What is the Passover?

Jesus Christ Our Passover

The importance of the Passover to Christians is established in the Church Epistles, the letters written directly to the Christian Church, in that they refer to Jesus as the Passover Lamb.

1 Corinthians 5:7
Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.

To understand this verse, we need to know what the Passover lamb is, and why the Passover was instituted by God as one of the most important feasts on the Jewish calendar. As we study the Passover Feast and the Passover lamb, we will gain a deepened appreciation for God and His Son, and strengthen our relationship with them.

There were three major feasts celebrated in Israel each year. These were so significant that God commanded every Israelite male to go to Jerusalem for each of them.

Exodus 23:14-17
(14) “Three times a year you are to celebrate a festival to me.
(15) “Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread; for seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in that month you came out of Egypt. “No one is to appear before me empty-handed.
(16) “Celebrate the Feast of Harvest [Pentecost] with the firstfruits of the crops you sow in your field. “Celebrate the Feast of Ingathering [Tabernacles] at the end of the year, when you gather in your crops from the field.
(17) “Three times a year all the men are to appear before the Sovereign LORD.

The “Feast of Unleavened Bread” mentioned in verse 15 above was the seven day feast that began with the eating of the Passover meal. Because of its association with the Passover meal, it was also known as “the Feast of Passover.”

The Feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles were important enough to God that He stated on several different occasions that all the Israelite males were to go to Jerusalem to celebrate them. In Exodus 34:24 God made the promise to Israel that if they would keep these three feasts, He would protect their land.

Exodus 34:24
I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your territory, and no one will covet your land when you go up three times each year to appear before the LORD your God.

When the men of Israel did come before God, they were to bring a gift that was in proportion to the blessings they had received from God.

Deuteronomy 16:16 and 17
(16) Three times a year all your men must appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks [Pentecost] and the Feast of Tabernacles. No man should appear before the LORD empty-handed:
(17) Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the LORD your God has blessed you.

Although each of the three feasts was important, the Passover was considered by many to be the most important of all. It is specifically mentioned as being celebrated by Joshua (Josh. 5:10ff), Solomon (2 Chron. 8:11ff), Hezekiah (2 Chron. 30:1ff), Josiah (2 Kings 23:21ff); and Ezra (Ezra 6:9ff).

To study and understand the Passover, we must go back into the books of Genesis and Exodus. It is impossible to expound on all the wonderful lessons of the Passover in this short article, and I encourage you to take time to read the last half of Genesis and the first part of Exodus. The most important chapters would be Genesis 37 through Exodus 15 because they give the background of the Passover and tell of its significance to the Israelites leaving Egypt.

The nation of Israel became slaves in Egypt as a result of a number of sins. For example, his jealous brothers sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt. It is true that this eventually worked out for good, because Joseph rose to leadership in Egypt and was able to provide for his family during the famine. But that is actually an example of God turning a lemon into lemonade, because He surely would have provided for Israel during the famine in another way had Joseph not been in slavery and prison for more than a decade.

Another sin was when Israel, after leaving the Promised Land and going into Egypt during the famine, stayed there rather than returning to the land God had given them. They did so because they were given “…the best of all Egypt…” and were enjoying “…the fat of the land” (Gen. 45:18 and 20). This sounds like what happens to a lot of people today. It is easy to be influenced by the glitz and glamour of the world and leave the things of God, which often demand so much from us.

Israel stayed in Egypt after the famine, and eventually the Egyptians enslaved them. They were able to do this because they had the most powerful army around in those days, thanks to the wealth that was brought into the country during the tenure of Joseph. The reason the Egyptians gave for enslaving the Israelites was a hollow one, but sounded good politically. Pharaoh said to the Egyptians:

Exodus 1:10
Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”

The fact is that there was no reason to believe that Israel, which had worked in harmony with the Egyptians for decades, would suddenly join Egypt’s enemies (as if the enemies of Egypt would offer co-rulership to Israel or something of that sort). If anything, they would have fought alongside Egypt against any aggressor. Furthermore, if that were a genuine concern, then the obvious solution would be to simply tell Israel that they were no longer welcome in Egypt and send them back to their homeland, Canaan.

