Main Idea: In the story of the Passover, we remember God’s saving power and grace from generation to generation.
- Remember the Substitute (12:1-28).
- Remember the Severity and Mercy of God (12:29-32).
- Remember God’s Deliverance (12:33-42).
- Remember the Strong Hand of the Lord (13:1-16).
- Worthy Is the Lamb.
Stories and experiences shape our lives. Think about your own life. Have you had any experiences that you will never forget? What events in the past continue to have ongoing consequences? Perhaps these events include moving to a new location, proposing to your wife, beginning your first day of college, or having your first child. As we continue our journey through Exodus, we find a story that was life changing for the people of Israel: the Passover. In the story of the Passover we see God’s redemptive power, mercy, and justice displayed and His promises kept. In the institution of the Passover celebration (or Festival of Unleavened Bread), we see the need to remember God’s saving power from generation to generation (Exod 13:3).
This idea of remembering God’s grace is an important practice for Christians. We are a forgetful people. The Scriptures urge us to “Remember the great and awe-inspiring Lord” (Neh 4:14); “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth” (Eccl 12:1); “Remember the wonderful works He has done” (Ps 105:5); and “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead” (2 Tim 2:8 ESV). New Testament writers often remind their readers of essential gospel truths (2 Tim 2:14; Rom 15:15; Phil 3:1; Jude 5; 2 Pet 1:12-15; 3:1-2). When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper (which is of course linked to Passover), He said, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19). It is important that we remind ourselves, and others, of all that God has done for us.
In the passage before us, God wanted His people to remember the exodus from Egypt, so He gave them a multi-sensory way to remember67 it: Passover. The Israelites observed the first Passover in Egypt. They celebrated it for 40 years in the wilderness (Num 9:1-5). When they entered the promised land, they kept it as well (Exod 12:15; Josh 5:10-11). I have outlined this section with four “remembers” to help us apply the Passover event.
Remember the Substitute
In the United States, significant events can result in scheduled holidays. We take time each year to celebrate Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day, and many more. These days are a time to remember what has happened in the past. They tell of where we have been and where we are going. In Exodus 12, we find God doing something on a much grander scale. God changed the calendar of the Israelites so that they would celebrate the Passover. He told Moses and Aaron that there would be a new calendar and it would be a sign of a new beginning. This tells us of the importance of the event.
God established their calendar based on theology. At the beginning of each year, they would remember God’s great salvation. God came first in their lives and was central to all that they did. This change in their calendar to focus on theology points us to transformation. God calls us to keep Him at the center of our lives. Because of this, we are continually going through a transformation process for God’s glory and our sanctification.
The instructions for the Passover were given twice in chapter 12 (vv. 1-13, 21-23), separated by instructions regarding the Festival of Unleavened Bread (vv. 14-20). Verses 1-13 include the Lord’s instructions to Moses. Then in verses 21-23 Moses relayed the instructions to the elders.
They were to take a lamb on the tenth day of this month for each household or for the number of people who could eat a lamb (v. 4). The lamb served as a substitute. However, the lamb was only acceptable if it was a one-year old male without blemish (v. 5). It was selected on the tenth day and kept until the fourteenth day. These qualifications were very important. In Deuteronomy 17:1 God said that a blemished animal used for a sacrifice was an abomination. Israel needed a perfect substitute, a perfect sacrifice.
68This need for a perfect sacrifice reminds us of our own state. We, being corrupted by our sin, cannot save ourselves. Our good works are like the blemished lamb—unworthy before a holy God. We need One who serves as a substitute on our behalf. Jesus is the lamb for the household of God. Only through faith in Him are our sins covered. He alone is our hope.
In verses 6-7 we see what was to happen to this unblemished lamb. It was killed at twilight. The slain lamb vividly reminded everyone that all deserve judgment (cf. Rom 3:23). Consequently, a blameless life had to be sacrificed in the place of the guilty who needed salvation. The blood of the lamb was applied to the doorposts (v. 7). The obedience of placing the blood on the doorposts showed that a person believed God would keep His word and pass over him, sparing him from judgment. So Israel escaped judgment through this sacrifice, and salvation was accomplished by faith in the substitute.
In verses 8-11 God also provided instructions on how to serve and eat the lamb. It would be eaten with unleavened bread. The use of unleavened bread and the instruction to wear their clothes in a certain manner revealed that they needed to be prepared at any moment to depart. It was a reminder that they must be ready to follow God at a moment’s notice. In addition, they ate bitter herbs as a reminder of the bitterness they experienced in Egypt. The Passover would serve as a reminder of their time and escape from Egypt.
