From Passover to Communion

Narrative #6

In the final lesson of this series Mike will review the main events of Jesus' 'Passion' and focus in on the history of the Jewish Passover and its transition to the meal of remembrance that Christians around the world observe.
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Jesus has finished His public ministry, has indicted the Pharisees for their disbelief and hypocrisy, has pronounced judgment on the nation and prophesied concerning its destruction as well as His own return at the end of the world. He now retreats to be with His disciples for their final hours together before He will be taken, tried, crucified and finally resurrected from the dead.

Matthew continues to tell the story in this last narrative, always being careful to demonstrate how all the features of Christ's life are in accordance with the Old Testament scriptures' prophecy about the life and the death of the Messiah (remember, Matthew wants to show that Jesus is the Messiah according to the Word. This was important for the Jews).

Review Outline

As we have seen in Matthew's gospel there is a certain order and sequence in the way he lays out his material:

  • Narratives - An orderly telling of events taking place in Jesus' life and ministry. There is dialogue, to be sure, but the narrative sections are used to move the action along.
  • Discourses - The narratives are followed by discourses where Matthew records the various teachings and conversations that Jesus has with His followers as well as His enemies.

I have demonstrated that Matthew's gospel has six narratives and five discourses. In this last chapter we will look at a key part of his sixth and final narrative: the last supper. Before we do that however, let us review briefly the main events described by Matthew in his sixth narrative.

Narrative Six Outline

  1. Final hours with his Apostles (26:1-56)
    1. Anointing and betrayal by Judas.
    2. The Passover meal and institution of the Lord's Supper/Communion.
    3. The time of prayer and His subsequent arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.
  2. The two trials (26:57-27:31)
    1. Trial before the Jewish High Priest, Caiaphas.
    2. Trial before Pilate.
  3. The crucifixion and burial (27:33-56)
  4. The resurrection and commission (28:1-20)

We are familiar with these events, but since this is the last chapter I would like to focus on one particular event in this final narrative, the Passover meal and institution of the Lord's Supper.

I believe we know well the story of Jesus' death, resurrection and the great commission He gave to the Apostles to make disciples of all nations. However, the Lord's Supper is something we still do today, and I would like to examine how and why it was begun.

History of the Passover

Origin of the Passover Meal - Exodus 12

The story of the Passover begins in Exodus 12. The Jewish nation had lived in Egypt for 400 years. By the end of that time they had been enslaved by a cruel Egyptian king/pharaoh who was afraid that their great numbers would overrun his nation.

During this time God appeared to Moses and commissioned him to lead the Jewish people out of Egyptian slavery and resettle them in a land promised to their ancestors centuries before. When Moses went before Pharaoh to ask for the release of his countrymen the king refused and oppressed them even more. In response to this, God sent many plagues on the Egyptians as a punishment for not releasing the Jews, but the king stubbornly refused to give in to God's will.

The tenth and final plague that would eventually force the Pharaoh to give in was the sending of an angel to kill every first-born Egyptian child and animal, but spare the Jewish children and animals. This protection of the Jewish people however, was based on their careful obedience and behavior on the terrible night when the angel of death would pass through the land. This Moses explains in the book of Exodus, chapter 12:1-13.

True to God's word, on that fateful night the angel of death passed through every home and field taking the first-born child and animal to the horror of the pharaoh and his people, but not a single Jewish person or animal belonging to them was harmed.

Completely defeated and afraid, the king released the Jews, and Moses led them out of the country where they had lived for four centuries.

In the following passages Moses recounts how this great event in the history of the Jews was to be memorialized by a special feast to be celebrated each year (Exodus 12:23-28).

In the spring of every year for the next 1400 years the Jews celebrated the Passover. For seven days before the actual meal they would make sure that there would be no trace of leaven of fermentation in their homes, since these had the negative connotation of worldliness and decay and the Passover was to renew their sense of purity and dedication to the Lord who had saved their nation with mighty deeds.

In this picture we can see the "look" of a typical Passover meal, a table and items that would have been present when Jesus, a good Jew, and His Apostles (all Jews) would have gathered for the last Passover meal that they would have eaten together.

