The Christian Seder Meal as Sacrament

The Christian Seder Meal as Sacrament

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The Christian Seder Meal as Sacrament and Precursor to the Fulfillment of Romans 11

Several weeks ago I posted a Facebook notice with pictures enthusiastically describing a Christian Passover I participated in at the church of Christ the King (Anglican) in Hiawassee, GA. The service was marked by observing the Jewish Passover rituals and prayers, but with Christian interpretations added. Some of the men of the parish, including the rector, Fr. Don O’Malley, wore Jewish prayer shawls and skull caps.  It was all beautifully done, and many participants experienced it as an especially grace-filled and joyful evening. The pictures below demonstrate this.

To my surprise I received numerous negative comments. Some saying that Jews are offended by these “mixed” Jewish-Christian Passovers. That is hard to understand, as imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Several clergy from Orthodox and liturgical denominations strongly insisted that Jewish traditions and observances have no part in a Christian church. They seemed to take special offense at my claim that Passover was an Old Testament sacrament and could be observed by Christians to receive its grace.

I argued for the continuity of the Old Testament feasts as sacraments (that is, covenant rituals that are the occasion of God’s grace) in my previous work, Forgotten Power: The Significance of the Lord’s Supper in Revival.[1] Let me recap that argument. It contradicts the consensus of Medieval Western (and Eastern) theology which strongly affirms that sacraments were restricted to the New Testament period. For instance, the classic Catholic catechism definition of a sacrament is “An outward sign, instituted by Christ to give grace.” Protestant definitions are similar, although often do not specifically mention Christ.  It is important to note that the Catholic definition was late in formulating and there was much discussion on the issue in the early Middle Ages. For instance, St. Bernard of Clairvaux argued that marriage was instituted directly by God and a valid source of grace even among non-Christians. However, St. Thomas Aquinas and his Christ only view of the origins of the sacraments eventually won out and became official doctrine. Thomas’ view of course excluded the possibility that the God ordained rituals and festivals of the Old Testament were in any way sacramental and grace giving. His position passed on to Protestant sacramental theology where the mandated festivals such as Passover are termed “ordinances.”[2]

John’s Baptism as Jewish sacrament:

What was missing in this consensus theology was an appreciation of what Paul said in Romans 11, that Jews are still a living root to Christianity. But before we get to that let me point out a critically important New Testament scripture that affirms St. Bernard and contradicts St. Thomas. It is found in Luke 7, where the writer (Luke) describes the spiritual effects of the ministry of John the Baptist:

(All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John.  But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.) (vs 29-30).

Now, clearly John the Baptist is ministering as a Jew in the Old Testament era. He is identified by Jesus as such with the promise that Believers in Him will be even greater that the greatest Old Testament figures (Matt 11:11). From Acts we learn that John’s baptism was effective for repentance and the forgiveness of sins (Acts 19:2-4).  In any case, in two verses above it is clear that those who receive John’s baptism had received a special grace for accepting the Gospel. That is, an outward sign that gave a grace, i.e. a sacrament.

The Holy Spirit and the Sacraments:

But let me expand this into a specifically pneumatological (Holy Spirit) understanding of the sacraments. Modern historical scholarship has revealed that John did not invent water baptism out of the blue. Rather his baptism was a continuity and development of a ritual developed in the inter-testament period for the acceptance into Judaism of female converts. The Old Testament is clear that male converts are to be circumcised, but silent on female converts. The inter-testament rabies chose water immersion as a natural symbol to cleanse the convert of Paganism and its sins. Similarly, the Christian Eucharist had anterior forms in the Jewish religious fellowship meal, the Berakka, where the food was blessed and special thanksgiving was given over the wine and bread. [3]

It seems these ritual developments were inspired by the Holy Spirit to prepare the way for the salvific importance of Christian Baptism and the Eucharist. It is also probable that at every step they were grace giving and already sacramentally effective, as the Luke scripture affirms of John’s water baptism.

Evidence from Church history:

In studying revivals I encountered revivals at the edge of the modern era that were unlike anything in contemporary times. These were The Scottish communion revivals of the 18th and 19th Centuries. The most famous ones were the revivals in Cambusland, Scotland in 1740 and the Cane Ridge, Tennessee in 1801 which triggered the Second Great Awakening in America. In these revivals the people met in fields, with their tents lining a field where preaching went on for days, culminating in a communion service. They were vastly successful in bringing thousands to salvation, and in America established the “camp meeting” tradition. This continued to encourage and refresh American Christianity to this day.

