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Passover and the Lamb of God A Foreshadowing of the Gospel

Each year, the Jewish Passover / Unleavened Bread festival season typically falls close to the Christian Easter holiday.  In the year of this writing (2017; Jewish year 5777), the commemorative celebration actually overlaps Easter (April 16), beginning at sundown on Monday April 10 and ending Tuesday April 18.  Of course, the rough date is not the only similarity between Passover and Easter. At Easter, Christians celebrate the event that is foreshadowed in the Jewish Passover.  In this article, we examine the various symbols and representations of the Passover.

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The Passover (Hebrew Pesach) and Unleavened Bread (Hag ha-Matzah) comprise two of the four Jewish festivals in the spring that are known collectively as the “Feasts of the Former Rain”. The others are Firstfruits (Hag ha-Bikkurim) and Feast of Weeks (Shavu'ot), aka Pentecost.

The celebration is also one of three Jewish Pilgrimage Festivals:

Three times a year all your men must appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose: at the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Festival of Weeks and the Festival of Tabernacles.  No one should appear before the LORD empty-handed: Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the LORD your God has blessed you (Dt 16:16-17).

The festivals of Passover and Unleavened Bread were initially separate festivals, with no time in between.  Unleavened Bread (seven days of observation) began the moment Passover (one day) ended, but eventually, the two festivals were combined into one festival.  Indeed, the biblical account of Unleavened Bread (Ex 12:14-20) are sandwiched between the Passover instructions given to Moses by God (Ex 12:1-13) and Moses passing His instructions on to the Jewish elders (Ex 12:21-23).

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Historical and Biblical Backgrounds

To give a brief historical background, one of Jacob’s (aka Israel) sons, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and taken to Egypt. By God’s providence, Joseph eventually became ruler of all Egypt, subject only to Pharaoh. A famine in Canaan eventually led to Joseph settling his family (approximately 70 people) in the best land of Egypt ~1875 BC (see Genesis 37-50). After the death of Joseph, the Israelites became slaves to the Egyptians (Exodus 1-2) but God called Moses to confront the reigning Egyptian Pharaoh (maybe Thutmose III but subject to debate) and lead them out of bondage (Ex 3). Moses returns to Egypt ~1446 BC and confronts Pharaoh, and God sends nine plagues against Egypt but Pharaoh refuses to release the Israelites (Ex 4-10). God then announces the tenth plague, death of the firstborn of all in Egypt (Ex 11).

This brings us to our text in Exodus 12 (the command to institute the festivals is also recorded in Leviticus 23:4-8):

1The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt,  2“This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.  3Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household.  4If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat.  5The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats.  6Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.  7Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs.  8That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast.  9Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs.  10Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it.  11This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the LORD’s Passover.

12“On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD.  13The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.

14“This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD—a lasting ordinance.  15For seven days you are to eat bread made without yeast. On the first day remove the yeast from your houses, for whoever eats anything with yeast in it from the first day through the seventh must be cut off from Israel.  16On the first day hold a sacred assembly, and another one on the seventh day. Do no work at all on these days, except to prepare food for everyone to eat; that is all you may do.

17“Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come.  18In the first month you are to eat bread made without yeast, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day. 19For seven days no yeast is to be found in your houses. And anyone, whether foreigner or native-born, who eats anything with yeast in it must be cut off from the community of Israel.  20Eat nothing made with yeast. Wherever you live, you must eat unleavened bread.”

We then see the execution of the tenth plague.

At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well.  Pharaoh and all his officials and all the Egyptians got up during the night, and there was loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead (Ex 12:29-30).

This leads immediately to the Exodus (Ex 12:31-42) of six hundred thousand men, not including women and children, along with many Egyptians who also departed with them.

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Themes and Elements of the Passover

So, what significance does a festival instituted approximately 3.5 millennia ago hold for us, and our Jewish friends today?  We first mention that most of our Jewish friends associate the Passover with political, national or governmental independence from Egypt.  The feast does memorize the deliverance from Egypt, but the events symbolize an even more substantial meaning and foreshadow an even more significant event.

