Jesus’ final meal with His disciples was none other than the celebration of a Passover Seder. The word “seder” simply means order. And while there are countless renditions of a Passover Seder, there are elements that have remained the same for thousands of years. Jesus, being a rabbi, had an intimate knowledge of Jewish law, scholarship, and traditions, and He uses this meal to profoundly demonstrate His fulfillment as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. Here’s five amazing Passover symbols fulfilled in Jesus.
During the first Passover, God instructed the Hebrews to slaughter a one-year-old, male lamb, that had no spot or blemish. In the process of slaughtering and cooking the lamb, they had to be careful not to break any of its bones. Then they were to smear the lamb’s blood on their doorpost to save them from the final plague wrought on Egypt. That night, the Angel of Death struck down the firstborn in Egypt. Those who had the blood on their doorpost were spared.
When Jesus met up with His cousin John to be baptized, John saw Jesus in the distance and proclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, He was symbolized as a lamb, fulfilling Isaiah’s 800 year-old prophecy which stated, “he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). It seems tragically fitting then that the lamb would meet its end at the time of Passover, just as thousands of Paschal lambs were being slaughtered for the Passover sacrifice and feast.
What is even more fascinating is the manner of Jesus’ death. During crucifixions, it was customary to break the person’s legs in order to expedite their execution. In the Gospel accounts, we’re told that the guards started to break the legs of those being crucified alongside of Jesus. However, when they got to Jesus they discovered that He was already dead and skipped breaking any of His bones. And just as the first Passover lambs’ blood was extended over the door frames to prevent pending judgment, Jesus’ blood was extended on the cross beams of the crucifix to save His people from eternal death.
The celebration of Passover corresponds with the Feast of Unleavened Bread. It is during this time that Jewish people are not permitted to eat bread made with yeast. The historical significance is that as the Hebrews were fleeing from Egyptian captivity, they didn’t have time to let the bread rise. Throughout history, the Jewish people have memorialized the hasty escape from Egypt by eating bread without yeast.
Yeast also has another symbol in the Torah. It represents sin. The Feast of Unleavened Bread is a reminder to search through our lives in order to rid the sin that is tainting our bodies. It seems fitting that during Jesus’ final Passover meal, He used the matzah to refer to His body. Just as the matzah was without yeast, so too God in human flesh was without sin.
There is one more fitting aspect of matzah. Hold it up to the light, and you’ll notice that it is pierced and striped. Sometime during the intertestamental period (the time after the Torah was written and the birth of Jesus), rabbinic law decreed that the bread must be striped and pierced. The practical reason was to impede leavening so the matzah could bake before leavening began.
However, the matzah is also a poetic memorial of Jesus’ crucified body. As the Prophet Isaiah foretold 800 years before Jesus, “He was pierced for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). What a fitting symbol for Jesus, the Bread of Life – a piece of unleavened bread that has been pierced and striped.
The Matzo Tash
With most aspects of the seder, it’s unclear when certain traditions began. One of those traditions is the matzo tash, also known as the unity bag. This square linen bag, separated into three equal compartments, holds the matzah. There’s much speculation regarding the meaning of the different compartments. It could refer to the three Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Many have said that it refers to the three classes of Israel – the Priests, Levites, and Congregation.
During the early part of the seder, the leader will take out a piece of matzah from the middle compartment. He will break it in half. Half will be eaten then, and the other half will be set aside (called the afikoman) and used after the meal.
This perfectly symbolizes the Messiah. The unity bag can also be explained as the unity of the Godhead – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One God in three distinct persons. The middle compartment represents the Son – Jesus, who was brought out of the unity of the Trinity, exposed to our world, broken, and hidden aside for a time (i.e. buried).
The meal part of the Seder falls about halfway or two-thirds of the way into the ceremony. Immediately following dinner, the seder focuses on the afikoman. Remember that during the Seder the leader took the middle matzah out of the matzo tash, broke it in half, and set aside half of the matzah. That half that was set aside is called the afikoman.
Depending on the Seder, the afikoman may be part of a little game. During the meal, the leader may hide the afikoman, and to the person that finds it, the leader will “redeem” it (i.e. buy it back) by giving the finder a gift (generally money). Once the afikoman matzah has been given back to the leader, he’ll say a blessing, break it, and distribute the pieces of matzah for everyone to eat.
In the Gospel accounts, we’re told that after dinner, Jesus took the bread, gave thanks, and broke it, and said, “This is my body broken for you. As often as you eat of this, do this in remembrance of me.” While matzah is eaten throughout the seder, the specific matzah that would have been eaten after the seder would have been the afikoman. It is at this specific moment, with this specific piece of matzah, that Jesus is drawing the symbol to Himself.
It’s fitting as well. Jesus came from the center of the Godhead, he was broken, hidden away until the appointed time, and at the appointed time, He redeemed mankind. Furthermore the word afikoman is significant. Though its origin is unknown, many contend that it is an ancient Greek word that means “dessert.” Other scholars have contended that the word afikoman had nothing to do with “dessert,” but came from the Greek verb afikomenos which means “the Coming One” or “He who has come.” Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:26 echo this meaning: “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
The Cup of Redemption
There isn’t just one cup of wine that’s drunk during Passover. There are actually four, and each cup has a name, its own significance, and a particular time in the seder when it is consumed.
The four names of the cups are the cup of blessing, the cup of plagues, the cup of redemption, and the cup of praise. These cups also correspond with the four “I will” statements in Exodus 6:6-7. I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm. I will take you as my own people.
In the Gospel accounts, we’re told that after the meal, Jesus took the cup, gave thanks and said, “This is my blood shed for you. As often as you drink of this, do it in remembrance of me.” While Jesus’ disciples would have understood the 3rd cup – the cup of redemption to symbolize how God rescued the Hebrews from Egypt, Jesus is furthering the symbol to now mean God’s redemption through the Messiah.
The Passover is an elaborate dinner celebration filled with rich symbols. Every particular aspect has a meaning and purpose. When we look at the Passover through the lens of Jesus as the Messiah, we see an even deeper and profound perspective of the seder.