by Moshe Gold
I remember being asked by a pastor, who was looking for an innovative way of celebrating Easter, how I celebrated it. I told him that for me, Passover was Easter. For although I have participated in Easter Sunday celebrations, for many, like myself, who were raised in a Jewish culture, Passover provides the same sense of commemorating the resurrection as does Easter for others. He quickly suspected that perhaps I was becoming sympathetic towards the Messianic Jewish movement which instructs its followers that they must keep only the Jewish festivals. After reassuring him that my statement was not a validation of this movement, which I believe to be heretical and divisive, he became curious about my choice of celebrations.
The Resurrection and Passover
The Scriptures are clear that the Last Supper was in fact the last earthly Passover that Jesus celebrated. At its core the celebration is conducted in an orderly manner, called a Seder, using ritual food items as symbols that tell of the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. In the 2nd Temple days, Passover, which is celebrated on the 14th of Nisan, had become an eight day celebration that included the Feast of Unleavened Bread (beginning the 15th) and the Feast of Firstfruits (16th)1. In that day (as today) the Seder was filled with messianic references and it was hoped that the Messiah would appear at that time. These references amplify the prophetic portion of each of these feasts concerning what is called in Judaism the greater redemption – the spiritual redemption. Looking beyond the physical historic deliverance of Israel, the feasts were a reminder that reinforced hope in the glorious expectation of the restoration of the people of Israel to their God. The Passover began to represent spiritual righteousness and the coming of the kingdom; Unleavened Bread, an emblem of sanctification or being set apart by and for the Lord, represented the new beginning; while Firstfruits, as the guarantee of a harvest to follow, prefigures the resurrection of the righteous. All of which find reality in Messiah Jesus who offered His body as the final sacrifice for sin. His resurrection proved the acceptance of that sacrifice and through it the New Covenant could be established. He is the one who has gone before us to open the way for the greater redemption to begin; and for those who believe in His substitutionary sacrifice, His death, burial and resurrection2, He has become our Passover, our Sanctification and He is the Firstfruits3.
The crucifixion of Jesus took place on the first day of the Passover week, the 15th of Nisan, which is also the first day of Unleavened Bread. Like the matzah He broke the night before, His body was broken so that we might be made whole! Later that day, at about the time that Jesus died, the first fruit of the barley, the first of the Firstfruits offering, was cut off. At about the time that He was laid in the tomb the firstfruits of the barley were gathered into the Temple. The next day an omer4 of fine flour made from the barley was offered before the Lord, which opened the way for other firstfruits to be accepted by God and marked His guarantee of a harvest to follow. Jesus remaining among the dead for three days is proof that He was truly dead. During that time He declared freedom to those who had died in faith and, in effect, He led captivity captive when, on the third day of Passover, He rose from the dead.
The early church, following the instructions of the Lord5, used the afikoman and third cup from the Passover Seder to commemorate the death, burial and resurrection of Messiah Jesus, His institution of the New Covenant, and His promised return. This was done as often as a church chose. However, once a year a special celebration of these events was held on the day of Passover regardless of which day of the week that happened to be in any particular year. This was the tradition handed down by the Apostle John and attested to by Phillip the Evangelist and several of his daughters6. It may have also been the teaching of Paul since he alludes to the Corinthians keeping the feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover)7. It was certainly the tradition followed by the majority of churches in the east including those in the area of the Levant, Turkey and Greece.
The Resurrection and Sunday
In time another tradition, observed with equal reverence and joy, became popular among the churches of Europe and North Africa. Those who promoted it believed it to be more scriptural than the apostolic tradition of a Passover commemoration. The resurrection of Jesus occurred on the third day of Passover, the first day of the week – Sunday. Desiring to show deference to the actual day of the resurrection and consistent with their weekly worship, these churches chose to celebrate on the Sunday following the beginning of the Passover. This tradition found a champion in the Bishop of Rome.
