Bottoms Up: Don’t Pass Over the Passover for the Christian Life

Bottoms Up: Don’t Pass Over the Passover for the Christian Life October 18, 2020

David Roberts, “The Israelites Leaving Egypt” (1828-1830), Wikimedia;  {{PD-US-expired}}

It’s easy for many people to pass over meals as unimportant and uneventful in our fast food society. One wonders how COVID impacts our sense of communal meals. For some, there is perhaps a sense of wistfulness and for others wariness of communal gatherings involving food. Perhaps both wistfulness and wariness are in play. Certainly, COVID has impacted the way churches engage in Communion from wistfulness to wariness. It’s hard taking Communion over Zoom for those who are really about being communal in their celebration of the Lord’s Supper. We can foster an even greater appreciation for Communion that will increase our longing for it long after COVID ceases to disrupt our lives by taking to heart Communion’s biblical backdrop at the Passover. We must be careful not to pass over the Passover’s significance for Communion and the Christian life. After all, the Passover serves as the Hebrew Scriptural backdrop to the Lord’s Supper’s institution at the Last Supper.

My church is going through Exodus presently. I’ve been given the opportunity to go through the Passover passage of Exodus 11 and 12 (It would be helpful to read these two chapters at this point). There is so much to talk about and not enough space to engage it in a sermon or a blog post. So, I have decided to focus brief consideration on food and drink as well as the occasion of the Passover. By the end, hopefully we will understand why it is so important to drink to the full—bottoms up—when we consider the importance of the Passover for Jewish and Christian life and why we should not pass over it. We must not pass over the Passover, but pass through it.

It is worth noting that there is no mention of a cup of wine in the instructions for the Passover meal in Exodus, only food—lamb and unleavened bread. Later in Jewish history, Passover celebrations included four cups of wine at the meal in keeping with the instructions provided in the Mishnah. Some rabbis in the Talmud called for the placement of a fifth cup. Jesus certainly draws from the tradition where the cup of wine plays an important role in the Passover celebration. It is worth noting here that “cup” can be used in the Hebrew Scriptures to connote wrath and judgment (Psalm 60:3, Psalm 75:8, Isaiah 51:17, Isaiah 51:22, Jeremiah 25:15, Obadiah 16; cf. Revelation 14:10) as well as salvation/redemption (Psalm 116:13). Certainly, Passover fits this bill as the occasion marks God’s judgment on Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt and the liberation of the LORD’s people Israel from bondage to slavery in Egypt. Jesus has judgment and salvation in mind as he institutes the Lord’s Supper at the Last Supper and as he tells his disciples that he will not drink from this cup again until he consummates his eschatological kingdom (See Luke 22:7-30; Paula Fredricksen looks at the traditions in which a banquet was anticipated to celebrate the coming of the kingdom of God and how Jesus may have had such associations in mind in his final meal with the disciples; see Fredricksen, From Jesus to Christ: the Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus).

While there is no mention of a cup in the Exodus 12 account of the Passover, there is mention of food. The people were instructed to eat roasted lamb and unleavened bread. The bread was to be unleavened to signify that they would eat in haste. The food was to be lamb, which was used for sacrifice in place of their firstborn children throughout their remembrance of the Passover for the generations to come. In Exodus 12, we are told that whereas God would destroy the firstborn of Egypt, God’s angel of death would pass over every Jewish household where the lamb’s blood marked the entryway (the doorposts and lintel). The sacrificial lamb of Passover conveys a different meaning than the sacrifice of lambs on the Day of Atonement. The point of Passover is not ultimately cleansing from sin, but victory over the forces of evil—in this case, Pharaoh’s oppression of Israel. Consider how in Revelation 5 Jesus comes forth as victorious king to judge the nations (under the rule of empire—Babylon/Rome) as the Lion of the tribe of Judah who is a slain and risen Lamb. In the institution of the Lord’s Supper, there would be room for both notions as the Passover meal that Jesus oversees becomes the occasion for the institution of the New Covenant, which entails cleansing and liberation.

Having reflected upon the food and drink, let’s turn to the occasion of this communal meal. The occasion of the Passover and its meal is God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt through the killing of every firstborn male of the Egyptians. Why did God go this route to free Israel? For those of us in the church with weak stomachs and sensitive spirits, it might be very hard to eat the meal and take Communion. While the food and drink might not go down easier, it might help with spiritual digestion to consider what one rabbi has to say about the occasion of Passover, which accompanies the final plague where God kills every firstborn of Egypt:

In order to fully understand this plague we must appreciate the hierarchy within Egyptian civilization. It was a society ruled by primogeniture. The first-born had absolute power within the family unit. Pharaoh was the first-born of the first-born of the first-born. It was from this birthright that he exercised power.

The attack against the first-born was therefore a powerful polemic against the entire culture of Egypt. The eldest ruled the younger siblings. This is why having slaves was so important to the Egyptians. This gave the lower classes someone else to control and dominate.