I suggested that part of the success of these revivals was that they had, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, unintentionally recreated the Jewish feast of Booths. All the essential elements were there. The people lived in tents, (and thus abandoned their principal emblem of social position) shared food, and heard the scriptures preached with the intention of coming to repentance. To the graces of the Feast of Booth were added the Christian graces of the Eucharist. It was spiritual dynamite![4]

The present Jewish/Christian reconciliation:

People born in the last decades have little experience of the strong anti-Semitism that was part of Christian culture, both here and over-seas, and which had its origins in the Jewish Christian divide of the 2nd Century. [5]  Jews emigrating to the United States from Europe in the 1920s and 1940s  mostly shrugged it off, as the social snubs, nasty jokes, or skipped promotions were not to be compared the Russian programs or the beastly acts of Nazism. Personally, I recall that even as a devote Catholic boy in the 1950’s I participated in anti-septic jokes and anecdotes about the “miserly” Jews, etc.

That began to turn around as the world saw the details of the Nazi extermination camps and the statistics of the Holocaust. Further, many Christians discerned that the foundation, and miraculous survival, of the state of Israel (1948) in spite of its many enemies was the working out of Biblical prophecy. In any case, I cannot remember a single incident as a charismatic Christian since the 1970s of every hearing an anti-Semitic slur or nasty joke within Christian circles. Rather, Christians, especially Spirit-filled Christians, now regularly pray for Israel and for the “peace of Jerusalem” as we are commanded to in the Bible.[6] Modern Christian saints such as Corry Ten Boom, are remembered for their heroism in shielding Jews from Nazi persecution and extermination.

This reconciliation is not just one way. Jewish scholars have taken a radical turn in the last decades towards appreciating Christianity.  For instance, in traditional rabbinic literature Paul was considered the great apostate of Judaism and his writing the source of the pogroms and persecutions  that befell the Jews at the hands of Christians. But recently this view has changed. Jewish scholars now give Paul a new and positive evaluation. That is, the Pharisees of the New Testament times tried to convert the world and bring to it the good news of a One God who was righteous, loving and forgiving. But they failed. But Paul succeeded. He indeed brought  the worship of the one true God to the Gentiles. In this view Christianity, with is strange Trinitarianism,  is an “interim” solution to end idolatry. But in God’s providence God will be universally worshiped and the Torah obeyed.[7]

Further, generations of enthusiastic Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land have softened Jewish memories of past Christian pogroms and persecution. Israeli leaders are acutely aware that Evangelical and Spirit-filled Christians are steadfast in their support of Israel. This is in contrast to the rapid rise of pro-Palestinian sentiment and a renewed anti-Semitism so marked in Europe, and now common within mainline (liberal) Protestantism.

Romans 11 and Paul’s Vision of the Reconciled Christian/Jewish Church:

When Paul wrote to the congregation at Rome, it consisted of both Gentile believers and Jewish/Christians.  He gave his fullest revelation about the interaction of Jews and Christians in the Body of Christ in chapter 11. It was a vision far different from the anti-Semitism and supersessionism that captivated the Early Church less than a hundred years after his death and reigned until recent times.

            The rabbinic theology of the “end times” that Paul’s learned was that Kingdom of God and the Messiah would come after Jews fully embraced the Law of Moses.  This would usher in a period when Gentiles would stream into the Kingdom in envy and awe of Jewish righteousness and the excellence of the Law. Paul’s revelation of Jesus as the Messiah reversed this. The heart of the Kingdom was not obedience to the Law of Moses, rather God’s providential mercy and grace thru Jesus. The non-legalistic righteousness of the Christian Gentiles would make the Jews envious and ready to accept the Gospel.[8]

Starting in Romans 10 Paul explained this revelation with a Bible passage to prove that God intended from the beginning to incorporate none-Jews for his Kingdom: “And Isaiah boldly says, “I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.”(Rom 10:20). Paul understood the Jews had mostly rejected Jesus as messiah. However, he revealed that the Jews were not truly rejected by God, but rather were providentially blinded from seeing Jesus as messiah and Lord. This was in order to establish the Gentle Church:  “Again I ask: Did they [the Jews] stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.” (Rom 11:11) Yet the Jews continue in some way under God’s providence and continue as part of the foundation of the Church. This is explained in the metaphor of the cultivated and wild olive tree. The Jews are the original olive tree that has been pruned, and then engrafted with new “wild olive” shoots, the Gentile Church (Rom 11).

But Paul also reveals what he calls a great “mystery,” that the Jews will be re-engrafted. This Church will be the full reconciliation between Jews and Christians

For he [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two [Jews and Gentiles], thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (Eph 2:14-16)

The coming (and presently ongoing) reconciliation will produce a Church that will have more power and glory than either of its antecedent parts: “But if their transgression [rejection of Jesus] means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles [the formation of the Gentile Christian Church], how much greater riches will their fullness bring!” (Rom 11:12). Thus the Gentile Church is only an interim provision, on the way to God’s best for the Body of Christ, a reconciled Jewish and Gentile Church.     

