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.