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The Cross (3/6) The Passover

Photo: Amanda, flickr

“This is my body, which is for you”—Jesus on the death of Jesus


Ty Treadwell’s book The Last Supper is a record of the final meals chosen by inmates on death row. Victor Fugeur (hung 1963) chose for his last meal a single olive. John Wayne Gacy (executed 1994) choose a bucket of Original Recipe KFC, deep-fried prawns, chips, and a punnet of strawberries. Ronnie Lee Gardener (executed 2010) ordered steak, Lobster tail, ice-cream, apple pie and ate it whilst watching the extended edition of The Lord of the Rings.

The book is macabre but fascinating. And it reflects something profound. Our meals mean something. A birthday, the first meal of a married couple, the last meal you ever choose to eat alive—these meals carry meaning. They tell us something about who we think we are, what we think matters.

Our meals mean something. They tell us something about who we think we are, what we think matters.

Jesus on the death of Jesus

As I have been arguing in this series, Jesus’ death wasn’t a meaningless event to which Christians latter ascribed meaning. It already meant something—cursed by God, non-person, loser. The challenge for the early Christian preachers was not to argue that it meant something at all, but that it meant something else.

In fact, this task of understanding the cross as the action of God did not first fall to the early Christian preachers, but to Jesus himself. Chronologically, Jesus is the first person in the New Testament to argue for the theological meaning of his death. If we are looking for a faithful account of the true meaning of the cross, it seems impenitent not to give Jesus’ own interpretation pride of place. And Jesus first preached the meaning of the cross through a meal. It is to that meal we now turn.[1]

Passover

Why did Jesus choose Passover? At the time of Jesus, the Jewish people had several major festivals—harvest festivals, festivals celebrating the giving of the law, and festivals celebrating the re-dedication of the temple. They had a festival specifically focused on the forgiveness of sins, Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. If Jesus intended to time his death for a festival, he has a rich suite of options. He chose Passover. We have to take that seriously.

At the time of Jesus’ arrest, his popularity was such that the leadership could not afford to attempt a public arrest (Matt 26:4). Passover was by far the most politically charged of the festivals. It’s not hard to see why. It celebrates the fact that you were once slaves, labouring under an oppressive foreign power in Egypt. But God defeated the powers of the Egyptians and their gods. He brought judgement on the nation that oppressed you, but passed you over, so that you were free to live under God rule and to worship him.

How could you possibly celebrate all of that and not reflect on your current circumstances under Roman occupation? Almost everything it says, you’re not. It says you’re free. You’re not. It says you’ve escaped the rule of foreign powers. You haven’t. It says your sins are forgiven. But are they? Passover in the first century context moves from being a celebration of who you are to a battle cry for who you want to be. And as all those hopes are rekindled, the city of Jerusalem was like a tinderbox.

This is the context of Jesus’ last supper.

The Last Supper

It’s worth stating the blindingly obvious. The last supper happened in the context of a meal, not a church service. The meal was in process of being eaten. It was a meal familiar to all of them since childhood. And mid-meal, Jesus takes things in a surprising direction—“While they were eating, Jesus took bread …”

The elements of the meal that Jesus takes for his action are the bread and the wine. In the context of a Passover meal, these were not his only options. On the table before him there would likely have been bitter herbs (the bitterness of slavery), maybe eggs, and certainly lamb—the meal’s pièce de résistance, recalling the lambs whose blood was painted on the door of the Hebrew houses in Egypt as a sign to the angel of death to pass over that household.

Jesus had options, and yet he took the bread. Why? Why not another element? Especially, why not the lamb, which would seem to so perfectly capture what was about to happen to him? The bread’s specific meaning was the haste with which they left Egypt (flat bread, because there was no time to wait for the dough to rise).

And yet Jesus took the bread and said, “This is my body.” Why?

I believe Jesus chose the bread, not for its specific meaning within the Passover, but because “bread” in that context stands for the entire meal. In modern English we might arrange to meet for “coffee”, even though the participants may choose tea or cold drinks. In many Asian languages, an invitation “eat rice” is not a specific comment about what’s on the menu, but a general invitation to share food. In the Bible (and today in some contexts) an invitation to “break bread” together is fulfilled in a sharing a meal, not destroying an unsuspecting loaf of wholegrain sourdough.

When Jesus chooses the bread and says, “This is my body”, the “this” in that sentence is the whole Passover meal, not the bread in isolation.

On these grounds, I suspect that when Jesus chooses the bread and says, “This is my body”, the “this” in that sentence is the whole Passover meal, not the bread in isolation.[2] Just as a birthday party is not constituted by the mere presence of a cake, but requires cakes, candles, a song, and three “hip-hip hoorays!”, so to the bread alone does not carry the meaning. It is a reference to the entire Passover meal.

“In the same way he took the cup…”

The cup is an obvious symbol of Jesus’ blood. What they drank was undoubtedly wine, and the suitability of wine as a picture of blood is obvious. However, it is interesting that Jesus’ emphasis is on “the cup”, rather than the contents of the cup as such. “Drink from it, all of you …”

Most likely, everyone had their own cup. But at this point in the meal, Jesus says in effect: “Hey, everyone, drink from this cup, my cup.” Whereas the breaking of the bread is a practicality, not symbolic, the sharing of the cup is an impractically imposed on the meal for its symbolic significance. Why? Because it’s his blood! The invitation is not for all of them to shed their blood, but to share in the benefits of his blood. It is a symbolical way of stating the truth that salvation is in Christ alone.

