The Lord's Day Evening
May 11, 2008
“Passover — Passed Over”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now turn with me if you would once again to the book of Ezra. The book of Ezra of course in our English canon occurs fairly early on, but historically of course it occurs right at the end, almost at the end, of Old Testament history. Ezra, chapter six.
Now let's recap just a little. Some of you may not have been able to have been here the last few weeks, and we've moved ahead not a whole lot, but we've moved ahead somewhat to the year 516 BC. They had been back from Babylon twenty-one years. They came back in the year 537 BC. Cyrus the Persian king had given an edict. About 43,000 of them left Babylon, made that thousand-mile or so journey to Jerusalem. They laid the foundations of the temple within the first year or so, and then nothing happened for the next sixteen years.
Several prophets (Haggai, for example…Zechariah, for example) came to Jerusalem. God raised them up; they began to preach, and now in earnest the temple has been built. It has taken about four and a half years or so to build what we sometimes call the second temple. It wasn't of the order of Solomon's temple. There were things in Solomon's temple that were not in this temple: the arc of the covenant; the two tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written; the pot of manna; Aaron's rod that budded; presumably the cherubim, the golden cherubim… none of these were present in the second temple. They had been taken by the Babylonians, never to be seen again.
Now we've come to March, March of the year 516. It's the last month of the Hebrew calendar, and there's been a dedication service for this newly erected temple. We come now…if this were a movie, you’d see on the screen “A Month Later”…because now we're in April of 516 BC. We’re in the first month of the year. The Jewish new year has begun, and as you well know the Jewish New Year begins with two hugely important festivals: one, the Festival of Passover; and, two, the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Sometimes in Scripture those two are amalgamated together and they’re just called either Passover or Unleavened Bread. Unleavened Bread began the day after Passover, and since the sacrifice involved in Passover of course died away with the destruction of the temple in AD 70, the Jews continued to celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and they continued to refer to it as Passover. Of course there's no sacrifice of the Passover lamb. Well, these are two distinct festivals, and both of them are going to be referred to in our passage this evening.
As we read the passage, we need to bear in mind that the Passover, according to Alfred Edersheim, the famous Jewish historian, says it's the most important festival in the Jewish calendar.
There were three important festivals: Passover, the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost), and the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths). Pentecost came about two months after Passover in early summer, and the Feast of Tabernacles came in the fall at the time of what we would consider to be harvest…and harvest, Thanksgiving, and the Feast of Tabernacles have many similarities about it.
What we need to remember is that Passover has not been celebrated in Jerusalem at least since the destruction of Solomon's temple in 587, so for two generations, for fifty years, maybe a little longer, there has been no celebration of Passover in Jerusalem. Not only that, but in all likelihood those who took part in this Passover that we're about to read about tonight had never seen a Passover. They’d never been to one. They’d never celebrated it. We’re going to think this evening through the celebration of Passover and what all of that might have meant and entailed.
Before we read the passage together, let's once again look to the Lord in prayer.
Our Father in heaven, we do thank You from the very bottom of our hearts for the Scriptures, for giving to us this infallible, inerrant record of Your mind, of Your will, of Your purpose for us. You've led us into so many issues that otherwise we would not know, and we would never have understood, we would never have guessed. You've shown us and kept clear for us the way of salvation through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone; that there was no other good enough to pay the price of sin; He only could unlock the gates of heaven and let us in. We pray now as we read the Scriptures together that by Your Spirit You would come and help us to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. Hide Your word within our hearts, that we might not sin against You. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Verse 19 of Ezra 6. This is God's word:
“On the fourteenth day of the first month, the returned exiles kept the Passover. For the priests and the Levites had purified themselves together; all of them were clean. So they slaughtered the Passover lamb for all the returned exiles, for their fellow priests, and for themselves. It was eaten by the people of Israel who had returned from exile, and also by every one who had joined them and separated himself from the uncleanness of the people of the land to worship the Lord, the God of Israel. And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the Lord had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.”
Amen. May the Lord add His blessing to that reading of His holy and inerrant word.
