Last year I was asked to prepare an argument regarding the observance of Passover by Christians. Here's what I wrote:
SHOULD CHRISTIANS OBSERVE THE PASSOVER?
Rev. M. Jay Bennett
Twin Oaks Presbyterian Church
In my brief interaction with a few Christian fathers and brothers regarding this question I have concluded that New Testament (NT) Christians should not return to the Old Testament (OT) observance of Passover. My primary reason is this: I believe the observance of a distinctly OT worship service (i.e. seder) is a violation of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), defined by the Westminster Confession of Faith as worshiping God in “any way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture” (21.1).
- OT ordinances, though continuous with NT ordinances as signs and seals of the one covenant of grace (WCF 27.1 and 27.5), are nonetheless properly distinguished from NT ordinances (WCF, 7.5 and 7.6).
- The Passover (like circumcision) was prescribed as an ordinance of OT worship (spoken of in WCF 7.5 as “the paschal lamb”).
- The Passover was abrogated and replaced by the Lord's Supper in the NT.
- Therefore, the Passover is not a proper ordinance of NT worship.
- The contemporary Passover Seder largely includes additions/stipulations (e.g. the afikoman) which are not prescribed in the OT but were added during the intertestamental and post second-temple eras of Jewish history.
- Therefore the contemporary Passover Seder is not prescribed by God as a proper way of OT or NT worship.
The NT church should observe the Passover Seder as a tutorial.
This objection fails in at least four respects: (1) It assumes a non sequitur, (2) It is self-defeating, (3) It succumbs to a reductio ad absurdum, and (4) If the Passover includes the observance of the Lord’s Supper, it is a worship service de facto.
1. It assumes a non sequitur. The assumption is that observing the ritual is a way of gaining insights that simple teaching cannot afford. In other words, in order to gain a rich understanding of the ritual, one should observe it. This is not true. We could accomplish the same goal by offering a class on the significance of the Passover ritual without observing it.
2. It is self-defeating. This is true in three ways: (a) Defining characteristics of the Passover are implicitly denied, (b) The function of the Passover is implicitly denied, (c) The fulfillment of the Passover is implicitly denied.
a. A defining characteristic of the Passover is that it was a worship service. Therefore, to observe it as a simple tutorial is to redefine the thing itself (i.e. to change a defining characteristic of it). One may be observing something, but if it is not understood to be worship, it cannot be a biblical Passover. This same argument can also be seen in a typical limitation of the observance among Christians. To my knowledge Passover Seders observed by Christians do not typically include the slaughtering, roasting, and eating of a paschal lamb. The paschal lamb is a defining characteristic of the Passover. Again, one may be observing something, but if the slaughtering of a paschal lamb is not involved, it is not a biblical Passover. Either Passover is a worship service, which means it is not merely a tutorial and therefore is not allowed, or it is a tutorial, in which case it is not worship and is not therefore a proper observance.
b. One function of the Passover was to foresignify the first advent of Christ. Since Christ has already come, the ordinance cannot now fulfill its function of foresignification. Therefore, any observance of the Passover after Christ’s coming is an attempt to have the ordinance function in a way in which it was not designed, which is an implicit denial of its design.
c. Because the Passover was a foresignification of a particular end (i.e. the coming of Christ), to continue its observance today is an implicit denial of that end. As the author of Hebrews says, “For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. . . . But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:18-19, 22-24).
3. It succumbs to a reductio ad absurdum, namely, if we are willing to observe the Passover ritual in order to understand how it foresignified Christ, why not observe all the rituals since they also foresignified Christ (WCF 7.5)? Why would we not be willing to perform a service of circumcision or sacrifice in order to learn about how they foresignified Christ?
4. If the Passover observance includes the observance of the Lord’s Supper, which is sometimes practiced along with contemporary Passover Seders among Christians, it is a worship service de facto. The
divines understood that the only proper ordinary occasion for observing the sacraments is public worship. This is evident in that private masses are forbidden and only a minister of the Word lawfully ordained may dispense them with the appropriate words of institution. The only exceptions are extraordinary cases in which a communing church member cannot attend the ordinary public worship service. Nonetheless, even then, multiple officers and congregants should be present in order to constitute public worship. Westminster
Notwithstanding the violation of the RPW, which our tradition understands to be the idolatry of will-worship, I have three chief concerns about Christians observing Passover, each of which strikes at the basis of the very being of the visible church (i.e. Word and Sacrament). Those concerns are: (1) The sufficiency (i.e. fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy) of the Lord’s Supper is implicitly denied, (2) The sufficiency (i.e. fullness and clarity) of the revelation of God in the person of Christ is implicitly denied, and (3) The sufficiency (i.e. value and efficacy) of the work of Christ is implicitly denied.
- The sufficiency (i.e. fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy) of the Lord’s Supper is implicitly denied. To observe an OT ordinance, which has been abrogated and replaced by a NT ordinance, is an implicit denial of the sufficiency of the NT ordinance that has replaced it, which, although “administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in [it], [the covenant] is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles”(WCF 7.6).
- The sufficiency (i.e. fullness and clarity) of the revelation of God in the person of Christ is implicitly denied. To turn back to that which was but a shadow of the substance is an implicit denial of the sufficiency of the substance.
- The sufficiency (i.e. value and efficacy) of the work of Christ is implicitly denied. To observe an OT ordinance, which is a blood-letting ritual, implicitly undermines the value and efficacy of the blood of the Lamb of God, which was spilled with absolute finality at the cross.
Given the above argument, it is my recommendation that Passover Seders should not be observed by the NT church. Nonetheless, the Passover along with all OT worship practices should be explained and understood in light of the Christ they foresignified.