What Is the Passover, and Why Is It Important?

How did the Passover begin? What does the Bible say about the Passover and its importance? Should Christians observe the New Testament Passover?

What does the word Passover mean, and how did it begin?

How and why did Jesus Christ and His disciples observe the ordinance of the Passover? Why is Christ called “our Passover”?

It is clear from the Scriptures that Christ observed the Passover and commanded His disciples to follow His example. This ordinance has deep spiritual meaning for Christians, and Christ’s instructions to His followers about its proper observance are recorded in the inspired Word of God, the Bible.

The origin and meaning of the term Passover

The Passover derives its name from an event that occurred in the Old Testament, when God delivered the Israelites from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. The first mention of the Passover in the Bible is found in Exodus 12, when God instituted the Passover.

The Israelites were given specific instructions they were to meticulously follow before departing Egypt for the Promised Land (Exodus 12:1-28). These verses describe the killing, roasting, eating and disposal of a lamb that was “without blemish.” This lamb without any physical defects is described as “the LORD’s Passover” (verse 11).

Notice how God’s instructions were clearly spelled out.

The lamb was selected on the 10th day of the first month (verse 3) and kept until the 14th day, when it was slain “at twilight” (shortly after sunset at the end of the 13th) (verse 6). After the lamb was slain, its blood was placed on the “doorposts and on the lintel of the houses where they eat it” (verse 7).

“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 when I strike the land of Egypt” (verse 13, emphasis added throughout).

“You shall keep it as a feast by an everlasting ordinance” (verse 14).

The Israelites were instructed not to leave their homes until the morning (verse 22). Around midnight the LORD passed through the land to destroy the firstborn of the Egyptians, but when He observed the blood on the doorposts of the Israelite houses, “the LORD will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you” (verse 23).

“It is the Passover sacrifice of the LORD, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt” (verse 27).

Josephus and the history of the Passover

Flavius Josephus, a well-known Jewish historian, also referred to the incident of God’s passing over the houses of the Israelites.

“Whence it is that we do still offer this sacrifice in like manner to this day, and call this festival Pascha, which signifies the feast of the Passover, because on that day God passed us over, and sent the plague upon the Egyptians; for the destruction of the first-born came upon the Egyptians that night” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 2, chap. 14, sec. 6).

Note that Passover derives its name from the night of the 14th of Abib, when God passed over the houses of the people of Israel and spared the firstborn from death—because of the blood on the doorposts. The passing over of the Israelite households, thereby sparing their firstborn, is the reason the ceremony is called the Passover.

As the Israelite firstborns were saved by blood from certain death, so Christians are saved from eternal death through the shed blood of Christ our Savior.God’s instructions were clear as to when the Passover should be observed. In the second year after departing Egypt, the Israelites were commanded to observe it “at its appointed time . . . And they kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month . . . according to all that the LORD commanded Moses, so the children of Israel did” (Numbers 9:1-5).

The Passover was “an everlasting ordinance” (Exodus 12:14), and it was only after its observance that the Israelites were finally delivered from bondage and slavery to their cruel taskmasters.

How do these events harmonize with the Passover described in the New Testament?

The Passover in the New Testament

Notice how the events in the Old Testament dovetail with those of the New Testament.

The passing over of the Israelite houses that had the blood of the unblemished lamb on the doorposts provides clear symbolism of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. The only way our sins can be forgiven is through the shedding of blood, as is stated in Hebrews 9:22: “And without shedding of blood there is no remission”—no forgiveness of sins.

Notice Ephesians 1:7: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace.” The only way to escape the death penalty brought about by sin is to repent of our sins and accept the sacrifice—the shed blood—of our Savior Jesus Christ.

Paul made it clear: “For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7).

As the Israelite firstborns were saved by blood from certain death, so Christians are saved from eternal death through the shed blood of Christ our Savior.

Jesus and the Passover

Jesus Christ grew up in a family that observed the Passover every year “according to the custom,” and Luke tells about a specific incident that occurred when Jesus accompanied His parents to Jerusalem for Passover when He was 12 (Luke 2:41-43).

Early in His ministry Jesus came to John the Baptist at the Jordan River. When John saw Jesus walking toward him, he uttered these words: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). John understood that the lamb without blemish that was sacrificed in ancient Israel on the evening of the 14th of Abib (later called Nisan) was a type of Jesus Christ, whose blood would be shed.