We likewise should remember the bitterness from which God has saved us. We were in a bitter bondage to our own sins, yet through Christ, our perfect Passover Lamb, we were delivered from the wrath of God and given new life (see 1 Cor 5:7; Heb 9:14). Many do not praise the God of grace with passion because they have a low view of sin. Thomas Watson said, “Till sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.” Remember what God has done for you in delivering you from bondage and giving you life.
Next we see a transition to the Lord’s response to the blood that is placed on the doorposts (vv. 12-13). God would now act decisively against the powerless gods of the Egyptians. While some had already been judged, all would now be judged. In His mighty judgment, God signaled that the real King is present. Yahweh was to be feared, not Pharaoh! Only the Lord is the true, righteous judge, and He would make Himself known. The events of Passover are an awesome demonstration of God’s holy judgment on Egypt and their false gods.
69It is also important to recognize the sign imagery of verse 13. The blood on their doors served as a sign that judgment had already fallen at that house. Just as the plagues were a sign to Egypt of God’s justice and judgment, now the Passover was a sign of God’s mercy to Israel! God continued to keep the promise of Genesis 3:15 and the Abrahamic covenant. In the midst of looming judgment, God provided for the seed of woman. He protected Israel from slavery and death for future salvation. In accomplishing this, He said, “when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No plague will be among you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” God accepted the blood of the sacrifice and passed over their sin. Similarly, those who have been born again have Christ’s blood covering them. God sees Christ’s blood on us and passes over our sin. He forgives our trespasses and sees Christ’s righteousness as our own. What a merciful God!
God would make a distinction with Israel, but this was not to say that Israel was innocent. Israel was not innocent here based on their bloodline. They were found innocent because of the applied blood of the substitute. God judged Egypt, but He also judged Israel. The Passover demonstrated that apart from blood of the lamb, Israel would be found guilty. Why? Because God is holy. All are sinners and deserve to be cut off from God. We are all like Pharaoh, even if we do not have the title. But God in His grace provides a way of salvation through the blood of a substitute.
Though the Israelites had been protected from previous plagues, they now had to act faithfully in order to appropriate the means by which the Lord would “pass over” them. The author of Hebrews reflected on this event: “By faith he instituted the Passover and the sprinkling of the blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn might not touch the Israelites” (Heb 11:28). Blood represents life. Without it, we die. Righteousness is the lifeblood we need in order to be in relationship with God. Because we do not have this in ourselves, we need another’s righteousness. Where does your righteousness come from? You need Christ’s righteousness, His blood, His life.
In verses 14-20 God focused on the future of this event and what Israel would do in the promised land. For seven days, they would eat unleavened bread. The Festival of Unleavened Bread was initiated by Passover and observed for seven days. These were not two separate holidays but one weeklong celebration. Why bread without yeast? It was70 because the Israelites ate it before it could rise. It was symbolic of their hasty departure (12:11, 39).
Some argue that the organization of this passage is intended to teach an additional truth; namely that “we are saved in order to be sanctified” (Ryken, Exodus, 338). Ryken says,
Passover is about getting saved. It reminds us that we have been delivered from death by a perfect substitute whose blood was shed as a sacrifice for our sins. The Feast of Unleavened Bread reminds us what God wants us to do once we’ve been saved, and that is to live a sanctified life, becoming more and more free from sin. (ibid.)
Whether the Holy Spirit intended Moses to make this point is debated, but it makes sense theologically. We have been redeemed in order to live holy lives (1 Pet 1:15-21).
Of course, theologians have often seen yeast as a symbol for sin. And Jesus Himself used this image, saying, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1). Even more tied to Exodus is Paul’s use of this image (along with the Passover Lamb image) when talking about the need to purify the church in Corinth:
Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast permeates the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch. You are indeed unleavened, for Christ our Passover has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us observe the feast, not with old yeast or with the yeast of malice and evil but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor 5:6-8)
Peter Enns reminds us that Paul’s charge for purity here was not an appeal to mere moralism; that is, for the Corinthians to “just do their best.” Instead Paul was urging them to live holy lives in light of Christ’s sacrifice and in light of their new identity as the redeemed. He says,
[T]he basis for their [the church in Corinth] morality is twofold: Christ’s death has atoned for their sin and, perhaps more important, in Christ, the people are already a new batch without yeast. They are to act like what they are, which is not the result of their own efforts but the results of Christ’s efforts. (Enns, Exodus, 265; latter emphasis added)
71We too are to remember the substitute. We are “a new batch” because of what He has achieved on our behalf. Now, by God’s grace, let us remove the leaven and become what we are.
