The Passover | Exodus 12:1-28

After warning Pharaoh of the tenth and final plague, the death of the firstborn, Moses took his leave from the king of Egypt once for all. Although Pharaoh still would not listen, the LORD Himself was coming down into Egypt at midnight and Israel would soon be driven out of the land; therefore, Moses needed to prepare the people for Passover night and their exodus that swiftly followed.

Within these verses, the LORD does that very thing through Moses. His instruction is notably not simply for the night of the actual tenth plague but for an annual feast by which Israel will remember and celebrate their deliverance from Egypt. Given the complexity of this passage, we will not move through it verse-by-verse as we typically do; instead, we will seek to answer two questions regarding the Passover. First, why did God require the blood of lambs to pass over the houses of Israel? Second, why did God memorialize the Passover into an annual feast?

WHY BLOOD?

As we read these verses, we find ourselves thrown rather jarringly into the details of ritual and sacrifice. A significant portion of our text revolves around the specifications for how the Israelites were to choose, slaughter, and eat the lambs that would be used to mark their homes, which would have been a messy, bloody affair. This can seem especially strange in light of the first nine plagues, which required no such sacrifice to escape God’s judgment. We should, then, rightly ask: why blood, and why now?

Ryken helpfully comments:

The Israelites must have been shocked to discover that their lives were in danger. All the previous plagues had left them unscathed because God had made a distinction between his people and Pharaoh’s people. While chaos engulfed their oppressors, the Israelites had watched from the safety of Goshen. From this they learned that they were God’s special people. This may have tempted them to believe that they were more righteous than the Egyptians, indeed, that they could do no wrong. But the truth was that they deserved to die every bit as much as their enemies. Indeed, if God had not provided a means for their salvation, they would have suffered the loss of every last one of their firstborn sons. The Israelites were as guilty as the Egyptians, and in the final plague God taught them about their sin and his salvation.[1]

The necessity of marking their homes with the blood of a lamb underlined the reality that God’s mercy and grace were what truly distinguished Israel from Egypt. There was no moral superiority between the two nations. The Israelites were just as sinful as the Egyptians. Their hearts were just as depraved and just as prone to idolatry. Indeed, the LORD still had the need to tell the following generation: “Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:14).

Those words were given at the end of Joshua’s life, after the exodus generation had died off in the wilderness and after Joshua led the initial conquest of Canaan. If that generation still needed to be warned against worshiping the gods of Egypt, surely such idolatry would have been even more tempting to those who actually lived in Egypt! No, the Israelites were no better than the Egyptians. They were just as sinful and, therefore, just as deserving of death.

Again, the grace of God was what set these two peoples apart. Indeed, God stated this clearly in Deuteronomy 7:6-8:

For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

God set Israel apart for Himself simply because He chose them. He chose them before any of them were even born by first choosing their ancestor Abraham, which was also a choice of pure grace since Abraham originally worshiped other gods (Joshua 24:2). And the same is still true for we who are children of Abraham by faith today: “he chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). While it has never been popular to speak of God freely choosing whom He will save, the very definition of grace demands such unmerited election. Indeed, if God simply foreknew those who would walk in faith toward Him, then salvation would be dependent upon future merit. Grace, however, is unmerited favor. It is God’s kindness unilaterally given to those who are deserving only of judgment.

Indeed, if future faithfulness determined who received God’s grace, then these very Israelites throw a theological wrench into that idea. As the remainder of Exodus and into Leviticus and Numbers displays, these Israelites were far from faithful to the God who brought them out of their slavery in Egypt. In fact, we could rightly magnify God’s grace by noting that He chose to save the Israelites from their bondage even while knowing that He would withhold the Promise Land from their generation because of their rebellious hearts. So, again, we conclude: Israel was just as deserving of the tenth plague as Egypt.

Yet by blood God made provision for Israel’s sins. The text does not say this directly, but it is the very clear implication, especially in light of the rest of Scripture. Hebrews 9:22 says, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Therefore, whenever we see sacrifices and the shedding of blood in the Old Testament, we ought to immediately think about purification and the forgiveness of sins.

The significance of the blood for purification and forgiveness is best seen in verse 13: The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. Also, we read in verse 23 that the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you.

