“Why is this night different from all the rest? On all other nights, we eat leavened and unleavened bread, but this night, all of it is unleavened. On all other nights, we eat meat roasted, boiled, or cooked, but this night, all of it is roasted. Why is this night different from all other nights?”
These are the questions the youngest child asks the head of the family during the Passover Seder. And it is the question that we still ask, over 3000 years after this meal was established: what makes this night different from all the rest?
There is something so marvelous and so sacred about the Passover meal, that I am truly humbled, and a bit overwhelmed, at the thought of attempting to explain its meaning. The more I study its roots and the history behind the meal, the deeper the waters go.
But we must become more familiar with this sacred meal. I do not want to pretend to know everything there is to know about the Passover Seder. Jewish Rabbis spend their whole lives studying and teaching this meal to the Jewish members of their congregation. And the Passover meal is so complex, so deep, so symbolic, so involved that I cannot even begin to explain the whole thing to you tonight.
However, I do want to try to lay before you the basics of the Seder for one very important reason: the only way to really understand the Lord’s Supper Table is to understand the Passover table. It was around this table, almost 2000 years ago, where our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ said these words, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me” (see Luke 22.19). And while we kind of know what that means, we will never fully know until we understand this table.
The Passover Seder began 3400 years ago in the story told in the book of Exodus. The people of God, the Hebrews, were living as slaves in Egypt. They were severely oppressed, mistreated, and abused, and greatly in need of liberation. The Lord raised up a servant, Moses, to lead His people out of bondage and into the Promised Land. But, the Pharaoh did not want to let his slave labor force leave. So, the Lord sent a variety of plagues upon the land to force Pharaoh’s hand. However, he continued to stubbornly refuse to let God’s people go.
So, one last plague would afflict Egypt. The firstborn of all the land, animals included, were going to die. But, the people of God would be spared if they put their trust in the Lord and followed Him. The Lord gave Moses clear instructions on what to have the Hebrews do on the night before the death angel passed through Egypt, on the night before their years of slavery in Egypt were to come to an end, on the night before their deliverance. I read fromExodus 12,
Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household… 5Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, 6and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight. 7Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. 9Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. 10And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover. (Exodus 12.3-11, selected)
Of course, you know the story of that night. The people sacrificed a lamb at twilight. They ate bitter herbs, bread without yeast, and roasted lamb. They spread the blood from the Passover lamb on their doorposts. And they waited. They waited as the Lord struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the mightiest Pharaoh down to the lowliest prisoner, even to all the cattle and livestock. But, as the Lord went through the land, He did not enter the homes that had the blood of the lamb on the doorframes. The Lord “passed over” those homes, and they were saved.
The next morning, the Hebrews awoke to the sounds of wailing from all the Egyptians. The people of God gathered their belongings and left for the Promised Land. But that night, that sacred meal, would remain in their memory forever. In fact, that night became a lasting festival for the people of God. The Lord said to Moses in Exodus 12,
This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast. (Exodus 12.14)
For Generations to Come
For hundreds and thousands of years, the people of God have gathered in their homes on this most sacred night to share the Passover Seder. As you can imagine, over the course of hundreds of years, this sacred night developed more and more traditions and customs to both preserve the meal and to explain the meal. By the time Jesus was born, 1400 years after the exodus experience, the Passover Seder had been formalized by the Rabbi’s in a Haggadah, an official guide to the Passover meal. The first Haggadahs were oral and taught by the Rabbis in the synagogues; later they would be written down. Today, you can purchase at the book store a variety of Haggadahs that will teach you how to observe the Passover Seder. For sure, there were some differences and some local flavor, but the Passover meal was standardized in its most essential elements.
Jesus, being a faithful Jew, grew up observing the Passover meal every year with His family. At one point, He was the youngest child who asked the question, “Why is this night different from all the rest?” He learned at his father’s table the meaning of the Passover and the story of the exodus. When His public teaching ministry began, He became a “Rabbi” and most likely led the disciples through the Seder for a couple of years before this last supper He had with His disciples.
I have tried to research as best I could, from Jewish and Christian sources, what the observance of the Seder was like when Jesus celebrated it with His disciples. It is my hope to faithfully represent to you how Jesus and the disciples shared the Seder together on that last night.
There are about 15 different elements to the Passover Seder, many with associated blessings and prayers. I won’t try to read all of the prayers and blessings, but I would like to read a few as we talk about this sacred meal.
