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.
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.
- 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. ↩
- Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. 1999 (R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer, Jr. & B. K. Waltke, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (241). Chicago: Moody Press. ↩
- Haggadah is the Hebrew word for “telling” and typically refers to the liturgical texts that are used for the order of the Passover Seder. ↩
- See the Haggadah entry at the Jewish Encyclopedia site. ↩
- 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. ↩
- I am basing this on the writings of Theodoret of Cyrus, which was discussed in Part 1. ↩
- Stuart, D. K. (2006). Vol. 2: Exodus. The New American Commentary (290). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers. ↩
- Psalm 34:8 ↩
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