In the beginning God had a plan. That plan is still being worked out under the active leadership of Jesus Christ. Each year, the Church of God pictures the divine plan of salvation by the observance of seven annual holy days.
Writing to the Church of God at Ephesus, the apostle Paul said: "For he [God] has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Eph. 1:9-10, RSV). God has a master plan! And that plan is being carried out under the active leadership of Jesus Christ, who is called "the captain of [our] salvation" (Heb. 2:10). He is, in a sense, the "executive director" of the plan of salvation. He is actively carrying out the purpose and will of God the Father with whom that plan originated. The divine plan involves the establishment of the Kingdom of God upon this earth and the subjection of all things to Christ's government. When this is accomplished Jesus Christ will turn the completed package over to His Father: "Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying [from the Greek kaeargto, meaning "to render powerless"] every rule and every authority and power" (I Cor. 15:24).
The Sabbath in the Plan of God
But that's the end — the outcome — of the divine plan. We're getting ahead of the story. After God initially created the material universe and then later refashioned it, the Creator placed man in the Garden of Eden and gave him the Sabbath day (Gen. 2:1-3; Mark 2:27). The Sabbath was a memorial of the creation — the first step in the plan of salvation. So we have the weekly Sabbath as a reminder that God is Creator and that He has a plan which He is working out here below. The initial step in that divine scheme is depicted each time Christians observe the Sabbath day. (You might write for our free booklet Which Day Is the Christian Sabbath?) The events that immediately follow the creation of the Sabbath are also significant in terms of God's plan. What was the next event recorded immediately following creation? Once God had refurbished the earth and placed man on it, what happened? Sin! The very next event discussed in the Genesis account is the occurrence of the first human sin. You'll find it in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve, at the tempting of the serpent who was actually the devil, violated the command not to eat of the tree which was located in the midst of Eden. Our first parents then were faced with the death penalty (Gen. 3:3; Rom. 6:23). But God is not the God of the dead but of the living! Dead people can have no part in the Kingdom of God, so a solution had to be found for the problem of sin. Adam and Eve were the prototypes of all humanity to follow. As they went, so went the world: "Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned..." (Rom. 5:12). Sin is absolutely universal in the human realm: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23; see also I John 1:8, 10). Somehow the people of God had to be saved from the consequences of sin.
God's principal act of salvation for all mankind was prefigured in the greatest single event in ancient Israel's history — the Passover. The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for some four centuries. To a large extent they had absorbed Egypt's paganism and morally degenerate way of life. Egypt is used in the Bible as a type of sin (Rev. 11:8). Had it not been for God's merciful graciousness the children of Israel would have died in sin (Egypt). But God devised a means by which they could achieve physical salvation from Egypt. The whole procedure is explained in Exodus 12: "The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, 'This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month they shall take every man a lamb according to their fathers houses, a lamb for a household.... Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old; you shall take it from the sheep or from the goats; and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs in the evening [Hebrew, "between the two evenings"] .... They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted; with unleavened bread.... you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord's passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast.... The blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt'" (Ex. 12:1-13). There is much to learn from the symbolism of the Passover service. Jesus Himself is called "the Lamb of God" in the New Testament (John 1:29, 36; Rev. 5:6, 12, 13). Paul, speaking of Jesus, wrote: "For Christ, our paschal [Passover] lamb, has been sacrificed" (I Cor. 5:7). It is obvious then that the Passover service of ancient Israel was intended to depict the sacrifice of Jesus Christ which was to occur many centuries in the future. Just as the blood of the Passover lamb was shed on behalf of the sinful children of Israel, so the blood of Christ was shed for all of mankind. Those who came under the blood of the Passover lamb — that is, had it smeared on their doorposts — were exempted from divine wrath. Today, Christians are "bought with a price" — the blood of Christ (I Cor. 6:20; Acts 20:28). Those of us who come under the blood of Christ will also escape divine wrath. "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life" (Rom. 6:23). It is by God's grace that Christians may claim the blood of Christ. It is through faith in that blood that we are justified, though we are all sinners. Read carefully Romans 3:23-26, which explains how this justification comes through faith in the blood sacrifice of the Son of God. God passes over our guilt and forgives us because Jesus paid the death penalty in our stead. Through Christ, and His sacrifice, we are regarded as "righteous" before God. Each year the Church of God observes the Passover to symbolize and renew the covenant made by each Christian with God at the time of baptism. Each year we are reminded of our need for faith in Christ's sacrifice — the only means by which we can be justified in the face of our own sinfulness.
