The Jewish celebration of the Passover meal compared with the Last Supper
Pp Mark 14:17-26, Luke 22:14-39
4. The Mazzah
7. Shulhan Orekh
10. After the meal
Pesahim chapter 10
The bread and the wine
Echoes of OT phraseology
1. Contrasts of the new with the old
2. A type of sin offering
3. The promise of the new covenant
The passage’s opening words (Mtw 26:20) place what follows during the early part of the following day when it’s remembered that the Jewish day begins at sundown. Therefore, although the day is still Thursday according to our Western interpretation of time, it’s Friday 15th Nisan - the day on which the Passover lamb was to be eaten and on which Jesus was crucified.
Mark 14:17 mentions that
‘...when it was evening He came with the twelve’
the inference seeming to be that it was just to be the thirteen of them who were to participate in the meal. I’ve noted on the previous web page, however, that short of saying that there were only the thirteen of them there, we may be justified in seeing some of the women who were expected to prepare the meal and courses of food which preceded the lamb.
This is no more than speculation, of course, but both Mtw 26:20 and Luke 22:14 neither preclude the presence of others or affirm them and we’re left to stay within the confines of the text as it stands.
The eleven verses of Matthew’s record covers a period of several hours and John’s record which records five chapters (John chapters 13-17) has sufficient time involved for it all to have happened - and much more besides. But Matthew deals with just two main events - the announcement of Jesus concerning His betrayal and the participation in the bread and the wine which were given new meanings and which read as if they occurred almost simultaneously when there was probably a space of a couple of hours between each one.
Marks’ record covers almost the exact same details but with a couple of differences and additions, but it’s Luke who records extensively the recollections of what transpired, adding details about the first cup of wine drunk during the evening (Luke 22:17-18), the dispute which arose amongst the disciples concerning which of them was the greatest (Luke 22:24-27 - something from which they never seemed to have learnt to desist on previous occasions - Mtw 18:1ff, 20:20ff), the promised reward for them in the coming Kingdom (Luke 22:28-30), the prophetic announcement concerning Simon’s denial (Luke 22:31-34) which appears to have been repeated in a different context as they journeyed towards or were nearing the Garden of Gethsemane (Mtw 26:31-35, Mark 27-31) and His teaching concerning provision and the coming tribulations (Luke 22:35-38).
Before we deal specifically with the questions which appear to be raised by such a passage as this, it will be best if we deal with the order of the Last Supper and put the passages recorded for us by all four Gospel writers into their correct context.
Much has been written about the Passover meal of the present day and how it can be seen to be echoed in the NT but very little has ever been put together which demonstrates how the earliest record we have of the order of the meal is almost a carbon copy of that which Jesus celebrated.
By doing this, we can see Jesus as a Man in His own time and place Him directly back into the relevant context of first century Israel. To do otherwise is to strip the texts of contexts. It’s with this, then, that we must begin.
The Jewish celebration of the Passover meal compared with the Last Supper
What I want to do in this section is to attempt to harmonise the Scriptural account of the Last Supper with the Jewish celebration of the Passover of that era. Being Gentiles, we fail to comprehend the necessity of understanding Scriptural events in their contemporary context and therefore often miss the full force and intent of the Scriptures.
There’s also much confusion as to what took place and at what time during that final evening before the crucifixion. For instance, questions such as
‘Did Judas take the bread and the wine?’
‘When did he leave?’
are questions that are often asked and which, I hope, will be satisfactorily answered by this section.
From the outset, it needs to be remembered that it’s very difficult to be absolutely sure as to the order of the celebrations that took place during Passover before the destruction of Herod’s Temple in 70AD but, using the Rabbinic record in the Mishnah (which is the earliest attempt [c.200 AD] at recording what took place before the destruction) this section has been compiled. The passage that deals with the order of the Passover meal is Pesahim chapter 10 and, if commentators had referred to no other passage this should have been the one - unfortunately, what the reader will find in many of the expositions of the paschal meal is that traditions and cultural additions have been used to colour the celebration which don’t seem to have taken place in the first century.
Pesahim chapter 10 is reproduced at the end of the notes on the Last Supper as it forms the basis of everything that will be written - as the reader journeys through this brief study, they’ll become aware just how similar the format of the meal there is with what’s come down to us in the NT writings.
Wherever and whenever it’s certain (to me, that is) that a particular aspect of the Passover celebrations have been added after 70AD, it has been omitted. There seems little point in trying to make Jewish tradition fit Scriptural fulfilment when it may have little or nothing to do with what God intended (for those of you familiar with some of the later additions to the order [the ‘seder’] of the meal, I have left out ‘Elijah’s cup’ - and the three pieces of mazzah [unleavened bread] that are normally associated with the work of Christ).
Today, Jews from different nations of the world celebrate the feast in differing ways though, essentially, the meanings behind the ceremonies are the same as they’ve been developed from the same common starting point - the nation’s experience as recorded in Exodus. There’s nothing inherently wrong with cultural development and application for, even within the church, the Gospel has been adapted to the nation in which it’s situated while still retaining the foundational truths - all that I’m trying to do in these notes, then, is to cause us to understand why certain things took place the way they did and the general order of the evening which has to be pieced together from the records that have come down to us.
The meal is generally called the ‘seder’ which means, very simply ‘order’ and represents the celebrations which took place on the evening of the 15th of Nisan after three stars were visible in the night sky. The Jews debated as to whether the Scriptural obligation was to eat the Passover on the 14th or 15th and finally concluded that the lamb was to be sacrificed on the 14th between the two evenings (between the waning of the sun during the day of the 14th and the dusk of the 14th and/or the beginning of the darkness of the evening of the 15th which began the next day - Ex 12:6), but that the meal was to take place on the evening of the 15th.
