Mar 192013
 
This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Why Christians Should Celebrate Passover

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.

Biblical Relevance

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.

Bioor Hametz, the burning of leavened bread

After searching for leavened bread, according to Jewish tradition, one must burn it so there will be nothing left for the whole holiday of Pessach.

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.

Conclusion

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.

  1. 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.
  2. For a great discussion on legalism, see What Is Legalism? on CARM.
  3. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, use: English Standard Version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
  4. 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.
  5. See the following links for more information: Leaven – Jewish Encyclopedia, Preparing for Passover, Passover – History & Overview
  6. Freed, Edwin D. (2005). The Apostle Paul And His Letters. London, UK: Equinox Publishing.
  7. 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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© 2011-2017 David Christopher. This post along with all content on this site (except citations) is the property of davidchristopher.net and is made available for individual and personal use. Please give appropriate citation along with a link to the URL and the date it was obtained.

Mar 262013
 
This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Why Christians Should Celebrate Passover

The answers to why Christians choose to celebrate or observe Passover are certainly many and varied.  But once it’s stated that the celebration should be done, the reasons become much more focused.  In the first part of this discussion I undertook the biblical relevancy of celebrating Passover, along with the demonstration that the early church was indeed participating in a Seder of some form.  In this final post, I will respond to some of the common objections to observing Passover and show that doing so can, and should be, an expression of worship.

Answering The Objections

Just as the reasons to celebrate are many, so are the reasons given not to.  But one common element that can be said for most of the objections is the discussion of legalism.  As I mentioned in Part 1, legalism is largely understood as the use of the law (the Torah, or the 10 commandments) as a means to obtain and retain salvation.1  There is always going to be a fine line between what we do and why we do it.  Legalism, most certainly, is a matter of the heart.  It is presumptive to suggest that every time we refrain from telling a lie when we really want to tell a lie, that we don’t because we are afraid it will somehow change the status of our justification.  In the same sense, it is presumptive to suggest that the annual observance of Passover is in any case done for the same reason.  Because the answer to the objections that pertain to legalism may largely be discussed overall in this post, I will be addressing the objections that are a bit more complex.

Everything The Passover Pointed To Has Been Fulfilled

The argument is typically that because everything the Passover pointed to has been fulfilled, there is no need to observe Passover.  There are two primary issues found with this objection, first, that the observance of Passover was done because it pointed toward a future fulfillment, and second, that even if the first were true, there should be no memorial observance.  As we’ll see, both of these items hinge on what the Passover was originally given as and what Christ’s fulfillment subsequently provided.

There is no doubt that Christ fulfilled the Passover but to suggest that its observance was done to look forward to the accomplishment of Christ is a bit misguided.  The institution of the Passover holy week was given to the Israelites in Exodus 12 and Exodus 12:14 specifically states:

14 “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.2

Since, in its very command, it is explained that it is a memorial, why would we suggest that its ancient observation had anything to do with what it pointed toward?  Of course this has nothing to do with the fact that the Passover ultimately finds its fulfillment in the crucifixion of Christ as our Passover Lamb but the instructions specifically state that it is a memorial and its keeping is as a feast to the LORD.  The Hebrew for “memorial day” in this verse is zikkaron (זִכָּרֹון) and signifies a time of remembrance.  The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament notes that the subject of the verb is often “internal mental acts”.  It states:

Most examples of the Qal of zākar refer to inner mental acts, either with or without reference to concomitant external acts. Examples of internal mental acts are the Jews’ recollection of Jerusalem (Ps 137:1) and their remembrance that they had been slaves (Deut 5:15).3

And so we can determine that the Passover was, for the ancient Israelite, to be a time of internal reflection and a celebration, or feast to the LORD.  But the passage in Exodus further continues, in Exodus 12:24-27:

24 You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever. 25 And when you come to the land that the LORD will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. 26 And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ 27 you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’ ” And the people bowed their heads and worshiped.

In verse 24 we read that the observance of Passover is as a statute, that is a custom or ordinance.  It is an act of service to God and is to be taught to the children of Israel forever.  There is no indication at this time that its observation was to look forward to Christ’s fulfillment.  To the contrary, it was observed in remembrance of the event that freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and an opportunity to teach their children about God.  Because of this, we can see that the objection to celebrating Passover “because everything it pointed to was fulfilled” is ultimately flawed due to its presuppositions.

