Passover and the Eucharist (Exodus 12:1-30 / Luke 22:14-20)
A long time ago, God revealed himself to our father Abraham. While he was still living in the land of Ur, what is modern day Iraq, God told him to leave his native land, his relatives, his fathers family and to go to the land that God himself would show him. God brought him to the land of Canaan, a lush land that Scripture describes as a land flowing with milk and honey. Now this description might sound odd to us, but Abraham and his contemporaries would understand this to mean a rich and fertile land.
Once there, God promised to give the land Abraham was standing on to him. That he would one day possess all the land he saw. All the way from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean. However, there was a problem. Abraham was old and his wife Sarah couldn’t have children. What good was it to give all this land to him, if Abraham had no descendants to inherit what he had?
But despite that fact that he was old and Sarah was barren, God promised that Abraham would have many descendants. So many in fact, that they would outnumber the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the beach. And that through his family that all the nations of the world would be blessed. Abraham was 75 years old when God made this promise. And yet, it wasn't for another 25 years, when Abraham was 100 that God finally delivered on this promise, by giving him a son, Isaac, born to him by his wife Sarah.
This was the son God had promised all those years ago. The son through which God would make Abraham into a great nation. However, by the time Abraham had died, Isaac had only two sons; Jacob and Esau. Which is to say… not much of a nation at all. But God remembered his promises to Abraham & Isaac.
Jacob, who God renamed Israel, had twelve sons, who would later become the twelve tribes of Israel. One of his youngest sons, Joseph, through a series of events, found himself the second most powerful man in Egypt while the entire known world was experiencing a major famine. So Jacob moved his family down to Egypt, his wives, his sons and their wives, and his grandchildren, all 70 of them, to escape the famine in Canaan. Because Pharaoh looked favourably on Joseph, he let Jacob and his family settled in the best land of Egypt.
There, in Egypt, God continued to remember his promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the children of Israel flourished. They became great in number, and became a massive tribe. When a new Pharaoh came to power, that had no knowledge of Joseph, he became worried that the Israelites might grow too powerful and overthrow him. So he made the Israelites slaves, forcing them to make bricks and do all the manual labour.
However, this wasn’t what God had promised. His promise to Abraham was to make him a great nation, to give him the land of Canaan and to use his family to bless every other nation on earth. But for 430 years, the children for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob remained in slavery. They cried out to God for freedom, but nothing happened. However, that whole time, no matter what Egypt did, the Israelites continued to grow in number. Finally, after 430 years in slavery, God used a Israelite man named Moses to bring them out of slavery. As we’ve all seen in the Charleton Heston movie, Moses went Pharaoh and demanded the release of the Hebrew people. But Pharaoh refused to let the people go.
So God started to send plagues against Pharaoh and Egypt, each one worse than the last. First God turned the water into blood. Then he sent a plague of frogs. Next he sent gnats. But Pharaoh refused to let them go. Then God sent a plague of flies. Next God killed all of Egypt’s livestock. Then he caused festering boils to appear on all of the Egyptians. But each time Pharaoh continued to refuse to let the Hebrew people go. God sent hail to destroy the Egyptians crops. He sent a plague of locusts to eat whatever wasn’t already destroyed by the hail. Then he sent a great darkness that covered all of Egypt, so thick that no one could see anything. But still Pharaoh refused to free the people. Finally, after these first nine plagues there was one plague left. God told Moses that he was going to kill the firstborn son of everything in Egypt, people and animals alike. God said that after this final plague, Egypt would finally let the Israelites go.
And so we finally get to the story of the first passover. In Exodus, chapter 12 it says this:
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. Tell 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. If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbour, 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. The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the door frames of the houses where they eat the lambs. That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. This 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.
“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. The 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.
“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. For 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. On 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.
“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. In 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. For 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. Eat nothing made with yeast. Wherever you live, you must eat unleavened bread.”
Then Moses summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go at once and select the animals for your families and slaughter the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the doorframe. None of you shall go out of the door of your house until morning. When the Lord goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.
“Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” Then the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites did just what the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron.
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.
It was finally at this point that Pharaoh let the people of Israel go. Finally! Freedom was our at last! The Israelites left Egypt with 600,000 men plus women and children. Many scholars believe the total population of the Israelites that left Egypt was somewhere in the range of 1.5 to 2.5 million people. A significant increase over the one promised son Abraham had, the twelve sons Jacob had or the 70 people that originally went down to Egypt.
This Egyptian slavery and deliverance by God would be central to understanding what it means to be the children of Abraham from that moment forward. In fact, later on in Deuteronomy chapter 16, God gives the instructions for celebrating the Passover every year.
Observe the month of Aviv and celebrate the Passover of the Lord your God, because in the month of Aviv he brought you out of Egypt by night. Sacrifice as the Passover to the Lord your God an animal from your flock or herd at the place the Lord will choose as a dwelling for his Name. Do not eat it with bread made with yeast, but for seven days eat unleavened bread, the bread of affliction, because you left Egypt in haste—so that all the days of your life you may remember the time of your departure from Egypt.
“Eat this unleavened bread—the bread of affliction—so that all the days of your life you may remember the time of your departure from Egypt.” Time and again, in the Old Testament, specifically in the Torah, these first five books of the Bible, we see this theme of remembering that we were slaves in Egypt. In Egypt we were powerless. In Egypt we were victimized. In Egypt we were vulnerable and helpless. Because that’s what slavery is. When you’re a slave, all of your choices are taken away. When you’re a slave, you labour and toil and sweat for someone else. And you’re powerless to do anything about it. But at Passover that’s when God rescued us. As a slave, you can’t rescue yourself. But at Passover, that’s when God rescued us. That’s when God redeemed us. When he bought us back from Egypt.
And so, every year Israel would celebrate the Passover. And they would tell the story of how they were slaves in Egypt, but that God rescued them. And like everything else, when you tell people to do something regularly, a tradition starts to form around how you do that. So over the years, the Israelites came up with the Passover Seder. “Seder” is just a word for “order.” So essentially, the order for how to eat the Passover become a more formalized process.
So now we have a 15-step Seder that happens every year at this time.
The first step is the Kaddesh, Sanctification. Here a blessing is said over the first cup of wine. During a Seder, four cups of wine are drank, each one correlating to a different expression of deliverance God promised to his people. The first cup represents that God will bring us out of Egypt. At this point the first cup is drank and the second cup is poured.
The second step is Urechatz, the Washing. Here you wash your hands and prepare to eat the Karpas. The third step, the Karpas or the Vegetable, is where you eat a vegetable, usually a piece of parsley dipped in a bowl of salt water. The vegetable represents the lowly origins of the Israelites while the salt water represents the tears shed while in slavery.
Next we have the Yachatz, or the Breaking. Now, at any Seder, you will find three pieces of Matzah, bread made without yeast, stacked together. At this point the leader of the Seder will take the middle piece and break it. The smaller piece will go back into the stack, while the larger piece, now called the Afikomen is wrapped and set aside for later. Why are there three pieces? Some believe that the three pieces represent the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the breaking of the middle piece is to signify the time when Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac on an altar. Others believe the three pieces represent the Israelites, priests and the Levites and that the breaking of the middle piece is an allusion to the prophecy about the coming Messiah in Isaiah 53. That the messiah would be wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, but that by his stripes we would be healed. Either way, the middle piece is broken and the afikomen is wrapped and set aside for later. This is significant. We’ll come back to this.
The fifth step is the Maggid, the Story. At this point the youngest person at the table will ask “How is this night different?” which will launch us into retelling the story of the first Passover and the Exodus from Egypt. This is significant, because when retelling this story, it’s not about remembering what God did long ago, but in some way participating in it. In his book, Surprised by Hope, NT Wright says this about the Passover:
“To this day, when Jews celebrate Passover they don’t suppose they are doing something entirely different from the original event. ‘This is the night,’ they say, ‘when God brought us out of Egypt.’ The people sitting around the table become not the distant heirs of the wilderness generation but the same people. Time and space telescope together. Within the sacramental world, past and present are one. Together they point forward to the still-future liberation.