I have used modern day transliterations of the specific periods that are found in the seder without making the assertion that this is what they would have been labelled at the time of Christ. As I obtained them from a Jewish publication, I presume they’re right but I don’t mind correcting them if someone can provide me with ones that are more accurate!
It should be noted that the seder, although based upon Scriptural commands, has been developed beyond its bounds. Much of what is laid down is nothing more than interpretation and, as such, may not necessarily be a shadow of Christ that was to find fulfilment in His coming.
Jesus sat at table with the twelve (Mtw 26:20, Mark 14:17, Luke 22:14)
‘when it was evening...’
that is, the beginning of the 15th of Nisan and, from here, the paschal meal begins in the Gospel records.
We begin with the statement in Pesahim 10:2 which instructs the reader that
‘...after they have mixed him the first cup...he says the benediction...’
The word ‘kaddesh’ used here as a title to the section means ‘consecration’ and refers to the blessing that’s said over the first cup of wine (that is, the cup of thanksgiving). There are four different cups which were obligatory (Pesahim 10:1) and which, today, have four different names. These names don’t appear in the Mishnah but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they weren’t regarded as having specific functions. This first cup is passed around among those present and all partake of it.
The parallel here is with Luke 22:14-18 where the author tells us that Jesus
‘...took a cup, and when He had given thanks...’
This will be the first cup of the seder. Jesus’ statement that He’d desired to eat the Passover with them before He was to suffer also indicates this as He’s speaking of the celebration that they’re about to participate in together. This first cup served as a good introduction to the events of that evening and signals the commencement of the festivities - though, as Jesus celebrates it, there is never far from the proceedings a note of solemnity with the shadow of the cross hanging very much over Jesus’ words and actions.
Although the Mishnah doesn’t talk of a ‘washing of the hands’, it would seem logical to presume that at some point in the evening’s proceedings, before the lamb was eaten, the participants’ hands would be ritually washed. This is the place of the obligation in the modern celebration of the festival and it’s probably correct to presume that the reason why the Mishnah doesn’t specifically refer to it is because it was a normal, everyday occurrence.
There’s no direct reference to this obligation in the Gospel narrative.
The next point of similarity with the Mishnah is in Pesahim 10:3 where it’s written that
‘...when [food] is brought before him, he eats it seasoned with lettuce, until he is come to the breaking of bread...’
Today, karpas is the act of dipping a vegetable into some salt water and then eating it but, in the Mishnah, the ceremony doesn’t appear in this form. Indeed, although it bears a similarity to the present day karpas, it’s not the same ceremony at all and the heading is only used as a point of focus.
The Mishnah at this point is only saying that food was eaten before the lamb was and that, when it was, it should always be eaten with lettuce. There doesn’t appear to be too much else which should be inferred from the passage in question other than there was food provided as an ‘aperitif’ to the main course.
Mtw 26:20-25 tells us that Jesus said at this point
‘He who has dipped his hand in the dish with Me, will betray Me’
Jesus is not necessarily referring to any paschal food ceremony even though Mark 14:17-21 (my italics) reads
‘It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with Me’
and makes it seem so. In the Greek text the word for ‘bread’ doesn’t appear and the reference is taken only to refer to the act of eating. This is an addition by the RSV and shouldn’t be retained in the translation for it obscures the simple meaning of the text. That they may have been eating bread is a possibility (the reader should note the next section, however, as the implication is that bread wasn’t to be used until later on) but, when such a description is added, it draws the reader’s attention off the preliminary eating and onto the associations with the breaking of the unleavened bread which takes place at a later time during the evening.
Indeed, the Greek word translated as ‘dish’ (Strongs Greek number 5165) in both Matthew and Mark was a deep bowl that could equally well be used for water with which to wash the hands (see ‘Rehaz’ above) but the context favours it being a large food bowl used before the lamb was brought before the participants.
Jesus’ words refer us back to Ps 41:9 where David wrote that
‘Even my closest friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me’
to show the fulfilment of the OT Scripture and, interpreting it, means simply
‘one who has shared fellowship with Me will betray Me’
There’s no positive identification of the betrayer at this point even though many would see this happening. Jesus is only saying that one of those present who’s eating food with Him would be the one who was to betray Him. Note that the disciples’ phrase (Mtw 26:22) was
‘Is it I, Lord?’
while Judas’ phrase (Mtw 26:25) was
‘Is it I, Rabbi?’
The title ‘Rabbi’ was used of any Jewish teacher and, as we saw on a previous web page means something like ‘my master’. In this context, however, the reason why Judas uses it is probably more as a token of respect rather than to indicate the ideas of ‘lordship’ or ‘supremacy’ over another to the point of submission and obedience. It’s difficult to escape the submission/obedience aspect of the disciples’ ‘Lord’, however, and it may even be a halfway between recognising Jesus as their leader and their God.
This may surprise some readers but the word ‘Lord’ was used as a substitute for the Tetragrammon ‘YHWH’ by first century Jews so that the Divine name might not be taken in vain. While it’s impossible to be certain what the intention of the speaker or author is on many occasions, there’s more to the word than simply a natural interpretation of it in present day language.
Jesus’ words to Judas
‘You have said so’
are the same as if He had said ‘yes’ as can be seen from His confession before Caiaphas a few hours later in Mtw 26:64. But it’s not certain that the disciples would have heard it or understood it had they done so. They may even have thought of such a statement as being something which lay far into the future or that it wasn’t as serious as it might be - after all, Judas was one of ‘them’.
4. The Mazzah
After the preliminary eating, Pesahim 10:3 carries on by noting that this was to continue
‘...until he is come to the breaking of bread...’
