Passover Celebration in Jesus’ Time

passoverPassover Celebration
The Customs and Celebration in Jesus’ Time

This evening, Tuesday, April 15, 2014, being Passover on the modern day Jewish calendar, I want to share with you what the Biblical Passover supper in Jesus’ time would entail, and show you the many symbols of Christ’s completed work upon the Cross. The records today of the first century Jewish celebration are scarce, but the majority of what I will show you is documented as authentic at that time. The basic source for the ancient Passover ceremony is the tractate PESACHIM in the Mishnah, a document that was written in circa. A. D. 200 by Rabbi Judah ha-Nassi. Judah had received it via oral tradition dating back to the great Rabbi Hillel, who lived in the century before Christ.

PESACHIM is from the Hebrew word PESACH that means, “to pass or spring over.” From it comes the Greek word PASCHA which is translated as “Paschal” in the RSV of 1 Cor 5:7, and “Passover” in the NASB and most other modern translations.

1 Cor 5:7, “Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed.”

Passover is a one-day feast celebrated on the fourteenth day of the first month of the religious new year, Nissan, commemorating the last plague against Egypt and the Jews freedom from slavery. It also signified the Lord passing over their sins, Lev 23:4 ff, Num 28:16.

As we have noted before, the feast was fulfilled by Jesus Christ upon His death on the Cross, 1 Cor 5:7.

There are several aspects of the modern-day celebration that we will omit, because they have been added since the first century. Things like the eating gifilte fish, a boiled egg, or having a bare lamb shank bone on the plate; these do not date back to the time of Jesus.

Overall the meal was a simple one, comprised of various hors d’oeuvres, lamb, unleavened bread, and wine. The symbolic significance of the meal, however, is rich and complex.

Remember that the Passover was a festive occasion; a celebration of the nation’s release from Egyptian bondage. Therefore, we too should celebrate it in a joyous way as it represents for us today; the completed work of Jesus Christ on the Cross to free us from the slavery of sin and our sin natures, Rom 7:1-6, 24-25; 8:1-2.

Before They Could Sit Down to Eat the Passover Feast, Several Things Needed to Happen First:

  • On Abib (Nisan) 10, they were to select the lamb that the family would consume. It was to be a one-year-old unblemished male lamb chosen by a member of the household. In A.D. 33, Nisan 10 fell on “Palm Sunday” as we call it today, the day Jesus made his “untriumphal” or “tearful” entry into Jerusalem on the donkey, which we noted in our Palm Sunday doctrine. It is evident that He was presenting Himself as the unblemished sacrifice for the nation on that day.

It is noted that the slaughter of the lambs would not take place until Nisan 14, Ex 12:6, the day Jesus was crucified. And in fact, Passover lambs were slain between noon and 3 p.m. on Nisan 14, the three hours of darkness, when Jesus was on the Cross paying the penalty for our sins, Mark 15:33.

Mark 15:33, “When the sixth hour (12 noon) came, darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour (3 pm).”

Also note that when Jesus died, the temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom, Mark 15:38, right when the last of the lambs would be on the altar in front of the sanctuary!

When the lambs were slain, the Levites would chant the Hallel Psalms, Psa 113-118, repeatedly, which we will note at the end of the lesson.

  • Then on Nisan 13, they would search the house for any leaven, (yeast, as we call it today). Usually on the evening before the Passover meal was eaten, the father (head of the household) led his family through the house by candlelight, looking in nooks and crannies for any leaven in the house. In honor of this celebration and the feast of “Unleavened Bread,” no leaven was supposed to be in the home at that time. At the end of the search, the father would say, “All leaven that is in my possession, which I have seen, and that which I have not seen, be it null, be it accounted as the dust of the earth.”

This practice apparently stems from a rabbinic interpretation of Zeph 1:12, “I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent in spirit.”

Since leaven often represents sin, Paul makes the link between the leaven of the Passover and our commitment to Christ in, 1 Cor 5:7, “Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed.”

Yet, this ritual represented the body of Jesus Christ that had no sin of its own; therefore, qualifying Him to be the spotless lamb sacrifice.

  • On Nisan 14, they would slaughter the Lambs as noted above. This was a picture of Christ’s sacrifice upon the Cross.

