All Bible quotations are from the Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version, Copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
While the apostle Paul was staying in Ephesus in the Spring, possibly in the year 55 A.D., he was composing his first letter to the Corinthians.1 He was planning on staying in Ephesus until Pentecost (1 Cor. 16:8). This means that the Jewish Passover was very much on his mind, either because preparations were under way for it or it had just been celebrated. As Paul writes to the Corinthians about other issues, he justifies his conclusions with a statement upon which his readers obviously would have agreed: "Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed" (1 Cor. 5:7). The casual way in which Paul makes this affirmation "suggests that this comparison was already familiar to the Corinthian church."2 Jesus died at the time of the Passover feast in Jerusalem. The Last Supper is portrayed as a Passover meal or something close to it by the writers of the Synoptic Gospels. The analogies which can be and have been drawn between the death of Christ and the sacrifice of the lamb at Passover are numerous and full of meaning for the church today. What follows is a survey of Jesus as the Lamb of God, beginning with a study of the Passover lamb.
It is very likely that the Synoptic Gospels identify the Last Supper with a Passover meal on a Thursday evening, which would be the beginning of Friday on a Jewish calendar. Numerous arguments which point in this direction include the following:
(1) The Passover meal had to be eaten within the walled city of Jerusalem. Jesus ate the Last Supper meal in Jerusalem rather than in nearby Bethany where he had spent much time.
(2) The Passover night had to be spent within greater Jerusalem, which would include Gethsemane. Jesus remained within greater Jerusalem instead of returning to Bethany.
(3) It was customary to sit upright at an ordinary meal but to recline at the Passover meal. Jesus and his disciples were reclining at the Last Supper (Mk. 14:18).
(4) Palestinian Jews of the first century typically ate two meals a day. The first was in the morning and the second in late afternoon. The Last Supper, however, was eaten in the evening (Mk. 14:17), which is what was required by the Law of Moses for the Passover (Ex. 12:8).
(5) It was customary to end the Passover meal with the singing of the Hallel Psalms (Ps. 115-118). The Last Supper ended with a hymn (Mt. 26:30; Mk. 14:26).
(6) An explanation of the elements of the meal was done in the Passover (Ex. 12:26-27). Jesus gave a new interpretation to the meaning of the bread and the fruit of the vine, possibly as the opportunity for such explanation was afforded by the Passover ritual.
(7) It was a common custom to give some money to the poor at Passover. This custom was the rationale in the minds of the other apostles for why Judas left the supper (Jn. 13:29).
(8) The third cup of the Passover meal was called the "cup of blessing," which is the name Paul gives to the Eucharistic cup (1 Cor. 10:16).3
There are differences, however, which present difficulties in identifying the Last Supper with a Passover observance. The Lord's Supper, which originated from the Last Supper, is a weekly observance, whereas the Passover is a yearly ritual. There is no mention in the accounts of the Last Supper of a Passover lamb or bitter herbs. The Greek term for the bread of the Last Supper usually refers to leavened bread. It is a different word from the one usually used to describe unleavened bread.4 The four cups traditionally used in the Passover meal are not all distinguished in the Last Supper accounts. Finally, it is not easy to justify many activities that would have taken place on Passover day: the carrying of weapons, the trial of Jesus, the purchase of linen by Joseph of Arimathea, and the removal and burial of the body of Jesus.
Most of these differences, though, are dealt with fairly easily. For example, the term for "bread" is not exclusively used for leavened bread. The other arguments are mostly based on silence. It was not necessary for the Gospel writers to allude to every item of the Passover meal in their accounts of the Last Supper. Only those which were relevant to their focus were necessary, even though we may find it strange that no lamb was mentioned. Through careful study of rabbinic writings, some scholars have concluded that there is no insurmountable difficulty in all of the various actions noted above taking place on a feast day.
