THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE PASSOVER AND THE FEAST OF UNLEAVENED BREAD SPEAKS TO US TODAY
These critical Old Testament events and feasts are foundational for our understanding of what God has accomplished for New Testament saints through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.
Ryken: When we consider how the Feast of Unleavened Bread is connected to Passover, we discover a very important truth about salvation—namely, that we are saved in order to be sanctified. Passover is about getting saved. It reminds us that we have been delivered from death by a perfect substitute whose blood was shed as a sacrifice for our sins. The Feast of Unleavened Bread reminds us what God wants us to do once we’ve been saved, and that is to live a sanctified life, becoming more and more free from sin.
I. (:14-20) OBSERVANCE OF THE FEAST OF UNLEAVENED BREAD
A. (:14-16) Instructions for the Feast of Unleavened Bread
1. (:14) Permanent Memorial
“Now this day will be a memorial to you, and you shall celebrate it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations you are to celebrate it as a permanent ordinance.”
Walter Kaiser Jr.: The connection between the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread is close yet distinct. The OT uses both names to refer to the same feast: “Passover Feast” in Exodus 34:25; Ezekiel 45:21; and “Feast of Unleavened Bread” in Deuteronomy 16:16; 2 Chronicles 30:13, 21; Ezra 6:22. Yet the two rites are treated separately, even if in sequence, in Leviticus 23:5-6; Numbers 28:16-17; 2 Chronicles 35:1, 17; Ezra 6; Ezekiel 45:21.
2. (:15) Purifying Seven Day Festival
“Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses; for whoever eats anything leavened from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.”
Douglas Stuart: But why require eating unleavened bread as the special focus of the exodus memorial meal, the Passover? The answer is that unleavened bread was the unique food of the original exodus, the event God wanted his people to be sure not to forget. People everywhere normally eat leavened bread. It tastes better, is more pleasant to eat, is more filling. Leavened bread was the normal choice of the Israelites in Egypt too. But on the night they ran, there was no time for the usual niceties—a fast meal had to be eaten, and hastily made bread had to be consumed. The fact that a lamb or goat kid was roasted for the meat portion of the meal or that bitter herbs were eaten as a side dish was not nearly so special or unusual as the fact that the bread was unleavened, thus essentially forming sheets of cracker. Eating it at the memorial feast intentionally recalled the original departure in haste. Eating it for a solid week tended to fix the idea in one’s consciousness. . .
The statement that a person would be cut off from Israel was not juridical guidance for those enforcing laws but a prediction from God of the fate of the unfaithful. Not to be faithful is not to belong to God’s people even if living among them (cf. Rom 2:28–29) and therefore not to enjoy their covenant blessings in the long run.
Ryken: For one thing, as we have already seen, unleavened bread reminded the Israelites of their hasty departure. But getting rid of the yeast had another purpose. Although it is not explicitly stated in Exodus 12, Jewish teachers have always understood yeast to represent the corrupting power of sin. Unleavened bread symbolizes holiness. What makes this comparison suitable is that unleavened bread is made of pure wheat untouched by yeast. When God’s people ate unleavened bread, therefore, they were reminded to keep themselves pure from sin, and especially from the evils of Egypt. To this day, when devout Jewish families celebrate Passover they search their homes for leaven and then sweep it out the door. This symbolic act shows that they have a commitment to lead a life free from sin.
John Mackay: Because leaven is often used to describe the spread of sin (it is used of hypocrisy in Luke 12:1, and of malice and wickedness in 1 Cor. 5:8), it is often supposed that it is a symbol of evil. But the situation is not as simple as equating leaven with evil. Leavened bread, as a finished product representing the best the land, could be offered to the Lord as first fruits on the day of Pentecost (Lev. 23:17). Christ could use leaven as a symbol of the pervasive action of his kingdom (Matt. 13:33). Leaven was used as a symbol of development over time, of the pervasive spread of something. . .
“cut off from Israel” – indicates physical expulsion from the community as a judgment of God, though not necessarily implying death.
3. (:16) Prescribed Days for Holy Assembly instead of Work
“And on the first day you shall have a holy assembly, and another holy assembly on the seventh day; no work at all shall be done on them, except what must be eaten by every person, that alone may be prepared by you.”
Douglas Stuart: A considerable amount of repetition occurs in this passage, with the effect that the instructions of 12:14–16 are closely paralleled by the instructions of 12:17–20. The latter is not an exact repetition of the former, but it contains many similarities. Thus the features of the Passover memorial of unleavened bread are stated twice, as a means of drilling into the mind of the hearer/reader the point: absolutely no yeasted bread could be eaten for the seven full days of the special Passover festival. To prevent even the slightest possibility that any sort of bread or breaded food in the house would become yeasted accidentally, all yeast had to be removed from all Israelite homes during the week-long festival.
