Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor. 5:7-8)
Last Sunday I spoke of our expectations and the expectations of those who witnessed Jesus in the flesh. Most Jews of Jesus’ time were eagerly awaiting for a messiah, for the one anointed by God, to come and drive out the Romans, to remove the wicked leaders and establish God’s kingdom with a son of David upon the throne. We know that several men claimed to the messiah and attempted to do just that only to be destroyed and killed by the Romans. Clearly they were not the messiah. Jesus too was killed, executed by the Romans. Yet…yet he rose from the dead and he lives!
All expectations were shattered. The son of David and God was not a mighty warrior, but a sacrifice for all humanity. As we entered into Lent I preached about Jesus’ death as sacrifice and commented on how difficult this concept is for so many, both then and now. Yet there is no doubting that this is exactly how the church has understood Good Friday since its inception. Described by the author of Hebrews and in John’s letters as our atoning sacrifice.
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:2
Jesus’ death is the final ransom for our sins, making us again “at one” with God. The Day of Atonement was and is the most solemn and important festival in Israelite worship. It was the only day of the year when the High Priest would enter the most holy place in the Temple, the inner most sanctuary, and there he would offer the sacrifices for the sins of the entire nation.
In the Holy of Holies the High Priest would sprinkle the cover of the Ark of the Covenant with the blood of the sacrifices for the priests and the people. Thus it is called in Hebrew Yom Kippur or the “Day of Covering.” The term we know, “atonement,” was coined by William Tyndale to express the function rather than the mere action. In this ritual the High Priest was making the nation again “at one” with God.
So too Jesus’ death is an atoning sacrifice that reunites us with God. His death was for the sins of the world, not just Israel. And whereas the High Priest had to enter the Temple every year to offer the sacrifice of animals for Israel’s sins, Jesus as our Great High Priest and sacrifice made one offering for all, for all time. As the author of Hebrews has said,
Heb. 9:11 But when Christ came as a high priest … 12 he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.
And yet although Jesus’ death was an atoning sacrifice, we also find that there is another sacrificial image associated with Good Friday. It was, of course, for the festival of Passover that Jesus went up to Jerusalem and I have often wondered, since Jesus clearly chose when he would give himself over into the hands of those who would kill him, we he did not choose Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as the festival at which to ascend Zion’s hill. Why not simply go into Jerusalem at that holy day? The city would have been just as crowded and the Romans just as nervous about a revolt. Why not make this connection with the sacrifice of atonement explicit in day and time?
Instead Jesus chooses Passover and so it is that Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, says that he is our “Passover sacrifice” and this too makes sense. The image of Christ as the Pashcal Lamb fills our liturgy. If you were at last night’s Easter Vigil you would have noticed that the entire first portion of that beautiful service was centered upon the notion that Christ is our Passover and the readings focused upon the Exodus of Israel from Egypt.
The first Passover was the final plague that God visited upon Pharaoh and Egypt. You will recall that God sent nine plagues upon Egypt, each effecting only the Egyptians and yet cutting them to the core. Key symbols and elements of their lives were effected; the Nile River, their life blood, was turned to blood; their crops destroyed by Locusts, and their cattle struck down. But the Israelites and their animals were unaffected. The final plague, however, was that the first born of all those in Egypt would be killed by the Angel of Death.
God ordered Israel to kill a lamb and take its blood and spread it upon the doorposts of their homes.
13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
This is where our term “Passover” comes from because the Angel of Death passed over those homes, sparing their first born and, in turn, bringing about their freedom from Egypt. Pharaoh finally let Israel go, indeed he drove them out! And this is what Jesus and his disciples where in Israel to remember and commemorate. The story of the Exodus and God’s deliverance of his people would have been read and discussed in the days leading up to the day we now know as Good Friday.
I believe there are four unique characteristics about Passover, over and against Yom Kippur and all other fasts and feasts in the Bible, that led Jesus to choose this time and festival as the one whereat he would offer himself up as our atoning and Paschal lamb.
First, Passover is unlike any other fast, feast, and festival given in the Law in that it commemorates an annual, historic event. Yom Kippur happened annually and the sin offerings occurred daily. The Passover sacrifice happened once, in a particular time and place, and when Israelites gathered together at Passover it was not to offer the sacrifice, but to remember the sacrifice that had been made. So to was Jesus’ sacrifice an unique offering given at a specific time and place. When we gather at the table we remember and celebrate in memorial of what he has done for us, but we do not offer his sacrifice anew. Christ died once for all and for all eternity. “He has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26).
Second, Passover is celebrated within the home, in the community, rather than through the priests in the Temple. All other sacrifices required the priests to accept the animals and the grain and oil offerings from the people and then present them to God in the Temple. At Passover the family or group of friends gather together, with or without a priest, and give thanks to God for having delivered them from Egypt and death. Jesus sat at the table with his disciples and gave them bread and said, “take, eat, this is my body.” And when he gave up his body as our High Priest he became our sole intermediary with God.
Third, the event of Passover required act of faith. They had to sacrifice the animals and then make a sign that they were members of the nation of Israel, marking their doorposts with the blood of the lamb so that the Angel of Death would pass by their household. Jesus called on all who would believe in him to confess him as their lord and to be baptized. These are the outward and visible signs of the new covenant and so death no longer can lay claim to us, not just for a single night, but for eternity, we are freed from death.
Finally, the Passover and subsequent Exodus from Egypt foreshadow and represent our own passage from sinfulness to forgiveness, from death to life. In that one unique moment in history they declared their commitment to God, were spared death, and led by God through the waters of the sea to the dry land of Canaan, the Promised Land.
In Jesus’ death we are delivered from death. We cross through the waters of baptism and we are raised with him to new life.
But we must also remember on this Easter morning, as we stand on the far side of the Sea, with Egypt on the other shore, that decisions lie before us in the wilderness of this life. The Israelites, you will recall, began to grumble and doubt and so their entry into the Promised Land was delayed. We know that the Promised Land of our eternity with him is assured, but how will we now spend the time that we have here, now, in between, having been delivered from sin and death? Will we spend it griping and complaining, insisting that we should have the road map and could do a better job of guiding ourselves through this wilderness? Or will we lay claim to the new life and freedom, the deliverance from the slavery and bondage of sin that Jesus has won for us that we can enjoy both now and in the world to come?
Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.