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At the Last Supper, Jesus celebrated with his disciples by eating the Passover meal. He reinterpreted it to show how it pointed to him as being the perfect Lamb of God, the atoning sacrifice for the sins of all people.
Course: New Testament Survey - Gospels
Lecture: Life of Jesus: Last Supper
Hi, all. We’re going to talk about the Last Supper. Perhaps best would start by reading the preparation of this on page 280 — 280 in your synopsis, following the Marken account, page 280: “And on the first day of unleavened bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, His disciples said to him, ‘Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?’ And he sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the city and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him and wherever he enters, say to the householder, the teacher says where is my guest room where I am going — where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples.’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready. There, prepare for us.” And they do that and that takes place as is said.
Now, my own understanding of this is that this event, like the Triumphal Entry is planned. I mean, there are a number of reasons for that. First of all, men did not usually carry water. That was woman’s work in that fay. Furthermore, when they see this man they are to ask him, ask the householder whose house he enters, where is my guest room where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples? He’s not going to say, “Do you have a guest room I can use?” but “Where’s the one prepared for me and my disciples?” It must be that this man knows that Jesus is expecting to use his guest room and I think that this is prepared for as well.
Now there’s some problem in the dating of this event. Now all the Gospels agree that Jesus was crucified on Friday. Now that’s their Friday which is Thursday 6pm to our Friday 6pm. And we have that for instance in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. Let’s look at a couple references to that real quickly. Keep your finger back at 280 and enter with me to 323, Mark 15:42 at the top of the page, “And when evening had come, since it was the day of preparation.” That is the day before the Sabbath. All right, this day is the day before the Sabbath which would be Thursday 6pm to Friday 6pm. The Sabbath would begin Friday 6pm. John, down below, 19:31, page 322, “Since it was the day of preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the Sabbath for the Sabbath was a high day.” So this is again the Friday according to John’s account, and then when we go to page 324 Matthew has, at the very bottom of the page, verse 62, “Next day, that is after the day of preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate.”
So, after the day of preparation, which is the day that Jesus eats the Passover will be the Sabbath day. So that seems to be reasonably clear. Now, there is one issue that comes up on page 280, and that is in verse 12. It says, “On the first day of unleavened bread when they sacrificed the Passover lamb.” Actually, the first day of unleavened bread was the 15th of Nisan. The day they sacrificed the lambs was the 14th of Nisan.
So there’s a technical error here if you want to look at it this way, but we’re not dealing with technicalities. We’re dealing with how people understood and reckoned with their time. The day, the 14th of Nisan, was the beginning of Passover celebrations. It was the day where people came and searched the houses for leaven. It was the day where they prepared the sacrifice by going to the temple and having the Passover lamb slain. So that when you think of the Passover, you think practically of it starting on the 14th, not the 15th, just as I celebrated Christian Christmas as a boy on December 24th. That’s when Christmas started for us because in German homes, the evening of the 24th was the day you exchanged gifts. Now, I knew, Christmas was the 25th, but if you asked me when we celebrated Christmas, when’s Christmas coming, I’d say, “Evening of the 24th,” because popularly that’s the way we understood it.
Now in a similar way, popularly, the people thought of the first day of unleavened bread beginning really of the feast of the Passover as with the sacrifice of the lamb and the search of the house for leaven that had to be removed. That’s when the Passover began. So, the first difficulty we have here about the first day of unleavened bread here when they scarified the Passover, it’s not a difficulty when you’re thinking the way the people think and the way Mark is explaining it. When they began this Passover celebration on the first day, that’s the day when they sacrificed the Passover lamb and went out and looked for the leaven, and that’s they way it was in their common understanding.
The more difficult question of chronology here is that in the synoptic gospels, the Passover is understood as being involved into a Lord’s Supper so that what they celebrate on, at the Lord’s Supper is the Passover itself. Look at Mark 14:14, line 16, “And wherever he enters, say to the householder, ‘Where is my guestroom where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples?’” And then jump to verse 16: “And his disciples set out and went to the city and found it as he had told them and they prepared the Passover.” Luke 22:15, that’d be page 284, top of page 284, then Jesus says to them, just before the Last Supper, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” So the synoptic gospels have the Lord’s Supper as being part of the Passover celebration.
