The New Passover
When Jesus gathered with His disciples on the night before He would be crucified, they came together for a Passover meal. By that time, the Jewish people had been celebrating Passover every year for some 1500 years. It was a familiar, well-established ritual. Using specific foods, prayers, songs, and sayings, Passover remembered how God delivered Israel from their slavery in Egypt.
At the Passover meal that we call the Last Supper – which Jesus ate with His disciples on that night before His crucifixion – Jesus did something radical. He took that meal that was centered on what God did for Israel 1500 years before, and Jesus made Himself the new center of the meal marking redemption.
We read about this in Matthew 26:26-29:
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.”
As Jesus led this Passover ceremony, He took bread, blessed and broke it. Bread was a familiar part of the ritual. When the bread was lifted up at Passover, the head of the meal said: “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.” Everything eaten at the Passover meal had symbolic meaning. The bitter herbs recalled the bitterness of slavery; the salt water remembered the tears shed under Egypt’s oppression. The main course of the meal – a lamb freshly sacrificed for that particular household – did not symbolize anything connected to the agonies of Egypt. It was the sin-bearing sacrifice that allowed the judgment of God to pass over the household that believed.
But Jesus did something radical that night in the upper room. He gave His disciples the bread and told them, take, eat; this is My body. Then Jesus gave them one of the familiar cups and said, this is My blood of the new covenant. Jesus didn’t give the normal explanation of the meaning of each of these foods. He reinterpreted them in Himself, and the focus was no longer on the suffering of Israel in Egypt, but on the sin-bearing suffering of the Messiah on their behalf. Jesus boldly announced the institution of something promised in the Hebrew Scriptures, but at that moment not yet in effect – Jesus announced the new covenant, which would come into effect through His death. We can say that the blood of Jesus made the new covenant possible, and it also made it sure and reliable. It is confirmed with the life of God Himself.
Since that night in the upper room, Christians from different times and tradition have understood the exact significance of the bread and the cup of the last supper in different ways. We can focus on two points that I think all believers can agree on.
For believers in Jesus the Messiah, this becomes our new Passover. This is how we remember what Jesus did for us. As we eat the bread, we should remember how Jesus was broken, pierced, and beaten with stripes for our redemption. As we drink the cup, we should remember that His blood, His life was poured out on Calvary for us.
This is also how we fellowship with Jesus. Because His sacrifice has reconciled us to God, we can now sit down to a meal with Jesus, and enjoy each other’s company.
It’s remarkable that Jesus never specifically told us to commemorate His birth, or His life, or His teaching – though I think all of those are good things to do. Yet Jesus did specifically tell us to commemorate His death – to remember Him as we eat the bread and drink the cup of the new Passover.
Beyond the debate over what the bread and the cup mean, we must remember what Jesus said to do with them. We must take and eat. Take means that it won’t be forced upon anyone. One must actually receive it. Eat means that this is absolutely vital for everyone. Without food and drink, no one can live. Without Jesus, we perish. It also means that we must take Jesus into our innermost being. Everyone must also eat for themselves; no one else can do it for them.
Finally, Matthew records Jesus saying that He looked forward to that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom. Jesus anticipated a future celebration of this great Passover in heaven, one that He has not yet celebrated with His people. He is waiting for all His people to be gathered to Him, and then there will be a great supper – the marriage supper of the Lamb mentioned in Revelation 19. This is the fulfillment in My Father’s kingdom that Jesus longed for.
Are you waiting for that fulfillment? Take and eat; receive who Jesus is and what He did for you into your innermost being. Be part of the new Passover Jesus instituted that night in the upper room.