ICEJ Passover article 2024

What Is Passover—and What Can It Teach Us about Jesus?

By Karen Engle, ICEJ USA Managing Editor 

“Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallenFor 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 not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you. asleep.” —Exodus 12:23

Passover celebrates God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt by means of the blood of a lamb that the Israelites placed on the doorposts and lintel of their homes. It’s the watershed event for the Jewish people, their master story that contains an underlying message: freedom comes with a price, and God is sovereign over the earth. It’s a story the Jewish community holds dear to this day and is deeply personal—Deuteronomy 16:14 says that every generation is obliged to feel as though “they personally came out of Egypt.”

To better understand the significance of that first Passover, journey back with me 3,500 years to the time of the Exodus.

The Background of Passover

Jacob and his family fled the promised land because of famine and traveled to Egypt—the most powerful nation on earth at the time, and because of the rich Nile valley, a haven of refuge. In Egypt Joseph, Jacob’s son (who had gained Pharaoh’s favor) welcomed them and gave them the lush land of Goshen to root down. There Jacob’s family grew into a great nation, just as God said would happen (Genesis 46:3–4), until a new Pharaoh came into power and oppressed the children of Israel for over 200 more years. Enter baby Moses.

Moses survived Pharaoh’s attempt to wipe out all Hebrew babies, ironically ended up being raised in Pharaoh’s house, and later heard God’s call at the infamous burning bush to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt to freedom. Moses demanded Pharaoh let God’s people go, but Pharaoh would not relent. After nine devastating plagues, God sent the angel of death over the land of Egypt to take the life of every firstborn—a great price paid to free God’s people from slavery. The death toll was so high that Exodus 12:30 says “there was not a house without someone dead.”

A Way of Escape

But God always provides a way of escape, and any household that put the blood of a one-year-old lamb without blemish on its doorposts as He instructed received a special promise: “When I see the blood, I will pass over you; and the plague shall not be on you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:13). This is where the word “Passover” comes from; in Hebrew, it is Pesach, which means “to spring, jump, or pass over.”

After Pharaoh’s son was killed, he finally relented, releasing the children of Israel to leave with Egyptian gold and silver jewelry and clothing in tow. It was the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise made long before Abraham’s descendants had stepped one foot in Egypt to release them from slavery and bring them back to the land of Canaan:

Then [God] said to Abram: “Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions. … But in the fourth generation they shall return here.” (Genesis 15:13–14, 16)

To this day, Passover is considered the defining moment for the Jewish people, when God rescued the children of Israel from 400 years of slavery and called them out to be His people in the “good and large land” promised to them (Exodus 3:8).

Yet it’s more than a story of Jewish redemption out of Egypt, for what happened at the first Passover was merely a shadow of a much greater release from slavery through the blood of Jesus that would come on another Passover centuries later.

Passover in the New Testament

Since biblical times, the Jewish people have celebrated Passover every year on Nisan 15—March/April on our calendars. Let’s circle back to Exodus 12, which tells us each family was to select their perfect lambs on the “tenth day of the first month,” the month of Nisan, and care for it for five days before slaughtering it on Nisan 14. I imagine families would have bonded with the lamb over five days, making the sacrifice terribly difficult! In an act of obedience and trust, they painted the lamb’s blood over their doors and then roasted the lamb and ate it quickly with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. That very night, the angel of the Lord passed over the houses with the lamb’s blood, and the children of Israel left Egypt.

John 12:1–2

Now let’s fast forward to the book of John, the week before Jesus was crucified, to try and connect some dots. Interestingly, John 12:1–2 says that “six days before the Passover” Jesus had dinner with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, which puts Jesus in Bethany on Nisan 9. Just a few verses later, John provides three very important words:

The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. (v. 12)

With some basic math, we see that “the next day” was Nisan 10. Almost 1,500 years to the date after the children of Israel chose their perfect lambs and brought them into their homes only to be sacrificed five days later, Jesus left Bethany, traveled down the Mount of Olives, crossed the Kidron Valley, and entered Jerusalem on a donkey. There He was greeted by crowds who were in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, waving palm branches and shouting: “Hosanna! (Save now!) Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13). They spread their cloaks and palm branches on the road, an act reserved for kings and conquerors—openly hailing Him as Savior and King.

Sadly, the people missed the full significance of what was happening that day. They saw Jesus fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy of a coming King whom they believed would relieve them from Roman oppression: “Your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey” (9:9). It was a prophecy they knew well. But they couldn’t comprehend the death of that King.

Our Passover Lamb

Jesus was to be the final Passover lamb, who would not just relieve Israel from her enemies physically but provide release from slavery to sin—just as John the Baptist prophesied:

Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)

Jesus was the perfect Lamb of God (even Pilate said Jesus was without fault in Luke 23:4) who would be crucified just a few days later. On Nisan 14, as upward of 250,000 lambs were being slaughtered in the temple courts, the same day the lambs were slaughtered in Exodus 12, Jesus was crucified. Isaiah’s prophecy that God’s Savior and King would open the prison for those bound, heal the brokenhearted, and proclaim liberty to the captives had come—yet the King’s vengeance against His enemies would come later (Isaiah 61:1–2).


The book of Hebrews says the Old Testament sacrificial system is only a shadow of the good things to come—not the realities themselves. The sacrificial lamb in Exodus 12 was the shadow that pointed to the true Lamb of God who, in the fullness of time, was offered as a sacrifice for sin. The same day (and I believe Scripture reveals the same hour) thousands of lambs were being sacrificed in the temple, Jesus took His last breaths on the cross.

Coincidence? Not according to how God does things. The first Passover in Exodus was a picture of God’s plan to redeem creation—a plan set from the beginning. Jesus is the Lamb “slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). Despite the power of sin on a person’s life, God reigns supreme. In His mercy, He offered a way for those He created to be released from slavery to sin and spiritual death and gain life eternal.

As Christians, we celebrate with the Jewish people their national redemption from slavery in this story. But the significance of Passover for us who believe Jesus was indeed God’s Lamb runs deeper, for it pictures our own freedom from being slaves to sin and death:

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. (1 Peter 1:18–20)

No other price but the blood of Jesus could have paid for the debt of sin—and because of this, we should not relegate Passover as a Feast only for the Jews. Jesus is the Passover Lamb of God for us all.