In Judaism, as we have seen numerous times, birth does not guarantee position…

The entire book of Genesis, in fact, is a polemic against the older son. Abraham was not a first-born. Isaac was not a first-born. Jacob was not a first-born. Joseph was not a first-born. Even King David was not a first-born. (Midrash Rabba – Bamibar 4:8)

It is only Jacob’s willingness to serve God which transformed him into a “first-born.” On the other hand, “real” first-borns have lost their status. Originally the Temple service devolved upon the first-born, but when they committed the Sin of the Golden Calf, the Levites were privileged to enter in their stead. (Midrash Rabba – Bamidbar 4:8)

One day the Messiah himself will merit to be called a first-born. He will help teach the world that being a child of God transcends lineage. Indeed, being a first-born of God is about how we lead our lives – the manifestation of the image of God within, not a question of sequence of birth.

God identifies with the downtrodden and oppressed. God takes aim at the gods of empire that would cut short the lives of the common people, as in the case of Israel (remember how Pharaoh violently oppressed Israel in slavery and sought the death of every male child born to a Jewish family so as to guard against Israel overpowering Egypt; Exodus 1). Exodus 12 puts it this way: “For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 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 no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:12-13; ESV).

Later we find that God will not let his liberated people forget that they were once slaves in Egypt and that they must not enslave one another. Leviticus 25:55 reads: “For it is to me that the people of Israel are servants. They are my servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (ESV). This has a bearing on the people of God throughout the ages. Rather than treat one another as slaves, we should serve one another from the heart. It is no coincidence that Jesus comes as God’s suffering servant who manifests his glory in caring for his disciples, including washing their feet at the Last Supper as he reenacts the Passover celebration by offering himself up as the lamb of sacrifice whose body is broken and blood poured out. Here’s how John 13 puts the matter:

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him (John 13:1-5; ESV).

Similarly, we find in Luke 22 that Jesus highlights the servant nature of his rule and kingdom:

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. “You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:24-30; ESV).

God brings down the proud and oppressive and lifts up the humble and oppressed. We find this focus in Jesus’ life and work, which is the fulfilment of the Passover. The theme of liberation from bondage and Exodus is front and center in Messiah Jesus’ final celebration of the Passover with his followers. N.T. Wright claims:

All four gospels make clear one vital point: that Jesus chose Passover to go to Jerusalem and confront the Temple establishment with his radical counter-claim, knowing where it would lead. He didn’t choose Tabernacles or [Hanukkah]; he didn’t choose the Day of Atonement. He chose Passover, because Jesus’ understanding of his own vocation was to accomplish, once and for all, the New Exodus for which Israel had longed. Passover-imagery isn’t just miscellaneous decoration around the edge of an atonement-theory whose real focus is elsewhere. It is the flesh-and-blood reality (N.T. Wright, “The Royal Revolution: Fresh Perspectives on the Cross,” Calvin College January Series, January 24, 2017, https://ntwrightpage.com/2017/01/30/the-royal-revolution-fresh-perspectives-on-the-cross/; accessed on 3/23/2020).

How striking that on the night of the Passover meal Jesus as Lord of God’s kingdom demonstrates that he is the lead servant. Those who lower themselves will be lifted up—bottoms up! Shouldn’t we follow suit, just as he instructs us? Let’s drink—bottoms up—to the liberation of the oppressed and liberation from slavery to sin (Romans 6:18) that Jesus provides. Jesus liberates us from enslavement that discounts others so that we can love freely. Let’s make sure we consider others better than ourselves in view of Jesus’ example and empowerment in the Spirit and that God elevates him to the highest place (Philippians 2:1-11). Let’s make sure that such care includes not just our fraternal friends, but also those outside of our socio-economic demographic, as Paul exhorted the Corinthian church where the well-to-do did not share the feast with those who were not doing so well (1 Corinthians 11; according to Gordon Fee, the Lord’s Supper was probably part of a common meal. The ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ were likely divided during this celebration, as it was “sociologically natural for the host to invite those of his/her own class to eat” in the dining room. Those not of their class (the less fortunate here in Corinth) ate in the courtyard (Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, pages 533-534).

May we not hoard and exclude the less fortunate or lay a heavy hand on others. Take to heart what awaits those who give freely in view of God having given us his kingdom and that Jesus will once again serve at Table. He is the servant king, as Luke 12 so beautifully reveals!

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them (Luke 12:32-37; ESV).

The Passover leads the way forward to a new way of being as we enter Jesus’ kingdom community and press on toward the Promised Land. May we not pass over the Passover but pass through it. Let’s drink from Jesus’ Passover cup—bottoms up—and experience the wonders of his bottoms up kingdom afresh!

About Paul Louis Metzger
Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology & Culture at Multnomah University & Seminary, Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins, Editor of Cultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture, and author of numerous works. You can read more about the author here.
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