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The Meaning of Passover

There are seven festivals in the Bible that picture steps in God’s salvation plan. Since Jesus Christ is the focal point of that plan, He is also the focal point of each festival. Perhaps that is one reason why the New Testament church observed all seven of these God-given Biblical Festivals.

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I’d like to read a scripture to begin this presentation. It’s in 1 Corinthians 10:11. Here Paul is talking to the Corinthians about the things written in what we call the Old Testament and what they called the Word of God. That was what they had back then. In verse 11, it says:

1 Cor. 10:11 – These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.

Now that word there – examples – that isn’t exactly translated to get the full effect, actually. It actually means – and I’m going to read this out of Strong’s – This word is found only in 1 Corinthians 10:11 – as a warning by way of example typologically – that is, figuratively – as a prophetic type of typological interpretation of scripture. Wow! Let’s let that sink in a little bit. Did he just say that everything in the Old Testament has a typological meaning for the New Testament church? I believe he did! What are we talking about there? What we’re talking about is a lot of symbolism – things that happened in the Old Testament are symbolic of things to come – layer upon layer of meaning.

I’d like to also mention…have you ever had a dream that was really a crazy dream – that you couldn’t make sense? Most of the images, and events, and people in our dreams are symbolic of something going on in our lives. Ten percent of our brain power is conscious and ninety percent is unconscious. The unconscious us is much smarter than the conscious us. And some of us are really glad for that. The language of the unconscious is symbolism. So God communicates with us at a lot of different levels. A lot of the things that we read in the Old Testament, as New Testament Christians, actually are symbolic of things that are going on in the present day – or for us today.
It reminds of Proverbs 25. It says, It is the glory of the LORD to conceal a thing, and the honor of kings to search out a matter. God likes us to think about those symbols, because it enriches our understanding of Him.

So today we’re going to study the meaning of the Passover in both the Old and New Testaments, but in a way that is different than we have been accustomed to doing. Looking back in time from Christ’s time – let’s think back, back, back, back, back, right? From Christ’s time? From our time to Christ’s time was what? Two thousand years, roughly. And from then back, the same amount of time. Four thousand years ago – two thousand years from Christ – what happened then? Well, it’s an interesting story, isn’t it?

At that time, a man named Jacob came on the scene. Jacob had twelve sons. They experienced a famine where they lived – in Canaan – and so they went down into Egypt, looking for food. They prospered there. In fact, they prospered so much that pretty soon the Egyptians were afraid of them, because there were so many of them. So they enslaved them. They enslaved them there for four hundred years. That’s as long as it was, roughly, until the Mayflower landed for us. So from that time until now, they were enslaved for that long. I’m rounding all these numbers off. So they were enslaved for a long time. And from the time Abraham was born until they were freed, that brought them up to about fifteen hundred years from Christ – about five hundred years from the time Abraham was born. Then, all of a sudden, God did ten miracles to free them, didn’t He? You can read about them in Exodus 1 through 12. The last miracle, we know, consisted of an angel passing through the entire nation of Egypt and killing every firstborn human and every firstborn animal. And the only way you could be excepted from that event was to have the blood of a lamb painted on the lintel and door post of the building that you were in. Of course, only the Israelites knew to do this. So the Israelites that weren’t stiffnecked and rebellious, and who did paint the blood of a lamb on their doorposts were saved when this angel went over and killed all the firstborn in the land.

We know that, in the evening before that event, God told them to take a lamb and sacrifice it, and eat that night as a special thing, and then to put the blood on the posts. And He told them to observe that night forever after. And He told them the name of it was the Passover, because the angel passed over the land. So that became one of the seven feasts of the LORD that Israel observed from that time on – or were supposed to observe from that time on.

Let’s notice a small part of the instruction in Exodus 12:12.

Ex. 12:12 – On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn, both men and animal, and I will bring judgment on all gods of Egypt. I am the LORD. We know that each one of those plagues was a direct attack on one of the gods of Egypt. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt. This is a day you are to commemorate. For the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD – a lasting ordinance. So that day – the Passover – was a memorial that was done the same day every year to memorialize their deliverance from Egypt. Did you get that? The Passover was observed once a year. Right? And everybody knows that, don’t they?

Okay. So fifteen hundred years before Christ, this happened. And then what happened? Well, they were freed, right? And they wandered in the wilderness for forty years. Then they crossed over Jordan – and Caleb and Joshua led them. Right? And then Caleb and Joshua died as time passed. And the tribes sort of got sidetracked from driving the nations out like God told them to do, and they began worshipping idols of the nations around them. I mean, it’s almost like being within a hundred years of being free, they were going right back to idol worship.

