Its Roots: The Jewish Passover

by Al Maxey

The Lord's Supper has its roots in the Jewish feast of Passover. On the night of our Lord's betrayal He observed His final Passover meal with His disciples (Matthew 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:7-23). Although there are some questions raised by John's written account as to whether this was actually a true Passover meal (John 13:1-4, 21-30; 18:28; 19:14, 31, 42), most scholars agree that even if it were not, it was at least a Passover-like meal, or perhaps an early celebration of the Passover meal. Either way, our Lord used this event, and its elements, as the background for the establishment of the Lord's Supper. Thus, it is beneficial for us to examine in some detail the Jewish feast of the Passover.

The biblical/historical narrative of the origin of Passover is found in Exodus 12 (see also: Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 2, Chapter 14, Section 6). God's people were suffering under Egyptian bondage, and God heard their cries and delivered them through the leadership of Moses. The 10th plague sent upon the land was the death of all the first-born, man and beast alike. The people of Israel were to kill a lamb at twilight and place its blood on their doorpost. "And when I see the blood I will PASS OVER you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt" (Exodus 12:13).

The Israelites were commanded to "keep this ordinance at its appointed time from year to year" (Exodus 13:10). It was to be celebrated in the evening of the 14th day of the first month (Abib). "Now this day will be a memorial to you, and you shall celebrate it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations you are to celebrate it as an eternal ordinance" (Exodus 12:14). "You shall observe this event as an ordinance for you and your children forever" (Exodus 12:24). "It is a night to be observed for the Lord for having brought them out of the land of Egypt" (Exodus 12:42). The Passover was eaten in the late evening (Matthew 26:20; Mark 14:17; I Corinthians 11:23); it had to be eaten between 6 p.m. and midnight.

Jesus instructed Peter and John to "go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it" (Luke 22:8). There were six things necessary for the Passover meal which had to be prepared in advance. They were:

#1 --- The Passover Lamb --- It was to be a year old male without blemish (Exodus 12:5; Leviticus 22:17-25). It could be either a sheep or a goat, and was to be kept alive and observed for 4 days prior to its sacrifice on Passover to determine if it had any defect or illness (Exodus 12:6). It had to be cooked in a special way: It must not be boiled or stewed, but roasted with fire; nothing must touch it, not even water or the sides of a pot. It was fixed on a spit "which went through it from mouth to vent" (Barclay, p. 21). See: Exodus 12:8-9. NOTE: The minimum number of people who could eat the Passover lamb was twelve. Since the Passover was strictly a family feast, if the family was smaller than twelve they would invite friends or other families in to make up the necessary number. When the Lord's Supper was instituted there were thirteen present: Jesus and the twelve apostles.

#2 --- The Unleavened Bread --- This is bread made without yeast. The Israelites, when they left Egypt, left in great haste, "taking their dough before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls bound up in the clothes on their shoulders" (Exodus 12:34). Thus, the unleavened bread represented the haste and sense of urgency with which they fled the land of slavery. (NOTE: Unleavened bread is used in the New Testament writings as a symbol of a purified life --- I Corinthians 5:6b-8).

#3 --- A Bowl of Salt Water --- This was to remind them of the tears they shed while in bondage, and also to remind them of the waters of the Red Sea through which God had brought them on dry land and in which God had destroyed the enemy army which pursued them.

#4 --- A Collection of Bitter Herbs --- These were to be eaten with the Passover meal (Exodus 12:8) to remind them of the bitter experience they had endured as slaves in the land of Egypt.

#5 --- The "Charosheth" (or: "Haroseth") --- This was fruit paste/sauce made of apples, dates, pomegranates, and nuts; running through it were sticks of cinnamon. The bitter herbs were dipped into this sauce and then eaten. The fruit paste was to remind them of the clay with which they had made bricks in Egypt, and the cinnamon was to remind them of the straw which was needed to make the bricks, and which the Egyptians later withheld from them (Exodus 5:7-9).