The first element is the Kaddesh. This is the opening blessing that begins the meal. The blessing is given over the first of four cups used in the Passover Seder. That is important to remember: four cups. The head of the house would raise his cup and say,
Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine. Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has chosen us from all the peoples and raised us up above all tongues, and has made us holy through His commandments. The Lord our God has given us in love Holidays for rejoicing, Festivals and special times for joy; this Festival of Matzahs, a time of freedom, a Holy moment in which we recall the Exodus from Egypt. For through it, You chose us and You sanctified us from all of the peoples; and You gave us an inheritance of Your Holy Festivals, in rejoicing and joy. Blessed are You, God, Who sanctifies Israel and these special times.
Then each person would drink from their own cup the first cup of wine. And, with that blessing, the Seder begins.
2. Urechatz: Washing
The second element is a ceremonial washing called the Urechatz.
3. Karpas: Vegetable
Today, as Jews gather for Passover, many will have a “Seder Plate” where they ceremonially place the elements of the meal.
One of those elements is the Karpas, or vegetables. Typically, parsley would be dipped in salt water and eaten. This was not meant to be a savory dish but a symbolic dish. The salt water represents the many tears they shed during their slavery. As you shake the salt water off of the parsley, it even looks like tears falling from their eyes. This is not to be a large portion, but just a small ceremonial bite.
4. Yachatz: Breaking
While a variety of elements have been added to the Passover Seder, the three main elements remain from the story of Exodus: unleavened bread, the Passover lamb, and the bitter herbs. At this point in the meal, the head of the family would take three large loaves of unleavened bread. When Jesus gathered with His disciples, these sere surely large, handmade loaves and not store bought crackers. The head of the family would break one of the three Matzah loaves on the table. The largest piece broken off would be placed in a napkin and set aside to be used later in the meal. This broken off piece is called the “Afikomen,” and we will talk about that later. Today, many Jews used a ceremonial Afikomen bag to care for this broken off piece of Matzah.
5. Maggid: the Story
The next element of the Seder is the Maggid or the telling of the story of the exodus experience. This is where the youngest person at the table asked the four questions, the first of which is “Why is this night different from all the rest?” The head of the family, in great detail, and I mean great detail, then told the story of the exodus. The story is designed to be told on a child’s level.
At this point, the Matzah and the Maror are explained. The Matzah is the unleavened bread. The head of the family would explain,
What is the reason we eat this Matzah? Because when the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself to them and redeemed them, there was insufficient time for our ancestors’ dough to become leavened. As it says: “The dough, which they brought out of Egypt, they baked into unleavened bread, because they were driven out from Egypt and they were not able to delay, and they had not prepared any provisions.”
The Maror, or bitter herbs, was most often horseradish. The head of the family would explain why the family eats bitter herbs on the sacred night by saying,
What is the reason we eat this Marror? Because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors in Egypt. As it says: “They made their lives bitter through the hard labor, with mortar and brick and all kinds of work in the field. All their labor was carried out under conditions of excessive force.”
At the end of the story and all the explanations, the second cup is blessed. The second cup is the cup used to drink with the meal. It is drunk freely with the meal and refilled often.
6. Motzi: blessing over the Matzah, Maror: blessing over the bitter herbs, Korech, the sandwich
After another ceremonial washing of the hands, the head of the family takes the Matzah and offers a blessing. The same is done with the Maror. And then the family eats the Korech, a sandwich with the Matzah bread and the bitter herbs.
7. Shulchan Orech: dinner
Now, dinner is served. There are no requirements about what to eat at this meal, except that all of the bread must be unleavened and the meat must be roasted. Before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the Jews in Jerusalem would eat the meat of the Passover lamb. After the temple was destroyed, and lamb shank became a ceremonial part of the meal, but the meat might be roasted chicken or turkey or even brisket.
8. The third cup
After the meal, the third cup of wine is poured and there is an after meal grace or blessing. The third cup is the only cup of the Seder where all the family members drink from the common cup. This cup is passed around the table, and everyone drinks from the cup together.
The gospel writer of Luke gives us one detail that the other writers leave out, but it is very important. We read in Luke 22,
And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. 15And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. 18For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” (Luke 22.14-18)
This is the third cup of the Seder, the common cup, the cup that is offered after the meal is eaten, the cup of grace.
There is some dispute among differing Haggadahs as to whether the Afikomen is to be eaten before the third cup or after. The modern Haggadahs have the afikomen eaten before the third cup, but some of the older Haggadahs have the Afikomen eaten after the third cup. Either way, at this point, the tradition of the Afikomen comes into play.
This little broken piece of Matzah is one of the most hotly debated elements of the Passover meal. What does it mean?
What everyone agrees upon is that the Afikomen is that piece of Matzah bread broken by the head of the family before the meal began. Everyone agrees that the Afikomen is to be the last morsel eaten of the entire evening. But what does it symbolize? There’s the rub.