Every item was filled with significance, history and function for their culture:

The low table and cushions:

There is a famous painting by Leonardo Da Vinci of the Last Supper showing Jesus and the Apostles sitting on chairs, with Jesus in the middle, and the Apostles are on either side of Him. This placement is incorrect according to Eastern custom of the time.

The table was U shaped, low to the ground and the men (men ate separately from the women) reclined on cushions. They sat on the same side to permit service on the other.

The first position on the extreme right was for the host, to his left was the honored guest or leader (the host sat first to protect and serve the honored guest). To the left of the honored one were the rest of the diners, seated in proportion to their importance and relationship to the honored guest.

From the accounts in the gospels we learn that John was next to Jesus since he rested his head upon the Lord (John 13:23) so he must have been seated to His left with Peter to the right acting as host and leader of the Apostles.

In Luke 22:8 we learn that Peter and John were the ones sent to set up the meal and later on there was an argument as to who was the most important among them, so it seems that they had taken the best spots on either side of the Lord, putting Judas last thus causing jealousy and dispute among the others.

An interesting theory is that after this dispute and grumbling, Peter in his impulsive way, switched places with Judas to calm things down. This would explain two things:

  • How Jesus was able to hand Judas a morsel of bread in order to show who the traitor was (He must have been seated next to him in order to do this, John 13:26).
  • Why Peter was last to have his feet washed. He would have to have been sitting in the furthest position (John 13:6).

The food and drink:

There have been many additions made to the original Passover meal eaten first in Egypt. At that time the Jews ate the meat from a lamb, representing the sacrifice made to save them, and unleavened bread as a symbol of their haste in leaving the land of Egypt along with the bitter herbs (mixed greens) as a reminder of their bitter experience.

By Jesus' time there were several items added to the meal:

  • There was still the meat and unleavened bread, and the mixture of greens referred to as "bitter herbs."
  • There was also a sharing of wine (four cups by Jesus' time), which represented the good life and blessings they enjoyed in the Promised Land. Each cup symbolized something in particular: sanctification, rejoicing, redemption, and thanksgiving.
  • We know that at Passover time no leaven or fermentation was permitted in the home so the wine they drank was new wine or grape juice, which had little or no alcohol content.

In later times the Jews added other items to the meal to symbolize Jewish religious significance, but the supper that Jesus and the Apostles shared had these basic elements.

The order of the meal:

In normal circumstances the father or head of the household would preside over the meal. He would take the cup and offer a blessing, and the others would follow suit. He would dip the bread/meat into the bitter herbs and eat, and the others would follow his lead.

This eating and drinking and offering of blessings would continue until the four cups of blessing and the food would be consumed completely.

During this process, in a regular family setting, one of the children would ask the father what the meaning of this meal was, and this set the stage for the father to recount, once again, the great story of redemption from Egyptian slavery experienced by the Jewish nation by the powerful hand of God.

This was the order and nature of the meal that Jesus was having with His disciples, when three extraordinary things happened (Matthew recounts two of these, and John the other one).

The Lesson of the Towel

5Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. 6So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, "Lord, do You wash my feet?" 7Jesus answered and said to him, "What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter." 8Peter said to Him, "Never shall You wash my feet!" Jesus answered him, "If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me." 9Simon Peter said to Him, "Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head." 10Jesus said to him, "He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you."
- John 13:5-10

According to the custom of the times, the owner of the room had left a bowl, towel and pitcher of water so that the guests could wash their feet before entering the room for their meal. In normal circumstances a slave or the youngest person would do this as a courtesy for his master's guests who were cleansed and refreshed after a long walk on the dusty back roads of the day.

I mentioned before that Peter and John had taken the places of honor next to Jesus, and an argument arose over the issue of each Apostle's importance, probably because of this. This attitude explained why no one's feet had been washed by the time the meal had begun. Each Apostle had walked in, seen the water and towel, but refused to lower himself to wash his own feet, and certainly was in no mood to wash someone else's feet. They were the "chosen" Apostles, men of importance, certainly above this common task.

Jesus, knowing the divisive and destructive nature of pride, resolves this issue by lowering Himself beneath all of His Apostles in order to teach them that the true nature of discipleship is service, not position. This was the lesson of the towel.

We do not wash feet today because it no longer is a sign of courtesy and hospitality, and with modern footwear it is not necessary. We do, however, continue to humble ourselves in mutual service in the name of the Lord. This is done, of course, in many ways and situations as we volunteer our time, talents and resources in serving the church.