Well, then begins, in their history, a cycle of being conquered, repenting of idolatry, being saved by a judge – a man appointed by God – lapsing back into idolatry again, and then being saved by the next judge to come along. During this time they were conquered by the Mesopotamians, the Moabites, the Philistines, the Canaanites, the Midianites and the Ammonites. They were like a revolving door.

There were twelve judges during this period. The first one was Othniel, Caleb’s brother. Some other famous judges you’ve probably heard of are Deborah – a woman! A woman judge – what do you know? All you guys that think women should stay in their place? Think about it. Barak, Gideon, Samson, Eli and Samuel were other judges you may have known about, but there were more. This period lasted for over three hundred and twenty-five years, until the first king, who was Saul. That period lasted longer than we have been a nation so far – by quite a bit. Long period. Big revolving door! A lot of wars. A lot of conquests. A lot weakness. A lot of repenting. A lot of not learning a lesson. Right? Round and round we go.

Well, our story today begins at the end of that period, with the high priest, Eli, who was also a judge. Eli was a man who was devoted to God early in his life, but as he got older, things began to spiral out of control for him. The Philistines were hounding them mercilessly and his two sons, Phineas and Hophni, were a total outrage in Israel. They were openly taking the best animal sacrifices for themselves. They were getting rich off of the priesthood. They were commiting adultery with women who came to the tabernacle, we’re told. This discouraged the people spiritually and devalued God in their eyes. So, when you actually look at what was going on at that time, the idolatrous nations around them were better at worshipping their idols than Israel was at worshipping God. They weren’t as faithful to God as all the Philistines were to Dagon.

Okay. There was a man, during this time – his name was Elkanah, an Israelite – who lived in a town called Ramah – west of the north end of the Dead Sea. He had a number of wives. One of them was named Hannah and she was unable to have children. This was a real embarrassment to both of them. Back then, the law even allowed men to divorce women who couldn’t produce children. But he didn’t. He didn’t divorce this woman, which is kind of clue for us about what kind of a person he was. You might think, “Well, he was a polygamist.” Let’s talk about that a minute.

We know that polygamy was not God’s design. And we know most of the examples of people that lived that way in the Old Testament had family lives that were really messed up – lots of trouble! But it also did serve a purpose back then in a way that we have trouble understanding today. A family, back then, needed lots of children to help do all the work. Because of the all the wars…back then, women did not go to war that much, so when there was a war and fifty thousand people were killed, they were all guys! So there was a disproportionate number of women in the country compared to men. So that’s one of the reasons why one man could have more than one wife. Now, I’m not excusing it. I’m just explaining how they operated.

So anyway, every year, Elkanah and his family would go up to Shiloh, where the tabernacle was set up, to keep the festivals. So they were not idol worshippers. They were keeping the feasts of God at Shiloh, where the tabernacle was set up. One year, while they were there, Hannah prayed a prayer to God about her lack of children. She was tired of being ripped on by all of Elkanah’s other wives and by other people in the community. She had allowed that to get to her. She went to God and she vowed that, if God would give her a son, she would give the boy to God. Sure enough, not long after that – once they were back in Ramah – she became pregnant and had a son. She named him Samuel, which means heard by God. Pretty good name for that little guy, right? Well, the first festival after Samuel was weaned, she took him to Eli, the priest and judge, and dedicated him to God.

Now think about that. How hard was that for her to do that? That little boy represented normalcy for her. It represented status. It represented fitting in and being normal. Well, she was the kind of woman who knew that everything we have is on loan from God. Eventually, every child we have we have to let go of. They become adults. But she let him go right after he was weaned. They nursed them longer than we do today, so he may have been – I don’t know – three? four? Possibly. But that’s still pretty young, isn’t it?

It’s really interesting that Hannah’s prayer that she prayed at that time – when she took her son up to Eli – is recorded for us. And here are some of the things she said:

My heart rejoices in the LORD. My horn is exalted in the LORD. I smile at my enemies, because I rejoice in Your salvation. She knew who saved her. No one is holy like the LORD. For there is none beside You, nor is there any rock like our God.

So every year she would come to Shiloh to keep the Feast. And she would bring him a new robe – a little bit bigger than last year – so that he could look appropriate as he ministered at the tabernacle.

I was looking at my Bible maps – I didn’t get a clear read on it – but it looks to me like that was about forty-five miles away – Ramah from Shiloh. So I calculated that at somewhat over forty-five miles…. They say it was a four-mile-per-hour world walking back then, but when you’ve got a whole caravan of people and kids and families, you’d be lucky to do two. When we hike in the mountains, we’re lucky to do two. And that’s not counting rest time. So who knows how many days it took them to get there – a real commitment for them. But keeping the Feast has always been a commitment for God’s people. You have to prepare for it ahead of time.

