Except from The Thread (p. 5 – 11) by Ronald L. Dart available for download here.
Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us
The best place to pick up the thread is with the first of the holydays in the year, the Passover. There is a passage in one of Paul’s letters that long ago should have caused us to rethink this question. It was written to a Gentile church, and commentators tell us it was written during the Passover season. Paul is dealing with a serious problem in the church and in the process, he makes a connection to the Passover.
Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).
Conybeare and Howsen (1962), recognized authorities on Paul and his letters, acknowledge that this Christian church was observing Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread. They had this to say about Paul’s letter:
In spite of the opinion of some eminent modern commentators, which is countenanced by Chrysostom [A.D. 407], we must adhere to the interpretation which considers these words as written at the Paschal season, and suggested by it. The words leaven, lump, Paschal Lamb, and feast all agree most naturally with this view. It has been objected, that St. Paul would not address the Corinthians as engaged in a feast which he, at Ephesus, was celebrating; because it would be over before his letter could reach them. Any one who has ever written a birthday letter to a friend in India, will see the weakness of this objection.
It has also been urged that he could not address a mixed church of Jews and Gentiles as engaged in the celebration at a Jewish feast. Those who urge this objection must have forgotten that St. Paul addresses the Galatians (undoubtedly a mixed church) as if they had all been formerly idolaters (Gal. iv.8), and addresses the Romans sometimes as if they were all Jews (Rom. vii.1), sometimes as if they were Gentiles (Rom. xi.18). If we take ‘as ye are leavened’ in a metaphorical sense, it is scarcely consistent with the previous ‘cast out the old leaven;’ for the passage would then amount to saying, ‘Be free from leaven (metaphorically) as you are free from leaven (metaphorically);’ whereas on the other view, St. Paul says, ‘Be free from leaven (metaphorically) as you are free from leaven (literally).’
There seems to be no difficulty in supposing that the Gentile Christians joined with the Jewish Christians in celebrating the Paschal feast after the Jewish manner, at least to the extent of abstaining from leaven in the love-feasts. And we see that St. Paul still observed the ‘days of unleavened bread’ at this period of his life, from Acts xx:6. Also, from what follows, we perceive how naturally this greatest of Jewish feasts changed into the greatest of Christians festivals.” [i]
Throughout most of history, the Passover has been a Jewish festival dealing with a great event in Israel’s history that took place on this day. But here is a letter to a Gentile church, identifying the Passover with the sacrifice of Christ and urging them to keep the feast properly. I will have more to say about the Corinthian crisis later, but Paul presents us with a classic example of the transcendent nature of God’s appointments with history.
I think readers generally assume that the 14th day of the first month in the Jewish Calendar became important because that’s when Israel was delivered from Egypt. But what if Israel was delivered on this day because it was already one of the “appointed times” of God, one of the benchmarks of history, when he will act? When it comes to the sacrifice of Christ, that day did not become a Christian festival because Christ was crucified on that day. Christ died on that day because he was the Passover Lamb, and the Passover, one of God’s appointments with history, had come.
There is a thread that runs all the way through the Bible, and the thread is unbroken, not cut into bits and pieces. God has had a plan and has been working the plan from the start. His appointments with history mark places where we can pick up the thread, and those appointments are marked by festivals.
I know that some of these things may seem complicated and difficult. But maybe if we pick up the thread and follow it along, things will become clearer. The “Festivals of Jehovah” mark places where we can most easily find the thread.
Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians cited above, identified Jesus with the Passover lamb. But when we follow the thread back, we find it doesn’t end where we thought it might, with what we thought was the original Passover. It continues back further into the past. One pointer is a scripture familiar to every student of the New Testament – I think it may have been the first verse I ever memorized:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16 KJV).
The thread from Paul’s “Christ our Passover” runs right through this passage and continues back, not merely to the Passover of the Exodus, but to an event long before Moses. It continues to Father Abraham and to the day when God decided to put him to the ultimate test. He called Abraham and gave him this command:
Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you (Genesis 22:2).
