While some churches might question whether or not the Passover is relevant to modern Christianity at all, the question in the churches I’ve been associated with has been whether Passover should be observed on the 14th or 15th of the Hebrew month Nisan/Abib. We’re convicted of following Jesus Christ’s example of taking the Passover (see last week’s post), but are haunted by a question of when.
Timing Passover is complicated by the fact that the Hebrew day begins at sundown, which means traditionally the Jews could kill the Passover lamb on the 14th, but eat the meal on the 15th that evening. If you look at a Hebrew calendar, you’ll see that this year the 14th of Nisan falls on Friday, April 22. That means the 14th actually begins at sunset on Thursday and ends on Friday evening.
This post is going to be a bit more of a technical deep-dive than usual. I almost didn’t share it, but the question of a 14th or 15th Passover is one you’ll run into if/when you start keeping Passover. I wanted to re-study the topic for myself, and thought some of you might find it interesting as well. I’ve been keeping Passover on the 14th since I was baptized in 2008, but it’s always a good idea to take a second (or third) look at your assumptions to make sure they line up with scriptures.
When trying to answer the question of when to keep Passover, we often go to sources outside the Bible such as oral and written Jewish tradition and historical writings from the time of Jesus. While those can be useful, the most important question when tackling a subject like this is, “What does the Bible say?” We have to start with all the information God gives us directly in scripture and then see what other sources can add. If those sources contradict the inspired word of God, then they’re no good.
Let’s start with the very first Passover in Exodus. Pharaoh has refused to “let my people go” through 9 different plagues and the final plague, death of the firstborn, is eminent. Before that plague hit Egypt, God delivered instructions for what the Israelite were supposed to do so the plague would pass over them.
Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying: ‘On the tenth of this month every man shall take for himself a lamb, according to the house of his father, a lamb for a household. …
Now you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month. Then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at twilight. And they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses where they eat it. …
You shall let none of it remain until morning, and what remains of it until morning you shall burn with fire. And thus you shall eat it: with a belt on your waist, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. So you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover. (Ex. 12:3, 6-7, 10-11)
This gives us two possible scenarios. One: the lambs were killed at the beginning of the 14th at evening and eaten that night. Two: the lambs were killed at the end of the 14th and eaten on the night that began the 15th. To help bring clarity to this, the only time we see a specific instruction to observe the 15th of Nisan is in Leviticus 23. This is the chapter that outlines all the Lord’s appointed festivals and it gives important insight into Passover chronology.
On the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight is the Lord’s Passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord; seven days you must eat unleavened bread. (Lev. 23:5-6)
If you eat the Passover at sunset ending the 14th, then that means you’re keeping it on the 1st Day of Unleavened bread, not on the Passover day. It wouldn’t make sense for God describe two distinct days then expect us to observe both in the same evening.
Back in Exodus, we see the events move in this order: preparing the Passover, the death of the firstborn at midnight (Ex. 12:29), Israel’s expulsion from Egypt and spoiling the Egyptians (Ex. 12:30-36), travel from Rameses to Succoth (Ex 12:37), and then leaving Egypt (Ex. 40:41). Using this information, other verses in the Torah both clarify and confuse our study.
Numbers 28:16-18 confirms Leviticus 23 in saying “the fourteenth day of the first month is the Passover of the Lord” and the 15th is a “holy convocation” beginning the Feast of Unleavened Bread. But then Numbers 33:3 states Israel “departed from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month; on the day after the Passover,” which connects to Exodus 12:37. You could either use this to argue that a whole day passed after a 14th Passover, or that the Israelite left on the morning after a 15th Passover.
In spite of this passage in Numbers, the weight of evidence swings toward a 14th Passover when we read Deuteronomy 16:6. This verse says “you shall sacrifice the Passover at twilight, at the going down of the sun.” This contradicts Jewish tradition that the lambs were killed on the daylight portion of the 14th and then eaten on the 15th, since Deuteronomy says it all has to happen after the sun sets and a new day begins. In order to keep the Passover on the 14th, as commanded in Exodus 12, Leviticus 23 and Numbers 28, you have to keep the whole thing as the 14th day starts at (or slightly after) sunset.
From the very beginning, Passover pointed to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Paul’s letter to Corinth makes this plain when he writes, “Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7). It’s fitting, then, that we look to Jesus’ last Passover for guidance on when we should keep Passover. As the Word who spoke to the believers of old, the Being we now know as Jesus would know exactly when He and His Father want the Passover observed.
