As the season of Passover arrives, many of us are not fully aware of the awesome significance of this time of year. The majority of believers celebrate Easter and will set aside this one particular day as a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. But we often pass over the Passover, which is so intricately tied to the observance of Easter (or Resurrection Day as I prefer to call it). This year, Passover will begin at sunset on March 27, 2021 and end at sundown on April 4.
Passover is listed as one of the seven Feasts of the Lord in Leviticus 23. The word feast translated in Hebrew is moed, which means appointment. Thus, Passover is an appointment with God. This appointment is very important because it commemorates the exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. God provided a way for them to be released from captivity. Before exiting Egypt, however, they were instructed to take the blood of a slaughtered lamb and paint it on the top and sides of the door. Each household was instructed to do this. By sealing the door with this blood, the Angel of Death would pass over their home, sparing their first-born sons from death. God commanded that this feast be celebrated every year so the Jewish people would always remember it was HE who set them free and saved them from death. To this day, Passover is celebrated yearly by the Jews. Traditionally a special dinner, called a Seder, is eaten on the first night of Passover, or Nisan 14.
Some Christians see Passover as a Jewish observance and tend to gloss over its rich significance for their lives. But Passover isn’t just for the Jewish people. Consider what Romans 11:17-22 declares:
“ If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted inamong the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.’ Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.
Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!”
These verses mean that God chose the Jews to be set apart as his people. They are the natural branches on the olive tree. Because of unbelief in Jesus as the Messiah, a large portion of the Jews were “broken off” and this allowed the Gentiles (non-Jews) to be grafted in. These new grafted branches are known as wild olive shoots. Thus, the Gentiles were grafted into God’s family (the olive tree). But notice it clearly states the Gentiles are supported by the root- which refers to the Jewish people. It’s important to remember that it’s through the Jewish Patriarchs and prophets that we have the Old Testament. The disciples were Jewish as well. Also, Jesus descended from the (Jewish) line of King David.
Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross broke down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:14). The promises God gave to Israel also belong to the Gentiles through Christ. Receiving Jesus as Lord and Savior is the key to becoming part of God’s family, represented by the olive tree.
Here’s where the feasts (appointments) such as Passover come in. The promises God gave to Israel are clearly seen in the festivals and celebrations he commanded them to observe. Keep in mind that the Gentiles (through Christ) share in the promises Israel received. The feasts also point to Jesus as the Messiah because they are shadows of who he is, as well as the things he will do. In fact, Passover is called a convocation and this word means a dress rehearsal. That begs the question-A dress rehearsal for what? In the case of Passover (which also includes the Feast of Unleavened Bread and First Fruits), it was a dress rehearsal for the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who died as the Passover lamb.
This means that as we understand and celebrate these feasts, we can learn more about our beloved Messiah, and the principles he was trying to convey when he died as the Passover lamb. This does not mean we are required to observe the feasts to “earn points” or as some form of legalism. But, learning how they are a picture of Jesus will open our eyes to a world of intricate details that give us a deep perspective of who he is.
The observance of Passover begins at sundown, starting Nisan 14 (on the biblical calendar) and lasts for seven or eight days (depending on where you live). On the Gregorian calendar, this would occur in March or April, depending on the year. For example, last year (2020) Passover began at sundown on April 8 and lasted through April 16. This year, (2021) Passover begins at sundown on March 27 and will last through April 4. Passover week includes the observance of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Feast of First Fruits. The Passover lambs were slaughtered on Nisan 14, which is what this post will focus on. For your reference, however, it is important to note that the Feast of First Fruits is the biblical name for what most Christians call Easter, or Resurrection Day. Jesus rose from the dead on the Feast of First Fruits.
For this post, I want to focus on the significance of the Passover lamb that was slaughtered on Nisan 14 (three days before Jesus rose from the dead) and how its symbolism applies to Jesus, and to our lives as believers.
To give you the full scope of this symbolism, I want to start with Palm Sunday, which is observed on Nisan 10 on the biblical calendar. Most Christians know this as the Sunday that occurs the week before Easter is observed. But this doesn’t always fall on the same date on the biblical calendar because non-Jewish (Gentile) churches observe Palm Sunday and Easter according to the calendar instituted by the Roman Catholic Church, or the Gregorian calendar. For instance, Nisan 10 or Palm Sunday on the biblical calendar this year (2021) falls on March 23, whereas on non-Jewish church calendars it falls on March 28. Just for reference, this year Easter falls on Sunday, April 4, 2021, but this is actually the 8th day of Passover on the biblical calendar.
Palm Sunday (Nisan 10) is a day worth noting as it marked the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem–the Sunday before the crucifixion (Matthew 21:1-11). This historical day began with Jesus and his disciples traveling over the Mount of Olives. Jesus sent two disciples ahead of him to find and obtain a colt to ride into Jerusalem.