Later they would gather together to celebrate the Passover feast. When they would gather, foot washing was the norm. It was not a part of the Passover as commanded by God, but was the custom in Palestine when one entered a home to eat a meal. As guests and family members entered the home to celebrate Passover, a servant or slave would often be there to wash their feet. This was the task of the lowest class of people. Incredibly Jesus used their current day custom symbolically and took on this role in John 13, even though He was the “head of the family.”

Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” It embodies His principle that “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all,” Mark 9:35; cf. John 13:15.

In addition, as we have studied in previous lessons, washing of the feet is a symbol of the confession of sins, 1 John 1:9, before partaking of the Passover celebration. Just as we today are to “examine ourselves” and “judge ourselves rightly” before partaking in the Communion celebration, 1 Cor 11:28-31. Interestingly, there is also hand washing later on in this meal, which also represents confession of sin, if necessary, as the celebration continued.

Therefore, both the slaughter and washing of the feet symbolize what Jesus would later do for the disciples and us. The slaughter was for our salvation positionally, and the washing was for our cleansing experientially. Both are made possible, because of His payment for our sins at the Cross.

Another interesting aspect of the celebration was the “non-ritual wine.” Before they partook of the ritual wine, they were permitted to drink wine that had no religious significance. This non-ritual wine is also allowed between the first and second cups of ritual wine, and between the second and third cups. Just as the Lord turned water into wine at the Canaan wedding, here too He allowed the drinking of alcoholic beverages. But as Scripture tells us, we should not get drunk, Eph 5:18.

Then there was the first hand-washing. Once all the guests arrived, they would perform the ritual hand-washing that Jews from antiquity have done before every meal. This may have been done before they sat, or while sitting, and after the first wine.

The Table setting. In front of each seat there were four glasses for “ritual” wine, labeled as such, (the non-ritual wine glass would not be on the table, but given to guests after they arrived and after their feet were washed). There was one plate, cutlery, and napkin. Several candles were on the table. They also had seating labels in place. On the table was the CHAROSETH, (a mixture of apples, nuts, honey, and red wine that looks like mud or mortar – to represent the bricks they built in captivity), unleavened bread, vegetables, and vinegar (KARPAS). In addition, representative bottles of wine were there too, all labeled.

The ancient custom of relaxation was not too far from our modern day living rooms, where we socialize and seem to eat most of our meals. They would relax around a low table, about 18” off the ground, sprawled out on pillows, being served by the help.

Seating at Passover was assigned, beginning with the head of the family at one end, and the guests would wrap around the table either from the oldest to youngest, or the most important to the least important.

The Cups:

There were four ritual cups of wine used for the Passover. The Mishnah says that even the poorest man in Israel must drink the four ritual cups, even if it means selling all his possessions! During the meal, a prayer is uttered over each cup, and the four verbs of Ex 6:6-7 are recited, one over each cup.

After they were seated the first prayer, the KIDDUSH, or prayer of sanctification is uttered by the father, head of the household.

“Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who has created the fruit of the vine… And you, O Lord our God, have given us festival days for joy, this feast of the unleavened bread, the time of our deliverance in remembrance of the departure from Egypt. Blessed are you, O Lord our God, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to enjoy this season.”

The 1st Cup: Next, the first cup of ritual wine is poured and the first verb of Exodus 6:6-7 is recited by the father:

Ex 6:6a, “I am the LORD, and I will bring (YATSA) you out from under the burdens (yoke) of the Egyptians.”

The first cup represents sanctification, signifying our Positional, Experiential, and Ultimate setting apart based on the work of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The wine was then drunk. After this cup, they could drink non-ritual wine until the second cup was served. The non-ritual wine may be any of the previously mentioned non-ritual wines, or it may be the wine used for the first cup.

Next was the eating of the KARPAS, (bitter herbs), and the first dipping.

The head of the house would dip bitter herbs, traditionally lettuce or celery, into salt water or vinegar. He would dip the bitter herb together with the chief guest of honor, the person on his right, and then the bitter herbs are passed on down the table. This represented the bitterness of being in bondage, and also of our Lord’s sorrow, having to take on the sins of the entire world, as He demonstrated in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the suffering of the first three hours on the Cross, culminated by the last three hours when He continued to cry out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me.”

After all partook of the KARPAS, all the food is removed from the table. This heightens the interest of the evening, prompting the questions from the youngest son.

