Should Christians pass over the annual Passover or celebrate it? What are God’s instructions about this often-overlooked festival observed by the early Church?
In much of the religious world, adherents search for meaning, purpose and validation in a familiar cadence of religious festivals.
This concept is common in the professing Christian world as well. Various sects and denominations have adopted a variety of festivals, often borrowed from ancient and pagan cultures. Long ago they affixed biblical or moral themes and proclaimed these days Christian.
Commonly celebrated festivals, ranging from Easter to Christmas, were often lifted directly from preexisting pagan festivities and given Christian-sounding names. (For more information, review our online article “Holy Days vs. Holidays.”)
Students of the Bible, recognizing the contradiction and confusion caused by blending pagan rituals with Christian ideals, are often left unmoored from cultural and family traditions. Yet many would-be Christians still yearn for meaningful religious festivals and practices.
In recent years, this desire has led some Christians to look to Jewish culture for customs and practices to fill this void. One custom adopted by some churches is the traditional Jewish Passover seder.
The seder meal
The origin of the formalized seder meal, with its distinctive, structured rituals, prayers and traditions, is unclear from history. Many scholars assert that the seder developed after the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, when observant Jews no longer had access to a temple for religious ceremonies. Regardless, the formulaic ritual of the seder, a central practice in modern Judaism, is not found in the Bible.
For Christians seeking traditions with fewer pagan overtones, the seder may seem to provide a sense of being close to history. However, in the rush to appropriate the Jewish seder, many Christians overlook or ignore the underlying festival—the annual Passover—which was given by divine instruction.
The first Passover
The Passover was established by God as a central event in His sacred calendar. The Bible sets the stage in Exodus 7-11. God had sent Moses to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt. To do this, God had brought a series of nine plagues on Egypt. After each plague, Pharaoh still refused to allow the Israelites to leave.
But the 10th plague would crush Egyptian resistance and bring liberty to the enslaved Israelites. God foretold, “All the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the female servant who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the animals” (Exodus 11:5).
God made provisions for protecting the children of Israel from this plague. That deliverance was through the Passover. Exodus 12 gives the details of this incredible event. Each household killed a lamb. Blood from the lamb was placed on the doorposts and on the lintel of the dwelling, and the Israelites stayed indoors during that night.
God said, “For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt . . . Now the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you; and the plague shall not be on you to destroy you” (Exodus 12:12-13).
It was a dramatic scene. God established the Passover as the first annual festival for His people, to remind them of this divine deliverance (Leviticus 23:4-5). After they settled in the Promised Land, Passover became a pilgrimage festival, with families journeying to Jerusalem to keep this special celebration.
Passover and the other “feasts of the LORD” (verse 2) were touchstones in the national relationship with God. Download our booklet From Holidays to Holy Days: God’s Plan for You for more information on these festivals.
Pass over the Passover?
What about Christians? Should Christians pass over the Passover? Or does God expect Christians to faithfully observe this annual festival?
The answer might surprise you. Most professing Christian denominations largely ignore the Passover. Some communities substitute a weekly or monthly communion ritual. (See our online article “The Last Supper or Passover?” for more details on this practice.)
However, thousands of faithful Christians continue to observe the annual Passover festival in accordance with the New Testament instructions. Exploring these instructions may challenge you to consider observing this festival as well.
Did Jesus celebrate Passover?
By definition, Christians are disciples or students of Jesus Christ. Peter was inspired to comment that Christians should pattern their behavior and practices after the example of Jesus (1 Peter 2:21).
This is where the annual Passover becomes incredibly personal. We all need redemption.In considering whether Christians should observe the Passover, Christ’s personal example carries enormous weight.
While the Bible does not record many details about Jesus’ upbringing, it is clear that Jesus and His physical family kept the annual Passover. For example, Luke records that Jesus’ “parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast” (Luke 2:41-42).
Jesus continued this annual practice into adulthood. In the last days of His physical life, Jesus again made certain to observe the Passover—modeling this practice for His followers. Jesus told His disciples, “My time is at hand; I will keep the Passover . . . with My disciples” (Matthew 26:18).
The four Gospel writers affirm Christ’s active participation in the annual Passover (Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; John 13).
There is no doubt about whether Jesus and His disciples celebrated Passover. However, some argue that Passover was observed merely as a cultural practice and was limited to the Jewish people. Does the Bible address this issue?
Christ’s command: “Do this in remembrance of Me”
Those who desire to follow Jesus, as Head of the Church, should carefully consider His plain instructions.
