Each year, as I watch my unbelieving Jewish family celebrate the Passover on the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan, my Christian heart cries out, "They know not what they do!" As a Jew, I sometimes watch my Christian brethren celebrate the Lord's Supper and wonder if the same sentiment may not be expressed for them.
For while the Jews leave the Seder table without apprehending the spiritual reality of the meal, too many Christians, for lack of understanding its various contexts, leave the Supper without grasping the realities it was meant to convey. Not a few sense that they are missing something. Perhaps they are right. As one woman remarked, "I don't know how I'm supposed to feel—somehow we are not given the proper clues." Seeing the Supper as the fulfillment of the Passover may provide us with some "clues."
Until the fourth century, it was not uncommon for Christians to celebrate a special Lord's Supper at the time of the Jewish Passover. However, in 325 A.D., the church council of Nicea issued a letter to the churches of Asia calling it "a thing unworthy and unbecoming, that, in the celebration of that most holy solemnity, we should follow the usage of the Jews . . . who are deservedly given up to blindness of mind. Let nothing, therefore, be common to us with that most hostile multitude of the Jews." Since then, the vivid connection between the Passover and the "holy solemnity" has been largely lost to the church. The translators of the King James Version even rendered the word "Passover" in Acts 12:4 as "Easter" (this has been corrected in modern translations). Christians who have self-consciously celebrated the Supper as the fulfillment of the Passover have been too few. Our worship has become, if you'll permit me, "Gentilized." It has been abstracted from its roots, and this despite the fact that each Gospel account emphasizes the fact that the Supper was instituted by our Lord at a Seder meal. Though the Jewish observance of the Passover has evolved somewhat over the past 2,000 years, the essential elements remain as they were when Christ celebrated it in the Upper Room.
The historical context of Passover is the redemption of God's chosen people from their bitter bondage in Egypt. (The required eating of bitter herbs at the Seder is to remind us of this.) God sent the angel of death throughout the land slaying all the firstborn of his enemies. The blood of a lamb without blemish applied to the door of each Israelite household was the token given by God to assure his people that his wrath would not come upon them. "When I see the blood I will pass over you." When the horrible judgment of God fell, his people were more than safe—they were free! The Passover was thus the most important covenant celebration of Israel. Major covenant renewals were celebrated during this feast under Solomon, Hezekiah, Josiah and Ezra. In fact, God chose to identify himself throughout the Old Testament in terms of this holy day: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."
Passover must also be understood in the context of the three major feasts which God commanded Israel to observe. Passover looks forward to Shavuos (literally, "Weeks", aka Pentecost), which the Jews commemorate as the occasion of the giving of the Law. The connection between the two is reinforced by Jews when they observe a special counting ceremony each day, until Passover merges into Pentecost. The Law given at Pentecost was itself a means to an end, seen in the third feast, Tabernacles. Tabernacles is a picture of the humble dominion the people of God have been promised if they love and obey God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. Thus Passover commemorates our liberation from slavery to Pharaoh that we might be servants of God and take possession of the land. The New Testament fulfillments are obvious: Through Christ, the Passover Lamb, we have been set free from bondage to sin, in order that, by the Spirit (Pentecost) the righteous requirements of the Law might be fully met in us (Rom. 8:4), in order that we might be made heirs of the world through powerful effects of the gospel (Rom. 4:13). We would profit from seeing the Supper as the celebration of freedom leading to service (1 Pt. 2:16) which in turn leads to godly dominion.
Passover's immediate connection is to the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The Jews prepare for the Passover by making a thorough search for leaven, purging their homes of all visible traces. On the morning before the Seder meal, orthodox Jewish neighborhoods are dotted by little bonfires into which the fathers have ceremonially cast the last known bits of leaven. We also are commanded to "get rid of the old yeast that [we] may be a new batch without yeast [sin]. For Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed." The search for leaven is the background of our practice of self-examination before the Supper. But we must remember that also after the Supper, we are to keep the feast with unleavened bread, that is, the bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:6-8).
As the covenant meal par excellence, the Passover celebration is very much family-oriented. It is the Jewish equivalent of Thanksgiving and Christmas combined. Scattered families aim to be together at this time. One rabbi has noted that the Seder is actually a family forum for retelling the redemption story. He cites Exodus 13, where we are commanded to use the ceremony as an opportunity for instruction. The entire Seder is deliberately organized to heighten the interest and inquisitiveness of the covenant youth. Our Lord's Supper celebrations are virtually devoid of this family-centeredness. We almost go out of our way to exclude children! If the Supper is a mystery to the participants, it must be altogether baffling to our children.