Probably the reason in Pharaoh’s mind for enslaving Israel was economically motivated; they were slave labor. However, the actual reason for enslaving Israel was a spiritual one: Israel was God’s people, out from whom would come the Messiah/Redeemer, and the Devil hated them. He comes to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10), and he would have loved to kill off all Israel, and thus thwart God’s plan for a Savior, who was to come through Israel. The way Satan worked in Pharaoh to do that would have taken some time, but it would have worked: he would have killed every male baby that was born to Israel (Exod. 1:16). Eventually, their women would all intermarry with Egyptians, and the national identity of Israel would be gone. No one knows exactly why, but Pharaoh apparently stopped having the male babies killed, perhaps due to public outcry, not long after Moses was born.

God’s first attempt to free Israel through Moses failed miserably when he killed an Egyptian, supposing that the Israelites would understand that through him God was going to free them, but they did not understand that at all.

Acts 7:25
Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not.

Moses was forced to flee Egypt to save his life, and he lived in Midian for forty years, after which God again asked him to deliver the Israelites. Moses went back to Egypt, and Exodus 5-14 give the record of the plagues that came upon Egypt, the Passover, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Israel leaving Egypt, and the destruction of Pharaoh and his army. [1]

God gave the Israelites instructions about the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread a number of days before the tenth and last plague, the death of the firstborn in Egypt (Exod. 12:29). We will start our examination of the record at the start of Chapter 12.

Exodus 12:1 and 2
(1) The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt,
(2) “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.

Let us not miss the point in verse two. Since the time of Adam and Eve, the first month of the year for the people of God had been Tishri, which occurs in our September or October. We must keep in mind that the Israelite calendar was lunar, so it “moved” in relation [changed, as compared] to our fixed calendar of 365 ¼ days. The Lunar calendar is 354 days. In one grand pronouncement, God told Moses that the first month of the year for Israel was to be “Abib” (cp. Exod. 13:4), which comes from the new ears of grain, which can be first harvested in that month. Later, the name “Nisan” (“the month of flowers”) was used instead of Abib (Neh. 2:1).

By divine command, God moved the start of the Jewish calendar by six months. It would be similar to God appearing to the President of the United States and telling him that the first month of the year will be July, not January (probably not a bad idea as the fourth of July commemorates the start of our nation). What Exodus 12:2 tells the astute reader is that the Exodus, and also the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread, mean enough to God that He wanted them to live powerfully in the memory of the people. As there was a genuine sense in which the Exodus began the national status of Israel, so it would start the calendar year as well.

Exodus 12:3
Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb [flock animal] for his family, one for each household.

There are some wonderful lessons we can glean from this verse. One is that God did not spring the tenth plague on Egypt without warning. He is always loving and merciful, and His mercy included giving Egypt ample time to repent of their hardness of heart and allow the Israelites to go into the desert and worship. There was probably a week or so between Moses warning Pharaoh, and the tenth plague, as we see by paying attention to what took place and what had to be done. First, Moses warned Pharaoh of the death of the firstborn.

Exodus 11:4 and 5 (ESV) [2]
(4) So Moses said [to Pharaoh], “Thus says the LORD: About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt,
(5) and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle.

After Moses spoke to Pharaoh, God told Moses that the Israelites were to select a lamb or goat on the tenth day of the month (Exod.12:3). It took time, maybe two or three days, to get that information out to the millions of Israelites so that each family could select an animal on the tenth. That would take us back to the eighth day of Abib, so Moses would likely have gone before Pharaoh around then or a little before then. The death of the firstborn did not occur until midnight of the 15th of Abib (the Passover lamb was slain on the 14th, (Exod.12:6), and the 15th began at sunset. The firstborn were killed at midnight on the 15th.