The problem is with John. In John, it’s just 18:28, that’s the most clear verse and short rather, precisely. That would be page 307. Here, now, notice the heading, “Jesus Delivered to Pontius Pilate.” The Lord’s Supper must be over. They’ve gone to the garden of Gethsemane. He’s been arrested. There’s been a trial. He’s now brought to Pontius Pilate. John states, “Then they led Jesus from the house of Caithus to the praetorium. It was early. They themselves did not enter the praetorium so that they might not be defiled but might eat the Passover.” If they entered the praetorium, there are idols around remember this is a Roman court, um, thrown room so to speak. If you entered there you become contaminated by the idolatry of the room. And therefore you would not be able to eat the Passover meal. You would have to go through a cleansing. But notice the Passover’s future here. It has not yet occurred. And so we have this conflict between what the synoptic gospels wills ay that the Lord’s Supper is associated with the Passover and with the gospel of John where all this over and Jesus is arrested and he’s been tried and the Passover is still future. The other references you can look at also affirm that.
Now there’s been lots of attempts to try to understand and bring some harmonization to this and, what is interesting for me, is that a lot of people, a lot of German scholars for instance, have tried to work something out here that makes sense and these people don’t have our doctrine of venerency. They’re not protecting doctrine of venerencey like we are but they simply have too much faith in the gospel accounts and the writers of the gospel that think there’s a blatant error here in some way. And so there’ve been a number of suggestions. One attempted solution is that they argue that the synoptic gospels are correct. The Lord’s Supper was part a Passover meal and what John 18:28 refers to when it says they might eat the Passover was not the Passover itself but various meals that they would celebrate during that week of celebration called the feast of Tabernacles. So it’s not the first day Passover that they’re talking about in John. They’re talking about the subsequent celebrations and meals. They didn’t want to be defiled with respect to those later meals that would occur at the end of the, during the rest of the week.
Well, the problem with that is that the word Passover is used here and it would be a strange word to use with respect to the subsequent meals. Some have therefore suggested, well actually the gospel of John is the correct one. Not the synoptic gospels. That John here indicates that the Passover celebrated in the synoptic gospels was not the real Passover but that Jesus knew he would be dead during the Passover so therefore he want to celebrate it nonetheless and he celebrated it earlier. He anticipated the Passover meal so that what Jesus celebrated was a special kind of Passover meal because he knew he would not be alive when the Passover came.
Uh, now we do know that there were instances where people could not be in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover and they would come late and some provision was made so that they could celebrate the Passover privately on their own after the actual date. This however is different. This is celebrating it before the Passover and there’s some real questions as to whether this would have been possible where you can simply say “Would you prepare our lamb for the Passover meal? We want to celebrate it early because of various reason.”
Others have suggested, well, they’re really both correct and what you have to do is to understand the unusual situation. We know that the Passover came on a Sabbath and therefore, due to it falling on — supposedly because it was going to fall on the Sabbath, there as division among the Pharisees and the scribes and the Sadducees. The Pharisees said, “We should celebrate it a day early because we don’t want to have the Passover take place on the Sabbath,” and the Sadducees said, “No, we should leave it as it normally is on the very day it occurs.” So the Pharisees had the celebration of the Passover before the Sabbath. The Sadducees after the Sabbath, and the synoptic gospels follow the reckoning of this of the Pharisees and the Gospel of John follows that of the Sadducees.
Another attempt to explain this is that there may have been uncertainty as to when the month began. How do you know when the month begins in biblical times? You go at night and you wait til you see a new moon or a full moon or something like that. I don’t know if it’s new or full. But when that begins — I think it’s the new moon — that’s the beginning of the month. Well some have suggested that perhaps it was foggy and you couldn’t tell exactly the day when the new moon began, thus the month began and some people took the first day earlier the Pharisees thought it was a day earlier than the Sadducees and the synoptic gospels follow that.