It is April 21 in the year 516. This is a month after the dedication of this temple, and they’re celebrating together the Passover. It's the most important festival in the Jewish calendar, along, as I said, with the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost) and Sukkot (or the Feast of Tabernacles, or Booths) held in early fall. Passover represented the beginning of Israel's history, the emergence out of Egypt that solemn night when the avenging angel passed through Egypt, slew all of the firstborn in the land from Pharaoh's firstborn to the lowliest household in Egypt…every house where there wasn't the mark, the sign of the blood that had been daubed on the lintels and on the doorposts of the house of the Passover lamb. In those homes the Lord had passed over. The avenging angel had passed over. It was the beginning of the Exodus, the beginning of the flight through the Red Sea and into the wilderness, and onward to the land of Canaan.
Up until that night, the danger had been a human one, the genocidal policy of Pharaoh. But that night the danger was a divine one. Some way, some means, had to be found in order that this avenging angel who passed through Egypt would not come to them and that they would be spared. In verse 17, on the day of dedication a month earlier, a sin offering (at the end of verse 17) for all Israel — 12 male goats according to the number of the tribes of Israel had been offered at the dedication of the second temple. There is, of course, only Judah and Benjamin here, but they still regarded themselves as the legitimate people of God, the Israel of God, the twelve tribes of God. And we're going to see that again this evening in the celebration of the Passover. They are Israel, and Passover marked their national identity. It marked their political identity. It marked them not just as the people of God, but as a country, a nation. But they’re not a nation anymore. They have no king in Jerusalem anymore. They don't have the land that they had in the times of David and Solomon. They are still… though they are out of Babylon, they are still subjects of the Persian Empire, and will be.
And so the whole focus of Passover now, whatever the focus of Passover may have been in generations and centuries past, the focus now is entirely on its spiritual significance. God has brought them down to a small remnant, and the whole focus is on the temple, on the sacrifices of the temple. A new exodus has taken place out of Babylon, and once again this great festival of Passover is going to be celebrated.
I want us to look at this passage considering three particular issues. Firstly, I want us to think about Passover and what it means, and what it might have meant for them. And, secondly, I want us to see especially in verse 17 a very deliberate policy that they entered into in identifying who the true people of God were. It's a fascinating statement. And, thirdly, I can't help but focus on this joy of verse 18, and the reasons for it.
So, first of all I want us to look at the Passover. It's the first Passover for two generations. As I said, in all likelihood none of these who participated — not the priests, not the Levites, not the heads of household, not the children certainly — had ever witnessed the Passover before. All they knew about Passover was what had been told them, passed down from parents to children in the days in Babylon.
Passover could only be celebrated in Jerusalem. It could only be celebrated in the temple. The sacrifice could only be offered in the temple. It began, of course, in Egypt. It began in each individual home. But then in the erection of the tabernacle and later the temple, the whole ritual of Passover took place initially and the sacrifice of the lamb took place at the temple.
There's some debate and discussion, I won't detain you with it, whether or not sacrifices were offered elsewhere than Jerusalem. Did they sacrifice somewhere in Babylon? The evidence seems to point in the direction that they did not. There's one particular location which would have been in existence right now, in 516 B.C., a place called Elephantine, an island on the River Nile in Egypt — a fortressed city where there were many Jews, and apparently a temple of some sort was erected. There's a famous papyrus…a papyrus which refers to the celebration of Passover that comes from a later period in Israel's history, maybe a hundred years from now, suggesting perhaps that Passover was indeed celebrated there at another temple in this location of Elephantine. But as far as we're concerned tonight, Passover could only be celebrated in Jerusalem.
We need to imagine what took place. Lambs had to be separated. (It could be a goat, a kid, of course)…but a lamb would have to be separated from the flock. It would have to be chosen — a perfect lamb, no blemishes — on the tenth day. Four or five days before Passover, it would be separated from the flock. Some of these lambs would occupy the very homes that these people lived in. One lamb for every ten people, according to the law. On that fourteenth day of the first month, the evening sacrifice in the temple would be offered a little earlier than usual, and then between the hours of four and six in the afternoon the ritual would begin. The head of household, the father — assuming he was clean… There were laws, of course. We've just been through them in Numbers and Leviticus. There were laws. There was an issue if you had touched a corpse, you’d have to ceremonially purify yourself. And there was another celebration of Passover one month later. If you were detained and unable to come to Jerusalem for Passover, you could come the following month.
