A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com
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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 09/01/1996
We enter today into the very heart not only of the book of Exodus but also of the whole Old Testament story and of Old Testament theology. The Passover, the crossing of the Red Sea, the giving of the Law at Sinai: there is nothing more determinative in fixing the whole Old Testament view of God and the whole form of Old Testament religion than this complex of events. To this day the Passover is celebrated in Judaism. "Why is this night different from every other night?" asks the oldest son. And part of the answer is given, in reference to this very passage. But the ultimate answer to that question is given whenever Christians celebrate the Lord's Supper, for the Bread and Wine we eat then were, on the night of its institution, the very bread and wine of the Passover seder being shared by the Lord with his disciples. There is then a direct connection between the Passover lamb and the Lamb of God. Why is this night different from every other night? To understand that connection, let's examine the original feast closely, looking today at the ceremony of Passover and next week at the event itself.I. THE NEED FOR PASSOVER
The first thing to notice about the Passover lamb is that it was more than a meal, even a symbolic meal--it was a sacrifice. Verse 27 says so explicitly, and the rest of the passage both expands this idea and explains its rationale. This explains the necessity that the lamb be an unblemished male, that it be roasted rather than boiled, etc. The sprinkling of its blood is also consistent with this function--hyssop is always associated with purification in the Old Testament. So there is no question: the lamb was not just being slaughtered for dinner, it was being sacrificed. Why?
Let us try to answer that question by asking another one. In all the earlier plagues in which a distinction was made between Israel and Egypt, nothing like this was required. Israel was treated differently, she was spared, but without a sacrifice. Why is this plague different? It is because no one was killed in the earlier plagues, but in this one life was taken. The earlier plagues are called "warnings," "signs," or "plagues." This one is specifically referred to as "judgment." Israel did not need to be warned to liberate her slaves, but she did need to be spared God's judgment against sin. So there was no need for the earlier plagues to touch her. But now judgment is falling, and no one who is a sinner is exempt from that. The penalty being exacted is death--the wages of sin, as the New Testament declares, simply making explicit what was implicit in the Old Testament principle that without the shedding of blood there is no remission. And who was going to die? The firstborn--as symbolic representatives of the whole people. Clearly then what is happening here is a symbolic foreshadowing of the Day of Judgment. Israel, unlike Egypt, did not need these warnings. But she did deserve judgment, for all have fallen short of the glory of God and the soul that sinneth it shall die. Therefore, the only way she could escape this judgment was by Grace. And the only way Grace can operate is for Justice first to be satisfied by the shedding of innocent blood. So the sprinkling of the blood was not merely a sign for the Angel of Death to pass over; it was also the prerequisite for the Grace that was being extended. Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin.II. THE FUNCTION OF PASSOVER Atonement
The function of Passover then is threefold. First, it was to make atonement for the sins of Israel. This is seen in two ways. Note first the substitutionary nature of the sacrifice. In each household someone will die. It can either be a son or a lamb. If the lamb dies, it will die instead of, in the place of, the son. I find especially interesting the requirement that the lamb be set aside and "kept" for four days (v. 3, 6). Imagine the thoughts of the oldest son as he passes by that pen. Perhaps one of his chores is to feed the lamb. What would be in his mind as he did so? The identification with that lamb has got to be very strong. This is a substitutionary death that is coming. But note also the propitiatory nature of the sacrifice. Propitiation means most basically a covering that turns away wrath--the blood of the sacrifice "covers" the individual to protect him from God's wrath, his judgment. Any house covered by the blood will be protected when the Death Angel comes, as verses 7, 12-13, 22-23 make clear. Just like the sacrifice of Christ which it prefigures and anticipates, this sacrifice was both substitutionary and propitiatory. It was there to atone for the sins of Israel.Sacrament
The second function of Passover was to serve as a sacrament, or an object lesson, for all the generations of Israel. Its parallels with the Christian Communion are not accidental, for indeed the Communion grew out of the Passover meal as a focusing and particularization of its meaning on the night in which Jesus was betrayed. We note first of all that it was a ritual meal. When you eat it, you are symbolically appropriating personally the meaning that it carries: this lamb died for you (or your son or brother); God is redeeming you from slavery. We have already seen that the lamb represents atonement. The bitterness of the herbs reminds you of the slavery from which you are being set free. The unleavened bread represents a new and purified life, for in the Bible leaven pictures the way sin permeates and corrupts our lives ("A little leaven leaveneth the whole loaf"). We continue to eat unleavened bread for a whole week, showing that this new and purified life is to extend into the future. And we repeat this meal on a regular basis--in the case of Passover, annually--so that we will not forget ("As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you do show forth the Lord's death, until he comes.") and so that subsequent generations will also have the opportunity to appropriate by faith for themselves the spiritual meaning of it all. The question of the children (v. 26-27), "What does this rite mean to you?", became institutionalized as the question of the eldest son: "Why is this night different from every other night?" Christians have not added such a question to their liturgy (perhaps they should!), but a version of it naturally occurs when children are present at Communion, which gives Christian parents a wonderful teaching opportunity.Symbol
The third function of Passover is one we have already hinted at: it was to point ahead to Christ, the reality of which the Passover lamb was a symbol. See Moishe Rosen's book Christ in the Passover for a wonderfully insightful treatment of the remarkable way in which the Passover seder as developed by Jewish tradition from this passage is a witness to Jesus as the true Messiah. We won't go into that much detail today, but I do want you to see that everything that is essential to an accurate understanding of Christ's work is already present in the Passover. We have seen here the necessity of blood atonement because of God's judgment against sin; that salvation is by Grace appropriated by faith in God's word; that this Grace is made compatible with God's Justice by vicarious, substitutionary sacrifice; that the result of all of this is liberation from bondage to sin and death and a new beginning for the people of God. And we see also the necessity of personal application. You had to sacrifice the lamb and sprinkle its blood in order to be saved. The Mishnah, a rabbinic commentary on the Old Testament, says this in Pesahim 10:5--"In every generation let each man look on himself as if he came forth out of Egypt. As it is said: 'And thou shalt tell thy son . . . it is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.'" This passage is used in the modern Passover ritual, and it hits the right note for Christians thinking of Christ's sacrifice as well. "It is because of what the Lord did for me when I should have died on that Cross." Truly, everything that is essential to an accurate understanding of Christ's work is already present in the Passover.CONCLUSION
So important are all these truths that the central rite of the Christian faith is a simple focusing of the Passover meal in The Lord's Supper. Every time we celebrate it, let us be reminded of all of them. For all these things Passover and Christ have in common. There are only two differences: the difference between Symbol and Reality (or Shadow and Substance, as the New Testament puts it), and the difference made by the Resurrection of the Lamb: And they sang a new song, saying, "Worthy art thou to take the book and to break its seals. For thou wast slain, and didst purchase for God with thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. And thou hast made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth." And I looked and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders . . . saying with a loud voice, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing. . . . To Him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever." And the four living creatures kept saying, "Amen." And the elders fell down and worshiped (Rev. 5:9-14).
Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams