God has provided a multi-faceted testimony of our Savior’s life in four distinct accounts. Each gospel provides a unique viewpoint of Jesus Christ, and all work together to render a vivid record of how God lived as a human being.
And just as the gospels give four perspectives of the same perfect life, so also Jesus Christ’s death has multiple facets. Every professing Christian knows that Christ’s death paid the penalty for sin, yet many stop there and do not consider what else Christ’s sacrifice represents. The sacrificial system shows other facets of His sacrifice, in which all the instructions relate to the Savior in some way, if only in showing the need for Him. Christ’s death obviously fulfilled the sin offering, but that type of offering is only one among others that Jesus also fulfilled. While the other offerings also involve death—whether of an animal or a harvested product—they do not picture sin or its payment. In the other offerings, a life is given for a purpose other than atonement. If we inadvertently limit Christ’s sacrifice to just the sin offering, we also limit our understanding of Christ’s perfect work.
Each year, we observe the Passover at the beginning of the 14th of Abib, even as Jesus, the disciples, and the early church did. It is an annual commemoration of His death. But which facet or facets of Christ’s death should we keep in view as we partake of the bread and wine? And what was on Christ’s mind, and what did He teach His disciples, during that extraordinary Passover observance? Jesus fulfilled the sin offering on Passover afternoon, which is why it is easy to link the two, yet there is much more involved in the Passover observance itself. When we understand what the Passover is, we can approach it with the right frame of mind, and better receive from the Passover what God intends.
The instructions for the Passover in Egypt give us a foundation for understanding this feast:
Exodus 12:3-4 Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying: 'On the tenth of this month every man shall take for himself a lamb, according to the house of his father, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for the lamb, let him and his neighbor next to his house take it according to the number of the persons; according to each man's need you shall make your count for the lamb.
Exodus 12:7-13 And they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses where they eat it. Then they shall eat the flesh on that night; roasted in fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat it raw, nor boiled at all with water, but roasted in fire—its head with its legs and its entrails. You shall let none of it remain until morning, and what remains of it until morning you shall burn with fire. And thus you shall eat it: with a belt on your waist, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. So you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord's Passover. 'For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord. Now the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you; and the plague shall not be on you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
As this passage shows, the Passover lamb did much more than just provide blood—it was a distinctive meal. God begins with instructions to ensure that every person would have enough, but also that it would not be wasted. He continues with specific details, including when it should be eaten, how it should be prepared, what should be eaten with it, what should be done with the remains, and even how the Israelites should be dressed. The bulk of God’s instructions concern the specially prepared lamb they were to eat. The repeated emphasis in both Old and New Testaments is on the eating of the Passover (Exodus 12:43, 48; 34:25; Numbers 9:11; II Chronicles 30:18; Ezra 6:21; Matthew 26:17, 26; Mark 14:12, 14, 22; Luke 22:8, 11, 15, 19; John 13:2; I Corinthians 11:23-26; see John 6:31-58), and this begins to set it apart from a sin offering, which was not generally available for eating.
There is a conspicuous absence of any mention of forgiveness or atonement within the context of any Old Testament Passover. Instead, the Scriptures speak frequently of the Exodus Passover in terms of purchase or redemption. Israel was not redeemed from sin through the Passover, but only purchased from Pharaoh (Exodus 6:6; 15:13, 16; Deuteronomy 7:7-8; 9:26-29; 13:5; 15:15; 21:8; 24:18; II Samuel 7:23-24; Psalm 74:2; 77:15; 78:42-43; Isaiah 43:3; 51:10; Micah 6:4).
God, through Moses, warned Israel that “all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die” (Exodus 11:5), and that would have included Israelite firstborn, too. The threat against the Israelites was real, and they had to prove to God, through the sign of the blood on the doorposts, that they wanted to be separate from the Egyptians. Without the blood, the Israelite firstborn would have shared in the same judgment as the Egyptian firstborn.
