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EPISODE 38: Passover and Easter
Have you ever been invited to a Passover Seder? I hope so. It’s filled with wonder and awe and points powerfully to how Jesus the Messiah fulfilled the picture of salvation in the Exodus story. This podcast fills in some gaps you may not have heard about.
Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman. Today, I'm the only one on this podcast, and the question that matters is: How do Passover and Easter relate to each other? I'm prompted to address this topic because, in just the past few weeks, I've heard from several of my gentile Christian friends who are asking how to witness to their Jewish friends, in particular at this time of year, when Passover and Easter intersect. They intersect every year right around the same time. This year in particular, they're closer than ever. The Jewish calendar is more of a lunar calendar, and so it doesn't always line up exactly with Easter, but this year, the two coincide amazingly.
I've also been asked by another friend, who was invited to his Jewish friend's house for a Passover meal and wants to know how should he behave and how should he interact, and is this a great witnessing opportunity? And the first thing I mentioned to him was, “Well, don't show up too hungry, because there's a lot of reading and festivities and discussion before any of the food shows up.” So just that's a very practical tip.
I'm not going to be able to explain everything about Passover and Easter and how they intersect, but I do want to encourage you to find out as much as you possibly can about this topic because it is the quintessential intersection of how Jesus's death and atonement line up and fulfill the Old Testament, the old covenant, the pictures that were given throughout the Old Testament, and in particular, that dominant story of the Old Testament of the exodus out of slavery from Egypt. It's amazing how many times that event is referred back to by the prophets in the Psalms. I remember one evening I was participating in a dialogue between Christians and Jewish rabbis. There were three rabbis and three Christians, and one of the rabbis said that all of Judaism revolves around Passover, and I don't think that's an overstatement. I think that's a very accurate reading of the Tanakh, the Hebrew scriptures, what we call the Old Testament.
So it makes sense for us to make a big deal about Passover. But the more we understand about Passover, and the more we understand the Old Testament, the better we'll understand what Jesus did on that night that he celebrated his last meal. At the risk of being slightly disturbing, I want to say that, for many years, I spoke in a lot of churches during the Passover/Easter season, and I would talk about, here's what happened in the Exodus from Egypt, here’s how Passover became a celebration that remembered that event, here’s how the Passover meal evolved over time, adding more and more elements to the evening's festivity to help you remember and relive the experience of being delivered out of slavery. And then here's what Jesus did with his disciples at that last meal, and here's how what Jesus did was the fulfillment of that. And it always amazed me that, whenever I spoke, I would get lots and lots of Christian people coming up to me afterwards who had never heard any of this. Some of them were older people who had been Christians for 50 years, and yet they had never heard about the intersection of Passover and Easter. So I really want to encourage you to learn about this as much as possible.
If you do get invited to Jewish friends for a Passover Seder meal, by all means, go and listen and listen and try to learn as much as possible and ask some questions. And then your experience on those Sundays, when your church celebrates Communion or the Eucharist or the Lord's Supper will be so much richer and so much more moving to you and formative in your own spiritual growth.
I do want to encourage you to check out the websites of Jews for Jesus and Chosen People Ministries, two great evangelistic works that reach out to Jewish people. Both of them have articles or even books on their websites that you can find out about more. The founder of Jews for Jesus, Moishe Rosen, wrote a fantastic book called Christ in the Passover. Chosen People Ministries has a version, their book of The Messiah in the Passover. They both have links to Messianic Passover Haggadahs. A Haggadah is a book that is used to tell the story of Passover. Haggadah is the Hebrew word for “the telling.” Seder is the Hebrew word for “order,” and there's an order of events that take place. And in fact, if you can, if it's not too late when you're listening to this podcast, Chosen People Ministries this year is going to be doing a virtual Passover Seder. I'll have the information about it in the show notes below, and you might be able to sign up and actually watch one of these virtually. It won't be as good as being there and eating the delicious food, but it can really help you understand and grow and understand about more of the intersection.
So let me give you just a few snippets of what you might experience at a Passover Seder, just to whet your appetite and give you a hunger for more. This again is not the most elaborate explanation of it, but I just want to encourage you to think deeply about this. Like I said, the word Seder means order. The original story in the Scriptures takes place in the book of Exodus, and you'll recall that the Jewish people were slaves for over 400 years. And then God appeared to Moses in a burning bush and told him that there would be deliverance and that he would lead the people out of slavery. And Moses went to Pharaoh and said, “Let my people go.” And Pharaoh said no. And there became a sequence then of ten plagues, each building in intensity, harming the Egyptian people, so that eventually Pharaoh's heart would be amenable to the idea of letting the Jewish people go. And of course, you remember that the tenth and worst plague was the death of the firstborn and that Pharaoh's firstborn son died. And then he allowed Moses and the people to leave. They got to the Red Sea. The Red Sea had to part supernaturally by God's miraculous hand. Then the Egyptian people came after them. They changed their mind, and then God closed the Red Sea on them. The Jewish people got freed, saved, delivered, and God's enemies were punished.