In verses 24-27a we see that the Passover observance was not only a way to reflect on God’s grace but also an important means of teaching the younger generation of God’s mighty salvation (cf. 10:2). The necessity of training children in sound doctrine repeatedly appears in the Passover account (see notes at 13:8-9, 14-15).
Notice the people’s reaction in verses 27b-28 to these instructions: worship and obedience. They “bowed down and worshiped” (v. 27b), and “they did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron” (v. 28). This theme of worship and obedience runs right through Exodus. By remembering who God is and what He had done, they gave God praise and obedience. May we do the same.
Remember the Severity and Mercy of God
The firstborn child in the time of Moses held much responsibility and had wonderful privileges. We can understand the tragedy to lose any child, but it was especially devastating to lose the firstborn in those days. With this in mind, God’s judgment on Egypt—killing the firstborn—tells of the seriousness of their transgressions. In this passage on the death of the firstborn, we see God’s redeeming power displayed in a “great reversal.” God began by striking down the firstborns of Egypt. He would end the negotiations with one cataclysmic sign. He judged all of Egypt without distinction, from the rich to the poor, the good and the bad. The cries in the land extended to all people. The destroyer was going to go through the mightiest nation in the world like a knife through butter.
Earlier we read God’s word to Moses: “Then you will say to Pharaoh: This is what Yahweh says: Israel is My firstborn son. I told you: Let My son go so that he may worship Me, but you refused to let him go. Now I will kill your firstborn son!” (4:22-23). Here we see that God kept His word. By means of the tenth plague, God turned turn evil on its head. Pharaoh had enacted an unrighteous judgment on the Hebrew boys by throwing them in the Nile, now God enacted a righteous judgment on Egypt’s sons. Pharaoh’s judgment came back on his head. In addition, by striking down the “gods” of Egypt, in particular Pharaoh’s son, God72 told Pharaoh that he is not God and neither is his son. There is only one true God! This blow hurt Egypt not only personally through the loss of the son of succession but also theologically as God’s power over their gods was displayed.
We should remember the severity and mercy of God. We are all like Pharaoh. We all deserve this kind of judgment. Some think they will never be judged. They think that they can spend their life as a little Pharaoh, piling up pyramids full of stuff, chasing fame, and refusing to bow down to the true God. Sadly, they will end up much like Pharaoh unless they look to God alone for mercy. Are you turning to the Substitute, Jesus Christ, that you might receive His mercy?
There were great cries in Egypt, since “there wasn’t a house without someone dead” (12:30). Pharaoh then relented and released Israel. Notice the pathetic nature of this cataclysmic reversal. As Pharaoh was humiliated, he was now begging another to bless him (v. 32)!
This great reversal led to great liberation: Israel was freed from slavery. The promises of Genesis 3:15 were secured. And in the midst of what seems like a harsh judgment, we should remember John 3:16: God loved the world by protecting His coming Son, the seed of the woman, so that everyone who would believe in Him might not perish but have everlasting life.
Remember God’s Deliverance
John Newton spent much of his life on ships. He was involved in slave trade and was caught up in numerous sins. God spared Newton’s life a number of times at sea, yet Newton did not recognize the providence of God. Shortly before he was born again, Newton and his crew were delivered from a storm that would have swallowed their ship had they not reached land. As God had been working in his life, Newton began to see God’s providence and deliverance time and time again through the years. He saw the coming of deliverance (Newton, 73-80).
The Israelites, likewise, would see the coming of God’s deliverance. Here the exodus event was taking place. The Lord told the Israelites to be ready, and they were. The time finally came for them to leave Egypt. As the Israelites left the land, they pillaged the Egyptians as God commanded, receiving their gold and silver (v. 35). This was a sign of God’s faithfulness to keep His word. Through Israel’s many 73hardships and struggles, God had remained faithful. Deliverance had arrived, and He had provided for His people. This points us to the greater exodus we have in the gospel. We have a King who vacated a grave and gave gifts to men (Eph 4:7-10). He gives us the spoils of His ultimate victory.
There are three promises in particular that are fulfilled in Israel’s getting out of Egypt. First, we see the fulfillment of Genesis 15:14. God promised that the people would be rich upon leaving the land. This promise was fulfilled, and that only by God’s grace, for He gave them favor in sight of Egyptians.
