Purge out the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, even as ye are unleavened. For our passover also hath been sacrificed, even Christ (1 Corinthians 5:7).
When we think about Jesus’ death on the cross, we often think of His death in terms of atonement. The Hebrew author makes the parallel in Hebrews 7-10: the old covenant had high priests offering the blood of bulls and goats for sin, and the new covenant has the superior sacrifice based in better promises– Jesus, the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, who offered Himself up for our atonement.
While that is true, it is interesting to note that the Israelite Day of Atonement, also known as Yom Kippur, on the tenth day of the seventh month of the Israelite calendar (Leviticus 23:27). That was the day when the high priest would offer a bull, a ram, and two goats for his own sin and for the sin of the people (Leviticus 16:1-34). But Jesus does not die anywhere near the Day of Atonement. He also is not described as the “Bull of God” or the “Goat of God.” Instead, He dies and is raised again during Passover and the Feast of the Unleavened Bread (Mark 14:1, Luke 22:1; cf. Mark 14-16, Luke 22-24). He is also known as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29). What’s going on here? Is there any symbolism in the timing of Jesus’ death and resurrection? And if bulls and goats were the standard sacrificial animals for atonement, why is Jesus known as the Lamb?
Paul makes it clear that there is symbolism in the timing of Jesus’ death, and he also shows us why Jesus is called the Lamb, when he describes Jesus as “Christ our Passover” in 1 Corinthians 5:7.
The Passover festival takes us back in time to Exodus 11-12 and to the deliverance of the Israelites from the hand of Pharaoh. Pharaoh had been oppressing the Israelites and subjected them to hard, forced labor (Exodus 1). YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, called Moses to be His representative before Pharaoh to deliver Israel out of bondage to fulfill the promise He made to their forefathers (Exodus 2-6). Pharaoh resisted YHWH’s call for Israel’s release, and he and the Egyptians suffered under plagues of the Nile turning to blood, frogs, gnats, flies, death of livestock, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness (Exodus 7-10). Pharaoh still refused to release the Israelites. And then God promised one final plague, and Pharaoh’s hand would then be forced.
The action in the story comes to a screeching halt as God explains what He is about to do and commissions Israel to observe the Passover. It was to be the beginning of the Israelite year– the first month (Exodus 12:1-2). They are to slaughter a male, unblemished lamb a year old on the fourteenth day of the first month, and place the blood on the side-posts and lintel of the doors (Exodus 12:3-7). They are to eat the lamb with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, dressed and ready to depart immediately (Exodus 12:7-11). That night YHWH would strike down the firstborn of all of the Egyptians, man and beast, but when His angel would see the blood on the doors of the Israelites, he would pass over those houses and those inside would be spared (Exodus 12:13). Israel would then eat unleavened bread for seven days (Exodus 12:15-20).
This would be a perpetual statute in Israel– they were to annually observe the Passover and the Feast of the Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12:14). The reason why would become evident: this was the time when YHWH delivered Israel out of bondage, bringing them out of Egypt, redeeming them from their captors (Exodus 12:26-27). The Passover and Feast of the Unleavened Bread served as the “Independence Day” of Israel for generations.
So how is it that Jesus is our Passover Lamb? While it is true that Jesus’ death leads to our atonement, that is not the only dimension to His death. Through His death believers are able to be delivered from the bondage of sin and death to become the people of God traveling toward the “promised land” of the resurrection and eternity with God (Romans 8:1-2, 1 Corinthians 6:20, Philippians 3:12-14, Revelation 21:1-22:6). On account of the blood of the Lamb, God passes over the sin of believers, while those who are unbelievers risk suffering condemnation (Romans 5:6-11, 6:20-23, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10). Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, believers are able to celebrate their “independence day”!
Jesus’ death and resurrection represent the fulfillment of the story of Israel, taking place within the context of the liberation of Israel from bondage. Let us praise God for Christ our Passover Lamb and the redemption, Kingdom, and glory that come through Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry