The meal is constructed around the movement of four cups. The cups remind the participant of the four promises that God made in Exodus 6:6–7.
Therefore, say to the Israelites: "I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians."
To many Westerners, this sounds like one big long promise of deliverance. But the rabbis noted that these promises are distinct and the four cups of the Passover reflect this and have for thousands of years (although there is great debate about when the use of four distinct cups began). The four cups of the ancient Passover are as follows (I emphasize “ancient” because everybody wants to impose the modern cups on the ancient Passover; the meal has definitely changed at different points in history to reflect the context of the Jewish people):
Cup of Sanctification — “I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians…”
Cup of Deliverance — “I will free you from being slaves to them…”
Cup of Redemption — “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and mighty acts of judgment…”
Cup of Protection — “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God…”
These cups, and the distinction of the promises, were explained to me (by Ray Vander Laan) in the following way: Imagine these promises in the life of an addict. The first promise (the Cup of Sanctification) is as if God has told the addict, “Tomorrow, I will free you from your addiction!” The addict might respond, “Praise God! Thank you! But God, tomorrow, when I wake up, I'm going to want to drink.” But God would respond with the second promise (the Cup of Deliverance), “Oh, no you won't! I will even take away the desire to drink; I'm going to remove your addictive nature.” The addict may respond, "Oh, bless God! That is fantastic! But God, I don't know how to live sober.” And God would respond with the third promise (the Cup of Redemption), “But I will redeem you and teach you how to live!” For the ancient Eastern person, redemption is the process of being brought into a new household; you would adopt the identity and lifestyle of your new mishpuchah (again, for a fantastic treatment of this, read The Epic of Eden by Sandra Richter). Finally, the addict says, “O God, thank you for rescuing me and freeing me and teaching me how to live! But God — what if I fail?” And God would respond (the Cup of Protection), “Don't talk to me about failure. I will protect you!” God said that He will take them to be His people; that was easily recognized in the ancient world as wedding language. It's what a groom would say to his bride on the wedding day. “Today, I take you to me my treasured possession!” God is saying that failure won't get in the way of Him loving and protecting His people as a groom protects and loves his bride.
This was the promise and story of God in the Exodus. God came through on His promises and He gave the Hebrews a meal to remember always their fundamental identity as a rescued people, loved by God. After the meal, on that first Passover night, God told the Hebrews to stay up and keep watch (Exodus 12:42), because the LORD kept watch over them. To this day, Jewish people will often observe what is called leyl shimurim (“night of watching”), where the firstborn male will stay up all night keeping watch and remember how the LORD, who never slumbers nor sleeps, kept watch over His people. In fact, this is what Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to go and do outside the Gethsemane on the night of his betrayal. You may remember Jesus telling them, “Keep watch with me…”
This idea will be echoed even as they leave Egypt behind. Cornered by a Pharaoh (and an Egyptian army) who has changed his mind (yet again), the Hebrews find their back against the Red Sea, crying out for salvation. Moses tells them to “stand and watch” the salvation of the LORD. God instructs Moses to stretch his stick over the waters and He parts the Red Sea, saving the Hebrews from the Egyptians for the last time (in the Exodus at least).
One can't help but hear the refrain of the Exodus, “Stand and watch!” as God makes promises and delivers His people with mighty acts and an outstretched arm. Thankfully, there are defining moments in our lives that God harkens us back to — moments that aren't just empty callings to trust blindly a theoretical story. There are moments where He just says, “Stand and watch!” And we see the finger of God move. Hopefully, we mark these moments with meals or monuments or standing stones of remembrance. These will be the stories that define us. These will be the times that help us to trust the story. It's because we've painted our doors with the blood of a Lamb and seen the deliverance of God. We drink from the cups of promise and remember our own stories of rescue from our own Egypts. We've stood on the bank of our own Red Seas and seen the finger of God move.
And while those Red Sea moments aren't the standard experience that we have day in and day out, they are the moments in which God invites us to keep watch.
Because the sons and daughters of Israel have a desert on the other side of the Red Sea. And they have some tests that God wants to put them through. And they're going to have to remember that night on the bank of the Red Sea if they're going to be able to trust the story.
And the same will probably be true of us.