When Should God's People Observe the Passover?
Since Mr. Herbert Armstrong died in January 1986, various offshoots of the crumbling Worldwide Church of God have disputed on which day the Passover should be observed. Under Mr. Armstrong's direction, the Worldwide Church of God kept the Passover after sunset on the first part of the fourteenth of Nisan. Nisan, or Abib, is the first month of the Jewish calendar. Remember, God designated days to begin at sunset in the evening, not at midnight as is the norm today. So under God's calendar, days begin in the evening and end in the evening.
With respect to the Passover observance, numerous former W.C.G. members keep the Passover on the fifteenth of Nisan and others at the end of the fourteenth. God's Church, Worldwide continues to keep Passover on the first part of the fourteenth day. The Jewish community however, observes it on the fifteenth. So which view is correct, the beginning of the fourteenth, the end of the fourteenth or on the fifteenth?
We will use three sources in discussing this subject; the Bible, the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, and the Encyclopedia Judaica. The encyclopedias will explain how the Jews have come to observe the fifteenth of Nisan as their Passover.
In Exodus 12:6 the Israelites were instructed to kill the Passover lambs “in the evening” or as the Hebrew states, between the two evenings. This phrase points out that the evening was actually a period of time with a start and a finish. The complete setting of the sun was the start of the time period and complete darkness was the end. Between the two evenings is the period we call twilight. So before the first evening it was yet daylight and after the second evening it was night.
It was in this period of time, between sunset and complete darkness that the lambs were to be killed. Sunset on the thirteenth brought that day to an end, and began the fourteenth. From sunset to dark the lambs were killed and the blood was then placed on the doors. Later the roasted flesh was eaten. Verse10 states, “And ye shall let nothing of it remain until the morning; and that which remaineth of it until the morning ye shall burn with fire.” In verse 11 the Israelites are commanded to eat it in haste, but the word “haste” is a poor translation. The Hebrew word is chippazown and means, in fear or trepidation, obviously because later that night the death angel was to pass over the Israelites, who had smeared the Lamb's blood on their door posts, and kill the first born of the unprotected Egyptians (Ex. 12:13). Sure enough, at midnight, “the LORD smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt . . .” (Ex. 12:29).
If the Passover had been held at the end of the fourteenth, the death angel would have passed over the Israelites and through the Egyptians on the fifteenth of Nisan. However, Leviticus 23:5 clearly states that the Passover, which refers to the mission of the death angel, was on the fourteenth. This means that the killing of the lambs, hours earlier during twilight, was also on the fourteenth.
To support this, Deuteronomy 16:1 states that Israel left Egypt by night. This night could not have been the same night when the Passover was observed because the Israelites were commanded to stay in their homes until the morning (Ex. 12:22). They were then to spoil the Egyptians and gather together their livestock in preparation for departing Egypt. This occurred during the daylight portion of the fourteenth. In Numbers 33:3, Israel is shown leaving Egypt on the day after the Passover. The day after the Passover is the fifteenth, and the fifteenth is described in Leviticus 23:6 as the “feast of Unleavened Bread.”
Verse 5 of Leviticus 23 refers to the Passover as follows, “In the fourteenth day of the first month at even [between the evenings] is the Lord's Passover” (see also Numbers 28:16-17). The scriptures make it clear that the original Passover was kept on the first part of the fourteenth. Why then do the Jews today observe it on the fifteenth, the following evening? In an article on the Passover, the Encylopedia Judaica, 3rd printing has this to say.
The Feast of the Passover consists of two parts: the Passover ceremony and the Feast of Unleavened Bread; originally both parts existed separately, but at the beginning of the exile [Babylonian] they were combined. Passover was originally not a pilgrimage feast, but a domestic ceremony consisting of the slaughtering and eating of the paschal animal.
When the Passover and the first day of Unleavened Bread became one festival instead of two, the Jews killed the lambs just before sunset at the end of the fourteenth. As a consequence, the roasted flesh was eaten at the beginning of the fifteenth, contrary to God's original instructions. In New Testament times, the combining of the two events is clearly evident in Luke's account, “Now the feast of unleavened bread drew nigh, which is called the Passover” (Lk 22:1). The Feast of Unleavened Bread wasn't the Passover, it was simply called the Passover and the Jews, since the exile, as noted, had been celebrating Passover on the fifteenth of Nisan. In fact, by the time of Christ, they were describing the fourteenth as the preparation day. Jesus, our Passover, was impaled on the stake during the daylight portion of the fourteenth. The Jews wanted His body taken down and buried before the first day of Unleavened Bread, an annual Sabbath, or high day, which began that evening (Lk 23:45, 50-53).