As the Church developed after 4th Century, both, East and West, Christians developed a sense that their churches had reached theological and liturgical perfection and were “all there was.”  If they thought about Paul’s revelation in Roman and Ephesians they imagined a Church of the end days that reflected their denominational traditions. Catholics assumed a triumphant Catholic Church and Protestants a triumphant Reformed church, etc. To these bodies would be added many Jewish converts who had become good Catholics, devote Methodists, or nice Presbyterians, etc.

But in the last decades we are getting a glimpse of God’ “mystery” working out that is not meeting these traditional expectations. Most Jews coming into the Kingdom and accepting Jesus as their Messiah  are not becoming Catholics, Baptists, or classical Pentecostals, etc. Rather they are forming congregations that keep many of the customs and feasts of the Judaism. [9]

Although we cannot presume to fully understand God’s ultimate plans, it seems that the Holy Spirit has been moving the Church out of its Hellenistic period and into a renewal of its Hebraic heritage that will make Jews feel “at home” in the end times Church. This means that unnecessary cultural and historical barriers, such as its anti-Semitic superssionist theology, and excessive Hellenism that would obstruct a Jew from accepting Jesus as Messiah are vanishing.

The Christian Seder Meal as token of Jewish/Christian reconciliation:

From Paul’s prophetic passages in Romans and Ephesians we can frame the present Christian recovery of the Seder meal as Holy Spirit driven. It is another step to bring forward Jesus’ desire for love and reconciliation between Jew and Christian.  The present form of the Christian Seder meal may not be its final end-time form. Who knows what the Spirit has in store?  I imagine that the rabies who worked out female conversion baptism had no idea that it would develop much further.

Presently, there are multiple ways that Christian churches celebrate the Seder meal. Some do it on Good Friday; others time it to concur with the Jewish Passover. Some churches do a strictly Jewish service and invite Jewish neighbors to participate. Most Christian churches seem to prefer a Christianized form where the prayers are modified to recognize Jesus as Messiah. All seem to work well.

But I do have one (mild) criticism of the Christianized services. That is, that these services try to educate while they carry out the Seder. This makes it somewhat clumsy, and time consuming, as if a minister or priest had to stop and explain that the bread and wine represent (or become) the body and blood of Christ each time he does a communion service. Teaching about the Seder should be done in adult Sunday school or in a preaching sermon before the actual service. This would make the Seder sacrament more smoothly.

[1](Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003).

[2] I discuss this with more detail in Forgotten Power, chapter 3.

[3]F. Gavin, The Jewish Antecedents of the Christian Sacraments. (London: SPCK, 1928).  A classic in its field.

[4] Forgotten Power, chapter 13.

[5] Anti-Semitism is found in Church documents as early as the Shepherd of Hermes, written in the late 1st Century, and can be gleaned from the Gospel  of John.

[6] On the other hand, several mainline denominatios that have drifeted leftward politically and into theological heresy, such as the Episcopal Church, now regularly lambast Isreal as an imperalists state and side with the Palestinians.

[7] See the key twin articles by Daniel R. Langton in the Journal of the Study of the New Testament, “The Myth of the “Traditional View of Paul and the Role of the Apostle in Modern Jewish-Christian Polemics, (28, #1 summer 2005, 69-104), and “Modern Jewish Identity and the Apostle Paul,” (28 #2 December 2005, 217-258.

[8] Dale C. Allison “Romans 11:11-15: A suggestion,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 12 #1 (spring 1985), 23-30.

[9] They find their righteousness in following Jesus Christ not in the Law Moses, but have their joy in affirming that many of the aspects of the Law are good to observe. On the importance of these Messianic congregation to the entire body of Christ see the works of Peter Hocken, beginning with his classic, The Glory and the Shame (London: Eagle, 1993).

William DeArteaga

William L. De Arteaga, Ph.D., is known internationally as a Christian historian and expert on revivals and the rebirth and renewal of the Christian healing movement. His major works include, Quenching the Spirit (Creation House, 1992, 1996), Forgotten Power: The Significance of the Lord’s Supper in Revival (Zondervan, 2002), and Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal (Wipf & Stock, 2015). Bill pastored two Hispanic Anglican congregations in the Marietta, Georgia area, and is semi-retired. He and his wife Carolyn continue in their healing, teaching and writing ministries. He is the state chaplain of the Order of St. Luke, encouraging the ministry of healing in all Christian denominations.


  • Reply November 13, 2019

    Varnel Watson

    THANK YOU Dr. William DeArteaga

    • William DeArteaga
      Reply November 13, 2019

      William DeArteaga

      Thank YOU!

    • Reply November 13, 2019

      Varnel Watson

      William DeArteaga just in time for the holidays

  • William DeArteaga
    Reply April 10, 2020

    William DeArteaga

    I definitely believe so.

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