The "Lord's Supper" or "the Last Supper" which Jesus ate with His disciples was actually a Passover meal. Just as God rested on the Sabbath day, not because He was tired but to set an example, so Jesus kept the Passover to set an example for the Church. He Himself had no need of redemption since He had never sinned (Heb. 4: 15). But He did eat the Passover meal and changed the symbols for the sake of the practice of the Church. "Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body.' And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant [some manuscripts contain the word "new"], which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins'" (Matt. 26:26-28). All of this was in the context of the Passover meal (verses 17-19).
The apostle Paul showed that this practice of taking bread and wine to symbolize the body and blood of Christ was to continue in the Church throughout the ages. Speaking of the above-mentioned events, he wrote to the congregation at Corinth: "For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, 'This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (I Cor. 11:23-26). The service of the bread and wine is celebrated annually since the Passover occurred only once a year. Unleavened bread is used because that is what was used at the Passover service (Ex. 12:8). Wine, rather than grape juice, is also used since it is obvious that "the fruit of the vine" was fermented. In Paul's day some were abusing the Passover service, some eating a full meal, some actually getting drunk on the Passover wine (I Cor. 11:17-21). [Editor's note: The Bible nowhere condemns drinking of alcoholic beverages per se. In fact, there are occasions where the use of alcohol is actually encouraged (see Deuteronomy 14:26, I Timothy 5:23). But drunkenness is absolutely forbidden. No drunkard shall inherit the kingdom of heaven (I Cor. 6:10). For more on this subject, read our free reprints "Alcoholism — A Worldwide Curse" and "Is Drinking a Sin?"]
In addition to the bread and wine service, Jesus, immediately following the Passover meal, also instituted the foot-washing service, an ordinance of humility (John 13). For the modern Church of God the annual Passover observance has deep meaning. It is the most solemn occasion of the year. Each member is encouraged to examine himself and remember the high price which was paid to redeem each of us. Passages from the Gospel accounts are read, and the men and women go separately to the foot-washing service before returning for the remainder of the meeting. Jesus commanded the Church to continue to practice the New Testament Passover. The Apostle Paul confirmed the necessity of it. And today's Church observes this biblically sanctioned ordinance in the spring of each year, because it is the Lord's Passover! Just as the weekly Sabbath depicts and commemorates God's act of creation which commenced the plan of salvation, so the annual Passover service pictures God's next vital act in that plan. Since sin entered the world by Adam, the "second Adam" (Christ — I Cor. 15:45) offered Himself in sacrifice for the sins of the first — and for all of his descendants: "... so one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men" (Rom. 5:18). "Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God" (Rom. 5:9).
The Days of Unleavened Bread
The book of Acts chronicles a short history of the early Church. In Acts 12:1-4, Luke wrote about the martyrdom of James and the imprisonment of Peter. To time these events, he added: "This was during the days of Unleavened Bread" (verse 3). So Luke, the Gentile physician, was aware that this annual festival continued to be observed in the early New Testament Church. Similarly, he wrote in Acts 20:4-6 that several of Paul's assistants and fellow ministers "went on and were waiting for us at Troas, but we sailed away from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread...." But what do these days signify for the modern Christian? Are they up to date in the twentieth century? Do they have poignant meaning in the plan of salvation? Notice, first of all, that the Days of Unleavened Bread follow immediately on the heels of the Passover. Note the biblical record in Leviticus — the third book of Moses. "And on the fifteenth day [following the Passover on the fourteenth, see Leviticus 23:5) of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread to the Lord; seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation [commanded assembly).... on the seventh day is a holy convocation..." (Lev. 23:6-8). Some few observe the beginning of God's festivals by keeping the Passover (or Lord's Supper), but never go on to an in-depth understanding of God's plan by celebrating the other annual holy days and festivals. But Christ is the Alpha and the Omega — the beginning and the end! We must understand His entire master plan! In the twelfth chapter of the book of Hebrews we are told to "run with perseverance the race that is set before us" (verse 1). So the Christian life is reckoned as a footrace with a starting gate and a tape at the finish line. The account continues in verse 2: "... looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter ["the author and finisher," KN] of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross... and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."
