Because our religious traditions follow different calendars, Passover and our Christian Holy Week don’t always coincide,* but this year, when they do, is a good time to reflect on how they are related.
It all started when God called a middle eastern tribe, known as the Israelites, who had been slaves in the Egyptian Empire for four hundred years, and said, “I want you to be my people, through whom I will reveal myself to the world.” Their journey of following him began with the Exodus, their miraculous escape from Egypt. Pharaoh, the Egyptian ruler, tried to keep them in captivity, but God sent ten “plagues” to force him to release his grip. You can read about this in Exodus 7-12. The final plague was the worst: the oldest child in every household died on the same day; the whole nation was suddenly in mourning.
Except for the Israelites. They were told by God that each family should sacrifice a lamb and smear some of its blood on their houses’ doorposts. As God’s judgment went through the land to strike every household, the sacrificial blood would mark his chosen people, and he would pass over those houses. That’s where the word Passover came from. God told each family to sacrifice a lamb and then have a ritual meal, centered on eating the lamb meat from the sacrifice. Once the Israelites entered the Promised Land, this Passover meal was celebrated annually to mark their deliverance from slavery. For three centuries, the sacrifices were made at each family’s home, but after Solomon’s Temple was built, some time during the 10th century BC, sacrifices were all done in the Temple, and it’s been that way ever since.
So, Jesus had a Passover meal with his disciples the night before he died on the cross, which we commemorate every time we take communion. What we tend to forget is that their meal was centered around a lamb that had been sacrificed in the Temple that afternoon. The first century Jewish historian Josephus wrote that 3 million Jewish pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover, and 256,500 lambs and kids were sacrificed in the Temple. Scholars think he was exaggerating to impress his Roman readers, but even if the numbers are one-tenth of his estimates, that’s a lot of young animals and a lot of blood. When Jesus said, “This is my body,” “This is my blood,” his disciples would have a very different mental image than a modern American Christian would have.
The next day, Jesus was beaten, mocked, spit on, made to carry his own cross, and finally nailed to that cross to suffer three hours of agony. According to John’s Gospel, before breathing his last, Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). He was not saying, “I’m finished, a failure.” He may have been saying, “My suffering is finished.” But most of us hear him saying, “My work is finished; I’ve done what I came to do; mission accomplished.” But there’s one more layer to the meaning of this exclamation: Jesus was saying, “This bloody sacrificial system is finished; because I died for people’s sins, no more of these animals have to die.” Reflecting on this, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Our Passover Lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed; therefore, let us celebrate the feast” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8). And the Apostle who authored the Letter to the Hebrews wrote that “Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:12). That blood-sacrifice stuff — it’s finished.
Then, what do you make of a headline like this: “Passover Sacrifice, COVID-19 and Donald Trump”?** The article describes a letter written by the Sanhedrin in Israel addressed to President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, asking them to authorize the offering of a Passover lamb sacrifice TODAY on the site of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The letter suggests this will be God’s way of bringing an end to the COVID-19 pandemic. I found this or something similar on several websites, all of them run by Christian groups that are preoccupied with extremist end-times prophesies. I spent a bit of time researching this and found that:
- The Sanhedrin, a Jewish rabbinic judicial court that was influential in Jesus’ time, has not existed since A.D. 425.***
- The letter seems to have been created by one of these extremist Christian groups and has circulated among them. Their literal interpretation of some Biblical prophesies would seem fulfilled if Temple sacrifices resumed.
- Most Jewish groups are not advocating or anticipating a return to sacrificial offerings in a rebuilt Temple. Only a handful of ultra-extremist Orthodox Jews are.
- Maybe such a letter was indeed sent to President Trump. There’s nothing in the mainstream press about it. If so, what will he make of it?
- Connecting a Passover sacrifice today at the Jerusalem Temple site with an end to the COVID-19 pandemic amounts to the heartless manipulation of people’s fears and frustrations.
I believe Jesus had the last word on animal sacrifices when he said, “It is finished!” Our salvation is completed by his Passover self-sacrifice.
-Pastor George Van Alstine
* For a detailed discussion of these dates, click here.
**For the article, click here.
***In 2004 a group was formed that claims to be a restored Sanhedrin. They are not recognized by any major Jewish religious groups. Curiously, there is no mention of this letter on their website: click here