In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest for Christians to celebrate Passover and participate in a Passover Seder. This has naturally caused a lot of questions and confusion over the what, why’s and how’s that come along with the observance of particular rituals and services in Christianity. The reasons for this are numerous and any attempt to discuss them will leave many items out but I thought it would be a worthwhile endeavor to present my own case in a short, two part series, for why Christians should celebrate Passover and respond to some of the criticisms against it.
Fear Of Legalism
Because Christianity itself is, most simply, trust in a message system, it spans across all cultural, geographical, ethnic and generational boundaries. That being said, we tend to bring with us cultural, geographical, ethnic and generational baggage. Questions will always abound as to whether something is permissible because that something may very well be questionable when broached by others with quite different perspectives that have been formed by the places and times we’ve grown up in, among other things. At the same time, that something may otherwise be what we might consider morally neutral as far as Scripture is concerned. Even so, that doesn’t mean it is necessarily a good or bad for all people in all areas throughout all human history.
But what about when that something is specifically prescribed in Scripture, commanded by God even, but has centered itself around a specific people group? Because Christianity has severed ties with Judaism in certain ways,1 when it comes to something like celebrating Passover, particularly by participating in a Seder, the argument will almost always center around the question of legalism. Legalism is largely understood as the use of the law (the Torah, or the 10 commandments) as a means to obtain and retain salvation.2
Certainly, the concern over legalism is a valid one in regards to anything we do. As Paul writes in Galatians 2:21 “… if righteousness were [obtained] through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”3 Of course any idea of obtaining salvation through means of some form of works, prescribed or not, is entirely counter to most Protestant or Evangelical teaching. After all, Christ died in order to complete the work, that is, pay the price, that we never will be able to pay. The moment you add something to that completed work, you are taking something away from it. It is as good as saying it’s not enough.
But the discussion of legalism itself presumes something that largely never gets addressed, namely the why of celebrating Passover to begin with. It presumes the answer to the question of why is to obtain some sort of merit and subsequently, that desire takes us back under the burden of the law; something that Christ freed us from.
Of course, if that was an answer to the why question then the argument of legalism would certainly be valid but I surmise this would be in the extreme minority of reasons. In truth, there are numerous reasons why Christians should celebrate Passover but I think we can focus on three reasons as primary, they are biblical relevancy, the roots of the early church and finally worship.
Asking the question “Is celebrating Passover biblical?” almost sounds silly since the story of Passover, the history of Passover, the celebration of Passover and the commands about Passover come directly from the Bible. If it were not for the narrative of Scripture, there would be no Passover to speak of.
Furthermore, just what is it about Passover that Jesus fulfilled? Why was Jesus crucified on Passover? Where does communion come from? What do we refer to when we speak of the ‘Lord’s supper?’ Again, without Scripture there would be no answers to these questions, but there are answers to these questions and they are all answers pertaining to the celebration of Passover.
And when we think in terms of biblical relevance, what then should be thought regarding Easter? Easter is nowhere to be found in Scripture, not the celebration of it, the discussion of it, the narrative of it or even the thought of Easter is seen anywhere in Scripture.4 Rather, what you do see is the very denunciation of its pagan sources which have basically been adopted by Christianity and given Christian meaning. While I don’t believe there is anything necessarily wrong with celebrating Easter as a placeholder for the resurrection of Christ for the reasons I mentioned above, when it comes to biblical relevance there is simply no comparison.
The question of biblical relevance leads to the question of whether or not the celebration of Passover is forbidden in Scripture. I believe it would be very hard to make a biblical case against celebrating any of the seven feasts of the Lord. There is simply no command, even to be implied, that anyone was to cease celebrating the feasts. To the contrary, the New Testament actually encourages us to keep Passover. 1 Corinthians 5:6-8 reads:
6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Some may be inclined to claim that Paul was only speaking in some spiritual sense but I have simply not heard any decent arguments to demonstrate that that’s all Paul had in mind. Rather, I believe Paul is intending this to be interpreted in a very literal manner while giving it’s spiritual implications. There are a few reasons for this. The first is the idiom of cleansing out the old leaven.
Searching For Chametz
Throughout most of Scripture, leaven is a picture of sin. Even here, in verse 8, Paul compares “old leaven” to malice and evil and “unleavened bread” to sincerity and truth. Further, in Galatians 5:9, Paul likens leaven to the hindering persuasion that was keeping the Galatians from obeying the truth. Jesus likewise, in Matthew 16:11-12, warned his disciples to “beware the leaven of the Pharisees.” Verse 12 specifically addresses the fact that Jesus was speaking figuratively; the leaven was a symbol of their false teaching.
