Today we read what is arguably the climax to the story of salvation history. The Passover is at hand and Jesus shares a Passover meal with his Apostles. Remember, the Passover is when, at the beginning of the exodus from Egypt, the angel of death passed over the houses of the Hebrews. The angel passed over the houses marked with the blood of a sacrificed lamb. Inside the houses the people ate the lamb together with unleavened bread and wine. At the last supper Jesus institutes a new Passover, where He replaces the lamb as the sacrifice.
By connecting the Last Supper with the Passover and the Exodus, Jesus shows that the new bread which He is offering is efficacious and miraculous. Like the lamb and the unleavened bread of the original Passover the angel of death will now be powerless over those who eat the new bread. We will learn more about this when we get to the gospel of John. For now it is enough to notice and begin to contemplate the connections.
Notice that Jesus repeats the same pattern of words and actions as he did when he multiplied the loaves and the fishes to feed the 5,000. He takes the bread, he blesses it, he breaks it, he then gives it to his disciples and they eat it. By connecting it to the multiplication of the loaves the author (and therefore the Holy Spirit) is indicating that this is miraculous bread.
Another important detail to understand is that at a first century Passover service there were four ceremonial cups of wine that were consumed during the meal. The four cups are named. The first cup is the cup of Sanctification starts the Passover liturgy. The second cup is the cup of Deliverance and starts the meal. The third cup is the cup of Redemption sometimes also called the cup of suffering. The last cup is the cup of Restoration or the cup of consummation and ends the meal. Look what happens at Jesus’ Passover. Matthew writes:
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
Because we know that the hymn were sung after the third cup we know that Jesus stopped the Passover meal early, before it would normally have concluded under Jewish tradition. He specifically says that we will not drink wine, “the fruit of the vine” again until he does so in Heaven. Why did Jesus do this?
Well notice what happens in the garden of Gethsemane while Jesus awaits his arrest and prays to the Father:
Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” 39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
So while Jesus is praying in the garden He terms the suffering and death He is about to undergo as, “a cup”. For Jesus, the Passover meal of the upper room is not finished. That makes sense because for the Passover you need to sacrifice a lamb. However, in the new Passover, Jesus is the lamb. So somehow the sacrifice that is to come on the cross must be connected to the Last Supper in the upper room. That is show through the cups. By going out to the garden before drinking the fourth cup of the Passover, Jesus has left the Passover meal open. Skipping ahead we are familiar with what happens. Jesus is crucified. His blood stains the wood of the cross. This is the equivalent of the lamb’s blood on the doorways of the homes of the Israelites during the first Passover. On the cross, Jesus will say, “I thirst”. He will be given wine in a sponge held up to him on a branch. He drinks that wine and says, “It is finished.” What is finished? Not the work of salvation, Jesus is still is to be raised from the dead. What is finished is the Last Supper. What is finished is the first new Passover meal.
Some people have trouble with this concept. If the sacrifice of the lamb happens after the meal, then the lamb cannot be eaten at the meal. However, this is a small matter for God who exists outside of time and is all powerful. When Jesus says, “This is my body”, we know he means what he says. The glorified resurrected body of Jesus is held by Jesus in his own hands and distributed by Jesus to his apostles. There is another clue that shows this. Outside in the garden when the Apostles fall asleep Jesus says to them, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” These are almost identical words as He uses in the Bread of Life discourse in John 6:63,. I encourage you read it once now for context. Multiple times Jesus says that his flesh is real food and his blood real drink. The Jews take him literally and are so perplexed by this teaching that they all leave him and no longer follow him. Jesus doesn’t try to stop them. John 6 is the only place in the Bible were followers leave Jesus and he was willing to let it happen. By using such similar language Jesus is connecting the Last Supper and the teaching of the Bread of Life discourse. At the Last Supper Jesus transforms the substance of the bread and wine into his glorified Body and Blood, making what He says in John 6 true.