shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats. Now you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month. Then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at twilight. And they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses where they eat it. Then they shall eat the flesh on that night; roasted in fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs they shall eat it. (Ex. 12:3-8)
First, isn’t it interesting that God decided to order this kind of ceremony in the first place? I mean, during a time of such, you’d think Israel would be on edge. Shouldn’t they be expecting danger and violence from the Egyptians? Shouldn’t they stand on guard? While it’s true that God commands them to have their bags packed and their sandals ready (vs. 11), it’s still striking that he commands to them have this meal. It takes four days of preparation, and then all of the people of Israel are told to slaughter their lambs, cook them, and eat them. It’s awfully impractical. It’s even something of a distraction. Again, what if the Egyptians tried to surprise the Hebrews and seize upon them? But God commands it. It required a great deal of faith.
This reminds me of Psalm 23. “Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of my enemies” (Ps. 23:5). With enemies all around, when David should be fearing for his life and trying to defend himself, God says, “Sit down. Let’s eat.”
What’s going on with this? It shows us the power of ritual and especially feasting in the Biblical religion. That’s obvious. For whatever reason, God wants His people to have a ceremony in conjunction with His mighty act of deliverance. But I also think it shows us something about our need to rest, to not work. He wants us to wait for Him to work, and so he gives us a meal to eat in the meantime. This sort of sacramental rest is key to understanding how salvation works.
You see, it is God who is doing the real work here. He has already brought 9 plagues, and in the 10th one, He will be showing up Himself. He is judging Egypt, including their gods (Ex. 12:12). He is saving Israel, and Israel is trusting Him. This is a very powerful early picture of salvation by faith.
Now, this first ritual would become an annual one. God says that it is to become a memorial, “an everlasting ordinance” (Ex. 12:14). Every year afterwards, Israel would keep a new feast in honor of this first one, and it would remind them what God had done for them. It would become a formative feature of their religious life as a people.
The food probably wouldn’t have tasted all that great. Notice that Israel has to eat everything: “Do not eat it raw, nor boiled at all with water, but roasted in fire—its head with its legs and its entrails. You shall let none of it remain” (vs. 9-10). They get to garnish this with “bitter herbs” and unleavened bread. The point was not to be a tasty meal. It was to be pedagogical, which is to say, it was meant to teach them something. The bitterness reminded them of the bitter harsh service of Egypt. The unleavened bread symbolized the “haste” with which they had to prepare things.
And notice that the children are included in the Passover activity precisely for this reason, so that they can be taught about their God and their people:
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.” (Ex. 12:26-27)
This tells us about covenant membership and how God normally expects His people to grow up in the faith.
But why eat the whole lamb? Well, this kind of description indicates that the cooking and eating of the Passover lamb was a kind of sacrifice. The word “sacrifice” is complicated in the Bible, but it doesn’t only mean the killing. It refers to the whole activity that goes on with animal, the slaughter, the application of the blood, and then the eating, sometimes done by the priests and sometimes done by the people. Passover here is a kind of sacrificial act, only one that is not done in the tabernacle or in the temple, but by the people in their homes. This is why, in the later instructions, it is made clear that no uncircumcised person can eat of it. It was a holy meal for the covenant people. It was a covenant memorial.
The Christian Passover
There’s so much more to say about the Old Covenant Passover, but I’d like for us to consider how it relates to our religion today. What is the place of Passover in the New Covenant?
For starters, we need to be clear that we claim the book of Exodus and all that it contains as Christian Scripture. This is our God saving His people, of whom we are now heirs. As such, we believe that the Passover is a part of our history, and it is a picture of our own salvation. If this is the case, then what happened to it?
