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The Watchnight of Passover

The Watchnight of Passover


In September of 1862, United States President Abraham Lincoln declared the Emancipation Proclamation, effectively announcing the end of slavery in America. The law went into effect January 1, 1863, but on December 31, 1862, many African Americans held an all-night vigil waiting for freedom. They called it a watchnight. To this day, some African Americans still observe it every New Year's Eve.

Maybe you have joined other evangelical churches for “watchnight services” to bring in the New Year. It is fairly common among churches. They do not keep it for the same reason as African Americans do. They are seeking spiritual renewal and trying to pray in the New Year.

Despite the various reasons mentioned, most Christian believers do not know that the practice of a watchnight originates from the ancient Passover in Egypt and the annual memorialization of Passover. Yeshua the Messiah observed the watchnight with His disciples. In fact, all of Israel was up and about that night. This explains the background activity surrounding His arrest and trial at night by the High Priest Caiaphas and King Herod.

The Passover festival is expresslycommanded to remember the past, to remember how God delivered us with His outstretched arm and mighty deeds. It is to teach our children about God's redemption and the Lamb of God. It was about midnight, in the middle of the night, that the Angel of the Lord went throughout all of Egypt. Those houses with the blood of the lamb covering were passed over. Those homes without the blood suffered the death of the first born, both man and beast. As believers of Yeshua, not only are we to remember the story of the Lamb, we are to be reminded of His death, burial, and resurrection. It is the same story.

Keeping the Passover is more than a commandment; it is a crash course and annual review of God's great plan for our salvation and deliverance. God has not only heard the cry of bondage due to our taskmasters, He has come down to do something about it. God also knows of our slavery to sin and He has provided a covering for us. Moses led our ancestors out of the land of Egypt and the house of slavery, but Yeshua has led us out of the house of slavery to sin.

Passover has been observed and is observed still to this day by way of a seder (order) service. A Haggadah is a booklet used at Passover to follow the seder. The Haggadah leads the participants through several symbolic elements, four cups of wine, and unleavened bread. But there is an aspect to Passover that overshadows the meal and its elements. It is the watchnight of Passover. Each person is to see themselves back in Egypt being passed over by the Angel of the Lord. We are instructed to tell our children that we were there at the real Passover and the Lord passed over us. Passover night is to be different from all other nights. In fact, all of Israel is to remain awake for the night speaking of God's redemption. This is why the children are to ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

There is a very old Jewish expression concerning the Passover, “There is no greater joy than to speak of God's redemption until the dawn of the day.” This expression is about the watchnight of Passover. It is my hope that this article will move you to keep the Passover anew this year and join all Israel and the Messiah in a watchnight.


Passover In Egypt

In the movie The Ten Commandments, the Angel of the Lord is depicted as a green mist skulking across the sky past the moon forming a skeleton hand of death upon Egypt. Joshua is seen putting the blood of the lamb on the door posts and then watching the green mist moving through the city streets. Joshua finally enters the house with Moses and announces that death is all around them. The movie was not able to truly display the Passover scenario. Simply said, you don't see anything passing over them. Instead, you see death seeping in and around everything. That's not Passover. Passover is really about being passed from death to life as the Messiah said.


Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.


John 5:24

Passover is about life. Passover is about freedom. Listen to how Moses tells us to describe the Passover.


…You shall say, “It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes.”


Exodus 12:27a

Let's go back to the original Passover that took place in Egypt and clear up some misconceptions.

First, they began to prepare for Passover four days earlier. Moses instructed them to bring the lamb into their homes to ensure that it had no defect and that it wasn’t sickly. The lamb was befriended and was played with by the children. When the Passover came, there may well have been some trauma in the house since the lamb had become a new pet. People gathered in a particular home based upon the ability of the lamb to feed them the feast. Not every Israelite home had a lamb. The lamb was shared together. See how Moses instructed this.


Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying, “On the tenth of this month they are each one to take a lamb for themselves, according to their fathers' households, a lamb for each household. Now if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his neighbor nearest to his house are to take one according to the number of persons in them; according to what each man should eat, you are to divide the lamb. Your lamb shall be an unblemished male a year old; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. And you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month, then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel is to kill it at twilight. Moreover, they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses in which they eat it.”


Exodus 12:3-7

With regard to the watchnight, this was the instruction of Moses.


For I will go through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments-- I am the Lord. And the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live; and when I see the blood I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. Now this day will be a memorial to you, and you shall celebrate it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations you are to celebrate it as a permanent ordinance.


Exodus 12:12-14

Passover is not a daytime observance; it is a nighttime observance. It is to remember what happened on a particular night. All other feasts of the Lord are observed in the daytime. Passover is kept in a home at night with guests of the home. Did the Messiah keep the Passover in the temple with all Israel? No, He kept it in a private room (home) and garden with His friends. Peter and John had prepared a lamb just for Yeshua and the disciples.

Moses, in recounting the ordinance, speaks again of a single house and a single lamb.


It is to be eaten in a single house; you are not to bring forth any of the flesh outside of the house, nor are you to break any bone of it.


Exodus 12:46


This is how you keep the Passover feast and watchnight to the Lord – in a private, rather than corporate way. The Lamb takes precedence; you spend time with the Lord that night.

When the Angel of the Lord passed through Egypt, even Pharaoh arose that night.


Now it came about at midnight that the Lord struck all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of cattle. And Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was no home where there was not someone dead.


Exodus 12:29-30

Passover with the Messiah

Before we can address the specifics of how the Messiah and the disciples kept the Passover, we need to review an ancient controversy between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees and Sadducees didn't observe Passover the same way. The Gospels clearly show that Yeshua and His disciples observed the Passover before the Pharisees did.

Pharisees and modern day Judaism do not believe that the 14th of Nisan is the Passover, even though Moses clearly says it is.


And you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month, then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel is to kill it at twilight.


Exodus 12:6


In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty-first day of the month at evening.


Exodus 12:18


In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight is the Lord's Passover. Then on the fifteenth day of the same month there is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not do any laborious work. But for seven days you shall present an offering by fire to the Lord. On the seventh day is a holy convocation; you shall not do any laborious work.


Leviticus 23:5-8

According to Moses, Passover is on the 14th of Nisan. The Feast of Unleavened Bread is kept for seven days beginning on the 15th of Nisan. High Sabbaths are on the 15th and the 21st of Nisan. Passover lasts for one day and The Feast of Unleavened Bread lasts for seven days.

But what did the Pharisees do then and what does modern Judaism do today? According to them, the 14th of Nisan is the day before Passover and at the conclusion of the day (the eve of the 15th) they observe Passover. They make Passover a high Sabbath. Then they add another day (the 22nd of Nisan) to the end of Unleavened Bread to make an eight day total. Most calendars call the entire eight-day festival Passover and do not use the title The Feast of Unleavened Bread. You can verify everything I have said here with a standard Hebrew calendar. This controversy goes way back.

This is part of the reason why Yeshua warned His disciples to “beware the leaven of the Pharisees.” The Pharisees added leaven to the instruction of Moses. They even added a day to the feast of unleavened bread – thus, the leaven of the Pharisees.

As followers of Yeshua, I believe we should follow Yeshua's counsel and stick with what Moses said. Following the traditional Jewish calendar for Passover, First Fruits, Unleavened Bread, and the Counting of the Omer to the Feast of Weeks is error. It is the instruction of the Torah leavened by the Pharisees.

Yeshua kept the Passover specified by Moses with many others in the land. He instructed Peter and John to prepare the Passover Lamb for them to feast. They went to the temple on the afternoon of the 13th and sat down to the meal in a prepared room on the eve (the beginning) of the 14th. This is how Matthew describes the event.


Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Yeshua, saying, “Where do You want us to prepare for You to eat the Passover?” And He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, “My time is at hand; I am to keep the Passover at your house with My disciples.”’” And the disciples did as Yeshua had directed them; and they prepared the Passover. Now when evening had come, He was reclining at the table with the twelve disciples.


