Maundy Thursday – Passover, Jesus, and The Lord’s Supper

I was looking for something I had written a while back about Maundy Thursday, and though I did not come up with what I was looking for, I did find this newsletter piece which preceded the sermon from the Gospel of Mark on the “Last Supper.” Basically this writing gives the Jewish Passover background to the Christian Lord’s Supper. It is also relevant as we think about our upcoming Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday celebrations.

We turn in the sermon this week to the famous “Last Supper” which Jesus shared with his disciples before his passion. We will concentrate on verses 22-25:

(12) On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?” (13) So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. (14) Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ (15) He will show you a large upper room, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” (16) The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.

(17) When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. (18) While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me–one who is eating with me.” (19) They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, “Surely not I?” (20) “It is one of the Twelve,” he replied, “one who dips bread into the bowl with me. (21) The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”

(22) While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.” (23) Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it. (24) “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. (25) “I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.”

(26) When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

As we know this last meal which Jesus shared with his disciples was in fact a Jewish Passover meal. During this meal Jesus instituted a new ritual meal to be shared by his followers. For followers of Jesus this new meal fulfilled and ultimately replaced the Passover, though its meaning would always be rooted in the Passover. We call this new meal of Jesus the “Lord’s Supper” or “Eucharist” or “Communion.”

Much has been debated and written regarding the nature of Christ’s presence in the elements of communion, the issue of protecting the table, the question of self examination, the matter of children and when they should participate, the issue of how often the meal should be celebrated, etc. Obviously I cannot in one sermon address all the issues which have divided the church through the ages surrounding this meal, which ironically was and is supposed to be an expression of Christian unity! I will focus in the sermon on opening up the meaning of Jesus’ words as they were spoken in the context of a Passover celebration. In this letter I mainly hope to provide some helpful background.

The Jewish Passover was associated with the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which began on the 15th day of the month of Nisan, in the spring, between mid-March and mid-April of each year, the first month of the “ecclesiastical” year in the Jewish calendar, and which lasted a week or so. Passover actually took place right at the front end of the week long Feast of Unleavened Bread. Both the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Passover remembered and celebrated the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. I encourage you to read carefully Exodus chapter twelve which describes the very first “Passover.” It would be good to read this chapter to your children. This chapter is too long to paste into the letter, so I have included a section from Deuteronomy which speaks about the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Passover celebration.

Observe the month of Abib and celebrate the Passover of the LORD your God, because in the month of Abib he brought you out of Egypt by night. Sacrifice as the Passover to the LORD your God an animal from your flock or herd at the place the LORD will choose as a dwelling for his Name. Do not eat it with bread made with yeast, but for seven days eat unleavened bread, the bread of affliction, because you left Egypt in haste–so that all the days of your life you may remember the time of your departure from Egypt. Let no yeast be found in your possession in all your land for seven days. Do not let any of the meat you sacrifice on the evening of the first day remain until morning. You must not sacrifice the Passover in any town the LORD your God gives you except in the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name. There you must sacrifice the Passover in the evening, when the sun goes down, on the anniversary of your departure from Egypt. Roast it and eat it at the place the LORD your God will choose. Then in the morning return to your tents. For six days eat unleavened bread and on the seventh day hold an assembly to the LORD your God and do no work (Deuteronomy 16:1-8).

The month of Nissan began on the day of the new moon closest in time to the spring or vernal equinox. The Feast of Unleavened Bread began on the 15th day of Nisan, or two weeks after the new moon, which meant that there was a full moon the night Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemene. Final preparations for the Passover sacrifices at the temple took place on the late afternoon of the 14th day of Nisan, the Passover meal itself taking place the evening after this afternoon sacrifice. Since the Jews reckoned the beginning of their day at sunset, the sacrifice took place on 14th of Nisan (before sunset) while the Passover meal on the 15th. (after sunset). For the year of Jesus’ death both the day of the 14th of Nisan and the evening of the 15th of Nisan were on what would now call a Thursday. This is why many Christians celebrate “Maundy Thursday.”