It is interesting to note that in Leviticus 23, the festivals are described as “the feasts of the Lord” (v. 2). God says they are “My feasts”, but by Christ's day for example, the Passover was described as “the Jews' Passover” (Jn. 2:13, 6:4, 7:2; 19:42). The Passover they kept was not God's because it was celebrated on the wrong day.
Jesus changed the symbols of the Passover during its observance on the first part of the fourteenth. Christ and His disciples obediently observed the Passover festival which God commanded as a memorial which included partaking of the lamb as Luke 22:7 conveys. “Then came [near] the day of unleavened bread, when the Passover must be killed.” In this case the word Passover refers to the lamb which was sacrificed and then eaten. “And he sent Peter and John saying, go and prepare us the Passover, that we may eat” (Lk. 22:8, see also verses 11, 15-16). As an example for His New Testament Church, Christ put the emphasis on the bread and wine as symbols of His broken body and blood. Rather than shedding the blood of the lamb and eating its roasted body, Christ, who became the true Passover Lamb (I Cor. 5:7), instructed His disciples how to keep the New Testament Passover in remembrance of Him after His death. From that point on the lamb would no longer be a part of the Christian Passover.
As noted above, many of the Jews in Christ's day were killing the Passover lambs at the end of the fourteenth, but actually eating the meal on the fifteenth, which is the first high day of Unleavened Bread. Their actions bring out the confusion created by melding Passover and Unleavened Bread into one feast instead of two. Passover pictures deliverance not haste. Remember haste is a poor translation of the Hebrew, which actually refers to the trepidation they experienced when the death angel passed over Egypt. These Jews were attempting to keep the Passover with an understanding that pertained to the first day of Unleavened Bread. Israel did leave Egypt quickly, on the fifteenth, which symbolized coming out of sin. Of course no one can come out of sin unless they first accept the sacrifice of Christ in payment for their past sins and as their means of reconciliation to God. Because the Jews have lost sight of the true meaning of Passover, they have been unable to accept Jesus Christ of Nazareth as their Savior.
Remember, the lamb symbolized Christ; He was the Passover. So rather than using the flesh and blood of the lamb as the symbols of His flesh and blood, He used the bread and wine of the Passover feast, as we do today. Later, on the fourteenth, as the Lamb of God, His blood would be shed in payment for the sins of mankind. Prior to that His body would be broken for the healing of our physical sins, symbolized by the crushing and tearing of the unleavened bread.
Now consider Paul's words in I Corinthians 11:
For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament [covenant] in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come (I Cor. 11:23-26).
Obeying this scripture, which clearly places the last supper at the beginning of the fourteenth, and following the example set in the keeping of the first Passover, God's Church, Worldwide observes the Passover service soon after sunset on the first part of the fourteenth. (Note: Later that night Christ was betrayed, taken into custody and by the following morning He was in the hands of the Romans to be scourged and impaled on the stake. All this happened later on the fourteenth day.)
Now, were Christ and His disciples the only Jews to observe the Passover on the first part of the fourteenth? Not according to the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 8, page 406. In an article entitled “Pascal Lamb”, it explains, “the Pharisees and Sadducees had a dispute as to the time when the slaughtering [of the lambs] should take place; the former held it should be in the last three hours before sunset [at the end of the fourteenth day], the latter between sunset and nightfall [and thus at the beginning of the fourteenth day].” This confirms that in Christ's time some people in Jerusalem correctly kept the Passover at the beginning of the fourteenth, while others kept it at the end of that same day. The fact that some kept it on the first part of the fourteenth appears to be supported by the instructions Christ gave His disciples preparatory to gathering together with them to keep His last supper.
And he sent Peter and John, saying, Go and prepare us the passover, that we may eat. And they said unto him, Where wilt thou that we prepare? And he said unto them, Behold, when ye are entered into the city, there shall a man meet you, bearing a pitcher of water; follow him into the house where he entereth in. And ye shall say unto the goodman of the house, The Master saith unto thee, Where is the guestchamber, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples? And he shall shew you a large upper room furnished: there make ready. And they went, and found as he had said unto them: and they made ready the passover. And when the hour was come, he sat down, and the twelve apostles with him. And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer: For I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God (Lk 22:8-16).
If the Jews and others have become confused as to when to observe the Passover, the Bible is clear, as is the example of Christ. It is to be kept on the first part of the fourteenth of Nisan, which was the custom of Herbert W. Armstrong and, as stated, is the custom of God's Church, Worldwide today.
