Today I’m talking about what the Jewish Passover Seder was in the time of Christ, and how it had evolved out of the instruction given to Israel at the first Passover…and more, how that was the perfect backdrop to the ultimate work of salvation—Jesus’s institution of Holy Communion, which started at the Last Supper but was not completed until His death on the cross. This is part of a series I’ve been doing based on Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist by Brant Pitre*. First I talked about the Daily Bread, then about why the Passover was the perfect backdrop for Jesus’s New Covenant…which is to say, we looked at that original covenant, and last week I paused to examine the relationship of Jesus and Traditions, so that we can understand that He did not dismiss all manmade traditions—there are many He kept and fulfilled.

Including what we are talking about today: the Passover Seder.

In Exodus, we get the original instructions for the original Passover, as well as a command to keep this forever as a holy day, which I talked about in post 2, linked above, Why the Passover. But by the time Jesus walked the earth, those traditions had evolved, as traditions always do. As we go through what it became, keep in mind that Jesus kept this Feast all His life, and He did so with reverence, which is a heavenly blessing upon it.

Jerusalem was the only place where sacrifices could be made in the time of Christ, so anyone who wished to participate in any of the feasts and festivals that require sacrifice had to travel to Jerusalem. Passover was the one that drew the most people, and in this era, hundreds of thousands of lambs would be sacrificed during the feast.

Think about that for a second. Hundreds of thousands. There were so many that they couldn’t all be sacrificed on one day anymore, so they spread it out. Those who were Israel-dwelling Jews would have their lambs sacrificed on Thursday; those who had settled abroad or who were converted to Judaism from the gentile world would have their sacrificed on Friday.

Ever wonder why the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all specify that it was during the Passover meal—for which their own lamb would have been sacrificed that day—was when Jesus instituted the Last Supper, yet John specifies that Christ was killed when the lambs were being sacrificed? That’s why. And it’s really cool, if you think about it. Jesus offered himself not just for the Jews, but for the whole world, and it was at the very hour of that sacrifice-for-the-world that He gave up His own life. I mean, wow, right?

Anyway. Back to the Seder. When the lambs were sacrificed in the Temple, it had become such a big to-do that they had an assembly line, more or less. So much blood ran out of the temple and into the river that the river ran red. The lambs had to be roasted whole, but blood was of course strictly forbidden for consumption by the Law, so they would hang the sacrificed lambs much like butchers still do today to let the blood drain out…only, they would position the lambs on a cross. They even referred to them in this state as crucified.

Lambs, sacrificed and crucified, for the salvation of the people.

The meal was no longer just some slap-dash unleavened bread and the lamb though. Ceremony had evolved to remind the people about the entire exodus story. Every seder meal included a dish of salt water—the tears of the enslaved people; bitter herbs—to remind of the bitterness of those days; the unleavened bread, of which a piece would be hidden for the children to find; charoset—a “clay” of apples, nuts, wine, and cinnamon that is reminiscent of mortar or bricks, as a reminder of the labor done in Egypt; a roasted egg—symbol of new life; a bone from the sacrificed lamb that would be eaten; and “four cups” of wine.

That’s important. The wine was to be drunk at key points in the meal, each one significant—so much so that there was a Law at this point in time guaranteeing everyone, no matter how poor, enough wine for all four cups of the feast.

At the start of the meal, a child would ask a ritual series of “why?” questions, asking why they eat a meal like this, and the patriarch of the family would answer…speaking in first person. “It is because of what the Lord our God did for me when He led me out of Egypt.”

Side note here. While I was studying the book about this, I was also reading in the Gospels, and I read the part where Jesus promises freedom, and some of the religious leaders reply (Roseanna paraphrase here), “Freedom? We are children of Abraham! We were never slaves, so we don’t need to be freed.”