Modern Jewish Haggadahs focus on one of two meanings for the Afikomen. For most, it is a way of keeping the children’s attention during the evening meal. So, several traditions have developed such as hiding the Afikomen and the first child to find it gets a prize. Sometimes, the children hide it and the parents must “ransom” it back with a prize for each child. It is a fun way to keep the children interested throughout the teaching and symbolism of the Seder.
Other Rabbis will focus on the Afikomen as a sort of dessert. This seems to be the minority view since plain Matzah bread has little flavor and most of us see dessert as something flavorful. Also, each person eats a small bite of the Afikomen and not a “dessert” size portion.
However, if we go back to the roots of the Seder, back to sources before Christ, the meaning and role of the Afikomen is much different. The Greek root of the word Afikomen means, “the one who is to come.” It seems that the Afikomen was part of the messianic hope of the Passover meal.
The next element, after the Afikomen, is the fourth and final cup. Before the cup is blessed, a cup is poured for Elijah. The children go to the front door and open the door for Elijah. It was hoped that on Passover night, Elijah would come. Most families would even have an empty chair at the table for Elijah to sit at, if he came. Why Elijah? Elijah was the forerunner of the Messiah. Elijah must come before the Messiah would come. If Elijah joined them for Passover dinner, then the Messiah would be right behind. The Afikomen was part of that messianic hope.
The very last prayer offered at the Passover is this: “Next year, in Jerusalem.” The messianic hope of the Passover meal was that the messiah would come and lead us in the Passover Seder next year as He gathers God’s people in the holy city. Next year, in Jerusalem.
It is interesting that some early Christian groups joined the Jews in observing the full Passover meal. However, instead of eating, they would fast beginning at sundown on Passover. They were watching and waiting, looking for the Messiah to return. At about 3 in the morning, when it was obvious that the messiah would not return, they would celebrate the Lord’s supper and go home.
Part of the roots of the Passover Seder was looking for the Messiah, the one who was to come, the one who would be the Redeemer of Israel.
Jesus and the Last Supper
And on that special night, after Jesus and His disciples has shared a common meal, and after the third cup was passed around, Jesus took the Afikomen, the bread of messianic hope, and like every Jewish Rabbi, broke off a piece for everyone at the table. This was the last morsel of the evening, the bread of messianic hope, the bread of the one who was to come. Luke tells us about that moment,
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22.19).
No one had ever said those words at a Passover Seder before. They were revolutionary. Jesus was declaring Himself to be the fulfillment of the messianic hope, the redeemer of Israel. And, He shared with them how this redemption was to be accomplished. “This is my body, given for you.” Jesus was the Afikomen, the one who was to come. This is my body.
Why not the lamb?
As I read the story of Passover, I can’t help but wonder. Why did Jesus speak these words over the Afikomen? Why not over the meat of the lamb? After all, the most poignant symbol of the entire Passover Seder that pointed to Jesus is the Passover lamb. John the Baptist called Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” It was the blood on the doorframes of the Hebrew’s houses that caused the death angel to pass over. Jesus was to be the once and for all final sacrificial lamb. Paul even called Jesus the “Passover Lamb” (see 1 Corinthians 5.7) The Passover lamb was THE symbol of the Seder, and if I were Jesus, I would have spoken those words over the lamb. But, Jesus spoke them over the Afikomen. Why?
In God’s sovereignty, Jesus knew that the Passover lamb would quickly disappear from the Passover meal. In less than 40 years after His death, the Temple was destroyed and the Jews would no longer be able to properly sacrifice a lamb for the Passover Seder. The lamb was quickly be reduced to a symbol, a shank bone on a special plate. The bread however has remained the central element to the Seder, even until this day.
But there is even a greater symbolism in the Afikomen. At the beginning of the meal, the Matzah was broken, and the Afikomen was hidden away for the duration of the meal. Finally, at the end, the Afikomen is unwrapped. The resurrection is foretold in the Afikomen.
No doubt, as the disciples of Jesus stood speechless at the empty tomb, utterly amazed at what happened, surely they began to put two and two together. Just like the Afikomen was hidden and then unwrapped, so Jesus was broken, hidden, and then set free from the tomb.
Knowing all of this, the breaking of the bread makes so much sense.
Of course, the Jews today will totally deny that the Afikomen points to Jesus. They refused to see Jesus as the Messiah back then, and they still do today. But when we break bread together, we are making a confession and a commitment.
Our confession is that we believe Jesus to be the Messiah. We believe His body was broken for us on the Cross for the forgiveness of sins. We believe His body was hidden in death and that God raised Him from the dead. We confess that as true.
But, we also make a commitment. Our commitment is based upon our confession. Our commitment is to follow this Jesus as Savior and Lord. To remember His death for our sins. To live our lives under His Lordship. And to live our lives in deep expectancy for His return.
All hail King Jesus, the Afikomen, the one who is to come.