The blood on the doorposts represents the life of the lamb given to redeem those within each participating house (see Exodus 13:13-16; 34:19-20, not to symbolize forgiveness. God does not draw attention to the Israelites’ sins in His Passover instructions, even though the Israelites were sinning—grievously, in fact. Through Ezekiel, God says that the Israelites as a whole were unabashed idolaters at this time, and God nearly destroyed them, then and there:
Ezekiel 20:5-9 "Say to them, 'Thus says the Lord God: "On the day when I chose Israel and raised My hand in an oath to the descendants of the house of Jacob, and made Myself known to them in the land of Egypt, I raised My hand in an oath to them, saying, 'I am the Lord your God.' On that day I raised My hand in an oath to them, to bring them out of the land of Egypt into a land that I had searched out for them, 'flowing with milk and honey,' the glory of all lands. Then I said to them, 'Each of you, throw away the abominations which are before his eyes, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.' But they rebelled against Me and would not obey Me. They did not all cast away the abominations which were before their eyes, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt. Then I said, 'I will pour out My fury on them and fulfill My anger against them in the midst of the land of Egypt.' But I acted for My name's sake, that it should not be profaned before the Gentiles among whom they were, in whose sight I had made Myself known to them, to bring them out of the land of Egypt.
The Israelites not only had idols in Egypt, as this says, but other passages show that they were still carrying them in the wilderness. This means that some Israelites, maybe many of them, had idols in their homes even as they kept the Passover. That may be shocking, but what it shows is, first, God’s incredible mercy, and second, that the Passover was not about cleansing Israel from sin, which requires repentance. The Passover had another purpose.
Now, why would God destroy one nation of idolaters (that is, Egypt) and yet deliver another nation of idolaters (that is, Israel)? God’s displeasure in Ezekiel is obvious, and He gives no hint that the blood of the Passover lamb was for atonement. Israel’s sins weren’t being dealt with—God was overlooking them. This is why, according to Strong’s, the Hebrew word for Passover (pesach) means, “a pretermission; [that is, an] exemption.” The word pretermission is hardly used today, but it basically means, “an omission.” To “pretermit” means “to let pass without mention or notice.” It is similar to mercy or grace (see Numbers 14:19; Romans 9:15-18). When Israel was in Egypt, God passed over them and their sins. Moses says this in Exodus 12:27:
Exodus 12:27 It is the Passover sacrifice [the exemption sacrifice] of the LORD, who passed over [He skipped over or spared] the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians and delivered our households.
This exemption—this sparing; this act of mercy rather than justice—is not the same as paying for or removing their sins. Instead, God overlooked their sins. Thus, the Passover is a demonstration of God’s gracious acceptance rather than atonement.
Now, we will switch gears and consider the irreconcilable differences between the Passover instructions with the sin offering instructions. These differences are pretty detailed, so I will just give the main points instead of turning to each verse. You can verify this later by comparing Exodus 12, Leviticus 4 and Leviticus 6, if you are so inclined.
The first difference, as mentioned, is that the emphasis of the Passover is on eating. In contrast, the whole purpose of a sin offering is to show atonement or propitiation, which did not happen in Egypt. God prescribed the sin offering for unintentional sins and admitted guilt (Leviticus 4:2, 13, 22, 27), but the Israelites kept the Passover in Egypt while refusing to get rid of their idols (Ezekiel 20:5-9; see also Exodus 6:2-9; Leviticus 18:3; Deuteronomy 9:7; Joshua 24:14; Amos 5:25-26; Acts 7:42-43).
A second difference is who was allowed to eat each sacrifice. The Passover was a meal shared by a circumcised household, while in the sin offering, only “the males among the priests” ate portions of it (Leviticus 6:26), and only in two cases. The sin offering is divided into four categories, according to who had committed the sin, whether a priest (verses 3-12), the whole congregation (verses 13-21), a leader of the people (verses 22-26), or an individual (verses 27-31). In the case of a priest or the whole congregation, the priest offered part of the animal on the altar as God’s portion, and then he burned the remainder outside the camp (Leviticus 4:8-12, 19-21; 6:30), and thus, nothing was eaten by the priest. The priests could only eat a sin offering for a leader or another individual.
This teaches that while the priest could receive a portion for his service in performing the work of the sin offering in some cases—that is, when the offering was for the sin of a leader or other individual—he could not receive any portion when it was for the sin of the priesthood or the congregation, of which he was a part. In other words, he was not to eat of the offering for sins he had a part in. In addition, God did not allot any of the sin offering for the one making the offering. When we apply this to the Passover, it gives us a third reason why it was not a sin offering: In type, it would signify each household benefitting from—being fed by—the sins they had committed, which is entirely contrary to the divine pattern.
As mentioned, only the priests could eat of the sin offering, and only when it was for a leader or an individual (other than a priest). Of the four scenarios, a household (being a group) is the most like a congregational offering, and in that scenario, none of the sacrifice was to be eaten. What wasn’t put on the alter was burned outside the camp.