“After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, ‘Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it,’” Luke 19:28-31.
The disciples found an unbroken colt and brought it to Jesus. He rode into Jerusalem on the colt (donkey) and large groups of people gathered around him. The crowd believed Jesus was the Messiah and they began throwing their cloaks on the ground and lining the road with palm branches as he passed by. This is where we get the name Palm Sunday. By throwing cloaks and palm branches on the ground, the people were declaring that Jesus was a king.
The people acknowledged Jesus’ kingship by shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven,” (Matthew 21:9). The people were actually quoting Psalm 118:25-26 which says “Lord, save us! Lord, grant us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. From the house of the Lord we bless you.”
Eaten up with jealousy, some of the religious leaders who witnessed this said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” But Jesus answered, “I tell you…if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out,” (Luke 19:40).
On Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem as a humble king, riding on a colt (donkey). But what else was going on this historical day of Nisan 10 (Palm Sunday)? Here’s where it gets interesting….
On this very day, the Jewish families chose the lambs for the Passover sacrifice that would occur four days later on Nisan 14. They would purchase the lamb and take it to their home (or wherever they were staying since many had traveled), and then they would inspect it for blemishes. They did this to fulfill the command in Exodus 12:3 which said the lamb had to be “without spot or blemish.” The lamb had to be blemish-free so it would be an acceptable sacrifice at the Temple on Passover. During these four days the family would take care of the lamb and often this meant they became personally attached to it.
I don’t know about you, but if I brought a cute, cuddly lamb home with me for a few days, I would definitely fall in love with it! It would be hard to sacrifice that adorable innocent creature.
Actually, the whole idea of keeping this precious lamb for four days was not arbitrary as God was helping them understand the gravity of their sins. By becoming attached to this lamb, they realized and felt the true sacrifice of killing it. Also, each day the lamb was in captivity (4 days) was a reminder of the 100 years of captivity in Egypt–for a grand total of 400 years (4 x100). (Just a side note about the 400 years-this number refers not only to the Israelites years of captivity in Egypt, but also includes the affliction that began when Ishmael mocked Isaac at his weaning. So, the number of years (400) dates all the way back to when the Hebrews were first persecuted during the time of their descendant Abraham.)
As the lambs were being inspected for blemishes over these four days, Jesus was going through an inspection as well. The Pharisees inspected him, as did the chief priests, the Herodians, the elders, Pilate, Herod and even the thief crucified beside him. They could find no fault or blemish in him (Mark 12:13, Matthew 26:59-60, Luke 23:13-15, 39-41).
The lambs that were brought home would eventually be taken to the Temple to be sacrificed on Passover. Beforehand, however, each family would put the family name around the neck of their lamb. This ensured they would receive their own lamb back for the Passover dinner they would share in the evening. There is so much meaning within these details. As believers we can see that Jesus became the Passover lamb for us and he knows each one of us by name. He died for us in a personal, intimate way. Can you picture an innocent lamb with your name on it?
Even more astounding is when we realize that there was a name on the cross where Jesus was crucified. A sign was placed at the top of the cross that had these words– JESUS THE NAZARENE, KING OF THE JEWS. If you translate these words into Hebrew and then write them in English text you get: Y’Shua HaNatzri V’Melech HaYehudim. Taking the first letters from each word listed you get – Y H V H. Those letters in Hebrew are: Yud Hey Vav Hey. Do you know what these letters spell? They are the letters contained in the name of God. Keep in mind that God’s name could not be pronounced, but it could be written with letters. So, the big revelation here is that God put his own name on his personal lamb-Jesus! There it was at the top of the cross!
What’s quite interesting to consider is that when the Israelites killed their lambs on the original Passover in Egypt, it was a direct attack on the Egyptian’s most powerful god. Their chief god was a RAM, and his name was Amon. The pinnacle of Amon’s power occurred at the full moon during the month of Nisan. Imagine what they thought when all the Israelites were sacrificing lambs and putting their blood on the doorposts at the full moon of Passover during Nisan? Next, the angel of death would come and all the firstborn sons of Egypt would die. Certainly, they would see their false ram god had no power at all! God was sending a big message to the Egyptians-your god is a fake!
Even more amazing is when you take the historical evidence into account which states that the lamb was roasted upright on a pole made of pomegranate wood that was shaped like a cross. Pomegranate was used because it was a dry wood that did not boil when heated. Boiling was prohibited during the cooking of the lamb. The use of pomegranate wood is no coincidence because pomegranates point to royalty. They have a crown on top, which is a reminder of kingship. In addition, the High Priest’s robe contained rows of pomegranates that were made of purple, blue and scarlet wool. Interestingly enough, the pomegranate reminds us of the blood Jesus shed as the Passover lamb because the inside has the characteristic look of blood, which easily stains our hands.
