Passover Fulfillment: What The Watchtower Left Out
When Nils and I were asked recently to teach a class on the Jewish festivals, my first thoughts on the subject raced back to what I had been taught as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Watchtower Society spends a great deal of time and effort on Old Testament events and how they have had a greater fulfillment in the New Testament and in modern times. So when I thought of the Passover and how it was fulfilled, I could sum up my Watchtower recollections in a sentence or two—Jesus was the true Passover lamb whose blood was shed to deliver all people from bondage to sin and death; none of his bones was broken; and we should celebrate the Lord’s Evening Meal once a year as the Passover was celebrated by the Jews. What else was there to know from the Watchtower perspective? A whole lot more, as Nils and I discovered in researching the Passover. My faith was so strengthened in God’s attention to detail and in Jesus’ role in the fulfillment of prophecy that I want to present the main points of our study here for your review, in hope that you will be equally impressed.
When the writers of the New Testament record Jesus’ final week as God’s Passover lamb, they give us dates and times of day to show how perfectly Jesus fulfilled the details of the Passover celebration. For example, Exodus chapter 12 describes the very first Passover. The Israelites were commanded to choose a lamb on the 10th day of the month Nisan and keep it in their homes until the 14th day when they were to sacrifice it. During this five-day period, they were to examine the lamb to be sure there was no defect in it.
John tells us that six days before the Passover (Nisan 9), Jesus arrived at the home of Lazarus. (John 12:1) The next day, the 10th day of Nisan, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a young donkey. At that time, the Jews chose him as the Lamb of God by shouting, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the King of Israel!” (John 12:12-15) For the next five days, Jesus taught in the community of Israel and was examined by the religious leaders to determine if there was any defect in him. They tried to trick him with insincere questions, but in every instance, “they were unable to trap him in what he had said . . “ (Luke 20:20-26)
By the 14th day of Nisan, he had been examined by both Roman and Jewish leaders and the general public, but no fault was found in him.
Jesus was, indeed, the perfect Passover lamb.
In addition to sacrificing a lamb in the late afternoon of Nisan 14, the Jews were to have cleansed their homes of all leaven by noon of that day. This cleaning was not done lightly, with a mere lick and a promise. God likes a good housekeeper and a thorough spring cleaning! The command was to get rid of every vestige of leaven from their houses (Ex. 12:15), from their quarters (Ex. 13:7), and in all their territory (Deut. 16:4). All walls and floors were scrubbed, using a special hook to clean between cracks in the floor and corners in the cupboards. All pots and pans were washed in boiling water. Special dishes for the Passover were used on which no leaven had been placed. These meticulous preparations become significant when Jesus spoke of celebrating the Passover with his apostles.
“Coincidentally” in the year 30 AD, two different Jewish calendars made it possible for Jesus to celebrate the Passover meal with his disciples and fulfill the prophetic events of the Passover all on the “same” date. The Essenes, who were a monastic sect of the Jews, held to a strict, Orthodox interpretation of the Law and lived by a calendar that differed from the temple calendar from one day up to 22 days. In 30 AD, the Essene calendar was only one day different. Nisan 14 for the Essenes was on Wednesday from sundown to sundown; Nisan 14 at the temple and for the general public was on Thursday from sundown to sundown.
If Jesus were to eat the Passover with his disciples after sundown on our Wednesday evening, he would have to do so in an Essene community where the room and utensils would have been cleansed of leaven a day earlier than those of the general population. Jesus’ instructions to his apostles strongly indicate that he validated the Essenes’ strict interpretation of the Law by celebrating the Passover on their date.
Mark 14:13-15 tells us: So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large upper room, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”
Normally, carrying jars of water was women’s work, but in a monastic community, men did all of the labor. Therefore, it would not be unusual to find a man carrying water. And in this particular year, it would not be unusual to find a room cleansed of leaven on Wednesday, the day before the general Passover.
It was in that upper room that Jesus ate his last Passover with his disciples. Normally, the roasted lamb was eaten at the conclusion of the meal, but this night, after eating the literal lamb, Jesus introduced the New Covenant based upon his flesh and blood as the perfect sacrificed Lamb of God. The bread was his flesh; the wine was his blood.
At 9:00 the next morning (Nisan 14 according to the temple calendar), the priests began sacrificing the thousands of lambs that pilgrims had brought to the temple. At that very hour of 9:00 a.m., Jesus was nailed to the cross. (Mark 15:25—3rd hour Jewish time; 9:00 a.m. Roman time) The lambs were sacrificed until 3:00 p.m. When the high priest slaughtered the very last lamb, he said, “It is concluded” or “It is finished.” Then two silver trumpets were sounded to notify the surrounding community.
It is likely that Jesus, nailed to the cross, waited to hear the blare of those trumpets, because at exactly 3:00 p.m., when the priest had offered up the last sacrificial lamb, Jesus said, “It is finished.” He then voluntarily gave up his spirit in death. (John 10:17, 18; 19:30) The last lamb of Israel had been sacrificed. (1 Cor. 5:7)
Today Jews still celebrate the Passover meal in much the same way as Jesus did. However, with no temple or priesthood for sacrificing lambs, there is only a lamb shank or a chicken bone on the table to represent the roasted lamb. Lamb, then, is not the last thing eaten. Instead, a mysterious custom found its way into the Jewish Passover celebration after the destruction of the temple. At the beginning of the meal, three pieces of unleavened bread are placed in a napkin. During the meal, the leader removes the middle piece of bread (matzah) to break it in half. Half is replaced, and half is carefully wrapped in a linen napkin and hidden somewhere in the house while the children cover their eyes. At the end of the meal, the children look for and find the broken half-matzah. It is known as the “afikomen.” A small piece of the afikomen is broken off and eaten by everyone present as a reminder of the Passover lamb.
Jews today cannot explain how or exactly when this part of the Passover meal came to be observed. They say the three matzahs represent the three groups of Jewish people: the priests, the Levites, and the Israelites. Or they say the three pieces of bread represent Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But why is the middle one broken? Why break the Levites or Isaac? There is no answer. And why is there a Greek word (afikomen) in the service? Jews explain that it means dessert because it is eaten last. The literal translation is: “I came.”
Christians see a much different picture of how the afikomen became a part of the Passover. Many believe that Jewish Christians, who numbered in the thousands throughout the Roman world in the first century, were still celebrating the Passover, but with the afikomen in place of the Passover lamb. The three pieces of bread represented the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The middle matzah, the Son, was broken (died), wrapped and hidden away (buried), and brought back at the third cup of wine in the meal (resurrected the third day).
When the temple was destroyed in 70 AD, there was no longer any Passover lamb to be sacrificed for the Jews. Since Jewish Christians were already substituting the afikomen for the lamb, it is possible that this tradition was borrowed by the Jews to substitute for their lamb. If Christians are right, it would mean that the Jews, past and present, have been unknowingly honoring Jesus as the Messiah at their annual Passover meal, partaking of the body of the true Passover Lamb.
When Nils and I learned about these many facets of the Passover celebration and how beautifully they were fulfilled during Jesus’ last week on earth, it strengthened our faith in the Bible as God’s Word and in the person of God himself. God is careful and concerned about the little things, about every last detail, in prophecy and in our lives. “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much . . .” (Luke 16:10) So when he tells us not to be anxious or afraid in this life because he knows us so well he has numbered the hairs on our heads, we can believe him. (Matt. 10:26-31)
The Passover and the three feasts following it (Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, and Pentecost) were fulfilled in Christ and in the church. The last three (Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and Tabernacles) do not appear to have been fulfilled yet. They were composed of events that resonate with the promises of Christ’s return and our dwelling with him in a new heaven and a new earth. If the precise manner in which the Passover was fulfilled is any indication of God’s care and concern for us and for the accuracy of his prophetic Word, we can be sure that Christ will return and keep all of the promises that God has made to us.