Some have suggested that due to the enormous number of sacrifices now we’re talking about — my goodness — five to ten thousand lambs being slain. I mean, that’s a huge butchering operation. And some say that because of the great number of sacrifices, it was done over a two day period and the sacrifices, um, that for the Passover by the pilgrims from Galilee was a day earlier than the residents of Jerusalem. And the synoptic gospels follow the Galilean understanding and the Gospel of John follows the Judean sacrifice and celebration.
Still another which has come recently more to the fore is the fact that there were two different calendars in Israel. The majority of people in Israel followed a lunar calendar. But the Qumran community followed a solar calendar. And it’s been suggested that maybe the difference in the dates is due to one following a solar calendar instead of a lunar calendar, and the like.
I must confess that there’s no explanation that really grabs me and I say, “I think this really resolves the problem.” I don’t know how how it exactly resolves. There may be some evidence that comes up some time that will make it clear to us, but at the present time it’s not clear that there is this problem between the synoptic gospels as to the Passover and the Gospel of John and I think the better thing to do is simply admit that it exists there and say, “We don’t know exactly how it is to be understood.”
That doesn’t mean that I don’t think that it’s possible to understand it or that if enough evidence was there we could understand it. It’s just that we don’t have that evidence to understand it. And sometimes things that seem to be so impossible for both to be true can be true if we have the evidence. And I remember to remind you the story of a sabbatical I spent in Germany and in Switzerland. When you know enough, you agree these apparently conflicting statements can be both true.
Now, as to the Last Supper itself, I am convinced that it was a Passover and Euakam Euameus wrote a book on the Eucharistic words of Jesus and still think that most of his arguments are very, very strong to argue that the Last Supper is associated with the Passover. And there are a number of reasons for that.
First of all, this meal was eaten — was eaten in the walled city of Jerusalem. Other nights, they went back to Bethany. This night, they did not. They ate in the walled city of Jerusalem. And that was a requirement. The Passover had to be celebrated in Jerusalem and the meal itself had to be eaten within the walled city. This meal is eaten in the walled city of Jerusalem. Fits exactly what you’d expect with the Passover.
Most meals, most times, there were two meals that the Jews ate during the day. Some late morning around ten o’clock and then late afternoon. This meal was eaten at night. On the evening on which Jesus was betrayed he took bread. And the Passover had to be eaten at night in light of the circumstances of the Passover. It was — took place at night. And so here you have a meal that is eaten at night. It fits the Passover. It’s not the usual way of eating. The meal is eaten in a reclined position.
Uh, in other words, it’s not just a normal meal, it’s a special feast meal. I know we have this picture of the Lord’s Supper by, who is it, Leonardo DaVinci in which they’re sitting at this table and they’re all lined up facing you. But actually, the Greek word used is reclined. And this was the kind of meal on which you’d recline on cushions and you would face towards a table in the middle, which was a short table, maybe eight, nine inches off the ground, ten inches off the ground. And facing it, you would lie with cushions under your arms and you’d reach out and eat that way. Uh, have you ever wondered why when Jesus was at certain feasts people could get and wash his legs, his feet? It’s kind of hard crawling under the table that Leonardo has out there. But if you’re facing like spokes to a table on cushions, then it’s easy access and people can see what’s going on and so forth. We have expressly said in the Gospels that this is a meal in which they were reclining, not sitting.
