The Jewish people have celebrated the festival of the Passover for thousands of years. It is the retelling of the great story of the redemption of the children of Israel from 450 years of slavery and bondage in Egypt. On this night, Jewish children may ask their father, “Papa, why is this night different from every other night?” The celebration itself was given to the Jews while they were still in Egypt. The original celebration centered on the Passover lamb, which was sacrificed and its blood put over the doorposts as a sign of faith, so that the angel of death passed over the houses of the Jews during the last plague poured out on the Egyptians—the killing of every firstborn. To a large degree, the Passover lamb has been eliminated from the Passover festival, with the only remnant being the roasted lamb shank bone. According to the New Testament, Jesus is our sacrificial Lamb. The Passover lamb was to be a “male without defect,” which is the same description given to Jesus by John the Baptist, who said, “Look! There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 NLT).
We may not recognize most of the symbolism of Jesus’ last Passover week if we are unaware of the customs of the time. For example, Jesus entered into Jerusalem five days before the lamb was killed in the temple as the Passover sacrifice for the sins of the people. Five days before the lamb was to be sacrificed, it was chosen. Therefore, Jesus entered Jerusalem on lamb selection day as the Lamb of God. The people did not understand the significance of this since they greeted him with palm branches and hailed him as king, shouting “Hosanna,” which means, “Save us.”
However, they were not looking for a spiritual Savior, but a political savior, to save them from the oppression of Rome. Palm branches were a symbol of freedom and defiance since Simon Maccabeus had entered Jerusalem with that symbolism. Jesus’ reaction was to weep as he realized that they did not understand the Messiah’s purpose in coming.
The day Jesus was crucified was the day of the Passover celebration, the day that the Passover lamb was to be sacrificed. For the previous 1,200 years, the priest would blow the shophar, a ram’s horn, at 3:00 p.m.—the moment the lamb was sacrificed—and all the people would pause to contemplate the sacrifice for sins on behalf of the people of Israel. At three o’clock in the afternoon, the ninth hour, when Jesus was being crucified, he said, “It is finished,” at the moment that the Passover lamb was sacrificed and the shophar was traditionally blown from the temple. The sacrifice of the Lamb of God was fulfilled at the hour that the symbolic animal sacrifice usually took place. In addition, when the lamb was roasted and eaten, none of its bones were to be broken. This was also prophesied for the Messiah, whose bones were not to be broken. It was customary during crucifixion to break the leg bones of the person after a few hours in order to hasten their death. The only way a person could breathe when hanging on a cross was to push up with his legs, which was very exhausting. By breaking the legs, death soon followed by asphyxiation. However, in the case of Jesus, they broke the legs of the other two men but did not break his since he was already dead. This is significant because there are those who say that Jesus did not die on the cross but was only in a deep swoon. At that same moment, the veil of the temple, a three-inch thick, several-story-high cloth that separated the people from the Holy of Holies, was torn in two, from top to bottom, by the finger of God, representing a removal of the separation between God and man. The Bible says that the eyes of the Jewish people as a nation have been blinded for the purpose of the gospel going out to the Gentiles. However, when a person turns to Christ, the veil that blinds their eyes is taken away (2 Corinthians 3:14-16).
The festival of unleavened bread began Friday evening at sunset. As part of the festival, the Jews would take some of the grain—the first-fruits of their harvest—to the temple to offer as a sacrifice. In so doing, they were offering God all they had and trusting him to provide the rest of the harvest. It was at this point that Jesus was buried in the ground as he said just before his death. Paul refers to Jesus as the first-fruits of those raised from the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:20-23. As such, Jesus represents the fulfillment of God’s promise to provide the rest of the harvest, the resurrection of those who follow the Messiah.
Christian symbolism in the Passover occurs early in the Seder, which is the Passover dinner. Three matzahs, the traditional unleavened bread, are put together representing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The middle matzah is broken, wrapped in a white cloth, and hidden, representing the death and burial of Jesus. The matzah itself is designed to represent Jesus since it is striped and pierced, which was prophesied by Isaiah, David, and Zechariah. Following the Seder meal, the “buried” matzah is “resurrected,” which was foretold in the prophecies of David.
It was during a Passover Seder that Jesus proclaimed that the meal represented him and that he was instituting the New Covenant, which was foretold by Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah. The celebration of this covenant has become the ordinance of communion in the Christian Church. At the end of the meal, Jesus took the unleavened bread, broke it, and said that it represented his body. Then he took the cup of wine, which would have been the third cup of the Seder, which is the cup of redemption. He said that it was the new covenant in his blood “pour[ed] out for you” (Luke 22:21 NLV). It is through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we are declared clean before God, allowing those of us who choose to accept the pardon to commune with him both now and forevermore through the eternal life he offers.
If you are a Christian, we encourage you to celebrate the Passover with your friends and neighbors. This celebration is a way of sharing the gospel of Christ in a fun and non-threatening manner. If you are Jewish, God the Father longs to reveal himself to you in the person of his Son the Messiah—Yeshua—who is the Savior of the world, both Jews and Gentiles, for whom the Israeli people have been waiting for over 3000 years.
Adapted from “How the Passover Reveals Jesus Christ” by Rich Deem
Bob Woods is a Senior Project Manager at AECOM Technical Services, as well as a published Christian author and a writer for the Good News of South Florida. He can be reached at [email protected].