So this little guy, Samuel, from his childhood, knew that he had a father and mother who loved him and that he was dedicated as a Nazarite from his birth to serve God. Hannah said that, if God would give her a son, a razor would never touch his head. So he never shaved.

While all this was going on, things were not going really well for Israel. The nation of Israel was in that phase of the cycle where they were being punished for idolatry. The Philistines were knocking at the door. They were encroaching on Israelite territory. The Philistines were people who came from the Mediterranean. They worshipped Dagon, the fish god. His idols were usually made of bronze. They were hollow. They stood upright. It was like a fish on its tail with his mouth open. They would build a fire in the bottom and throw in all kinds of sacrifices – sometimes newborn babies. That’s the kind of people they were.

So they were facing the Israelites at Aphek. In the first schirmish the Israelites lost four thousand men. If you saw somebody lying dead on the street, cleaved with a sword, or stabbed with a spear, that would be a pretty traumatic thing. Well, there were four thousand Israelites, not counting dead Philistines, on that battlefield. This shook them up so badly that Hophni and Phineas – the sons of Eli – did something really stupid – REALLY stupid. They sent to Shiloh to have the ark of the covenant brought down to the battle. See, they’d kind of gotten away from the idea that God was the supreme God and they saw Him more as the God who was between the cherubim on that ark. It’s a wooden box with a lid on it, that had the law of God inside and various other things. They kind of took it down there as a good luck charm – something that is going to cause us to win the battle. We’ll bring God into the battle. That’s kind of the way they were thinking about it.

Well, that didn’t work, because in the next battle, the Philistines killed thirty thousand of them and they took the ark. They took the ark of God at Aphek! And Hophni and Phineas were killed that day, as well. When the news of the disaster reached their father, Eli, he fell off his seat backwards and died. His life started out good, but he didn’t deal with his sons in his old age, and their faithlessness and corruption spread like cancer in Israel. It discouraged people.

So the Philistines had five lords and five cities in Gaza, which were their chief cities – Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath and Gaza – Gath was where Goliath was from, right? – and then also Ekron, It’s really interesting to see what is going on in the Gaza strip today, isn’t it? Some things never change, right?

Okay, so the Philistines took the ark. And they took it to Ashdod, I think, but I’m not sure. And they set it up beside Dagon. Yeah, in Ashdod. And every morning when they got up, Dagon had fallen on his face. Now he’s made out of bronze. He’s really big. It’s pretty heavy. It took a lot of people to stand him back up. How could he have fallen down? It wasn’t some teenage prank going on there. Then, pretty soon, people started getting really sick. They’ve suggested that it may have been bubonic plague that people were contracting. I don’t know. It doesn’t say. It just said they had tumors. To make a long story short, after seven months of that, they sent the ark back to Israel. They put it on a cart and had two cows, turned them loose on the road, and sent it to Bethshemesh. And the people there did something really stupid. They looked into the ark. That’s a no- no. You do not look into the ark. The ark is supposed to stay in the holy of holies. And the high priest goes in there once a year. And that’s it. So Hophni and Phineas…they really messed up. And these people did, too.

You can read the account several different ways. I think, in the King James, it says God killed seventy thousand men. But, if you read it in the NIV, it says He killed seventy men and fifty oxen. I don’t know which way it is.

So the people of Bethshemesh didn’t want it either. They were Israelites, but they learned that they were messing with something that wasn’t to be messed with. So from there it went to Kirjathjearim. It stayed there for a long time – a long time. The commentary suggests that was true, because Shiloh may have been destroyed by the Philistines by that time.

Well, it says, in the account, that when all this happened, Israel lamented after the LORD. They said, “We get it. We understand we’ve done wrong.” This turn of events brought them to their senses. And Samuel, who is now a grown man and a prophet, as well as a judge, told them that, if they would put away their idols and turn to God with their whole heart, God would save them from the Philistines. We’re told there that the entire nation put away all their idols and worshipped God only. I think that’s in 1 Samuel 7:4.

So they listened to Samuel. He told them to gather at Mizpeh. They came, and they prayed, and they made offerings, and they fasted to show that they were willing to make a change in the way they had behaved. They put away all of their idols and they turned to the one true God.

And when the Philistines learned that the whole nation was in Mizpeh, they closed in on them like flies to honey. They thought, “Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! We’re going to rout these people once and for all!” And they went up to battle.

