A 2nd Century Perspective on the Importance of Passover
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
The earliest disciples commemorated the death of Jesus, called Passover, on the 14th of Nissan. This remained the majority practice in Christianity for at least 120 or more years after Jesus ascended into Heaven. The earliest Christians knew nothing of a celebration called Easter. In fact, they did not even have a celebration for the resurrection of Jesus. This is not to say that the resurrection of Jesus is not important – but to highlight a historical fact. Why was the remembrance of Jesus’ death more important as a feast than the resurrection and why wasn’t the resurrection celebrated in some form?
Jesus established the practice of Passover for the early Church. “14 When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15 And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God’…And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me… (Luke 22:14-16, 19)
There are three things to note about these verses: 1) Jesus said that He eagerly desired to eat Passover with the disciples. This is the only time the Greek words translated as ‘eagerly desired’ are used. 2) He said it would find fulfillment in the Kingdom of God, which has not yet come, and pursuant to this point He commanded them to 3) “do this in remembrance of me”.
The early church continued this practice. Paul worded it this way: “6 Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? 7 Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (I Cor 5:6-8).
Again, the New Testament does not record any sort of celebration for the resurrection of Jesus. They did not neglect this incredible event as they preached about it. To understand why remembering the death of Jesus with an annual observance was so important, one must take a quick trip with me into the second century.
As I have reviewed in other articles, the second century was a tumultuous time for Christianity. There were cultural and religious forces that attempted to change the Christian community. Among the false teachings that exploded in the second century was Gnosticism; it had tremendous influence on the Christian community.
Gnosticism is a belief system which blended Greek and Middle Eastern influences. Some of their common beliefs are as follows: matter is evil and spiritual things are good; an inferior god made the material world and a superior god made the spiritual realm; spirit and matter are opposed; and a strong emphasis on the gaining of knowledge as essential to the salvation of one’s immortal soul.
The Gnostic teachers infiltrated the Christian community heavily in the second century. Because these heretics viewed the material world as evil, they denied that the perfect Jesus Christ could have ever been born in a human body. In their view – how could a being so perfect dwell in an evil, material body? They denied the bodily birth, bodily ministry, physical suffering, and death of Christ. They claimed that an apparition or the mere appearance of the perfect Christ appeared on earth.
For one example, we will consider the false teacher Basilides. The second century Christian Irenaeus testifies of his false doctrine, which insinuates that Christ did not really suffer and die for the world.
“He [Jesus] appeared, then, on earth as a man, to the nations of these powers, and wrought miracles. Wherefore he did not himself suffer death, but Simon, a certain man of Cyrene, being compelled, bore the cross in his stead ; so that this latter [Simon] being transfigured by him, that he might be thought to be Jesus, was crucified, through ignorance and error, while Jesus himself received the form of Simon, and, standing by, laughed at them. For since he was an incorporeal power, and the Nous (mind) of the unborn father, he transfigured himself as he pleased, and thus ascended to him who had sent him, deriding them, inasmuch as he could not be laid hold of, and was invisible to all… it is not incumbent on us to confess him who was crucified, but him who came in the form of a man, and was thought to be crucified, and was called Jesus, and was sent by the father, that by this dispensation he might destroy the works of the makers of the world… 5. Salvation belongs to the soul alone, for the body is by nature subject to corruption” (Irenaeus, Adv. Her., 1.24.3-5; emphasis mine throughout).
The Gnostic heretics did not always deny that Christ experienced some sort of resurrection or transfiguration, that He ascended into Heaven, and that He lives forever. They denied that He lived in a human body and suffered.
During His last Passover on earth, Jesus took bread and the fruit of the vine; he explained that they represented His body and His blood. This is a sober reminder that He actually came in a physical body and physically suffered for our sins.
Of all the feast days in the Bible, Passover is the ultimate refutation of Gnostic belief. No one can deny that He took physical items and used them as representations of His physical body/blood. Truly, no one can deny that He suffered those things for the sins of the whole world.
“Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:26)
For a Christian in the second century, Passover was a reminder that the Word of God who became flesh triumphs over all heresy. In His suffering He gave us the victory. This is one historical reason why the Passover was instituted by Jesus and the early disciples.
Truly the Lord knows better than we do!
Kelly McDonald, Jr.