Understanding Jesus’ Observance of the Jewish Passover

This supper of Jesus with his twelve disciples which we call The Last Supper, as it is recorded in the Gospels, was going to be a meal unlike others they had shared. Jesus would reveal what was about to happen in the days ahead. And He was going to institute the observance of Communion or The Lord’s Supper among believers.

The supper Jesus was having with his disciples was part of a religious celebration in observance of the Jewish Passover. The Passover meal  commemorated the time the Angel of Death “passed over” or in other words “spared” the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt.

During the Hebrews’ bondage, Moses, the Egyptian Princess’ adopted son, but in actuality an Israelite himself, implored Pharaoh to let The Hebrews leave Egypt. God repeatedly sent plagues  over the land to influence him to set the Hebrews free, but it took a tenth and final plague to get Pharaoh’s attention. Moses’ pronouncement to Pharaoh was that unless he let God’s people go, the first born son of each family would die.

God made a way of escape for the Israelites from this plague through their obedience to His command to spread blood from a sacrificial lamb over the top and sides of their door frames. Those homes not covered by the lamb’s blood suffered the death of their first born son. The Hebrews did as they were commanded. When Pharaoh’s son died during the night he relented to Moses’ demand. Thus the Jews  were spared and set free, and from then on, the  Jewish Passover was celebrated as a festival to the Lord and a lasting ordinance. 

Jesus’ and the disciples’ observance of Passover was under the ever-expanding shadow of the cross, that destiny for which Christ came into the world. That destiny was imminent when Jesus during the meal said, “Take and eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26 NIV) as He broke into pieces the loaf of bread to share with his disciples. This broken bread, symbolizing a broken body, foreshadowed events to come:

  • Jesus’ back lacerated by flogging,
  • Jesus’ brow pierced by thorns twisted into a crown and pressed down on his head,
  • Jesus’ hands and feet nailed to a wooden cross,
  • and Jesus’ side slashed open to be sure He was dead by the spear of a Roman soldier.

And that destiny was also symbolized by the cup of wine Jesus offered his disciples to drink, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin” (Matthew 26:27-28 NIV).  Blood was spilled from God Incarnate, or in other words from God in the flesh, who saw fit to come from heaven to earth, being born as a Baby Boy to the teenage girl Mary who was still a virgin. Her Baby Boy Jesus would  grow up to become the Redeemer Christ on the cross.  

Jesus’ flesh bore the indignity of a cruel Roman crucifixion and death so He might identify with every person’s suffering and every person’s succumbing to death of the physical body. Up to the time of Jesus, Jews sacrificed animals, including lambs without blemish as required for the forgiveness of their sins. With Jesus’ death, He became the Spotless Sacrificial Lamb and under the New Covenant which is salvation by grace on God’s part and faith on our part, not salvation through obeying the Law as laid out in the first five books of the Old Testament of the Bible.

In addition to Jesus’ discourse on how the bread and wine symbolized his imminent death, the second way this supper shared by this Rabbi, or Teacher, and his followers, or students was different from their other suppers was the abrupt exit of Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve. Jesus had told the disciples that one of them was going to betray Him. Mark 14:19 NIV says, “They were saddened, and one by one they said to Him, ‘Surely not I?’” The disciple John asked Jesus, “Lord, who is it?” (John 13:25 NIV).  Jesus answered by saying, “‘It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ Then, dipping the piece of bread, He gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon’” (Matthew 13:26 NIV).

 In Matthew 26: 14-16 we learn that sometime prior to the meal, Judas had already made a deal with the chief priests to hand Jesus over to them. For thirty pieces of silver he would identify Jesus to them and now he was just looking for the best opportunity. So, after Jesus pointed out Judas as the disciple who would betray Him, Judas left the group.

Judas would not be with Jesus and the other eleven disciples as they sang a hymn and left the dining table to go to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. But, as is narrated in Matthew 26:47-50, he would come to the garden later, accompanied by a large crowd armed with swords and clubs and sent there on behalf of the chief priests and elders. As had been predetermined with the religious leaders, Judas greeted Jesus and placed on his cheek what would turn out to be a kiss of death. Thus the events of what Christians call Holy Week were pushed closer to the foot of the cross whose shadow had been looming—looming even over Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem only days before.

Jesus’ Last Supper with His Disciples
Connie Carlisle Polley, 2020

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