The Feast of Unleavened Bread. Strictly speaking, Unleavened Bread is the second major feast of the Hebrew calendar and begins on the fifteenth day of Nisan, the day after Passover. However, because of this festival’s close connection with Passover, the New Testament frequently uses the terms Unleavened Bread and Passover as synonyms of one another (cf. Matt. 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:1, 7). The Hebrew word massāh (מַצָּה) means “unleavened bread: flat loaves of flour & water, baked quickly.” Harris, Archer, and Waltke describe this feast in the following manner:
Because Israel had eaten unleavened bread on the night when they left Egypt (Ex 12:8) and during the first stages of their travels (Ex 12:39), annually thereafter they ate unleavened bread with bitter herbs at the Passover season whether the first or second Passover (Ex 12:14-20; Num 9:10). Eaten with bitter herbs, it is called the bread of affliction (Deut 16:3). Originally Passover, a one-night celebration, was distinct from the feast of unleavened bread, being the following seven days. But both days may be referred to as Passover or “the days of unleavened bread.”
The Feast of Unleavened Bread lasted seven days from the fifteenth to the twenty-first day of the spring month of Nisan. Furthermore, the first and last days of this particular festival were special Sabbaths, that is to say, Sabbath days in addition to weekly Sabbath.
Unleavened Bread in the Old Testament. The Feast of Unleavened Bread is first introduced in Exodus 12. Although Unleavened Bread is distinct from the Passover festival, the Israelites were commanded to eat the Passover Lamb “with unleavened bread and bitter herbs” (Exod. 12:8). Beginning the day after Passover (Nisan 15), the congregation of Israel was commanded not only to remove all leaven out of their houses (Exod. 12:15, 19) but also to eat unleavened bread for seven days (Exod. 12:15; Lev 23:6). If any Israelite ate anything which contained leaven, he or she was to “be cut off from Israel” (Exod. 12:15, 19-20). As stated above, the first and last days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread were special Sabbaths (Exod. 12:16; Lev. 23:7-8).
What was the purpose of this feast? This festival, like the Passover, was to commemorate Yahweh’s physical redemption of Israel from Egyptian bondage (Exod. 12:17-18). More specifically, the consumption of unleavened bread would stand as a memorial of the Israelites’ hasty departure from Egypt (Exod. 12:11; 34, 39), the affliction they suffered there (i.e. unleavened bread is called the “bread of affliction” – Deut. 16:3), and the Lord’s gracious deliverance of them. Why would anyone be expelled from Israel if he or she consumed anything with leaven during this feast? The Bible often uses leaven (but not always, cf. Lev. 7:13; Matt. 13:33ff) as a symbol for sin (e.g. Exod. 12:15-19; Deut. 16:3-4; Hos. 7:4; 1 Cor. 5:6-8). Therefore, the Israelites’ removal of leaven from their houses and their eating of unleavened bread for seven days symbolized both the removal of sin and the cultivation of holiness. An Israelite who did not heed these requirements was demonstrating not only contempt for Yahweh Himself but also a symbolic apathy with regard to the issues of sin and holiness.
Christ: Our “Unleavened” Savior. How did the Lord Jesus Christ fulfill the Feast of Unleavened Bread? Just as this festival symbolizes both sinlessness and holiness, Christ was sinless and perfectly holy. 2 Corinthians 5:21 declares: “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” Hebrews 4:15 also states: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Howard and Rosenthal write: “He was a pure, sinless (without leaven) sacrifice….As a pure, sinless sacrifice, the Messiah was not under the curse to return to dust [cf. Ps 16:10; Acts 2:27]….The Messiah fulfilled the Feast of Unleavened Bread in that He was a pure, sinless (without leaven) sacrifice. God validated this by the Messiah’s burial in a rich man’s tomb.” McFall makes an astute observation regarding the connection between unleavened bread and the Lord’s Supper. He writes:
…instead of handing the meat of the Passover lamb to his disciples with the words: ‘this is my body’ (thus making a logical connection), he took the lowly unleavened bread, an adjunct to the meal, and gave it a significance it had never had before. He acted astutely in presenting himself under the form of unleavened bread, given the objections of his Jewish opponents to the idea that he was God’s spiritual manna from heaven; also his many future disciples from all nations would find the bread acceptable food. His actions indicated that the death of the Passover lamb was about to become redundant; ‘Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us’ (1 Cor. 5:7). The Passover, in this sense, could never be repeated.
In other words, Christ’s selection of the unleavened bread of the Passover meal to signify His broken body in the Lord’s Supper indicates the sinlessness of His sacrifice, that He is “the bread of life” from heaven (John 6:33-35), and the imminent non-repeatable nature of the Passover.
The Apostle Paul also applies this festival to the life of a believer in 1 Corinthians 5:7-8: “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” Paul equates the Passover with Christ’s crucifixion and seems to equate Unleavened Bread with the New Covenant age. In other words, he instructs believers to live “unleavened” (i.e. holy) lives in this present age, since “Christ, our Passover Lamb,” already has been sacrificed. Believers are called to emulate their “unleavened” Savior by living “unleavened” lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, Unger rightly states that “Unleavened Bread (Lev. 23:6-8) typifies the holy walk of a believer after redemption.”
R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr. and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 1 (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1980), 523.
Kevin Howard and Marvin Rosenthal, The Feasts of the Lord (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 70.
Leslie McFall, “Sacred Meals,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. by T. Desmond Alexander, Brian S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 751.
Merrill F. Unger, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988), 423.