Now some have asked: why the Passover is a feast, but not a holy day? The holy days were, as noted earlier, pilgrimage festivals in which all males were commanded to travel to observe them “where God placed His name.” The Passover, by way of contrast, was initially a domestic ceremony observed at home. This continued to be the case throughout Israel's time in the wilderness where they were in close proximity to the portable tabernacle. Later in the promised land when Solomon built the temple, the males in Israel were commanded to journey up to Jerusalem to keep the feasts. Since it took a number of days to get there, from say Dan in the north or Beersheba in the south, it would have been impossible to keep the Passover for example on the fourteenth and still get to Jerusalem on time for the first day of Unleavened Bread on the fifteenth. This resulted in the nation keeping both the Passover and days of Unleavened Bread at Jerusalem, which may have contributed to the later blurring of the distinction between the two festivals and also blurring why the Passover is regarded as a feast, but not a commanded assembly as are the holy days. As we have it, there are seven feasts or festivals and seven holy days. The feasts are 1) Passover; 2) Unleavened Bread; 3) Pentecost; 4) Trumpets; 5) Atonement; 6) Tabernacles; and 7) the Last Great Day. The holy days are 1) First Day of Unleavened Bread; 2) Last Day of Unleavened Bread; 3) Pentecost; 4) Trumpets 5) Atonement; 6) First Day of Tabernacles; and 7) the Last Great Day
For us in God's Church, what is most important is that we follow Christ's example as to when we observe the Passover. Since He was the God who commanded ancient Israel when to keep it, it should not surprise us that He was consistent with His own instructions. In God's Church, only those who have accepted Christ's sacrifice on their behalf, partake of the bread and wine. Thus the service is restricted to those who have repented, been baptized, and have had hands laid on them for receipt of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-18).
Note: Christ died at 3:00 p.m. on the fourteenth (Mk. 15:34, 37), which is the hour when the evening sacrifice was carried out.
Historical Note: As Christianity rapidly spread across the Roman Empire, it was infiltrated by people of Gentile origin, who brought in elements of their pagan religious beliefs, which began to fuse with true Christian doctrines. This led to the separation of genuine believers from those who came to accept corrupt teaching. The former were persecuted and scattered and the latter developed into the greatly visible and powerful false “Christian” church, which by the fourth century had become the state religion of the Roman Empire.
A good example of this fusion of truth and error and the resulting confusion is the story of the Christian Passover. In the second century, the Passover was already being called Easter, but was still observed by many on the fourteenth of Nisan. By the fourth century, Passover was still called Easter, but the date was changed so that it would never fall on Nisan 14, the true Christian Passover date.
The Roman Emperor Constantine essentially forced this change of date because the bishops of the eastern part of the Roman Empire were at odds with those in the West on when to observe Easter. The bishops of the East wanted to retain the fourteenth, whereas those of the western empire wanted to move away from the “Jewish” date.
Constantine, realizing that a united church was essential for the stability of the empire, brought the controversy regarding the fourteenth to an end at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. He exerted sufficient pressure on the church leaders to ensure a unanimous agreement that Easter be kept on a Sunday throughout the empire and that “none hereafter should follow the blindness of the Jews.” In effect the Catholic Church at Nicaea decreed that it would not follow the example set by Christ.
From the perspective of our study, the Quartodeciman Controversy, which was the dispute over the fourteenth, is evidence that from the time of Christ to the Council of Nicaea the fourteenth was the correct day to observe the Jewish and Christian Passover and not the fifteenth.
It is interesting to observe that although the Council of Nicaea fixed Easter on a Sunday, the Irish Celtic Church, which spread into Scotland two hundred years after Nicaea, still celebrated Easter on the fourteenth of Nisan. This indicates that the church in Ireland was raised by followers of Christ who understood His original teaching, or at least by missionaries from the eastern Roman Empire, and not the west.
In fact, the Roman Catholic Church did not penetrate into Scotland until the eleventh century. This occurred when Malcolm Canmore, King of Scots, married the Saxon Princess Margaret. She was a fervent Roman Catholic and introduced the great Roman monastic orders into Scotland.
Once again the two churches disagreed over the date of Easter. Leaders from both churches could not reach an agreement, and in time this led to the persecution of the Celtic Church in Scotland, and the supremacy of the Roman Church until the Reformation. However, vestiges of the old Celtic Church survived in remote parts of the Scottish Highlands and islands into the eighteenth century, as did a vague memory of the fourteenth day, as attested to by various historians.
Additional Reading: The Plain Truth about Easter and Pagan Holidays or God's Holy Days, Which?, by Herbert W. Armstrong.
Other Important Articles:
When Should God's People Observe the Passover?
God's Church, Worldwide