Today, three pieces of Mazzah (unleavened) bread are used at different points in the seder. It would appear that unleavened bread was used here but with no specified number of pieces. It was broken and passed round to all the participants. The Scripture says that it was ‘as they were eating’ (which refers us back to the discussion of the ceremony under ‘Karpas’ - Mtw 26:26, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:19) that Jesus took the bread (which would have been unleavened).
During the initial eating from the common food bowl, then, Jesus took the bread that was the next step in the correct paschal procedure. Jesus gave thanks for it, broke it and gave it to the disciples, drawing out the truth that from that time onwards they were to think of His body as being given to them.
Notice that, in the early Church, whenever you broke bread at meal times (as you would have done at least once every day) the believer would have been reminded of the Lord’s body offered for them on the cross. Jesus is here making the ceremony fit into His followers’ everyday lives and isn’t instituting a ceremony that He intended should be celebrated once a week with special bread and special wine (or, fruit juice/cordial). This point is extremely important and worthy of consideration for, by making a specific meeting ‘holy’, we draw the remembrance of Jesus away from each time in the day when food is taken. The constant memory of Jesus was to be part of the reason for such an instruction - not that the church would institute a special meeting at which they would use emblems of His death.
Next in the procedure was that which is recorded in Pesahim 10:3 that instructs the reader that
‘...they bring before him unleavened bread and lettuce and the haroseth...’
‘Lettuce’ refers to the bitter herbs of Pesahim 2:6 from which one was selected to be used (the other possibilities being chicory, pepperwort, snakeroot and dandelion). Bitter herbs are taken into an unleavened bread sandwich (using the broken pieces of the unleavened bread under point 4 presumably) and dipped into haroseth (an apple, nuts, cinnamon, honey and wine mixture - today, the recipe differs depending upon which culture the Jew is from - it may have also differed in first century Israel) and eaten.
The bitter herbs bring tears to the eyes as a reminder that the Israelites’ bondage to the Egyptians was bitter. The haroseth is a reminder of the clay bricks which the Egyptians forced their slaves to make because of its appearance - though whether this last point was in their minds in the first century isn’t certain even though it remains more than likely.
I remember leading a group of kids through this format many years ago to try and illustrate to them what it meant to ‘celebrate the Passover’. At this point, one of the kids mistakenly identified the bitter and fiery horseradish sauce for the pleasant tasting haroseth and loaded his bread sandwich with piles of the stuff - the resulting effect (and we were still finding pieces of the sauce the following week that had been fired from his mouth in the ensuing panic) was a good demonstration of the point.
I also asked them what they thought the Israelites would have heard during the night as they were eating the Passover, having hidden a couple of the young helpers in the kitchen that was joined to the eating area. While the kids were thinking about what they might have heard, the most awful blood-curdling screams emanated from the kitchen area in the blackness that surrounded us and a couple almost ran out of the room!
Yep, celebrating the Passover with a group of kids can be real fun! Anyway, back to the plot...
Jesus used this ceremony (Maror/Korekh) for the identification of the betrayer, Judas (John 13:21-30). Immediately after receiving the morsel, Judas left the Passover feast and went to the high priest to pass on Jesus’ whereabouts, presumably.
What actually happened during that meeting is impossible to know but we may judge the reaction of that official through the likelihood of Judas’ return to the meal which will be dealt with below.
If it’s accepted that this happened, the high priest was probably caught celebrating his own paschal ceremony with his family and gave instructions to Judas to inform him when the meal was completed that an arrest might be made at that point. It would be the case, then, that Judas slipped away from the crowd bound for the other side of the garden of Gethsemane to meet with the prepared soldiers who were waiting his return to lead them to the place where Jesus was.
Notice also that Jesus was ‘troubled in spirit’ (John 13:21) - the bitterness of the herbs sparked off the sorrow of knowing that He would be betrayed.
John 13:23 refers to the seating arrangement when it comments that
‘...one of His disciples...was lying close to the breast of Jesus...’
Each participant would be lying with their feet furthest from the ‘table’ (a label which means much less than our present day concept - it means more like a rug spread on the ground on which the food was placed) while they supported themselves with one of their arms. This meant that they would, in effect, all face the back of someone, so that the one immediately in front of Jesus would be the one who was lying ‘close to the breast’
The body of the lamb is then brought in (see the end of Pesahim 10:3) but not necessarily eaten.
Pesahim 10:4 then instructs us that
‘They then mixed him the second cup’
known as the ‘cup of the plagues’ (or it may be known as the ‘cup of instruction’) and continues that
‘...here the son asks his father...’
specific questions along the lines of
‘Why is this night different from other nights? For on other nights we eat seasoned food once, but this night twice [which would be karpas and maror/korekh]; on other nights we eat leavened or unleavened bread, but this night all is unleavened; on other nights we eat flesh roast, stewed or cooked, but this night all is roast’
To these four questions, a very lengthy discourse is provided by the father who goes through the story of the Exodus in intricate detail. Before the second cup of wine is drunk today, ten drops of wine are taken from it and allowed to fall to the ground while the names of the ten plagues are recounted, one for each drop.
All Jesus’ teaching recorded for us in the Gospel of John at the Last Supper probably occurred at this point in the proceedings though any similarity to the Exodus experience of the Israelites seems to be coincidental. But the teaching seems best to fit at the end of the normal exposition of the Exodus account (which, sadly, goes unrecorded in the Gospel). At the end of the discourse, the second cup of wine was drunk.
Then the first part of the Hallel is sung. Pesahim 10:6 poses the question
‘How far do they recite [the Hallel]?’
the ‘Hallel’ being Psalms 113-118 of the Old Testament. Today, Ps 113 and 114 are recited but the obvious question ‘how far?’ gave rise to much debate among the Israelite leaders.