The Passover Seder is not about looking back and remembering the past but about experiencing the slavery and freedom with that first generation. After the story is retold, the second cup of wine, which represents that God will deliver us, is drank and the third cup is poured.
The next step, the sixth step, is the Rachtzah, which is another washing of the hands, this time with a blessing as we prepare to eat the Matzah, the bread made without yeast. Steps seven and eight are Motzi and Matzah, a generic prayer over grain and specific prayer over the Matzah itself. Next is Maror, the bitter herb. This is eaten as a symbol of the bitterness of slavery in Egypt. Step ten is Korekh the Sandwich. Originally, you would take some matzah and eat it with some maror, the bitter herb and the paschal offering, the lamb you roasted over the fire. However, like all traditions, it changed over time.
During the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC, the Jews living in Babylon weren’t able to use lamb in their passover celebration. So the matzah, which since Deuteronomy has already been referred to as “the bread of affliction” or “the bread of suffering” began to be viewed as the representation of the passover lamb they would have slaughtered each year.
The eleventh step is the Shulchan Orekh, the dinner. This is the main meal of the seder and there is no specific requirement about what can or should be eaten. Except of course, the exclusion of yeast during the entire festival. The next step, step thirteen, is Tzafun, the Afikomen. And as I mentioned before, this is the piece that was taken, broken and then set aside earlier.
According to the Mishnah, which is the Oral tradition surrounding the Law of Moses, this Afikomen is viewed as a substitute for the Passover sacrifice. The leader of the seder would now take this piece of matzah and break it, distributing the pieces to those present. They would then eat the afikomen, understanding that this bread was the representation of the lamb that was sacrificed for their freedom.
Step thirteen, Barekh is the grace said after the meal. This is when the third cup of wine, representing God’s promise to redeem us, is drank. Step fourteen is Hallel or praise. Several psalms are recited and the fourth cup of wine, representing that God will take us and make us his people is drank. Finally, step fifteen the Nirtzah or closing is said. This is a simple statement that the seder is now concluded with a hope that the messiah will come before next year.
Okay, so that was a pretty long description. Are we doing okay? As some of you might be wondering, what exactly does this Seder have to do with us today? Well, some of you keeners might have started to piece it together during some of the sections of the seder description, but it’s important to remember that Jesus was Jewish. The things Jesus said and did were not accidental and they were not random. Everything was intentionally.
So when we read in Luke about the Last Supper, we have to understand that this was not a new thing Jesus was doing, but rather a very old thing, a Passover Seder. Except he was infusing it with new meaning. So with the understanding of a Passover Seder, let’s go ahead and look at Luke chapter 22, verse 14 through 20:
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.
Do this to remember me. Remember you Jesus? No, this whole Passover Seder, we do this to remember that we were once slaves in Egypt. We do it to remember back then. But Jesus, in this moment, is reinterpreting the entire Passover Seder. And not only that, but the entire Exodus and Egyptian slavery. Passover has been about remembering what God did long ago. But Jesus is saying, “Actually… that’s backwards.” We do it to remember him. Passover points to him. In which case, the Exodus was merely a foreshadowing of this moment, right here, right now. But what is it foreshadowing?
The Passover has always been about slavery and freedom. Passover has always been about bondage and captivity, but also about deliverance and redemption. If the Egyptian slavery was a foreshadowing… then what is it foreshadowing?
Earlier I mentioned the Babylonian captivity. This was an event that happened in the 6th century BC. And here’s the Coles Notes version. The Israelites left Egypt somewhere in the 13th Century BC. At this point they spent a year in the desert getting the Law of Moses from God. These were the 613 laws that God wanted them to follow. These laws contained everything they needed for morality, worship and society. Do these and you’ll be right with God. Except what we read in the pages of the Old Testament is time and again, despite knowing exactly what God expects of his people, they fail to do it. Over and over they fail.
