It had already been decided by the religious leaders in Jerusalem that Jesus should be killed, earlier (John 7), and now with even greater determination after the raising of Lazarus (John 11:45-53). Now that time was approaching, Jesus shares the Passover with the disciples. At the meal itself, a number of events took place:
The Lord’s washing of the feet of the disciples (John 13:1-20).
At least once, the Lord spoke of His betrayer.
Some (perhaps all) of the traditional Passover ceremony took place.
Jesus added his own words, never heard at a Passover meal before.
Jesus gives an extensive message (John 14-16), concluding with the “high priestly prayer” of intercession for His followers.
There is an argument about who would be the greatest, along with our Lord’s response.
The Lord deals with the over-confident Peter.
Jesus also taught the disciples about being prepared to face a hostile world.
They finished by singing a hymn before departing to the Garden of Gethsemane.
1. The “last supper” was a part of a larger event.
The account of the actual celebration of the “last supper” is brief and in the gospel of John, it is not even recorded!
2. The account does not “read back” into the event its later significance, such as the death of Christ on the cross.
It is not until Acts and the epistles of the New Testament that the full meaning of “communion” is seen. The event is described from the historical perspective of those who were there, not from that of those who can look on the event and see its added meaning in the light of the cross.
3. The “last supper” was the “last” supper in that it marked the end of one covenant and the beginning of another.
It instituted the age of the “new covenant” and anticipated (at the cross) the end of the period of the “old covenant.” The “last supper” is unique, never to be re-enacted. It is the closing of one chapter, and the beginning of a new one.
4. The “last supper” was the inauguration of a new “church” sacrament.
The church will go back to this moment as the historical root for its celebration of “communion,” but the disciples had no grasp of the newness of this celebration at the time.
5. The meaning and significance of the “last supper” was almost totally missed by the disciples.
As usual, they did not understand what Jesus was doing, and they were busy thinking about the identity of the betrayer, their own sadness, and who was the greatest among them. At the most “spiritual” times, our sinful desires are still present. While the disciples are different than Judas, they are not that different. They are thinking mainly of themselves, and not of Jesus. They, too, are seeking their own self-interest. And so, the discussion among them as to who would betray Jesus quickly deteriorated into an argument as to who was the greatest. How typical—of them, and of us.
The amazing thing is that the disciples and even Judas, for all their sin, could not ruin this meal for the Lord. Jesus observed it in the light of what God was doing, not in what men were doing. It is what he has done for us that gives “communion” its significance.
6. The mood of the “last supper,” was dominated by the gloom of the impending betrayal and of Christ’s imminent death on the cross.
The disciples did not know what was about to take place, but there was a sadness, a heaviness, in their spirits, knowing that something ominous was about to occur. Yet Jesus: “eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer”.
The reason why Jesus can say that he has eagerly desired to eat the Passover is that he “will not eat it again until its fulfilment in the kingdom of God”. So, too, for the cup. he will not drink the cup again until the kingdom of God is fulfilled. Jesus looks beyond the cross, to the crown. The joy set before him is the kingdom, and the suffering of the cross is the way this joy will be realised. Therefore, Jesus focused on the joy of the fulfilment of the Passover and was encouraged and enabled to endure the cross because of it.
The eating of the first Passover involved the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, but only so that Israel might be released from Egypt, cross the Red Sea, and enter into the promised land. The sacrifice of the Passover lamb focused on the preservation of the lives of the firstborn, and on the possession of the promised kingdom. In the same way, Jesus saw this Passover as prophetic, as anticipatory of the coming of the kingdom, and in this he could rejoice.
The meal was the end of one order, and the start of another. It was the end the Mosaic covenant, and the beginning of the new covenant, that which the prophet Jeremiah prophesied (Jeremiah 31:31). That which God had promised Abraham was about to be accomplished through Jesus’ sacrificial death. The full meaning of the meal, and of our Lord’s death would only be grasped after His death and resurrection.
May we approach the Lord’s table as the Saviour did, with great joy and anticipation, looking back, but also looking forward to that day when the kingdom of God shall come.