7. Shulhan Orekh
Although it’s not clear when the lamb was eaten according to the Mishnah, it’s at this point that it seems the most fitting though it has been placed here partly because it’s in line with today’s celebration when the Seder plates are removed and a shankbone and an egg are brought in (or whatever else that’s acceptable to the culture).
These two objects now serve as reminders of the lamb that used to be eaten by the orthodox but which can be no longer be done until the Temple is again functioning - the lamb, being a sacrificial offering, must be slain within the confines of the Temple courts and the blood caught by the officiating priests within the courts of the Temple - it cannot be slaughtered anywhere and by anyone.
Pesahim 10:7 then records
‘...the third cup...’
‘Barekh’ means ‘grace’. Before grace is declared, the third cup is poured called the ‘cup of redemption’. The grace is then said and all drink from this third cup.
This is the cup after supper and it’s title as ‘the cup of redemption’ is particularly fitting in the context in which it was used by Jesus. He took this cup (Mtw 26:27-29, Mark 14:23-25, Luke 22:20-23) and, after having said grace over it, changed its significance into the completed redemptive act that He was about to perform for all mankind on the cross. The wine represented the blood that was to be poured out for all men to redeem them from their slavery.
The question that Luke 22:21 poses is as to whether Judas returned to the meal at this point in the proceedings having gone to the chief priest to secure a band of soldiers. Jesus is recorded as saying (my italics) that
‘...the hand of him who betrays Me is with Me on the table’
Jesus’ words may well only be figurative seeing as they echo those found in Ps 41:9 and we may also ponder the question whether, perhaps, Luke is writing out of chronological order here (though this is not impossible, it is highly unlikely).
Most likely in my opinion is that Judas did return, partly because of the reaction he’d received at the house of the high priest (see above) but also because he was unsure that the disciples were going to go to Gethsemane and so, joining with the band as they left the room, he stole away in the darkness of night to meet up with the band of soldiers who were preparing themselves for the arrest. When he met with the chief priests (presumably still eating their food and going through the seder) they delayed the arrest until after most people in Jerusalem would have finished.
This is certainly not the traditional interpretation and may well not be correct but it seems difficult to me to take Jesus’ words in Luke as meaning anything else.
Between one and two hours have elapsed between the breaking of the bread and the communion cup (sufficient time for Judas to have left, met with the high priest and to have returned). Here, then, is an interesting Scriptural precedent for getting the speaker to deliver the message (the ‘Maggid’) in the middle of the communion service!
Then, a fourth cup is poured. Pesahim 10:7 relates that
‘[Over] a fourth [cup] he completes the Hallel...’
The fourth cup is filled and the remaining psalms of the Hallel are sung (either Ps 115-118 or, if you celebrated Maggid in accordance with a different rabbinic ‘school’, the remaining psalms). Then all drink the fourth cup which is called the ‘cup of praise’.
Mtw 26:30 and Mark 14:26’s report that they went out towards Gethsemane
‘...when they had sung a hymn’
refers to this part of the ceremony. The Greek really translates into
‘and when they had hymned’
which refers to a collection of spiritual songs, not just one individual psalm and is more applicable to the component parts of the Hallel.
Pesahim 10:8 goes on to advise the Jew that
‘After the Passover meal they should not disperse to join in the Afikoman’
where ‘Afikoman’ is a transliterated Greek word meaning ‘to the entertainment’ and is probably better translated as ‘the after meal’ or ‘dessert’. Although today there is Afikoman, it’s a later addition to the Seder and is certainly post-70AD.
10. After the meal
Finally, Pesahim 10:9 notes that
‘After midnight the Passover-offering renders the hands unclean’
That is to say, the Passover celebrations had to be completed before ‘midnight’.
We know, therefore, that the meal finished before this time and that, assuming Jesus and the disciples didn’t hang around too long after they’d completed their celebration, they would have been in Gethsemane certainly around midnight (Mtw 26:30, Mark 14:26, Luke 22:39, John 18:1) - and, judging by the evidence on the next web page, they probably arrived here before that time rather than after.
Pesahim chapter 10
This passage is taken from Herbert Danby’s translation of the Mishnah, published by the Oxford University Press. It represents the earliest complete (or, almost complete) order of the Passover meal available to us and, in my opinion, will not differ too substantially from the order that most Jews would have used at the time of Christ seeing that this compilation of Rabbinical writings (that is, the Mishnah) was the first attempt at trying to commit to writing what had been taking place in and around the Temple before the Roman destruction c.70AD.
This section should be read in conjunction with my comments above where I’ve tried to harmonise the Last Supper with the normal Rabbinic procedure of the paschal meal.
1. On the eve of Passover, from about the time of the Evening Offering, a man must eat naught until nightfall. Even the poorest in Israel must not eat unless he sits down to table, and they must not give them less than four cups of wine to drink, even if it is from the [Pauper’s] Dish.
2. After they have mixed him his first cup, the School of Shammai say: He says the Benediction first over the day and then the Benediction over the wine. And the School of Hillel say: He says the Benediction first over the wine and then the Benediction over the day.
3. When [food] is brought before him he eats it seasoned with lettuce, until he is come to the breaking of bread; they bring before him unleavened bread and lettuce and the haroseth, although haroseth is not a religious obligation. R. Eliezer b. R. Zadok says: It is a religious obligation. And in the Holy City they used to bring before him the body of the Passover-offering.
4. They then mix him the second cup. And here the son asks his father (and if the son has not enough understanding his father instructs him [how to ask]), ‘Why is this night different from other nights? For on other nights we eat seasoned food once, but this night twice; on other nights we eat leavened or unleavened bread, but this night all is unleavened; on other nights we eat flesh roast, stewed, or cooked, but this night all is roast’. And according to the understanding of the son his father instructs him. He begins with the disgrace and ends with the glory; and he expounds from A wandering Aramean was my father... until he finishes the whole section.
