God instituted the yearly celebration of the Passover Feast as a reminder of God’s great rescue of the Israelites from slavery and oppression in Egypt. It is commemorated yearly by Jews and Christians as a remembrance of God’s great victory over the forces of evil.
There are differing views regarding the Last Supper and Passover, Matthew, Mark and Luke squish the three years of Jesus’ ministry into one story line they strongly suggest that Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples was the Passover Celebration. However, John’s Gospel lays out the entire three years of Jesus’ Ministry with multiple trips to Jerusalem during the festivals and many confrontations with the Pharisees. John clearly writes that Jesus was tried and killed before the Passover began; John calls it the Day of Preparation. According to John’s gospel, Jesus was crucified at the same time that the lambs were slaughtered for the Seder dinner. Jesus was quickly placed in the tomb, before sunset so that the Passover would not be violated. Whether it was the Seder meal or the night before, Jesus gave new meaning to the elements. The Passover was on their minds as Jesus takes the bread and the wine to give them new symbolic meaning.
Pesach is Hebrew for Passover which includes the days of preparation; the actual meal is called a Seder. Exodus 6:6-7 is the scriptural basis for the rituals of four cups of wine used in the memorial.
1. The Cup of Sanctification – “I will bring you out”
2. The Cup of Plagues (Judgment) – “I will free you”
3. The Cup of Redemption – “I will redeem you”
4. The Cup of Praise – “I will take you”
The meal begins with lighting the candles and blessing the first cup; this is more than a meal it is a worship service. 1 Corinthians 11:26 says, “For every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the LORD’s death until he comes”.
“Blessed are you, O Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine” – this same blessing is repeated with each cup.
Following the blessing, the leader ceremonially washes his hands, then picks up the sprig of parsley dips in the salt water and eats it. The parsley represents life and the salt water represents the tears of the Israelites from the sufferings they endured as slaves in Egypt. This also reminds us of our tears when we were separated from God by our sins, it represents the pain of loneliness and the despair of a life lived without God.
Jesus applied new meaning to the ceremonial washing at the Last Supper when he took off his garment and washed the feet of each disciple, including Judas, who would betray him that very night. With the tears of betrayal in his eyes Jesus teaches his followers a new lesson on servant leadership: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
The re-telling of Exodus begins with a reminder of how the Israelites became slaves in Egypt, a Pharaoh arose that did not know of Joseph and his good deeds, and so he enslaved the Jews and made their lives harsh with oppression and humiliation. This is a reminder that if God had not rescued the Israelites, they and their children would still be slaves today. In the same way, if God had not sent His only Son as a sacrificed for us, then we would for all generations still be trapped by sin and eternal death.
The second cup, the cup of plagues begins the Haggadah which means “the telling” – the story of the plagues and God great and mighty deeds. The blessing is said, but no one drinks the cup until the telling is complete. The Haggadah is based on four questions, which is the central part of the Seder.
Why is this night different from all other nights?
1. On all other nights we eat either bread or matzah; on this night, why only matzah?
2. On all other nights we eat herbs or vegetables of any kind; on this night why bitter herbs?
3. On all other nights we do not dip even once; on this night why do we dip twice?
4. On all other nights we eat our meals in any manner; on this night why do we sit around the table together in a reclining position?
On Passover we eat only Matzah, because the Israelites did not have time to allow their bread to rise when they left Egypt. Yeast has become a metaphor for the influence of sin in our lives, prior to the feast of unleavened bread Jews sweep clean any yeast from their houses. As we approach the communion table we too should sweep clean the sin in our life by acknowledging and confessing our sins to the LORD.
At this point in the meal Jews celebrate the Afikomen, with the breaking of the middle matzah. On the leaders table is a plate of three matzah crackers, separated by napkins, he reaches into the middle and breaks the matzah, takes a piece, wraps it in a cloth and hides it in the room. The small piece that is hidden under a pillow is the Afikomen. This was not a part of the Passover that Jesus would have celebrated; this tradition did not come into practice until after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. At the end of the meal, the children go in search of the Afikomen which is redeemed by the leader.
The meal continues with eating the bitter herbs, the sweet Charoset as a reminder of their hope in God and the comfort they now enjoy as a free people. Next is the recitation of the ten plagues, Pharaoh hardened his heart against the LORD and refused to let the Israelites go: blood, frogs, lice, flies, death of cattle, boils, hail locusts, darkness and death of firstborn. As we recite the plagues we dip a finger in the wine dropping it like blood on our plate. But God gave his people a way to escape the 10th plague: the blood of the perfect lamb could take the place of the first-born of the family. God gave Moses specific instructions to follow that night, the night the angel of death passed over their houses. They were to sacrifice a perfect lamb and mark their door frames with its blood. They roasted the lamb whole with no broken bone, they made unleavened bread and gathered bitter herbs. The Israelites ate their meal standing up ready to leave Egypt when God commanded.
John the Baptist declared when he saw Jesus, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus is our perfect Passover lamb; by his sacrifice we are redeemed. God rescued the Israelites from slavery with mighty acts and he rescues us from a life of sin by the sacrifice of His Son Jesus.
The Afikomen is ransomed after dinner is finished. The children find the hidden matzah and bring it to the leaders to redeem. But Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. It must not be this way among you! Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave –just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:25-28
The third cup is the Cup of Redemption. While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat, this is my body.” And after taking the cup and giving thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, that is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
The final fourth cup is the Cup of Praise also called Elijah’s Cup. The leader says, this cup is for Elijah the prophet, who will come before the Messiah returns. The last verse in the Old Testament is Malachi 4:5; “Look, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord arrives. He will encourage fathers and their children to return to me, so that I will not come and strike the earth with judgment.” Jewish people look for Elijah’s return on Passover, so they set a place for him at the table and open the door to welcome him. Christians acknowledge that Elijah has come in the person of John the Baptist and that the Messiah has come as Jesus of Nazareth. We open the door in expectation of the second coming of the Messiah, when He will return in glory.
The Seder ends with the traditional greeting: Next year in Jerusalem.