Gospel accounts of the Passover each contain different clues about how and when the Passover is kept. A key change was made when Christ added the New Covenant symbols of the bread and wine (Matt 26:26-28), but there is no mention of a date change. Let’s look at what we do know about that very special Passover.
- The disciples prepared in advance and then they all sat down to eat the Passover “when evening had come” (Matt. 26:18-20; Mark 14:13-18)
- The day they prepared is called “the Day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover must be killed” (Luke 22:7; Mark 14:12) or “the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread” (Matt. 26:17).
- This is not to be confused with the holy day that falls on Nisan 15, which comes after the Passover and not before. You’ll notice that in Matthew the phrase “day of the Feast” is in italics, meaning it was added by translators. If you look at a Bible with Strong’s numbers “unleavened bread” is translated from a single word, azumos (G106), which could more accurately be translated “unleavends” and include the time leading up to the Passover as well as the unleavened week that followed (note on Matthew 26:17, The Holy Bible in it Original Order).
- John adds that the day Jesus died was “was the Preparation Day” before a Sabbath which “was a high day” (John 19:31). The only high holy day coming right after Passover is the First Day of Unleavened Bread. This means Jesus must have been killed on the 14th for the day after his death to fall on the 15th.
We’re starting to craft a time-line here. The disciples prepared, a lamb was killed, and Jesus and His disciples ate the Passover. He was arrested that evening, taken to the high priest, and brought before Pilot in the morning (Mark 15:1). Then He was crucified during the day and laid in the tomb that evening before a high holy day began (Mark 15:42-43).
John 18:28 tells us the Jews didn’t go into the judgement hall with Jesus “lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover.” This reveals at least the rulers of the Jews were keeping the Passover on a different day than Jesus kept it. With the other timeline clues, we see they’d already switched from a 14th to a 15th Passover, which is what most Jews and Messianic believers still do today. Some say it’s best to stick with Jewish traditions when determining how to keep Passover, but if given the choice between following what Jesus did and following the example of the leaders who orchestrated His death, I’ll follow Jesus.
Several Passover celebrations were recorded as the history of the Bible unfolded in the Old Testament. The first we have record of outside Exodus was kept by Joshua and the people in Gilgal, after they crossed the Jordan and before Jericho fell. As commanded, they “kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight” (Josh 5:10).
Later, knowledge of the Passover was lost under the rule of unrighteous kings. It was finally rediscovered in the days of Hezekiah. We first hear of this in 2 Chronicles 30:1-3, where it’s recorded that they kept the Passover in the second month rather than the first (Nisan). This exception was allowed per Numbers 9:9-11 because the temple and priests weren’t sanctified yet. It was still, however, kept on the 14th, not the 15th (1 Chr. 30:15). Keeping the Passover on the 14th of the month is so important that if you missed it, God allowed for keeping Passover exactly one month later.
The Passover was again lost during the rule of two unrighteous kings and again restored when a copy of the Law was read to king Josiah. After that, he caused Israel to keep the Passover “on the fourteenth day of the first month” (2 Chr. 35:1). It was a remarkable Passover unlike any kept by previous kings, apparently because of the huge number of people gathered and the quantity of animal sacrifices offered all at one time (2 Chr. 25:18).
When the exiles returned to the land as recorded in Ezra, it is the priests who kill the Passover sacrifices just like as under Josiah’s rule (Ezra 6:20). They still “kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month” (Ezra 6:19), but this may be when the timing shift occurred. If the priests are killing lambs instead of individual households (as originally intended in Exodus), it would be well-nigh impossible for all the lambs to be killed and then roasted as the day begins on the 14th. This would also explain why, in John 18:28, the Jewish leaders were planning to “eat the Passover” a day later than Jesus — they were waiting on the 14th temple sacrifice before eating Passover on the 15th.
Based on internal evidence of the scriptures, I believe the Passover should be kept at the beginning of the 14th day of the first month of the Hebrew sacred calendar. While there are some confusing passages regarding the Passover, the bulk of arguments for a 15th observance lie outside the Bible. Whenever a question of how we should worship God brings us to scripture verses man’s tradition I think of the Apostles words, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). I pray that we can all have the courage and understanding to do just that in all areas of our lives. Have a blessed holy day season, my friends.