Remember the Bitter; Enjoy the Sweet

When God called upon Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt, the Scripture says that it was because Israel was groaning under the oppression of their Egyptian taskmasters. “Many years later the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out. Their cries for relief from their hard labor ascended to God: God listened to their groanings. God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw what was going on with Israel. God understood” (Ex. 2:23-25, MSG).

The importance of pain and affliction cannot be overstated. Without pain, few of us would see our doctors; without hard times, few of us would develop the endurance (physical or in any other form) to persevere; and without the pain that accompanies our sinful conditions, none of us would come to the Savior for His mercy and grace.

When the Hebrew people groaned under the Egyptian bondage, God saw their affliction from the very beginning. But, as with most of us, their condition had to become unbearable for them before they would consent to the hardships that would come by leaving. Even then, it only took them three days before they started complaining that God had not provided them any water (Ex. 15:22f).

A Jewish family at Passover remembers the whole experience of their ancestors. But the sweetness of freedom cannot be fully appreciated without remembering the bitterness of slavery, so the Passover table includes a few items to remind them of this bitterness. One item is a bowl of salt water in which the family will dip some of their ceremonial foods to remind them of the tears that were shed in their bondage. Various bitter herbs also bring back the memory of those tears, particularly the horseradish.

Horseradish is a strong bitter herb, too strong for some. But the sweetness of freedom becomes something that we take for granted unless we have something to compare it with. Likewise, none of us can enjoy the sweetness of the grace of God if we fail to remember the bitterness of sin.

 Our culture doesn’t help — it applauds sin as being fun, sweet, and satisfying. How quickly we forget the financial or familial destruction that usually accompanies alcoholism. How many children are horribly impacted by the pedophile that became addicted to sex through pornography? How many lives are in financial bondage through the debts incurred by the lottery or another form of gambling? These are just some of the more obvious bondage-producing sins that our world tells us are sweet, but all of us have experienced (or are experiencing) a slavery to sin. Just as there are no “victimless crimes,” there is no sin that does not lead to some form of bondage.

Deliverance from any kind of bondage is sweet, and that is what the Passover commemorates. It is also the purpose of the cross of Christ. Jesus said, “If the Son shall set you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). This was also the Apostle Paul’s point in Galatians 4 and 5 — having been enslaved by sin, we can experience true freedom through the redemptive work of Christ.

But there are two dangers that are described in these two New Testament passages. Like the Jews in John 8, we can proudly declare that we have never been enslaved to anything (see v. 33) and therefore do not need to be redeemed. Or, like the Galatians to whom Paul was writing, we can turn back to our old ways and trust that somehow our good works will merit eternal life for us. This too, is a form of pride. The truth is that redemption is all from Jesus. In other places Paul wrote that eternal life is wholly and completely a gift — something given, not earned (Rom 6:23; Eph 2:8-9; Tit 3:4-6).

All who celebrate Passover rehearse the events that led from the bitterness of slavery to the sweet freedom of redemption. Until we come to the same point of the bitterness of bondage and the impossibility of deliverance that Moses and the Hebrews experienced, we can never fully appreciate the sweet redemption that is available to us in Y’Sua ha-Mashiach (Jesus, the Messiah).

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The Aphikomen

A Matzo Tash is a cloth container for the unleavened bread that is eaten by a Jewish family when celebrating Passover. There are three compartments in the Matzo Tash into which are placed three whole matzahs. Early in the Passover Seder, the leader will take the middle piece of matzah and break it in half (roughly). One part will go back into the Matzo Tash and the other part will be wrapped in a napkin. This broken matzah is known as the “aphikomen;” the leader calls it the “humble bread” and sets it aside. At some point while everyone is distracted with the ceremony, the leader will discreetly hide the part that is wrapped in the napkin, the aphikomen.

Toward the end of the Seder meal, the leader will call upon the children to search for and find the aphikomen. In a Jewish family it is typical for the youngest child to “find” the napkin with the aphikomen (usually with the help of the adults and older children) and to be rewarded with a piece of candy by the leader of the ceremony.

We don’t find any reference to the aphikomen in the Old Testament. It is a part of the ceremony that probably developed in the early part of the first century while Christianity was still considered a sect of Judaism. Yet it remained a part of the ceremony even after it became clear to the Jewish people that these “Christians” were going to keep on insisting that Jesus was the Messiah. In the early third century, the rabbis standardized the Seder ceremony and the aphikomen remained a part of it.

But to what does it refer? Why are there three compartments in the Matzo Tash? Why is the middle piece of matzah removed and broken? Why is it called the “humble bread”? Why do the children look for it; why a reward when it’s found?