Just before His betrayal and death by crucifixion, Jesus Christ asked His disciples to make preparations for His final Passover. “Then came the Day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover must be killed. And He sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat’” (Luke 22:7-8).

Peter and John were led to a particular house with a large guest room where Jesus and His disciples would “eat the Passover” (verses 11-12). The disciples did as Jesus instructed, “and they prepared the Passover” (verse 13). This preparation took place late in the afternoon of the 13th of Nisan.

Below is a summary of the events that took place during the evening prior to Christ’s death.

Christ sets the time for the Passover

According to God’s reckoning, days start and end at sundown. At the beginning of the 14th day of the first month (after sunset, which had ended the 13th), Jesus and His disciples gathered in the room prepared for the Passover. Notice the time setting of Jesus Christ’s final Passover:

  • “When evening had come, He sat down with the twelve” (Matthew 26:20).
  • “In the evening He came with the twelve” (Mark 14:17).
  • “When the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve apostles with Him” (Luke 22:14).

Christ’s final Passover with His disciples occurred on the evening that began the 14th day of the first month of the Hebrew calendar.

Christ institutes the New Testament Passover symbols of the bread and the wine

Notice how Christ introduced His last Passover service. “Then He said to them, ‘With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer’” (Luke 22:15). Then He gave instructions to His disciples regarding an aspect of the Passover they had not encountered before.

The Passover is an annual reminder of how we are delivered from the wages of sin, which results in eternal death (Romans 6:23).He introduced the symbol of the bread. “And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me’” (Luke 22:19).

He also introduced the symbol of the wine. “Then He took the cup [wine], and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins’” (Matthew 26:27-28).

It is important to note that Jesus Christ did not repeal the observance of the Passover as instituted in the Old Testament, but introduced the symbols of the bread and the wine in place of the sacrificial lamb.

Passover and the foot-washing ceremony

Jesus introduced another ceremony that was not a part of the Old Testament Passover observance.

“Jesus . . . rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded . . .

“So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him’” (John 13:3-5, 12-16).

Jesus demonstrated His attitude of godly humility and service toward others, and He instructed His disciples to follow His example: “You also ought to wash one another’s feet.” The foot-washing ceremony symbolizes Jesus’ heart of love, sacrifice and service to others.

“If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (verse 17). Christ’s words demonstrate how extremely important and significant it is for those who claim to be Christians to participate in the foot-washing ceremony.

The apostle Paul and the Passover observance

Did the early Church follow the example that Christ set and observe the New Testament Passover? Yes.

Notice what the apostle Paul stated: “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me. In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do . . . in remembrance of Me.’

“For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

Partaking of the Passover is both a remembrance—a memorial—and a proclamation of Jesus’ death. The apostle Paul understood and taught this vitally important truth!

God’s master plan for mankind begins with the Passover. Other important festivals revealing God’s eternal plan for you and all humanity are listed in the Bible and provide vital information about His future purpose for each of us. To learn more, download our free booklet From Holidays to Holy Days: God’s Plan for You.

The Passover and salvation

The Passover is an annual reminder of how we are delivered from the wages of sin, which results in eternal death (Romans 6:23).

Christ told His disciples: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh [symbolized by the bread] of the Son of Man and drink of His blood [symbolized by the wine], you have no life in you.” But someone who abides by the biblical instructions “has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:53-54).

The apostle Paul understood his weaknesses as he struggled against sin (Romans 7:24) and stated, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25).

There is only one way we can be free of sin, and that is through accepting the sacrifice of Christ, who was willing to take on Himself the penalty of all of the sins of mankind—including yours (1 Peter 3:18; Matthew 26:28; Galatians 2:20).

The New Testament Passover service has a profoundly deep spiritual meaning and significance. It reminds us yearly that Jesus Christ both suffered and died to pay the penalty for our sins, and the sins of all mankind (John 3:16).

To learn more about the New Testament Passover, read “Questions and Answers About the Christian Passover.”

What are you going to do now?

Will you become a part of God’s amazing plan of salvation? It is up to each of us to respond to His invitation to participate in the wonderful future He is planning for us.

May we have the faith and courage to step out and begin the journey that will lead to our inheritance and eternal life in the Kingdom of God.

About the Author

André van Belkum

Andre van Belkum

Andre van Belkum currently serves as the pastor of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, in New Zealand and the Pacific region. Previously he pastored congregations in southern Africa, including South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

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