Jesus the Passover Lamb

Our four Gospels each offer a unique portrait of Jesus.

Psalm 23
"Psalm 23," John August Swanson. Used by permission from the artist. Image © by John August Swanson.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

March 30, 2018

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Commentary on John 19:31-42

Our four Gospels each offer a unique portrait of Jesus.

Perhaps their most stable agreement comes in the Passion Narrative. However, leave it to John to insist on being the black sheep, even in this. There are several unique aspects to John’s Passion Narrative, one of which frames the passage for today. In the first and final verses of this section, the narrator gives us a chronological detail: “it was the day of Preparation” (John 19:31; 42; see also 19:14).

On the day of Preparation (that is, Passover Eve or the Friday of Passover), the temple priests would begin slaughtering the paschal animals. The eating of the paschal meal (or Passover) would take place later that night. An apparent chronological discord exists with the Synoptic chronology, which reports that before Jesus’ arrest, he and his disciples shared the Passover meal. In John’s version, Jesus is led to the cross at the same time that the paschal lambs are taken to slaughter.1

Other symbolic details offer additional echoes of the Passover story from Exodus:

  • the hyssop branch (John 19:29) is reminiscent of the hyssop branch used to paint the doorposts of the Israelites (Exodus 12:22)
  • the mention that none of Jesus’ bones are broken (John 19:33, 36) echoes the instructions for the preparation of the Passover Lamb (John 19:29, 36; Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12).2
  • John the Baptist’s proclamation of Jesus as the “Lamb of God” also reinforces this link (John 1:19).

John the Baptist’s statement continues that as the Lamb of God, Jesus “takes away the sin of the world.” This has led many Christian readers to think not of the Passover lamb, but of the tamid, the temple’s daily sin offering. Considering the complex resonances with the Exodus story and Passover tradition, Jo-Ann Brant cautions readers not to miss the particular Johannine emphasis. She writes:

The accent in John is on Jesus’s triumph over the powers that bring death. He is the Passover lamb who causes death to skip over the Israelites in Egypt who had painted its blood upon their doorposts (Exod. 12:23) and, in doing so, makes possible the birth of a new people, the children of God.3

This is further explained in John’s story with the imagery of the Good Shepherd, which extends the metaphor so that Jesus is not only the Passover lamb but also the shepherd who acts on behalf of the sheep.

Jesus claims, “I came in order that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:10b-11)”.

The image of the Good Shepherd recalls Numbers 27:16-17, where Moses prays for YHWH to send someone “who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep without a shepherd.”4 Thus, the shepherd imagery here reveals Jesus as a leader and caretaker, much like Moses or Joshua. Another important image is found in Ezekiel 34, arguably the most significant passage in the background of John 10.5 With this background in mind, John 10 sets up a contrast between Jesus and “false shepherds” who do not care for or feed the flock (Ezekiel 34:1-6).6 The Johannine discourse sets up Jesus as the genuine caretaker, whereas the thieves, bandits, and hired hands do not protect the sheep but allow them to be scattered and destroyed.

The shepherd imagery goes further still. Not only is Jesus a “good shepherd” like Moses and Joshua before him; he is the good shepherd portrayed as the awaited Davidic Messiah. This is clear in Ezekiel 34:23 where YHWH promises, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them, and be their shepherd.” The claim is most forceful in verses 11 and 15: “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out … I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.” (Ezekiel 34:11-15).

What is remarkable about Jesus as Good Shepherd is that he embodies all three senses of the image of the good shepherd: he is sent by God to lead (like Moses and Joshua), he is the long-awaited Messiah from the line of David who establishes God’s reign for Israel, and he is the manifest presence of YHWH himself who promises in Ezekiel 34:30: “They shall know that I … am with them, and they … are my people.” It is almost as if, in Jesus’ good shepherd discourse, believers can hear him saying, “You are my sheep … and I am your God” (Ezekiel 34:31). This interpretation, lest it should seem too far-reaching, is supported by Jesus’s unequivocal claim, “The Father and I are one” in the same context (John 10:30).

In Jesus’ day, the Exodus was Israel’s hallmark example of God’s care for God’s people. Drawing on the Passover imagery that recalled this event in his chronology and narrative details, John presents Jesus as a Passover lamb. This polyvalent image reminds us that like the God of Israel, Jesus acted powerfully to establish a community of people and to reassure that community that God is for and with them. As the Passover lamb, Jesus offers his body and blood as markers for membership in the people of God. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus gives his own life to overcome the powers of sin and death, offering abundant life to those who believe.

The Passover imagery pairs with the other life-giving images we have encountered in John: Jesus the one who make possible birth from above (John 3), who offers living water (John 4, 7), who calls from death to life (John 11), and who finally overcomes the power of death by victoriously giving his own life (John 10, 19).


  1. See also John 18:28; Exodus 12:6; Lev 23:5. Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 2 vols. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), 2:1102. For an alternative reading of the Johannine chronology, see Annie Jaubert, La Date de la Cène: Calendrier biblique et Liturgie chrétienne (Paris: J. Gabalda, 1957); Regardless of which report may be more historical, the Johannine presentation clearly indicates a correspondence of Jesus’s death with the slaughter of the paschal lambs. Brown, The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave, a Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels, 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 2:895-96.
  2. Jo-Ann Brant, John, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 254; Jerome H. Neyrey, The Gospel of John in Cultural and Rhetorical Perspective (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 434.
  3. Brant, John, 258.
  4. D. Moody Smith, John, ANTC (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 204–9.
  5. Thyen, Das Johannesevangelium, HNT 6 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), 486; Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 629.
  6. C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 358–61.


Jesus our Passover Lamb,

We give thanks for the unswerving love you showed in your death and burial. Forgive and strengthen us so that we can rise with you, restored by your grace. Amen.


Ah, holy Jesus   ELW 349, H82 158, UMH 289, NCH 218
Were you there   ELW 353, UMH 288, H82 172, NCH 229


Were you there, Richard Proulx