Jesus Christ — Our High Priest
It has been said — and with much accuracy — that Hebrews is the book of the priesthood. Jesus Christ is our High Priest in heaven. His Passover sacrifice pictures the complete, total forgiveness of past sins. But unfortunately, the typical Christian finds himself (or herself) still involved in the struggle against sin throughout his natural life. It was not "all over long ago" after initial repentance and water baptism. The Christian must endeavor to put sin out of his life. But he soon discovers that he has embarked on no easy task. On occasion the Christian finds himself once again the abject slave to some sin or bad habit. He is unable to overthrow sin all at once. Frankly, it takes a lifetime to overcome some of our stubborn weaknesses. Forgiveness of past sins is poignantly pictured by the Passover festival. Totally putting away sin (symbolized by the Days of Unleavened Bread) fills in the picture begun by the Passover. Leaven is a symbol of sin. And the command to remove leaven from our houses and to eat only unleavened bread for seven days impresses upon us the importance of a complete spiritual housecleaning (Ex. 12:19-20; I Cor. 5:7-8). This has been called "our part in God's master plan." But make no mistake about it. The Christian cannot put sin out of his life by himself — without the help of his living Savior, Jesus Christ. Even the new babe in Christ soon discovers his utter helplessness. Sin is a master that doesn't relinquish its hold without a tough, grueling fight. Like all the other steps in God's plan of salvation, this one too requires the hand of God. This is where Jesus comes in as our High Priest. The book of Hebrews explains: "Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession [the Christian life). For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:14-16). Putting sin out of our lives would be utterly impossible without this kind of help. Jesus is totally committed to those who continue in the race. We are not alone in our struggle against sin! He said: "I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Matt. 28:20). Jesus "will sustain you to the end, guiltless ["blameless," KN] in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (I Cor. 1:8). Paul, in his salutation to the Philippian brethren, wrote : "[I am] thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure that he who began a good work in you [by the forgiveness of their sins through Christ's Passover sacrifice] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:5-6). Even the prophet David wrote: "The Lord will perfect that which concerneth me" (Ps. 138:8, KN). Remember, Christ is the pioneer and [the] perfecter of our faith" (Heb. 12:2). We are saved by His life as our High Priest (Rom. 5:10).
Christians Must Expel Sin
Yet, we must put forth our own efforts! Says the book of Hebrews: "... let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us" (Heb. 12:1). Continue in verses 3-4: "Consider him [Jesus Christ) who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood [as Christ did)." The apostle Paul wrote: "Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath ["crown," KN], but we an imperishable [eternal life].... but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified" (I Cor. 9:25-27). This then is the message — symbolism — the meaning of the Days of Unleavened Bread. The Christian must expel sin — root, core and branch-out of his life. But he cannot do it alone without constant forgiveness for his slips and falls along the way — and without the active help of his Savior and High Priest who understands his every weakness. By eating unleavened bread, a little at the Passover service itself, and an amount each day through the seven Days of Unleavened Bread, we symbolize our continuing dependence on and identification with the Person who said: "I am the bread of life.... This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread [what we are saying when we eat it is that our whole life of overcoming is centered around and dependent on Jesus Christ as our High Priest], he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh" (John 6:48-51). The children of Israel escaped from Egypt by night. So must we start out of sin as soon as we accept the blood of Jesus Christ. But Pharaoh pursued them before they could get very far: They were poised helplessly at the Red Sea awaiting recapture. Then Jesus Christ — the God of the Old Testament — opened up the Red Sea and the children of Israel marched through with a high hand. Soon the walls of water collapsed upon Pharaoh and his army and destroyed them to a man. This aptly pictures our victory over sin in Christ. In future articles, we will examine the meaning of the remainder of God's annual holy days and discuss just how they are financed.