5. Rabban Gamaliel used to say: Whosoever has not said [the verses concerning] these three things at Passover has not fulfilled his obligation. And these are they: Passover, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs: ‘Passover’ - because God passed over the houses of our fathers in Egypt; ‘unleavened bread’ - because our fathers were redeemed from Egypt; ‘bitter herbs’ - because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our fathers in Egypt. In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt, for it is written, And thou shalt tell thy son in that day saying, It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt. Therefore are we bound to give thanks, to praise, to glorify, to honour, to exalt, to extol, and to bless him who wrought all these wonders for our fathers and for us. He brought us out from bondage to freedom, from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning to a Festival-day, and from darkness to great light, and from servitude to redemption; so let us say before him the Hallelujah.
6. How far do they recite [the Hallel]? The School of Shammai say: To A joyful mother of children. And the School of Hillel say: To A flint stone into a springing well. And this is concluded with the Ge’ullah. R. Tarfon says: ‘He that redeemed us and redeemed our fathers from Egypt and brought us to this night to eat therein unleavened bread and bitter herbs’. But there is no concluding Benediction. R. Akiba adds: ‘Therefore, O Lord our God and the God of our fathers, bring us in peace to the other set feasts and festivals which are coming to meet us, while we rejoice in the building-up of thy city and are joyful in thy worship; and may we eat there of the sacrifices and of the Passover-offerings whose blood has reached with acceptance the wall of thy Altar, and let us praise thee for our redemption and for the ransoming of our soul. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who hast redeemed Israel!’
7. After they have mixed for him the third cup he says the Benediction over his meal. [Over] a fourth [cup] he completes the Hallel and says after it the Benediction over song. If he is minded to drink [more] between these cups he may drink; only between the third and the fourth cups he may not drink.
8. After the Passover meal they should not disperse to join in revelry. If some fell asleep [during the meal] they may eat [again]; but if all fell asleep they may not eat [again]. R. Jose says If they but dozed they may eat [again]; but if they fell into deep sleep they may not eat [again].
9. After midnight the Passover-offering renders the hands unclean. The Refuse and Remnant make the hands unclean. If a man has said the Benediction over the Passover-offering it renders needless a Benediction over [any other] animal-offering [that he eats]; but if he said the Benediction over [any other] animal-offering it does not render needless the Benediction over the Passover-offering. So R. Ishmael. R. Akiba says: Neither of them renders the other needless.
The bread and the wine
Mtw 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:19-20, I Cor 11:23-25
The remembrance of Jesus through the breaking of bread should have served the Church throughout the centuries as a point of unity and of joining together men and women who were from different doctrinal positions into one family of God who served Jesus Christ. In effect, it’s been a point of a great amount of controversy, has caused untold divisions and been instrumental in prompting believers to segregate themselves into different religious organisations where their own interpretation of the procedure can be adhered to.
Try and bring in a different format during the communion service and you’re likely to tread on some very tender toes in the congregation who seem to enjoy the repetition of always knowing what’s going to happen and who will be quick to object that such a change in procedure is tantamount to denying Christ Himself.
The most important controversy surrounds whether the bread and wine of the ‘service’ (I will have a few words to say on this subject below but, for now, I will assume that the specialist meeting together to eat bread and wine is what Jesus commanded believers to do) actually becomes the body and blood of Jesus as it’s blessed (an incorrect interpretation for the Scripture actually speaks about Jesus ‘blessing’ not ‘blessing it’ - as the reader will have seen above, the passover meal never incorporated the blessing of the food items but only a blessing upon the One who delivered them from the hand of the Egyptians) and passed out to the congregation. Jesus, after all, plainly says (Mtw 26:6 - my italics)
‘...this is My body...’
and (Mtw 26:28 - my italics)
‘...this is My blood...’
which prompts many to insist on a literal interpretation which is repeated every time the ceremony is enacted. Matmor observes that
‘These words have caused tremendous controversy in the Church. The critical point is the meaning of “is”. Some argue for a change of the bread into the body of Christ but the verb can mean very various kinds of identification as we see from such statements as “I am the door”, “I am the bread of life”, “that rock was Christ”. In this case, identity cannot be in mind...It must be used in some such sense as “represents”...This statement is a strong one and should not be watered down but neither should it be overpressed’
Jesus also talks about eating His flesh and drinking His blood earlier in His ministry (John 6:51, 53-58) but, to show the crowds that their literal interpretation is incorrect, He says in John 6:63 that
‘It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life’
where Johnmor notes that
‘A woodenly literal, flesh-dominated manner of looking at Jesus’ words will not yield the correct interpretation. That is granted only to the spiritual man, the Spirit-dominated man. Such words cannot be comprehended by the fleshly, whose horizon is bounded by this earth and its outlook. Only as the life-giving Spirit informs him may a man understand these words’
and it would be difficult to see in both John chapter 6 and in the three ‘Communion’ passages how the disciples could have taken the words literally when Jesus stood before them - the body and blood which they were being bidden to eat - and not as a symbol of something about which they had as yet failed to understand.
At the very least, we should see the act of breaking the bread and of referring to it as being the body of Jesus as a demonstration in the eyes of the disciples that He was about to suffer a violent end as Matfran points out. Even though before this moment they had heard the words that such an event was to happen, to hear the crack of the unleavened bread and the pronouncement that this was to be how Jesus’ body was to be treated must have finally brought home to them the horror of what it was that Jesus had been trying to convey. But, even in the proclamation of His death, Mtw 26:29 anticipates the resurrection when He talks about drinking wine once more in the coming Kingdom (the phrase ‘fruit of the vine’ has been taken as certain proof by some that Jesus drank unfermented grape juice and not an alcoholic liquid. But, if that was so, it firstly means that Jesus cut against the clear accepted procedure of the first century which stipulated that at least four cups of wine had to be drunk and the evidence of Berakoth 6:1 which shows that the phrase was the same as saying ‘wine’).
