The Passover “Seder” Service

This is the second in a three-part series on Passover. The first post gave a general overview of the Passover celebration. This post provides a more detailed discussion of the Passover meal (Seder), and the third will set forth a theology of Passover.

Passover is the annual celebration of Israel’s release from Egyptian bondage to enjoy the freedom of their relationship with God. The term Seder (“order”) describes the ceremonial meal which serves in Jewish tradition to memorialize the Passover as God instructed (Exodus 12:13).

Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples in the Upper Room on the night before his crucifixion. And it was from the Passover meal that the elements of what Christians call “Communion” or “the Lord’s Table” were derived. Since Passover points to Jesus and his substitutionary atonement for sin, observing Passover can be a very instructive and meaningful experience for followers of Jesus.

The following is an abbreviated Seder which may be used by believers to remember and celebrate what Jesus, “our Passover,” has accomplished through His sacrificial and substitutionary death.

  1. Kindling of the candles: The lighting of the Passover candles and opening prayer is done by the housewife to bring awareness that this time is set aside for worship. We are reminded that Jesus is the light of the world (Jn. 8:12).
  1. The First Cup (Lk. 22:14-18): With the first cup we read, “I am Yahweh, and I will bring you out from the burdens of the Egyptians” (Ex. 6:6).
  1. Hand washing (rachatz): Rather than inviting participants to wash their hands, Jesus altered the traditional ritual of Passover by washing the disciples’ feet (Jn. 13:1-11).
  1. Dipping the Parsley (karpas) recalls the salt of the tears of groaning under heavy slavery. We thank God for the parsley and other food praying, “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the earth.”
  1. Breaking of the Middle Matzah: The matzah reminds us of Jesus, “the bread of life” (John 6). There are three matzot on the table. The leader breaks the middle matzah and sets one half aside to be eaten at the close of the meal. This is the “Afikomen,” which has been interpreted to mean “after dish” or “dessert.” Actually, it is based on a Greek word and means, “He came.”
  1. The Four Questions: According to the Haggadah, four specific questions are to be asked by the youngest child on Passover:
  • “Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights we eat leavened bread and unleavened bread; on this night we eat only unleavened bread. Why?
  • On all other nights, we eat all kinds of herbs; on this night we eat only bitters. Why?
  • On all other nights, we do not dip even once; on this night we dip twice. Why?
  • On all other nights, we eat either sitting or reclining; on this night we all recline.” Why?

In response to these questions, the leader tells the Passover story.

  1. The Passover Story: (Ex. 13:8). Rabbi Gamaliel, who instructed Paul, used to say that whoever has not mentioned these three things has not fulfilled his obligation:

Passover – because God passed over the houses of our fathers in Egypt (Ex. 12:27).

Unleavened Bread – because our fathers were redeemed from Egypt (Ex. 12:39).

Bitter Herbs – because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our fathers in Egypt (Ex. 1:4).

When the story of the ten plagues is told, a drop of wine is spilled from each cup for each of the ten plagues. Wine symbolizes joy. Their joy is reduced in the same proportion as the plagues because of the suffering of other human beings.

The storytelling concludes with the singing of part of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118).

  1. The Second Cup – the cup of plagues. With the second cup, read the promise in Exodus 6:6, “And I will deliver you from their bondage” (Ex. 6:6)
  1. Eating the Matzah. The upper Matzah and the ½ of the middle Matzah are distributed and blessing recited. “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” (all eat)
  1. Eating of the Bitter Herbs – The bitter herbs (horseradish) serve as a reminder of the bitterness of slavery. The traditional prayer is, “Blessed be thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by Thy commandments and has commanded us to eat the bitter herbs.” (all eat)
  1. Eating of the Horseradish with Haroset. Rabbi Hillel commanded the eating of bitter herbs with matzah. The sweet haroset is applied with the horseradish to the matzah which makes it more palatable. This may have been the morsel that Jesus prepared and gave to Judas (Jn. 13:21-26).
  1. Passover Meal. Following the ceremonial meal, the actual feast of Passover would begin. The meal would have included lamb, matzah, wine and other foods. Jesus probably talked to His disciples and instructed them as they ate (Jn. 13-16).
  1. Eating the Afikomen. The afikomen was the last thing to be eaten at Passover. This part of the middle matzah was previously broken off, covered by a napkin, and set apart. Now it is brought out from hiding, broken and shared with all. Recall how Jesus “Jesus took bread, broke it . . . (Luke 22:19).” It was this matzah from the Passover table that Jesus, “the Bread of Life,” used for the first communion.
  1. Grace After the Meal. Deuteronomy 8:10 instructs, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.” According to Jewish custom, grace is said after the meal. This prayer may correspond to Jesus’ prayer in John 17.
  1. The Third Cup – The Cup of Redemption. Luke records that Jesus “took the cup after they had eaten saying `This cup which is poured out for you is the N.C. in My blood'” (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 10:16). With this cup it was declared, “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments” (Ex. 6:6).
  1. Opening the Door for Elijah. Since Elijah was to come before the “day of the Lord” (Mal. 4:5), Jewish tradition anticipates the coming of the prophet and someone is asked to open the door to see if he has arrived. Jesus taught that John the baptizer had come in the spirit and power of Elijah, thus fulfilling the prophecy (Matt. 11:14).
  1. The Fourth Cup – The Cup of Acceptance. With this cup the benediction is pronounced, “And I will take you for My people, and I will be your God” (Ex. 6:7).

Jesus did not drink the fourth cup, because Israel had rejected Him. This cup is reserved for the Kingdom. Jesus said, (cf. Matt. 26:29, “I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine until I drink it new with you in My Father’s Kingdom” (Matt. 26:29).

  1. The Last of the Hallel. The Seder service concludes with the singing of the 2nd portion of the Hallel Psalms (115-118). Matthew records that “After singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (26:30).
  1. “Next year in Jerusalem” A more recent tradition adds to the Seder service this concluding expression of Jewish hope, Le-Shanah ha-ba-ah be-Yerushalaim! May our next Passover be celebrated with the Messiah in Jerusalem.

About J. Carl Laney

J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Discipleship: Training from the Master Disciple Maker” (2018).