Passover & the First Eucharist

The custom of reclining at the Passover meal symbolizes freedom, and dates back to Roman times. At that time it was the custom at banquets that freemen would recline on couches to eat while their slaves stood in the background serving the food. Since the Passover celebrates freedom, it is no surprise that the Mishna would say, “Even the poorest man in Israel must not eat [on the night of Passover] until he reclines.” Even in the context of this celebration of freedom, Jesus takes the posture of a servant: he “lays down” his clothing, wraps a towel around himself, takes a basin and water, and washes his disciples’ feet.

Last Supper Mere hours before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus reclined at table with his friends, and they celebrated the Passover feast together. He shared his last evening with his friends, giving some final words to those to whom he was closest… strengthening them, and no doubt drawing strength from his fellowship with them. The Passover was by that time already steeped in a tradition passed down for hundreds of years… and in the midst of this meal, he gave us a new tradition which we still practice hundreds of years later.

In the gospels, we find Jesus time and again sitting with people, eating… so much so that he was called “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” He loved to be with people, talking and sharing life together… sharing his Father with them. In part, that’s what makes this “last supper” so intriguing… this final dialouge of Jesus with his most intimate friends and confidantes. I’ve often thought that if I could be a fly on the wall at any place and time throughout history, this is the time and place I would choose. In Biblical Studies we call this the “Upper Room Discourse” but really, it’s a story about the last evening Jesus spent with his closest friends. Though his friends did not, he knew it would be the last evening of its kind before he would suffer and then be separated from them.

What would be on your mind if you knew you were spending your last evening with your closest friends? I think that Jesus had some particular things on his heart to share with his friends, and then to pray for them. Things of significant importance to us, to those who are his friends. God is all about relationship. He created us for this purpose, and it’s really no wonder that when Jesus walked among us, he loved to be in the midst of a party. After all, relationship is the thing closest to his heart… and this is entwined with the reason that he said to them that evening, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”

Jesus’ crucifixion occured at the time of The Passover — for a particular symbolic reason; in fact, John is careful to tell us the time that Jesus was presented by Pilate to the Jews for crucifixion… the same hour that the lambs are presented for slaughter when preparing for the Passover meal. To get a feel for what Passover would have been like in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day, we might imagine being in a shopping mall in the week or two before Christmas. In many ways, Christmas is the highest point in our calendar, the one time of year that everything else relates to. Passover was this way for the Jews of Jesus’ day, and the same hustle and bustle that we know of Christmas time is the same level of activity around Passover in Jesus’ time. Passover was one of the three annual “pilgrimage feasts” when everyone made the trip up to Jerusalem to celebrate.

Passover Elements I think if there’s one thing the Jewish people are experts at, it’s waiting. We can see how Jesus fulfils the Messianic prophecies of the Torah, and how he fills the symbolism in the Passover Seder… but if we were to place ourselves back to the time of Christ or a few years before, we would be in a posture of waiting. They waited 400 years in Egypt to be freed, and in the Passover they remember the Exodus, and remember that they still await the Messiah. Maybe this is not entirely unlike our waiting today for the return of Christ, but I expect that their longing at the time wasn’t something far deeper than what we experience. The Jewish people were opressed, and had been actively awaiting the Messiah for centuries.

Of course, we all know the story, how the Messiah came but his own did not receive him. They wanted a military Messiah, and Jesus did not fit the bill. The story is summed up by John in this way:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, [1] and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, [2] and his own people [3] did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.'”) And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, [4] who is at the Father’s side, [5] he has made him known.

Bread At the beginning of the Passover meal, the head of the household would take the bread, break it, and say, “This is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Let everyone who hungers come and eat; let everyone who is needy come and eat the Passover meal.”

“Bread” can be a generic term for “food” in the New Testament, and so speaks of eating together, an expression of fellowship. When the early church celebrated the Lord’s Table together, they did so in the context of a “love-feast” which allowed them to express community and fellowship with one another. Of course, Paul had to adjust their practice of this somewhat, but this is how we know how the early church celebrated communion — as an act not only of worship, but of fellowship with one another. This is the symbol of the bread. The bread is his body… his human form born in Bethlehem was broken… and quite fittingly, “Bethlehem” means “house of bread”. The church is now the body of Christ, and even as Jesus’ body was broken in the crucifixion, our celebration together of his broken body is a celebration of unity within his body, the church. His brokenness brings us togetherness.

