In 1 Corinthians, Paul makes several references to leavening and to Passover. For many readers today, these references mean very little because so many Christian churches have left the roots of their faith, which Paul was referencing here. In order to really understand key passages of 1 Corinthians, we need to understand Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
I know some (perhaps quite a few) of you are Christians who don’t keep Passover, but I hope you’ll still keep reading today’s post. I think you’ll find it interesting and maybe it’ll give you something new to think about and study.
The Passover story begins in Exodus 12. We’re nearing the end of the plagues of Egypt, and the Lord is telling Moses what the Israelite must do to avoid the final plague — the death of the first born. In the first month of the year, on the evening that begins the 14th day (Hebrew days begin at sunset), Israel was to kill a young male lamb, paint the door posts of their houses with its blood, then roast the lamb whole and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (Ex. 12:1-13).
This day shall be to you for a memorial, and you shall keep it a feast to Yahweh: throughout your generations you shall keep it a feast by an ordinance forever. (Ex. 12:14, WEB)
The Lord goes on to describe a festival of unleavened bread (matzah) that follows the Passover. For seven days, no leavening (hametz) is permitted in anyone’s house and whoever eats leavened food will be cut off from God’s people (Ex. 12:15-20). Later instructions in Leviticus clarify the timing of all this, stating that Passover is on the 14th and Unleavened Bread begins with a holy convocation on the 15th, then ends with another holy convocation on the seventh day (Lev. 23:4-8). The two holy days are Sabbaths of rest where you are not to work, much like the weekly Sabbath.
The New Covenant Passover
Moving into the New Testament, the gospels make careful note of Passovers that Jesus kept during his ministry. The first is recorded in John 2:13-23. The second is skimmed over, though Luke 6:1 probably references the last day of Unleavened Bread. John 6:4 mentions the third Passover, and Christ’s final Passover is recorded in detail by all four gospels because that was the day He died.
He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer, for I tell you, I will no longer by any means eat of it until it is fulfilled in God’s Kingdom.” (Luke 22:15-16, WEB)
He then proceeded to institute new Passover symbols for New Covenant believers. Jesus will not partake of the Passover again until the kingdom of God comes in the future, but He tells us to do so in memory of Him (Luke 22:17-20).
For I received from the Lord that which also I delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread. When he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “Take, eat. This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in memory of me.” In the same way he also took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink, in memory of me.” (1 Cor. 11:23-25, WEB)
Honoring Jesus By Keeping The Passover
The passage we just read from 1 Corinthians 11 is part of the most obvious Passover reference in this letter. Paul goes on to share instructions on how we’re supposed to prepare for Passover, as well as warnings about the dangers of not keeping Passover the correct way.
For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks the Lord’s cup in a way unworthy of the Lord will be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread, and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy way eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he doesn’t discern the Lord’s body. (1 Cor. 11:26-29, WEB)
That’s a pretty sobering warning. If we don’t properly understand and respect the Lord’s Passover, then we’re dishonoring Jesus Himself. We’ve been told to keep the Passover in remembrance of Christ, proclaiming His death until He returns. God doesn’t want want us to overlook this day, and He also desires more than rote obedience to this command. He cares deeply about how we approach keeping the Passover and the condition our hearts are in while we observe this day.
Exodus to Corinthians
We don’t know the exact timing for Paul writing this letter to the Corinthians, but we do know for sure that he wrote it before Pentecost (1 Cor. 16:8). I suspect he wrote the letter and intended the Corinthians to read it before keeping Passover and the following Feast of Unleavened Bread. With that perspective, we can see allusions to Passover throughout this letter. I’m sure the original readers would have noticed these, since they were either coming up on or had just kept the Passover.
Early in the letter, Paul talks about how God has “made foolish the wisdom of the world,” “put to shame the things that are strong,” and brought “to nothing the things that exist, that no flesh should boast before God” (1 Cor. 1:19-29). Not only is that a description of He’s doing when He calls us, but it’s also what happened when God destroyed the superpower Egypt while delivering His people in Exodus.
Moses approached Israel and Paul approached the Corinthians “not in persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4, see Ex. 4:1-12). And part of the messages that God gave both Paul and Moses to deliver overlap. Moses, at God’s directive, commanded Israel to get rid of leavening (yeast, and other things that ferment and puff-up bread). Similarly, Paul took the Corinthians to task for being puffed-up with pride about sin they should have been getting rid (1 Cor. 4:6, 18-19; 5:2; 8:1).
Unleavening A Church
The Corinthians had problems in their church with divisive factions and sexual immorality, among other things. Worse, they were puffed-up about tolerating the people who started these sins. When Paul addresses these issues, he says,
Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole lump? Purge out the old yeast, that you may be a new lump, even as you are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed in our place. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old yeast, neither with the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor. 5:6-8, WEB)
Here, Paul tells us how New Testament Christians are to keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Because Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, we can be spiritually “unleavened.” In fact, we must be. The leaven of sin cannot be tolerated in a church because it will spread and “puff-up” the people of God.
Our yearly observance of these specific days reminds us of the spiritual condition we’re supposed to be in all year-round as we continue to come out of the world (disconnecting ourselves from the leaven of sin) and be made holy to God (unleavened because of Christ’s sacrifice). We examine ourselves pre-Passover so we can keep the Feast of Unleavened bread — and continue on through the rest of the year — without the old leaven “of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”
Choose What You’ll Partake In
A little later in the letter, Paul returns to ancient Israel as a physical example we can use to learn spiritual truths. The stories recorded in the Old Testament are intended to warn us so we don’t make the same mistakes they did. We don’t want to reject God after we’ve been redeemed by Christ’s Passover sacrifice, the way Israel did after the Passover when God rescued them (1 Cor. 10:1-12).
This leads to another of Paul’s main points for the letter: “flee from idolatry” (1 Cor. 10:16). He then addresses the question of whether or not it’s okay to eat meat that was sacrificed to Idols and sold in the market place. And he uses Passover language to do it.
The cup of blessing which we bless, isn’t it a sharing of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, isn’t it a sharing of the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf of bread, we, who are many, are one body; for we all partake of the one loaf of bread. … You can’t both drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You can’t both partake of the table of the Lord, and of the table of demons. (1 Cor. 10:17-18, 21, WEB)
Which sacrifice do you want to partake in? The Passover sacrifice of Jesus Christ, or something associated with idolatry? This question goes far beyond what we eat each day, or even the Passover symbols of wine and unleavened bread. It’s about how we choose to live our lives each day. It’s about whom we choose to serve. And it leads us right back to the verses in 1 Corinthians 11, where we started talking about the New Testament Passover.
Each Passover, we’re invited to participate in a memorial of God’s redemption work throughout the ages. And because Jesus Christ filled the law and associated observances to its full spiritual extent, keeping the days God calls holy to Him teaches us spiritual lessons. This is a vital aspect of our faith that Paul wanted New Covenant believers to fully appreciate in his time, and I think he’d want the same thing for us today.