#6 --- The Four Cups of Wine --- Although not mentioned in Exodus, the use of wine was considered by Jewish tradition to be essential. In the Jewish Talmud it states, "If he has not enough money to get four cups of wine, he must get it form the poor box or pawn his coat or hire himself out for four cups of wine." In the Orach Chayim it states, "Whosoever has not got wine transgresses a command of the rabbis for they have said that there shall be no diminution from the four cups. And it is necessary to sell what he has in order to keep the command of the wise men." Each cup contained 1/16 of a "hin" = a little more than half a pint of wine. This was fermented wine which was then diluted in the proportion of 2 parts of wine to 3 parts of water. The four cups of wine were drunk at different points during the Passover meal, and symbolized the four promises of Exodus 6:6f. (NOTE: This part of the Passover celebration was never commanded by God; it was added by Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, our Lord utilized it in the institution of the Lord's Supper.)

From beginning to end, the Passover meal was a commemorative event reminding the people of Israel of their deliverance and redemption from Egyptian bondage. The meal itself was filled with symbolism and was a proclamation of what God had graciously done for them. The following is the order of events, and a brief description, of a typical Passover meal at the time of Christ Jesus:

#1 --- It began with the first cup, the cup of "Kiddush" (blessing, consecration), and was accompanied by a prayer of thanksgiving to God for delivering Israel from bondage and for allowing them to be His own chosen people.

#2 --- The person presiding over the feast would now wash his hands three times.

#3 --- Some of the bitter herbs (usually lettuce or parsley) were taken and dipped in the salt water and eaten. This represented the hyssop which was dipped in the blood of the lamb, and with which the lintel and the doorposts were smeared (Exodus 12:22).

#4 --- The Breaking of Bread. Three cakes of unleavened bread were on the table in front of the host. He took the center one and broke it into little pieces. The three cakes were said to represent the Trinity, with the center cake representing the Son/Messiah. When Jesus took this bread (probably the center cake) and broke it, He said, "This is My body." This bread "was broken into little pieces to remind them that a slave never had a whole loaf, but only fragments to eat" (Barclay, p. 22).

#5 --- The Proclaiming. It was the duty of the father, at this point, to explain to his children the meaning of the Passover meal (Exodus 13:8).

#6 --- The Hallel (Praise God). This consisted of Psalms 113 through 118. At this time Psalms 113 & 114 were sung.

#7 --- The second cup, the cup of Deliverance (or Salvation) was drunk.

#8 --- It was now time for the meal itself to begin, so at this point all those who were going to be eating the meal washed their hands.

#9 --- After the saying of a prayer, the small pieces of the unleavened bread were distributed to those present who then ate them along with some more of the bitter herbs.

#10 --- The "SOP" --- Some of the bitter herbs were taken and placed between two pieces of unleavened bread. This was dipped into the fruit sauce (the "Charosheth") and then eaten. It was this part of the meal that Jesus was referring to in Matthew 26:23; Mark 14:20; John 13:26.

#11 --- At this point the rest of the meal was consumed by those present, including the entire lamb, of which none was to be left over. Anything that remained had to be burned, as it was sanctified food and could not be consumed in an ordinary meal.

#12 --- At the conclusion of the meal the hands were again washed (this was a ceremonial cleansing of the hands), and the remainder of the Passover bread was brought out and eaten.

#13 --- There followed a long prayer of thanksgiving for the meal, which even to this present day contains a petition to God to send Elijah as the herald of the Messiah.

#14 --- Following this prayer, the third cup, the cup of Thanksgiving, was drunk. It was accompanied by this prayer: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast created the fruit of the vine."

#15 --- The second part of the Hallel was now sung (Psalms 115 - 118), followed by "The Great Hallel" (Psalm 136).

#16 --- Then came the drinking of the fourth cup, the cup of Choosing, followed by two brief prayers. This concluded the Passover meal. "When the supper ended, various activities ensued. The young Jews usually went into the streets to meet others; the old remained to talk about the Passover; the children fell asleep. Some went to the temple for prayers and singing" (Stephen Eckstein, The Pentateuch, p. 63).

"It can be seen at once that the keynotes of the Passover are memory, praise, and hope" (Barclay, p. 24-25). It is this meal that our Lord chose as the background for the institution of the memorial feast known as The Lord's Supper.

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