As you probably know, Jesus celebrated the Passover. We see at least three Passover celebrations in the gospel accounts, but the last is where things changed. Just before He would go to die on the Cross, Jesus ate a Passover meal with His disciples. He said, “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 22:15-16). Then, famously, He gave them bread and wine and called them His body and His blood:
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 22:18-19)
As Christians, you have probably heard those words many times. And perhaps, because of the debates throughout church history, you have jumped right to what Jesus must have meant by “This is my body.” But don’t do that. Think about this the way you would if you were a Jewish person living in the first century. It’s Passover. You are doing all of the Passover stuff. And then Jesus says this.
Notice a few key words. “Remembrance”—that’s the English word. In the Greek, it’s the same word as “memorial,” which means it’s the same word that God uses about Passover—a memorial meal. Jesus is saying that this new supper is a memorial meal about Him. And His blood is the blood of a covenant. This Supper is the memorial meal of the New Covenant. And that New Covenant will be founded on the death of a sacrificial victim—the breaking of a body and the shedding of blood.
In the Last Supper, Jesus is transforming the Passover into something new. It’s still a covenant meal which memorializes God’s mighty act of saving His people. But now it is memorializing the fulfillment of all of the old types and shadows. The Exodus of Egypt points us to Jesus’ death on the Cross. And just like in the old Passover, before the lamb is slain for us, we are given us a ritual meal. This is our Passover, the death of Christ.
For this reason, the Christian Church has kept the Lord’s Supper as a perpetual ordinance of the New Covenant, just like the Old Covenant people kept a memorial feast for their Passover. It isn’t a repetition of the first event. It is a remembrance of it. It is sacramental, in that it bonds the community together and even serves as something like a sacrificial meal that confers God’s grace on them anew—again, not by repeating the original death, but by depicting it, reminding them, and calling them to faith. Our new memorial feast is an unbloody one, celebrated with bread and wine. But it does the same thing.
And the Lord’s Supper should be pedagogical. It should be a means of teaching all of our members what God has done for us and why we do what we do. Now, it’s not a “family meal” in the old sense. We don’t eat it in our homes. No, it’s a family meal in the group sense—all who are in Christ are brothers and sisters. We, the Church, are a family because we are now sons of God.
The Apostle Paul explicitly invokes Passover in connection to the death of Christ in 1 Corinthians 5. We talked about this last week, but let’s listen again:
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 Cor. 5:6-8)
Paul names Passover, and he also gets into the leavened and unleavened bread. This is on purpose. He wants us to think about Exodus. He says that leaven is symbolic of sin, of malice and wickedness, and so we should be “unleavened” in that we get rid of this sin and live lives of sincerity and truth.
Now isn’t that interesting? Paul doesn’t jump from the Passover meal to the Lord’s Supper. Instead, he applies the Passover meal to our lives as Christians. “Therefore let us keep the feast…” and he goes on to talk about holy living. And so there is a sense in which our sacramental feast is but a preparation for the entirety of our lives. Because of the Christian Passover and what that means for us, our entire lives must be characterized by holiness. We must “keep the feast” in all places and in all times, and that means we must get rid of the leaven of sin. In that way, we will fully “memorialize” what Christ’s sacrifice means for us. And in that way, we will fully bear testimony to it. We will proclaim the gospel in and through the lives we live to God.
And so I have to ask, are you keeping the feast? Have you thrown out the old leaven in your life? Are you still living like the world? Are you full of malice? Do you return to wickedness, unclean living or selfish desires? If so, then repent. Put out the leaven. And remember that Christ has been sacrificed for you, in order to spare you from God’s judgment. Remember the Cross, and keep the feast.
We are told to keep the Lord’s Supper perpetually now, until Christ returns. When we do so, we proclaim the true and final Passover. We memorialize the Cross. But we should also connect it to Egypt and Israel’s deliverance. We should remember that our God has been at work for millennia, and He has been setting the stage for us. Just as He led Israel out of Egypt, He has saved us. He has sent us a new lamb and new blood by which we can be forgiven. In Israel’s story, we see our own.
In Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, let us see our deliverance from sin and death. Let us learn from their example. And let us keep the feast. Let us celebrate our Passover by coming to Christ and honoring His sacrifice.
Let us pray.