On October 3, 1789, George Washington signed and issued a proclamation that Thursday, the 26th of November of that year, would be a day set aside for rendering thanks to “that great and glorious Being” for the newfound government, peace and plenty found in America. The tradition continued, and on October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving Day to be a permanent national holiday.
For many Americans, Thanksgiving Day is a day of remembrance, when we give thanks for various blessings in our own lives. Thanksgiving also stands as a commemoration of that famous Thanksgiving feast at Plymouth in 1621, when English colonists gathered with Native Americans to celebrate the plenty they experienced and give thanks to God.
Israel and the Commemorative Meal
Thanksgiving is a modern example of what happens for the covenant people of God in Passover. In Exodus 12-13, the story is told of Israel’s salvation from the 10th and final plague in Egypt. The angel of death passed through the land of Egypt and struck down the firstborn son of each household. Unlike the previous plagues, when God withheld His judgment from the Hebrews’ area of residence in Egypt, God only withheld the 10th plague from those who had the blood of a lamb covering their doorposts outside their homes, regardless of what people they belonged to. When God saw the blood covering, He passed over that house, sparing them from death.
In conjunction with killing a lamb for the blood to be put on the doorpost, a family feast was instituted for the commemoration of the event. In Exodus 12:1-28, this Passover meal is outlined. The people of God are commanded to repeat this meal throughout their generations, as a statute forever. The day in which they celebrate the Passover meal each year is to be a “memorial day.”
What does this mean? What is God intending for the Passover Feast to actually be in the life of the people of Israel? A look at several passages of Scripture reveals some of its purpose: The people of God remember God's saving act in the commemorative meal for the purpose of (1) reliving the event, (2) reuniting the community and (3) redirecting their lives.
Reliving the Event
First, the Passover is relived in the Passover meal. In Exodus 12:24-27, when explaining the future significance of Passover, Moses writes, “You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever. And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord's Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” It is clear that the observance of the Passover celebration was always meant to be a remembrance and re-enactment of the event itself, even for those who weren’t there. Consider Deuteronomy 16:3,
“You shall eat no leavened bread with it. Seven days you shall eat it with unleavened bread, the bread of affliction—for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste—that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt.”
At this point, Moses is speaking to the next generation of Hebrews who were born after the Exodus. They weren’t personally saved in the Passover and brought out of the land of Egypt. Yet, they are to experience this meal as a way to relive the Passover for themselves as a people. They are to consider themselves "passed over" by the Lord.
Reuniting the Community
Second, the people of God are drawn together in community by the Passover meal. When originally observed in Egypt and in the wilderness, the Passover meal was designed to be eaten in the individual homes of the people. The meat was not allowed to be taken outside the home (Exod. 12:46). This effectively tethered all Passover-observing Israelites to their respective fathers’ houses, thus nurturing a communal remembrance of God’s salvation. Slaves and foreigners were also to participate, if they had been initiated into the people of God by circumcision (Exod. 12:44, 47).
In Deuteronomy 16:5-6, over 40 years later, Israel is given a slightly new direction: They are instructed to eat Passover at Jerusalem, rather than in their separate towns. Again, this effectively eliminated the segregation of the people of Israel into their clans and families across the land of Israel. Not only did the circumcised ones come (men), but Moses instructed them,
“And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who is within your towns, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are among you, at the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell there.” (Deut. 16:11)
Every year, the nation reunited around their common identity as the “passed-over ones.” They were those whom the Lord spared from death and judgment, and this joint identity bound them together.
Redirecting Their Lives
Third, the people of God are redirected by Passover to live rightly. When he instructs Israel on the Feast of Passover and of Unleavened Bread, Moses tells the Israelites the feast will be like “a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes,” and it will remind them that the Lord brought them out of Egypt (Exod. 16:1). Again, before entering the Promised Land, Moses tells Israel it will also be like writing on the doorposts of their houses and on the gates of the city (Deut. 6:9). Every time they looked at their hand or their neighbor’s face, they would remember. Every time they left or entered their house, or they left or entered the town, they (and visitors) would remember. Why does Israel need to be reminded so often of being passed over?