The greatest difficulty in viewing the Last Supper as a Passover meal is the seeming conflict between the Synoptics and the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John appears to have the Passover occurring one day later than the Synoptics, thus Jesus is crucified at the same time in the afternoon as the Passover lambs are being slaughtered in the temple. According to John's Gospel the Jewish leaders did not want to enter the headquarters of Pilate "so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover" (Jn. 18:28; cf. 13:1). Later we are told: "It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week" (Jn. 19:14). It is difficult to draw any other conclusion from John's Gospel except that Jesus died at the same time as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered, since he himself was our Passover lamb (Jn. 19:36). The Gospel of John seems to be saying that the Passover did not begin until sundown on Friday. "This is perhaps the most disputed calendric question in the NT," declares Raymond Brown.5
No totally satisfactory solution of the differences between the Synoptics and the Gospel of John has been advanced. One possible solution is that Jesus was observing a different calendar from the Sadducees for some reason, and that the Passover was celebrated on two different days by different groups of Jews. Efforts to demonstrate usage of different calendars in the early first century, especially by Jesus, have not convinced most scholars. Possibly Jesus and his disciples were observing a semi-Passover meal or a similar substitute one evening earlier, since Jesus knew about his impending arrest, trial and death. Another alternative is that "preparation of the Passover" in John 19:14 meant the day before the Sabbath, the meaning of the term elsewhere (Mk. 15:42; Lk. 23:54; Mt. 27:62). The priests could have been referring, not to the Passover lamb, but to other paschal sacrifices which were offered throughout the week. Finally, some interpreters have given up in the effort to reconcile the two accounts and have concluded that either the Synoptic Gospels or John is incorrect in its chronology.6
What is beyond dispute, though, is that both the Synoptic Gospels and also the Gospel of John point to Jesus as the Christian's Passover lamb. This is further confirmed by both the writings of Paul and also the already present belief of the early church, which was in existence before the writings of Paul. As C. K. Barrett said: "Acceptance of Jesus as the Lamb of God is independent of chronology."7 Scholars will be debating the date of the Passover and the exact character of the Last Supper until the end of the world, but the truth that Jesus was crucified during the Passover season is beyond dispute. The affirmation that the early church interpreted Jesus' death as a paschal sacrifice is unimpeachable. Christians can raise their voices in unison with the utterance of John the Baptist and declare: "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (Jn. 1:29).
In what ways can a knowledge of the Jewish Passover feast enhance Christian understanding of Christ's atoning sacrifice? The origin of the Passover in Egypt many centuries ago is the starting point. God sent numerous plagues upon the Egyptians, but Pharaoh would not release the children of Israel. One final plague was going to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back whereby Pharaoh would finally relent. About midnight God would pass over the land of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt would die (Ex. 11:4-5). The Israelites would be spared by a special provision, the vicarious Passover lamb.
On the tenth day of the month each Israelite family was to take a lamb that had no blemish and keep it until the fourteenth of the month (Ex. 12:1-5). On the fourteenth day the lamb was to be slaughtered and its blood put on the doorposts and the lintel of houses of the Israelites (Ex. 12:6-7). Then the family was to eat the lamb along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (Ex. 12:7-8). They were to eat with their "bags packed," because they would be leaving Egypt immediately (Ex. 12:9-12). This historical event was to be reenacted by future generations as a festival, along with a week of eating unleavened bread (Ex. 12:14-20, 24).
The way in which the Passover was celebrated changed and developed over time, including many changes practiced in the biblical era. Typical for the New Testament period would be the following.8 On the evening of the 14th of Nisan, a minimum of ten people would gather in a home. The head of the house would open with a blessing. The first cup would then be consumed. The food would be brought in which consisted of a roast lamb, unleavened bread, bitter herbs and stewed fruit. The son would then ask: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" The father would recount the story of the deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt. The salvation of Israel happened quickly, so there was no time for the dough to be leavened. The bitter herbs were a reminder of the bitterness of Egyptian bondage. The lamb was a sacrifice whose blood on the doorposts meant that God passed over the houses of the Israelites without bringing death to the firstborn. The connectedness with God's people of the past was stressed. The continued blessings of God in the present were recognized. Part of the Hallel would be sung and the second cup would be drunk. The head of the house would then take the bread and pronounce a blessing: "Blessed are you, Yahweh our God, King of the world, who has caused bread to come forth from the earth." He would then break the bread into pieces and give it to those around the table. The bread would be eaten along with the bitter herbs and the stewed fruit. Only then would the lamb be eaten. The meal was to be consumed before midnight. When the meal was over the third cup would be blessed with a final prayer of thanksgiving. The second part of the Hallel would be sung followed by the fourth cup.
In spite of the difficulties noted above, it is relatively easy to place the Last Supper within the setting of a Passover meal. Luke even notes that a cup was taken before the bread and another following the bread (Lk. 22:17-20). The dipping of the bread in a dish is noted in the Gospels (Jn. 13:26; Mk. 14:20; Mt. 26:23). As Jesus and the disciples were celebrating a traditional Passover, suddenly the usual explanations of the meaning of the symbols were changed. Jesus showed the apostles that the events of the Israelite exodus out of Egypt were just a prelude, a foreshadowing of more marvelous things to come. The salvation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage was merely a hint of the greater reality that Jesus would save us from the bondage of sin. The bread with no leaven, that is, no impurity, was his body. Jesus, who was without sin, was the bread of life. The fruit of the vine was a symbol for his blood. Just as the blood of the Passover lamb meant that death passed over those within that house, likewise the blood of Jesus applied to our souls meant that we would not have to suffer eternal death.