Mattask, on the other hand, accepts the literal meaning of the words of Jesus and then goes on to comment on the communal ceremony by stating that believers should have
‘...refrained from attempting to define what Scripture has left undefined - that is, the manner in which Christ communicates Himself through the medium of bread and wine’
I’ve heard - probably along with most people who are reading this - the declarations of men and women who ascribe a transformation taking place when the priest blesses the tokens of bread and wine and, at the other end, those who would shun any such possibility because of the need for a living faith in the One who died for them. And there was also the believer - a leader in a local church - who told me that they believed something had to happen for the believer because otherwise there seemed no point in the ceremony (a sort of presence of Christ by faith but not literal transubstantiation).
The problem with all our reasonings, however, is that each doctrinal position will claim spiritual knowledge and so justify their own belief and experience, but the real problem, in my opinion, is not to attempt a correct interpretation of Jesus’ words (which will never be accepted by those who oppose the view) but to see in what we do today a denial of the original reason and intention that Jesus bade His disciples to break bread and drink wine.
For Jesus never intended that there should be a special meeting together (whether once a week, once a month, annually or daily) that believers should attend and at which they would join together in some holy rite - Acts 2:46 notes that the breaking of bread occurred in the houses of believers and not in the Temple where worship to God was still considered to take place. Matmor is perceptive at this point when he comments that
‘Matthew tells us that the service we know as Holy Communion began as they were eating, which means that Jesus began it in the context of a meal, not as a separate piece of religious ceremonial’
Contrary to our popular interpretation, then, Jesus’ intention was to prompt His followers’ memories whenever they ate and wherever they were by allowing their food provision to point back towards the importance of the cross and of His work upon it, shortly to be accomplished.
What we tend to forget is that bread and wine were integral parts of ancient life - the latter more so in areas where a clean and healthy water supply was unavailable, but bread was the staple diet of the multitude of people. When a believer sat down to eat, he broke bread and was instantly drawn to remember Jesus regardless of who else was present - when he raised a cup to drink, he couldn’t help but remember the blood which flowed on the cross as the perfect sacrifice for his own sins.
Three or more times everyday, the follower of Jesus Christ was prompted to remember Him and this appears to be the clear intention behind the wrongly labelled ‘ceremony’.
If we translate this into our present day culture and setting, we can see that, even sitting down to eat a chilli or pizza is an opportunity for the believer by which to remember the sacrificial death of Jesus - there’s nearly always something on the meal plate which needs to be ‘broken’ to be eaten even if bread isn’t served with the meal - and it’s fairly rare that no liquid is ever drunk along with it.
Instead of the celebration of communion being confined to a weekly religious rite when Jesus is remembered, the idea was to make it such a part of a believer’s daily walk that he never forgot about the work of Christ for very long (unless, of course, there was a famine on the land).
Realising this, therefore, other questions such as whether a believer should make sure he drinks alcoholic wine, unfermented grape juice, cordial which is red - or even a cup of tea - is irrelevant. Neither is it important to make sure unleavened bread is used (the bread specifically used at the paschal meal) - or even bread at all - because the importance lies in the remembrance and not in the food items themselves. And, if we were to take Jesus’ words absolutely literally in the Gospels, we would never observe such a procedure unless we were participating in the annual Passover meal and, consequently, were Jews.
Therefore, there’s no need for an officiating priest or leader - and the importance of any particular denomination in their assertions that they have the correct methodology with which to please God are futile and meaningless. Communion takes place in homes and restaurants, in McDonalds hamburger bars and at meal breaks with packed lunches by the employed when a believer uses the opportunity to continue His fellowship with the One who died for Him.
What can also happen within the church setting, unfortunately, is that the breaking of bread will become a god to many. It can become the ceremony that is served (that is, it becomes the object of our worship) rather than the ceremony that serves the believer and reminds them of the great truths that lie behind it, leading them on to worship God alone.
But what does the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine teach us? Though there may be many ‘extras’ that come out of the way in which it’s celebrated when men and women gather together in one place at one specific weekly time, there are three main areas of proclamation that it speaks of.
Firstly, there’s the past event (Mtw 26:26-28, I Cor 11:24-26). The breaking of bread is a proclamatory remembrance of what Christ has done for the individual through His sacrifice on the cross and that they’re a participant in the provision. The bread broken (or food in general) serves them as a reminder of Christ’s body and the wine as a reminder of Christ’s blood poured out for the forgiveness of personal sins. The three Gospel accounts don’t lay upon the believer the need to continue the remembrance through the breaking of bread and it’s only Paul’s record of the event (and possibly the earliest written record we have) that makes it obligatory. However, Acts 2:46 notes that it was an integral part of the early Church so they must have understood it to be of special significance, taking the bread in their own homes rather than in any specifically set aside building.
Secondly, it also has a future aspect to it (I Cor 11:26 - my italics) where Paul commented that
‘...as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes’
Therefore, it’s a prophetic proclamation that Christ is coming again. Although the verse talks about proclaiming the Lord’s death ‘until He comes’ and doesn’t talk of the Lord’s second coming directly, the celebration can serve to remind the disciple of His imminent return.
Thirdly, and finally, it serves the believer in the present in a few different ways. In I Cor 10:16-17 (my italics - see also Eph 2:14-16) we read Paul’s words that
‘The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?’
Communion is a proclamation that believers are one people in Christ because of their individual participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This participation in the body and blood, the sacrificial death of Jesus, is proclaimed through the sharing of food but, more than this, demonstrated through the sharing of all available resources for the furtherance of the Kingdom.
