There is probably a good chance that you are going to a Sunday service this weekend for Easter. And if so, you are probably going to be handed a little cracker and a cup of juice at some point in the service for communion. Have you ever wondered where we get the idea of the bread and wine/juice? Why did Jesus grab those items? Was it the only thing on the table and so he just went with it? These were questions I had for the longest time when going to church and having communion. After doing lots and lots of studying of the Bible, I learned the reason for Jesus’ choice in meal and the incredible symbolism placed within the bread in the cup that can teach us why Jesus died on that cross.
One of the most important decisions I made this year was choosing to go back to school and pursue my Masters in Theological Studies. I am trying to become a huge Bible nerd. It helps when your wife is in graduate school and you become insanely bored while she does homework that you start to think “huh, maybe I should go to graduate school too”. My classes thus far have placed me deep within the world and thoughts of the Old Testament writers. Even the books I read for fun and the pastors I listen to all seem to be present within this Ancient Near Eastern/Jewish world. So, as I have been in the Old Testament, I have been noticing the Hebrew authors’ obsession with the Exodus story. It seems that each writer has something to say regarding the necessary remembrance of that great event as means for understanding the character of God. They also all seem to have hope that God would do something similar in their future days as they suffered in exile.
With Easter coming up and all the remembrance and meditation that this week lead-up brings, along with my Old Testament readings clacking around inside my head, I have been thinking about the significance of the timing of Jesus’ death. All four Gospel writers place the arrest and death of Jesus around the time of Passover celebration and that little detail they include, that often goes unrecognized in our Easter Sunday sermons, plays tremendous importance on how we understand Christ’s death. There is certainly heavy emphasis on Jesus’ death providing atonement for our sins and all the atonement theories that follow, yet by focusing so much on what Paul says about Jesus death (albeit, vastly important!), we can miss out on what the Gospels themselves are telling us about Jesus’ death right there in the story. As we read the Easter story this week, remember the world that Jesus is ministering in. We cannot rip Jesus from his Jewish identity. We cannot take it lightly the way in which Jesus boldly claims that he came to fulfill all that the Hebrew Scriptures pointed towards. Their Scripture, our Old Testament, ends with unfulfilled prophecies, a story with no conclusion, and a long-overdue anticipation of hope. Jesus comes to fulfill that story.
So, what exactly was that story thus far? The world Jesus is born into is in eager anticipation of the Messiah. Before he arrives, other Jews have come in declaration of bringing God’s kingdom and hoping to be the one that would liberate his people from the Pharaoh-like tyranny of the day. The Jews were impatiently waiting for this messiah, their king, and even a new and greater Moses-figure that would bring salvation, justice, and a new exodus. For years and years the Jews celebrated their exodus from Egypt through the Passover meal with hope that God would do that again in their days. The Passover meal was an invite to all generations to step into the story of God saving his people from bondage and then calling them into a special, covenantal relationship with Him. In this meal they would eat unleavened bread (bread without yeast because they had to leave Egypt so quickly), wine, and bitter greens. This event shaped the Israelites’ identity as God’s chosen people as well as their understanding of God’s character as a gracious, liberating savior and king (Exodus 15:1-21). From this event, an exodus theme appears all throughout the Old Testament. The Scriptures become soaked with callbacks to this event.
So when Jesus gathers his disciples in the upper room, with a Passover meal prepared before them, he takes the Passover cup and the bread, which once were old symbols of the Exodus and he transforms them to mean something new:
“Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the Passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain man and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is at hand. I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover… Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:17-19 and 26-29)
Notice that Jesus does not give his disciples a long lecture on what his death would accomplish or some atonement theory, rather he gives a meal, loaded with exodus symbolism, to show why he must die. The point of Passover was to celebrate God’s redemption of the Israelites from bondage to freedom and then into a forming of covenantal identity as God’s children. The meal recalls these events and invites all generations into the story. The same can been seen with the Lord’s Supper. It calls us to remember God’s deliverance of people from the bondage of sin and his transformation of his family to now include even the Gentiles because of what Jesus did at the cross. In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus tells his disciples that he is launching the new covenant, one that will replace the one previously established after the exodus. These symbols, which recalled Gods’ gracious act of liberating his people from tyrannical evil, were now being used to recall Jesus’ gracious act of liberating his people from sin’s evil. Jesus was creating the new exodus, but instead of another exodus from a nation, his was a greater, final exodus from sin and death. Jesus death, like the death of the Passover lamb (Jesus is later referred to by Paul as the Passover Lamb), would provide deliverance from death. So truly, what the Jews were hoping for was happening in Jesus, it just did not look like they had expected.
As the gospel writers all highlight the Passover around Jesus’ death, we should not take this so lightly or even dismiss the idea that their is a correlation between the Passover timing of Jesus death. Jesus made it clear that everything written was intentionally placed as a sign post pointing to him:
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24: 44-47 emphasis mine).
First, notice what Jesus is not saying. He is not saying here that every book contains little snippets of messianic prophecy here and here. He is not telling us to search the Scriptures and try to find the little inklings like Isaiah 53 or Psalm 22 and proclaim “aha! We found Jesus in this spot”. This is not the case of what he means, he is saying that everything, implicit, explicit, prophetic, historic, they all point to him. He is saying that every book, chapter, verse, the overall story thus far comes into climax with Jesus. Thus an Old Testament event like the Passover and the Exodus, so greatly admired by the Israelites, was always alluding to a much fuller act that would eventually happen.
So, this Easter, as we head to our many churches, keep in mind this narrative of new exodus. Keep Jesus in his Jewish context. It is easy to miss with the clutter of easter egg hunts and chocolate, but deep within our Easter story is Christ accomplishing the great hope of the Old Testament. When reading and listening to the story this season, observe Jesus’ fulfillment of Israel’s purpose as he liberates his people from true evil, sin, and gathers his transformed people of Jews and Gentiles. Allow the story, not solely theories of atonement, to tell the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection this Easter season. Bringing in this Passover-narrative this Easter can be helpful to gaining a fuller understanding of Jesus’ death. There is so much accomplished by Jesus death and resurrection and we have so much to celebrate because of it!