The 2nd Cup: At this time, the Second Cup is poured, but not yet drunk.

This “Cup of Deliverance/Joy/Praise,” represented the 10 Plagues against Egypt, and signified the Lord’s deliverance.

Questions from the youngest son/least significant person:

  • Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights, we eat leavened or unleavened bread, but this night only unleavened bread.
  • On all other nights, we eat all kinds of herbs, but this night only bitter herbs. Why do we dip the herbs twice?
  • On all other nights, we eat meat roasted, stewed, or boiled, but on this night, why only roasted meat?

Answers by the father: The father recounts the history of Israel from Abraham to Moses and the giving of the Law, as commanded to do so in Ex 10:2; 12:26-27; 13:8.

Interestingly, Stephen, just prior to being martyred, recited this to the Pharisees, as noted in Acts 7:2-38 with some parts left out. Then, beginning in Acts 7:39, he goes beyond what was to be recited and begins to pronounce his indictment against the religious leaders.

After the Q & A, all food and wine is returned to the table, including the lamb. The Father now explains the significance of the lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread, by also singing the first half of the Hallel.

Psalms: Psa 113-114. He did this in one of two ways: With the father singing the lines and the family saying “Hallelujah” after each verse, or all singing the psalms together.

Next was a prayer over the Second Cup:

“Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has created the fruit of the vine.”

Ex 6:6b: “I will deliver (NATSAL) you from their bondage.”

Then there was a second hand-washing: This hand-washing is done out of respect for the unleavened bread that is about to be eaten. As you know, unleavened bread represents the humanity of our Lord who was the perfect sacrificial lamb.

Then the Paschal Lamb, CHAROSETH, vegetables, and vinegar, and two of the unleavened bread wafers are served.

The father says a prayer over the bread: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with your commandments, and commanded us to eat unleavened bread.”

Then they broke the unleavened bread. The host breaks the guest of honor’s bread, and they dip it together in the CHAROSETH and bitter herbs. The guest in turn breaks his neighbor’s bread, and they dip it together, and so on down the line.

Now the meal can be eaten, and they drink the second cup of wine. After it was drunk, any wine that they already drank may now be drunk non-ritually.

The 3rd Cup: The third cup is the “Redemption cup.” It represented redemption of sins through the blood of the Paschal Lamb, signifying the Lord’s propitiation of our sins. Today it represents redemption of sins, signifying the Lord’s propitiation of our sins; TETELESTAI, “It is finished” as we drink this cup during our communion celebrations, representing the shed blood of Jesus Christ, which represents the completion of the payment of the penalty of our sins.

Prayer and consumption:

So, after the meal was eaten, the third cup is poured. The last of the unleavened bread wafers is blessed, broken, and eaten.

They would pray, “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with your commandments, and commanded us to eat unleavened bread.”

All the participants recited this post-meal grace together, and then the prayer over the wine.

“The name of the Lord be blessed from now until eternity. Let us bless him of whose gifts we have partaken: Blessed be our God of whose gifts we have partaken, and by whose goodness we exist.”

“Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who has created the fruit of the vine…

Then the father recited the third verb from Ex 6:6c, “I will redeem (GA’AL) you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.”

Then the wine from the third cup was drunk. Also, no non-ritual wine may be drunk between the third and the fourth cup.

The 4th Cup: The fourth cup was used, and the final Hallel Psalms were sung.

The fourth is the “Cup of Elijah” or “Cup of Completion / Acceptance.” (Christ did not drink this cup). This cup is yet to be drunk and is in anticipation of His return. It signifies the preservation and affirmation of hope. The fourth cup of wine was poured and blessed by all:

“Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who has created the fruit of the vine…”

Then the father recites the fourth verb from Ex 6:7: “Then I will take (LAQACH) you as my people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.”

Our Lord Jesus Christ did not drink from this cup, as He stated in Mat 26:29, “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.” Cf. Luke 22:18.

He was signifying His Second Advent, when He would establish His Millennial reign. The kingdom is represented in the 4th Cup, just as God led Israel to the Promised Land, after releasing them from captivity of the Egyptians. So too, will He restore Israel to its promised land upon His 2nd Advent.

Notice what our Lord said next in vs. 30, “After singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”

The hymn was Psa 115-118 that was now sung as a closing hymn.

Leave a Reply