Well, the father would bring — the head of household would bring a lamb to the temple precincts. Originally it would have been sacrificed by the father himself, but by the time of Hezekiah, and especially by the time of Josiah, that actual ritual of sacrifice was done by the Levites. The father would bring this lamb into the inner court of the temple. There would be Levites there, dressed in their white garb. There would be priests there ready, standing near the altar of burnt offering.
You have to try and imagine the numbers here. Forty-three thousand had returned from exile. Verse 17 tells us that there were others also allowed to participate in Passover, those who made a true profession of faith. We’ll see that in a moment. Let's be generous. Let's say there were 70,000 who worshiped at Passover, who took part in Passover on that April in 516. That would mean one for every ten…that would mean 7,000 lambs and 7,000 heads of household in an area that is relatively small.
You have to imagine the inner court of the temple, where the altar of burnt offering was, and where the Levites would be and where the priests would be. And the heads of household would have to make their way into the inner court and bring that lamb or that kid where it would be sacrificed. They couldn't all come at the same time. There would be jostling, no doubt. There would be little room to move.
If you think these numbers are big, they are miniscule in comparison to the time of Josephus in the first century AD. Just after the death of Jesus, Josephus describes a Passover in Jerusalem: three million worshipers; 275,000 lambs offered on that one Passover day. He describes the blood that runs down from behind the temple into the Kidron Valley below, like a river running, between the hours of four and six. Imagine it, if you will! And you should, for a very good reason: because it's the blood of atonement. It's the blood of atonement.
As the lamb or kid's throat is slit, the Levites would be there with basins, catching the blood in a basin. The basin would be handed to the priest, and the priest would hand it from one priest to another. There were only 73 Levites that came back from Babylon. It's a very small number. There were something in the order of 900 priests, but it was the Levites who performed the sacrifice, as verse 20 seems to make very clear. They offered “for their fellow priests and for themselves.” They were the ones who did this ritual. So you can imagine…there's the altar of burnt offering, and around the altar of burnt offering dressed in their priestly regalia are about a thousand priests. Just over the floor of this sanctuary, it was full. That's what we're thinking about.
And then, 73 — there might have been a few more from the twenty-year period, so maybe there are 100, maybe 120 (I have no idea) of these Levites dressed in white. Now with all of the sacrifice, their white garbs are drenched in red blood now, and as the basins of blood are passed from one priest to another toward the altar, it is thrown at the base of the altar. The lamb is then hung on a hook around the walls of the inner sanctuary. If there weren't enough hooks available, there was a stave, and two men would stand with the stave on their shoulder, and they would hang this lamb in between them, and it would be flayed. The fatty portion of the lamb was taken, handed to the priest. The priest would place it on the altar of burnt offering, so you have to imagine the smell…like a barbecue, I imagine. Burning fat from a barbecue…it's that kind of smell…the smoke rising up…flies everywhere. And then the skins were given to the priests, and this carcass, whole, apart from the fatty parts, is taken home. You've got to imagine the head of household now making his way out of the temple, down the mountain to wherever it was he lived or had temporary lodging for Passover. And there it would be roasted. Not boiled, but roasted with bitter herbs and unleavened bread.
And the Passover meal would begin, the Seder meal would begin with all of its ritual. A young boy would ask the head of household, “What does this mean?” And the father or the head of household would stand up and recite, “I was a wandering Aramaen…” and he’d recite the Exodus story, the roots, the history of these people: how God had brought them out of Egypt; how the avenging angel had slain all of the firstborn, except for those houses where the blood of the Passover lamb had been sprinkled on the lentils and doorposts of the houses.
We can't even begin to imagine Passover — the sights, the smells, the blood would turn most of you, I think — except maybe those of you who are hunters. What's it all about?
Passover for the Christian.
Christ is our Passover. This is a ritual that speaks about Christ. It speaks about Jesus. He is the Passover Lamb. What did John the Baptist say when he saw Him? “Behold, the Lamb of God.” He is the Lamb! “Not all the blood on Jewish altars slain” can cleanse this guilty conscience of mine; only the blood of Jesus, only the sacrifice of the Son of God on my behalf.