Matthew 26:17-20

Moses commanded the children of Israel to eat the Unleavened Bread eight days (the eve of the 14th through the 21st of Nisan). The Passover is the Lamb meal on the eve of the 14th that is slain at the temple prior to the eve of the 14th. This was the preparation of the Passover in conjunction with locating a place to eat it privately.

Here is Mark's account of the Passover.


And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb was being sacrificed, His disciples said to Him, “Where do You want us to go and prepare for You to eat the Passover?” And He sent two of His disciples, and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him; and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher says, “Where is My guest room in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?”’ And he himself will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; and prepare for us there.” And the disciples went out, and came to the city, and found it just as He had told them; and they prepared the Passover. And when it was evening He came with the twelve.


Mark 14:12-17

Mark's account is virtually the same as Matthew. The preparation for Passover is about preparing the lamb and the room. Here is Luke's account.


Then came the first day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. And He sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.” And they said to Him, “Where do You want us to prepare it?” And He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him into the house that he enters. And you shall say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, “Where is the guest room in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?’ And he will show you a large, furnished, upper room; prepare it there.” And they departed and found everything just as He had told them; and they prepared the Passover. And when the hour had come He reclined at the table, and the apostles with Him. And He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”


Luke 22:7-15

Again, Luke recounts the same details: preparation for the lamb and the room.

By the way, here is side-note that is worthy of mention. Why was the man carrying a water pitcher a significant sign for them to follow? According to the custom of Yeshua's day, only women carried water pitchers. It was part of their daily tasks. Seeing a man carrying a water pitcher would have definitely stood out as unusual.

John's Gospel does not repeat the preparation instructions. He concentrates on what Yeshua shared at the Passover meal beginning in John chapter 13 through chapter 17.

Having eaten the meal, they went to the garden of Gethsemane for the watchnight until Yeshua was arrested. John's Gospel says it this way.


When Yeshua had spoken these words, He went forth with His disciples over the ravine of the Kidron, where there was a garden, into which He Himself entered, and His disciples.


John 18:1

Luke, Mark, and Matthew describe the garden location as well.


And He came out and proceeded as was His custom to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples also followed Him.


Luke 22:39


And they came to a place named Gethsemane; and He said to His disciples, “Sit here until I have prayed.”


Mark 14:32


Then Yeshua came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to His disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and distressed. Then He said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.”


Matthew 26:36-38

The garden of Gethsemane is located on the Kidron Valley side of the Mount of Olives. Gethsemane means the place where olives are crushed. When Yeshua went out to observe the watchnight of Israel, He went to a place where olives are squeezed and crushed. The first squeeze of olives is for anointing oil. Yeshua was the Anointed One, the Messiah. Therefore, it was more than appropriate that He chose that place to begin the work of redemption with His arrest.

If you will recall, the Gospels also speak of Yeshua finding the disciples sleeping instead of remaining awake. He was even annoyed with them to some extent.


And He came and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour?”


Mark 14:37

Why did Yeshua expect them to remain awake? Wasn't it late? Didn't they eat a fine meal with four cups of wine? If you or I had been there we would have wanted to sleep too. The reason Yeshua wanted His disciples to be awake, the reason that all Israel was up and about that night was that it was the watchnight of Passover. It was expected of everyone observing the Passover to observe the watchnight.

Passover with our Brethren

For most Messianics today, Passover is a gathering for all their local brethren in a fellowship or banquet facility. They eat unleavened bread with horse radish and the sweet mixture of apple and honey. They might even have wine to drink. But most have not prepared lamb nor are they eating in a private place (such as a home) as Moses said or as Yeshua did. Still further, they do not hold a watchnight. After the seder meal, everyone goes home to bed. This is far short of what Moses instructed and Yeshua did.

Some Messianic brethren today are not familiar with the issues of the Passover and the eve of the 14th. Even more so, they have never heard of a watchnight on the Passover. They blindly follow the rabbinical tradition (the Pharisaic tradition). Don't get me wrong here. There are many traditional elements of Passover that are good and very worthwhile.