Sometimes, God would send foreigners to attack and invade. Other times he would send droughts and famines. Always trying to bring his people back to himself. And yet, there remained this attitude that “We’re God’s chosen people. What could possibly happen to us?”
But eventually, after 700 years of the people trying to follow God sometimes more than others and failing, God sent the Babylonians. They took over the promised land and sent the Israelites into exile. What the Babylonian exile showed was twofold. One, that God would not hesitate to remove his people from the land if they weren’t going following him. And two it’s really hard to do that. To follow God. After 70 years in exile, they were eventually allowed to return home. But what the exile showed was that there is a war going on inside me. One one hand I want to follow God and do what is right. But on the other hand, I have a rebellious streak inside me that wants to go my own way and do my own thing.
What the Babylonian exile showed us and what Jesus is saying, is that there is still a greater slavery going on. That there is still a slavery to sin and selfishness. We’re still slaves to death and destruction and that just like when we were slaves in Egypt, we desperately need a rescue.
To quote NT Wright again:
“Jesus’s Passover, that is, Calvary and Easter, which occurred of course at Passover time and was from very early on interpreted in the light of that festival, indicated that the great slavemaster, the great Egypt, sin and death themselves, had been defeated when Jesus came through the Red Sea of death and out the other side.”
Jesus broke the bread and he said “You eat this bread and you think it’s the bread of the lamb that bought your freedom from slavery in Egypt. But I tell you, there’s a great slavery at work that will require a greater sacrifice.” “You think this bread is the body of the lamb broken for you, but I tell you this is my body.” “This wine you drink represents the blood of the covenant God is making with you, but it’s my blood you’re drinking, not the blood of a lamb.”
Hours after this Passover meal, Jesus would be arrested. He would be handed over to the Jewish leaders who would put him on trial and hand him over to the Romans to execute. But his death on that Friday 2000 years ago… it wasn’t an accident.
Good Friday isn’t the story of some good, moral teacher that said the wrong thing and got himself killed. Good Friday is the story of the God that saw us in our slavery. That heard our cries and remembered his promise to our father Abraham. Good Friday is the story of the God that came to earth, to be the ultimate passover lamb that was slaughtered for our freedom.
Everything Jesus said and did while on this earth was building to the moment when he would hang on a cross and take on sin, hell, death and destruction and in that very moment, that he would set us free from that great slave master, that great Egypt, death itself. Through his death, he has bought our freedom. He has redeemed us and is in the process of restoring us.
Which means there’s hope. That area of sin in your life doesn’t have to be there. It means that issue you struggle with that you feel like you’ll always struggle with, you can experience freedom from that. Through Jesus death on the cross we don’t have to be slaves to our sinful natures anymore. We can love like he loves. Think like he thinks. Act like he acts.
Because of what Jesus did for us, we can truly love the Lord our God with all our heart, all of our soul, all of our mind, and all of our strength and love our neighbour as ourselves. And that’s true freedom. And now, in light of what he’s already done, we’re called to participate in his death ourselves.
Like our Jewish forefathers that celebrate Passover and in that, don’t just remember the exodus, but participate in it, we’re called to participate in Jesus death on the cross by eating the bread that represents his body and drinking the wine that represents his blood. Like Paul says in 1 Corinthians, For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
This is the true meaning of communion or Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist or whatever you want to call it. Every time we eat the bread and drink the juice, we participate in the story of slavery and the freedom from sin. We participate in the death and resurrection of Christ himself.
Next Sunday we’re going to participate in the Eucharist together. Typically the week before we would go through a liturgy of preparation. This time, today is acting as our time of preparation. Over this next week, I want you to take the opportunity to reflect on this connection between the Passover and the Eucharist. I want you to spend some time reflecting on the reality of slavery and freedom, of sin and death… and resurrection and new life. Where might you need to experience freedom from slavery this week? Where might you need to experience resurrection?
May you eat this unleavened bread—this bread of affliction—so that all the days of your life you may remember the time of your departure from that great Egypt, the true Babylon, sin itself.