Uh, this meal ended with a hymn which was part of the Passover. You would end a Passover meal with a hymn and that night they don’t return to Bethany, but they spend the night on the Mount of Olives in the Garden of Gethsemane. Now, because of the problems with regard to the enormous amount of people that were there — for instance, when we talk about the city of Jerusalem, it might twenty-five to thirty thousand people. Now, when the Passover came, some eighty-five to maybe a hundred and twenty-five thousand pilgrims would be there. Now, what city do you know, about thirty thousand, that can handle a hundred thousand visitors? I don’t know of any city that has that kind of hotel space. But the meal had to be eaten in the city. So what you have here is the city of Jerusalem itself and these are the walls. It was impossible for everybody to spend the night there. So, the hills that were surrounding Jerusalem — the sides that faced into Jerusalem were now incorporated into the suburbs of Jerusalem and the rabbis defined greater Jerusalem as the hillsides surrounding Jerusalem facing it.
Now the Mount of Olives is over here. The city of Bethany is on the reverse slope of the Mount of Olives facing east, not toward Jerusalem. So, Bethany, you could not spend the night. But the Garden of Gethsemane faces and you could spend the night there. So, what people would do, the thousands and thousands of pilgrims would come and they’d bring their ten trailers and they’d set them up all on the sides of the hills and they’d spend the night there. But, the meal is in Jerusalem, the walled city. The Lord’s Supper and the Passover meal in the walled city of Jerusalem. The night spent in the Garden of Gethsemane on the slope facing Jerusalem, so it’s part of greater Jerusalem, and therefore it fits exactly what we know with regard to the celebration of the Passover meal.
There are other similarities. I have them in your notes. You can look over those, but this is, I think, sufficient, to give you an idea. I believe firmly that the Lord’s Supper was part of the Passover. It’s at the end of the Passover that this takes place.
Now let’s look again at your synopsis and this time let’s look at page 284. Now, the words of the Lord’s Supper that I want to call our attention are essentially three in number. The first is, “This is my body.” Now, in your synopsis, if you look at line 17, Matthew has taken “this is my body.” Mark takes “this is my body.” Luke, “this is my body given for you.” First Corinthians or Paul, “This is my body which is for you.” All of the four accounts have a reference to the body of Christ, that the bread is the body of Christ.
Now let me just stop here and go from the description historically to a theological issue about how to interpret the Lord’s Supper. In the Roman Catholic and in the Greek Orthodox and also in the Lutheran understanding, there is what we call the doctrine of the Real Presence. For the Roman Catholic position, the bread actually becomes the body of Christ. It may look like bread. It may taste like bread. It may test out as bread. But it isn’t bread. It’s the body of Jesus. The Lutheran view that would be trans substation where it’s transformed into the body of Christ. The Lutheran understanding is that the bread is still bread but in and around the elements of bread is the real body of Christ. So that you are eating the real body of Christ there, although the bread is still there but in and around the parts of bread are the body of Christ. The Baptist view is essentially that this is a memorial and the emphasis is “do this in remembrance of me.” The Calvinist reform tradition is that, us, there is a sense that during this eating of the bread we spiritually feast on Jesus. Okay? And so you have this range. The very body of Christ in the Roman Catholic, Luther position, and also the Greek Orthodox who actually partake of the body of Christ. Luther makes this very, very clear when some of those are arguing oh, this is, you know, a memorial or this is metaphorical language. He says no. During the Lord’s Supper we gnaw on the very bones of Jesus. I mean, Luther had a way of saying his mind and making it very specific and he wanted to indicate this is no memorial. We’re really eating the body of Jesus. So, you have the idea of the Real Presence in Lutheran and Catholic. Uh, you have the spiritual presence in the reform group and Baptists, essentially. The only thing we really know when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper is Jesus isn’t there in in any way.
Now think with me. If you were there and you were — you asked a disciple, “Where’s the body of Jesus?” They’d say, “There, there he is. Can’t you see him? He’s over there.” It’s very unlikely that at the same time they would point to Jesus in the bread and say, “These are both the real body of Jesus.” It’s conceivable at the Last Supper that the bread there is not understood metaphorically and it would be emphasized by something else.