The Seder Has Been Shaped By Times And Circumstance

This objection largely claims that because the Seder has probably changed between the time of Christ and the earliest haggadah4 in existence it would be impossible to know for sure what the Passover feast and order of events were that Christ and His disciples observed.  The claim is indeed true.  There is roughly 1,000 years between the Passover observed by Christ and His disciples and our earliest copies of a written Haggadah.5  The problem with this objection is in what it presumes.  First, it presumes that there was no liberty with the observance of the Passover and second, it presumes that what was being observed as recorded by the Gospels and other extra-biblical writings can’t be pieced together.

In addressing the second issue, the truth of the matter is that we can piece much of the evening together and have done so.6  Using the four Gospels in the new Testament and how they record the events leading up to the crucifixion along with what we know of the observance of Passover in the 2nd temple period and the earliest references to the Seder we can put together an order that isn’t incredibly different from what most observe today.

Of course, times and circumstance have certainly played a role in the various customs of the Seder and it would be impossible to know everything that is observed today that wasn’t observed 2,000 years ago.  It may be claimed that because we don’t have the order written down precisely, we shouldn’t attempt to reconcile it.  But this idea presumes that families in the 2nd temple period had copies of the order of events like we do today and that presumption is unlikely.  The truth of the matter is that the information that the Torah gives along with the oral tradition of what was developed would have been more than enough for families to shape their festivities in a format that went along with the legal and religious customs while allowing for their own traditions.  That leads to the first issue with this objection, the idea that there was no liberty with the observance of the Passover.

The idea that there would be no liberty for family traditions in the observance of Passover is itself flawed.  While there were indeed legal items that had to be followed, they could not encompass the entire night let alone the week long events.  Just as today, it is quite reasonable to conclude that families would have come up with many traditions that were unique for themselves.  The observance of Passover, or any feast for that matter, was never meant to be a burden for the Israelites.  They were celebrations that commemorated events in their history.  Passover was, and is, looked forward to by the Jewish people just as Christians look forward to Christmas or Easter which themselves are used to commemorate events in the history of our faith.

So, in order to properly observe Passover must we know exactly what Christ and His disciples did?  The answer is “certainly not.”  The Torah, along with the Gospels, provides some basic information of what Christ and His disciples observed.  When put together with some extra-biblical data, the night, and week for that matter, can be given a basic outline for the Christian to participate in along with the liberty to introduce some of their own traditions for the family to follow.

We Don’t Need Another Sacrifice

Indeed, we don’t.  But in the framing of this objection it is presumed that the celebration of Passover is to offer another sacrifice other than the one true sacrifice offered by Christ.  And this is where the issue becomes thorny.  The Christian church participates in the Eucharist or what most protestant evangelicals call Communion or the Last Supper.  This comes from Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24 and Luke 22:17-19 where Jesus breaks the bread and pours the wine at the Last Supper and tells the disciples to do this in remembrance of Him.  But just what is this that he’s referring to?

Well, what this is in Luke 22:19 is the Passover feast.  As Jesus says in Luke 22:15, just a few verses earlier:

15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.”[Emphasis mine.]

Incidentally, this is also specified in Matthew 26:17-19 and Mark 14:16.  It is of my opinion that Jesus was not creating anything new for His disciples to participate in.  Communion as we know it may not have been a regular practice until the 4th century AD.7  In fact, there is strong reason to believe that what Paul was responding to in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 was the participation of Passover in an irreverent and haphazard manner and not communion as is so often discussed.

Rather, what Jesus was declaring in these passages when He instructs His disciples to “do this in remembrance of me” is a new focus for our “inner mental acts,” our remembrance, our memorial.  It is to be about Him, His sacrifice, His completed work on our behalf.  It is as though He were telling His disciples that their observance of Passover was previously in remembrance of their freedom from Egyptian slavery, but now the observance of Passover is the celebration of His accomplishment, His fulfillment of what Passover was, in a concealed manner, looking forward to!  And it is from this understanding that the parallels are brought into focus.

Once the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, but they were freed by God so that they could come into the land that God had given them and worship Him just as Exodus 12:24-27 states.  So once were we, as unbelievers, slaves to sin, but as Christians, freed by God and His incredible sacrifice on our behalf so that we too could come into right standing with God and worship Him.