God commands the Israelites in Exodus 12:15 to remove all leaven from their homes on the first day of the seven day feast of unleavened bread. Customs have come about from this, much like a game the families would play, in the days leading up to Passover. In “the searching for chametz,” Mom typically hides 10 pieces of leavened dough around the house and Dad subsequently leads the children to find the leaven with a candle, a feather and a wooden spoon. Once all the leavened pieces have been found, they are swept up into the spoon with the feather and wrapped in a white linen cloth. The leaven is later burned in a ceremony called “the burning of chametz.” Today this ceremony often takes place by means of a community bonfire.5
In John 2:13-15, Jesus cleanses the temple after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem just as the Passover week is about to begin. He marches into the courtyard, fashions a whip and proceeds to drive out the money-changers. He demands that His Father’s house not be a house of trade. In fact, in Mark 11:17, Jesus says His Father’s house had been made into a den of robbers. Jesus was getting the leaven out of His Father’s house. Is it any wonder that Jesus was later nailed to a wooden cross and subsequently wrapped in white linen garments? Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that Jesus, who “knew no sin” was “made sin” for us. This should start to sound familiar.
Of course, we cannot say with certainty that Paul has all of this in mind in 1 Corinthians 5:7 but we have to remember that Paul is using Jewish idioms in his writing to a gentile community of believers. In my view, it makes the most sense to me that they, at the very least, knew well of these ceremonies, if they weren’t participating in them already.
The second reason I believe Paul is writing of Passover in a literal manner is that Paul calls Christ “our Passover Lamb” who “has been sacrificed” and uses that as the reason to “celebrate the festival” with “the unleavened bread…” Again, these are symbols of Passover being spoken of in a very literal manner to gentile Christians.
Other Direct References
Finally, in Acts 20:6 Luke writes that Paul and his companions waited to sail to Troas until after the feast of Passover which he was celebrating with the Philippians. The Philippians are thought to be mostly gentile converts6 and so again, we have good reason to believe that the apostolic church was celebrating Passover. But it doesn’t stop with Passover. In Acts 20:16, Paul is hastening to get to Jerusalem in time for Pentacost and in 1 Corinthians 16:8 Paul explains that he intends to stay in Ephesus until Pentacost.
Apart from the biblical, we also have extra-biblical material that suggests the early church was indeed celebrating the feasts. The Epistle of the Apostles (Epistula Apostolorum) from the 2nd century discusses the need to keep the Passover, calling it the agape (love) feast, even though Christ had fulfilled it. Theodoret of Cyrus, from the 5th century, discusses that even Emperor Constantine had a problem with the thought of believers keeping Passover multiple times a year.7 It is clear that the early church kept the feasts, likely having been taught by the disciples themselves. This went on for some time, but eventually the gentile influences probably drowned out the Jewish roots of the faith.
Celebrating Passover is indeed a biblically relevant practice, one that was probably utilized by the early church for several hundred years. That should inform us enough that there is nothing wrong with celebrating Passover and that it should be encouraged. Nevertheless, there will always be detractors. In the next post I’ll take a look at common objections and finally demonstrate that the Passover Seder is worship that should not be deterred.
- I use this idea somewhat loosely. Judaism today is not the Judaism of the 1st century or the Judaism outlined in the Torah; How can it be when there is no temple, no priesthood and no sacrificial system? In that sense Judaism was forced to sever ties with it’s concrete structure at the same time Christianity was birthed. ↩
- For a great discussion on legalism, see What Is Legalism? on CARM. ↩
- All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, use: English Standard Version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society. ↩
- Due to the poor translation choice of “Easter” in Acts 12:4, those who hold to KJVO might be inclined to object but the Greek word is pascha (πάσχα) which comes from the Aramaic pesach (פסחא) which is essentially the same as the Hebrew pesach (פסח), the very word used in Exodus 12:11. It’s usage often encompasses the entire Passover week-long celebration. ↩
- See the following links for more information: Leaven – Jewish Encyclopedia, Preparing for Passover, Passover – History & Overview ↩
- Freed, Edwin D. (2005). The Apostle Paul And His Letters. London, UK: Equinox Publishing. ↩
- Theodoret of Cyrus. (1892). The Ecclesiastical History of Theodoret (B. Jackson, Trans.). In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Volume III: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historial Writings, etc. (P. Schaff & H. Wace, Ed.) (48). New York: Christian Literature Company. ↩
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