Why do most countries have a holiday at Easter, based not on a fixed annual date but on the occurrence of the full moon? This depends on a sequence of events that took place several centuries before the Christian era, which we will examine.
Meaning of Easter
Easter refers to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead on the third day after His crucifixion, some two millennia ago. This happened on the anniversary of the day the Israelites left Egypt some 13 centuries earlier, after being enslaved there for some centuries, as recorded in the book of Exodus in the Bible. The Israelites left Egypt following ten plagues which God called “great acts of judgment” (Exodus 7:4), and which culminated in the death of the firstborn Egyptians, concerning which, God said: “on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD” (Exodus: 12:12).1
The ten plagues of Egypt
The ten plagues applied to all the land of Egypt, except Goshen where the Israelites lived (Exodus 8:22; 9:4, 26; 10:23). The plagues were:
Water turned to blood A swarm of frogs A swarm of Gnats Swarms of flies The death of the Egyptians’ cattle Boils and sores on man and beast Devastating hail Locusts devoured all the green plants Three days of darkness The death of every firstborn Egyptian and their firstborn beasts
Pharaoh disregarded Moses’s warnings, and the plagues ensued one after the other. Each time when Pharaoh repented, he later changed his mind and refused to obey God’s command via Moses to release the Israelites. This led to the 10th plague with the death of all the firstborn Egyptians, and of God proclaiming: “ … on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments” (Exodus 12:12).
Meaning of the Passover
The word ‘Easter’ is the English word which in most other European languages is derived from the Latin and Greek Pascha, meaning ‘Passover’. The word ‘Passover’ refers to what happened at the climax of the ten plagues of Egypt.
God involved the Israelites in the month of their salvation from slavery by requiring each family, on the 10th day of that month, to select a one-year-old (i.e. mature) male lamb, without blemish. They were to keep it for four days in their households, and then, on the 14th day, slaughter it and sprinkle its blood on the lintel and doorposts of their dwellings. This distinguished their houses from those of the Egyptians. The Lord would then ‘pass over’ these Israelite dwellings that night, so that the firstborn in these Israelite houses were spared from death. (Exodus 12:7). Hence the name ‘Passover’ for this ordinance.
The Israelites were also to roast their lamb that night, being careful not to break any of its bones (Exodus 12:46), and eat it. God commanded them to do so, with their belt fastened, their sandals on their feet, and their staff in their hand, and “in haste” (Exodus 12:11), i.e. ready for their instant departure from Egypt.
The full moon
The Jewish calendar is based on cycles of the moon. Each month begins with a crescent new moon, which grows to a full moon in the middle of the month, and then wanes until it cannot be seen. The cycle takes approximately 29½ days, so Jewish months are alternatively 29 or 30 days long, and the full moon occurs 14.75 days after each new moon.
Exodus 12:2 tells us that the month the Israelites left Egypt was to be the first month of their year. The moon is not mentioned, but God instructed the Israelites to slaughter their lambs on the 14th day of that month, so this was when the moon was full. The light from the full moon of course would have been a huge help to the Israelites to see where they were going, as they left Egypt in the middle of that night.
Later, when the Egyptians pursued them, God provided further light for them. Exodus 13:21 says: “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night.”
The current date of Easter
The first Christian Council, held in 323 AD, in the city of Nicaea (now Iznik, Turkey), decided that Easter should be observed on the first Sunday following the first full moon on or after the northern summer Spring equinox (March 21). Easter can thus fall on any Sunday between March 22 and April 25 in the Gregorian calendar (1582), used today in most of the world.
Eastern Orthodox Churches still use the Julian calendar, which means that at certain times such as Easter there can be a week’s-long lag behind the Gregorian.
Relevance to us
So what does all this have to do with us? There is good news and bad news. The bad news is that God tells us in the Bible that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). God also tells us that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
The good news is that just as God provided a remedy for the Israelites in Egypt from the night of death, He has provided us with a remedy for the results of our sin. When, on that first Good Friday, Christ died on the Cross and then three days later rose from the dead, He paid this penalty of death for sin on behalf of all who are willing to receive it. (See a fuller explanation in Good News!)
Christ our Passover lamb
Christ is in fact called our Passover lamb. When John the Baptist introduced Jesus, he called him “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The Apostle Peter wrote that believers are ransomed “with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19). And the Apostle Paul wrote: “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). He was our Passover Lamb in many ways:
- Jesus was without blemish. He was tempted in every respect as we are, “yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
- He was examined by Pilate, who three times pronounced: “I find no guilt in him” (John 18:38; 19:4 & 6).
- His bones were not broken. Christ’s crucifixion involved the shedding of blood, but His legs were not broken to speed death, as happened to the two thieves crucified with Him (John 19:31–33). This fulfilled prophesy (Psalm 34:20).
- His death secures eternal life for all believers (1 Corinthians 15:1–4).
- Believers are conformed to the image of God’s Son, “in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29).
- Just as the Israelites fed on their lamb before beginning their journey from Egypt, we as believers need to feed spiritually on Christ, the Word of God, throughout our life’s journey on Earth. Ideally every day.
So how do we receive God’s forgiveness for sin? We do this by acknowledging our sin to God, asking God to forgive us, and being willing for Jesus to be not only our Saviour, but also the Lord of our life. The Bible says: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). This requires faith. Faith is believing something to be true because God has said it—and He has provided ample evidence for His trustworthiness.
Faith is vital
Faith of this sort will show itself in our repentance for sins we have done, in our acceptance of Jesus’s death on our behalf, and in our obedience to God now and in the future. When we believe all this about Jesus as it applies to us, we are saved. When we truly believe it we will want to obey the Lord who has saved us, and we will want to believe and obey His Word, the Bible, from the very first verse.
God invites us to become members of His family of believers worldwide. Christian believers not only have God’s peace with respect to sin, and God’s guidance for our life on Earth now, but we also have God’s promise and God’s assurance of life with Him forever, when our time on Earth is over. This assurance comes from the historical fact of the Resurrection of Jesus, which is why Christians celebrate Easter.
References and notes
- For ways in which the plagues were judgments against the various gods of Egypt, see Yahweh 10 Egyptian deities 0 in The ten plagues of Egypt: Miracles or ‘Mother Nature in Related Articles. Return to text.