In this Old Testament context, “remembering” means much more than mere mental recollection. This is a type of recollection that implies action. It implies attentiveness to the promises and events of the past in such a way that action is taken which is defined by the thing remembered—this is remembering forward, recalling the past for the sake of propelling oneself into the future. This is why it is such great news when God remembers His people (Exod. 2:23-25). He never “forgot” them or the promises to Abraham but is decisively acting on His promises for the sake of His people. Likewise, Israel is to remember God’s salvation so that they will be who they are. They are to remember His commandments so that they will do them and walk in faithfulness to the covenant.
The Lord’s Supper and Remembering Christ
On the night that Jesus was betrayed, He took the bread, He took the cup, and He instituted the commemorative meal for the New Covenant people of God (Matt. 26:26-29). It is probable that Jesus was having the Passover dinner itself when He began a new commemorative meal for God’s people. As the Church, we receive the Lord’s Supper every week to commemorate and proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord (1 Cor. 11:26). Just like the Israelites whom the Lord “passed over,” we remember God's saving act in the commemorative meal for the purpose of (1) reliving the event, (2) reuniting the community and (3) redirecting our lives.
First, when we are gathered for worship, we take the Lord’s Supper to relive the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For the Israelites, they underwent and dramatized the escape from death every year. The Passover was the ritual re-enactment of being passed over by God and spared from His judgment. As God’s people partaking in the commemorative meal, we do not passively relive the event, watching from the audience as it goes by like a movie. We bring the event into the present. It is as if we are there at the foot of the cross as the body is broken and the blood is spilt. What’s more, we consider ourselves crucified with Christ (cf. Gal. 2:20). Because of our union with Christ by the indwelling Spirit—received by faith and signified in baptism—we can relive the crucifixion as those who have been united with Christ in His death (cf. Rom. 6:2-4).
Second, just as Passover brought together the Israelites as the “passed-over ones,” so the Lord’s Supper now brings together the people of God in the same way. When the Israelites put the blood on their doorposts, they were seen by God as “in the right.” When we believed in Christ as Lord, the One whom God raised from the dead, we were made righteous by His blood. And if we have been counted righteous by His blood, then we will surely be saved from the wrath of God (Rom. 5:9). All those who have been justified by the blood of Christ are joined together into the one body of Christ through one baptism, united by the indwelling Spirit of God (Eph. 4:5). Accordingly, when we receive the Lord’s Supper, we do not receive it in disparate places, alone as families or even alone as Home Groups. We come together to the common meeting place on the Lord’s Day and proclaim our common identity as the “passed-over ones,” who have been crucified with Christ and who await the consummation of our redemption. Whenever we come to eat this meal together, if we do so in disunity or discord, we violate the very heart of communion (1 Cor. 11:17-34). Eating this meal in disunity is to partake in an unworthy manner and shows a lack of discernment regarding the body and blood of Christ.
Third, when we eat the Lord’s Supper, we remember forward, recommitting ourselves to the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:4) and to the ethical obedience due our God and Savior. The Ten Commandments begin with a declaration: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod. 20:2). The good news of God’s unconditional deliverance always precedes the mandate for obedience to the covenant. In our case, we celebrate that He is the Lord our God, who draws us out of death and darkness, out of slavery to sin. We look forward, walking in obedience to His commands, having been liberated from slavery to unrighteousness so that we would be free to pursue righteousness even in our mortal bodies. At the Lord’s Supper, we receive mercy for our sin, and we renew our commitment to follow after Jesus, who is our great example.
The Final Remembrance
Israel observed Passover every year as a way to root themselves in their identity as the “passed-over ones.” They were those whom God rescued out of Egypt and were thus the people who inherited God’s promises to Abraham. They continuously looked forward to the day when they would fill the land and be a kingdom of priests to all the nations of the world. In that day “the earth would be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14). This final remembrance is the hope which drove the Israelites forward.
In the Lord’s Supper, we remember the death and resurrection of Christ, who is the firstborn from the dead. He is the one who will fulfill all God’s promises to Abraham. Through Him, all the nations of the earth will be blessed. We remember forward to that day when all creation is liberated from its bondage to decay and the glory of God is revealed in His sons and daughters. We are those who will finally be made like Jesus Christ in His resurrection, and we will eat the commemorative meal with Him again in the kingdom of God (Matt 26:19). This is our hope, and it is an anchor for our souls. This is the hope for which we strive and the final hope toward which we remember forward.