W Publishing Group
The night before he felt the nails, he gathered twelve friends together around a table . . . and ate. I ’ve had some pretty amazing meals in my lifetime. They span the extremes, from the sublime to the sensational, from the most primitive to the most formal, fashionable, and elegant. I’ve been invited to banquets in governors’ mansions and have sat at the captain’s table on ocean cruises. I’ve also eaten in rugged missionary huts and around campfires with my family, enjoying delicious fresh-caught fish, and I’ve tried to choke down hospital meals that tasted like a mixture of wet plaster and soggy cardboard.
Having done more than my share of eating (!) in my more than six decades, I can tell you that, if given a choice, I much prefer a small, intimate setting to a large, impersonal gathering. As a matter of fact, the more I study the New Testament and examine how the people of that era ate their meals, the more I think I would have felt right at home with them, especially among Jesus and His disciples. Almost without exception, they kept their meals simple, and they kept the group small. No five- or six-course feasts. No elegant banquets or flashy decorations. And no formal, sophisticated protocol. Nowhere was this more evident than when they ate the Passover meal together.
Centuries have passed since the evening Jesus sat in the upper room and shared that last simple meal with His disciples. Simple, yet extremely important. During those centuries, that meal has taken on enormous significance. Unfortunately, it has also taken on the trappings of religion—the “extras” of complicated rituals and denominational distinctives. In doing so, it has lost, I believe, some of the profound simplicity that surrounded the table when Jesus and His men met together for supper that final night.
First of all, let’s consider why they were together.
It was almost time for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover Feast. The leading priests and teachers of the law were trying to find a way to kill Jesus, because they were afraid of the people. The Day of Unleavened Bread came when the Passover lambs had to be sacrificed. Jesus said to Peter and John, “Go and prepare the Passover meal for us to eat.”
—Luke 22:1–2, 7–8
Every year, on the fourth Thursday of November, many Americans prepare a lavish meal. We invite our nearest and dearest—family and friends—and celebrate the Thanksgiving meal. This is the holiday that remains my all-time favorite of the year. It is a time when we gather for two simple reasons: to have a meal and to remember.
Passover might be considered the Thanksgiving celebration of the Jews. It’s not a Thanksgiving with turkey and trimmings, pilgrims and Plymouth Rock, but a time of remembrance of something far more significant.
When the Hebrews were in Egypt, God called Moses to lead them out of slavery and into the Promised Land. On the night of that great Exodus, God told His servant, in effect, “Moses, give these instructions to the Hebrews. Tell each household to choose a perfect lamb—one that is unblemished, without scars or imperfections. They are to take that spotless lamb, kill it in the way I have specified, and drain the blood into a pan. Take that blood and smear it on the doorway of their homes. For tonight, Moses, the Angel of the Lord will visit Egypt. Any home with blood on the door, he will ‘pass over’ that home and leave it untouched. But if he finds no blood on the door, death will enter that home, and the oldest son will die. There will be no exception, Moses. The Destroyer will ‘pass over’ only when he sees the blood.” (See Exodus 12:1–29.)
That began the single most important of all the Jewish observances. Appropriately, it is called “Passover.” God made it clear that they were to remember that epochal night from then on; and when they did, they were to explain its significance to their children. The meal became the Jews’ most important celebration.
On His last night with His disciples, Jesus celebrated the Passover, as devout Jews had been doing for centuries. Appropriately, He used that meal of remembrance to turn their attention to His own approaching death.
And they prepared the Passover meal.
As the Jews celebrated their annual Passover Feast of remembrance and thanksgiving, the required ingredients of that feast were passed down from generation to generation in the traditional teachings of the six hundred thirteen Laws of the Torah. This included the slaughtering and preparing of “the Paschal lamb” (Exodus 12:6); the obligation to eat the Paschal lamb—that is, to participate in the Passover Seder (Exodus 12:8); the proper preparation of the lamb—it must be roasted (Exodus 12:9); the prohibition against leaving any remains of the Lamb (Exodus 12:10); the requirement to eat matzah (unleavened bread) during Passover (Exodus 12:18); the obligation to tell one’s child the story of the liberation from Egypt (Exodus 13:8). These are just a few of the specific instructions from the Torah regarding Passover. Nothing was all that complicated, but what was stated was to be followed to the letter.