Well, when the Israelites heard that the Philistines were coming, they were alarmed. And Samuel made an offering, and he prayed a public prayer of deliverance. And while he was praying, the Philistine army appeared. The account tells us that, at that very moment, God thundered so loudly that the Philistines were confused and overcome before Israel. So there was this great slaughter and they chased them way south. They took back all the lands that the Philistines had taken from them. So the people, who had wandered from their commitment to God, were saved from destruction and their lands restored. And in honor of God’s salvation, Samuel raised a stone monument between Mizpeh and Shen, where the worst of the fighting took place. His exact words, according to the account on that occasion, were, “Thus far the LORD has helped us.” He called that monument – that stone monument – Ebenezer. And it means stone of help.

Okay, so Israel drove the Philistines out. They were once again in control of the Gaza strip. And from that day forward, even though they fought with the Philistines more later, God’s hand was against the Philistines and they never troubled Israel as they had at that time.

What in the world does that have to do with the New Testament observance of the Passover? What does that have to do with the symbols of bread and wine? Well, it could, because everything that happened in the Old Testament is symbolic for something for us today. We just read that.

Let’s look at the Passover symbols that we’re familiar with. We talked about it a little bit earlier, but I neglected to mention that lamb that they ate was to be a perfectly formed young lamb. It’s blood was to be shed to save people, wasn’t it? Was it John the Baptist who looked at Jesus and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God?” So that connects the dots for us, doesn’t it? That Passover observance in the Old Testament was typology about the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. They painted blood on their doorpost and all inside were saved.

Now, in the New Testament, on that night of Passover – that is, Passover being the next day – Jesus had a meal with His disciples and after dinner He took bread and He took wine, and He said that they were symbolic of His blood and His body, because He was going to be the Passover lamb this year for them. He was going to be sacrificed for the sins of human kind. You can read those words in Matthew 26:26, if you’d like.

So, if anybody thinks that He was doing this because He was a Jew and only Jews keep the Passover, all you have to do is read where Paul quoted Jesus’ words to a Gentile church twenty years after Christ died in 1 Corinthians 11:24. This wasn’t about being a Jew. It was about being a Christian. And being a Christian is about accepting Christ’s sacrifice for us. Do you remember when Paul said that he would preach Christ and Him crucified and nothing else. That’s because that doctrine of Christ and His sacrifice is the core doctrine of Christianity.

Passover was to be kept once a year as a memorial of Christ’s death on the Passover by the New Testament Church – Jews and Gentiles alike. And it was not to be dumbed down to a daily or a weekly event that cheapens it and turns it into a ritual, which robs it of its valuable meaning. Once a year. Very important. That ark was only supposed to be seen by one human once a year. Very important. And when people violated that, there was always big trouble.

So Jesus Christ died to deliver us – not from Egypt or from Philistia, but from our own sins. And all that went on back then is all about that. That’s what it is all about. He died to save us from our sins and to give us eternal life in His family.

Let’s go to Romans 6:20 and look at another aspect of this that a lot of people really hate to have to think about. Paul said…and he’s writing to Romans, right? Who are those? That’s in Rome, right? That’s a Gentile town – right? – with Gentile people in it – a Gentile church. Some Jews there – Christians, too – but Gentile Christians a lot. He said:

Rom. 6:20 – When you were slaves to sin you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death. But now you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God. The benefit you reap leads to holiness and the result is eternal life. The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So Passover is all about how God saves us from our sins and gives us eternal life in His kingdom. The sins that we have committed are forgiven, because Jesus Christ died to pay for them.

The problem is, a lot of us don’t like to think about becoming a slave to God, do we? We don’t like to think about giving up what we want to do and what we want to have and surrendering our whole life to God. And yet that is a fair deal, isn’t it? That’s the deal we made when we were baptized.

Let’s look at this in personal application. These things we talked about – about Christ’s sacrifice and the bread and the wine and dying for our sins – that is the crux of the Passover. But there is something else that we haven’t talked about. It’s in 1 Corinthians 11. Paul said that before we can take the symbols in good faith, we need to examine ourselves. Why is that? Well, simply because just to say that we are forgiven of our sins and that we love God – because of it – is an utter hypocrisy unless we’re doing all we know to be like God and all of our effort is to give ourselves over completely to Him. He sacrificed His life for all of us. And He wants us to give our lives to Him out of gratitude and love.

All of that is right there in the story of the Ebenezer stone. The story is filled with all the symbols and examples – both good and bad – for us to overlay on our lives today. Let’s think about the players in the story. There was Eli – a man who started out strong, but whose end was a disaster, because he let important things slip slowly during his lifetime. He didn’t stand up to his sons when they did wrongly. Are you losing it as you get older? Or are you getting stronger? Are the things of God not as important to you as they were before? I know that some of us get to where we can’t do what we once did. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the attitude of wanting to do what is right and not diminishing it.

