"Why is tonight different from all other nights?"
It's a question being asked all over the world as I write these words, because tonight begins the Jewish holiday of Passover. This phrase initiates the Four Questions that form a structure for the Seder meal, a traditional ceremony of the Passover observance.
Like all three of the main pilgrimage feasts of Israel, Passover has a harvest connection, as this spring festival also celebrated the “first-fruits” barley harvest. But Passover most famously relates to the culmination of the ten plagues brought by God against Egypt in order to deliver the Israelites out of their enslavement to the Egyptians. The tenth and final plague involved the visitation of the Angel of Death to claim all the firstborn sons of Egypt. To protect the firstborn of Israel, God’s people were instructed in Exodus chapter twelve to place the blood of a sacrificial lamb upon the top and side posts of their doors (in a visible parallel to the Cross of Christ) so that the plague would “pass over” their homes.
Some fifteen hundred years after these events, Jesus & His disciples were observing the Passover Seder when He blessed the Bread & Cup of their meal in what Christians came to know as Communion (see Matthew 26:17-30). In this way, every time we take Communion, we are also connected to the deliverance celebration of Passover. Followers of Jesus will find rich rewards in studying the many ties and symbols shared between Passover & Easter, not the least of which is that they are closely connected on the calendar.
However, in this writing I want to turn our focus back to the Passover event of Exodus and more specifically to those who weren't "passed over." Sometimes modern readers are troubled by the notion of God's involvement with the death of firstborn children in the tenth plague of Egypt. There's no question that tragedy attends the Biblical telling of this tale. It's important to recognize that the Lord's actions in Egypt primarily reveal how the Egyptian people had turned away from their Maker in order to worship false idols, and how the pride of their culture was especially typified by the pride and hard-heartedness of their king (known in the Bible only by his title of Pharaoh).
Throughout the exchanges related between Moses and Pharaoh in these passages of the Book of Exodus, a pattern emerges. God demonstrates His supremacy over the idols of Egypt by systematically acting in arenas that the Egyptians considered the domains of their various idols: for instance, God turned the Nile river to blood in the first plague related in Exodus chapter seven. The Egyptians revered Hapi as the god of the Nile, and designated other idolatrous gods over every aspect of their lives and nation, including livestock, crops, even light and dark, life and death. The progression of the plagues reveals how thoroughly they had given themselves over to these fraudulent powers, and the results of the plagues may reveal precisely how much they lost of truth, light, and life in doing so.
From this perspective, the plagues collectively form a revelatory testimony of the Lord: "Everything you worship as belonging to other gods, actually belongs to Me. All these other gods you admire cannot protect you, do not care about you, and have no real authority. But because you continue to honor them and resist Me, you tie yourselves to their judgment and their fate." The Apostle Paul made a similar point in his letter to the Romans (1:18-24, NIV):
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--His eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts...
Paul's treatise then describes the sexual immorality of any society marked by such confusion but he also drives the chapter to the ultimate conclusion of such living. Pride, idolatry, and rejection of God first deadens people's moral sensibility and spiritual sensitivity (like people,as Paul describes elsewhere, "whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron"). But finally it's the people themselves who die, victims of their own determination to reject God. If one rejects the God of life, one is rejecting the very Source of life itself.
For as Paul wrote in Romans 6:16, "Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey--whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?" The Exodus is the story of God's deliverance of His people out of their slavery, but the irony is that the Egyptians were slaves of a sort, too--they were enslaved to their idols, to their sin, and thus ultimately they had enslaved themselves to death (see also James 1:13-15). It was that enslavement to death which the Lord revealed through His works, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life" (Romans 6:23, NIV). The penultimate plague was one of darkness for three days across the land of Egypt, though the Israelite's area remained in the light of day (Exodus 10:21-29). (Again, profound parallels exist in this to the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross: see Matthew 12:40; 27:45; Mark 15:33.) Jesus might have had this attitude of the ancient Egyptians in mind when He declared in John 3:19, "This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil." In any case, when people resist the Lord of life and light and dedicate themselves to the dark, all that finally remains is death.
The pattern I've mentioned above relates to this obstinate resistance to God and demonstrates a human reality hardly unique to the ancient Egyptians, for it's as common today as ever. In fact, we may recognize a similar propensity even in ourselves--and we'd be right to watch for it, examining ourselves carefully for any evidence of it. The patter, specifically, is that Pharaoh would relent as God's powers through the plagues demonstrated His superiority and His displeasure with the idolatry and pride of the Egyptians. But once God dispelled the effects of the particular plagues due to Moses' prayers, Pharaoh would again harden his heart and resist even harder against the God of Israel.
For instance, after the powerful first miraculous turning of water into blood, when the Egyptian magicians connived to produce some kind of equivalent action, Pharaoh determined to be untroubled by the notion that he might be positioning himself in opposition to the Creator of all the earth. The New Living Translation of Exodus 7:23 reads: "Pharaoh returned to his palace & put the whole thing out of his mind." What a dangerous temptation we may face to simply ignore the awesome power of God at work in front of us. When He is pressing into the place of our control, the kingdom of our life, may we never turn a deaf ear to His words & a blind eye to His works. Yet I'm convinced much of the desire for comfort & distraction in our modern lives is born out of this very "escapism"--the anxious urge to simply forget how God might be convicting & compelling us. There is hardly a greater--or ultimately more deadly--tragedy than to put Him out of our mind. And yet, often our own pride & persuasion beckon us to retreat into the enclave of our habits, the palace of our pride, where WE rule (or at least so we can comfort ourselves into believing). The palace of forgetting is a prison of our own making, and it is the place where hard hearts can seal their own fate. What a tragic waste.
So, "why is tonight different from all other nights?" It stands apart because of what God did--and does--for those who turn to Him, not only in the Passover but also through the Paschal Lamb, Christ Jesus (whose very name means "God Saves"). Tonight is different because God saves--and we REMEMBER.