On the Thursday morning, before noon, Jesus sends two of his disciples, Peter and John, too see that they had everything needed for he Passover meal. Each Passover lamb sacrificed was to serve fir a “company” of people – a family, or in this case, for Jesus and his disciples. Peter and John would have purchased a lamb either on the mount of olives or in the city and taken it up to the temple to be sacrificed. There they would have joined in the festivities at the temple, being placed in organized divisions with others. At the right time At the right time – and it was all very well choreographed and organized — they would have slain the lamb themselves, the blood of the lamb collected in a bowl and passed up to the fire where the priests would pour it out onto the fire, and all the while the company of people singing the Hallel psalms antiphonally with the Levites. The lamb’s body would then be passed along to be hung up and cleaned, the entrails and other wastes being also added to the sacrificial fire. Eventually Peter and John would take the lamb, hang it from a branch, carry it carefully through the city to the meeting room, and begin the process of cocking the lamb according to all the Levitical rules. The lamb was to be roasted on a spit of pomegranate wood. Even while cooking the lamb was to remain undefiled — no part of the cooking lamb could be allowed to touch the oven; if it did, it was to be cut off. Water could not even be added to the roasting meat. Not a bone of lamb was to be broken during the preparation or eating. The unbrokenness of the lamb’s bones symbolized the unbrokenness of fellowship with YHWH. The entire lamb had to eaten by morning, and whatever was not eaten was to burned

The celebration had changed much between its first institution and in Jesus’ day. Rather than being dressed in clothes symbolizing readiness for flight, Passover celebrants were to be dressed in festive garments. Rather than eating while standing “in the manner of slaves,” the participants were to recline, or sit leaning,” as men having been delivered from bondage to freedom, with their left arm on the low table and their right hand free to eat and drink.

By Jesus’ day the use of wine had become a traditional part of the meal. This wine was to express Israel’s joy on this special night. Four times during the Passover meal when wine was shared and drunk by those present. These “four cups” had been well worked into the older Passover meal, the first and third cups being the most important, the third cup, called the “cup of blessing” or the “cup of redemption” the most important of all. When it says in Mark 14:23 that Jesus “took the cup,” this cup is the “third cup,” the cup of redemption, which represented the blood of the sacrificial lamb having been poured out and spread over the lentil piece. Jesus goes on to invest new meaning to this cup, which now will represent his own shed blood. Thus, Jesus’ taking of the cup must be understood in light of this part of the traditional Passover celebration. Interestingly, the fourth cup, which looked ahead to that further work of redemption which the Jews looked to God to accomplish, provided the context for Jesus to make his reference to not drinking until the he drinks it anew in the consummated messianic kingdom (Mark 14:25).

In addition, it had become customary over time to sing Psalms during the Passover meal. Over the course of time five Psalms in particular came to be associated with the celebration of the great festivals. These are called the “Hallel Psalms,” known together as the “Egyptian Hallel,” Psalms commemorating deliverance – deliverance from Egypt and deliverance from God’s enemies in general. If you look up these Psalms you will see for the most part that they begin with “Praise the LORD,” which we have all learned by now translates the Hebrew “Hallelu Yah,” or “Praise YHWH.” Hence the name “Hallel Psalms.”

These Psalms came to be used as part of the corporate and family worship liturgy of the great festivals, and “served as a focus for the prayer, praise, and thanksgiving of every pious Jew.” At Passover, for example, Psalms 113 and 114 were commonly sung before the meal and Psalms 115-118 were sung after the meal.

When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives (Mark 14:26).

It is likely that this “hymn” (or song) consisted of Psalms 115-118, which means that Psalm 118 was probably the very last Psalm sung by the Lord Jesus.

We are probably mostly familiar with the basic elements of the Passover meal – the bitter herbs, the unleavened bread, and the Passover lamb. St. Paul’s teacher, rabbi Gamaliel, said of these the following:

Whoever does not explain three things in the Passover has not fulfilled the duty incumbent upon him. These three things are; the Passover lamb, the unleavened bread, and the bitter herbs. The Passover lamb means that God passed over the blood-sprinkled place on the houses of our fathers in Egypt; the unleavened bread means that our fathers were delivered out of Egypt in haste; and the bitter herbs mean that the Egyptians made bitter the lives of our fathers in Egypt.

Typically the bitter herbs and bread were dipped or “sopped” into either salted water, or vinegar, or a mixture of dates and raisins in vinegar, called Charoseth. Over the course of time the exact procedure regarding the breaking and passing the bread changed, and it is hard to say whether in Jesus’ last supper the bread was passed once, twice, or three times. However many times the bread was passed, the unleavened loaf would be broken by the host and then passed to the guests. This is the “breaking” of the bread behind Jesus idea of Christ’s body being “broken” in our communion meal.

It is hard to say just what Passover pattern Jesus and the disciples followed exactly. We are fairly certain of some of the features, but there was not an absolute set pattern and always some manner of flexibility. In the chart below I have outlined a likely scenario for Jesus last meal with the disciples. On the right I have tried to show where the tidbits we have from the NT texts fit into the overall course of the meal. What is important is for us to understand the meaning of Jesus’ words in their context, which is what I will try to draw out in the sermon Sunday.