Reading that at the same time when I was reading the chapter about how the very words of the Seder had been written so that every generation was called to remember that God had freed them from the bonds of slavery in Egypt, I had a new understanding of why the claim grieved Jesus so. Every year, they repeated these words. But clearly they hadn’t taken them to heart. The hadn’t remembered who they really were, and what it really meant to be a child of Abraham.

Okay, back to the wine. 😉 First is the Cup of Sanctification or Thanksgiving, remembering God’s promise to deliver His people. Next was the Cup of Judgment, remembering the plagues, during which one would dip one’s finger into the cup ten times, reciting the plagues as the wine dripped onto a napkin.

After the second cup, the meal is eaten. The final part of the meal involved lifting up the unleavened bread, breaking it, and passing it around. That was when Jesus “broke the bread, blessed it, and said, ‘This is my body, broken for you…’” Immediately after that comes the third cup, the Cup of Blessing. This is the one Jesus lifted and said, “This is my blood.”

Notice His wording. He did not say of the bread and wine, “These are symbols to remind you of my body and blood, which I’m about to give up for you.” He said This is.

He is the Word. The very Word of creation. When the Word of Creation says “This is…” He means it. There are plenty of times when He made it clear that things were symbolic. When He said, “The Kingdom of God is like…” But that’s not what He did here. He did something more. Something miraculous. He pointed to bread and wine—two ordinary things, yet rich in meaning in this context—and made them something miraculous.

Then comes something very important as well. The Fourth Cup, which is the Cup of Praise or Consummation. They lift the cup and sing a psalm—which we know Jesus did.

But He didn’t drink it. They left. They went out to the garden to pray at that point, with Jesus claiming He would not drink of the fruit of the vine again until He’d done so in His kingdom.

What is the significance of that?

The Feast never ended. He stretched it out, kept it moving with Him through the next day. When He was being crucified at the start, they offered Him wine, which He refused—that wine would have mixed with herbs that drugged the senses and lessened the pain of crucifixion, which was considered a humane thing to do for convicts.

He refused. He refused to lessen His suffering for us. He refused that wine, because His kingdom had not yet come. The Passover celebration, His sacrifice, was not yet complete.

But John makes it very clear that the very last act He did as He hung on the cross was drink wine, offered to him on a branch of hyssop—the very branch God commanded they use to smear the blood of the original Passover lambs onto their doorposts. He drank. He finished that Fourth Cup, the Cup of consummation—the cup of the new covenant. He said, “It is finished,” signaling that He was now fulfilling all the Passover ever meant to foreshadow, that He was making this new covenant in His own blood, consummating it as eternal praise, and that this was the coming of His kingdom.

And then He died. The Passover Seder was completed, not in the Upper Room, but on the cross. For the salvation not just of Israel but of the world. He had fulfilled and redeemed that original covenant and then offered us a new one.

But do you remember what I talked about in part 2? The covenant wasn’t created just by the sacrifice. It wasn’t enough to kill the lamb. You had to eat. You had to drink. This was a key part of making a covenant, and it’s one the early Jews understood.

Do we? Do we really understand how important this is? John wanted to make sure we did, which is why his Gospel spends so much time focusing on the bread, the manna, and Jesus’s insistence that we know what we’re doing when we partake. Christ makes it clear in John 6 that the only way to share eternity with Him is to eat His flesh and drink His blood—which are food and drink indeed.

He didn’t just change His mind and give them bread and wine instead because it was easy, and a good reminder. He changed the bread and wine into the heavenly manna that we need. The manna many Jews believed was stored from eternity in heaven and poured out for the Israelites in the wilderness—the manna that is now offered daily to us as believers, Jesus Himself, poured out for us. He transforms those common elements into divine elements. Every time. Every day.

That’s the miracle of it. The daily miracle.

(I’d intended this series to go longer, but given my recent cancer diagnosis, I’m going to mostly leave it at this for now. But I do highly recommend you get the book referenced in the start, and I also highly recommend The Fourth Cup by Scott Hahn* for an incredibly detailed look at that portion of things!)

* Please note that this is an affiliate link. See disclaimer in the footer.

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