by Curt Sewell
This article describes the history and background of the Jewish Passover Seder, or Order of Service, which is probably the oldest ceremony still being celebrated anywhere in the world today. It's been done for about 3500 years. We'll learn the meaning of each of the strange items served. We'll discover the true meaning of the "Mystery of the Aphikomen," which most modern Jews practice without knowing why. This ritual is rich with meaning for Christians, and shows that the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ, is actually the central figure in this ancient Jewish feast. We end with a discussion of the timing of Crucifixion Week events, and show how they fit the prophetic pattern of three of the Seven Feasts of Israel.
The Passover is an ancient Jewish celebration, that started in Egypt about 3500 years ago. So why should modern Christians, most of whom aren't Jewish, pay any attention to this feast of Judaism? Does it have any significance to us today? Who is the central character in the Passover?
Many people tend to think of Judaism and Christianity as two different religions. Some Christians even think that since God's chosen people, the Jews, rejected Y'shua (or Jesus), as their Messiah, God has rejected them; they think that God then started over with Christians as His chosen people. That's not so -- Christianity is actually a continuation and fulfillment of God's original religion that He gave to man.
Most of the Jews rejected God's new covenant when their Messiah came, over 2000 years ago. They didn't recognize Y'Shua's fulfillment of many of the prophesies in their Tenach, but preferred to stay in their old religious habits, and not take advantage of the Saviour God sent. But even so, God preserved a remnant of saved people among the nation of Israel.
Look at Romans 11:25-29 (RSV). It shows that the Jews are still God's chosen people, and that eventually all surviving Jews will be saved.
Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, "The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob; and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins." As regards the gospel they are enemies of God, for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.
We'll see that Passover actually has a lot of importance to Christians, because it is a picture of Jesus. He is really the central character, even though that's not obvious to most Jews because they haven't believed the New Testament.
THE NATION OF ISRAEL
The book of Genesis tells us about God's first covenant with Abraham, in Genesis 12:1-3, 15:5,18, and 17:5-8. He renewed that covenant relationship, first to Isaac in 17:21 and 26:2-4. Later Abraham's grandson Jacob (whose name was changed to "Israel") and all of his descendants received this covenant, in Genesis 28:13-15.
Genesis 37-50 describes how Jacob's descendants ("children of Israel") migrated to Egypt. At first they were well-treated, but after many years the government changed, they were enslaved by the new Pharaoh, and life became miserable.
PREPARATION FOR DELIVERANCE
The book of Exodus tells how God heard the prayers of His people, and sent a deliverer, Moses. He told Moses to go to Pharaoh and say, "Let my people go." At first Pharaoh refused.
Then the Lord began to show his power to Pharaoh. He sent plagues on the land -- first the water of the Nile was turned to blood, then the land was covered with frogs, there were lice, then flies, then their cattle died, then the people were infected with boils, hail devastated their crops, locusts ate what was left, and the sun was turned to darkness. Each of these plagues hit directly at one of the Egyptian false gods.
As each plague came, Pharaoh first promised to let the people go, and then broke his agreement. He had started by rejecting God (see Exodus 5:2), and God later used this hardness of heart to show His power. Finally the last and worst plague became inevitable. This began with the first Passover.
THE FIRST PASSOVER
God's instructions for preparing this last meal are told in Exodus 12:1-15. We read the following:
And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying,
"This month ... shall be the first month of the year to you. Speak ye unto all the congregation of Israel, saying, 'In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, ... your lamb shall be without blemish, a male ... ye shall keep it up until the fourteenth day of the same month ... and shall kill it in the evening.
"And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses, wherein they shall eat it. ... in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it. ... let nothing of it remain until the morning ... And thus shall ye eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste: it is the LORD's passover.
"For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; ... the blood shall be to you for a token ... when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt. And this day shall be unto you for a memorial; and ye shall keep it a feast to the LORD throughout all your generations; ... Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread; the first day ye shall put away leaven out of your houses."
God told them that this was to be a perpetual
celebration, which they were to carefully explain to their children.
Exodus 12:25-27 says,
... that ye shall keep this service. And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, 'What mean ye by this service?' That ye shall say, 'It is the sacrifice of the LORD's passover' ...