Groups of three can be found in Judaism, but not all of the parts of this ceremony fit them. The three patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — might be considered. Isaac was almost sacrificed in Genesis 22, but none of the other parts of the ceremony come close to fitting this triplet. The religious hierarchy of the priests, the Levites, and the people don’t seem to make sense of the other parts of the tradition either. Some think that the three matzahs is a reference to the three measures of flour that Sarah prepared for the three angels in Genesis 19, but this is a stretch because they weren’t any part of the exodus from Egypt.

There is, however, a triplet that the unbelieving Jews don’t recognize, but the early church did — the Triune God. This triplet makes complete sense of the tradition of the aphikomen. The middle matzah (representing God, the Son) was broken (or crucified); He was humbled (or humbled Himself); He was hidden (buried) and found (resurrected). A reward was paid (for the Christian, Messiah paid for our redemption). The Jews, though, don’t recognize this symbolism because to do so, they would have to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Yet, inexplicably, this remained part of the Seder ceremony even after Christianity parted from Judaism.

Interestingly, and to reinforce the point that the aphikomen is a symbol of Messiah Jesus, many Jewish people recite the Shema daily, a phrase of which is “Adonai echad” — in English, “the Lord is one.” The Hebrew word, “echad” (one) is a word for a unity that has multiple parts (e.g., one car, but with an engine, steering wheel, seats, etc.). So the Matzo Tash that originally held the unleavened bread was a single unit with multiple parts.

The nature of symbolism is that it can never be perfect, but the explanation of Y’Shua as representing the aphikomen comes far closer than any other. Curious people can look up “aphikomen” on the internet to find some very wild explanations to avoid recognizing the connection between Jesus and the aphikomen. Some people will go to great lengths to cram the square pegs of their worldview into the round holes of the reality that surrounds them.

All of the important symbols that the Jewish people remember in commemorating Passover point to Y’Shua ha-Mashiach, Jesus the Messiah. The necessity of a Deliverer was symbolized by the bitter herbs, evoking a sharp contrast with the sweetness of freedom; His sinless life was seen in the fact that the bread was unleavened; His substitutionary death was represented by the blood of the lamb that protected the people from the angel of death; and the aphikomen points to the nature of the Triune God, specifically Jesus.

The shallow understanding of Christianity in our world leads some people to imagine that God’s work has changed from the Old Testament era to the New Testament era. But from the beginning of time He was pointing ahead to a future Deliverer — not just in Passover, but in all of the feasts, in the ceremonial law, indeed, in all parts of the Old Testament. He never changed His plan, and never will. In the end, all of mankind will have to give an answer to the question, “How did you respond to Messiah Jesus?” Sadly, many Jewish people rehearse that plan each year at Passover but miss it. Just as sadly, many who identify themselves with Christianity miss His plan as well.

Jesus, the Lamb of God

All of the feasts of Israel pointed to Messiah, but probably the one that most clearly depicts the nature of the Messiah and the purpose of His ministry is Passover. It was a Passover Feast that was the occasion for twelve year old Jesus to meet the Jewish teachers in the Temple. It was the Passover Feast that He used to inaugurate the Lord’s Supper. Paul urged the Corinthians to keep the Passover Feast with purity because Christ was their Passover Lamb (I Cor. 5:7-8).

Passover was the beginning of the nation of Israel, their Independence Day. While Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) was celebrated in the fall as the traditional date of Creation, Passover began a new era for God’s people. He established them as an independent nation, not merely as the extended family of a single man.

Just as all nations celebrate national holidays, the Jews were told to celebrate Passover annually. But as their celebration developed over their history, it is significant that it pointed more and more clearly toward Messiah. A case could be made that in the evolution of the Seder itself, one could see the hand of God pointing toward Messiah. A case could also be made that the annual celebration of the various feasts was highly instrumental in preserving the national identity of the Jewish people for the 2500 years of their dispersion.

Central to the celebration of Passover is the idea of freedom. The former slaves to Pharaoh became a free nation. But it was more than mere political freedom. Their political freedom actually pointed to a deeper, spiritual freedom, and the celebration of that event ought to have become a visual reminder of the invisible truths. Throughout their history the Jewish hope of freedom was associated with the Messiah. They anticipated that he would deliver them from their oppressors, but what they didn’t see was His nature in and through the various parts of the Passover Seder.

The lamb that was sacrificed for Passover was a spotless lamb (Ex. 12:5). As already mentioned, Paul called Jesus the Passover Lamb (I Cor 5:7-8), a designation consistent with the idea of purity. Studies in his theology make it very clear that Paul understood and held to the sinless purity of Jesus. He was the One who though He knew no sin, yet became sin for us (II Cor. 5:21).