The blood of the lamb upon their doors was a sign for the Israelites of their security from God’s judgment, from the death that their sin so rightly earned. Upon seeing the blood, the LORD would pass over their homes, sparing their firstborn. It declared that death had already come to their home via the slaughtering of the lamb, and God, in His rich mercy, would accept the blood of the lamb rather than taking the life of the firstborn. Because of the holiness and purity of God, only a lamb without blemish could be used.

Even so, the innocent and spotless lambs were not sufficient to atone for Israel’s sins. Indeed, how could animals, which were made to dwell under the dominion of man, ever capture the worth of a human? Animals are simply less in value and dignity than humans and can never pay off the debt of our sins.

Thanks be to God, the sign of the Passover points beyond itself to “Christ, our Passover Lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7), whose blood is wholly sufficient to atone for our sins. In calling Jesus our Passover Lamb, Tremper Longman III notes that:

Paul is not picking this imagery out of thin air. Indeed, though not stated in so many words, the timing of Christ’s crucifixion and indeed the whole structure of his earthly ministry point to the truth that he is the fulfillment of the Exodus; he is the Passover Lamb.[2]

Throughout church history, theologians have proposed various theories on how exactly the blood of Christ has cleansed us from our sins, and many of them certainly describe realities that the Bible ties to the crucifixion, such as the ransom theory or Christus Victor. Even so, the concept of penal substitution best fits the overall nature of the gospel that Scripture gives to us. You see, penal substitution refers exactly to what the two words suggest, that Christ took the penalty for our sins in our place, as our substitute.

Sadly, many today write off penal substitution as divine child abuse, declaring that a loving God would never be so barbaric as to slaughter His own Son to atone for sin. Yet such a view ignores the perfect harmony of the Trinity in fulfilling what was His eternal purpose of salvation (see Ephesians 3:11), which means that Jesus intended to suffer the pains of crucifixion on our behalf a full eternity before the Father ever spoke the words: “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). Indeed, Jesus said of Himself, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:11; 18). Therefore, to deny as immoral this reality that Scripture clearly presents looks quite a lot like people attempting to be morally superior to God.

But again, we return to the gloriously good news that Jesus’ atoning blood is sufficient to cover all of our sins once for all! Even though our sins carry an eternal weight because we sinned against the eternal God, Jesus is the Eternal One made flesh, which means that His one undeserved death is able to satisfy once for all the penalty of sin of all who believe in Him. Therefore, the confidence that we have in coming to God as our Father in prayer is in the blood of Jesus that marks us as redeemed, that seals us as belonging to the people of God. By His sacrifice, God as Judge passes over our sins, and we have renewed communion with Him again.

WHY A FEAST?

Now that we have seen the significance of blood, we turn toward the significance of God ordering the Passover to be held as an annual service, which also began the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And what made this feast so important that anyone who did not observe it would be cut off from the congregation of Israel? We find two answers: it was a reminder to the Israelites, and it was moment of discipleship for their children.

We find our first answer in verse 14: This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout all your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast. Israel was reenact the events of the Passover every year to remind themselves what God had done. Each year, they ate unleavened bread for a week to remind themselves of when they were thrust out of Egypt. Each year, they ate bitter herbs to remind themselves of the bitter yoke of slavery that they were under. Each year, they slaughtered a lamb, brushed its blood upon the doorposts, and ate it in haste to remember when the LORD came down to strike the firstborn but passed over their homes.

The LORD built this memorial day into the life of the Israelites and demanded that those who did not observe it be cut off from the congregation because He knows the human tendency to forget even the wonderful works that He has done. Of course, we use even secular holidays and celebrate birthdays and anniversaries to highlight on certain days of the year that which is most dear to us. For example, we know that we ought to show our thankfulness to our mothers year-round, yet Mother’s Day gives us a specific and targeted day for remembering to do so.

But if we have a tendency to forget to celebrate those whom we love most and who are physically before us, then how much more prone are we to have spiritual amnesia of what God has done? God, therefore, was graciously condescending to human weakness by giving a clear, physical reminder to His people of the redemption that He worked for them.

Just as Christ is our Passover Lamb, the Lord’s Supper is now our Passover meal under the new covenant, and our Lord instituted this feast as a memorial as well, as Luke 22:19 records: “And he took bread, and when he had 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.’” Each time we take the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper, we are reminding ourselves with a visual sermon of the gospel, of Jesus’ death in our place to rescue us from death.