The key to interpreting the ultimate meaning of the Passover is an understanding of the Person who is the antitype of the Passover lamb.  The lamb is a symbol of the coming Messiah, Jesus or Yeshua in the Hebrew, which is short for Yehoshua (Joshua).  Because most of the Jews don’t recognize Yeshua as their true Messiah, their minds are made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read.  It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away (2Cor 3:14).  Thus, by recognizing Jesus as the fulfillment of the Passover Lamb, we can understand that the ultimate meaning of Passover is Spiritual Freedom (freedom from eternal death).  Just as the Passover lamb is the central theme of the festival, and the key to understanding its full meaning, so is Jesus the central theme of the Bible, and the key to our understanding of the Scriptures as a whole.

We’ll return to this central theme of the Passover, but let’s briefly note the significance of some related themes and elements.

Many consider the giving of the Law to Moses at Mt Sinai to be the birth of the Nation of Israel.  Others believe the birth was at Passover.  Arguments could probably be made for both.  In comparing Israel beginning to that of the USA, perhaps we could say that Moses’ demand that Pharaoh “Let my people go” corresponded with our Declaration of Independence, the Passover with winning the war against Great Britain, and the giving of the Law with our adoption of the constitution.

That said, a very strong case can be made for the Jewish nation’s birth at Passover because the first thing God did in announcing the Passover (Ex 12:1-2) was to change the calendar, setting the month of Abib (overlapping parts of March and April on our modern calendar) as the first month of the year.  Abib was later called Nisan after the exile (Est 3:7) based on the name of the corresponding month on the Babylonian calendar.  Passover is still celebrated on the fourteenth of Nisan per Ex 12:6 and Lev 23:5.

Interestingly, just as God changed the calendar to increase Israel’s focus on the importance of Passover, the Christian BC-AD or (Anno Domini) calendar dating system came about in response to the historical debate over the dating of Easter.

The method of preparing the lamb (Ex 12:9) foreshadowed the various sufferings of Christ at the Passion.  The method of eating the meal (Ex 12:11) is a reminder that the people had to be prepared to leave on very short notice.  The prohibition against breaking any of the lamb’s bones (Ex 12:46) was fulfilled in Jesus death on the cross.  Roman guards would often break the leg bones of criminals on the cross to hasten their death.  The guards had intended to break the legs of Jesus after breaking the legs of the two criminals being crucified with Him, but discovered that He was already dead (Jn 19:31-37, quoting Ps 34:20).  The bitter herbs (Ex 12:8) are a reminder of the bitter times of bondage under the Egyptians.

The unleavened bread accompanying the lamb (Ex 12:8) actually has a couple of meanings.  Unleavened bread (Heb matzoh) is bread without yeast so, it reinforces the haste in which the Jewish people prepared the meal in that they had no time to give the bread to rise.  In addition, leaven or yeast was also seen as a symbol of sin.  Jesus later warned his disciples to “Beware the leaven/yeast of the Pharisees” (Lk 12:1).  Paul later wrote to the Corinthians that were dealing with a case of incest, “Your boasting is not good.  Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?  Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.  Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1Cor 5:6-8).

So, the unleavened bread also symbolizes separation from sin.  The people are told to remove all yeast from their house during this time and are told twice that anyone eating leaven/yeast are to be cut off (Ex 12:15-20), so this is a very serious offence.  Some theologians have made the observation that Passover (symbolizing salvation) is immediately followed by Unleavened Bread (symbolizing purity), pointing to the fact that those who are saved should immediately see an increasing holiness in their lives.

We finally mention the purpose of the plagues.  If the main purpose was just convincing Pharaoh to free the Jewish people, God could have just sent one overwhelming plague, maybe just starting with the tenth plague; so He must have had other objectives for sending the multiple plagues that were increasing in intensity.  We know that the Egyptians not only worshipped Pharaoh as a god, but also worshipped the Nile River, plants, animals, insects and the sun among others.  Thus, the plagues were evidently not directed so much at the Egyptians as much as judgment on their false gods (Ex 12:12).  We also know that God is loving and merciful, so He may have been giving Pharaoh and the Egyptians an opportunity to recognize and acknowledge the true God without suffering the terrible consequences of their false worship.

Most likely, God’s primary usage of the plagues was as a teaching aid for the Jewish people. They had been living in this extremely polytheistic nation for many generations so that they, like the Egyptians, probably had little knowledge of the true God.  He was teaching His people about Himself and His sovereignty of all, including the false gods of the Egyptians.  He was teaching His people that they could rely on Him for guidance and protection during the Exodus and entry into the Promised Land.