Yeast is an appropriate symbol for sin because of the way it grows and spreads. As yeast ferments, it works its way all through the dough. Sin works the same way, which is why the Bible makes this comparison. Sin is always trying to extend its corrupting influence through a person’s entire life. But God had something better in mind for his people. He was saving them to sanctify them; so before they left Egypt he wanted them to make a clean sweep.
Consider the way bread was made in those days. The Israelites didn’t have yeast packets; they just used a pinch of the old dough. I remember something similar from my childhood. From time to time someone would give my mother instructions for making “friendship bread.” She would start by mixing the ingredients. However, in order for the recipe to work, her friend had to give her some “starter”—a lump of dough with leaven in it. Once my mother added the starter, the dough would begin to rise. But that is exactly what God did not want the Israelites to do. In spiritual terms, the last thing he wanted them to do was to take a lump of dough from Egypt that would eventually fill them with the leaven of idolatry. Instead, he wanted them to leave behind all of Egypt’s gods and goddesses—the old life of sin. One commentator explains it like this:
“Unleavened bread was a symbol of discontinuity. Leaven was a bit of dough kept unbaked from the previous day’s baking and added to the next day’s batch of dough so that it would start the fermentation process there also. It was used in much the same way as yeast would be now. When a batch of bread was being baked a relatively small quantity of leaven or yeast is added, and it works its way through the dough and causes it to rise. The instruction to banish leaven from their houses and to take none of it with them from Egypt was a gesture that symbolised leaving behind all Egyptian influences that might work their way through their lives and corrupt them.”
God wanted to do something more than get his people out of Egypt; he wanted to get Egypt out of his people. He was saving them with a view to their sanctification; so he told them to make a clean sweep. He commanded them to get rid of every last bit of yeast, the old yeast of Egyptian idolatry. To further show that they were making a fresh start, God gave his people a new calendar. He said, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year” (v. 2). It was a new year to mark a new spiritual beginning.
B. (:17-20) Importance of the Feast of Unleavened Bread
Importance shown by:
1. (:17) Purpose of the Observance
“You shall also observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt; therefore you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a permanent ordinance.”
2. (:18-19a) Duration of the Observance
“In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. Seven days there shall be no leaven found in your houses;”
3. (:19b-20) Penalty for Violating the Observance
“for whoever eats what is leavened, that person shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is an alien or a native of the land. You shall not eat anything leavened; in all your dwellings you shall eat unleavened bread.”
John Mackay: ‘Aliens’ were strangers who had come to settle among Israel, but had not been accorded full citizen rights. Even they were expected to observe various divine requirements. In return for the privilege extended to them of dwelling with God’s people, they were expected to keep the law of the land, though they were not compelled to worship the Lord.
II. (:21-28) OBSERVANCE OF THE FEAST OF PASSOVER
A. (:21-23) Instructions for the Passover
1. (:21) Central Focus = Slaying of the Passover Lamb
“Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel, and said to them, ‘Go and take for yourselves lambs according to your families, and slay the Passover lamb.’”
Walter Kaiser Jr.: When the instructions for the preparation of the Passover (and the topically connected but subsequent enlargement of the Passover in the Feast of Unleavened Bread) had been completed, the elders were briefed on what each Israelite family was to do (v. 21).
2. (:22a) Critical Feature = Application of the Blood
“And you shall take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood which is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and the two doorposts;”
John Hannah: hyssop – a common bushy plant that grows on rocky surfaces. It was widely used in Israel’s rites of purification (cf. Lev. 14:4, 6, 49, 51-52; Num. 19:6, 18).
Walter Kaiser: that Israel would know the grounds and means of their deliverance and redemption: a sacrificed substitute and the blood of atonement in which the paschal animal died in place of the firstborn of all who took shelter from the stroke of the destroyer.
John Davis: This plant has a rather pungent fragrant smell, a taste something like peppermint, and has masses of tiny white flowers. It is found commonly on rocks and terrace walls.
Douglas Stuart: Why should God himself “go through the land to strike down the Egyptians”? Did God need to get up close to a house before he could “see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and pass over that doorway”? . . .
God had already been identified as the direct cause of all the preceding plagues. They were not merely events that he set in motion at some early stage or natural events generally subject to his control. So it was with the death of the wicked. In this world that God has created, human life does not just happen by accident, and no one’s death is a random event. The Judge of all the earth always does right (Gen 18:25). And he is the Judge, the one directly and expressly involved. He personally saves every individual who places faith in him, and he personally oversees the ending of the existence of everyone whose life has not conformed to his will. He is not a deistic god but a personal God who relates personally, directly, and continually to his creation. Consistent with his nature and with the pattern already established in the plague accounts, God here personally oversaw the destruction of the Egyptian firstborn.