A fourth difference is in how these two sacrifices were prepared and eaten. The Passover lamb must be “roasted in fire,” and God explicitly forbids boiling it (Exodus 12:8-9). On the other hand, the law of the sin offering specified that the priests had to boil the portion of the sin offering they would eat, in those two instances when they were allowed to eat it (Leviticus 6:28; see Ezekiel 46:20).
A fifth difference lies in what was done with specific parts of each sacrifice. With the Passover, the head was to be roasted with the legs and the entrails (Exodus 12:9). Those parts of the Passover had to be included. There isn’t time to look at the symbolism of those parts, but God is specific. In contrast, God is also specific regarding the head, legs, and entrails of the sin offering, which were burned outside the camp rather than eaten (Leviticus 4:11-12, 21).
A sixth difference lies in where these two sacrifices were eaten. Israel ate the Passover in homes, while God said the sin offering—when it could be eaten—had to be eaten by the priests in a holy place, and He specified the court of the tabernacle of meeting (Leviticus 6:26). At the time of the Exodus, there was no holy place for eating a sin offering, yet even after God had established a holy place, Israel still kept the Passover in homes, until well-intentioned kings made a self-directed change to the Passover, centuries later (see II Chronicles 30, 35).
As you can see, the Passover sacrifice is not like a sin offering at all. In fact, it could hardly be more different. God is consistent in His patterns, and trying to force the Passover into the mold of the sin offering creates confusion. Of all the offerings, the Passover bears the most resemblance to the peace offering, with which most of us are less familiar. Though the Passover is not identical to the peace offering, the instructions line up in most areas.
Today, we typically use the term “peace offering” to mean an attempt to make amends through a gift or action, usually after an interpersonal transgression. We see it as an attempt to make peace. But the biblical usage is quite different. The peace offering, found in Leviticus 7, pictures an individual and the priest in fellowship with God because God has already bestowed His favor in some way. It is often called a thanksgiving offering because it is made in response to what God does for the individual. The true peace offering shows that there is peace instead of trying to create peace.
Because of the many possible meanings of the Hebrew word for the peace offering, commentators also call it the thanksgiving offering, fellowship offering, or communion sacrifice, and hold onto that last one—the communion sacrifice.
The peace offering pictures a shared meal with God where there is harmony and satisfaction because everyone is at peace with each other—and that includes God Himself. It is an occasion with feelings of security and well-being. The peace offering celebrates that the relationship between God and the individual is on good terms, which should be a cause for extreme gratitude. The Passover is a prime example of this, where God made an exemption and accepted Israel when He should have destroyed her if He were intent on justice. Granted, the harmony at that point in the relationship was not ideal, and that may be why God told them to eat soberly or with serious consideration. But considering what Israel deserved, God was overwhelmingly peaceful in His acceptance and overlooking.
So, the peace offering was a meal, like the Passover. Both were to be eaten the same day the sacrifice was performed. For both sacrifices, none was to remain until morning, but what remained had to be burned (Exodus 12:10; Leviticus 7:15). And like the Passover, the peace offering was not limited to being eaten by the priests. It also did not have to be eaten at the tabernacle, nor were any parts of the animal excluded, as with the sin offering. The most significant difference between the peace offering and the Passover is that the peace offering included both leavened and unleavened bread, while the Passover only allows unleavened bread. So, Passover is not a typical peace offering—it is a step above, and of course, it is far more important because it is only performed once a year.
The peace offering is an example of a blood sacrifice that is for purposes other than the payment for sin. It shows a life given, and the result of that sacrifice is a shared meal of fellowship. In this meal, God is satisfied because man is in fellowship with Him, and man is satisfied because God graciously accepts him and provides for his well-being.
This is what we see in the Exodus Passover. Israel’s sins were mercifully overlooked because of God’s faithfulness and covenant loyalty to Abraham (Geneses 12:2-3; 15:13-16; Exodus 2:23-25; 6:4-6). The Passover represents the beginning of Israel’s relationship with God. It demonstrates God’s profound grace in initiating fellowship with a sinful nation, and delivering those who believed Him at least enough to follow the Passover instructions.
God mandated a couple of things before one could keep the Passover. One requirement was circumcision (Exodus 12:43-48), and the other was ceremonial cleanliness (Numbers 9:6-13; II Chronicles 30:17-20). This requirement of cleanliness prior to the Passover gives a seventh reason why the Passover does not fit the pattern of a sin offering. The general purpose of the sin offering is to cleanse from sin. But if the Passover provided cleansing, there would be no need for the people to be clean before eating it. On the other hand, if they were clean in anticipation of the Passover, then there would be no need to keep the Passover for a hypothetical second cleansing. The Israelites did not have to be ceremonially clean to make a sin offering, but they did in order to make, or partake of, a peace offering (Leviticus 7:20-21).
