The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats.6 Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.7 Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. 8 That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. 9 Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. 10 Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it...
46 “It must be eaten inside the house; take none of the meat outside the house. Do not break any of the bones. (Exodus 12, ESV)
It’s one of those curious details which like a lot of Old Testament ceremony, would be easy to skim over - were it not for the fact that it unexpectedly takes centre stage at the very climax of the Gospel – at the Cross itself.
Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. 32 The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. 33 But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs… 36 These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,” (John 19, ESV)
Now, of course, the Gospel writers (and the Apostle Paul) want their readers to understand Jesus’ death in the light of the Passover. The fact that the Crucifixion happened during the Passover feast was not a coincidence – but was divinely ordained. Just as the original Passover sacrifice signalled the opening up of an escape route from judgment & slavery – so the sacrificial death of Jesus opens up the escape route from eternal judgement and spiritual slavery. As Paul put it, ‘…Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed’ (1 Cor 5:7).
So we can see how Jesus being left with his bones unbroken resonates with the Passover – it’s a comparison that strengthens the sense of connection between the two events. But is that all there is to it? Is this detail and its greater manifestation no more than device to link Jesus and the Passover – but without any deeper significance? A kind of, ‘Oh that’s a bit like that, how interesting’, and then we move on.
Surely not – but why then were the Passover bones not to be broken? Rabbinical explanations include that it was to emphasis the urgency in leaving Egypt – i.e. they were not to waste time extracting the marrow by breaking the bones. Others suggest it was a statement about the freed Israelites new status – they were not to suck out the marrow as poor people would do (i). But these explanations flounder being based on only part of the story.
During this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe one comedian made an apparently ad lib joke that beautifully connected with a previous section of his show. Indeed the joke only made sense and had impact because of the earlier material (it’s what’s known by comics as a ‘call-back’). He then (again seemingly ‘off the cuff’) quipped that the whole show had been ‘reversed engineered’ in order to make the joke work.
In the same way the strange Biblical injunction about the bones of Passover lambs can only be properly understood retrospectively. Not of course, that there’s anything funny about it, but the original material only makes sense in the light of subsequent events. The question therefore is not, 'Why not break the Passover lamb’s bones?’ but, ‘What point is being made by ensuring that Jesus’ bones remained intact?’
Well the reason that crucified people had their bones broken was to speed up their death. The effect of breaking the legs, as the guards were instructed to do, was to collapse the body and cause suffocation. However, in the case of Jesus – such measures were unnecessary – He was already dead. Indeed surprisingly so, the expectation being, that like the thieves crucified on either side, He would still be alive. For a man in the prime of life His relatively quick death was something of a shock – so much so, that a spear was thrust into his side just to make absolutely sure.
The point of this unusual turn of events, was not that Jesus was weak but that no-one would take his life from Him. He decided when to give it up and did so at the exact time of His choosing – ‘Jesus said, ‘It is finished’. With that he bowed his head and gave up his spirit’ (John 19:30). The moment of Jesus’ death came only when He had completed the work of sin-bearing and made salvation possible. No-one would take his life before that moment and there was no need to prolong it beyond that point.
Who's in charge?
At the start of Matthew 26 we are presented with two statements of intent regarding the death of Jesus. In v2 Jesus states that He will be crucified during the Passover. In v5 the chief priests and elders state that they will not kill him during the Passover. Well guess who was in charge!
Though not understood at the time, those unbroken Passover bones in Egypt were pointing not only to a Saviour who would give His life for sinners - but also to a sovereign King who was in total control even as He gave it up.