Moses passed on these instructions, and the people did as God had said. Exodus 12:29-30 tells what happened.
And it came to pass, that at midnight the LORD smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.
After this, Moses succeeded in leading the
Israelites out of Egypt, miraculously crossing the Red Sea, and
through forty years of wanderings in the wilderness. His successor,
Joshua, led them across the Jordan River, and through the conquest
of the land of Canaan, which God had promised to Abraham and his
descendants. Then followed almost 1500 years of troubled life
there before their promised Messiah, Y'shua (or Jesus), came to
God gave directions for the "Seven Feasts of Israel" in Leviticus 23. The first three are very closely connected, in time and significance. These all occurred in the month Nisan, the first month of the Jewish religious year. This month begins at sundown on the day of the first New Moon after the spring equinox, sometime in March or April. (See Leviticus 23:5, 6, 11.)
These are the feasts of the LORD, even holy convocations, which ye shall proclaim in their seasons. In the fourteenth day of the first month at evening is the LORD's passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread unto the LORD: seven days ye must eat unleavened bread. ... [then for the next feast of FirstFruits] ... ye shall bring a sheaf of the firstfuits of your harvest unto the priest: And he shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, to be accepted for you: on the morrow after the sabbath the priest shall wave it.
To summarize this, on the 10th day of Nisan each family was to select an unblemished male lamb, then on the 14th they killed it in a prescribed manner (not breaking any bones), and ate the ritual Passover Feast. During the eight days from the 14th through the 21st, they had no leaven in their bread -- they ate matzohs. One of those seven days had to be a Sunday (the day after Sabbath); that day was called "FirstFruits."
NOTE: We should remember this timing sequence, and see how it fit with Jesus's death, burial, and resurrection. We'll discuss this more completely near the end of this article. Since that time, all Jews who made any effort to worship God properly have observed this ceremony. Jesus himself did this on His last night before His crucifixion. This became the pattern for our observance of the Lord's Supper (or Holy Communion). We'll see that each element had more significance than most of us realize.
THE MODERN PASSOVER SEDER (or Order of Service).
Much of the material about the modern Passover Seder is abstracted from the book Christ in the Passover, by Ceil and Moishe Rosen, published by Moody Press, 1978, and distributed by Jews for Jesus, 60 Haight St., San Francisco, CA, 94102.
Other good books on this subject are The Miracle of Passover and The Seven Feasts of Israel, by Zola Levitt. Levitt also has an excellent one-hour video called The Passover, that shows many of these same items and costumes, with good explanations. These are sold by Zola Levitt Ministries, P.O. Box 12268, Dallas, TX, 75225.
Don't look to a Temple or Synagogue for
a Passover service; neither is it led by a priest or rabbi. Just
as the first Passover was in the homes in Egypt, the modern service
is held in homes, and is presided over by the head of the house,
the grandfather or father. The woman of the house also has an
The first preparation is a thorough house-cleaning by the hostess, and a ceremonial search (the Bedikat Chametz) for leaven by the host. (NOTE: In the Bible, leaven is usually a symbol of sin.) He uses a lighted candle, a wooden spoon, a feather and a napkin. When he finds the last bits of leavened bread, he wraps it in the napkin and says the Kal Hamira -- "Now I have rid my house of leaven." The napkin and its crumbs are burned. Paul must have had this in mind when he wrote, in I Corinthians 5:7,
"Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us."
The normal dishes are all packed away, and a special set that's used only once a year is brought out. The hostess cooks a festive meal, but doesn't set it on the table until later in the service. The hostess begins the actual seder by lighting the candles and chanting a blessing. The table is set with several prescribed items, as follows:
1. The Seder Plate, a blue-enameled brass dish that has six compartments for the following foods:
A. The Zeroah, or shank bone of a lamb (no meat),
B.. The bytzah or haggigah, a hard-boiled egg roasted brown,
C. Three kinds of "bitter herbs" -- the chazereth (whole horseradish root), the maror (freshly ground horseradish), and the karpas (lettuce, parsley or celery),
D. The charoseth, a sweet mixture of chopped apples, nuts, raisins, cinnamon and wine.
2. A bowl of salt water.
NOTE: For the first 1500 years, they actually sacrificed a lamb, then ate its meat in the Passover meal. But when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Roman Titus in A.D.70, proper sacrifices became impossible. Thus now the bone is placed on the plate as a memorial. The bitter herbs were to remind them of the misery their ancestors suffered; the charoseth represents the mortar they used in making bricks in Egypt; the salt water is a reminder of the water of the Red Sea and also of their tears. The egg was not there originally; it is a Babylonian symbol of fertility and may have started during their Babylonian captivity during the 6th century B.C.