The Feast of Passover was centered around three items: roasted lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread. The roasted lamb was central. It was to remind them of the sacrifice of the spotless lamb and the blood spread on the doorposts of believing Hebrew homes. The bitter herbs were a mixture of lettuce, endive, roots, peppermint, and dandelion. As the sting of those bitter herbs touched the tongue, they offered a vivid taste of the stinging years that their Hebrew ancestors had spent in slavery. The unleavened bread was to remind them of the haste with which the Hebrews had to prepare to leave with Moses, their deliverer.
But this night, Jesus created a new tradition: He turned familiar foods into foreboding symbols.
And when the hour had come, He reclined at the table, and the apostles with Him.
—Luke 22:14, NASB
At the risk of losing favor with those who are lovers of great works of art, I need to say something that some may not appreciate, and that is this: Leonardo da Vinci did Christianity a great disservice with his painting The Last Supper. Not to the world of art, you understand; artistically his painting is a masterpiece. But historically and biblically the masterpiece is far from authentic.
In da Vinci’s painting, Jesus and His disciples are sitting on one side of the table, in chairs, “facing the camera,” as it were. But Jesus and the Twelve would not have sat in chairs with high backs at a table some thirty inches from the floor. In the First Century, when people ate a meal, they sat on the floor on small pallets or rugs. In fact, they reclined on their sides, around a table built low to the floor, leaning on one elbow.
Also, they did not eat with utensils, as we do. Bread served as a utensil to sop up or scoop up the other ingredients. Nor was their bread like our common loaf of bread; it was a flat loaf, like our pita bread—and at Passover, made deliberately without the leaven, it was flat and brittle. They would break the bread and dip it into the bitter herbs, then pile on pieces of roasted lamb.
Picture Jesus and His disciples, reclining in a casual circle around a low table, facing each other and eating the Passover meal, as faithful Jews had done for centuries. Those men had eaten that meal, much as Americans have eaten our Thanksgiving meal, all their lives.
No surprises. No unexpected moments . . . until Jesus began to speak to them as a group.
He said to them, “I wanted very much to eat this Passover meal with you before I suffer. I will not eat another Passover meal until it is given its true meaning in the kingdom of God.”
The disciples, of course, had no clue how significant this gathering would be. They were barely paying attention, eating the Passover and talking among themselves.
Many folks today view the Twelve as immortal saints of the faith—but at this point in their training, they were very human, sometimes contentious, proud, and competitive. They had no concept of what lay ahead in the coming hours: Jesus would leave them that night and go to the cross, and their faith would later be tested in the fires of persecution.
We’ll leave all this for now because I don’t want us to drift from where we’re headed in this scene as Jesus is with His men around the table.
While they were eating, Jesus took some bread and thanked God for it and broke it. Then he gave it to his followers and said, “Take this bread and eat it; this is my body.” Then Jesus took a cup and thanked God for it and gave it to the followers. He said, “Every one of you drink this. This is my blood which is the new agreement that God makes with his people. This blood is poured out for many to forgive their sins. I tell you this: I will not drink of this fruit of the vine again until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
They ate together, celebrating the Passover Feast. Traditionally, as devout Jews, they would have been quoting from the ancient Scriptures, remembering the days when their forefathers were enslaved in Egypt and delivered by God through His servant Moses. Suddenly, they noticed that Jesus was no longer participating in the conversation.
He looked somber—perhaps more somber than He had looked during all their years together.