In the land of Egypt God was making a covenant with the Israelites. Soon he would baptize them in the Red Sea and give a law at Mount Sinai (1 Cor. 10:1-2). Likewise, Jesus was instituting a new covenant by the blood he would shed at Calvary (Lk. 22:20). After their Passover deliverance the Israelites of old were sojourners in the wilderness looking for a promised land. Likewise, the church is redeemed "with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish" (1 Pet. 1:19). We too are pilgrims on a journey for an imperishable home (1 Pet. 1:1, 4, 17). What beautiful symmetry. What a glorious story of redemption which was outlined so long ago, even in the fine, minute details of the history of Israel and in her ritual observances. The only possible way such a tapestry of color and harmony could have been woven was because the hand of God was therețin the Passover lamb, in the blood on the doorposts and in the unleavened bread.
While the Passover celebration informs and adds to our under- standing of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb, it does not contain within it the fullness of atonement theology. Emphasis on Jesus as a Passover lamb is minimal in the New Testament in comparison with the broader emphasis on Jesus as a sacrificial lamb, and even more broadly as the fulfillment of the whole Mosaic sacrificial system.9 Therefore, the Lord's Supper is not merely a Christianized Passover meal. Listen to a warning against confusion of the Lord's Supper and the Jewish Passover, one which appears, oddly enough, in a Passover Seder printed by a Christian publishing house:
Christians will want to avoid any tendency to syncretism, that is, mixing the Seder and the Lord's Supper so that the Seder appears to be a Christian observance. It is a Jewish ritual used to observe the Passover.10
The Lord's Supper is not a celebration of Israel's deliverance from the death of the firstborn in Egypt. Rather, the Lord's Supper is a memorial of our deliverance from sin and death by means of the sacrifice of Christ. Equally so, the Lord's Supper is the church's celebration of Jesus' resurrection from the dead on the first day of the week and his continued presence in the church. The Lord's Supper is not observed annually in the month of Nisan, but weekly on the first day of the week, which is the Lord's day, the day of Jesus' resurrection (Rev. 1:10; Acts 20:7). So while the Jewish Passover enriches our understanding of the sacrificial nature of the death of Christ, it is not the exclusive model, not even the most significant one, by which insight into the cross is gained.
The most frequent New Testament allusion to Jesus as a lamb is not in regard to the Passover, but in the book of Revelation where he is designated by that term twenty-eight times.11 At first glance Jesus as the lamb in Revelation appears to be the same theme as elsewhere in the Bible. Jesus as a lamb is a sacrifice for mankind's sins. In the heavenly court Jesus appears as "a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered" (Rev. 5:6; cf. 13:8). The heavenly choir proclaimed: "You were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation" (Rev. 5:9). Cleansing is made possible "by the blood of the Lamb" (Rev. 7:14; cf. 1:5).
But another theme is present in Revelation in regards to the lamb. Not only is he the sacrificial lamb, he is the victorious conquering lamb.12 The lamb in the heavenly court draws the awe of all present. This lamb is not only a lamb that has been slaughtered, but also a lamb having "seven horns and seven eyes" (Rev. 5:6). The horn is a symbol of power, and the lamb of Revelation has seven horns, that is, enormous power (cf. Ps. 18:2; 75:10; 89:17; 92:10; 132:17; 1 Enoch 90:6-17). The lamb of Revelation is powerful. Only he could open the scroll sealed with seven seals (Rev. 6:1-6). The lamb of Revelation possesses qualities not normally associated with a lamb such as wrath (Rev. 6:16). The lamb of Revelation is seated on a throne, is the head of the church and is ruling in heaven (Rev. 7:17; 14:4; 19:8-9; 21:9, 14). The lamb of Revelation holds the eternal destiny of mankind and the flow of history within his grasp (Rev. 13:8; 14:10; 21:27). The lamb of Revelation leads an army, goes to war and conquers his enemies, since he is "Lord of lords and King of kings" (Rev. 14:1; 17:14). The lamb of Revelation is worshipped (Rev. 5:8-14; 7:9-10), thus he is a divine being (Rev. 21:22-23).