These prerequisites have New Covenant counterparts, including spiritual circumcision, which takes place at baptism. And the requirement of taking the Passover in a worthy manner shows the spiritual intent behind being ceremonially clean. It includes being free from carnal attitudes and approaches that defile, and which destroy the peace and well-being of the fellowship.
Christ’s Passover with the disciples continues what we have seen. During the Passover service, we read John 13—17, and the themes of the peace offering stand out in those chapters when you look for them. Jesus speaks of the disciples being one with the Father. He speaks of the love and fellowship they should enjoy with each other because of the fellowship they have with God. He speaks of peace, of joy, of being so close that the Father and Son are indwelling. Think about the incredible acceptance and determined peace that requires on God’s part. Christ speaks of the disciples’ bearing fruit through their attachment to Him—that fellowship. He speaks of friendship between God and man. Yet in the whole discourse, He does not mention their sins once. His words that evening give us the right pattern as we remember Christ’s sacrifice and the priceless fellowship it opens.
Now, let’s turn to Luke’s account:
Luke 22:14-18 When the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve apostles with Him. Then He said to them, "With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God." Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, "Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes."
Verse 15 tells us what was on Christ’s mind, and again, it was not the disciples’ sins. Instead, the Son of God had been fervently looking forward to this special occasion—this fellowship—with those whom the Father had given Him (see also Matthew 26:18-29; Mark 14:13-25). Like the Exodus Passover, this Passover was about eating. However, the New Testament Scriptures place the emphasis on the bread and wine. The bread and wine are not new symbols, though, but the original elements of the fellowship meal between Melchizedek and Abraham (Genesis 14:18) on the eve of a historic covenant (Genesis 15). In like manner, this Passover was a fellowship meal on the eve of the sealing of a much-anticipated covenant.
There is not time to explore this completely, but notice that Jesus says that the Passover will not be fulfilled until the kingdom of God. It is easy to read right over that, but it is a critical part of Passover. The sin offering has already been fulfilled (Hebrews 1:3; 7:27; 9:12-14, 26-28; 10:12, 18), but the Passover has not, as it says here. This is because of Passover’s theme of redemption, which is actually a process. This is why Scripture speaks of redemption in both the past (Romans 3:23-25; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14) and future tenses (Luke 21:28; Romans 8:23-25; Ephesians 1:13-14; 4:30). We have been redeemed from the death penalty, but we still need to be redeemed from this corrupted nature that incurs the death penalty (see Titus 2:11-14). God must redeem us from this flesh—this body of death, as Paul calls it—so we can fully manifest the image of our Creator. Thus, our final redemption occurs when we have been resurrected and have fully taken on the incorruptible nature (see I Corinthians 15:50). At that point, Passover will be fulfilled.
Please turn to I Corinthians 10, where we will pick up a principle:
I Corinthians 10:16-20 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread. Observe Israel after the flesh: Are not those who eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar? What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything? Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons.
Remember I mentioned that some commentators call the peace offering a “communion sacrifice,” which is the term Paul uses here regarding the bread and the wine. We might shy away from the term because of how it has been appropriated, but it means, “to be in close fellowship or participation with.” This passage teaches that a sacrificial meal joins a person in fellowship with the object of that sacrifice, whether the true God or an idol (demon). The Passover unites us with God through a sacrificial meal. It also unites us with others, and we become one because we partake of that one bread, which is Christ.
Now, please turn with me to Matthew 26:
Matthew 26:26 And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.”
Jesus Christ’s body is a multi-faceted symbol. Sometimes Christ’s body is a symbol of His death, but at other times it is a symbol of life. So, it says here that the Passover bread represents Christ’s body. When Jesus uses bread as a symbol for His body, it is a symbol of life, even eternal life. We won’t turn to it, but John 6 explains this symbol very clearly. There, Jesus speaks of bread that endures to everlasting life. He speaks of the bread of God, the bread of life, and the living bread. When Jesus says that He is the “living bread” (John 6:51), it means that His flesh is not merely something that leads to eternal life, but He indicates a body that is alive. As we partake of the bread, we become one with the living Savior.
