The Passovers in John’s Gospel
R Woodhouse Beales, Ipswich
There are four Passovers in John’s Gospel, although one is not actually named; these divide the Lord’s ministry into three periods, and it is significant that John alone records all four. Luke describes the Passover in His boyhood years, but all the Synoptic writers omit any reference to the other Passovers except the last. Moreover, they do not give us any account of the Judean ministry until the last days of His life on earth, while John gives only three incidents in the Galilean ministry. If John wrote his Gospel late, then there was no written record of this particular Judean ministry for over half a century. There may therefore be a double meaning in the words of the Lord to John on Patmos, “Write the things which thou hast seen”, Rev. 1. 19, alluding not only to the vision that he had just seen of the Lord but also containing the command to write these great and special features of his Gospel.
Each Passover was connected with a new beginning; indeed, the original institution of the Passover marked Israel’s new birth as a nation; “This month shall be unto you the beginning of months”, Exod. 12. 2. They were to be sheltered beneath the blood of the lamb from the judgment of God, and then they were to be delivered by power from Egypt through the Red Sea. This is the dual aspect of the word used for “redemption”. Not until we know in our hearts and lives these two glorious facts accomplished through Christ can we sing the song of redemption.
The First Passover: John 2. 13-25. A.D. 27.
The New Birth. Chapters 2 and 3 give two miracles, firstly the new wine, and secondly the Lord’s message of the new birth. The second was associated with the Passover in Jerusalem. There was a kind of belief which did not enable the Lord to “commit” Himself to men, but there was also a man to whom He could, and did; a man who needed a new beginning, a spiritual life. This was utterly incomprehensible to Nicodemus at first, but from his after-life and testimony we see that a miracle took place on that occasion, although the life did not immediately show itself to be very strong. There is no reference to baptism in the Lord’s discourse, since baptism is a figure of death and resurrection. We believe that the Lord’s reference to being born of water and of the Spirit refers back to the introduction to this Gospel, namely “born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God”, 1. 12, 13. This is the first of the new things that Jesus had come to teach, and John afterwards, especially in his first Epistle, loves to write of that which is born, or begotten of God.
The Second Passover: John 5. 1-47. A.D. 28.
A New Power. The Passover is not named in this passage; it is only called a feast of the Jews, which is what the Old Testament feasts of the Lord had become. He who spoke worlds into being made by that same power this impotent man to walk, a man who had been in that predicament for thirty-eight years. Immediately at the divine command the man took up his bed and walked. When men who have been lame for many years are enabled to walk by surgical skill, they have to be taught to do so over a period of time, like a little child, but by this exhibition of divine power this man not only walked but took up his bed at the instant of the divine command. It is not our purpose to speak of the way in which this “sign” miracle brought the Lord into conflict with the authorities because He had done it on the Sabbath, but rather to point out that after the new birth, the believer needs to know what it is to “walk” anew and that by the power of the word of Christ. Maybe Israel’s powerlessness is hinted at here; they were enabled to walk through the wilderness for thirty-eight years only by the power of God.
The Third Passover: John 6. 1-14. A.D. 29.
A New Provision. This miracle took place in Galilee and is recorded by all four Evangelists, but its full significance and the teaching based upon it are found only in John’s Gospel. Apparently the Lord did not keep this particular Passover in Jerusalem, but went away into Galilee. Was this because His forerunner, John the Baptist, had just been martyred by Herod, and that the latter would be in Jerusalem at the Passover? We should learn from the Lord’s teaching that followed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, teaching that concerns the “bread of life”, and the necessity of coming and taking that bread for spiritual sustenance. God had sustained Israel miraculously for thirty-eight years in the wilderness, but even that miracle is outshone by the spiritual sustenance of all God’s people down the centuries. We must not miss the ensuing teaching that concerns the spiritual partaking of His flesh and blood, 6. 53. This is not a reference to the Lord’s supper, but as the bread of life sets forth His coming down in humiliation for the life of the world, so the reference to His flesh and blood sets forth His death and resurrection. He follows this by a reference to His ascension. 6. 62. This teaching separated the true believers from the false disciples, since many went back and walked no more with Him.
Hence today we must distinguish between the meat that perisheth and the new provision which endures to everlasting life. Our spiritual sustenance must come from Him, not only the One who as the manna came down from heaven, but the One who has made available to us the fruits of His sacrifice, and the possibility of cleaving alone to Him.
The Last Passover: John 11. 55; 12. 1. A.D. 30.
New Life out of Death. These two verses contain the direct references to this Passover, although the actual day lay ahead. Nevertheless we believe that the “sign” miracle of the raising of Lazarus stands connected with it. This miracle brought further persecution and danger for the Lord, but, showing forth His glory and power over death, it was a means of strengthening the faith of His disciples in view of His coming death. Certainly it was a means for Mary to anoint Him for His burial beforehand.
Because of attempts previously to arrest and stone Him, He had withdrawn to Bethabara, 10. 40; 1. 28, beyond Jordan; here the two sisters had sent the message about their brother “whom thou lovest”, 11. 3. But though He could have healed at a distance, yet He stayed where He was until death had supervened. What lessons both they and we would have missed had Lazarus not died. “Could not this man, which opened the eyes of the blind, have caused that even this man should not have died?”, 11. 37. This is so often the question which plagues believers today. But it is His glory which is at stake, and many believed on the Lord seeing Lazarus alive afterwards.
This same power brings us life that is untouchable by death; it makes us a “new creation” in Him, sharing the resurrection life of our Lord. May we say that this miracle is greater than the first material creation, greater than the creation of the new heavens and the new earth which await us when we have received bodies like unto His glorious body?
On the way to this, we gain through Christ our Passover sacrificed for us the new birth, new power for living, new sustenance and new life from Him.