The cup’s content is, of course, also full of meaning:

This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (v 28).

In the story of Exodus, a few chapters on from the events of the Passover itself, Moses gathered the people. There’s a sacrifice of bulls: half the blood is splashed against the altar and the other half is sprinkled on the people:

And Moses says to them: “This is the blood of the covenant” Exodus 24:8.

A covenant is a formal agreement between two parties. It’s promise plus sign plus consequences. Like a circumcision, a wedding ring, or a document signing, there is a symbol invoked to underscore the promises made, and the consequences to expect if the covenant is broken.

Back in Exodus the sign is the blood—signifying that they would break that covenant on pains of death.

And Jesus in this meal says: “This is the blood of the covenant … drink from it all of you.” Just as Moses implicated everyone by sprinkling them all with the blood, Jesus implicates everyone by getting them to drink from his cup.

Israel had broken the covenant. God has promises in Jeremiah and Ezekiel that there would be a new covenant coming, a new agreement between God and the people and in that new agreement their sins would be wiped out. Jesus is saying that that time has now come in his death.

Conclusion

If Jesus is the first interpreter of Jesus’ death, we owe his interpretation particular attention. What conclusions can we draw on the meaning of the death of Jesus from the last supper? I want to highlight three:

First, if I’m correct that, by using the bread, Jesus was in effect saying “this whole meal is what is about to be fulfilled in my death” then Passover is the key. It’s like the router for an entire family’s home internet connection. Everything goes through it. The Passover is the perfect router. Freedom, worship, sacrifice, victory, membership, hope, covenant—all the strands of Old Testament hope and longing come through the Passover. It’s all there. And Jesus, I believe is saying that about his death too: it’s all there.

Passover is the key. Everything goes through it: Sin, freedom, sacrifice, victory, membership, hope, covenant—all the strands of Old Testament hope and longing come through the Passover. And Jesus, I believe is saying that about his death too: it’s all there.

Second, the meal established its participants as the new people of God. You see, a festival like Yom Kippur was for atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles was for thanksgiving, and Pentecost was for the giving of the Law. All of them are vital aspects of Jewish theology and the Old Testament story. But the Passover alone—then and now—was the feast by which Israel said: “This is us. This is what constitutes us as a people.” Passover was Israel’s God-given festive answer to the question “Who are we?” The answer? Israel were that people who were brought from slavery in Egypt to be God’s freed people. That’s who they were.

If Jesus chose the meal that told Israel who they were, it follows that the last supper is the meal that told Jesus’ follows who they were. It tells us who we are.

Third, if this is the meal by which Jesus interpreted his death, it points to the status of those who have trusted in Jesus as people who have been set free. Freedom from slavery, but also freedom to worship God.

This matters. We sometimes cast the story of the gospel as a Two-Act before and after story. At its crudest, Act One says that we were sinners and Act Two says that God in his grace decided to forgive us through Jesus’ death. Both are true, but they are in fact Acts Two and Three of a Four Act sequence. In Act One we were created by God as his image bearers. In Act Two, we rebelled and became sinners. In Act Three, Jesus by his death, resurrection, ascension and pouring out of the Spirit, made us free—free to worship God, to put off the old self, to escape slavery to sin and to live a new life as we await Act Four, his final coming kingdom.

Put more simply, the story goes Good, Bad, Better and Best. Passover locates us in Better. The death of Jesus, which has not yet ushered in the new creation (“Best”), has nevertheless dealt the decisive blow against the world, the flesh, and the devil (“Better”). The cross of Jesus has actually changed our circumstances, such that we are, in a very real sense, free, even if we still cry “Next year, Jerusalem.”

In the next article, I will throw caution to the wind and ask what impact all of this might have for our understanding of the meal we share in our churches. What does the “Last Supper” mean for our understanding the “Lord’s Supper”?


[1] The meal Jesus has with his disciples, which we now call “The Last Supper”, is quite obviously the basis for a meal practiced in almost all churches, variously called “The Lord’s Supper”, “Holy Communion”, “The Eucharist” or “The Mass”. What precisely this meal means or achieves is a point of disagreement and controversy between Christians. My purpose here is not to add any oxygen to those debates. You will perhaps find it less distracting if you remember that when discussing “The Last Supper” I am focused on the meal Jesus actually had, rather than the details of the meal Christians have in “The Lord’s Supper”. I will return to the meal Christians share at the end by way of application, but if you don’t agree with what I say there, that’s okay. I think we can agree about the meaning of the Last Supper, even if we disagree about the precise details of the Lord’s Supper.

[2] In communion services the host will sometimes say that Jesus said, “This is my body broken for you.” This reinforces the idea that the bread is standing for his body, a picture of broken flesh. However, this is not what Jesus says. He rather said, “this is my body, which is for you”. Indeed, the Bible makes a point of the fact that Jesus’ body was not broken in the process of crucifixion. In the Last Supper, the breaking of the bread is not given symbolic significance— it is merely a practical step so that each of those at table can eat some of it.

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