Let’s also talk about Phineas and Hophni – Levites who had been brought up for the priesthood and knew the law, but wilfully disobeyed it for personal gain. They were not yielded to God or to the law, but used the law to benefit themselves – to suit themselves. They interpreted it the way they wanted it. I’m sure they thought, “After all, we’re Levites and priests. We get to make the rules around here.” Not quite. And they paid for it. They decided to take the law into their own hands and turn it their own direction.

Let me ask you this question. Do you like to think that because you keep the Sabbath and holy days that you are, somehow, above other people in wisdom and knowledge and righteousness. The law – besides teaching us about the holy days – also tells us we’re not allowed to judge other people. That’s the domain of Jesus Christ and no other. Have we – some of us – like Phineas and Hophni – decided that we know better than God and that we can decide who is a Christian and who isn’t? I think we’re skating on thin ice if we do.

Another player in this whole story is the nation of Israel. They were so weak that they fell for every temptation and then repented, and then were delivered, and then didn’t learn a thing, and then fell for every temptation, and then on and on and on. They needed Ebenezer set up to remind them of their salvation by God. Do we? What are the Ebenezers in your life? Where have you been tested and tried? Where were the critical times? The formative junctures in your life? When were the times of weakness and the times of strength? When you were weak and about to lose it, how did God get you through? And what did you learn from it? Have you set up a stone somewhere to remind yourself? And I don’t mean a literal stone, but are there events that you can point to, to remind yourself of how God has helped you? How are you doing right now? What phase of the cycle are you in now? Are you weakening? Are you backsliding? Are you being corrected? Are you repenting? Or are you thankful and determined right now? Where are you on that cycle that we seem to go through? I mean, that is the lesson, isn’t it? The church is called the Israel of God. And that is what Israel went through. So where are you?

Let’s think about Samuel – another player in the story. Samuel, even as a child, knew what to do, because God talked to him. He knew that he was dedicated to God from his earliest memories. Are you like Samuel? Or are you, as an adult, still unable to fix your own spiritual food, clamoring for somebody else to read the scriptures to you – to spoon feed you the Word of God, as though you had no arms or eyes. Or can you read the Bible and understand it for yourself? Can you get with other people and understand the Word of God and be broadened by the fellowship experience? All of us, when we were baptized, dedicated ourselves to God. Do you remember that like Samuel did? We were once a slave to sin, but now a slave to righteousness. Do we really live through that?

Then there was Hannah – the woman in the picture. I have to say – I didn’t mention much about this because the story didn’t go long enough – but Samuel’s sons wound up doing pretty much the same thing that Phineas and Hophni did. They weren’t faithful to God either. So in his old age, he had a battle to deal with, with them. And he didn’t do it very well. But then there was Hannah – a woman who, at first, let others define her worth, but then rallied to be faithful to God all her life – to keep her commitment she made to God for her son right up to the end – who knew that the Lord was a rock. See, her Ebenezer was in her heart – her monument, her reminder. She was in dire straights. God delivered her. And every time she felt love for her son, Samuel, it reminded her of her stone of help – that God had granted her a child, that He had heard her prayer. She named him Heard by God. It was amazing.

So we started with a scripture that said the Old Testament was all symbolic for us today. Samuel raised up an Ebenezer stone to remind Israel of God’s deliverance – a stone of help. The Passover is also a reminder of that, as well, isn’t it? If we read the story and compare it to our lives, all the possibilities are there. Hannah called the One she prayed to, The God who is a Rock. We know that the One she prayed to became Jesus Christ, who is the rock of our salvation and the chief cornerstone of the church. There are just so many ways to connect it – so many layers. I’m sure I’ve just scratched the surface. But then always it seems that God gives us so many more ways to understand what He wants us to know. He’s so deep and He puts it so many different ways and in so many different symbols.

Human life to humans can be long and wearisome – a long, wearisome path. And many people of God have strayed from the path – some while young – like Phineas and Hophni, who knew better – and some while they’re old – like their father Eli. And then there are some – like Hannah – who hang in there all the way to the end, through all the trials and the problems. And the Passover is given to us so that we will have a physical reminder – an Ebenezer stone, so to speak – so that when we take of the symbols – the bread and the wine – we will not stray like so many others have strayed, but once called and chosen of God, we will also, to the very end, remain faithful.

There is a scripture in Revelation 17:14, where Jesus Christ reveals that very desire. He said:

Rev. 17:14 – These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them. For He is the Lord of Lords and King of Kings. And they that are with Him are called, chosen and faithful.