John 6:53-54 teaches that disciples are called to feed upon Christ (not feed from Christ but feed upon Him) so that they assimilate His life into themselves - it’s not a natural feeding, but a spiritual one as we’ve pointed out above. This is why the taking of the bread and the wine should be considered more as symbols reminding believers of their spiritual participation in the reality of the blood and body of Christ but that, in themselves, they aren’t ‘it’.
Celebrating this ceremony is a symbol of the Church’s fellowship - Christ’s offered body and His blood shed (that is, the sum total of the provision of Christ’s death and resurrection) is the common ground all believers share so that they come into a union with each other. Communion is therefore a symbol of unity - where Paul also talks about there being one bread and one cup (I Cor 10:17) - because of their individual participation in the provision of the cross.
In Phil 2:1 when Paul writes
‘If there is...any fellowship in the Spirit...’
he’s speaking of people who ‘take part’ in the Holy Spirit. Paul’s argument here is that if believers are participators in the Holy Spirit, then they’re to (Phil 2:2)
‘...complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind’
thereby showing on what grounds they should be in unity. Paul also prays in II Cor 13:14
‘...the participation of the Holy Spirit be with you all...’
where sharing in the benefits of God are in mind through the Holy Spirit. At the conclusion of Paul’s two letters in which he’s had to rebuke the Corinthians for their disunity, this blessing serves as a reminder to the Church that it’s through their participation in the Holy Spirit that they’re one.
Even though this proclamation of unity would be a sufficient enough challenge for all true believers to aim for, the early Church saw it as much more than this. To understand Paul’s position on the matter in I Cor 11:20-22,29, we need to ask ourselves why Paul got so upset at the way the Corinthians were celebrating Communion (actually, they celebrated a ‘festive meal’ which lends weight to a totally different appreciation of what the breaking of bread came to mean - but for the sake of argument we’ll presume that in their eating together they took bread and wine and shared it among themselves - even though I Cor chapter 11 doesn’t say so)?
The answer was because Communion was considered to be a proclamation that what they had received from Christ was being shared with others around them.
The Corinthian Church brought their own food and wine to the meal but then went ahead and ate it themselves resulting in some being drunk while others went away hungry (I Cor 11:29). They didn’t distribute their food as any had need, thereby ‘discerning’ the body (that is, the Church). The Corinthians didn’t perceive that the provision of Christ (symbolised in the bread broken and the wine poured out) and given to individuals is to be held in common/shared with the other believers, but in their celebration they kept what they had for themselves.
Fellowship, therefore, as symbolised in Communion, was the sharing of the blessings of Christ with one another. It seems superfluous to apply this but it’s best that we spell out the implications for, if eating and drinking as and when it occurred throughout the day was meant to be a reminder of the provision of the cross, those who were to share the food were naturally being covenanted with by the fellow believers sharing all things for the sake of the Body.
Many would see the ‘discerning of the Body’ to be an inward looking self-examination of one’s own life before the bread and wine are taken within a fellowship setting once every week, but the reality of it goes much deeper and is more challenging. To remember the Lord’s death on the cross and to share with others in that remembrance means a sharing of material possessions and resources between them.
Therefore, because of a believer’s (spiritual) participation in Christ, they are one body - not because they go to the same church building, belong to the same church fellowship or were brought up in a particular denomination. They are only one body because they’re active participators in the provision (yesterday, today and tomorrow) of the cross and of Christ. And, whatever is received from Christ is received on behalf of the body for the benefit of the body. This is a spiritual principal - God gives gifts to men for the benefit of others and it’s especially so with regard to the body of Christ.
So, even though the Breaking of Bread, Communion, the Eucharist - or whatever else it might be called - has been a cause of much division because of doctrinal belief, it was always meant to be a point of unity, harmony and a reminder to be careful to mutually support one another.
Echoes of OT phraseology
Mtw 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20
Mtw 26:28 (Pp Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20) is fundamental to an understanding of what Jesus was teaching the disciples concerning His imminent death the following daylight period (in Jewish chronology, the following daylight period was the same weekday as the night on which they ate the Passover - that is, Friday). The Scripture records Jesus as stating concerning the wine of the third cup of the Passover meal that
‘...this is My blood of the [new] covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’
where the bracketed words are normally accepted to be a later addition. Luke 22:20, however, includes the word but this entire verse is sometimes believed to be additional to the original, added to make the three Gospels harmonious.
But there’s no problem for the believer in accepting that the original didn’t contain the word ‘new’ for, in speaking of a covenant which was about to be made, it must necessarily treat the current one in existence as about to be set aside for that which has come. When the writer to the Hebrews commented on Jeremiah’s prophetic words concerning the new covenant (Heb 8:13), he noted that
‘In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete...’
and, even though no such prefix exists here, the same words apply.
Indeed, in a very real sense, it’s the covenant which we now serve God under that could be construed as being the older of the two covenants if it’s accepted that it’s simply an outworking of the promise given to Abraham before the nation of Israel was brought into being and Moses sealed the covenant with them at Sinai (Genesis chapter 15).
But the main reason for not insisting on the word ‘new’ can be seen in that the words stand as a direct parallel with those spoken to the nation of Israel when that first covenant was being made (Ex 24:8) and, in the context of the Passover meal which celebrated the deliverance of Israel from Egypt to form a nation before God, it makes more sense that Jesus’ inference should have been this.
There are numerous parallels with Jesus’ words and OT Scripture in just this one verse that we need to take some time to consider them carefully below under three specific headings.