The concept of Jesus as the Lamb of God is so significant that we would do well to capitalize the word "lamb" when we use the full phrase as a title for our Lord. Within the two central motifs of Jesus as the Lamb of God are contained the gospel in a nutshell. The heart of the gospel is the sacrificial death and the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-4). As the Lamb of God Jesus died a sacrificial death. He was the Christian Passover lamb who brought deliverance to his people. But Jesus as the Lamb of God also points to his resurrection from the dead, his exaltation and his coronation. As the victorious Lamb of God Jesus is alive and well and ruling in his kingly power. He is enthroned as the King of kings and Lord of lords. As Peter said on the day of Pentecost: "God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified" (Acts 2:36).
In the eucharistic communion in which we participate every Lord's day is a token of both characteristics of Jesus as the Lamb of God. The communion expresses both aspects of the gospelțcrucifixion and resurrection. We gather around the Lord's table to remember his death (1 Cor. 11:23-25), but we do not do this on Thursday evening like the Last Supper or on Friday when the crucifixion likely occurred. We do it on Sunday, the first day of the week, the Lord's day, resurrection day. We do not remember a fallen hero who is buried in a tomb (Acts 2:29). Instead, we remember the resurrected Son of God who is alive and who will come again. As Paul said: "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Cor. 11:26).
So the phrase "the Lamb of God" is a concise summary of the gospel. It contains both the cross and the crown, both the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Christians we worship and obey the Lamb of God "who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification" (Rom. 4:25).
1Passover is the 15th of the month of Nisan on the Jewish calendar, the lamb being slaughtered at the end of the 14th. The day of the week on which Passover falls varies from year to year. Since Easter is resurrection day, it is usually observed on the first Sunday after Passover. This varies due to differences in the lunar versus the solar calendar. Also, it varies in practice between Eastern and Western churches due to Julian versus Gregorian calendars and other differences from long ago in church history. Usually Easter is the first Sunday after the full moon after the vernal equinox (March 20 or 21 when the sun crosses the equator).
2Joachim Jeremias, pascha, in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967) 5:900. Hereafter, TDNT.
3The above list comes from R. H. Stein, "Last Supper," in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. by Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992) 446-47.
4Azumos means "without fermentation" and is used in reference both to unleavened bread and to the festival of unleavened bread (Mk. 14:1, 12). Artos refers to a loaf of bread and is used of the bread of the Last Supper and the Lord's Supper (Mt. 26:26; Mk. 14:22; Lk. 22:19; Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7; 1 Cor. 10:16ff. See Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, translated by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, 2d edition by Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979) 19-20, 110.
5Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1970) 2:555.
6In addition to standard Bible dictionaries and critical introductions to the New Testament, see further discussion in Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1985) 2:1376-85; Frank Stagg, New Testament Theology (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1962) 241-42; William L. Lane, Commentary on the Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974) 497-99; Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark, 2d edition, reprint edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1966) 664-66; James Leo Garrett, Jr., Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995) 2:601-2; John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1991) 1:386-401; Jeremias, pascha, TDNT, 5:900; and Johannes Behm, klao, TDNT 3:732-34.
7C. K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Harper & Row, 1968) 129.
8Johannes Behm, klao, TDNT 3:732-34.
9See Gerald Paden's study of Jesus in relation to the burnt offering, the grain offering, the peace offering, the sin offering, the trespass offering and the day of atonement, in The Sacrificial System (Arlington, TX: Mission Printing, n.d.). By way of contrast, some lengthy books on the atonement or the cross of Christ devote as little as a paragraph to the Passover motif. Furthermore, the epistle to the Hebrews mostly ignores the Passover analogy (Heb. 11:28) in favor of the day of atonement, but this is probably due to the fact that the Passover was more of a family ritual than a priestly one.
10Barbara Balzac Thompson, Passover Seder: Ritual and Menu for an Observance by Christians (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984) 3; cited by Frank C. Senn, "Should Christians Celebrate the Passover?" in Passover and Easter, edited by Paul F. Bradshaw and Lawrence A. Hoffman (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999). It is a matter of controversy whether or not Gentile Christians ought to celebrate the Passover, a trend among many since the 1960s.
11Joachim Jeremias, arnion, TDNT, 1:338-41. The term for "lamb" in Revelation (arnion) is only used one other time in the New Testament (Jn. 21:15). The translation "ram" has been suggested but "lamb" is preferred by most scholars. Why John uses a different word for lamb so consistently in Revelation is not clear.
12David E. Aune, Revelation 1-5, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1997) 351-53, 367-73; and William Barclay, Jesus as They Saw Him (London: SCM Press, 1962) 308-11.