And so this story is an amazing story of God's power, of His intervention, of His protecting His people. It's a message of salvation and deliverance. And in the Scriptures, they tell the Jewish people that they are to remember this event, and they are to remember it with a ceremonial meal that would include just three key ingredients: A lamb, because the Jewish people sacrificed a lamb and took the blood and put it on the doorpost as an outward sign of their inward faith in God. And that when God saw the blood on the doorpost, He would pass over their house and not kill the firstborn. But for people who did not put the blood on the door, those people would have the loss of the firstborn in that house. And so there was to be a lamb as a meal, or sometimes a representative of that lamb, of just a shank bone, as part of the meal. Bitter herbs, usually horseradish, because the lives of the Jewish people were made bitter in their slavery. And matzah, an unleavened bread, because the Jewish people escaped from Egypt in haste. They didn't have time to let the dough rise. And so they made these very flat cakes of bread that didn't have yeast in them. And so those three ingredients were the only ones told about in the scripture. God told the Jewish people to have a meal with these three ingredients matzah, bitter herb, and the lamb.
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As the time elapsed and the children and then the grandchildren and the great grandchildren had not firsthand experienced that deliverance, the Jewish people started adding more and more elements to their Passover Seder, so to fill out the explanation, so that details of the story were not lost. And so, over time, this meal evolved and became more elaborate. And so different things were added. Parsley was added as a symbol of springtime and life, but the parsley was dipped in salt water to remind us of the tears shed when we were slaves. And then remembering that part of the slavery was making mortar and building cities with bricks and mortar, they created a very delicious, sweet mixture of apples and nuts and perhaps raisins, wine, and so that was added to remember about the mortar. And all sorts of things.
And then also there were four cups of wine that were interspersed throughout the evening. And each cup of wine had its own symbolism or its own purpose. The idea for the four cups of wine flowed out of a key verse in the telling of the exodus in the book of Exodus. In Exodus chapter 6, beginning in verse 6, the Scriptures say, “Therefore, say to the Israelites,” this is God telling Moses what to say. “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will make you as My own people, and I will be your God.” And so there's four promises in here: God will bring out, God will free, God will redeem, and God will make a people. And so these four glasses of wine are interspersed in the evening of the Passover, remembering each of those promises that God made to the Jewish people. And different glasses of wine have different explanation about them woven into the Passover Seder. Remember this, because it was the third glass of wine, the cup of redemption, that Jesus raised after the meal, and said, “This is the blood of My covenant,” but I'm getting ahead of myself.
I want you to see. It's a long evening. It's a lot of food. It's a lot of singing. It's tasting wine. It's tasting symbolic foods. It's trying to live out God's injunction to us to taste and see that the Lord is good. It's filled with symbolism. It's filled with teaching. You read certain passages of Scripture. Over time, it was deemed that certain psalms in the book of Psalms towards the end, 116, 117, 118, maybe, would be the ones that are sung at the end of the meal. It's a great time of rejoicing and freedom. In fact, it's supposed to be a long, luxurious evening because the whole feeling is, once we were slaves, now we are free. And so people recline at the table. They relax. When you read the Gospel accounts, it says that Jesus with his disciples was reclining. That's all part of this whole thing.
Now, what I want you now to think about is how Jesus took this symbolism and just pointed it in the direction of Himself as the fulfillment of these pictures from the Exodus. It's important to know that early on in the Passover Seder meal is washing of hands, and very often the leader of the house, the father or the grandfather, will walk around the table with a basin of water and a towel and will wash each person’s hands. Well, Jesus began His evening by going around and washing feet. So right from the very start, these Jewish men, His disciples, who were all Jewish, sitting around or reclining around the food, said, “Okay, something different is happening here.”
In fact, they knew that something was happening here, because Jesus had sent a few of them into a town to go prepare the meal. And even from the very beginning, or even before the start, there was this sense of, “Something bigger is going on here.” They were supposed to say to a total stranger when they took a donkey for riding into the city, “The Master has need of this,” and the people chanted hosanna, which was part of those psalms that are sung as Jesus rode into the city. It was not official from the Bible expectation, but folklore and rabbinic teaching believed that the Messiah would arrive at Passover time. Wouldn't that be the ultimate fulfillment of being set free from slavery, of the Messiah coming and setting all of creation free? So there was a very high expectation.