The Biblical doctrine of the sinlessness of Jesus is not just a superficial teaching but is integral to the notion of our freedom from sin. If Jesus had not been sinless, the sacrifice would not have satisfied the demands of God’s justice. The infinite quality of God’s attributes requires that any sin, however small in our eyes, will violate His holiness. That sin, therefore, cannot be simply overlooked, but must be covered (atoned for); the penalty for that sin must be paid. Of course, we on this side of the Cross, and who acknowledge the Cross, see the connection that was hidden in “spotless lamb” of the Passover and made clearer when John the Baptist called Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Another parallel between the Passover lamb and Jesus is the vicarious nature of both deaths. The lamb in Exodus 12 was to be killed so that its blood would serve as a protection from the angel of death. The lamb died so that the people wouldn’t. Likewise, Jesus’ death was in our place, protecting us from death as well.

This idea is so often woven into the Scriptures – both Old and New Testaments – that it certainly is not incidental. When the Levitical priests laid their hands upon the head of the animal to be sacrificed, it was for the purpose of identification with their substitute. They recognized that that animal was experiencing death so that they would live. One of the ritual practices of the Day of Atonement used two goats, one of which was killed as a sacrifice, the other being set free. Our term “scapegoat,” meaning “a person bearing blame for others,” comes from this ritual.

One of the first events upon entering the land of Canaan under Joshua’s leadership was their rehearsal of the story of how the blood over the doorpost caused the angel of death to “pass over” them. The Hebrew warriors must have been impressed when a week later the massive wall of Jericho fell, all of it except the part where a scarlet cord was hanging from the window, protecting Rahab and her family from death.

The idea of substitution comes out also in the prophecy of Isaiah. These verses should be read emphasizing the pronouns, “Surely OUR griefs HE HIMSELF bore, And OUR sorrows HE carried; Yet WE OURSELVES esteemed HIM stricken, Smitten of God and afflicted. But HE was pierced through for OUR transgressions, HE was crushed for OUR iniquities; The chastening for OUR well-being fell upon HIM, And by HIS scourging WE are healed. All of US like sheep have gone astray, Each of US has turned to HIS own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of US all To fall on HIM” (Isaiah 53:4-6 NASB, emphasis added).
When a Jewish family celebrates Passover, they often are reminded that the substitution of the lamb for their sins was not available only for the descendants of Abraham. The offer of protection by painting the lamb’s blood over the door was also made to the Egyptians. Likewise, the blood of Y’Shua ha-Mashiach – Jesus the Messiah – is offered to all Gentiles, to all who will apply that blood to their hearts. They don’t have to have a particular pedigree.

The images of Passover in the minds of many of us come from the imagination of film maker Cecil B. DeMille who cast Charlton Heston as Moses in “The Ten Commandments.” By today’s standards he did a remarkably good job at sticking to the text of Scripture – that is, by today’s standards. One of the best scenes that drew out the mood of the characters who were actually there takes place in Moses’ home. He and his family were protected by the blood on their doorpost, but that blood didn’t erase the sounds of the night, particularly the wailing of those who ignored the provision of the blood of the lamb. It is a sad and sober truth that there will be more wailing unless we reach the world soon.

The picture given to us in the Passover Seder of the lamb whose blood was shed that we might have life parallels perfectly the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. As we consider the other elements of the Seder, we will see Messiah in them as well. But taken as a whole they comprise a testimony to the Messianic role of the Lord Jesus that is beyond dispute.

Jesus, The Bread of Life

When a Jewish family prepares for Passover, they go through a very involved routine to rid their home of the yeast or leaven. Leaven (the Hebrew word is “chametz”) is considered a picture of sin and contamination, so their goal is to get rid of all of the chametz that is in their home during the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread – not just the packets of yeast that might have been purchased at the store. They search the house for anything that contains leaven, any bread, any cake or cookies. Many of the Jewish foods at the supermarket are marked as ready for Passover – they are without leaven.

This job of cleaning out the leaven is mostly Mom’s, but the Jewish dad participates also and, despite his disproportionate effort, he usually gets the credit. On the night before Passover Dad and a child go on the ceremonial search for the chametz. The child holds a candle while the father carries a feather, a wooden spoon and an old cloth napkin. Mom, who has done all the hard work, has left in a visible spot in the last room a few crumbs of leaven, so that their search would not be in vain. Dad then sweeps the few offensive crumbs into the spoon and wraps it – spoon and feather included – into the napkin. Then he declares, “Now I have rid my house of leaven.” The next morning he joins the other Jewish men at a ceremonial bonfire in which they burn their bundles of leaven. The thorough effort ought to be a picture of our effort to get rid of sin in our lives.

Actually both Testaments see leaven as a picture of sin. Jesus used its corrupting influence as a vivid picture of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt. 16:6). Similarly, Paul equated leaven with malice and wickedness while urging the Corinthians to “keep the festival (of Passover) with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (I Cor. 5:8).

