April 4, 2020

Jesus Christ, the Passover Lamb

The events of the last week of the life of the Savior, Jesus Christ are the most significant in all of history. These eight days, from Palm Sunday to Resurrection Sunday change everything. They give us hope. They show us that sin and death will never prevail. These eight days begin with Jesus coming to the beautiful city of Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover festivals. As we better understand Passover and the spring Jewish Feasts, we can gain powerful insights into Holy Week, the atonement, and the ultimate triumph over all things by Christ, our Passover Lamb.

Passover was first celebrated by the ancient Israelites as they were freed from Egypt after living in bondage for over 400 years (see Exodus 12). As part of this deliverance, the Lord commanded that on the 10th day of the first month, the people were to select a lamb without blemish and to bring it into their homes for the next four days (Exodus 12:3-5). During this period the family would examine the lamb for impurities and would likely become very attached to this young innocent lamb. The family also cleansed their home of all leaven products, leaven often symbolizing impurity because it can quickly spoil and mold (see Luke 12:1). On the 14th day of the month towards the evening, the people then killed the lamb without breaking any of the bones (Exodus 12:6). Using a branch of hyssop, they covered their door post with the blood of the lamb (Exodus 12:22). This was to be a sign for the destroying angel to pass by and spare the firstborn of that home. The Lord then commanded the family to gather that evening and share a meal of the slain lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs (Exodus 12:8). The unleavened bread represented the haste in leaving Egypt, the Israelites not having enough time to allow their bread to rise (Exodus 12:33-34). The bitter herbs represented the bitterness of bondage and slavery. According to later Jewish tradition, wine was also part of the feast as a symbol of joy and redemption. [1]

Unleavened bread used during the Passover meal
Once freed from slavery, Israel was commanded to celebrate the Passover every year thereafter, to commemorate and help them remember the powerful hand of God in delivering them from bondage. In addition to Passover, each spring the children of Israel were also to celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the observance of the First Fruits. The Feast of Unleavened bread started the day after Passover and ran for seven days from the 15th through the 21st of the month (Leviticus 23:6-8). During this period no leaven was to be consumed, again commemorating the haste with which the children of Israel fled Egypt. The offering of the First Fruits was celebrated the day following the first Sabbath of the Feast of Unleavened bread (Leviticus 23:10-14). On the evening of the Sabbath, the priests would cut the best sheaf of barley and bring it to the temple to be threshed and ground. In the morning the flour would then be combined with oil and frankincense and a handful would be burned on the altar. The offering of the First Fruits symbolized the gratitude of the people by first giving to God an offering before enjoying for themselves the harvest of that season. [2]

With this understanding of the Passover celebrations, let us now examine the powerful significance of the timing of the events of Holy Week. According to the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus entered Jerusalem on the 10th day of the month, the same day when all the people would be selecting their Passover lambs preparatory for the coming feast. [3] At this same time, on the day we now call Palm Sunday, Jesus was welcomed with shouts of praise and acclamation (Matthew 21:7-9). Jesus, the true Passover Lamb, then entered His Father’s home, the temple of Jerusalem, just as the lambs were being brought into the home of all Jews to live for the next four days. Upon entering the temple courts, Jesus cleansed His Father’s house of impurity, driving the money changers from this sacred space (Matthew 21:12-13). At the same time all Jews would be cleansing their own homes of all leaven products.

The next few days of Holy Week, Monday through Wednesday, were days in which Jesus taught the people, spending much of His time again at the temple, in His Father’s house. During this same period of when the priests and people would be examining the lambs for impurities, Jesus was interrogated by the Sadducees and Pharisees asking Him of His authority and power.

