What Does This Rite Mean to You?
The Biblical season of Passover and Unleavened Bread began last Wednesday evening and will come to a close tomorrow. Every year, Passover is inaugurated with a seder, a ritual meal that commemorates the liberation of Israel from their slavery in Egypt. This meal contains various symbolic elements that are meant to encapsulate different aspects of this experience of slavery and freedom. It was by no means a coincidence that Yeshua (Jesus) chose this seder meal to introduce the new covenant in His blood. He imbued this ritual with new meaning for believers, commanding us to do it in remembrance of Him. We must be careful, since the rites and services aren’t an end in themselves. We must continue to be inquisitive about why we do what we do and personally identify with the events we are commemorating.
The story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt is one that most people in our culture are generally familiar with, even those who don’t frequently read the Bible or attend church services. Even the nonreligious can identify with the message of freedom at its core, and interpretations of the Biblical narrative have been turned into popular movies like The Ten Commandments and Prince of Egypt. Thus, it’s probably safe for me to assume that you the reader have a basic familiarity with the narrative. If you don’t, you can get the backstory of how Israel got to Egypt by reading Genesis 37-50, and the story of how they came to be enslaved and subsequently freed by reading Exodus 1-14.
God instructed the Israelites to perform a yearly ritual to commemorate their deliverance, which involved the sacrifice of a lamb as well as the eating of unleavened bread and bitter herbs. This would take place year after year to remind the Israelites of how God protected them with the blood of the lambs which they smeared on their doorposts. The yearly observance of this rite, the sacrifice of the lamb and the meal with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, would inevitably stir up curiosity among those experiencing it for the first time: “When you enter the land which the LORD will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite. And when your children say to you, ‘What does this rite mean to you?’ you shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the LORD who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes” (Exodus 12:25-27). The normal daily routine is interrupted by the yearly observance of this rite, and this prompts an important question. What are the rites and rituals all about? We may enjoy gathering together and sharing a meal, but what does this rite really mean? It’s not just a question for children to ask. It’s something we should ask ourselves often to avoid simply going through the motions. In this case, the verse explains that this service commemorates the faithfulness of God and His deliverance.
In the next chapter we find another explanation of how the Passover functions as a sign: “You shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ And it shall serve as a sign to you on your hand, and as a reminder on your forehead, that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth; for with a powerful hand the LORD brought you out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8-9). Here we read that the Passover rite is a reminder to obey God’s commands. Obedience is what spared the Israelites on that first Passover: those who obeyed God and applied the blood to their houses were protected, but those who failed to do so fell under His judgment. Participating in the Passover rituals is compared to a sign on the hand or the forehead. Some people, when they need to remember something, will tie a string to their finger and mentally associate that string with whatever it is they don’t want to forget. The Passover ritual is supposed to function in a similar way. We participate in the actions , and in doing so we associate these actions with the remembrance of God’s faithfulness and redemption. It is easy to get caught up in our daily routines. The signs and rituals that God commands us to participate in force us to stop and take notice of those things that become all too easy to forget.
Another important point to note is that in Exodus 13:8, it specifies that the Israelites are to say that it was because of what the Lord did “for me.” This is interpreted to mean that every individual from evey generation is to regard himself as personally being redeemed from the slavery of Egypt. This transitions the attention from what God has done in the past to what God has done in the present. It forces one to identify with the past event and grapple with its meaning for today.
God likewise institutes other rituals and rites to teach His people. For example, Passover is just one of several Appointed Times, moadim, each of which are designed to teach God’s people various lessons. We have a lot of information about these Appointed Times and their symbolism on our website. For starters, you could check out our Appointed Times brochures, Special Teachings which were presented at our ministry gatherings, and the article Should Disciples of Messiah Celebrate the Biblical Feast Days?.
Another example is the commandment to wear tassels on the corners of your garments. God explains that the purpose of these tassels is to serve as a remembrance of the other commandments: “Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God” (Numbers 15:38-40). God knew that people are easily distracted and quick to slip into routines. He gave the command to wear tassels so that they would be a tangible constant. They are designed to draw our attention away from the world or our routines and then divert that attention back to God. The corollary is that the fringes only serve this purpose if we consciously recognize their meaning rather than allowing them to become just another mundane element in our environment. The onus is on us to make the connection and keep it fresh by asking, what does this mean? Yeshua condemned some of the Pharisees who “make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long” (Matthew 23:5). The reason for this rebuke was that these particular Pharisees misunderstood the symbolism of the command. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with long fringes. But Yeshua knew their hearts. They had transformed a reminder to obey God into a status symbol, or a mere outward token of piety devoid of substance. We must be careful not to do the same thing when we participate in rites and rituals.
The final example we’ll look at in this section is found in the narrative of the crossing of the Jordan River. After the people of Israel cross the river, God commands the heads of the tribes to each go back into the river and pick up a stone. They are to bring it back to shore and build an altar there: “Let this be a sign among you, so that when your children ask later, saying, 'What do these stones mean to you?' then you shall say to them, 'Because the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off.' So these stones shall become a memorial to the sons of Israel forever” (Joshua 4:5-7). Once again, just like in the Passover instructions, we see the establishment of a sign which causes younger generations to inquire into their purpose. The past event is brought into the present, and thus the memory and its meaning for God’s people are preserved.
In Remembrance of Me
As believers in Yeshua, the Passover meal takes on a new meaning. It speaks of our personal redemption from bondage to sin through the shed blood of the Lamb of God. Yeshua consciously connected His last seder with this redemptive work, emphasizing that from now on, this seder was to be performed in light of His sacrifice: “‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He said, ‘Take this and share it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes.’ And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood’” (Luke 22:15-20).
As we saw earlier, we must appreciate the meaning of the rituals we partake in. How will we respond when the curious ask us, “What does this ritual mean to you?” We have to understand for ourselves what it means and experience its transformative power. According to Paul, one who fails to personalize the ceremony, discern its meaning, and put its lessons into action brings judgment upon himself: “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).
We could understand Peter’s words in light of this. He says that we are to be ready, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). When do people ask about our faith? It might be because of our behavior, or the way we live our lives. They might ask us to explain why we do some things (e.g., go to church, love our enemies), or why we don’t do some things (e.g., cheat, hold grudges). It is when the normal is interrupted and something seems out of place that attention is drawn. That’s one of the roles that Passover plays, and that’s one of the roles that holiness plays in the believer’s life.
We must be prepared to answer the questions that are put to us, and in order to do so we must engage with these questions ourselves. As believers, we participate in rites and rituals, and we have been given commandments that set us apart from the world. Some rituals are directly commanded in Scripture, while others are man-made while still having the potential of serving a godly purpose. In any case, these aspects of our faith are only meaningful if we probe for their meanings. We must become like children experiencing Passover for the first time and ask ourselves, what does this rite mean to you?