This month in Jewish homes all over the world we celebrate the Passover, also called the Festival of Redemption. Of all the holy days, of all the sacred events of Jewish history, Passover stands as the cornerstone of Israel’s national identity and purpose. The Passover lamb remains the focal point of this great story of God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from bondage in Egypt, but the Exodus account mentions two other prominent elements of the observance. They are the bitter herbs (maror in Hebrew) and the unleavened bread, called matzoh. The rabbis have long maintained that no Passover seder (the seder is the ceremonial dinner celebration) is complete without an explanation of the lamb, the bitter herbs and the unleavened bread.
In truth, there are not one, but two holidays to celebrate as we commemorate God’s redemption through the Exodus story. They have come to be regarded as the same holiday, but the Scriptures make a distinction.
Exodus 12 refers to the Lord’s Passover with regard to the lamb—its sacrifice, its blood on the door and the fact that the people were to eat it roasted and burn whatever remained. But the command to observe the Feast” is in fact the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12:17). Leviticus 23 lists all the Feasts of the Lord, and verses 5 and 6 clearly note that Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread are each regarded as feasts of the Lord in their own right:
These are the feasts of the LORD, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at their appointed times. On the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight [is] the LORD’s Passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month [is] the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the LORD; seven days you must eat unleavened bread.
I don’t believe that God was concerned with the actual names of the holidays as much as He was that people follow His commands. Most Jewish people who celebrate Passover also celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread inasmuch as they continue to eat matzoh for seven more days following the Passover seder. So if you go to your local Hallmark store to buy holiday greeting cards for your Jewish friends, don’t expect to find any “Happy Feast of Unleavened Bread” cards. It all comes under the heading of Passover. That is the focal point of the drama and the celebration.
Much can be said about the rich significance of the lamb and its blood upon the doorposts. In short, the blood of the lamb caused death to “pass over” the homes of the Israelites when God poured out His judgment. The bitter herbs, usually horseradish, remind us of the bitter slavery our ancestors experienced in Egypt. When we eat a bit of horseradish during the seder it brings tears to our eyes, reminding us of the tears our forefathers shed. Often it is more than tears that start running when we eat the bitter herbs, which is why some of us refer to the horseradish as “Jewish Dristan«”!
The unleavened bread, which is a feast in and of itself, receives a special focus at Passover…but is it enough?
One of four special questions the youngest child is to ask during the Passover seder is, “Why on all other nights do we eat leavened bread but on this night only unleavened bread?” The answer to this question is the key that unlocks an important and often neglected element of God’s plan for redemption.
The Haggadah, the service manual for the Passover seder, answers that question: “It is because there was no time for our ancestors’ dough to become leavened before the King of all kings, the Holy One (Blessed be He!) revealed Himself to them and redeemed them.” That answer is certainly true—but it is not the whole truth.
Anyone found to have leavened bread during the entire week of this celebration was to be cut off from the rest of the people of Israel (Exodus 12:15). Obviously, there is more involved in the requirement to eat unleavened bread than the need for speed.
The New Testament helps us better understand the spiritual significance of the unleavened bread and God’s command to remove leaven from the home. In writing to the church at Corinth regarding the problem of immorality, the Apostle Paul admonishes them: “…Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 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 5:6-8).
Leaven is a symbol for sin. Just as a little leaven permeates the dough and causes the bread to rise, so sin permeates our lives and causes us to be utterly sinful, puffed up in our own estimation before God. Likewise, Paul points out that unleavened bread is a symbol of purity, righteousness and truth. This explanation gives tremendous insight into God’s command to the Israelites back in the land of Egypt. It is especially important in light of what Jesus said when he took the matzoh in the upper room at Passover and declared, “Take eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me” (1 Corinthians 11:24).
This spiritual understanding of leavened and unleavened bread at Passover is missing from modern Jewish understanding. Religious Jewish households have an elaborate ceremony (called bedikat chametz or “searching for the leaven”) to comply with the command to remove leaven from the home. Yet, there is no inward reality attached to this outward ceremony.
What is more, the rabbis have approved a process whereby Jewish families may sell their breads and leavened goods for a small fee to a non-Jewish household for the duration of the Passover week. Afterwards, they may buy their leavened goods back for the price for which it was sold—a convenient way to avoid the command to be rid of leaven. This “loophole” is symptomatic of a problem endemic to all human beings, even those of us who know the Messiah Jesus.
No one likes to talk about sin and the need to purge our lives of sin. Even those of us willing to admit we are sinners are often unwilling to make necessary sacrifices to purge out that old leaven.
Jesus’ death on the cross is not merely a fire insurance policy to save us from hell. God’s plan for redemption includes much more than eternal life in heaven. He wants us to have abundant life here and now. That means being willing to deal with sin on an ongoing basis. Following Jesus is more than receiving Him as Savior; it means following His example, walking in His footsteps. In order to do that we need to cultivate the urge to purge, a commitment to pursue holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).
We are not saved by our own ability to repent, but repentance is certainly an evident grace that accompanies salvation, as well as an ongoing spiritual discipline. Many people claim to believe in Jesus but demonstrate no desire to give over any of their sinful habits and behaviors. Only God may judge the true spiritual state of these believers, but we may well wonder whether they are born again.
Of course all of us who follow Jesus still struggle with sin. At times we may be like those households who don’t actually purge the leaven—we keep selling it and buying it back again. We echo the Apostle Paul: “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:19, 24-25).
But we must not give up the struggle. This purging out of the old leaven is too often an under-developed discipline in the body of Christ today. We need to keep examining ourselves to see if we are growing in godliness, pursuing holiness, maintaining the “urge to purge.” I need that for my life and I know we need it in Jews for Jesus.
We are approaching 30 years of ministry this year. No doubt we have come a very long way since those early days. We made plenty of mistakes along the way. In some cases we were doing the best we could for what we knew at the time. In other cases we allowed sinful attitudes like pride to infect our lives and our behaviors. If we had it to do over again there are many things we would no doubt do differently. But one thing is certain. We have always sensed that we should strive to be more for God, to reflect more faithfully His goodness and His grace. All fall short of His standard. We Jews for Jesus are not all that we can and should be. I hope we are closer to being the kind of people He wants us to be than we were—not just 30 years ago, but even last year.
How about you? Can you look back over the last few years and see God’s hand at work in your life? All of us need to keep taking a spiritual inventory. All of us need to hear and heed that command to “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.”