I cannot leave out this next detail, though it’s somewhat graphic. During the cooking of the lamb, the intestines/entrails were tied around its head (so they would not boil). This, of course, resembled a crown of thorns!!! Are you blown away or what? If you want more details, get yourself a copy of Messianic scholar Alfred Edersheim’s book, The Temple: It’s Ministry and Services, or download this resource online. Another great resource is Unlocking the Secrets of the Feasts by Michael Norten.
It’s worthy of noting that each family or household had to slaughter their own lamb on Passover. The priests did their part by catching and sprinkling the blood, but the family was responsible for the killing. This reminded them that it was an offering for their transgressions, and was made on their behalf. It also drove the point home that the price of sin was high and they were responsible for their actions. The slaughter of the lambs was completed in three consecutive waves (this means there were three intervals so all the people could have ample space and time).
The year Jesus died, it has been estimated that hundreds of thousands of people were in Jerusalem for the Passover. Imagine how many lambs were slaughtered and the amount of blood that spilled on the altar that day.
Even the timing of killing the Passover lambs was significant. The killing of the lambs would begin around 3:00 p.m. This is also called the ninth hour. This just happens to be the exact time Jesus died on the cross as the Passover lamb as noted in Matthew 27:46-50.
“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, ‘This man is calling Elijah.’ And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.’ And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.”
When the ninth hour arrived, a long blast of the shofar (trumpet) signaled the Levites that it was time to sing the Hallel (Psalms 113-118). At this time, the gates to the inner court would be opened, and the first groups of Israelites would rush inside with their lambs. Soon the courtyard would be stained red with the blood of all these lambs. The base of the altar gushed with blood as one sacrifice after another was performed. The singing of the Hallel continued, which would have included these verses from Psalm 118:
“I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation. The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad,” (verses 21-24). It’s amazing to note that Jesus and the disciples sang the Hallel the night before his crucifixion. We can surmise this from the fact that ancient Jewish tradition calls for the reading or singing of Psalms 113-114 before the Passover meal, and Psalms 115-118 were to follow afterward. Mark 14:22-26 records the Last Supper, which ends with singing.
“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take it; this is my body.’Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,’ he said to them. ‘Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’ When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”
These psalms were sung to the Passover lambs as they were being slaughtered. And outside the city walls, they could be heard as Jesus hung on the cross and died for the sins of mankind. Thousands of people singing and chanting things like: “Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous. The Lord’s right hand has done mighty things! The Lord’s right hand is lifted high; the Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!” (Psalm 118:15-16).
Since the destruction of the temples, lambs are no longer sacrificed on Passover. But the reminder of the lamb still exists. A traditional Seder dinner includes a lamb shank bone which is displayed on the plate alongside bitter herbs, charoset, a boiled egg, greens, horseradish and matza. Though lamb is not actually eaten during the symbolic meal, the lamb shank bone is a visual reminder that lambs were once sacrificed in the Holy Temple. Now here’s where it gets fascinating! The shank bone is actually the forearm of the lamb, which is the Hebrew word zeroa. We can see this word for forearm or zeroa in Isaiah 53, which is considered one of the most astounding and accurate prophecies of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Let’s look at how it begins:
“Who has believed our message and to whom has the ARM of the Lord been revealed?”
Isaiah 53:2-10 goes on to say:
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression[a] and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.”
The shankbone (zeroa) on the Passover Seder plate is a reminder of God’s “outstretched arm” with which he delivered us from Egypt (Exodus 6:6). The arm of the Lord delivered us indeed, through his Son–Jesus Christ. The use of the lamb shank bone isn’t just for Messianic Seder dinners. It’s also used in the homes of Orthodox Jews who do not know Jesus as the Savior. Yet, there’s the lamb shank bone to bear witness that the arm of the Lord was revealed at the cross.
Though most people believe the Passover lamb was a sin offering, it’s actually considered a peace offering. Do you know what that means? Jesus died not only for your sins–he died to give you peace. This word is found in Isaiah 53 where it says, “the punishment that brought us peace was on him.” If we were to read the verse with the word peace written in Hebrew it would say, “the punishment that brought us shalom was on him.” This brings new life and understanding to what Jesus did for us on the cross. Why? Because shalom doesn’t just mean peace. It means wholeness, fullness, completeness, healing, well-being, prosperity and restoration. Jesus died for you and I so we could have all these things and more!
There’s so much more I could tell you about Passover and its rich traditions. If you want to read more, you can read these blogs from previous years. Keep in mind the dates of Passover will be different however.
During Passover season, take some time to contemplate the truths God has embedded in this special feast (appointment). The connection to the Savior will be undeniable as you celebrate what he’s done for you!
Books for reference:
The Seven Festivals of Messiah by Edward Chumney, God’s Day Timer by Mark Biltz, Celebrate the Festivals of the Lord by William W. Francis, Unlocking the Secrets of the Feasts by Michael Norten, The Temple by Alfred Edershem