This Holy Saturday, between Good Friday and Easter, I was reflecting on the idea of Jesus as the slain Passover lamb. The association is certainly Biblical, not only in the obvious context of Jesus’ death taking place on Passover, but also in the testimony of the Apostle Paul in 1:Cor. 5:7. Paul doesn’t go into detail what he means about Jesus being the Passover lamb, but if we look carefully I think there are some helpful hints to be gleaned … hints that suggest Jesus’ shed blood means a great deal besides forgiveness of sins.
The Passover sacrifice is, of course, introduced in Exodus 12. In this account, God instructs Moses to tell the people of Israel to slaughter a lamb and do two specific things with it: mark their doorposts with its blood, and eat the flesh for dinner. In stark contrast to the usual Christian narrative of sacrifices being for sin, I find it notable that the concept of sin does not appear in the entire tale from Exodus 11-13. Both actions–the blood and the flesh–have a very specific purpose, and neither is related to sin at all.
First, the Israelites were to mark their door frames with the lamb’s blood “as a sign.” Those whose houses were so marked would not suffer the death of their firstborn, as happened to the rest of the households of Egypt. It’s important to recognize that God didn’t “need” the label; some (though not all) previous plagues specifically spared the Israelites in Exodus 8:22 (flies), Exodus 9:24 (livestock died), Exodus 9:26 (hail), and Exodus 10:23 (darkness). So the sign of the blood clearly was intended for the Israelites themselves, not so much for God and the angel of death. Nevertheless, the sign was clearly one of identification. The blood on the door marked a household not only as of the people of God, but people who had deliberately obeyed God’s command. It was not the shedding of that blood–the sacrifice itself–that spared the Israelites from the death plague, but rather the application of that blood according to God’s instructions. Might this be consistent with a God who prefers obedience to sacrifice (1 Sam. 15:22, Hosea 6:6)?
Second, the Israelites were to eat the roast flesh of the lamb. No symbolism is given for this in the Exodus text, and in fact the only instructions are that it should be roasted not boiled, that it be eaten in haste and with unleavened bread, and that any leftovers be burned. Without trying to extrapolate too much, I honestly wonder if this may not have been a highly pragmatic command for the simple reason that the people were about to travel on foot out into the desert, and they simply needed a good protein-and-carbohydrate meal to fortify them for the journey. God’s commands can get downright practical at times.
We Christians pay too little attention to the Passover links to Jesus, I think. Passover is the time when God called his people out of a foreign place, saving them from slavery, and in a very real way making them into “his people” in a way they had not previously been. On the eve of their salvation, on the threshold of a new life as a newly-created nation, God’s people were labeled by blood and strengthened by flesh of a sacrificed lamb. Paul says something quite similar in Ephesians 2:13-14, where even we Gentiles have been “brought near by the blood of Christ,” and separate peoples have been made into one “in his flesh.” Jesus told his disciples to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood at the Passover meal. Just as God initiated a feast of remembrance on the eve of delivering the people of Israel, Jesus instituted a new meal of remembrance as he set in motion the new kingdom of his Body. The body of Christ as well as the blood; the bread as well as the cup, is given to humans to unite and seal us as the people of God. In his broken body and shed blood, we are marked as different, set apart from the death that rages around us, and ushered into a new kingdom.
There is much more in the Bible about the blood of Christ, and I don’t suggest for a moment that the Passover narrative is the whole story. Still, it is one we should remember. This “day of remembrance,” this “festival to the LORD,” is to remind us of our deliverance, our calling, our unification as the people of God. Let us not forget.