Jesus kept the Passover at the beginning of Nisan 14—and that is also when we must keep it.
As many know, we are to keep the Passover at the beginning of Nisan 14 at twilight, and the Israelites began their journey out of Egypt on Nisan 15. But the details behind those two dates on the Hebrew calendar often fuel great misunderstandings.
The key question behind most Passover controversies is a simple one: At what time on Nisan 14 did the Israelites kill the Passover lambs? Was it shortly after sunset at the start of the day, or in the afternoon approaching the end of the day? There is no doubt that lambs were slaughtered in Jerusalem during the afternoon of Nisan 14 in the year of Christ’s crucifixion. Those who subscribe to an afternoon killing of the Passover contend that the first lamb was slaughtered at the exact moment of Jesus’ death. This may sound good—but is that, in fact, the time God commanded Moses that the Passover lambs were to be killed?
A careful reading of the first five books of the Bible tells a story that has been confirmed time after time by the leadership of the Church of God. What I am laying out here is not based on traditions of men, but upon the Holy Scriptures. So, how is the date of Passover determined? This article will explain in seven simple proofs.
Passover observance must occur at the beginning of Nisan 14
Through Moses, God instructed the children of Israel to take yearling lambs or goats and set them aside on the tenth day of Nisan, the first month of the calendar He revealed to them. The Israelites were to kill the lambs at a specified time on Nisan 14. That specified time is the Hebrew ben ha arbayim, literally meaning between the two evenings. But what does this mean?
The King James Version translates the Hebrew words rather broadly as “evening,” but most modern translations are more specific. The New King James Version, New American Standard Version, New Jerusalem Bible, New International Version, and New Revised Standard Version all translate it “at twilight.” The Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text has “at dusk,” and the Moffatt New Translation has “between sunset and dark.” Some commentaries claim that ben ha arbayim refers to the interval from the time the sun begins declining in the afternoon until sunset. This is what advocates of an afternoon killing of the Passover believe. However, most scholars agree that “between the two evenings” refers to the time from when the sun sets—twilight or dusk—until the dark of night. If this is correct, it means Passover is kept at the beginning of Nisan 14.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, without relying on translators, we could simply let the Bible define this term? Thankfully, we can! Notice that the Israelites made a complaint before Moses and Aaron a month after leaving Egypt: “Oh, that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3).
God’s patient response comes in verses 4–5. “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you. And the people shall go out and gather a certain quota every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in My law or not. And it shall be on the sixth day that they shall prepare what they bring in, and it shall be twice as much as they gather daily.”
It is evident that this was told to Moses on the Sabbath, as God gave them manna the next morning and did so for six days (see v. 7, “in the morning”). But there was another gift from God, and it is important to understand when that gift was given. “At evening you shall know that the Lord has brought you out of the land of Egypt” (v. 6). Moses explains the context further: “This shall be seen when the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening, and in the morning bread to the full” (v. 8). Again, this was spoken on the Sabbath, and something was to happen that evening and the next morning.
The word translated “evening” or “even” in verses 6, 8, and 13 is the Hebrew ‘ereb, which is associated with sunset, but is somewhat generic. However, “between the two evenings” is found in verse 12 where God said, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread.” The next verse tells us what happened. “So it was that quails came up at evening and covered the camp.…”
What was the whole point of this essential chapter? Was it not to reveal to Israel the Sabbath? Was it not to “test them, whether they will walk in My law or not” (v. 4)? And what was God’s response seven days later when some went out on the Sabbath to gather manna? “Now it happened that some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather, but they found none. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My laws?’” (Exodus 16:27–28).
It would be contrary to God’s purpose to give Israel quail during the afternoon of the Sabbath and then to correct them for picking up manna a week later. No, the quail came up at twilight after sunset. To think otherwise is to accuse God of enticing the people to break the Sabbath while He was teaching them about it!
So, we can see from Scripture that a Passover observance “between the two evenings” must occur at the beginning of Nisan 14, soon after sunset. This is our first proof.
Nisan 14—not Nisan 15—is named Passover
The Bible tells us plainly that the Passover was kept on Nisan 14 and that the Feast of Unleavened Bread begins on Nisan 15 (Leviticus 23:5–6; Numbers 28:16–17). The idea that the Passover lambs were killed during the afternoon of Nisan 14, but were eaten after sunset on Nisan 15, brings about a serious problem, found in a simple question: “Why is Passover called Passover?” Is it not because death would “pass over” those covered by the blood of a lamb or goat (Exodus 12:13, 23, 27)? Nisan 14—not Nisan 15—is named Passover! How strange that this simple truth is not recognized by some. This is our second proof.
The Lambs Were to Be Killed and Eaten on the Fourteenth Day of the Month
Our next proof is closely associated with our second proof. Those who advocate killing the lamb on one day and eating it on the next fail to see that the Bible speaks of Passover as a whole. This is clarified not only in chapter 12 of the book of Exodus, but also in Numbers 9, where we see Israel keeping the second Passover. “Let the children of Israel keep the Passover at its appointed time. On the fourteenth day of this month, at twilight, you shall keep it at its appointed time” (vv. 2–3). Now notice what comes next: “According to all its rites and ceremonies you shall keep it” (v. 3).