3. There are also three matzohs (unleavened cracker-like wafers of bread, pierced and striped during baking). These are in a matzo tash, a square white silk bag having three sections.
4. The host has four wine goblets. Sometimes the other celebrants also have four, or sometimes their goblets are refilled several times instead. The four goblets represent the four verbs in Exodus 6:6,7, "I will bring you out; ... I will deliver you; ... I will redeem you; ... I will take you to be my people."
5. There is also an ornate book, the Haggadah, describing the service and containing the prayers. This was compiled in the 13th century A.D., from much earlier fragments.
6. Each chair has a pillow, and guests recline or sit comfortably (to show that they're not slaves).
The host wears a kitel, a long white robe-like outer garment, symbol of purity. On his head is the miter, a white silk crown-shaped headress. He chants the prayer of sanctification, or kiddush,
"Blessed are thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, creator of the fruit of the vine."
Everyone drinks from the first wine-goblet,
the "cup of sanctification."
The hostess brings in a small towel and bowl of water for ceremonial hand-washing, used several times in the service. (Do you remember that Jesus washed the feet of His disciples at the Last Supper?)
The leader passes out bits of karpas to each person. They all chant,
"Blessed art thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, who created the fruit of the earth."
Everyone dips the karpas into salt water
and eats it.
Now the leader takes the matzoh tash with its unity (the three matzohs). He removes the middle matzoh, breaks it in half, and hides or buries one half by wrapping it in a white napkin and placing it under a pillow, or under the table. The other half is replaced in the matzoh tash. The buried wafer is called the aphikomen. He doesn't explain why he does this. (There's a great deal of significance in this "burial," and its later "resurrection," especially for Christians. We'll explain it later.)
Now it's time for the traditional questions, chanted by the youngest child. Basically these ask, "Why is this night different from all others?"
Why do we eat matzohs?
Why must we have bitter herbs?
Why do we dip greens into salt water?
Why do we recline on pillows?
The leader then recites the history of the
Hebrew nation, from Abraham to Moses. He tells about the slavery
in Egypt, and God's deliverance. When he lists the ten plagues,
everyone spills a drop of wine into a cup -- one for each plague.
When the description is over, they all sing and clap a happy
song, praising God. They recite Psalms 113 and 114 (the Hallel).
Then they drink from the second wine-goblet (the cup of praise).
There's more ceremonial washing and eating matzoh, bitter herbs and sweet charoseth. Now the hostess clears the table of the ceremonial items (but leaves the wine-goblets), and brings out the main dinner. This is a little like our big meals at Thanksgiving, etc. -- it contains whatever fancy dishes the family enjoys.
When the meal is finished, the hostess clears the dishes. Now it's time for the search for the aphikomen (the buried half- matzoh). This is done by the children, who make a game of it. Adults call out clues, "You're getting close," etc. (Of course, they all saw the host hide it, so the contest is only ritual.) The youngest is usually allowed to find it, and receives a gift.
The host breaks off olive-size pieces of matzoh from the aphikomen and distributes them to all. They each eat it, in a reverent manner. Sometimes there is a blessing, "In memory of the Passover sacrifice, eaten after one is sated."
(This is the point during the Last Supper at which Jesus broke the bread and passed bits to His disciples; however, Jesus added the significant words given in Luke 22:19),
"This is my body which is given for you."
The host now takes the third cup of wine,
"the cup of redemption," or "the cup of blessing,"
and offers the main table grace blessing. (In Jewish tradition,
the main blessing comes after the meal.) Then they all drink
from the third cup.
At the Last Supper, this is the place referred to in Luke 22:20,
"Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you'."
There is a fourth wine-goblet at the table,
that hasn't been used until now. This is called "the cup
of Elijah." There is also an empty chair, waiting for Elijah
to come. This is done because of the promise contained at the
end of the Old Testament, in Malachi 4:5,6 :
"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse."