Second, the promise that they would be a great, multiplying nation had been fulfilled (Gen 12:2). They were no longer the original family of 70 sojourners who had first arrived in Egypt. Instead, there were six hundred thousand men, not including women and children (Exod 12:37). I think of the enormous amount of people who cram into Times Square on New Year’s Eve to celebrate the New Year. As I see these people on television, it seems as if hardly anyone can move. Imagine this massive amount of people fleeing Egypt. What an immense migration!
Third, the nations were being blessed through the seed of Abraham (Gen 12:2). In Exod 12:38 the text says, “An ethnically diverse crowd also went up with them.” This means that many who were not descendants from Abraham or Israel joined the Israelites as they left Egypt (Stuart, Exodus, 303). They saw the signs and believed! Stuart says, “In this regard they were predecessors to Ruth who declared to Naomi, ‘Your people will be my people and your God my God’ (Ruth 1:16)” (ibid.). In Exodus we see the beginning of the fulfillment of this promise that the nations would be blessed through the seed of Abraham. Ultimately, this was fulfilled through the coming of Christ (Gal 3:16). By faith in Christ the nations are made “sons of Abraham” (Gal 3:7-9). As Christians we must share in this passion to see the nations worship the true God, making disciples of all nations (Matt 28:16-20).
Israel was in Egypt 430 years, but God delivered them. Our God keeps His promises. Believe God’s promises. Do not resort to being a practical atheist. Instead, be strengthened by the word of the Lord.
As Israel departed, God provided additional future instructions for Passover observance (Exod 12:43-51). This is likely made necessary because the large number of people leaving Egypt included those Egyptians who had believed in the God of Moses. God said that they were not to break the lamb’s bones (v. 46). This was probably one of74 the texts John has in mind as being fulfilled in the death of Jesus on Passover (John 19:36; cf. Ps 34:20).
Also, He specified that the Passover meal was only for the covenant community. The main emphasis in these verses (vv. 43-51) was circumcision. This act was the sign that one belonged to the community of faith, and it qualified one to participate in the Passover meal. “Outsiders” or “foreigners” were not allowed to eat the meal, not because of their ethnic status or social status but because of faith and practice status. Concerning ethnicity, already noted is the fact that many non-Israelites came out of Egypt with Israel and became part of the covenant community by faith. Concerning social status, the text says that “slaves” could also participate in the meal (v. 44). Everyone was welcome to the table as long as they were circumcised—trusting and worshiping only the living God.
Remember the Strong Hand of the Lord
We all have at times set things aside—whether it be money or time or a number of other things—for some greater purpose. In chapter 13 God called for the Israelites to set aside their firstborns to Himself (vv. 1-2, 11-16). This act was connected to the tenth plague and the fact that God had distinguished Israel as His firstborn. The firstborn represented the whole family. By dedicating the firstborn to God, they were saying, “our family belongs to you, Lord.”
Notice that God commanded the Israelites to “redeem” their firstborn sons (not sacrifice them; 13b). This required a payment, and if it was the same offering made for donkeys, it would have been a lamb (v. 13a). Again, the image of salvation by substitution is made clear.
We see an example of the consecration of the firstborn with Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to Jerusalem (Luke 2:22-24). Luke quotes Exodus 13:1. Of course Jesus did not need to be “redeemed” (v. 13), but it was necessary for Him to fulfill all righteousness. Mary and Joseph offered up “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,” perhaps because they were too poor to afford a lamb. (They were actually holding the Lamb!) Further, Jesus, the ultimate firstborn (Rom 8:29; Col 1:15; Heb 12:23), consecrated His whole life to serving the Father. (Jesus as “the firstborn” does not mean that Jesus was not eternal, but it speaks of 75His supremacy.) Ryken says, “How proper it was, then, for his earthly parents to give him over to his heavenly Father at the time of his birth” (Exodus, 373). Amazingly, in order to redeem us, God offered up His own firstborn Son (Rom 8:32). Now we no longer belong to ourselves but to God (1 Pet 1:18-19; 1 Cor 6:19-20).
In Exodus 13:3-10 we see a reiteration and expansion of the regulations for the Festival of Unleavened Bread. It was to be observed in detail and then taught to the children. Notice the phrase “for the Lord brought you out of Egypt with a strong hand” (13:9). It was used already in verse 3 and is repeated in verses 14 and 16. This phrase frames this whole section; it provides a picture of God’s mighty salvation. The meal caused them to remember that God delivered them from bondage by His mighty hand.