According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, on the eve of the 14th day of the month, the Savior celebrated the Passover meal with His disciples (Matthew 26:19-30). As Jesus sat with His disciples during His Last Supper, he took the symbols of the Passover feast and converted them into symbols of His own deliverance that He would soon bring. He took the unleavened bread and broke it and taught His disciples that this represented His broken body, which the following day would be torn and bruised for their sakes. He then took the wine, a symbol of joy and redemption, and taught that it signified His blood which would be shed for them that evening in Gethsemane. These two symbols became what is now known as communion or the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It is interesting to note that Jesus did not incorporate the bitter herbs into the symbols of the sacrament, perhaps symbolizing that Christ in our stead would consume the bitter cup so that we can instead partake of the sweet cup of joy and redemption.

That evening Jesus entered a beautiful garden just outside the city of Jerusalem, and atoned and suffered for our sins (Matthew 26:36-46). As hundreds of thousands of Jewish families celebrated the ancient redemption of Israel, Jesus was suffering in Gethsemane providing true deliverance. Just as the blood on the doorpost protected ancient Israel from the destroying angel, so too the blood of Christ, shed in Gethsemane and on the cross, can protect us from the effects of sin and death.

In the dead of night, Jesus was arrested and taken and tried before Caiaphas the High Priest (Matthew 26:57-68). The remarkable fact is that, as the leading priest for the temple, Caiaphas had the ultimate responsibility for all Temple offerings. Here Jesus Christ, the true Lamb of God, was condemned to death by the very man who oversaw all temple sacrifices. Jesus was then taken to the palace of Pilate in the upper city, then Herod, and then Pilate again where He was condemned to death.

According to the Gospel of John, Jesus was crucified at noon and hung on the cross in pain for several hours (John 19:14-16). As he hung, a branch of hyssop, the same kind of branch used to cover the doorposts with blood, was raised up to Jesus (John 19:29-30). On the end of the branch was a sponge soaked in vinegar, or cheap wine to help with the excruciating pain. Then at 3pm Matthew tells us that Jesus died, breathing His last breath of mortal life (Matthew 27:46-50).

Concerning the events of Holy Week, there are some discrepancies in the timing among the four gospels, and one of the most significant differences is that John places the Passover on the following day, not the night of the Last Supper (John 19:14). This means that according to John, at the exact same time that the Passover lambs would be slain in the temple, which was from about 3-5pm, Jesus died on the cross for all of God’s children. [4] The symbolism is extraordinary! Jesus Christ, who was sinless, without blemish, is killed the same hour as the Passover lambs. John also notes that while the other two condemned men had their legs broken, Jesus instead only had a spear driven into His side, fulfilling the requirement that the Passover Lamb was to be killed without breaking any bones.

The body of Jesus was then laid in a borrowed tomb where on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, Jesus’ mortal body rested from all labors. The following day, on Sunday, the first day of the week, Jesus rose from the dead, overcoming all things. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus rose from the dead at the same time when the first fruits were being offered at the temple, thus fulfilling this aspect of the law, and as Paul stated becoming the first fruits of them that slept. (1 Corinthians 15:20)

The powerful symbolism is undeniable. Jesus seems to use every aspect of the spring feasts to help the Jews understand His ultimate redemptive power. He is chosen by the people on the same day as the Passover lambs. Jesus cleanses His Father’s home when the people are cleansing their own homes of all leaven. He teaches in the Temple and is examined and tried by the very priests who are responsible for all Temple sacrifices. He suffers and dies as the Passover lambs are slaughtered at the Temple. He then rises from the dead when the first fruits of the harvest are offered before the Lord. Jesus Christ is our true Passover Lamb. Because of Him we are redeemed from bondage and slavery. Because of His blood we are protected from the destroying angel and allowed once again to enter the presence of the Father. Truly as John the Baptist stated, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

[1] The Temple: Its Ministry and Services, by Alfred Edersheim, p. 185.
[2] Edersheim, pg. 203-205.
[3] There is a lot of debate on the exact timing of the events of Holy Week, but I will attempt to do my best to show likely connections between Passover and the last week of the Savior's life.