Using other terms to replace the word “Passover” undermines and obscures the true meaning of this important ceremony.
For many in traditional “Christianity,” the term “Passover” refers to an observance for the Jewish people. They might intuitively sense a connection between the symbols they take during a “communion” service and the Passover observed by Christ and His disciples, but they would not consider the ceremony in which they participate a “Passover.” To them, Passover is not for Christians, and was only observed by Jesus and His disciples because they were Jewish men who kept Jewish observances.
On the other hand, some professing “Christians” acknowledge the Passover’s symbolic importance, but prefer to use different terms to divorce the Passover, which Christ commanded in the Old Testament, from the New Testament observance instituted later. Here is one Protestant explanation of this:
The bread and wine is not a Passover. At Jesus’ Last Supper, the meal was a Passover meal; the sharing of bread and wine was done after the supper, and Scripture does not call it a Passover. What does Scripture call it? It does not give a formal name. In 1 Corinthians 10:16, Paul calls it a “cup of thanksgiving.” In verse 21, he calls it “the cup of the Lord” and “the Lord’s table.” Since Scripture does not require a particular name, Christians are free to use any term that helps them understand that they are talking about the sharing of bread and wine in commemoration of Jesus’ death (“Questions and Answers About the Lord’s Supper,” GCI.org, retrieved January 26, 2021).
The explanation goes on to defend the use of three terms to replace “Passover”: “Communion,” “Eucharist,” and “Lord’s Supper.” Let’s scrutinize these replacement terms that are so familiar to the average Protestant or Roman Catholic today, and consider whether it is correct to use any of them.
“Communion” Simply Means Joint Participation
Mainstream “Christianity” commonly uses the term “communion” to describe the act of receiving a small wafer of bread and a small amount of wine, symbolizing the body and blood of Jesus Christ. But is “taking communion” a term that has the stamp of God’s approval? Is this an appropriate or accurate phrase to use? Let’s turn to Scripture and see.
The English word “communion” appears in the New King James Version four times. We find it first in 1 Corinthians 10:16, where we read, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” The Greek word koinonia, from which “communion” is translated, simply means joint participation or fellowship.
When people communicate, they participate in an exchange of ideas. That is fellowship or joint participation, which is exactly what the above verse is emphasizing. It is not advocating a substitute or replacement for the term “Passover.”
How about 2 Corinthians 6:14? We find the English word “communion” here as well: “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?” Again, the word is certainly appropriate here, since righteousness and lawlessness have no joint participation—but, again, the term has nothing to do with the Passover.
The last instance in which the English word “communion” is found in the NKJV is in the very last words of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian brethren: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen” (2 Corinthians 13:14). In other words, Paul encouraged his brethren to take heart in the “fellowship” of or their “joint participation” in God’s Holy Spirit. This is a perfectly appropriate conclusion to his letter, but it, too, has nothing to do with Passover.
But did Paul instruct Corinthian brethren regarding the Passover? Yes, he did. And what terminology did he use? He wrote, “Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:6–7).
Paul understood that Christ was directly connected to the scriptural Passover, and he emphasized that fact in his writing. In fact, as we look at his second letter to the Corinthians, we read some very specific instructions about the proper keeping of the Passover.
It would logically follow that if Christ were initiating a new and improved term for Passover, He would have used that new term at least once. But He did not. And if the Apostles had believed it was important to replace the term “Passover” with “communion,” would they not have given that instruction? Yet they did not. So, why would we conclude that Christ, the Word, the communicator of His will through the Holy Scriptures, wants us to replace “Passover” with “communion”?
In fact, the word “communion” has served only to distance the Roman—and later Protestant—observance from the historical and biblical Passover.
“Eucharist” Is No Replacement for Passover
Is it appropriate for us to call our service, in which we take the symbols of the body and blood of Christ, “the Eucharist”? Where did the practice of referring to the Passover symbols and observance as the “Eucharist” begin? Here’s an entry in The Anchor Bible Dictionary that explains:
Among the early Christian writings outside of the NT the Didache, the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, and Justin Martyr’s Apology deserve to be studied as witnesses to the Lord’s Supper. In these writings the technical term for the Lord’s Supper is eucharistia… a word which took the lead in Christian tradition for a long time and which is still, as in the past, dominant in Catholic circles (vol. 4, p. 363).
Mainstream Christianity has taken the term “Eucharist” from a Greek word, eucharisteó, which refers to the giving of thanks. Their idea is that Christians “give thanks” over the wine representing Jesus’ shed blood, for which they are indeed thankful.
But is it appropriate and correct for us to use “Eucharist” as a replacement for “Passover”? Not at all. In fact, the Greek word eucharisteó never appears in the Bible in that way. While we should have an attitude of thanksgiving toward God, and certainly for the sacrifice of our Savior, Jesus Christ, we are nowhere given permission to replace the meaningful, historic, and prophetic term “Passover” with the term “Eucharist”! To do so is to take to ourselves the authority to blur the meaning of the Passover and impudently divorce the Old Testament from the New.
“The Lord’s Supper” Is not the New Testament Passover
How about “Lord’s Supper”? Should we be using that term? Where did it come from?
Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 11, in which the phrase “the Lord’s Supper” appears. There are two sections of this chapter upon which to focus. Verses 17–22 highlight a problem that was occurring in Corinth, and verses 23–34 record Paul’s instructions to correct the problem.
As you read through the first section, it appears that the brethren in Corinth were continuing to observe a meal in conjunction with the Passover while assigning Christ’s title to it. In the early days of the New Testament Church, understanding which specific activities should be continued and which had been superseded was a challenging concern. The issue of circumcision is the most well-known example, but it appears that Paul was addressing another issue in this letter: How should the Church observe the New Testament Passover? He used this opportunity to give a clear answer to that question. But notice how he first addressed the way in which they were conducting themselves:
Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you. Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you (1 Corinthians 11:17–22).
These are powerful, corrective words. He chastised them for bringing the characteristics of the culture around them into a setting that should have been filled with love, fellowship, and respect. In fact, such scathing criticism runs throughout this letter. But in giving his guidance in correcting the problem, Paul didn’t focus on changing the name of the Passover. Instead, he followed the example of Christ (Matthew 26:26–30) and pointed his brethren to new symbols that emphasized the fulfillment of the Passover. He moved their attention away from the meal and gave important instructions for New Testament Passover observance:
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 (1 Corinthians 11:23–26).
Paul chastised the Corinthians for the way they were conducting themselves at this meal. But, more importantly, he used the occasion to teach them to keep the New Testament Passover properly. The Passover was not about the meal. The meal was a remembrance of an event that was a part of the history of physical Israel, full of prophetic meaning foreshadowing the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. As Christ fulfilled that sacrifice with His body and blood, redeeming all of us from the sentence of death, He introduced the symbols of the bread and the wine, commanding His disciples and those who would follow to use those symbols to rehearse this lesson each year.
To review, the emphasis here is not on any change of terminology, but rather on correction of what the Corinthian brethren were doing and on pointing them towards the New Testament Passover—with all its symbolism and import for those under the New Covenant.
Christ Never Changed the Name of the Passover
Another point is worth considering as we analyze whether we should think of and refer to the Passover observance as “Passover” or by some other term. This point has to do with chronology.
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians around AD 55, mentioning Christ as the fulfillment of the Passover and correcting the Corinthian brethren about their observance. He also discussed the Days of Unleavened Bread. A few years later, around AD 60, we find in the first gospel writings the consistent use of “Passover”—and no change in terminology! The events pertaining to the Passover and Christ’s crucifixion were so important that Matthew dedicated ten chapters to them. Later, Mark added six chapters and Luke included about five-and-a-half chapters. In AD 60, these three men wrote about Christ—His life and His preaching, what He was all about—and they mentioned nothing about any sort of change in terminology for the Passover. Instead, they reinforced the keeping and the terminology of the Passover.
Let’s move forward ten more years, to about AD 70—we find that Paul again mentioned the word “Passover” in Hebrews 11. Then, in about AD 90–100, the Apostle John in his gospel referred to the Passover more than any other writer, making nine explicit references to it according to the NKJV. He used almost half of his gospel to write about the Passover, the crucifixion, and the short period of time just before Christ’s crucifixion and death. Yet, in all that detailed discussion of this time made newly important by Christ’s sacrifice, we find none of these new terms used at all. Despite ample opportunity to introduce “new and improved” terms to replace “Passover,” we find that no such change was endorsed by Christ or His Apostles.
The Term “Passover” Should Not Be Replaced
In Scripture, the term “Passover” first referred to a historic event. But as the Israelites were instructed in the details of how to keep that first Passover, little did they know that virtually every instruction given to them pointed to Christ and the establishment of the New Covenant (Exodus 12:1–14). The Israelites were protected and “passed over” by the death angel, giving them a new lease on life through the covering of the blood on their lintels and doorposts. We are likewise given life—eternal life—through the covering blood of Jesus Christ. The lamb “without blemish” pointed to the perfect, sinless life of Christ. The fourteenth day of the month of Abib (the month later called Nisan) anticipated the very day on which He would be crucified. The way the lamb was to be prepared and eaten pointed to the completeness of Christ’s sacrifice.
The fact is that the first, crucial step in God’s plan for all of humanity is revealed through the Passover. When church leaders began to distance themselves from God’s command to keep the Passover—using different terms and conducting the ceremony on any and every day they chose—they lost sight of God’s plan. As terms such as “eucharist,” “communion,” and “Lord’s Supper” came into vogue, instead of bringing God’s plan into sharper focus, they blurred the meaning of the true Passover and God’s instructions for keeping it. That meaning has been blurred so much that, today, most churchgoers would not consider Passover anything but a Jewish ceremony.
The Passover, described in detail in Exodus 12, has a depth of meaning far beyond one night of terror for the Egyptians. Every aspect of the observance of that first Passover pointed directly to the One who would not only fulfill it, but introduce symbols that would even more clearly reinforce its lesson for those under the New Covenant. To use alternative titles and descriptions, designed to intentionally blur that connection, undermines our understanding of God’s design and plan.
There are critically important reasons why we call the ceremony memorializing Christ’s sacrifice “Passover” and not just any term that we wish to use. And, in fact, using other terms to replace the word “Passover” undermines and obscures the true meaning of this important ceremony.