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The Passover Lamb

We now return to the central theme of the Passover, the lamb.  Not just any lamb would do, only a one-year-old male without blemish was acceptable.  Israel needed a perfect sacrifice, since any animal that had a flaw or defect was detestable to God (Dt 17:1).

As we mentioned earlier, the Passover lamb was a symbol of Jesus the Messiah as the perfect Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (Jn 1:29).  The Apostle Peter wrote “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1Pe 1:18-19).

Jesus proclaimed Himself to be the fulfillment of the Passover.

When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table.  And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”

After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you.  For I tell you I will not drink again from 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 given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you (Lk 22:14-20).  The Apostle Paul echoed many of Jesus’ words in 1Cor 11:23-26.

To prepare for the Passover, the Israelites killed the unblemished lamb and applied the lamb’s blood to their doorposts (Ex 12:6-7).  Those who obediently applied the blood were protected from the tenth plague of death to the firstborn as the death angel “passed over” that household.  Likewise, those who have applied the shed blood of Christ to our hearts (trusted in Him as Lord and Savior by faith) are protected from eternal death in hell.  Israel escaped judgment by placing faith in the lamb’s blood as a substitute for their own, so do we escape judgment by placing our faith in the substitutionary work of the Lamb of God.

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Jews and Gentiles

Before closing, we need to expound on part of the previous statement, that “Israel escaped judgment by placing faith in the lamb’s blood as a substitute for their own”Israel did not escape the plague of death simply by being Israel.  It took an act of faith.  In the “Hall of Faith” chapter in Hebrews, we read that “By faith he [Moses] kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel” (Heb 11:28).  Moses and the Israelites, like the Egyptians (and us today), were all sinners deserving of punishment.  Yet, God in his mercy allowed a substitute to take their punishment.

Shortly afterward, God instituted the sacrificial system under Moses, which, like the Passover, also pointed to Christ’s work on the cross.  In writing about the Old Covenant sacrificial system, the author of Hebrews writes that the blood of animals was not a permanent solution for the problem of sin (Heb 4:1-4), but only looked forward to the once-for-all perfect sacrifice by Christ (Heb 4:9-18).

Today, there is much confusion among non-Jews (and even among Christians) regarding the need of the Jews for the Gospel.  Many believe the Church should not evangelize the Jews, some because they don’t deserve it due to killing Jesus, and other that believe the Jews will be saved apart from the Gospel because they’re God’s chosen people.  Both of these views are incorrect.  We’re all responsible for killing Jesus, and with regard to our salvation, there is no difference between Jews and non-Jews (Gal 3:28, Rom 10:12-13).  We all need Jesus.

God originally elected Israel to be his witnesses to the world (Is 43:10-12), but when their Messiah came, they did not recognize or receive Him (Jn 1:11).  This led to the ingrafting of non-Jewish Christians (Rom 11:11-32) as branches with the privilege and responsibility to make disciples of all peoples and nations (Mt 28:18-20), including the Jews.

Sadly, the vast majority of our Jewish friends are not counted amongst the believers.  Yet, the prophet Zechariah predicted a day when Israel will look with unveiled faces on the One they have pierced, mourn and grieve bitterly for Him, and finally recognize Him as their Messiah; and God will pour out His Spirit on the people of Israel (Zech 12:10; see also Joel 2:8-9, Ezek 39:28-29, Rom 11:25-27).

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Final Thoughts on Passover

As we read of the Passover in Exodus 12, we witness the freeing of the Jews from slavery in Egypt, and the birth of the nation of Israel.  But when we consider the full representations embodied within and symbolized by the various elements of the Passover, we see so much more.

In the Passover, we see the promise made in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:15) fulfilled.  In the Passover, we see one true Holy God in His righteous judgment and wrath slaying the firstborn of the Egyptian families in order to free the Jews, yet in His love and mercy, He allowed the death of a His only begotten Son as a perfect unblemished substitute to free all believers from eternal death.

In the Passover, we see that no one is spared based on nationality, or by any intrinsic worth or works, but only by faith in the blood of the Lamb.

In the Passover, we see the Gospel!

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