Messianic expectations run very high among the Jewish people, especially at Passover time. The children of the house then make a ritual of going and looking closely at the cup, to see if Elijah has come and sipped some. One of the children goes to the door, opens it, and looks for Elijah. Everyone says, "Blessed is he who cometh in the name of the LORD!"
The host then leads in the recitation of the second part of the Hallel -- Psalms 115-118, then the Great Hallel, Psalm 136. Everyone drinks from the fourth cup of wine. After one more prayer of blessing (that contains the phrase "Next year in Jerusalem") the Passover celebration is finished.
MYSTERY OF THE APHIKOMEN
It's fascinating that this age-old Passover ceremony is rich in so many details, and each one has a deep significance. In response to the ritual questions, each one is explained in terms of its historical origin and meaning. And yet, one of the main features of the feast is not well understood by most Jewish participants. They refer to the three matzohs in the matzoh tash as the Unity; but there is no agreement on what is united. And no one seems to have any idea why the middle one is broken, buried, and later brought back up.
Some rabbis teach that these represent Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; others say they portray the unity of worship -- priests, Levites and congregation; still others say they stand for the crowns of learning, priesthood and kingship. But there's no explanation for breaking and hiding the middle one. Christians have a better explanation; it involves the "bread of heaven," spoken of in John 6:32-59.
A verse that is very holy to the Jews is
the shemah of Deuteronomy 6:4-9,
"Hear, O Israel: the LORD thy God is one LORD. And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children ... and thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates."
That word "one" in the Hebrew is echad, meaning a composite oneness, not just the number one. It's the same word used in Genesis 2:24, where Adam and Eve are said to be "one flesh," and in Ezekiel 37 to describe the two sticks becoming one. Here it is describing the unity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit -- the three persons of the Godhead, acting as one.
This is the true meaning of the unity of the three matzohs in the matzoh tash. And which of these is the middle one? That is obviously God the Son -- Jesus the Messiah, our Lord. Let's see how He could be represented by a piece of unleavened bread. Read John 6:32-59. Verse 35 says,
And Jesus said unto them, "I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst."
God subtly emphasized this truth in choosing the spot where His Son would be born. The meaning of the name "Bethlehem" is "house of bread." (By the way, the name "Nazareth" means "branch." That meaning clarifies the prophecy in Isaiah 11:1.)
But why isn't the sacrificed lamb still used? And how did matzohs come to prominence? Deuteronomy 12:11-14 says that people were not to offer sacrifices except at the location that God chose. Other scriptures make it clear that He chose the Temple site on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. When the Roman army, under Titus, destroyed the Temple in A.D.70, there was no more acceptable place for sacrifice of the lamb. That's why today's Passover meals don't include the meat of a lamb, merely a symbolic shank bone. The rabbis, in the second century A.D., instituted the use of matzohs to represent the sacrificed lamb. That practice still holds.
Now we can see why the middle matzoh is broken during the Passover, then hidden or buried. Jesus's body was broken for us, He died, and was buried. But He didn't stay dead -- He came back to life, came out of the tomb! That is represented by bringing out that matzoh later in the ceremony. It is then broken into pieces, and passed out to each person. And this is the exact spot during the Last Supper, when Jesus said,
"This is my body which is given for you."
The the very next item in the service is
drinking from the wine-goblet known as the "Cup of Redemption."
That's when Jesus said,
"This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you."
This is why we can say with confidence that Jesus is actually the central character in the Passover Seder. And, if that's not enough, let's look at the way His death, burial and resurrection fits the timing of the first three of the Seven Feasts of Israel. He was killed on Passover Day, was buried for three days during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and rose from the dead on the day of FirstFruits.
In John 1:29 John the Baptist announced Jesus's approach by shouting,
"Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world."
And Paul, in I Corinthians 15:20, said,
"But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfuits of them that slept."
TIMING OF EVENTS OF CRUCIFIXION WEEK
The chart below is my studied calculation of the sequence of events of that week. It's drawn to illustrate the differences between Jewish, Roman, and American timing methods, and to correlate and explain Scriptural applications.