Passover recalls the covenant made with Moses, which had four elements to it. The Passover meal included four cups of wine that were shared together, each one representing one of the four elements in the Mosaic covenant:

  • Take Israel out of Egypt
  • Take Israel out of bondage and slavery
  • Redeem Israel with acts of judgement
  • Take Israel to be His people, and He will be their God

The Holy Grail? After supper, the third cup is taken; this is called “The Cup of Redemption” and speaks of redeeming Israel with acts of judgement. The Jews understood that their Redemption would come with the Messiah, and this cup is what they await until Messiah comes. In the Passover Seder, the head of the household would take this cup, lift it up, and pray, “May the All-merciful One make us worthy of the days of the Messiah and of the covenant-faithfulness to his Anointed, to David and his seed forever. He makes peace in Heavenly places. May he secure peace for us and for all Israel.”

Paul says, “After supper, Jesus took the cup.” This is the cup he lifted before his friends, the cup of redemption, the Messianic cup steeped in the imagery of the Mosaic covenant. Covenant itself is a significant image — covenants were ratified with blood. This is a cup of judgement, but also a cup that looks to the securing of peace, the cup over which every year the Jews pray to be worthy of the days of the Messiah. Jesus takes the cup, but he doesn’t pray the prayer that falls within the Passover Seder as it had every year for centuries. Instead, he lifts it up and says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” This departure from the Seder tells his disciples that they are entering a new era. This aspect of the Mosaic covenant is to be fulfilled imminently through Jesus’ blood.

Jesus said that he would not eat the Passover again until it finds fulfillment in the Kingdom of God… so there’s an aspect of the Passover that is yet unfilfilled, an aspect of the Mosaic Covenant that is left “outstanding,” and Jesus himself looks forward to the day when these are completed. When Jesus shared the third cup of the meal as the “new covenant” in his blood, he said he would not drink again until the Kingdom… which I take to mean that he refused the fourth cup of the Passover meal, deferring until its fulfillment in the Kingdom.

The fourth cup was called “The Cup of Consumation” and is a cup of fellowship. The Mosaic Covenant promised that we would be his people and he would be our God… this is fellowship. In the Old Testament, the Tabernacle — and later, the Temple — was the visible sign of God’s dwelling place among his people. John says in chapter 1 of his gospel that “The Word became flesh and ‘Tabernacled’ among us,” so this is rich in meaning, recalling all of this imagery of God living among his people. In Revelation 21, John tells us that there is no Tabernacle (or Temple) in the city of God “or its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” When the Kingdom comes, God dwells among his people as he always wanted.

Wedding at Cana In John 2, Jesus attended a wedding at Cana, where they ran short of wine. There are a lot of weak interpretations of Jesus’ words to his mother, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” If it wasn’t yet his time to do miracles, why would he go and do it anyway? Was Mary allowed to overrule the will of the Father? This happens in some households where mother overrules father, but not this one. No, I think something else was happening here. In those days, it was the custom for the groom to provide the wine for the wedding feast… much as it is today in many places. The word “hour” has significance in John’s gospel and indeed this does prove to be the “hour” when Jesus’ glory is revealed to his disciples. But I believe something else is going on, something perhaps even bigger… when Jesus says that it isn’t his business that they ran short of wine, and it isn’t his “hour” (or “time”), I think he’s saying, “Hey, this isn’t my wedding. When it’s my wedding, I’ll provide the wine!” Yes, “the good stuff.” Here in his institution of the communion meal out of the Passover imagery, Jesus’ words echo that sentiment… he’s looking forward to having his wine at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in Revelation 19. “Consumation” is also the language of marriage.

Paul said, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” And of course in Revelation 22, the Spirit and the Bride say, “Come!” just before the book of Revelation ends with the call, “Maranatha!” So each time we take the communion wine, we look not only back to Jesus’ death, but also forward to dwelling with him in the Kingdom of Heaven, when this Passover meal and the promises it represents are ultimately fulfilled — and the best promise of those held for last. So this one thing I begin to suspect… and though I wouldn’t go to the stake for it, I wonder, will the Wedding Feast of the Lamb be a Passover meal in which we celebrate the completed covenant of God with us, in which we lift the fourth cup and celebrate a fellowship with God that has been unknown to man since Adam?