The contaminating influence of sin is seen in the fact that when we begin to justify some known sin, it becomes easier then to justify another. There is a fascinating progression in I John 1:6-10 where John records that once we persist in lying to others, we then begin to believe the lie ourselves and finally we end up calling God a liar.

We’ve all seen this progression at work. A married man and a pretty co-worker strike up a friendship. It starts out innocently, but they become more and more attracted to each other. If anyone in the office questions them they get defensive (they lie to others). They justify lunch together all the while refusing to acknowledge the sinful feelings that are growing in them (they are lying to themselves). Finally they consummate the affair and defend their actions, calling God the liar for saying that something as beautiful as their love for each other is sinful.

This is the contaminating influence of sin. The sin began way back in their minds, and that is where the battle could have been won. Certainly the immoral actions are sin, but so is the unwillingness to check the temptation. But it is interesting that this goes even deeper. When sin is not checked, we not only justify the actions connected with that sin, but the sin expands. Now instead of dealing with a covetous or lustful temptation, we have to deal with immorality, with lying and with idolatry. If you are keeping track of the Ten Commandments, the one sin has grown to four. The leaven is at work.

We cannot live sinless lives, as Jesus did, because we are steeped in sin from birth. But we can dispose of known sin, and the picture of the Jewish family going through the house prior to Passover is intended to
remind us of this. We are to be as diligent in searching our hearts for sin as the family is in searching their home for the leaven. David wrote, “Search me, O God and know my heart; try me and see if there be any hurtful way in me.” (Ps. 139: 23-24). The ancient rabbis have seen a relationship between this practice and Zeph. 1:12 where the Lord declares, “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent, who are like wine left on its dregs who think, ‘The LORD will do nothing, either good or bad.’”

A calloused attitude toward sin was a serious offense in the ancient Jewish society. The failure to rid their homes of leaven led to exclusion from the community (Ex. 12:15, 19). Excommunication in ancient Israel was more severe than we perceive it to be in our society. To be cut off from the community meant that a man couldn’t trade or enjoy the protection of that community. He would be vulnerable to the attacks of enemies and wild animals. It was a real punishment. Today people perceive that there is no real consequence to sin beyond some personal grief. But this doesn’t mean that in God’s sight sin is any less severe.

The Church is to be a place where righteousness is promoted. Yes, we are to be a loving and caring community, but that doesn’t mean that we should be soft on sin.

At the same time, we should be conscious that every one of us has some skeleton in our closet. There are no perfect people; all of us are in some ways hypocrites. But the issue of personal holiness is not an issue of perfection. Mostly it is an issue of honesty. We are to be honest about our sin, especially as we speak to God. We are to align our lives with the Scripture, acknowledging that we aren’t perfect in this and confessing our failures. When we do this honestly, without pretense, we will find ourselves growing in holiness.
 The Unleavened Bread is a type of Christ, Jesus Himself having said, “I am the Bread of Life.”

The baker uses a fork to pierce the bread so that air bubbles don’t form. When the baked matzo is held up to the light you can see small holes in the cracker. It is pierced, just as was Jesus. The Bible says “He was pierced through for our transgressions” (Is. 53:5). Furthermore, when the bread bakes, the places between the holes get brown, producing a striped look. A phrase in that same verse is often translated, “By His stripes we are healed.” Jesus took that unleavened bread at the Passover meal in the Upper Room the night before He died and He broke it before them with the words, “This is My body” (Luke 21:19).

The contrast between leavened and unleavened bread is intended to point out the serious nature of sin. But often people today are not willing to assume the cost of their sin, so they put on a façade that suggests to people around them that they have repented, when they really haven’t. Real repentance always costs more than a feigned penitence.

It is also costly for the Jewish family to rid its home of leaven. It is amazing to observe all the foods containing leaven that we have in our homes that would have to be replaced after the celebration. The financial cost would be quite high, had not the rabbis come up with a remarkable solution.
 The Jewish mother still gathers up all the leaven in the home, but instead of putting it in the trash, she sells it to her Gentile neighbor for a dollar. Sometimes she puts it in a spare room/closet in her home and sells the whole room to her Gentile neighbor. But the point is that it is no longer her possession and she can honestly say that there is no leaven in her house. She is ready for Passover. After the Feast she then buys it back from her neighbor – hopefully for the same dollar – and everyone is satisfied.

Everyone, that is, except God. It is not enough for us to say that we are giving up sin when all the while we have intentionally just put it aside for a period of time. The picture of the Unleavened Bread at Passover is a picture of our being diligent to rid ourselves of sin, of trusting Jesus, the Living Bread, to cleanse our hearts and purify our minds. Let us do so with sincerity and truth.