So even if Moses went out from Pharaoh on the 9th of Abib and told the people to select a lamb the next day, Pharaoh still would have had six days to remember that every other plague foretold by Moses had come to pass, realize that his people, and even his own family, were in grave danger, and repent and let Israel go. More likely, Pharaoh had a week or more to consider and repent, but stubbornly hardened his heart, more concerned about his pride and position than his family and his people.

Another lesson to learn from Exodus 12:3 is that the sacrifice whose blood would be acceptable to put on the door of the houses was to be a “flock animal.” Unfortunately, almost every English version reads “lamb.” However, the Hebrew word is seh, and referred generically to a flock animal (usually, in that culture, sheep and goats). Through time, and because of its association with both godliness and other sacrifices, the offering was usually a lamb, and became known as “the Passover lamb.” Nevertheless, it is very important for students of the Bible to know that the sacrifice was actually a “flock animal.” This reflects upon the fact that Jesus Christ was to be one from the flock, or as Deuteronomy 18:15 says, one “…from among your own brothers….” Jesus was as human as you and I. He was taken out from “the flock” of humanity, and humanity is composed of those of us who believe (the sheep) and those who do not (the goats).

Exodus 12:4
If any household is too small for a whole lamb [flock animal], they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb [flock animal] needed in accordance with what each person will eat.

In verse 4, God makes provision for each family. Although God is concerned that small families not be burdened by having to cook a lot more than they can eat, the overall context of the chapter shows that He is more concerned that each Israelite partakes of the Passover meal. This too, is a type, or shadow, of Jesus Christ. Just as there was enough lamb for everyone, God wants us all to know that anyone who so chooses can partake of Jesus Christ. There is, so to speak, enough Redeemer to go around. Salvation is for everyone. No one need come to God and say, “There was no provision for my hunger and my salvation.” If you are hungry, there is sustenance in Jesus Christ. If you are unsaved, there is saving grace for you in the Savior. Never think that you, or anyone, is left outside of God’s provision and grace. There is enough Messiah for everyone.

Exodus 12:5
The animals [flock animals] you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats.

The Passover sacrifice, like others, had to be without defect. This is one of the reasons why Jesus had to be the Son of God, not the son of Joseph. Furthermore, he had to remain sinless through his life, which he did.

Exodus 12:6
Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the people of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.

The word “twilight” is the Hebrew phrase “between the evenings.” The Hebrew day started at sunset (and remember, it is still light for a while after sunset), so what is “late evening” to us started their new day. Their “early evening” started at what we would call our early to mid afternoon, when the sun was noticeably starting its downward journey. The Passover was to be killed “between the evenings,” between early afternoon and sunset, and Jesus, our Passover, died precisely then, at the ninth hour [which is 3 PM today] (Matt. 27:46; Luke 23:44).

Exodus 12:7-10
(7) Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs.
(8) That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast.
(9) Do not eat the meat raw or cooked in water, but roast it over the fire—head, legs and inner parts.
(10) Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it.

The Passover sacrifice was to be roasted over the fire, not cooked any other way. This is symbolic of the life and death that Jesus lived, one of fiery trials. That aspect of the symbol speaks of Jesus. But there is another aspect of the symbol that speaks of us. The Passover sacrifice was to be roasted with its inner parts intact. It was not to be gutted and cleaned as animals usually were. Roasting the animal with its inner parts, especially the intestines and bladder, can add a bitter taste to the meat. Jesus Christ suffered fiery trials, but those of us committed to him are to share in his sufferings, as many verses in the New Testament reveal.

Exodus 12:11 and 12
(11) This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the LORD’s Passover.
(12) “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD.

