Toward a Better Understanding of Passover
Part 11 - The First Day of Unleavened Bread?
by: Jim Rector
We know that the Messiah, even from His youth, observed the annual festivals alongside and in the same manner and custom as the rest of the first-century Jews. In other words, for 32 straight years, He had been coming to Jerusalem in the spring, had followed the rules regarding Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread, and had carefully observed all aspects of this important annual holy time. For 32 straight years, it had been His practice to accompany either His family, when He was young, or other adults, when He was older, for the week-long celebration of the spring festival season. He knew when the leaven was to be removed from the houses. He was there at the Temple at noon on the 14th day when the priests burned the leaven, and afterward, when the shofar sounded inaugurating the Passover sacrifice, He was present. He had waited until the sun set on the beginning of the 15th day of Nisan before eating the Feast of the Passover, just like every other pious Jew of His day.
Since Yahshua fully realized that He would be the true Passover sacrifice for all humanity, and given the fact that the Passover season was nigh, what was He to do? It was obvious to Him that He would be dead on the afternoon of the 14th day of the month, and buried in the tomb by the time the Passover meal was to be eaten that year. So what happened?
Once the 14th day had come, the disciples asked Christ a question. Before we read it, let’s remember that the 14th day was the day of preparation. Recall what the atmosphere would be like, what things would be transpiring at this busy time, what with the Passover coming. Now that this day had arrived, the disciples came to Yahshua. Matthew writes:
“Now the first day of the feast of unleavened bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying unto Him, Where will you that we PREPARE for you to eat the Passover?” (Matt. 26:17).
Put yourself in this first century setting for a moment. The 14th day has begun. Luke makes that fact even clearer by stating:
“Then came the day of unleavened bread, when the PASSOVER MUST BE KILLED” (Luke 22:7).
So the day for killing the Passover has arrived. That event will take place not at the beginning of the 14th day, but some 18-21 hours later, the next afternoon. People are beginning to get the leaven out of their houses. For some, the 14th day will not even be a work day, in spite of the fact that the sacrifice and the holyday are still a number of hours away. Everyone will be off work by noon the next day. Leaven will not only be put out on this day, but from at least noon onward, no leaven can be eaten on this 14th day. And here are the disciples, after the 14th day has already begun, coming to the Messiah and asking Him where He wants them to go and PREPARE for the Passover to come.
If the Passover was to be slain on the early part of the 14th day, then the entire city of Jerusalem, including Yahshua and all the disciples, would be at the Temple offering their sacrifices at the very moment the disciples first bring up the question of the Passover to the Messiah. We know that this simply cannot be the case. Notice also that Christ’s response to their question is in terms of what? – PREPARATION. And, of course, this makes perfect sense, because the 14th was the day of preparation of the Passover. Everyone else in the city was busy doing the same thing – getting ready for the coming Passover.
We must always remember that by the first century the terms Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread were used interchangeably. When people went up to Jerusalem to keep the Passover, they were there to observe the entire time from at least mid-day on the 14th of Nisan through the 21st day of the same month. Since we already know that the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread is the 15th, why would Matthew, Mark, and Luke all refer to the 14th as the first day?
The answer is not that difficult. By the first century, the 14th day was filled with so much activity in anticipation of the approaching Passover season, that it was often referred to as the first day of the spring festival, and this custom was simply followed by the various writers of the gospel accounts. Notice the commentary on this fact from The New Interpreter’s Bible:
“According to Ex. 12:1-20, the Passover lambs were to be killed on the afternoon of the 14th day of Nisan, and the festival itself began with the ritual meal on the evening that began the 15th of Nisan. The Festival of Unleavened Bread began on the 15th and continued for seven days, during which no leaven should be found in the house . . . By the first century, the two had merged and their names were used interchangeably.In addition, the pious practice of removing leaven one day early (14th) had become common, so that Mark’s description (Mk. 14:12) of the 14th as the first day of unleavened bread, ALTHOUGH TECHNICALLY INCORRECT, was common and is followed by Matthew” (Vo. VIII, Matthew).
Just to shed some additional light on this subject, the Jamison, Fausset & Brown Commentary on Luke 22:7 states:
“Then came the day of unleavened bread, when the Passover must be killed .The day here alluded to (as in Matt. 26:17) was the 14th of Nisan, when, about mid-day, labor was intermitted, and all leaven removed from the houses. Then between the two evenings (Ex. 12:6), or between 3 and 6 o’clock, the paschal lamb was killed, and in the evening, when the 15th of Nisan began, it was eaten. And the days of unleavened bread properly began with the 15th, the preparations for the festival being made on the 14th, it was popularly called, as here, the first day of unleavened bread–as we learn from Josephus, whose way of speaking agrees with that here employed.”
From these and numerous other reliable and scholarly sources, we can readily determine why Matthew, Mark, and Luke spoke as they did. They were simply following the custom of the day in referring to the 14th day of Nisan as the first day of unleavened bread. In no way should their manner of reference be taken to mean that the Old Testament instruction with respect to the 15th day beginning the spring Feast had been changed or, in any manner, misunderstood. They, like virtually every Jew around them, clearly knew that the 14th day was the day of preparation, that the Passover was to be killed later on that same day, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread would follow for seven days. Nothing whatsoever had changed down through the centuries of time since God’s Law on the matter had originally been given in the days of Moses.
Yahshua knew all of this as well or better than any of the disciples. But He also knew one additional very significant fact that the others simply couldn’t yet grasp–and that was that He Himself would be the literal Passover Lamb that year, and would be slain at the precise time the physical lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple. He knew that His own death was impending, that it would take place later on the afternoon of the 14th day.
The disciples’ question to the Messiah on that 14th day as to where they would be keeping the Passover was not extraordinary. After all, they were quite aware that the 14th day was the normal day of preparation. Had the Passover actually been that very night, they would have never asked such a question then. It would have been way too late! This fact is crucial to our understanding of this critical time in the Savior’s life.
We know that Christ told the disciples to go into the city and make the appropriate preparations, which they did. Then they all came together later that evening for what would be their final meal before the crucifixion. On this occasion, Yahshua took the opportunity to speak to these men, and through them, to all believers down through the ages.