On the last night of His physical life, Jesus gathered with His followers for the annual Passover. This would be a momentous period of transition for His disciples. Jesus, knowing what was coming and understanding the magnitude and impact of His betrayal, arrest and crucifixion, provided guidance, encouragement and admonition to His followers (John 13-17).
Jesus tenderly admonished, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him” (John 14:21). Jesus reminded His followers that one measure of their love for Him was whether they would follow His instructions.
The same is true today. As John wrote, “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:3-4).
Among Jesus’ instructions is a clear, straightforward command regarding the Passover. On that special evening Jesus instituted new symbols, the bread and wine, for the New Testament Passover observance. In doing so, He said, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:23-25).
Do this in remembrance of Me. This is more than a suggestion. It is presented as a personal command. It carries the gravity of being directly issued by Jesus. Passover was enshrined as an ordinance in the Christian Church by Jesus Himself. His followers will diligently strive to keep His commands—including this directive to observe the annual Passover.
The Church observes the New Testament Passover
Furthermore, we see that the Church of God plainly observed this festival in the New Testament.
Paul, when writing to the mostly gentile congregation in Corinth, commented, “For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8). Later in the letter, Paul reviewed the practice of observing Passover, affirming the significance and serious nature of this festival of God for the Church community (1 Corinthians 11:17-32).
It should be noted when reading this passage that the Corinthian congregation was well aware of the Passover festival as well as the Days of Unleavened Bread that follow. For more information on the rich meaning and relevance of this second festival, study our online article “The Feast of Unleavened Bread: Pursuing a Life of Righteousness.”
Had the Passover been enshrined as merely a Jewish festival, it would not have been carried forward into the New Testament Church. The Bible records that even congregations largely populated by non-Jews, such as the one in Corinth, were instructed on the importance and necessity of the New Testament Passover.
Rather than being a feast of the Jews, the Bible shows Passover and other festivals belong to the Lord (Leviticus 23:1-2).
There is no hint in the Bible that the Church of God abandoned this special festival.
The meaning of Passover for you
The Bible presents ample evidence that God established the Passover. Jesus and the New Testament Church of God faithfully observed it. Those who observe this festival benefit from the vibrant and resonant meaning embedded in the Passover.
As previously mentioned, for the first Passover in Egypt each Israelite household killed a lamb, placed the blood on the doorposts, and then stayed indoors as the Lord passed over Egypt and brought deliverance and liberty to His people (Exodus 12).
This ancient practice foreshadowed the coming of Jesus and His redemptive sacrifice to enable salvation for the human family.
Jesus, as the Lamb of God, changed the Passover symbols for His followers. Jesus commanded that His disciples take of the unleavened bread and wine representing His broken body and shed blood.This is where the annual Passover becomes incredibly personal. We all need redemption. All humans, other than Jesus, have sinned and earned the penalty of eternal death (Romans 3:23; 6:23). The Passover frames God’s plan to offer redemption to you, me and everyone else who repents of sin.
The apostle Paul explained that Jesus is our Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7). Jesus lived and died, shedding His blood to pay our death penalty, “because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed” (Romans 3:25, emphasis added).
Peter boldly proclaimed that Christians are redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:19). Read our online article “Sacrifice of Jesus” for a more detailed explanation.
Far from being just an ancient practice, the festival of Passover is relevant for everyone today.
The Passover today
The annual festival of Passover reminds Christians of the spectacular blessing of Christ’s sacrifice. So, how should a Christian observe the Passover today? Should Christians adopt the Jewish seder?
The Bible provides the answer. Jesus, as the Lamb of God, changed the Passover symbols for His followers. Jesus commanded that His disciples take of the unleavened bread and wine representing His broken body and shed blood (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20). This was to be done annually on the Passover.
The apostle Paul explained that the New Testament Passover is not a festive meal (1 Corinthians 11:20-29). There is no need to appropriate the Jewish seder. Instead, the Passover is a sober occasion whereby Christians, in partaking of the wine and bread, “proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (verse 26).
Christians also wash one another’s feet on Passover, following the example and instruction of Jesus (John 13:1-17). More information on this practice is discussed in our online article “Passover and Forgiveness.”
Baptized members of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, much like thousands of other faithful disciples of Jesus Christ since the founding of the Church, gather on Passover evening to follow Christ’s guidance and example. As the Old Testament Passover was reserved for those who made the commitment of circumcision (Exodus 12:48), those who have made the commitment of baptism observe the New Testament Passover in remembrance of Jesus Christ.
Christians should not pass over this special festival of the Lord. Instead, we should follow the instructions of our Master, the Chief Shepherd and Lamb of God, and observe the New Testament Passover.