The New Testament Passover service is one of the most personal of all the Christian festivals. It also teaches a great lesson in forgiveness.
The biblical Passover is a yearly reminder of when God passed over the houses of Israel and spared their firstborn from death. The Israelites had been slaves to the Egyptians for quite a number of years before God, working through Moses, led them out of Egypt to freedom from bondage.
But something important for us to note is that after Israel was freed from the bondage of the Egyptians, they entered into a covenant with God—to obey and serve Him (Exodus 24:3-8). By entering into this covenant and coming under God’s authority, they became His servants. As God said, “For the children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 25:55).
Lesson for us today
Israel, however, didn’t faithfully follow God, but continued to break His laws. As we look back to that time, we can see there is a lesson for us today: After we are freed from the bondage of sin, we are also to become servants of God!
This is explained in Romans 6:16-18, 22: “Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. … But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.”
On another occasion, Paul spoke of himself and Timothy as “bondservants of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:1). And he encouraged all Christians to think of themselves as “bondservants” of Christ (Ephesians 6:6-8).
To those of us who are living under the New Covenant, the Passover is not only a yearly reminder of the time when God released Israel from bondage in Egypt but, more importantly, a time to reflect upon the ultimate sacrifice of God’s Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ, who released us from the bondage of sin.
To truly be freed from a life of bondage to sin, we must accept the sacrifice of our Savior Jesus Christ. Only by His shed blood, the blood of the New Covenant, can we have our sins forgiven and become the bondservants of God and Christ (1 John 1:7).
What Jesus did
On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus gave His disciples the symbols of the New Covenant while sharing the Passover meal with them. Matthew, Mark, Luke and, later, the apostle Paul each wrote about these symbols in connection with Passover.
Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 states, “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.”
Jesus often used physical things to teach spiritual truths, which His disciples frequently misunderstood. An example is when He told His disciples to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6). The disciples thought that Jesus was talking about bread, so Christ had to explain that He was actually referring to the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees (verses 11-12).
When Jesus introduced the New Covenant Passover symbols, He gave them to His disciples and then explained the spiritual meaning. He took bread, broke it, told them to eat it and explained to them that it represented His body. In a similar fashion, He took a cup of wine, telling them all to take a drink from it because it represented His blood of the New Covenant.
Jesus also introduced another new aspect of the New Testament Passover service: the foot washing.
John records: “Jesus … rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. Then He came to Simon Peter. And Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, are You washing my feet?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.’ Peter said to Him, ‘You shall never wash my feet!’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me’” (John 13:3-8).
The foot-washing ceremony pictures the humility and service a Christian must practice. It also teaches us about our personal relationship with Jesus Christ—because Christ said that we have “no part” in Him if we neglect the foot washing.
Peter definitely wanted to have a part with Christ, so he said to Jesus: “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” (verse 9). Basically, Peter was telling Jesus to not just wash his feet, but to wash him all over. To this request, Jesus answered Peter, “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean” (verse 10).
Jesus knew this was the final Passover He would observe with His disciples. He knew that His hour had come and that it was time for Him to die for the sins of the world. So He told Peter and, by extension, us today, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me” (John 13:8).
Following Christ’s example with His disciples, before we partake of the symbols of the bread and wine, members of the Church of God wash one another’s feet, symbolizing our need to be humble and serving.
John 13:12-15 continues, “So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, 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.’”
So, what was it that Jesus had just done to His disciples? He washed their feet. It was an act of humility with an attitude of service. He then instructed them to also wash one another’s feet—so that they would have that same humble approach toward their fellow disciples. And, by extension, one of the ways Christ’s disciples are to serve others is by loving them and forgiving them—because Christ has forgiven all of us.
Even in His instructions about prayer, Jesus said: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). So we find that God will forgive our sins on the condition that we will forgive others.
For many spiritual reasons, we are to wash each other’s feet. Not only does it remind us that Jesus Christ set us an example in all things, especially in how we are to treat and serve one another; but it also reminds us how to love one another—and love requires us to be forgiving.
The example of Jesus
With this in mind, let’s consider the fact that shortly after Jesus spoke these words, He was taken captive, tried and put to death. Notice what Jesus said just before His death: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Christ’s example of forgiving even the men who were torturing and killing Him is perhaps one of His hardest examples to follow. Yet we read that Stephen was strong enough to follow Christ’s lead. “And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:59-60). Stephen followed Christ’s example perfectly!
Our challenge today is to follow Christ’s example and to be willing to forgive others—even when they abuse and mistreat us. This doesn’t mean that we must accept or condone abuse; but it does mean that we choose not to hold a grudge or hard feelings toward anyone. We can do this knowing that eventually God will judge everyone for his or her actions (Romans 14:10; 2 Corinthians 5:10).
The Passover is truly one of the most personal of all the Christian festivals. At the New Testament Passover, we are reminded of Christ’s shed blood and broken body for our personal sins and take part in one of the most humbling ceremonies possible—the foot washing.