Passover is the first of God's seven annual festivals listed in Leviticus 23, immediately followed by the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread. (See the chapter titled The Festivals of God.) As the New Testament instructs, we are to observe the Passover in commemoration of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Revealed to the Israelites at the time of their deliverance from Egypt, as recorded in Exodus 12-13, Passover observance involved each household sacrificing an unblemished lamb on the 14th day of the first month of the Hebrew calendar (Abib or Nisan) and eating it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. In addition to the meat, herbs and unleavened bread, the Passover also came to traditionally include wine.
The lamb's blood, placed at that time around the Israelites' doorways, enabled the people to be "passed over" (spared) when God in just judgment slew the firstborn of Egypt. The lives of the Israelite firstborn were thus redeemed (bought back or ransomed) by the blood of the lamb.
In observing the Passover every year afterward on the same date, the Israelites were to recall this redemption in Egypt (while the Feast of Unleavened Bread that followed memorialized their deliverance from Egyptian slavery in the Exodus).
Yet besides recalling their past redemption, the Old Testament Passover prefigured a much greater redemption—by a much greater sacrifice. "For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us" (1 Corinthians 5:7). Jesus Christ is referred to as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). We are "redeemed . . . with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot" (1 Peter 1:18-19). (See the chapter titled The Sacrifice of Jesus Christ.)
Jesus' death occurred on the afternoon of the 14th of Abib, the date of the Passover. We know this because it was the preparation day for the annual Sabbath that followed on the 15th, the first day of the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread (Matthew 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:14, 31, 42). (See the chapter titled Three Days and Three Nights.)
Moreover, on the night before His death, Jesus observed a memorial ceremony with His disciples that He specifically identified as the Passover (Matthew 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:7-20). This was the beginning of the 14th of Abib, as biblical days are reckoned from sunset to sunset. (For more on the biblical reckoning of days, see the chapter titled The Sabbath Day.)
Jesus commanded that from then on the Passover was to be observed by His followers in remembrance of Him, and He declared that the symbols of unleavened bread and wine were to be considered as representative of His body and His blood given in sacrifice. Jesus said of the wine, "This is My blood of the new covenant" (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24), instituting a New Covenant observance for Christians today—consistent with His role as "the Mediator of the new covenant" (Hebrews 12:24).
Jesus also said His blood was "poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:28), revealing that His sacrificial death would pay for sin's penalty of death (Romans 6:23; see Hebrews 9:15).
But the New Testament Passover is not just about the death of Jesus as the Lamb of God. It is also about His suffering (Luke 22:15). We are to remember the entire sacrifice He made—both His suffering and His death. His suffering, death and burial all occurred on the 14th of Abib. The symbols of the unleavened bread and the wine represent His total sacrifice—again, His suffering and His death.
Jesus' death occurred, as mentioned, on the afternoon of the 14th of Abib, but His period of intense suffering began the night before His death while He was still with His disciples: "And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and He began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed. Then He said to them, 'My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death'" (Matthew 26:37-38).
In His sacrifice, Jesus took on Himself the penalty for all mankind's sins (1 Peter 3:18). When we partake of the bread and wine, we recognize that He offered His body and blood to cover our sins. Through faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ we are reconciled to God the Father.
Reconciliation grants us access to the Father, making it possible for us to come boldly before His throne of grace to find help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16). It is because of Christ's sacrifice that we can be healed spiritually, physically, mentally and emotionally (Isaiah 53:4-5; James 5:14). (Again, see the chapter titled The Sacrifice of Jesus Christ.)
When we eat the unleavened bread at Passover, we symbolize partaking of the benefit of Christ's sacrifice as well as Christ living in us (John 6:53-54). We also show our unity with Christ and with each member of the Body of Christ, the Church (1 Corinthians 10:16), as well as our willingness to live by the Word of God.
Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 11:20-26 that by this ceremony "we proclaim the Lord's death till He comes"—representing the only way mankind can be reconciled to God. In fact, Passover ultimately looks forward to the future. While Christ's sacrifice was the fulfillment of the slaying of the lamb, He said that the Passover would be "fulfilled in the kingdom of God" (Luke 22:15-16). That is when the process of redemption will be complete.
Furthermore, Christ's presentation of wine as symbolic of His blood of the New Covenant was, in further symbolism, a type of wedding proposal to His people—looking forward to the "marriage of the Lamb," which will follow His return (Revelation 19:7, 9). (See the chapter titled The Church.)
As for observing the Passover today, Paul said in the same passage in 1 Corinthians 11 that the Church is to "come together" to "eat this bread and drink this cup." And he confirmed here that we are to observe this memorial when Jesus did with His disciples, "on the same night in which He was betrayed" (verse 23)—the beginning of the 14th of Abib.
The annual service is to also include the ordinance of foot-washing, as established by Jesus at the same Passover observance. After setting an example of being a servant by washing His disciples' feet, He stated: "You also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you . . . If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them" (John 13:14-17).
All three elements—the foot-washing, the unleavened bread and the wine—are to be part of the annual observance of the Passover. It should be observed only once a year after sunset at the beginning of the 14th day of the first month of the Hebrew calendar, as established by the Word of God.
This observance is so important in God's sight that He gave a provision in Numbers 9:1-14 that if a person is prevented by unavoidable circumstances from keeping the Passover on the 14th day of the first month, he may observe it one month later on the 14th day of the second month. The United Church of God continues this practice today.
Finally, it should be stated that Passover represents an important step in God's plan of salvation. For while Christ's sacrificial death, as memorialized in the Passover, reconciles us to God, we are actually saved by Christ's life (Romans 5:9-10). As described in the next chapter, this deliverance is portrayed in the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the other festivals of God that follow.
For more details, read God's Holy Day Plan: The Promise of Hope for All Mankind.