Christians Should Celebrate Passover

And all of that brings us back to the third and most important reason Christians should celebrate Passover and that is this: it is an expression of worship.  To participate in the prescriptions that have largely been put into practice for some 3,500 years, instituted by God Himself, and given ultimate focus for us by Jesus Christ on the night of His betrayal could be nothing more and should be nothing less than an expression of worship to Him.  Exodus 12:28 reads in part “And the people bowed their heads and worshiped.”

Is it any wonder that when Moses and Aaron gathered the elders of Israel to tell them what was about to take place that the peoples response was worship?  Exodus 4:31 reads:

31 And the people believed; and when they heard that the LORD had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped. [Emphasis mine.]

As the New American Commentary on Exodus notes, bowing and worshiping says “I submit, I agree, I cooperate.”8  Participation in the observance of Passover is more than just an opportunity to learn about what happened on the night of Christ’s crucifixion.  It’s more than simply getting together with friends for an order of service and a meal.  As good and worthwhile as those things are, it is, rather, a way prescribed by God to say “I submit, I agree, I cooperate.”  And that is precisely what Jesus commanded of us, to do this in remembrance of Him.  He is now our focus for worship at Passover.  His accomplishment.  His work on our behalf.

In modern Christianity we have managed to put our worship into a box.  We have largely confined it to going to church on Sunday morning and spending a few minutes singing songs together.  And there is nothing inherently wrong with that, but I think we’ve managed to limit what worship is about.  We’ve fooled ourselves into worship being largely about us, even though we would rarely ever admit this.  But God didn’t necessarily allow the Israelites to determine how they would worship Him.  Instead, He gave them very specific instructions that they were to follow, instructions that permeated every facet of their lives.  In Christianity we have largely brushed them aside.

But with the action of brushing aside much of the prescriptions God gave to the Israelite community is the idea that these commands were simply arbitrary, that there was no other reason to follow them than simply the fact that God commanded it and since we’re free in Christ, any attempt to is to burden yourself with the law.  I think this is a naive and shallow view.  Do we really think that God had no reason to give the Israelites instructions on what to eat other than to burden them with His commands?  Is there any possibility that maybe God actually knew what food was good for them and what wasn’t, and that the act of obeying such commands was a form of worship, a demonstration of trust?

Legalism is indeed an item that needs to be kept in check in the Christian life.  That issue should not be minimized.  God cannot be bought.  We have been set free and as Hebrews 4:16 states, we can come boldly to the throne of grace.  What is grace but unmerited favor?  Therefore it is unreasonable to do anything in thinking that it somehow merits our salvation or makes us holier another.  And just as we don’t keep from telling lies in order to gain the blessings of God, the same should be true for the observance of a feast.  Rather, we do it because His ways are perfect and our obedience is an expression of worship.  A way of saying “I submit, I agree, I cooperate.”

In the Seder there is fellowship.  There is Scripture, prayer, song and the breaking of bread.  We can literally “taste and see that the LORD is good!”9 and it’s because of all of this that I think every Christian should celebrate Passover.

Conclusion

In these two posts I have submitted what I think are 3 primary reasons for why Christians should celebrate Passover.  They are biblical relevance, the leading of the early church and the expression of worship.  I have also worked to correct some of the problems that underlie the objections that come about regarding Passover observance.

  1. For a great discussion on legalism, see What Is Legalism? on CARM.
  2. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, use: English Standard Version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
  3. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. 1999 (R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer, Jr. & B. K. Waltke, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (241). Chicago: Moody Press.
  4. Haggadah is the Hebrew word for “telling” and typically refers to the liturgical texts that are used for the order of the Passover Seder.
  5. See the Haggadah entry at the Jewish Encyclopedia site.
  6. Since this discussion is not about what the Seder entails, I won’t address it here.  There are many sites that do this in a much better way than I could.  For how the night of the Last Supper has been reconstructed, please see the article Passover And Last Supper by Robin Routledge.
  7. I am basing this on the writings of Theodoret of Cyrus, which was discussed in Part 1.
  8. Stuart, D. K. (2006). Vol. 2: Exodus. The New American Commentary (290). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
  9. Psalm 34:8

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© 2011-2017 David Christopher. This post along with all content on this site (except citations) is the property of davidchristopher.net and is made available for individual and personal use. Please give appropriate citation along with a link to the URL and the date it was obtained.