According to the New Testament, Jesus of Nazareth shared a final meal with His disciples on the night before His death (Mk. 14:17-25; Matt. 26:26-29; Lk. 22:14-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-25). The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) identify the Last Supper as a Passover meal. According to the Synoptics, Jesus ate this meal with His disciples on the Thursday evening of Passion Week and was crucified the following afternoon. Since days were calculated as beginning at sunset, Jesus’ last meal and crucifixion took place on the same day, the day of Passover.
The original Passover sacrifice at the time of Israel’s departure from Egypt was regarded as having redemptive significance. Given its Passover context, the Last Supper is best understood in relation to the meaning of Jesus’ death.
Within the setting of this shared meal with His disciples, Jesus assumed the role of the head of the family. He added His own words to the Passover liturgy when praying over the unleavened bread before the main meal and over the third cup of wine after the meal. With His two statements, “This is My body” and “This is My blood,” Jesus interpolated new meaning, based on His identity, into the Passover ritual.
The unleavened bread became a symbol for His body, and the wine of the “cup of the blessing” served as a symbol for His blood. During the course of the meal, Jesus prophetically identified Himself with both the bread and the wine that He “gave” to His disciples, interpreting these actions as His body broken and His blood poured out on their behalf, the seal of a new covenant. His words and actions anticipated His impending suffering and the value He attached to it, denoting His coming death and its meaning.
Several ideas crystallize around this basic concept of the Last Supper as a symbol of the death of Christ. Jesus understands His death as a vicarious self-giving event with universal significance. He further interprets His death as the means of ratifying the new covenant spoken of by Jeremiah (31:31-34). There are also indications that Jesus understood His death as the consummate act of the Servant of the Lord as described in Isaiah 53:12. Finally, the most obvious meanings attached to the Last Supper are those associated with the Passover. This Jewish feast was in Jesus’ day a celebration of two events: it looked back to commemorate Israel’s deliverance from captivity in Egypt, and it looked forward to the coming messianic kingdom.
When the Israelites were delivered from bondage in Egypt, the people were instructed to keep the Passover feast as a memorial through the generations (Ex. 12:14,17). The celebration of the Passover as a memorial was meant to witness to the present efficacy and significance of this past event. Faithful Israelites would express their identity as the redeemed people of God by participating in the feast and looking forward to their future deliverance in the messianic kingdom. The celebration was a family festival, emphasizing that God’s act of redemption is concerned not merely with individuals but with the creation of a people composed of families who will love and serve Him.
In using the Passover meal to instruct His disciples about the meaning of His imminent death, Jesus conveyed to them not only that He is the ultimate Passover sacrifice (cf. 1 Cor. 5:7) but that by His death and resurrection He is to deliver the people of God from the power of sin. He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29), whose death and resurrection inaugurates a new exodus. Those who accept Jesus as Messiah and who share in this deliverance by faith are reconstituted as the people of a new covenant.
Jesus’ promise not to eat the Passover or drink the fruit of the vine again until the kingdom of God has arrived provides the church with a promise of hope and, in the shadow of the cross, offers a note of joy. Jesus not only sees His resurrection beyond the darkness of Calvary but a time when He would share with His disciples the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in the age to come (Rev. 19:9).
By Dr. David Rightmire