“He was pierced for our transgressions…. The chastisement due to our peace was laid upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we've turned — every one — to his own way; but the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”
“Just as I am, without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me, and that Thou bidst me come to Thee. O Lamb of God, I come.”
In all likelihood, the Levites did the sacrifice because every single one of them was considered in some way ritually unclean, given the exile and all that it meant. They had a lot of sin to confess. Just as you and I have a lot of sin to confess. But “there is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emanuel's veins, and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains…lose all their guilty stains.”
They were celebrating the Passover, a feast, a celebration, a festival that spoke so eloquently of the coming of Jesus Christ: Jesus Christ, who took the wrath of God upon himself, and took that wrath to its fullness, drank of that cup to its bitterest dregs for sinners like you, like me.
II. Identification of the people of God.
But there's a second thing I want us to see here, and you see that in verse 21, and it's a marvelous thing. It's an extraordinary thing, because there's a deliberate policy now to identify who the people of God — the true people of God, those who could actually participate in the Passover — who they really were.
You could imagine and sympathize that the 43,000 would say “it's only for us.” They were the ones who had built the temple. They were the ones who had endured the exile. They were the ones who had the zeal and the courage and the tenacity to sacrifice and come home, and make that journey, and build this temple. They hadn't lived the comfortable lives that the people who had been left in Jerusalem and its environs had done. But you notice it was eaten by the people of Israel who had returned from exile and also by everyone who had joined them and separated himself from the uncleanness of the people of the land to worship the Lord, the God of Israel.
You see, it was open to more than just the 43,000. Passover was open to more than just those who had returned from exile, but it wasn't open to everybody. It wasn't open to everybody. They had to do two things. They had to demonstrate two things. In order for them to secure entrance into the celebration of Passover, and thereby identify themselves as part of the people of God, they had to do something negative and something positive. They had to separate themselves from the uncleanness of the people of the land. That's Old Testament language, that's Old Testament code for repentance. They had to demonstrate repentance, saying no to sin, saying no to worldliness, saying no to compromise, saying no to syncretism, saying no to polytheism, saying no to the immorality that pervaded this part of the Middle East during this period of exile. They had to say no. And they had to worship the God of Israel.
In other words, they had to exercise faith. They had to repent, and they had to believe. They had to say no, and they had to follow according to the path that God had laid down in His word. Was it a path of works righteousness? Of course not.
The whole point of Passover was to say
“Not the labor of my hands
can fulfill Thy law's demands;
could my zeal [no respite know],
could my tears forever flow,
all for sin could not atone:
Thou must save, and Thou alone.”
What was Passover? Passover was substitution. What was written over there like a banner, over the temple on that Passover day? “Substitution. The blood of this lamb instead of my blood.” And if you’re prepared to say that, if you’re prepared to say no to the self-help methodologies of the world, and say yes to the salvation that is offered by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, then this is open for you, too.
I have to say I'm deeply moved by this, because you remember when they had said “no” to the offer of help from Samaritans back in Ezra 4? Well, there was a sense in which some might have thought these 43,000 were mean and narrow, and sectarian, perhaps. But there is a true understanding here that the people of God are those who express faith, who lay hold by faith in the salvation that God offers in His word, no matter who they are and no matter where they are. You want to see where you find missions in the Old Testament? It's right here. You want to understand the doctrine of the church in the Old Testament? It's right here. Because the people of God are those who say “no” to sin and “yes” to the grace that is offered in the gospel, and typified in the ritual of Passover.
It's a beautiful thing. There might even have been some Gentiles here. There might even have been some Persians here. There might even have been the Ruths, the Moabitesses of the world, the Rahabs of the world who had repented of their sins and held out empty hands and said, “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the way of salvation offered I cling,” typified in the substitutionary slaughter of these lambs that spoke of the coming of Jesus, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.
But there's a third thing I want us to see, and that is the joy. God had made them joyful. The Lord had made them joyful. It's in verse 22, and it's a reference now in the context of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the seven-day feast that followed immediately after Passover.