As they watched with curiosity, Jesus took a piece of unleavened bread and broke it. Then He bowed His head and prayed. The passage says, “He thanked God for the bread.” We don’t know specifically what He prayed. Perhaps He asked God that the disciples might begin to sense the significance of that night, the last one He would be spending with them. They didn’t know it was the last, but Jesus knew, and He wanted to help them understand what He was about to do . . . and what it would mean to them. Perhaps He prayed for strength in light of what lay ahead. Whatever the untold details might be, we know that having broken the bread and given thanks, He said, “Take this bread and eat it; this is my body.”
What? What was He talking about? They must have looked back and forth at each other, confused. Jesus had never said this before. He was suddenly breaking with tradition, leaving them completely shocked. Theologians, too, have been confused for centuries over that statement. Some have taught that the bread served at the Lord’s Table actually becomes the body of Christ when it enters the mouth of the believer. Others believe that when the priest stands before the people and breaks the bread it becomes the body of Christ. Others say that it is representative—a spiritual symbol of the body of Christ. I believe that the best answer is the most simple and direct: The bread is a picture of His body, a representation of His body that was given for us on the cross.
In my wallet I carry a small picture of my family. Occasionally, someone will say to me, “We’d love to see your family, Chuck.” And I’ll reach into my pocket and pull out my family to show them. Not literally, of course; it’s just a picture of my family. But I say, “This is my family.”
That’s what Jesus meant when He said to them that night, “This is my body.”
Imagine the stunned silence. Imagine the questions that swarmed through the minds of the disciples: Is He really going to die? Why? What will happen to us? What about the kingdom He promised?
Have all these years with Him been in vain? Their stomachs must have been in knots. The first four books of the New Testament, the gospels, give no indication that a word was spoken in response. For a change, these twelve men sat in stunned silence.While the taste of the bread was still in their mouths, Jesus picked up a cup of wine. Down through the years people have imagined Jesus using all sorts of cups, from simple clay vessels to elaborate silver chalices.
Many myths have surrounded the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper, which some see as a sacred vessel. Those who promote such thinking believe the cup has somehow, somewhere been preserved and venerated through the centuries. Yet God has never wanted His people to worship or venerate any object or person other than Himself.
For that reason alone, I’m certain there was nothing elaborate or significant about the cup that Jesus chose on that last night. It was an ordinary, everyday drinking vessel—an earthen vessel, one of several on the table, filled with wine, from which He had been drinking.
Jesus took a cup, offered a prayer of thanks, and said to His disciples, “Every one of you drink this.”
I have often asked myself as I read this narrative, for what did Jesus give thanks? He had already asked the blessing on the meal. He had already asked the blessing on the bread. Why pray again? Give thanks for what?
It helps to understand that the same word that is used here for “cup” is used later when Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (KJV, italics mine). This is also a word that could be used to represent suffering. So as Jesus gave thanks for the cup, He may very well have been giving thanks for the suffering He was facing. And let’s not forget that the cup of suffering would include His death on a cruel cross. He knew the path that lay ahead of Him.
Then Jesus took a cup, gave thanks, and said, “Take this cup and share it among yourselves. I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until God’s kingdom comes.”
These words ended their time together: “You will never celebrate another Passover with Me,” Jesus was saying, “but there will come a day when we will celebrate together in My Father’s kingdom in the Father’s presence.”
With cup drained, thoughts lingered around the table. The meal ended with a brief song. Jesus then stood up and without announcement, left the room. They followed.
Jesus left the city and went to the Mount of Olives, as he often did, and his followers went with him. —Luke 22:39
Jesus and His disciples made their way out of the city and across the Kidron Valley to a garden along the soft slopes of the Mount of Olives. From what we read in Luke’s account, we know Jesus had frequently found quiet refuge in that wooded area . . . quite probably at Gethsemane itself. He did not choose to run and hide, knowing that danger was near, as we would be tempted to do. Instead, He led His men back to that familiar place, unafraid of the capture and arrest that lay ahead. Jesus led His disciples out into a dark night to face the brutal, hostile world that was lurking in the shadows.