The population of Jerusalem swelled dramatically during this time of Passover. There were three times a year that Jewish people came up to Jerusalem. They came in the fall for the celebration of Sukkot, Tabernacles. Then they came at Passover time, and then they stayed in town very often, for seven weeks, until the holiday of weeks afterwards, called Shavuot. And so the population in Jerusalem probably was eight times the normal population. And so crowds were all around, especially in Jerusalem and in the Temple area. And so there was such a sense of expectation.
But then Jesus washes feet at the beginning of the Passover meal, and then they went through the order. They went through different things. And then, at the end of the meal, Jesus took bread. Now, we don't know this absolutely certainly, because we don't know exactly all of the different things that were added to the Passover Seder and when they were added. But it's quite likely that taking bread after the meal was a surprise to the disciples, because the last thing they were supposed to eat was a piece of the roasted lamb. It was supposed to be the last flavor lingering in their mouth. And so they would remember this sacrifice lamb that provided the blood that was the escape for them from that tenth and terrible plague.
But after they were finished eating, Jesus took bread and said, “This is my body which is broken for you.” It must have been a surprise or a shock or a bewilderment for the disciples sitting there. But one thing was clear: He was making a connection between the story of the Exodus, a deliverance out of physical slavery, to His body, which would provide a deliverance from spiritual slavery. And then He took the third cup of wine, and He said, “This is my blood.” And so the disciples probably started catching on. “Oh, here's what he's saying. His deliverance, his body, his blood is the fulfillment of this whole story of Passover, being set free from physical slavery was a foreshadowing of spiritual deliverance from spiritual slavery.” Now, if you get the opportunity to go to a Jewish person's house now, you'll see a number of things that have been added to the Passover Seder. We're not exactly sure when or how, but there's a number of different things that are added, because, like I said, it evolved over time for people to remember things more fully.
There's one event or part of the Seder that's so puzzling. I mentioned that matzah, unleavened bread is a crucial part of the Passover Seder. Well, there's a cloth bag with three compartments in the middle of the table, and it's sometimes called a matzah tosh. That's either Hebrew or Yiddish, I don't remember, but a matzah bag. There’s three pieces of matzah in that matzah tosh. And early on in the evening, the leader of the Passover Seder, the father or the grandfather, takes the middle of the three pieces of matzah out. He breaks it in half, he puts half back in to the matzah tosh. He takes half that he leaves out, he wraps it in a linen cloth, and later, during the meal, he goes to hide it. And then it becomes this game where the children go and try to find it. And if they can find it, then they can get a ransom from the father of some money toward getting the matzah. But in so many places during the Passover Seder, everything is explained with elaborate detail. And even in some Haggadahs, we're told, “Rabbi So-and-So tells this explanation. Rabbi So-and-So says this explanation.” There's all these explanations of: Why do we eat unleavened bread? Why do we have a shank of a lamb bone? What's this bitter herb is all about? Why the water with salt in it
Everything's got an explanation except for that matzah thing with the three matzahs. And there's no explanation as to why three, why the middle one is taken out, why it's broken, why it's wrapped in linen, why it's hidden. It's really odd. But at the very end of the meal, after the children have gotten their ransom, and they hand the piece of matzah back to the leader, he breaks it into small pieces and passes it around the table, so that everybody gets a piece of that matzah called the afikomen, which, by the way, is a Hebrew word with an amount of debate as to what that word means. Does it mean after dish? Does it mean a dessert? You'll spend hours and hours reading debates about what that word means. But again, there's no explanation. It's rather bizarre. And when I became a believer in Jesus, when I was only 20 years old, I read Moishe Rosen's book Christ in the Passover. Well, first I read an article that he wrote about it, and he explained that it's quite possible—again we don't have the historic, factual data to know exactly when the matzah tosh was added to the Passover Seder, but it's quite possible that it was added right after the time of Jesus celebrating this Passover meal with his disciples, and it was added by Jewish believers in Jesus who were still part of the Jewish community. The Jewish community at the time of Jesus had a number of different sects or factions. So you had the Pharisees, you had the Sadducees, you had the Essenes, you had the Zealots, and for a while, there were a group of Jewish people who were believers in Jesus, and they were considered the Messianic Jews in that community…
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… and they weren't cast out or expelled until later. Many years later, there was a revolt by Jewish people, in the year 132 or so, around then, when a rabbi, Rabbi Akiva, declared this military leader, Simon Bar Kochva, that he was the messiah, and the Messianic Jewish believers in Jesus couldn't go along with that, and so they didn't participate in that rebellion. The Jewish people lost that rebellion, and the Jewish believers in Jesus at that point were considered traitors. Things also had gotten kind of tense between the Jewish believers in Jesus and the Jewish nonbelievers in Jesus around 70 AD with the destruction of the temple, because all sorts of difficulties happened around then. If you know the story of Masada, it's very, very difficult and painful. And so there became this rift.
