Author: Ron Graham


Notes on the Passover
—Definition, explanation, origin, history

This page provides concise notes on the Passover memorial observed by the children of Israel.

1 Origin of the Passover

In the tenth and most severe plague that God brought on Egypt, “God struck dead at midnight all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne, to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of livestock.” (Exodus 12:29).

The Passover Instituted

The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, but God prepared them for that night so that their firstborn would not be killed. He instituted the Passover and said, “This month shall be your beginning of months —it shall be the first month of the year to you” (Exodus 12:2).

God further commanded, “Every man shall take ...a lamb for each household... Your lamb shall be without blemish... Keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month, then ...kill it at twilight.” (Exodus 12:3-6).

The Blood as a Sign

Next God said that every man should “take of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and lintel of the houses where they eat [the slain lamb]. Then they shall eat the flesh on that night, roasted in fire, with unleavened bread and bitter herbs” (Exodus 12:7-8).

After further instructions about the meal, God said, “I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and I will strike all the firstborn of the land... Now the blood on your houses shall be a sign. When I see the blood, I will pass over you and the plague shall not be on you” (Exodus 12:12-13).

God decreed, “This day shall be to you a memorial, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD throughout your generations...” (Exodus 12:14).

2 The Passover From Moses to Christ

Notice that the first Passover was eaten before the event it commemorated —this was an act of faith. “By faith Moses kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, lest he who destroyed the firstborn should touch them” (Hebrews 11:28).

The Passover in Israel’s History

Later in Israel’s history the celebration of the Passover was neglected. However, in the time of the good kings Hezekiah (2Chronicles 30:1-5) and Josiah, the Passover observance was restored.

This Passover was celebrated by "the priests and Levites, all Judah and Israel who were present, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem" (2Chronicles 35:17-19).

"Certainly such a Passover was not kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, not in all the days of the kings of Israel and Judah" (2Kings 23:1-23).

After the captivities, when the remnant returned to rebuild Jerusalem, and the temple was rebuilt, the Passover was once again revived, and "the children of the captivity kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month... And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy." (Ezra 6:19-22).

The Passover in Jesus’s Time

In the time of Jesus, the Passover was a big event attracting thousands of devout people from all over the world. Jesus’s death occurred at the time of the Passover.

“The Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and scribes sought how they might kill Jesus...” (Luke 22:1-2).

Jesus himself predicted that he would be on his way to death at Passover time. “You know that after two days it will be Passover, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified” (Matthew 26:2).

3 The Christian Passover

It was at the Passover meal that Jesus taught his disciples to observe the Lord’s Supper. “Jesus took bread and gave it to his disciples saying, 'This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me';” (Luke 22:19).

“Likewise he took the cup after supper saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood shed for you. Drink of it, all of you'” (Luke 22:20; Matthew 26:27).

We noted earlier that Moses and the Israelites ate the first Passover shortly before the event it commemorated. Likewise, Jesus and his disciples, at their last Passover together, ate the first Lord’s Supper shortly before the event it commemorated —his crucifixion.

Christ our Passover

Paul sees the Passover lamb as a symbol of Christ who saves us from death. “Purge out the old leaven that you may be a new lump of dough, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us” (1Corinthians 5:7).

Paul has in mind that Jesus was proclaimed, by John the Baptizer, to be "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:29,36). Just as the Passover lamb’s blood saved the children of Israel from the plague of death, so the blood of Jesus is the means of atonement for the world.

“...The blood of Jesus Christ God’s Son cleanses us from all sin. If anyone sins we have an Advocate with the Father. He is Jesus Christ the Righteous. And he himself is the atonement for our sins, and not for ours alone, but also for the whole world” (1John 1:7, 2:1-2).

How Christians Keep the Feast

Now going back to Paul's statement, he also makes the “unleavenedness” of the Passover bread a metaphor for the Christian life: “Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, not with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1Corinthians 5:8).

Here Paul is thinking of leaven as a metaphor for wickedness. He suggests that followers of Christ observe a feast of unleavened bread every day of the year not just for seven days. In Jesus Christ, we “keep the feast” (1Corinthians 5:8) by practising good works and “keeping ourselves unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).

Additional Notes

Broad Definition of Passover: The “Passover” (Pesach) is a Jewish religious holiday in the middle of the month of Nisan (around March). The celebration was also known as “The Days of Unleavened Bread”. It ran for eight days, counting the day when the Passover lamb was killed. When evening or twilight came, the next day began, and the Passover meal was eaten. For seven days any food that is chametz (pronounced “kumits”) was not allowed to be eaten, or even stored. It had to be discarded. Such food is that which might contain leaven or yeasts. Bread for the Passover was made without yeast and the dough cooked immediately, not left to prove.

Feast of Unleavened Bread also known as Passover: “Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called Passover” (Luke 22:1).

Passover a feast of 7 days: “In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, you shall observe the Passover, a feast of seven days. Unleavened bread shall be eaten” (Ezekiel 45:21).

Days begin at nightfall: “Now you shall keep your lamb until the fourteenth day of the month, then... kill it at twilight” (Exodus 12:6). The Passover lamb was killed at the end of the day and roasted. The Passover meal was eaten that evening —the beginning of the 15th day, the first of the seven Days of Unleavened Bread.

Eight days involved (14th to 21st): “In the first month, on the 14th day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the 21st day of the month at evening. For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses... You shall eat nothing leavened...” (Exodus 12:18-20). The lamb was killed on the 14th at twilight, then began the seven days, 15th to 21st

Note: the indicates nightfall, beginning of new day. On 14th lamb killed; on 15th Passover eaten, first of 7 days of eating no leaven.

Jesus ate Passover with his disciples: “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 so we may eat'... When the hour had come he sat down [to eat the Passover], and the 12 apostles with him” (Luke 22:7-8, 14-16; cf Mark 14:12,17).

Preparation Day: “It was Preparation Day of the Passover, and about the sixth* hour, and Pilate said to the Jews, 'Behold your king'...” (John 19:14). The Preparation Day was not for the Passover supper, because that supper, according to the narrative, had already been eaten before Jesus was betrayed in the Garden of Gesthemane (John 13:1-2, 18:1-2). *6am sixth hour after midnight. John uses the Roman time cycle.

High Sabbath: The Preparation day was the day before the “high sabbath” during that Passover week (John 19:31,42, Matthew 27:62, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54). On that day, Jesus was arrested. Trials went on through the night and dawn, in haste to have Jesus crucified and dead before evening, the start of the Sabbath.

Passover Timeline Chart:

 Thu    Fri    Sat    Sun  
  14     15       16       17      
    K P T C B S         R      

Legend: Top row, days in Roman time. 2nd row, daylight and dark. Third row, Jewish days. The bottom row marks events as follows: K=killing the lamb; P=Passover eaten by Jesus and his disciples; T=Trials conducted through the night after Jesus betrayed and arrested; C=Crucifixion; B=Burial of Christ; S=Start of high Sabbath; R=Resurrection.