After the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70) the Jerusalem Council began to lose its authority as arbiter of the faith and guardian of church tradition. Power began to shift westward, eventually to Rome, the capital of the Empire. This process was completed in the aftermath of the failed Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (AD 132-135) that ended the long line of Jewish-Christian leadership in the east. During this time there arose a controversy that pitted the western churches against those of the east. On which day was it most appropriate to commemorate the resurrection? In AD 155 Polycarp (AD 69-156) Bishop of Smyrna, the disciple of the Apostle John met in Rome with Anicetus, Bishop of Rome, to resolve this matter. Neither would budge from his position and it is reported by Eusebius8 that Irenaeus (ca. AD 125-202), Bishop of Lyon and a student of Polycarp, implored both men to part in peace as brothers, respecting each other’s tradition. This they did, even partaking of communion together. With the final collapse of Jewish influence in AD 135, the subject was again raised by Victor, the Bishop of Rome, who was vested with the authority that once resided in Jerusalem. Around AD 190 Victor attempted to standardize the celebration of the resurrection. He addressed a letter to Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus and disciple of Polycarp, arguing that all eastern churches follow the west by adopting, as a closer link to Scripture, the Sunday during Passover custom. The eastern churches refused, indicating that they would keep the Passover tradition of the Apostles, and Victor attempted to excommunicate them. This led to a protest from many western bishops and a fragile unity was restored. In the end, Victor failed and the desire for a universal Sunday celebration would not be resolved until the days of Emperor Constantine (AD 272-337).
The Resurrection and Easter
In the years between Victor and Constantine more churches began to adopt the Sunday tradition espoused by Rome and by now called Easter. Those who maintained the Passover evening celebration were mainly the original churches founded by the Apostles. Where the tolerance for diversity of commemoration once preserved the unity among the churches, now this diversity was seen as a threat to unity under the leadership of Rome. This schism and contention between the churches reflected the division within the Empire itself. In the days of Constantine, the Roman Empire was ruled by four people, two Emperors and two Caesars, one pair in the east and one in the west. Over time Constantine was able to unify the Empire under his sole control and sought to bring that same unity to the Christian church, which he had elevated to privileged status9. In AD 325 he called for a council of church bishops at Nicaea10, located in northeast Turkey, where east meets west, to solve the major issues separating the churches. The major resolutions of the conference concerned the deity of Christ and the essence of the Godhead, along with a formula to settle the Easter/Passover dispute.
Perhaps the best known edict of the council concerned the nature of God and is known as the Nicene Creed. Less known is the decree that all churches in the Empire were to celebrate the resurrection on Sunday, and not on Passover. However, it would no longer be the first Sunday after the 14th of Nisan (the beginning of Passover). Easter was officially removed from its traditional place as part of the Passover. The council made the celebration of Easter the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. Constantine elevated this to an official decree of the Empire. In a letter to the churches he encouraged the total separation of Christianity from Judaism. He referred to Jewish people as beyond salvation, in league with darkness, and as the killers of the Lord11. What began as a difference in tradition became legislated as a rule, that in time produced a new set of customs, but never produced unity between the eastern and western churches. It also helped to further fracture the relationship between Christians of Gentile and Jewish heritage.
The Resurrection and You
I do not suggest some new way of celebrating the resurrection nor do I suggest a return to the tradition of the Apostles. I suggest we agree that there are two ordinances given to the New Testament Church, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and that anything beyond these is tradition. Once this is understood there will be less judging and attempts to legislate traditional practice according to personal or cultural preference, knowing that there is freedom to wisely choose how one celebrates (Romans 14:5-6; Colossians 2:16).
More important than dates or symbols is remembering why you commemorate the resurrection. The resurrection is proof that the sacrifice Jesus made for you was accepted. When you trust in Him as your savior, you can know that your sin is forgiven. Because He rose from the dead you can have a new and better life where even death cannot separate you from God. Someday when He returns you will rise to meet Him!
He is risen! He is risen indeed!
1 Leviticus 23: 5-14
2 1 Corinthians 15:2-4
3 I Corinthians 5: 7-8; 15:20-23
4 1 omer = 5.1 pints
5 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
6 The Ecclesiastical History of Eusibius Pamphilus, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 1982, V:XXIV
7 1 Corinthians 5:5-8
8 The Ecclesiastical History of Eusibius Pamphilus, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 1982, Book V Chapters XXIII-XXV
9 Council of Milan 313 AD
10 The Ecclesiastical History of Eusibius Pamphilus, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 1982, Appendix: Historical View of The Council of Nice
11 The Ecclesiastical History of Eusibius Pamphilus, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 1982, Appendix H: Another Letter of Constantine, pages 51-54