The Last Supper (Matthew 26:17-30)

Jesus was celebrating the Passover meal with his disciples. During the meal he said that one of them would betray him. The disciples were very upset and began to ask him, one after the other, “Surely, Lord, you don't mean me?” Jesus answered, “The one who dips his bread in the dish with me will betray me.” Judas asked if Jesus meant him, to which he replied “So you say.”

While they were eating, Jesus took a piece of bread, gave a prayer of thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. “Take and eat it” he said, “this is my body”. Then he took a cup, gave thanks to God, and gave it to them saying “This is my blood, which seals God's covenant, my blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Then they sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives.

The Last Supper of Christ by Girolamo da Santacroce (16th century)

Background

The Jewish Passover festival is celebrated annually during the month of Nisan (in the spring). It remembers the Exodus – how God rescued the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt

The main focus of the festival is a special meal, where the whole family will gather to hear the story of their ancestors’ deliverance from slavery. There are a number of symbolic foods which are present on the table or tasted. Some of these include:

  • Unleavened bread - this is flat bread baked without yeast. It reminds Jewish people that when their ancestors left Egypt they did so in a hurry and did not have time to prepare bread in the usual way.
  • Wine - four glasses are drunk during the telling of the Exodus story to remind the Jews of God’s promises to his people.
  • Bitter herbs - a reminder of the bitterness of slavery.
  • Lamb bone - a reminder of the lamb that was sacrificed so that people's door frames could be marked with blood.
  • Haroset – a paste of apples, nuts and cinnamon. Its colour and texture are meant to recall mortar, and therefore to act as a reminder of the work of the Israelite slaves who made bricks out of mud.

Understanding the text

Jesus has made arrangements in advance to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. Jesus was born and brought up Jewish, so it is natural that he should want to remember this festival with his disciples.

During the meal, Jesus announced that one of his disciples would betray him to the authorities. Judas has already made arrangements with the Jewish leaders to do this for 30 silver coins. This shows that Jesus is fully aware of what will happen to him – that he will be arrested and put to death. Jesus accepts this as he knows it is God’s plan for him.

Jesus began the Passover in the usual way, but during the meal he made some important changes:

  • He broke the bread and passed it to his disciples saying, “Take and eat, this is my body.”
  • He offered them the cup of wine, saying “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood, which seals God's covenant, my blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Passover is the meal at the heart of the Old Testament covenant between God and the Israelites. The Israelites are His chosen people, but they must worship Him exclusively. Jesus has taken the bread and wine and given them a new significance for his followers, showing that a new covenant is about to be put in place between God and His people.

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Jesus’ death is to be the final sacrifice which will allow all people to receive God’s forgiveness. Now anyone who has faith in Jesus and believes that he died for forgiveness of sins can be a member of God’s covenant community. This privilege is no longer only for the Jews.

Sacrifice was important in the old covenant. The Israelites frequently sacrificed animals in the temple to receive God’s blessing and to have their sins forgiven through the blood that was shed. For the first Passover, a lamb or young goat was killed and its blood put on the door frames of the Israelites’ houses. If they all stayed indoors, then the blood would save their first born when the angel of death visited Egypt that night.

Jesus’ blood is about to be spilt at the crucifixion and the wine represents this. However, Christians believe that through Jesus’ blood a person is saved for eternity, not just for a short while.