1) On the chart below, the shaded areas represent hours of darkness; the open boxes represent daylight hours. Jewish days always begin and end at sunset -- the beginning of darkness. Remember the creation days in Genesis 1 -- they're called "the evening and the morning." To the Jew, evening meant the early hours of darkness. The phrase "between the evenings" meant daylight hours. Our present, non-Jewish, days always begin and end at midnight -- the middle of darkness.
2) Exodus12:6 says the Passover lamb should be kept penned up until Nisan 14, then killed "in the evening" (KJV) or "between the evenings" (Hebrew). This would be in the afternoon toward the end of Nisan 14. Josephus said this was done between the 9th and 11th hours of the day, that is, between 3 and 5 PM. This would be on our Thursday afternoon.
3) Exodus 12:7,8 says that, for that first Passover, they were to put the blood on the top and both sides of their doorways, then eat the flesh that night (during the first part of Nisan 15). Therefore the Last Supper must have been on Thursday night.
4) Exodus 12:12,29 says that God killed the first-born of all Egyptians at midnight that night (Nisan 15). Thus the actual Passover Day is Nisan 15 -- the day after the lamb was killed.
5) Jesus was arrested a few hours after His Last Supper (a Passover meal), was tried during the night, and was crucified at about 9 AM the next day. This was on Nisan 15 (Passover Day), which would be on our Friday. He was on the cross from 9 AM until 3 PM (see Mark 15:25,34).
6) The day He was crucified was a "day of preparation" for the Sabbath, that is, a Friday (see Mark 15:42). They had to put His body in a tomb quickly, before sundown, else it would be during the Sabbath, when burial was forbidden. This couldn't have been the day of preparation for the Passover, because Mark 14:12 says that's when the two disciples set up the upper room for the Passover feast.
7) Early in the morning after the Sabbath was past, on the first day of the week, that is Sunday, the women came to complete the burial anointing (see Mark 16:1). But He was not in the tomb -- He had risen from the dead!
8) Jews always counted a fraction of a day as one day. Thus He was in the grave for three days from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning. The short portion of Friday, plus all of Saturday, plus part of Sunday added up to three days. These were Nisan 15, 16, and 17.
9) Exodus 12:3 says that the Passover lamb
was to be selected on Nisan 10, and was to be kept penned or checked
for blemishes until Nisan 14. This gives a good analogy for the
date of Jesus's Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem, which was on
the first day of the week, Sunday, Nisan 10
10) Some people disagree with this timing, pointing out phrases that said Jesus was in the tomb for three days and three nights, or that "after three days" (rather than "on the third day") He rose again. This writer recognizes an apparent conflict here, but feels the overall evidence favors the timing shown here. Another evidence is the conversation on the road to Emmaaus, in Luke 24:13,21. The KJV says clearly that this took place "on the third day," but the Jerusalem Bible (more faithful to the Hebrew text) says "two whole days have gone by since it happened."
11) In what year did this occur? Scholars are not quite agreed here. Rabbis have changed the way that Passover is calculated, partly so that it won't fall on a Friday, but apparently Passover did come on Friday in both A.D.30 and A.D.33. The Chronology History Research Institute gives a number of constraints that rule out A.D.33. They conclude that Jesus must have been crucified in A.D.30. This also fits in with the forty-year interval before the destruction of the Temple by Titus in A.D.70. But Grant Jeffrey, in Armageddan: Appointment With Destiny figures that Jesus was crucified in A.D.32. Other writers have suggested other dates, so that this writer just won't claim a particular ancient year.
The Bottom Line
No matter what is the correct calendar date, we should remember that the important thing is not the exact date on which Jesus hung on the cross, was buried, and then rose from the dead. The important thing is that He did, and thereby gave us the chance for everlasting life with God.
Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me."
Considering the obvious importance of what we've described, the reader should consider this -- yes, Jesus was the true Passover Lamb of God, and He did truly die for the sins of the world, but have I followed through on this? Have I personally applied His blood to the "doorpost of my own heart?" Is He truly my Saviour? There's no other way for salvation, and all it takes is my heartfelt belief in Jesus Christ and what He did for me, together with a simple but sincere prayer of repentence for forgiveness and salvation; He's eagerly waiting. Are you ready?
Thank you, Lord Jesus!