For example, the basic seder contains a sequence of elements and the four cups:

 · Kaddesh (prayer of sanctification)

 · The Cup of Sanctification

 · U'Rechatz (washing of hands)

 · Karpas (parsley/celery dipped in salt water)

 · Yachatz (breaking of the middle matzah bread and burial of the Afikoman)

 · Maggid (telling the ancient story beginning with Joseph being sent)

 · The Cup of Instruction

 · Rachtzah (washing of hands)

 · Motzie Matzah (eating the matzah – unleavened bread)

 · Maror (eating the bitter herbs)

 · Korech (eating the matzah, herbs, and sweetness)

 · Shulchan Orekh (setting the table for the meal – eating the meal)

 · Tzafun (resurrection of the Afikoman)

 · The Cup of Redemption

 · Barekh (blessing after the meal)

 · The Cup of Elijah

 · Hallel (Psalms of Praise)

 · The Cup of Praise

 · Nirtzah (conclusion)


There is nothing wrong with this order of the Passover seder. Even Yeshua followed this basic order. He too washed the disciples, ate bitter herbs with His betrayer, and served the Afikoman bread and cup after the meal. He concluded His own Passover with songs of praise. But He also remained awake for what was to happen later that night.

I understand the zeal of many Messianics to get back to the Torah, to escape the traditions of the church fathers. But, blindly following the traditions of the Pharisees is not the answer. They too have departed from Moses (and the Messiah) as much as the church fathers have. Instead, we need to return to the commandments of the Lord and join His table of fellowship.

Some have justified themselves in keeping the Pharisaic (Judaism's) tradition by saying that they were joining with “greater Israel” all over the world by being in unity with the majority. I believe in being unified with my brethren as well, but that unity should be with the “remnant of Israel” not “unbelieving Israel.” Passover is not a custom or tradition; it is a commandment of the Lord given to us even before the Ten Commandments were given. Taking liberties with God's commandments never works correctly. Keeping the commandments even as Yeshua kept them works to everyone's benefit.

Passover is one of the most powerful bridges there is in our faith to show how Moses was speaking of the Messiah. Just as the children of Israel kept the Passover prior to being made free, so many church Christians attend a Passover and gain their freedom from religious captivity to pursue the Messiah – the real Passover Lamb.

Church tradition has taken the Afikoman (broken bread) and the cup of Redemption from the Passover to create their “communion” service. Despite Yeshua's stated desire and future hope to eat the Passover with His brethren, churchmen replace it with church sacrament (the teaching and tradition of men). When Christians discover that the communion elements are really misappropriated Passover elements, they are stunned. When they find out that even they are invited to the Passover table, they are genuinely grateful. I have discovered that Christians really want to eat the bread so they will never be hungry again. They want to drink from the cup so they will never be thirsty again. Yeshua offers that bread and cup at the Passover table.

Therefore it is important that we as Messianics accurately portray and keep the Passover as Moses and the Messiah did. Substituting one set of customs and traditions of religious men with another set is not right. Leading our Christian brethren to keep the instructions of the Pharisees as a replacement for church tradition is not right.

But what should we do for ourselves to keep the Passover as best as we can?

Here is what Moses said.

 1. Make your observance of Passover to be a commandment of the home, not a banquet setting. Eat it with friends, not unbelievers and strangers.

 2. Eat lamb with the unleavened bread, bitter herbs, and the apple/honey mixture. Judaism forbids you to eat lamb on Passover. What is wrong with that picture?

 3. Gather with your brethren after the Passover meal and hold a “watchnight” at least past midnight. See yourself being passed over there in Egypt. See yourself there with the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane.

If you do these things Passover will take on a whole new dimension. Truly, you will be able to instruct your son, “The Lord passed over my house.” Even further, you will be able to say to yourself, “I remained awake while the Lord agonized to prepare Himself to be the Lamb of God for me.”