Now, in Luke and in first Corinthians, there is a reference, line 19, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Both Luke and in first Corinthians. Do this in remembrance of me. Then when we get to the third word, there is a reference to the blood of the covenant. Uh, new covenant in my blood is Luke, first Corinthians, and then for many is added by Matthew and Mark. Now it’s at this point where I think it’s impossible for me to take this as a real presence of the blood of Jesus because what is the attitude of Jewish people towards eating, drinking blood? It’s forbidden in the law. When this is given, these words are said, we hear nothing of any protest here. Nothing about, “Oh, lord, this is forbidden in the New Testament — uh, the Old Testament. I can’t do that.”
Think in contrast now to an event later on when the Apostle Peter has a vision which will help interpret the following event with a man named Cornelius and he has a vision of a sheet coming down from heaven and there are all sorts of unclear, forbidden animals. Pork, spare ribs, lobster, shrimp, all those kinds of things. And the voice says to Peter, “Rise, Peter. Kill and eat.” Now how does Peter respond? He says, “No, I can’t do that. It’s unkosher.” And he has to be told that he should do what God has commanded. Now I can’t envision that when — when he saw the sheet coming down from heaven with these unclean animals in this vision and the Lord says to him, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat,” that he responded something like this: [25:48] “No, I can’t do that. Now I drink blood all the time, but I can’t eat unclean animals like this.” It just — there is nothing like this. Nothing of the shock, nothing of the hindrance.
This is forbidden at the Lord’s Supper because I think they understood it all metaphorically. Jesus lots of times refers to himself as the lamb of God. He’s not a real Lamb, but he’s like a Lamb of God. It’s a metaphor. I am the door. I am the vine. I am the good shepherd. He wasn’t ever a real shepherd. And the use of all this “I am” language indicates that he uses metaphors freely. And so my understanding is that this is metaphorical language. I do incline, however, to more of a reform Jew that there is a special way in which Jesus is present and we spiritually feed on him at the Lord’s Supper. I think it is meant to be not a sacrament that works in and of itself apart from faith but of means of faith. It helps us to grow in love and commitment and understanding as well.
One final thing, a word about the future. All of the accounts have a word about the future. If you go to line 28, Matthew has, “I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my father’s kingdom.” Mark has, line 28, “Truly I say to you I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” Luke has it, but he has it in line 9 before the Lord’s Supper, an unusual order. “And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it amongst yourselves for I shall tell you that from now on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’” So, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all a reference to the coming of the kingdom of God and looking forward to that and eating at that time again with his followers. Now, if you look at first Corinthians, synopsis ends at verse 23 excuse me, verse 25, but in verse 26 he says, “For as often as you eat this bread, and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death,” now you have the future, “until he comes.”
So the Lord’s Supper, in all accounts, has a forward-looking dimension as well as a backward one. The back one: the death of Jesus for our sins on the cross. The future: his return and our sharing in the messianic banquet when he comes again in the future and let me just comment here. That’s why I think we have to be careful not to make the Lord’s Supper a morbid kind of experience. I think we’re good on emphasizing the first part, the death of Jesus on our behalf. And we have man of sorrows. What a name. And we drag that out so it becomes kind of a funeral dirge. But you have to remember, that song ends, “When he comes, our glorious king, all is ransom, home to bring, then anew this song we’ll sing. Hallelujah, what a savior.” And I think you have to look forward at the end of the lord’s supper. Joyously, triumphantly, and with expectation. It’s not simply a morbid look at the past, at his death, but a glorious, hopeful, anticipatory look at his coming again. I think that’s very, very important.
The Passover meal itself was an acted out parable. It was a ritual. Very important ritual, wonderful ritual that allowed people to rethink and, to a certain extent, relive their historical past. Uh, there were various elements. For instance, there was a Passover lamb. Surely as you ate that, you had in mind the story of the Passover where a lamb was slain and the blood of the Passover lamb was smeared on the lintels of the doors of the people of Israel. And when the angel of death came to visit he passed over — Passover — the houses that had the blood of the Passover lamb and only struck those who did not have it and so the firstborn of the people of Israel were spared. The firstborn of Egypt died.