Food has a natural way of bringing back memories. When my wife and I were in Ukraine for 40 days adopting children, we did not have a lot of access to various restaurants. But we did have a McDonalds, so we ate there a lot. Now every time I smell McDonalds or walk into a McDonalds, I think about our adoption journey. In a similar but more dramatic and important way, the Passover and Festival of Unleavened Bread brought back essential memories of God’s strong hand of salvation.
We are called to remember Christ’s work on our behalf through the Lord’s Supper. This meal signifies our great deliverance. In it, we taste and see Jesus’ work on our behalf. Just as Israel looked back to the Passover, we look back to God’s work on the cross for us and ahead to our glorious future with our King.
In verse 8 God again gives us a model for parenting (cf. vv. 14-16; 12:26-27). Here the child was being told of the great deliverance that God had provided. This is also something we should implement. Children ask all kinds of questions, especially “Why?” Some questions are very silly, but others are quite serious. When they ask you about the Lord’s Supper or other questions regarding salvation, are you ready to answer? This is a great time to share the gospel with your own child. We were slaves, but God rescued us. We deserved the death angel, but God passed over us. Then tell them of the marriage supper in the future (Rev 19). One day we will sit down at a banquet table with our King! Tell them it is “by the strong hand of God” that the captives are free. As parents, we have a holy responsibility of catechizing our kids, pointing them to Jesus.
Worthy Is the Lamb76
How can we conclude this amazing section of Exodus? Let us remember that true freedom comes in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). He is the lamb who provides us with total perfection and protection from God’s judgment (1 John 2:2; 3:10). He was the spotless, unblemished lamb, chosen before the foundation of the world (1 Pet 1:19-20). He was the lamb whose bones were not broken (John 19:33-36); the ultimate lamb, crucified during Passover (Matt 26:26-32). This lamb will apply His blood to our account (2 Cor 5:21). Will you recognize this today?
If you are wondering, “How can a sinner come into the presence of a holy God?” Look to the Lamb! Russell Moore says,
Does it remind you that the death angel is coming for us too? ... If the Lord waits ... we will all be placed in the ground. We aren’t gods! But what the gospel reminds us of is that we’re passed over ... so even as we eat and drink in this life, we keep our shoes on, we recognize the people we belong to, and when we finally stand in judgment we don’t come cowering in fear, we come marching triumphantly to Zion right through that door, that narrow little door that everybody great or small must pass through if we would be redeemed. And it’s the one with blood all over it—that’s the Gospel! (“The Blood-Splattered Welcome Mat”)
We can come into the presence of a holy God through an unblemished substitute. Salvation only comes through this Jesus who lived the life you could not live and died the death you should have died. In a famous sermon, R. G. Lee put it like this:
And the only way I know for any man ... to escape the sinner’s payday ... is through Christ Jesus, who took the sinner’s place upon the Cross, becoming for all sinners all that God must judge, that sinners through faith in Christ Jesus might become all that God cannot judge. (“Pay Day Someday”)
Praise God we have a substitute: Christ Jesus, our Passover Lamb! If you have come to Him by faith, you can sing the song of the redeemed:
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels around the throne, and also of the living creatures and of the elders. Their number was
77countless thousands, plus thousands of thousands. They said with a loud voice:
The Lamb who was slaughtered is worthy to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing!
I heard every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth, on the sea, and everything in them say:
Blessing and honor and glory and dominion to the One seated on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!
The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped. (Rev 5:11-14)
Reflect and Discuss
- Which of your country’s holidays call for somber reflection? Which ones call for joyful celebration? Which holiday do you find the most meaningful?
- How do traditional symbols and activities help us celebrate holidays? Which ones do you find the most meaningful?
- How do symbols and activities help to teach children important truths? How do they help adults remember?
- How did faith and deeds both play a part in the Passover? How do they play a part in the salvation of a Christian?
- What part does obedience play in obtaining deliverance? What part does obedience play after salvation?
- Which aspects of the Passover story have parallels in Jesus’ substitutionary atonement? Why are the perfect lamb, bitter herbs, blood, and unleavened bread important?
- Why was Israel granted grace? Was it their ancestry or their goodness? Why are Christians granted grace?
- In what way is every person like Pharaoh?
- How is a firstborn regarded differently from other offspring, both technically and psychologically? What other places in the Bible deal with a firstborn or firstfruits?
- What are the similarities between Passover and the Lord’s Supper? How can familiarity with Passover make celebrating the Lord’s Supper more meaningful?