A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com

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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 09/01/1996

Exodus 12:1-28

PASSOVER, Part I: The Ceremony 1 Now the Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, 2 "This month shall be the beginning fo months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you. 3 Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying, 'On the tenth of this month they are each one to take a lamb for themselves, according to their fathers' households, a lamb for each household. 4 Now if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his neighbor nearest to his house are to take one according to the number of persons in them; according to what each man should eat you are to divide the lamb. 5 You lamb shall be an unblemished male a year old; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6 And you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month, and then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel is to kill it at twilight. 7 Moreover, they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8 And they shall eat the flesh that same night, roasted with fire, adn they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9 Do not eat any of it raw or boiled at all with water, but roasted with fore, both its head and its legs along with its entrails. 10 And you shall not leave any of it until morning, but whatever is left until morning you shall burn with fire. 11 Now you shall eat it in this manner: with your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you are to eat it in haste; it is the Lord's Passover. 12 For I will go through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment--I am the Lord. 13 And the blood shall be a sign unto you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. 14 Now this day will be a memorial to you, and you shall celebrate it as a feast to the Lord; throughout all your generations you are to celebrate it as a permanent ordinance. 15 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses; for whoever eats anything leavened from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. 16 And on the first day you shall have a holy assembly, and another holy assembly on the seventh day; no work at all shall be done on them, except what must be eaten by every person, that alone may be prepared by you. 17 You shall observe the feast of unleavened bread, for on this day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt; therefore you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a permanent ordinance.'" . . . 21 Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel and said to them, "Go and take for yourselves lambs according to your families, and slay the Passover lamb. 22 And you shall take a bunch of hyssop and dip in in the blood which is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and the two doorposts, and none of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning. 23 For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to smite you. 24 And you shall observe this event as an ordinance for you and your children forever. 25 And it will come about when you enter the land which the Lord will give to you, as He has promised, that you shall observe this rite. 26 And it shall come about when your children will say to you, 'What does this rite mean to you?' 27 that you shall say, 'It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel when he smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes.'" And the people bowed low and worshiped. 28 Then the sons of Israel went and did so; just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron, so they did. INTRODUCTION

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Updated 08/27/2003