Toward the end of the day Jesus and the rest would have left Bethany to enter the city. As Jesus approached the city this would have been the last time he was to see the city in daylight. Jesus and the rest of the disciples would have entered the city, wound through the familiar streets until they found the place prepared for their meal, and there joined up with Peter and John who would have been roasting the lamb. At Sundown of this “Thursday” the Jewish day became the 15th of Nissan.

Here is a comparison between a typical first century Passover “seder” and the events of the last supper Jesus shared with his disciples:

Typical 1st Century Passover “seder” Jesus Last Passover

1. Guests take their places — The seating arrangement provokes a dispute about who is the greatest (Luke 22:24-30).

2. Blessing and drinking of first cup of wine and the “thanksgiving” — After taking the cup, he gave thanks…(Luke 22:17)

3. Head of party washes hands — Jesus washes disciples feet (John 13:4-5)

4. Meal is brought in:
Unleavened bread
Bitter herbs
Stewed fruit
Roast Lamb


Herbs dipped in salt water or the “Caroseth,” and passed
The dishes are removed
Question of the youngest present
The host reviews
Israel’s salvation history
The dishes returned
Explanation of each part of supper by host
First Part of Hallel Sung – Psalms 113 and 114
Drinking of the second cup
Hands washed again

5. Blessing, breaking and passing of unleavened cake with bitter herbs between them, which is dipped in the salt water or the “Caroseth” — Jesus is troubled in spirit (John 13:21), John asks Jesus who is the one (John 13:25), Jesus dips bread and gives to Judas (John 13:26).

6. Eating of roasted lamb — Judas gets up and leaves (John 13:30).

7. Passing of piece of unleavened bread. Normally no food was eaten after the lamb. This was an innovation. — Jesus took bread gave thanks and broke it…”this is my body” (Mark 14:22).

8. Washing of hands

9. Blessing and Drinking of the third cup, the “cup of blessing” or “cup of redemption” — Paul’s “cup of blessing” (1 Corinthians 11:24), Then he took the cup, gave thanks…“this is my blood” (Mark 14:23).

10. Drinking of the fourth cup — “I tell you the truth…” (Mark 14:25)

11. Singing of second part of Hallel — When they had sung a hymn… (Mark 14:26)

I would like now to comment on the significance of Jesus’ words in Mark 14:22-25. First I will look at his words regarding the bread, then his words about the cup, and then his words about the consummation. First the bread:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”

As mentioned above, the passing and eating of the bread at this point in the meal was a variation from the normal Passover procedure, and would have been seen as such by the disciples. Normally no food was eaten after the Passover lamb. This innovation or variation itself would have made an impression upon the disciples. It also would have “upstaged” the lamb itself.

The “bread” was actually a loaf or cake of unleavened bread. Jesus took hold of this loaf and gave thanks – possibly saying something similar to the traditional Passover prayer — “Blessed art thou, king of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” As you may know, the Greek word for “giving thanks” is eucharisto, from which we get one of the names of the Lord’s Supper – the “Eucharist.”

Jesus then broke the bread and likely gave a piece to each person rather than just passing the whole loaf around. The actual “breaking” of the bread would of course came to have more significance than being merely a way to get pieces of the loaf to each person. Rather, this act of breaking the bread would be associated with Jesus own atoning sacrifice and death.

Then Jesus spoke the words that have become surrounded with controversy, “Take, eat, this is my body.”

Nothing could have been further from Jesus’ mind than our debates about whether the resurrected Christ is present in or under or through or above or beside or around the bread, or whether the bread in some sense “becomes” Jesus physical body. These may indeed be interesting and important debates, but to try to recruit Jesus’ here as speaking to them is not really proper.

This word “is” in the statement has a large range of meaning and does not convey some strict literalistic sense that the piece of bread physically is or becomes Jesus’ physical body. Instead, the context of the Passover meal certainly provides the clue to how we should take these words. Just as aspects of the Passover meal represented, stood for, or called to mind central aspects of God’s saving work, so also the breaking of Jesus’ body brings to mind the ultimate soon-to-be-revealed aspect of God’s saving work – the atoning death of Jesus.

By eating the bread that so calls to mind and represents and symbolizes Jesus’ sacrificial death, the participant is identifying himself with Jesus and his work. He is laying claim to and celebrating the benefit of this atoning work.

Turning to the wine, we read that:

Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it.

As mentioned above the cup which Jesus took would have been the “third cup,” or “cup of redemption,” or “cup of blessing.” Again, as with the bread, Jesus gave thanks. Perhaps he would have spoken one of the traditional words of blessing over the cup, “Blessed art thou O Lord our God King of the Universe, creator of the fruit of the vine.”

Jesus then passed the cup around and they all drank from it. The cup would have been a common cup, and the drinking together from this common cup would have given a greater sense that sharing in the cup was a corporate matter – a common sharing in that which the cup symbolized.

Before or during or after the passing and drinking of this cup, Jesus spoke the words:

“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them.

There is some evidence that the third cup of the Passover meal was cut or diluted with warm water to more accurately convey its association with the blood of the Passover lamb. Jesus springs from the connection between the wine of the cup of blessing and the blood of the sacrificial Passover lamb, and then changes the association. The wine now represents and calls to mind not the blood of the Passover lamb, but his own blood. Indeed, he now is the real Passover Lamb!

Again, the use of the word “is” should not be made to answer questions about the nature of Christ’s presence in the wine. Just what the cup represent? It is “my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many.”

In these few words Jesus is alluding to three very important Old Testament Scriptures —

Exodus 24:8; Jeremiah 31:31; and Ezekiel 37:26.

The phrase “blood of the covenant” harkens back to Exodus 24:8:

Exodus 24:5-8 Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the LORD. Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.” Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

If you read the verses leading up to Exodus 24:8 you will see that this extremely important passage describes the ratification of the covenant between YHWH and the people of Israel. YHWH has rescued His people from Egypt. He has become their God, and they His people. He has bonded Himself to them. He is the covenant Lord, the covenant king. They, the people, are the subjects, the vassals. He the Covenant Lord makes promises to them, and they the people make pledges to Him. They agree to honor Him by living according to the stipulations of the law. As they walk faithfully before Him, He will protect and bless them; if they are disloyal and turn from Him, he will curse them. Now, by verse 5 of Exodus 24, the people have heard the stipulations of the covenant. It is time for them formally to pledge themselves to YHWH; and He has to them. Animals are sacrificed in a fellowship offering, an offering that celebrates that bond or relationship between the people and their God. The blood of the slain animals is collected in bowls. Moses then dips a hyssop branch into the blood and flings the blood onto the people. It splats onto their clothes, onto their bodies and onto their faces. By submitting to this rite the people are saying, “Yes, we commit ourselves to YHWH. We are His people. So be it done unto us (i.e., that we would be cut up and killed) if we are not faithful to the covenant!”

By alluding to Exodus 24:8 Jesus is saying that participating in the cup of communion is like being a part of a covenant ratification ceremony. This means that those who partake of his cup are saying “Yes” to the offer of God, to the work of God in Jesus, to that bond which He makes with his people through Jesus’ blood. Sharing in Jesus’ cup thus affirms our fellowship with God through Jesus and His work. But it also affirms of our commitment to Him. By participating in it we are taking upon ourselves the stipulations and responsibilities of knowing God as covenant Lord. By participating in it we are agreeing to walk in the way of Jesus, the exalted and sovereign Lamb upon the throne.

This cup representing Jesus’ blood is not splattered onto the people but ingested by them. The phrase “covenant in my blood” points us to the sacrifice of Jesus himself as that which makes possible the new covenant. Jesus’ atoning death is the basis for the relationship or bond between God and His people. This is what Jesus means by “poured out for many.” Jesus is the servant of Isaiah 53, offering his life for his people. Indeed all sacrifices, even the Passover sacrifice, have pointed to Jesus’ sacrifice all along. Jesus’ death provides the way to relationship to God. Jesus’ sacrifice opens up the veil. Jesus’ sacrifice opens up the way to life.

The covenant being spoken about is certainly the ”new” covenant. Other of the gospel accounts use the word “new” here. The newness of this covenant is certainly implied whether the word “new” is included or not. God had promised a time when he would make a new covenant with his people, when he would write the law upon their hearts, when he would be their God and they his people, when he would pour out his spirit upon them and turn their dead bones into living flesh. That time had now come. The way to this new state of affairs is through the sacrifice of Jesus.

The fourth cup is now passed, that cup which looks forward to YHWH’s future and final deliverance of his people:

“I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.”

Paul said that as often as we eat the bread and drink the cup we proclaim the Lords’ death until He comes. Jesus and Paul are both looking ahead to that time when the kingdom is consummated, to the great messianic feast, the feast of the Lamb:

Revelation 19:7-9 Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.) Then the angel said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!'” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”

Luke 22:29-30 And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Isaiah 25:6-9 On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine– the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The LORD has spoken. In that day they will say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the LORD, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”

Jesus is anticipating that there will be a period of time between his resurrection and coming again. Yes, he is going away. Yes, it will be a while before he celebrates with them again in person, when he comes in his kingdom at the consummation. Everything ultimately looks ahead to this.

Then Jesus sings the last two Hallel psalms, gets up, and goes forth.

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