But in the early days of the Christian faith, in the thirties, forties, fifties, Jewish people who believed in Jesus were still not considered traitors, and so it's quite possible that they wanted to sneak in this part of the Passover Seder of a matzah tosh of three matzahs. And so they wove in something into the Passover meal that would remind or tell or inform people that God Himself is a Trinity, three in one. By the way, the matzah tosh, there’s very strict rules about how it has to be one bag with three compartments. And why is it that the middle of those three matzahs is the one that's broken? And why is it wrapped in a linen cloth and, if you will, buried and then resurrected at the end of the meal? I mean, it's just so stunningly picturesque, of the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity, being broken, being wrapped in linen, being buried, being resurrected. And it still is part of today's Jewish celebration of the Seder. It's absolutely bizarre and puzzling. And you'll go to it, and you'll see people who have no knowledge whatsoever of Jesus, and they don't believe in Jesus, and yet they do this every year.
There's also a part of the Passover Seder today where Jewish people open the door, and they sing a song inviting Elijah to come, because they know from Malachi the prophet that Elijah comes before the Messiah. And every year Elijah doesn't show up, they close the door, and they're disappointed.
Now, years ago, I had the opportunity when I was a campus minister at Towson State in Baltimore, and Baltimore has a very strong Jewish population, and they were not very happy with the fact that the guy who was the director of a Christian movement on Towson's campus, Campus Crusade for Christ, not a very sensitive name for the Jewish audience. But me, I was Jewish, and I was a Jewish believer, and so the Jewish students, and there was a Jewish organization on campus that was not very happy about my presence. And one year, I was going to do a demonstration about Passover Seder to the Christian students through the Campus Crusade movement, and I decided, “I'm going to explain this bit about the matzah tosh and the three in one and the second of the matzahs and all this,” and I thought, “I need to find out what's the non-messianic answer about how the matzah tosh all found its way into the Passover Seder? So I called the campus rabbi, and he and I had known each other, and like I said, he wasn't very happy with who I was and what I was doing. But I said to him, “I'm going to be doing this presentation for the Christian students about Passover, and I know the messianic interpretation of the matzah tosh and the afikomen. Can you tell me what the non-messianic interpretation is?” And I'll never forget. He said, “Tell you the truth, Randy, the non-messianic answer is kind of weak. It makes the messianic one sound good.” And I was amazed. I was marveling. I couldn't believe it. So I said, “Well, please give it give it a try. Tell me, what's the non messianic answer?” He said, “Well, very often the most common interpretation is that the matzah tosh represents the threefold name of God: He's the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And I said, “Okay, but why do we break Isaac?” Why Isaac? And why break and why hide and all that? And he said, “Well, Isaac was offered up on Mount Moriah, and Abraham almost killed him, but God spared him, so he was broken, but not really broken.” I said, “What does that have to do with Passover?” He said, “Yeah, I know. It's kind of weak.”
Well, we can't prove…. We don't know exactly when the matzah tosh was added to the Passover Seder. We don't know when the afikomen evolved, but it sure looks like a pointer to one of the most amazing things in the world, that the triune God, the Father sent the Son to be broken, to be buried, to be resurrected, as the ultimate fulfillment of the Passover story. That deliverance from physical slavery is a wonderful, amazing work of a saving God, but the work of the Messiah on the cross to atone for sins, to set people free from spiritual slavery, not just 400 years of slavery, but eternal punishment for sin, all by grace, all by freely given grace.
So may it be that you'll dig into the Jewish roots of that celebration that you have at your church however often your church celebrates the Lord's Supper, and you'll experience it on a deeper, richer way, because this is a question that matters, how Passover relates to Easter. I'll have some resources in the show notes below. We hope that, like all of our resources at the C.S. Lewis Institute, this podcast and all of our podcasts and all of our materials are helpful for you to grow in depth with your walk with the Lord, that this helps you love the Lord your God, with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.