The Passover lamb had to be cooked in a special way. It could not be put into a pot. It could not touch any sides of a pot. It had to be roasted over a spit and everything had to be eaten at night, You could not leave anything over. If any food was left over, you threw it into the fire and it burned. That was part of the ritual. Uh, and since meat was a a rare occurrence in the meal of the average child of Israel, they would delight in the lamb and eat all of it. There had to be twelve people present, twelve meals present, and the host was normally the father. In this particular instance, the host would be Jesus who’s hosting the meal and he has his twelve disciples.
There was unleavened bread which was to remind the people that when God delivered them out of Egypt, there was not time to bake bread. So instantaneous was their delivery. There was also on the table a bowl of salt water which they would taste and it would remind them of the tears they shed in Egypt in their sorrow. Also might be some allusion here to the crossing of the Reed or Read Sea. There was a bowl of bitter herbs which they tasted, which would remind them of the bitterness of their slavery. There was a brown like paste — the charoset — which reminded them of the bricks that they made while they were slaves. And then there were four cups of wine which go back to the Old Testament celebration of the Passover. Uh, in Exodus 6:6, God says, “I am Lord. I will bring you out from the burdens of the Egyptians and I will deliver you from their bondage and I will redeem you with an outstretched hand and with great acts of judgment. And I will take you for my people and will be your God.” You know, every one was to enjoy the four cups of the Passover and if you did not have money, you would go to the temple poor box in order to obtain money so you could share in the glory and the joy of the occasion. You’re even told that, if you had to, you should sell your clothes in order that you could partake in this because everybody was to relive this great experience.
Now, one of the things that would happen towards the end of the meal, would be that the youngest son — generally it was the youngest son who would be assigned to ask their father, “Father, why is this day different than other days?” And then the father, in this case the host is Jesus, he would tell the story of the Passover. Now the way they would say it would not be in past tense. He would say, “Once our fathers were in Egypt and we were in bondage and God remembered them and God delivered them,” but he would go this way. “Once we were in Egypt and we were in bondage. And God remembered the covenant he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And he sent us a deliverer by the name of Moses.” And he’d tell the whole story of the Passover in first person plural. Because they were there. Yes, well, nah they weren’t — yes, they were there in their understanding because they were in the quote-unquote loins of their father and mother.
And so what happened to mom and dad, or great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great mom and dad happened to us because we were present. We are their descendants. Now, when you start thinking now of the Lord’s Supper, you notice that there are a lot of similarities. The retelling of the Passover tells about the covenant that God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and now you have here a discussion of this new covenant that Jesus is establishing. We were once slaves in Egypt. This is my blood shed for the remission of sins, through your slavery, through your sins. Deliverance. Deliverance from sin. The blood of the lamb. This is my blood. And Paul says, first Corinthians, 5:7, “Christ, our Passover, has been slain for us,” and draws that analogy. The interpretation of the various elements which I’ve given already and then the emphasis on the continual celebration of this.
So that what we have here now is the retelling of the story of the Exodus and there’s a sense in which now we have a new covenant with a different kind of Exodus from sin and we have a different lamb that’s slain. Christ, our Passover. And that I think I’d suggest to you that sometime, as pastors, when you have the Lord’s Supper, you should go through this whole understanding of the telling of the Passover story and get the minds of people in the light of the Passover which Jesus has just told them about and then he goes into the story of a new covenant delivered for them.
And for me the historical analogies are very, very powerful and influential. I furthermore — I’ve been at some places where some Hebrew Christians have allegorized all of the elements. You don’t have to. You don’t have to allegorize it. They’ll look for something that’s not necessarily there. Just tell it as it is with the Passover represented, with — you don’t have to start saying, “Well, Jesus is the bread of life,” and so forth and so on.” It makes perfectly good sense and has a rich meaning telling about the unleavened bread and how God delivered the people there and how Jesus Christ is our deliverer and savior and it’s a new and greater and more important Passover. I’ve already talked to you about the two dimensions. We remember his death until he comes. Okay? And don’t leave the “until he comes” out on a celebration of the Lord’s Supper.