These rites are defined in regard to the men who were unclean and could not keep it in the first month. “On the fourteenth day of the second month, at twilight, they may keep it. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They shall leave none of it until morning, nor break one of its bones. According to all the ordinances of the Passover they shall keep it” (Numbers 9:11–12; see also Exodus 12:8–10). Notice the complete lack of reference to any activity on the fifteenth day of the month. Here it is made plain that the lambs were to be killed and eaten—the whole of the “Passover package” along with the other rites—on the fourteenth day of the month. This evidence from the second Passover is our third—and conclusive—proof. But there is more.
The Israelites Were to Stay in Their Homes Until Morning
The Israelites were not to leave their homes until morning. “And none of you shall go out of the door of his house until morning” (Exodus 12:22). In our modern world, influenced by Roman conventions, we normally think of “morning” as sometime after midnight—any time between 12 midnight and noon can be “morning.” However, in Scripture, the Hebrew word boqer, translated into English as “morning,” refers only to the time from first light until a time after full sunrise. A simple study of the 214 times the word is used should be enough to convince the skeptic.
Interestingly, scholars advocating the Nisan 15 Passover observed by most Jews today made a significant admission in a study paper: “Boqer, though, is somewhat more troublesome. In English we can use the term ‘morning’ for any time between midnight and noon. We have not found any passage which specifically begins boqer with the middle of the night. It often refers to the light period of the day from sunrise until about the middle of the day” (Lester L. Grabbe and Robert L. Kuhn, The Passover in the Bible and the Church Today).
The authors then reference Ruth 3:14. “So she [Ruth] lay at his feet until morning [boqer], and she arose before one could recognize another. Then he [Boaz] said, ‘Do not let it be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.’” Regrettably, the authors of the study paper miss the whole point. When Boaz discovered Ruth at his feet, he told her, “Stay this night, and in the morning [boqer] it shall be…” (v. 13). We see here that Boaz was looking out for Ruth’s well-being. He did not want her travelling around at night while it was totally dark. Travel was safer after it began to get light, but before it was so light that she might be recognized as coming from the threshing floor. This was early dawn.
The respected Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament defines boqer to mean morning, break of day, end of night, coming of daylight, coming of sunrise, beginning of day. “Linked with the root baqar, boqer… denoted the breaking through of the daylight and thus dawn or more usually morning” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 274c).
Some assume that when Pharaoh “called for Moses and Aaron by night” (Exodus 12:31), they left their homes in the dark, sometime after midnight. This assumption is incorrect. Moses and Aaron knew God’s command to remain in their houses until morning—and we learn from an earlier passage that they had their last face-to-face meeting with Pharaoh following the ninth plague, prior to the Passover. “Then Pharaoh said to him, ‘Get away from Me! Take heed to yourself and see my face no more! For in the day you see my face you shall die!’ So Moses said, ‘You have spoken well. I will never see your face again’” (Exodus 10:28–29).
What we read in Exodus 12:31 is simply a fulfillment of Moses’ prediction to Pharaoh: “And all these your servants shall come down to me and bow down to me, saying, ‘Get out, and all the people who follow you’” (Exodus 11:8)! The Hebrew word translated as “called for” in Exodus 12:31 has a wide variety of meanings, such as call out, call upon, or proclaim.
Our fourth proof is that the Israelites were not to leave their homes until daylight began to show.
Passover Is a Separate Ordinance Preceding the Seven-Day Feast of Unleavened Bread
The historical record agrees that the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Passover were originally two separate observances. “This [the Feast of Unleavened Bread] has been considered as a distinct ordinance, and not essentially connected with the passover. The passover was to be observed on the fourteenth day of the first month; the feast of unleavened bread began on the fifteenth and lasted seven days, the first and last of which were holy convocations” (“Exodus 12:15,” Adam Clarke’s Commentary).
No less an authority than the Jewish Encyclopedia says, “Comparison of the successive strata of the Pentateuchal laws bearing on the festival makes it plain that the institution, as developed, is really of composite character. Two festivals originally distinct have become merged” (“Passover,” vol. IX).
The ancient historian Josephus wrote, “We keep a feast for eight days, which is called the Feast of Unleavened Bread” (Antiquities of the Jews, bk. II, ch. 15, sec. 1). By the time of Christ, Passover and Unleavened Bread were often used interchangeably to mean both Feasts. Luke 2:41–43, for example, mentions Passover but then refers to “the days”—clearly the Days of Unleavened Bread that follow Passover. Our fifth proof is that the historical record agrees with the scriptural account of Passover as a separate ordinance preceding the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Jesus Kept the Passover at the Beginning of Nisan 14
Jesus, the Being who spoke to Moses about Passover (1 Corinthians 10:4), knew the correct time for the observance. Some assert that Jesus kept the Passover early, as an exception to the rule, because He could not do so on the stake. Others say that Jesus’ “Last Supper,” as it is popularly called, was not the Passover at all. Some make much of the point that the Jews of Jesus’ day were killing Passover lambs in the afternoon of Nisan 14—at the time of Christ’s crucifixion—and that the first lamb was slain at the very moment when the spear was thrust into Jesus’ side.