The Lord's Supper witnesses to the fact that Christians belong to a special family which includes the Father and the Son. The apostles left all to become members of Christ's family at the Last Supper. We practice infant baptism because Christ's family includes our children. We would do well to meaningfully include children in our celebration. An inability to explain the Supper to children may suggest that we don't understand it ourselves. The only information we have about Jesus' boyhood is that he went up to Jerusalem with his parents to celebrate Passover when he was twelve. It is significant that the Messiah while still a child was found at Passover "in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions" (Lk. 2:49). Perhaps we ought to have a child come to the table before the distribution of the elements and ask the server, "What do you mean by this?" He would then have opportunity to instruct the covenant youth as we are taught to in the Torah (Law): "This is done because of what the Lord did for me when I came up from Egypt (Ex.13:8)." (Some Jews recite the covenant history from Abraham's father, Terah, to the present!) Jesus, the true Passover Lamb, was certainly setting forth the Lord's Supper as the fulfillment of the Passover when he said, "Do this in remembrance of Me." What an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel to our children! Let's tell them, "We do this in remembrance of Christ who delivered us from our bitter bondage to sin."
The rabbis emphasize the deliberate use of "me" in Exodus 13:8. The Passover liturgy notes, "In each generation a person must feel as if he himself just came out of Egypt." We, too, are to regard Christ's sacrifice personally, for me, for us, even in this generation. We must apply the blood of the Lamb to the doorposts of our hearts by faith. This is the essential reason for the memorial meal—a God-given means by which we personally appropriate and celebrate the redemption of God's people from bondage, and by which God seals us as his own. But the Seder avoids mystical speculation. The personal application is to be made in the context of the covenant community. "We, who are many, are one body" (1 Cor. 10:17).
In addition to the look back and the look within, each Seder includes a look ahead. The entire company says in unison, "Next year in Jerusalem," that is, may the next Passover be finally fulfilled in the Messianic Kingdom. Could Jesus have had this in mind when he said at the Last Supper that the next time he would eat the Passover it would be when it found its fulfillment in the Kingdom of God? Certainly Paul bids us to look forward when he says that by the Supper, we "proclaim the Lord's death until He comes." The rabbis command that the Seder be performed with joy. Every Lord's Supper must also be celebrated with joy. Think of what it commemorates. Think of what it anticipates!
A big difference between the Seder and the Supper is that the Seder has an actual supper and our Supper doesn't! One prominent Jewish missionary tells the story of how, after his conversion, he was invited to have the Lord's Supper at a local church. When he was handed a tiny bit of bread and a thimble-sized cup, he was amazed. "This is a supper? And they call Jews cheap!" While you might have to be Jewish to appreciate his humor, you don't have to be Jewish to appreciate the point. We have not done well to so thoroughly abstract the bread and wine from an actual meal. In Jewish homes today, the elements which correspond to the Supper of the Lord, the bread and the cup which were sanctified by our Messiah, these same elements form the climax of the Seder meal. In fact, the bread, which had been specially set aside, is brought forth after the meal at the third cup of wine (the Seder calls for four) which is still known as "the cup of blessing" (See 1 Cor. 10:16). As I watch my father break the matzoh and distribute it to all the celebrants, I silently cry out with the Apostle, "My heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved!"
While the Jews have the meal yet miss the full truth of the elements, we retain the elements but have done away with the meal. Yet, throughout Scripture, the entire drama of redemption climaxes again and again in redeemed man's eating and drinking with God. In Exodus 24, the closing section of what is known as the "Book of the Covenant," we read of Moses and seventy-three other representatives of Israel: "They saw God, and they ate and drank." In the appointed offerings, the sin offering was followed by the burnt offering, but the goal was the "shalom" offering. This peace (or, fellowship) offering signified and sealed the full covenant restoration of the worshiper and was completed in a meal. Consider also the many meals Christ ate with his disciples in his post-resurrection appearances (Lk. 24:30-43; n. 21:1-14; Ac. 1:4 and 10:41). Similarly, the fellowship meal preceding the breaking of bread and drinking of the cup formed a part of the Lord's Supper in the New Testament. Might we not do well to occasionally unite the elements of the Supper with a festive but orderly meal? How about each fourteenth of Nisan?
The next time we celebrate the Supper, let's not restrict our examination to self. Let us consider the contexts which help us to see this bread and wine as the richest possible fare. Take. Eat. Take. Drink. Christ has set us free.
- Steve M. Schlissel
Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.