All the leaven had to be removed from the house. It was a time the children loved. In order to ensure that every piece of bread was removed from the house countertops and so on [I can't imagine what kind of countertops there would have been then, but whatever they were, they would have been scrubbed to ensure that no morsel of leaven would have been found in the house!] They would hide ten…this is a ritual, a tradition that grew, you understand, it's not something that was prescribed in the law…but ten pieces of bread the size of an olive were hidden in various parts of the house, and unless all ten had been found, not a thorough cleansing of the house had been done.
There were different kinds of food to eat during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. There was the matzo bread, the little wafers of unleavened bread. They would eat hardboiled eggs, they would eat certain dried fruits; there were certain delicacies for dessert…macaroons, for example, was a favorite at Passover…still is among Jews who celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread to this day. You can imagine. It's a family time. This is a festival that ends in the home with the head of household and the mother and the children, and the family all gathered together. This is Thanksgiving, it's Christmas, all rolled into one. It's a family occasion. It's one of these events in the Old Testament where God once again surrounds His worship through the context of a family occasion. It's an occasion of great joy.
But it isn't that so much. It's the fact that He had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them. Now, are you paying attention? Been a long day? You've been feasting with your mothers? This should be the king of Persia, right? Well, if not the king of Persia, then the king of Babylon. Assyria was two empires past. Assyria was two hundred years in their past, so why is he referring here to the king of Assyria? Lots of commentators will say that this is an example of a mistake in the Bible. No such thing, of course. There are no mistakes in the Bible. The Bible is God's inerrant word, so why is there a reference here to the king of Assyria? Well, in the mindset of the Jews, the most feared empire of all was Assyria. Read some of the doings of the empire of Assyria. They were an empire bent on, in some cases, the massacre of people groups. Think of your worst nightmare. Think of your worst scenario. And God has turned the heart of the king of Assyria.
There's a tradition in the ancient Near East that subsequent kings of subsequent empires are still named by the collective of this particular empire that's considered to be the most fearful. And God is sovereign. God had turned the heart of their enemies toward them to give them favor in order to build this temple, in order that they might have the freedom to worship Passover once again. God had been good to them. He had chastised them in Babylon, but He had turned in favor to them again, and they’re filled with joy — joy in the knowledge that God loved them, and God had been gracious to them. And though they had sinned and though they had rebelled, and though they had been chastised and punished for it, He had been gracious in His punishment and He had restored them. And you have to imagine that surrounding some of these rituals — Passover, Unleavened Bread — were the preaching of men like Haggai and Zechariah, and shortly in a generation or so, Malachi, with visions and prophecies of what God was going to do in the future…great things, astonishing things…the fulfilling of that promise in Genesis 3:15 that He would send a Savior, the seed of the woman, who would crush the head of Satan. God would keep His word to them, to His people.
He's the same God today. “I will build My church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it,” Jesus says. His word is yes, His word is amen in Christ, and you can trust Him. You can lean upon Him in your darkest hour. You can make Him your treasure, your all in all; your hope, your joy, your comfort, your vision.
I think in this week, in April of 516, the people of God were filled with God. They were filled with the bigness, the greatness of God. They were filled with His promises. They were filled with the reassurance that God was redeeming His people, and nothing and no one was going to stand in the way.
What a lesson! What a vision! What a message! We are part of this history. He's still doing this. Do you remember? On the eve of Jesus’ death, He didn't eat the Passover. “I have longed to eat this Passover,” He says, “but I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” It's a somewhat enigmatic statement on Jesus’ part. What he's saying is that His mission isn't over yet. Part of Passover, of course, was fulfilled at Calvary when the blood of the Lamb was slain. But there's a part of Passover that involves the gathering of all His people from north and south and east and west, and Jesus said “I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”
We’re part of that story, as God goes marching through time and space to gather His people to Himself. And we rest on Him and trust in His word, and lean with everything we've got on Jesus only, and the blood that was shed for me. He did not spare His own Son, but He spared me.
Let's pray together.
Our Father in heaven, we thank You for Your word. We thank You for this extraordinary week in the life of Israel, and how we see in it patterns that are so relevant to us today. Now this evening fill us with joy in believing, and may it be the source of our strength. And grant, O Lord, that in this day, before it is over, we might have once again close dealings with You through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Please stand; receive the Lord's benediction.
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