God only knows, and I choose my words carefully, what a crushing blow this was to Abraham. Abraham was a very old man who had no children. In the process of time, Sarah came to Abraham and offered her handmaid as a surrogate mother so they could have a child. They got the child, but that was their solution, not God’s. That child and his mother became nothing but trouble – then and now.
Then God promised him a son through Sarah, his wife, and a year after that promise, Isaac was born. It is hard to imagine what it would be like to go so long without children, and then to finally have a son. Abraham would have loved this boy like his own life. This command from God to sacrifice him had to be the most terrible moment of his life.[ii]
Abraham rose up early in the morning on the fateful day and made his preparation. He saddled his animal, split the wood, took two of his servants and Isaac his son, and started toward the place. A careless reader might assume that Abraham had so much faith that he just did what God said without a second thought. He would be wrong. Abraham had plenty of second thoughts, and every one of them was fraught with pain. It took a movie, The Bible, and George C. Scott’s portrayal of Abraham, to make this more real to me. This was hard for Abraham. It was sheer agony, but Abraham followed through.
It was a three day journey to the mountain, and they were surely the hardest three days of Abraham’s life. He instructed his servants to wait while he and Isaac went forward to worship. He had Isaac carry the wood for the fire, and brought along a fire starter and knife. As they walked, Isaac asked, “My father, we have the fire and the knife and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”
This must have cut Abraham to the heart, but he replied, “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering.” And they walked on. That short phrase, “God will provide himself a lamb,” echoes down through history to this day. Christians write songs that apply that very phrase to Jesus Christ, whom Paul identifies as “our Passover.”
So, they came to the place and Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. Then came the moment of truth. He bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar on the wood. He took the knife in hand to slay his son. This had to be one of the greatest movie scenes of all time, especially if you knew what it meant. Abraham reaches out to take the knife in his hand, with that beautiful boy bound and laid out on the wood, and prepares to actually do the deed. It was only at this last moment that an angel spoke to him and stopped him.
And He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” Then Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son (Genesis 22:12-13).
Why would God do a thing like this? Why would he put Abraham through it? I think I finally begin to understand. We can identify with Abraham easier than we can with God. Abraham was a man. Theologians haven’t helped, presenting us with an impassible God who cannot be touched.xii What we learn in Abraham is what Jesus really meant when he said to Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” This is not a gift lightly given, nor is it a gift without cost.
God allowed Abraham to play the role of the Father who makes the greatest sacrifice, his son, his only son. It was a great honor to Abraham, though he may not have seen it that way. His agony was that of a man whose faith was so strong that he would do it, but whose pain was so great that he would have taken his own life rather than that of his son.
This was much more than a test of Abraham’s faith. This is one segment of the thread that runs all through history, one significant moment of the plan of God laid out before the foundation of the world. And down through history, the Israelites offered animals again and again as substitutes for their own lives.
Then the Angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time out of heaven, and said “By Myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son; blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice” (Genesis 22:15-18).
In the words, “Your son, your only son,” we hear the echo of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And that “only begotten Son” was our Passover.
I can only believe that this day, the date of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, was one of God’s appointments with history. Surely, it is a day to remember in the history of every man of faith. This may have been the day, generations later, when the Israelites killed a lamb, struck its blood on the doorposts of their houses, and ate the Passover lamb, while the firstborn in all of Egypt were dying. It may have been the very day when Israel was delivered from the bondage of Egypt, just as Christians are delivered from the bondage of sin by the blood of our Passover Lamb.
And this may have been the very day, generations later, when Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was pierced in the side and bled and died, while in the Temple, the Passover lambs were being slain. The thread we are following is very long and sometimes faint, but it is there.
[i] “The Life and Epistles of Paul” by Conybeare and Howsen, 1962, Page 389.
[ii] I once heard Angel Martinez, an influential Baptist evangelist preach that this event took place on the 10th day of the first month, when the Passover lamb was later chosen (Exodus 12:3). I think his vision of this was based on the three day journey to the place of sacrifice. He also made a connection to the day of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, and the decision of the leadership to kill him. I mention this only to point out that some Christian preachers see the thread of Jesus’ sacrifice leading back to the Passover and beyond.