Jesus loved a party. Besides enjoying a good meal and fellowship, Jesus used local gatherings and banquets to proclaim his gospel of forgiveness, to show inclusiveness to those deemed unworthy, and even to perform miracles (Matt. 9:10–13; Mark 2:15–17; Luke 5:29–32; 19:5–10; John 2:1–12).
When the New Testament describes Jesus’s participation in the Jewish festival calendar, the Gospels focus on Passover.
Luke gives us a unique glimpse into a young Jesus, who amazes the temple teachers during his parents’ annual trek to Jerusalem (Luke 2:41–52). John uses Passover time stamps to point to various points of Jesus’s ministry: the cleansing of the temple (2:13–22), the feeding of the 5,000 (6:1–15), and several events during Passion Week—Jesus being anointed by Mary (12:1), him washing the disciples’ feet (13:1), his trial before Pilate (18:28, 39), and the crucifixion (19:14). The Synoptic Gospels describe the Last Supper as a Passover meal (Matt. 26:17–19; Mark 14:12–16; Luke 22:1, 7–15). This then serves as the background for the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17–34).
If we want to understand communion, the new covenant ceremony Jesus instituted, it’s important to first understand the Passover festival that lies behind it.
Passover Was Regular
In addition to weekly (Sabbath) and monthly (New Moon) holy days, the Torah identifies an annual festival calendar linked to the agricultural cycle (Ex. 23:14–17; 34:18–23; Lev. 23; Num. 28–29; Deut. 16:1–17). Three feasts stand out because they involve pilgrimages to Jerusalem for a time of communal sacrifice and celebration.
If we want to understand communion, it’s important to first understand the Passover festival that lies behind it.
Passover begins the repeated cycle in the spring, on the 14th day of the first month. The day is just before of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (days 15–21 of the first month), at the beginning of the barley harvest and lambing season. The Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, is seven weeks later in the summer, at the height of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest. Finally, the Feast of Booths is in the winter (in the seventh month), at the end of the wheat harvest.
Passover Was for Remembering
Though the feasts were related to the agricultural calendar, festival worship went beyond praising God for his bountiful blessings. The feasts also commemorated God’s actions in history and motivated ongoing covenant faithfulness. Through the festivals, Israel remembered their rescue from Egyptian slavery, the exodus, the covenant at Sinai, the wilderness wanderings, and their entrance into the promised land.
Passover and Unleavened Bread were first instituted while Israel was still in Egypt (Ex. 12–13). God laid out procedures for his people: sacrificing an unblemished 1-year-old male lamb from each household, wiping the blood on the doorposts with hyssop, eating the lamb with bitter herbs and unleavened bread, and then eating unleavened bread for the next seven days.
The text describes this as an ongoing commemoration of the Lord’s redemptive actions (12:17, 26–27; 13:3, 8–9, 14–16). In the 10th plague, the death of every firstborn, the Lord had passed over the bloodstained doorposts (12:13, 23, 27; also Isa. 31:5), protecting those homes from the destroyer (Ex. 12:23).
Did the Israelites Keep the Feast?
The Lord required the people to continue to keep the feasts (Lev. 23; Deut. 16), but sadly, Israel was largely negligent (cf. 2 Kings 23:9; 2 Chron. 30:26; Neh. 8:17). Passover was at least kept in the year after the exodus (Num. 9:1–14), in the initial entry into the land (Josh. 5:10–11), and in a few high points during the kingdom years (1 Kings 9:25; 2 Chron. 8:12–13 [under Solomon]; 2 Chron. 30 [under Hezekiah]; 2 Kings 23:21–23; 2 Chron. 35:1–19 [under Josiah]).
The postexilic community also kept Passover (Ezra 6:19–22), and evidence suggests at least some Jews during the Second Temple period began taking the feasts more seriously and consistently. There was clearly development and adaption through later Old Testament history and in this Second Temple time. At some point, Passover and Unleavened Bread merged together so both names are used interchangeably in the New Testament to describe the weeklong feast (Mark 14:1, 12; Luke 22:1, 7; cf. 1 Cor. 5:7).
Passover Points to the Lord’s Supper
In the New Testament era, Passover language continues to evoke the themes of memory, redemption, new life, community, sacrifice, and celebration. Like a lamb “led to the slaughter” (Isa. 53:7), Jesus is the ultimate Passover sacrifice (1 Cor. 5:7)—“the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Besides enjoying a good meal and fellowship, Jesus used local gatherings and banquets to proclaim his gospel of forgiveness.
Jesus ushered in a new exodus, established a new covenant, and brought us into a better kingdom and land.
As we long for the ultimate consummation of all things—to be in the presence of the slain-but-resurrected Lamb (Rev. 5:6–7) and among the eternal communion of those whose robes have been washed “in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14)—he calls us to “cleanse out the old leaven” and “celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:7–8). He calls us to holiness now, knowing we were ransomed with the unblemished Lamb’s precious blood and will be given future grace at his final revelation (1 Pet. 1:13–18).
At the Passover “party,” God’s people regularly shared fellowship and food, remembering God’s redemptive work and his care for the weak. The festival provides an important backdrop for our regular remembrance during the Lord’s Supper. As we come to the communion table, as we gather and worship together, may we reflect on the blood of the Lamb shed for forgiveness as the centerpiece of salvation history. Let’s not neglect the Lord’s Table. Let’s celebrate in remembrance of him.
Kenneth J. Turner