A further answer that our text gives is found in verses 24-27:

“You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever. And when you come to the land that the LORD will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed their heads and worshiped.

Each year, the people of Israel would reenact the Passover in order to teach their children. Of course, God would later tell the Israelites that they should instruct God’s Word to their children “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:7). However, the LORD was also building into their yearly rhythm specific moments for teaching the story of their redemption to their children by having them act out the story.

We too are called to raise our children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4), and we too should do so throughout the regular rhythms of the day. Yet the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper provide particularly important moments, especially whenever our children ask the beautiful question that they are known for: why? By the way, I do not sarcastically call that question beautiful. The natural inquisitiveness of children truly is beautiful, for each asking is an open invitation to be discipled! We should, therefore, take advantage of every question that they ask us over the course of the relatively few years that we have them in our homes.

However, the questions that they raise around the sacraments should be of particular importance. Again, the sacraments are visual sermons for a reason. When our children see us eating bread and drinking juice each in joyful solemnity, they are bound to ask us why. When they see us immersing someone entirely under water with joy, it is only natural that they would wonder why we do such a thing. The question that we parents must ask ourselves, then, is: Am I prepared to give my children a biblical answer? The LORD prepared the Israelites by telling them,

And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’

Catechisms are a great way of preparing ourselves with such answers today.

But the Passover meal and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were not merely rhythms of remembrance; they became the orientation of Israel’s year. This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. The Passover was so significant that the month when it occurred was from then on to be the first month of Israel’s year, which certainly carries implications of Israel’s new life outside of Egypt.

Although we do not follow nor do we need to follow the Hebrew calendar, we should observe the principle that is being displayed here: our salvation is not merely an aspect of our lives; it should give orientation to how we live our lives, to all that we do and say. One visible display of our orientation around the redemption that God has accomplished is our gathering to worship on the Lord’s Day.

Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people set aside Saturday, the Sabbath, to worship God and to rest from their labor. For six days, they worked, but on the seventh day, God called them to worship Him through resting. Yet in the New Testament, a marvelous event shifted worship from the seventh day to the first, from Saturday to Sunday. That event was the resurrection of Christ. So glorious was that day that the early church began to gather together to worship their risen King early in the morning on Sundays, which we should remember was still very much a workday for them.

This shift was also a poignant display of the gospel. Rather than rest following six days of work, we now begin the week with a day of rest, which shows that in Christ our rest is already delivered to us. We have no need to work in order to earn our rest; it is freely granted. But work is not excluded entirely. No, now it follows our rest. In this way, each Lord’s Day should be a continuous reminder of God’s marvelous grace that is ours in Christ Jesus.

Furthermore, whenever we orient our lives around the gospel, others are bound to take notice, which we should desire to use for the proclamation of the good news of Christ. Of course, we should take care that we are not doing anything in order to be seen as more righteous than others. Yet we should also strive to let our “light shine before others, so that they may see your goods works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). The difference between the two lies in the heart-level motivation, but we should not avoid visible good works simply because there is the danger of self-righteousness. We should aim to put to death any self-righteousness within our hearts and stive to point others toward the Righteous One.

And we should never minimize the subtle yet powerful testimony that gathering on the Lord’s Day display to those around us who do not follow Christ. In our post-Christian world, most people now view Sunday as a day for sleeping in, going to the lake, and/or doing home projects. The idea of rising early to gather with others for worship is an increasingly foreign concept, and we should take advantage of that strangeness. Just as children’s questions are prime opportunities for discipleship, nonbelievers’ questions are prime opportunities for evangelism. But again, we must be prepared to give an answer. We ought to orient our lives around the truth of the gospel and be ready to explain the goodness of the gospel whenever anyone inquires: Why?

Oh brothers and sisters, may we place all of our hope and confidence upon the blood of Jesus, our Passover Lamb, who has redeemed us from the slavery of our sins and purchased our adoption as sons and daughters of the Most High. And may we conform and orient our lives around that truth each day so that we may be prepared to disciple our children and proclaim the gospel to the lost.


[1] Philip Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory, 296.

[2] Tremper Longman III, Immanuel in Our Place: Seeing Christ in Israel’s Worship, 113.

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