The concept of death is not entirely absent, because Christ’s life in the flesh ended—horrifically. As I said, it is a complex symbol. But the bread itself is a symbol of the sinless life that Jesus lived, up through its awful end, rather than just the end. It is not a symbol of a broken body. When we symbolically partake of Christ’s flesh, we are joined to His sinless life. God accepts us into His presence on the basis of Christ’s flesh, as it says in Hebrews 10:20. The new and living way is through His flesh. In the peace offering, man in shown accepted by God. Our acceptance is based on Christ’s sinless life, and only a body undefiled by sin has blood that is worthy to pay our death penalty. But He had to live flawlessly in order for the sin offering to be effective, and we partake of that perfect life at Passover. And just as bread strengthens mankind physically, so the bread of life strengthens us spiritually because we are partaking of the sinless life of the Creator.
Next, the symbol of the wine represents the covenantal relationship with God:
Matthew 26:27-28 Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.
All three synoptic gospels describe the cup as containing the blood of the covenant, as do Paul’s Passover instructions in I Corinthians 11. Matthew adds here that the blood also accomplishes the remission of sins. Notice, though, that the remission of sins does not stand on its own, but it comes through the New Covenant. That covenant contains the forgiveness of sins, but also includes much more (Jeremiah 31:33-34; Hebrews 8:10-12; 10:16-18).
In His Passover prayer in John 17, Jesus includes another aspect of the New Covenant, that of knowing the Father and Him. This covenant allows for those entering the covenant to have a relationship far beyond what the previous covenant offered—to actually know the Father and the Son. Jesus calls this relationship eternal life. It is a life of abundance—foremost spiritual—that continues past the grave in the resurrection.
Biblically, blood is a symbol for life. The best-known application of this is that blood provides atonement, where one life symbolically pays the life-debt of another. However, the various covenants show a second application, where blood represents life given as a pledge of faithfulness. God ratified the covenant with Israel with blood, and those sacrificial animals gave their lives to symbolize life given as a pledge. Significantly, the blood designated as “the blood of the covenant” at Mt. Sinai did not come from a sin offering, but from burnt and peace offerings (Exodus 24:4-8). That covenant was sealed before the first sin offering was commanded (Exodus 29:14).
The New Covenant is also sealed with blood, but it is not sprinkled on the outside of those making the covenant, as happened with Israel. Instead, it is ingested into the innermost parts of the person. Rather than being sealed with the blood of oxen, the New Covenant is sealed with infinitely more precious blood, blood that serves as a testimony of eternal life (see I John 5:6-13), as well as a pledge of God’s loyalty to those within the covenant:
Hebrews 13:20-21 Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
Notice that God makes us complete through the blood of the covenant. Christ’s blood is a pledge that God made that He will finish His extraordinary purpose—one that goes beyond forgiveness and culminates in our spiritual completion. When we are complete, then Passover will be fulfilled. But the forgiveness of sins comes through the covenant, not before it. Before the covenant, God overlooks—He passes over. When we pledge our loyalty to God through baptism, and accept His covenant after repenting, He then forgives us. When we are put into Christ, we are washed clean (see Acts 2:38; 4:12; 8:36-37; 22:16; Romans 6:3-7, 23; Colossians 2:12; Titus 3:4-7). But the cleansing blood of atonement is only available to those who accept the divine blood of the covenant.
Forgiveness is part of the covenant because we need God’s forgiveness throughout the process of being made complete. Neither the Old nor the New Covenant—nor the covenant with Abraham—were preceded by atonement. Instead, God makes covenants with those whose transgressions He has passed over. It is within the covenant, then, that sin is addressed. This is why Jesus proposed the New Covenant to His disciples at that Passover observance even before He died to provide atonement the following afternoon.
As we can see, sin is not the focus of Passover. Instead, God’s mercy underlies the fellowship He initiates. The much greater focus is on the ongoing fellowship with the Father and the Son, as well as communion with those who partake of that one, living Bread. It is a memorial of Christ’s death that sealed the covenant, as well as a grateful observance of our spiritual abundance and hope because of God’s faithfulness. It is a solemn yet joyful celebration of the peace and well-being we have in Christ.
The bread and the wine represent the sacrificial meal, which ultimately is Jesus Christ. God accepts those partaking of this meal, and He is pleased to have them in His presence. The bread of life imparts spiritual strength, and through drinking the wine, we take in the blood of the covenant. That blood is an overwhelming pledge by Almighty God to make complete those who remain faithful, who do not count the blood of the covenant as common (see Hebrews 10:26-29). Both God and the individual are satisfied because of the peace and fulfillment that comes through the divine fellowship that Jesus Christ facilitates.