The Revealing of the False Disciple

20Now when evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the twelve disciples. 21As they were eating, He said, "Truly I say to you that one of you will betray Me." 22Being deeply grieved, they each one began to say to Him, "Surely not I, Lord?" 23And He answered, "He who dipped his hand with Me in the bowl is the one who will betray Me. 24The Son of Man is to go, just as it is written of Him; but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born." 25And Judas, who was betraying Him, said, "Surely it is not I, Rabbi?" Jesus said to him, "You have said it yourself."
- Matthew 26:20-25

After washing the feet, the meal continues in its normal course, everyone having been uncomfortably silenced by Jesus' act of humility.

It is at this moment that the Lord reveals that there is a traitor among them. They are mortified to hear this and immediately begin questioning Jesus. Mark 14:18-31 tells us that all asked Jesus if they were the one, and Jesus replied nothing. Luke 22:23 says that they even whispered among themselves questioning who the traitor might be. Matthew, in the passage we have just seen, explains that Judas asked Jesus directly and the Lord replied, "you have said it yourself" which is a Hebrew way of saying, "what you say is what you are."

It is left to John, seated next to Jesus, to tell us that after Jesus exposes him, Judas leaves the room and seeks out the Jewish officials in order to offer his help in betraying Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. After his departure the group continues with the Passover meal, able to truly enjoy it now that Jesus has removed the final leaven of impurity with the removal of Judas from their midst.

Judas' departure sets the scene for the third important event of their gathering that night.

Institution of the Lord's Supper

26While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is My body." 27And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; 28for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. 29But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom."
- Matthew 26:26-29

They are nearing the end of the meal with only one cup of blessing remaining and a piece of unleavened bread to share. It is at this point, however, that Jesus changes the direction and meaning of the meal, from past to future.

The bread without leaven will no longer represent the holiness and purity that the people should have, but will now represent His holy and pure body given for them as a sacrifice for sin. The fruit of the vine will no longer represent the blessings and abundance of the Promised Land, but rather a symbol of His blood, His life, freely given in order to bring the blessings of forgiveness to all men. There will no longer be a lamb to sacrifice and eat in remembrance because the perfect "Lamb of God" will be offered once and will be an acceptable sacrifice for all men forever. There will no longer be bitter herbs as a memory of suffering because the memory of Christ's suffering will be eclipsed by His glorious resurrection. No one will have to ask what these things mean each year at this time because the good news will be preached every day and every hour until His return.

This is Jesus' last Passover, but it will also be the Apostles' last Passover because from now on they, and all disciples after them, will remember this night and share the bread and wine as a reminder of their freedom from the slavery of sin and death to the glory of eternal life through the offering of the body and blood of Jesus Christ the Savior.

Conclusion - Matthew Narrative Six

Matthew will conclude his eyewitness account of Jesus' final hours, crucifixion and resurrection. These are the darkest hours of mankind:

The Lord wrestles in prayer in a lonely garden spot while His Apostles lay back in a weary sleep.

Judas appears to betray the Holy One and the Lamb of Life is led away like a common criminal and condemned to die a cruel death on a Roman cross.

The harsh dawn rises to see the Son of God labor up to Golgotha's hill, the burden of men's sins on His bruised and bloodied back.

The Roman soldiers, skilled in death, quickly mounted this despised Jew on His cross between two criminals, satisfied that their work was nearly done for the day.

The crucifixion provides amusement for the crowd as the people and priests taunt the suffering savior, and hear Him cry out to the Father, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" Shortly thereafter Matthew says that Jesus yields up His spirit.

All that was left was to dispose of the body that, to their surprise, was claimed by prominent Jews, saving the guards the trouble of carrying the dead man to the common grave where all criminals were buried.

And so He lay three days; cut, scarred, pierced, battered and bruised, awaiting the glorious outcome for which men and angels had hoped for since the beginning of time.

1Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave. 2And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it. 3And his appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. 4The guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men. 5The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. 6He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying. 7Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you."
8And they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples. 9And behold, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him. 10Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they will see Me."
- Matthew 28:1-10
16But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. 17When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. 18And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
- Matthew 28:16-20
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