1. Contrasts of the new with the old
As noted above, the similarity in the wording of Mtw 26:28 draws our attention back to the covenant made with the nation at Sinai and Heb 8:13 - also cited above which points out that, in speaking of a ‘new’ covenant in Jeremiah’s proclamation (Jer 31:31-34), Jesus is hinting that the old is about to become obsolete as the new is both inaugurated and sealed with His own blood (see also my notes on ‘Covenant’).
While the Sinaitic/Mosaic covenant brought the realisation of legal condemnation upon Israel through the repeated necessity to cleanse both men and objects by a sacrificial procedure, the new covenant in Jesus’ blood brings about the forgiveness of sins (see also Heb 8:6-7).
The old covenant was sealed with the blood of animals which made the agreement binding and brought it into force (Heb 9:18) and, without such a shedding of life, it couldn’t have been ratified. The new, also, is brought into being by the shed blood of a sacrifice which is instantly recognisable as being of more value and an everlasting and eternal one. Here it’s true that a direct ‘like for like’ sacrifice was necessary that forgiveness and redemption might be achieved.
The old also brought a nation into a covenant relationship with God whereas the new brings individuals into a covenant relationship first which thus forms a new nation of believers. The breaking of bread founds this new nation securely together into the one Person (Eph 2:15) and, as noted above, although the Church has made the celebration of the religious rite into a matter of division and separation from one another, it was given initially to proclaim its unity.
2. A type of sin offering
Jesus’ words that His blood would be
‘...poured out for many...’
is a clear echo of passages in the OT such as Lev 4:7,18,23,30,34 where the first reference (my italics) informs the Israelites concerning the sin offering that
‘...the rest of the blood of the bull he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering...’
Morris CNT writes that the Greek phrase from which the RSV translates ‘poured out’ is used in the LXX not of the killing of a sacrificial victim but
‘...(a) of the shedding of blood in murder (Gen 9:6) and (b) of the pouring out of the blood of the sacrifice at the base of the altar’
and is, therefore, a specialised way of referring to the giving up of a life. Indeed, it was only the sin offering where the blood was specifically to be ‘poured out’. Jesus infers, therefore, that His life is to be given as a sin offering and the way that the sin offering is offered as a substitution for the offerer is a clear indication and parallel that Jesus’ life was to become a substitutionary sacrifice that would secure forgiveness for the sins of many. Therefore, the writer to the Hebrews comments (Heb 9:26) that
‘...[Jesus] has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself’
echoing the prophetic Scripture in Is 53:12 which speaks of the One to come by noting that
‘...He poured out His soul to death...yet He bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors’
In this scheme of things, the altar upon which the blood is poured out is the cross, Jesus being the High Priest who pours His own blood out to effect both forgiveness and release for all who put their confidence and trust in the blood offered.
Jesus’ offering must be the perfect sin offering whereby forgiveness is won and not just the atonement (the ‘covering’) spoken of in the OT. There, an animal life was given for the covering of human sin, but the Law stated that a life was to be given for a life (Deut 19:25) and no animal life could ever be equivalent for that of a man - for, of what animal can Gen 1:26 be said to be representative of?
Therefore, the perfect sin offering that brought forgiveness had to be through the offering of a man’s life to take the place of a man, so paying the price for man’s sins (Heb 8:12, 10:4).
There are more aspects of the sin offering of Leviticus chapter 4 that find a parallel in the death of Jesus Christ that we should consider here even though it’s just the phrase ‘poured out’ which draws our attention to the blood.
The committing of the animal to death (for example, Lev 4:4) by bringing it to the tabernacle was foreshadowing the fact of mankind’s need to hand over Jesus to be slain on their behalf for the forgiveness of sins (Mtw 26:14-16, 27:1-2, 27:26, 27:22-23) and, even though those involved failed to perceive the full implications of what their actions would achieve, for all those who associate themselves with His sacrifice, the free gift of forgiveness is received.
There was also the transferral of sin from the offerer to the sacrificial victim (Lev 4:4,15,24,29,33) through the laying on of the offender’s hands. This foreshadows man’s necessary association with Christ and the recognition needed that it’s He who alone has borne the punishment for personal sin (II Cor 5:21).
The animal was also to die on the offender’s behalf and be killed by the direct action of the offender (Lev 4:4,15,24,29,33) and not by the priest. Here was a foreshadowing which speaks of man’s personal sin which caused Jesus to need to die on their behalf to secure forgiveness and freedom (Rom 5:8, I Cor 15:3, II Cor 5:14-15).
Finally, it was the application of the blood which secured atonement (Lev 4:20,26,31,35) when it was sprinkled before YHWH in front of the veil that separated the Holy of Holies where God’s presence dwelt from the Holy Place (for offerings on behalf of the congregation and the high priest) or put on the horns of the altar of incense with the remainder being poured out at the base of the altar of burnt offering.
In this way, atonement was effected. Jesus’ blood secures forgiveness whereas the blood of animals never could (Heb 10:4) but it was only in the application through being poured out that it could be achieved. Association by the offerer is necessary for the sacrifice to be effective.
3. The promise of the new covenant
Jesus’ final phrase
‘...the forgiveness of sins’
echoes Jer 31:34 where the prophet recorded the words of YHWH concerning the new covenant to be made with the people of God (Jer 31:31), announcing the foundation of the covenant as
‘...I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more’
Jesus, by His words, is pointing directly to the promise of the covenant now being brought to fulfilment even though Jeremiah’s passage didn’t mention how the forgiveness of the sins of God’s people would be achieved.
This new covenant, then, if built upon a greater promise of forgiveness than the old had to have a better sacrifice where once and for all time (Rom 6:10, Heb 7:27, 9:12, 9:26, 10:10, I Peter 3:18) something would happen which would remove the problem of sin and bring in the possibility of an eternal relationship between God and His people.
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