S Lewis Johnson: The application of the blood of the Passover lamb that was shed was to be made to the lentil and the two side posts. That was their duty. Now, it’s a striking fact that this is parallel with the salvation we have in Christ. Many believe in the shed blood but not in the sprinkled blood. They sometimes acknowledge that Christ has died for sinners but they have never applied that blood to their own heart. What a difference it makes when we believe not simply in the fact that Christ died for sinners but that he died for me, that we have sprinkled the blood upon our hearts in his grace. It wasn’t the lamb tied to the altar that saved. It wasn’t just the blood of a slain lamb in a basin that saved. It was the blood sprinkled that saved.
3. (:22b) Careful Forewarning
“and none of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning.”
4. (:23) Contrasting Fulfillments
“For the LORD will pass through to smite the Egyptians;”
“and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to come in to your houses to smite you.”
David Thompson: Now let’s be very clear on this point – God is not some love God who will just love everyone into His heaven and into His eternity. If God does not see the blood of His Lamb applied to a person, that person will be destroyed. It is that clear. Either that sacrificial blood keeps you from God’s wrath or God’s wrath is on you.
B. (:24-27a) Importance of the Passover
1. (:24-25) Permanent Memorial
a. (:24) Observe it Forever
“And you shall observe this event as an ordinance
for you and your children forever.”
b. (:25) Observe it Upon Entering the Promised Land
“And it will come about when you enter the land which the LORD will give you, as He has promised, that you shall observe this rite.”
David Thompson: It is clear from this verse that God has a plan for Israel that includes land; specific land. It is said in this verse that God will give Israel land He has promised her. The dimensions of that land are first spelled out in Genesis 15:18-21.
2. (:26-27a) Perpetuated by Instructing Future Generations
“And it will come about when your children will say to you, ‘What does this rite mean to you?’ that you shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the LORD who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes.’ “
John Davis: It was very important not only to perpetuate the proper form of the ceremony, but it was incumbent upon the parents of these children to know its meaning and significance. The Church of Jesus Christ has long been plagued with those who have maintained the performance of certain rites, but the spiritual significance and symbolism of such rites have long since been lost and in most cases do not reflect personal experience. The concern which Moses showed over the meaning of an ordinance should be a warning to us that God’s ordinances are to be perpetuated not only in correct form, but as representing personal experience and correct theology.
Douglas Stuart: From the point of view of the greater sweep of biblical revelation, the practice of teaching each new generation the meaning of the Passover helped guarantee the transmission of the proto evangelium throughout the historical continuum of the people of Israel until New Testament times, when the human-divine Lamb was slain once for all as part of the divine plan of redemption set in place before the earth as we know it existed. In other words, every Israelite properly instructed about the Passover should have been also partly prepared to expect a dying Messiah whose shed blood would provide a means of escape from death. It also contains something of a model of the biblical emphasis on the importance of parents’ teaching children—a responsibility well understood before the advent of universal education but often neglected in present times in favor of professionalized education.
C. (:27b-28) Response of the People
1. (:27b) Worship
“And the people bowed low and worshiped.”
Ryken: Their response is significant because it reminds us of the entire theme of Exodus. God’s purpose in bringing Israel out of Egypt was to save a people for his glory, a people who would give him all the praise. Finally his people were starting to do that. The last we heard from them (Exod. 5:21), they were so discouraged that they had given up any hope of salvation; but now they were starting to worship God, even before he actually saved them. All they had was the promise of salvation, although it is worth noting that God had already started to speak about their salvation in the past tense. He said, “Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt” (Exod. 12:17). A grammarian might call this a “perfect of confidence” or “prophetic perfect.” God was so absolutely confident of his power to save that as far as he was concerned, Israel was as good as saved already. And because God’s people believed this too, they started to give him the glory.
2. (:28) Obedience
“Then the sons of Israel went and did so;
just as the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron, so they did.”
III. (:29-36) OBSERVANCE OF HOW THE PASSOVER PLAYED OUT
Look at the various roles of the different cast of characters:
A. (:29) Role of the Lord = Killing the First-Born as Promised – No Exceptions
“Now it came about at midnight that the LORD struck all the first-born in the land of Egypt,
– from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on his throne
– to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon,
– and all the first-born of cattle.”
Guzik: This plague was directed against two significant Egyptian gods. First, Osiris was the Egyptian god thought to be the giver of life. Second, this was against the supposed deity of Pharaoh himself, because his own household was touched (the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne).
David Thompson: When God purposes to do something, no one can stop God. No force, no power, no nation, no person can stop God. God has all power and authority and He can do whatever He wants, whenever He wants to whomever He wants at any moment. Never is that more evident than when we come to this section of Scripture.