There were different factions among the Jews at this time. Scripture shows us that some, including Jesus and His disciples, killed Passover lambs in time for the evening meal on Nisan 14 (Mark 14:12). There was also a faction that kept Passover in the evening beginning the fifteenth, and their lambs were likely slain around the time of Jesus’ death. However, we know that not every Jewish custom is correct, and we cannot set doctrine on such speculations. Many Jewish traditions are in error and we have already seen that the first Passover was kept at twilight at the beginning of Nisan 14.
And to assert that Jesus did not keep the Passover with His disciples on the night He was taken into custody is to deny the Scriptures. I once attended a lecture by a Jewish scholar who tried to prove that it was not the Passover, but Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record that Jesus called it the Passover. Notice Luke’s account: “Then came the Day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover must be killed. And He sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat.… Then you shall say to the master of the house, “The Teacher says to you, ‘Where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with My disciples?’”’.… Then He said to them, ‘With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer’” (Luke 22:7–15).
As we saw earlier, Passover and Unleavened Bread in Jesus’ day were often called by either expression: “Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called Passover” (v. 1).
In light of these scriptures, can there be any serious doubt that what people call “the Last Supper” was indeed the Passover? Still, some become confused when they read John 18:28, “But they themselves did not go into the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover.” This describes religious leaders who would “eat the Passover” on the evening after Jesus did.
Further, we learn from John 19:31 that this day on which Christ was crucified was a Preparation Day. Since we know that the Passover occurs on the Preparation Day for the Holy Day on Nisan 15, we know that Jesus ate the Passover at the beginning of Nisan 14, “when the Passover must be killed” (Luke 22:7).
An upper room was furnished for Jesus to keep the Passover. He kept it on the day when Passover lambs were killed—after the lambs had been killed. Nothing about this seemed strange to the Apostles, nor to the gospel writers. Jesus kept the Passover at the beginning of Nisan 14. By contrast, the Sadducees and some others killed their lambs toward the end of Nisan 14 and ate them on Nisan 15, the first Day of Unleavened Bread. Our sixth proof is that Scripture gives no indication that Jesus and His disciples observed Passover on the wrong day or at the wrong time.
God Entrusts to the Church the Responsibility to Keep Passover at the Proper Time
The ministry is placed in God’s Church to preserve the unity of the Church and decide on controversial matters. From time to time, people come across a doctrine that they interpret differently from the Church, and personal conscience can become an issue.
We are not to believe something only because “the Church says it”—we are to prove all things and hold fast to that which is true (1 Thessalonians 5:21). What do you do when you disagree with the Church on a matter like this? Regarding the Holy Days, the Bible gives us the answer. Leviticus 23 says God told Moses, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘The feasts of the Lord, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, these are My feasts’” (v. 2; see also v. 4).
Moses was to commission two silver trumpets to be fashioned (Numbers 10:2). These were to let Israel know when to pack up and move. “Also in the day of your gladness, in your appointed feasts, and at the beginning of your months, you shall blow the trumpets” (v. 10). Not just anyone could pick one up and start blowing: “The sons of Aaron, the priests, shall blow the trumpets” (v. 8).
The Scriptures, as well as simple logic, tell us it had to be this way. A primary feature of each high day is that it is to be a “holy convocation”—a commanded assembly. It is no accident that Acts 2:1 informs us that “they were all with one accord in one place” on Pentecost. Just imagine the chaos of everyone determining for themselves when to observe the Holy Days!
In this regard, Colossians 2:16 has often been greatly misunderstood. We spend so much time explaining what it does not mean that we may fail to learn the lesson the Apostle Paul gives us: It is the body of Christ, the Church, that determines how to keep a Festival, new moon, or Sabbath. It is not for every individual to decide for himself when he thinks the Passover should be (Ephesians 4:11–14). Does personal conscience in matters that are not always perfectly clear to everyone override 1 Corinthians 1:10? “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” Our seventh proof is that God entrusts to the Church, not to each individual, the responsibility to determine the date and keep Passover at the proper time.
Some over the years have disputed, argued, and misunderstood the correct day and time of the Passover. However, the Church of God has been consistent about this. Councils and committees have discussed the Passover at great length for decades and always come to the same conclusion: The overwhelming evidence shows that the first Passover lambs were killed at twilight at the beginning of Nisan 14, and the children of Israel began their journey out of Egypt during the evening of Nisan 15. Who would deny that Jesus kept the Passover at the correct time? That is also when we must keep it.