God wanted the Israelites to have the proper perspective of that first Passover meal. It was part of the great provision of God, and was powerfully symbolic of the Messiah’s work and accomplishments. It was not to be a relaxing meal. Rather, it was to be eaten in haste while fully dressed for travel—including staff in hand—as an act of faith. God said that he would strike down the firstborn that night, and that as a result the Egyptians would let them go (Exod. 11:1). So Israel was to have faith that God’s promise was true, and be ready to leave Egypt right away. Christians, too, should live in faith on a daily basis, looking for our blessed hope of ultimate deliverance—the appearing of our Lord Jesus to gather us to him.

God also made the point to the people that what happened to the Egyptians was a judgment on the gods of Egypt. The gods of Egypt were powerless to provide for, and protect, their country. In light of that, it is astounding that less than three months later, when Moses was on Mt. Sinai and absent from his people, they made a calf god and pronounced that it had brought them out of Egypt. Faith can quickly give way to faithlessness and deception unless we are vigilant to maintain it. That is why it is important to be regular in activities such as prayer, fellowship with other committed Christians, and Bible study.

Exodus 12:13
The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.

We need to pay special attention to this verse. If we are not careful readers, and thoughtful about the Word of God, we will be misled. It is easy to read into this verse that God needed the blood of the sacrifice to protect Israel. He did not. God did not need to have the Israelites shed the blood of a Passover animal to ensure their protection. This can be easily proven by studying each of the plagues that befell Egypt. God had protected Israel from other plagues without any sacrifices or blood being shed.

Of the ten plagues, the fourth was swarms of flies, but God protected the Israelites from the flies, and there were no flies where the Israelites lived (Exod. 8:22). The fifth plague was the death of Egyptian livestock, but God protected Israel, and no Israelite livestock died (Exod. 9:4-7). The seventh plague was hail, but no hail fell where the Israelites lived (Exod. 9:26). The ninth was darkness over the land of Egypt for three days, but God allowed the light to shine where the Israelites lived (Exod. 10:23). God did not need the blood of the Passover animal to protect Israel from the tenth plague any more than He needed it to protect Israel from the other plagues.

If God did not need the blood of a sacrifice to protect Israel, then why put it on the doorframes of the houses? The answer is that the Passover animal that was killed and roasted that night, and whose blood was put on the doorframes, pointed to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and his provision for the people of God. Israel could escape Egypt without the death and blood of a Passover animal, but they could not escape the bondage of sin and death without God’s passing over their sin and forgiving them. The reason for the Passover sacrifice was to point to, and point out, Jesus Christ as the true provision of God for people’s deliverance. No wonder God set the Passover as a lasting ordinance for Israel.

Exodus 12:14 and 17b
(14) “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD—a lasting ordinance.
(17b) …Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come.

Year after year Israel celebrated the Passover and looked back to their deliverance from Egypt, the land of bondage. However, in their celebration, they were also to look forward to their Messiah, who would be the true Passover Lamb. Now we Christians look back upon our Passover Lamb, who once and for all took away the sins of the world.

1 Corinthians 5:7 and 8
(7) Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
(8) Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.

Israel kept the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread by rituals that included cleansing their houses of yeast, which is sometimes called leaven (Exod. 12:14-20). Those things were only a shadow of the things that are today. You and I, as followers of Jesus Christ, are to keep the Passover, not by getting yeast out of our houses, but by getting the “yeast” of malice and wickedness out of our lives, and by living lives of sincerity and truth. Let each of us do our best to cleanse our lives from evil and ungodliness, and from our hearts follow the ways of God.


[1] Pharaoh died in the sea along with his army, despite the movies, which tell the story as if he lived after his army drowned. A wonderful book on the Exodus is: The Exodus Problem and Its Ramifications, by Donovan Courville.
[2] English Standard Version, The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™ © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.

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  1. Quality articles is the secret to attract the visitors to visit the site,
    that’s what this site is providing.

  2. Very insightful article and commentary; thank you very much. I have been a christian for a long time, and am very familiar with the Exodus story, but I found this article to be very refreshing and informative.

    I thought the analysis was very good. It was not only deep, but was also sufficient to challenge one’s own faith and perspectives about the ministry, life and death of Jesus Christ. Thanks, again.

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