We come now to the final plague. Of all of the plagues, this one is the most destructive plague. It doesn’t take long and it doesn’t last long, but it is devastating and it does accomplish exactly what God wanted it to accomplish. It is a death plague and it is a plague that generates the emancipation of Israel.
GOD’S SOVEREIGN WILL WAS TO TAKE ISRAEL OUT OF EGYPT AND HE SENT A FINAL PLAGUE AGAINST EGYPT THAT ACCOMPLISHED HIS SOVEREIGN WILL AND THIS DELIVERANCE WAS TO BE REMEMBERED BY A MEAL THAT REFLECTED ON THE SHED BLOOD OF A SACRIFICIAL LAMB.
B. (:30-33) Role of Pharaoh and the Egyptians = Giving Up Their Resistance
1. (:30) Distress
“And Pharaoh arose in the night,
he and all his servants and all the Egyptians;
and there was a great cry in Egypt,
for there was no home where there was not someone dead.”
2. (:31-32) Dismissal
“Then he called for Moses and Aaron at night and said, ‘Rise up, get out from among my people, both you and the sons of Israel; and go, worship the LORD, as you have said. Take both your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and go, and bless me also.’”
John Davis: The heart of Pharaoh and the will of Pharaoh had been broken. His spirit now changed from that of arrogance and resistance to grave concern, so much so that he called for Moses and Aaron in the night (v. 31). Without dialogue and long discussion, he simply stated that the children of Israel should leave. No qualifications, no concessions were part of his response; in fact, the departure was to take place on Moses’ terms (v. 32). His concern for his own welfare is expressed in the last phrase of verse 32, “Bless me also,” a most amazing request in the light of Pharaoh’s assumed divinity. The God whose existence and power he had questioned in earlier times (5:2) he now asks to bless him.
Douglas Stuart: Re vv. 31-36 — Israel left Egypt on sudden notice, freely, rapidly, and comparatively wealthy. In this section of the narrative Moses helps the reader understand four things: the suddenness of the exodus; why Pharaoh and the Egyptians finally gave full and even eager permission for the exodus; why the Passover observance so strongly emphasizes eating unyeasted bread; and how the Israelites financed their forty years in the wilderness, a fact that explains their eventual ability to contribute and/or purchase precious metals and other valuable materials for the tabernacle and its appurtenances.
Ryken: There are times when it seems like the day of salvation will never come. There were times when it must have seemed that way to the Israelites. For centuries they languished in captivity, bearing the bitter yoke of their slavery in Egypt. And when God finally decided to do something about it, things got worse instead of better because Pharaoh made them work even harder. Now, finally, Pharaoh seemed to be getting what he deserved. Still, the Israelites must have wondered how many plagues it was going to take. But while they waited, they had God’s promise that his mighty hand would make Pharaoh drive Israel out of Egypt—not just let them go but actually drive them out (Exod. 6:1 ; cf. 3:20). This is precisely what happened: “During the night Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, ‘Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord as you have requested. Take your flocks and herds, as you have said, and go. And also bless me’ ” (Exod. 12:31 , 32).
These verses are so heavy with irony that they almost fall through the Biblical page. Here is the most powerful man in the world being rudely awakened to face things totally out of his control, including the death of his eldest son. Pharaoh had told Moses that he never wanted to see his face again (Exod. 10:28). How ironic, then, for him to summon God’s prophet in the middle of the night, especially since Moses had told Pharaoh that one day his officials would come bow down at his feet and beg him to get out of Egypt (Exod. 11:8). Pharaoh had treated the Israelites as his slaves, refusing to recognize their rights. But here he calls them “Israelites,” thus recognizing their status as a free nation. How ironic! Pharaoh had refused to let the Israelites worship their God. In fact, he claimed that he didn’t even know who their God was (Exod. 5:2). How ironic, therefore, for him to tell the Israelites to “worship the Lord” (Exod. 12:31). The word “worship” is really the word “serve,” which is another irony, because the problem all along was Pharaoh insisting that the Israelites had to serve him.
3. (:33) Dread
“And the Egyptians urged the people, to send them out of the land in haste, for they said, ‘We shall all be dead.’”
C. (:34-36) Role of the Israelites — Plundering the Egyptians
“So the people took their dough before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls bound up in the clothes on their shoulders. Now the sons of Israel had done according to the word of Moses, for they had requested from the Egyptians articles of silver and articles of gold, and clothing; and the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have their request. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.”
Walter Kaiser Jr.: The Israelites wrapped the unleavened lumps of dough in sacks made from their outer garments or mantles and slung them over their shoulders along with their kneading troughs and whatever other incidentals they planned to take with them.
John Mackay: They left Egypt like a victorious army that had stripped the vanquished of their spoil and were departing laden with booty. This accorded with the promise that the Lord had made long before to Abraham that his descendants would come out of the land of their enslavement ‘with great possessions’ (Gen. 15:14).