It had almost been two months since the apostles had gathered with Jesus for the Passover meal in the upper room. Peter and John had followed Jesus’ instructions to prepare the meal (Luke 22:8). What an emotional night it had been! Right from the start, before they began the feast, Jesus had washed their feet (John 13:1-20); perhaps because Peter and John forgot or it was overlooked in order to keep the meeting private…which may partly explain Peter’s reaction when Jesus approached him (vss. 6-10). Then, right on the heels of this act of service Jesus became visibly distressed (vs. 21) and prophesies that one of them will betray Him (so that when it happens they will believe, vs. 19). Struck with sorrow, how could they help but wonder if it would be, indeed, one of them: “Is it I, Lord?” they would ask (Matthew 26:22; Mark 14:19). Identifying Judas with a morsel of bread (John 13:26) led the apostles to ask what Jesus had sent him away to do (John 13:29-30). What a strange evening it started out to be…and the Passover meal had only just begun!
During the course of the meal Jesus would address their troubled hearts (John 14:1), their fear (vs. 27) and their sorrow (John 16:5-6) while He talked about going away. In fact, He observes that in their sorrow they did not have the nerve to ask him where He was going (John 16:5). Totally bewildered and confused the whole evening was filled with disorienting activities, confusing words and anxious moments among the common, familiar elements of the Passover meal: unleavened bread, wine, bitter herbs, and roasted lamb.
There were a few things they knew that night. For certain, they all knew that they would not forsake Him during His time of trial. And Peter could never deny the Lord! He told all of them that he would follow Jesus to prison and even to the point of death. Yet, Jesus had told him that he was wrong, prophesying that Peter would deny Him no less than three times (Luke 22:31-34). At the time they could never contemplate forsaking Him in His hour of trial in spite of His prediction that they would leave Him as well (John 16:29-33). It was just too much to take in during one evening at dinner. In fact, when Jesus tells His disciples to stay awake and pray in order not to fall into temptation, Luke tells us that they fell asleep “exhausted from sorrow” (Luke 22:45).
Jesus had prophesied that the Spirit would cause them to recall everything He had said (John 14:26)! Thinking back on that night they realized that He could have not been more plain; more direct; more explicit about what He was preparing to face. He had told them that He must leave so that He could send the Holy Spirit (John 14:16, 26) and now, with the Spirit’s arrival on the Day of Pentecost, it was all rushing back to their memories!
Little could they have known that Judas would indeed betray Jesus to the priests, that they all would desert Him, that Peter himself would deny Him and that by the next day their beloved Teacher would suffer and die the most humiliating, cruel death of a condemned criminal at the hands of their religious rulers and the Romans. He had predicted it all!
All their lives they had anticipated the victorious reign of the Messiah as they vanquished their Roman oppressors and brought order to the world centered at the Temple in Jerusalem. Sometime during the Passover Meal with Jesus they still had to figure out who was going to be the greatest (Luke 22:24)! No one had prepared them for Jesus’ new teaching about the suffering Messiah, let alone His death and burial. How could this be God’s plan?
How many times had they wished to relive those moments with Jesus that final night!? Another opportunity to stand up with Him, to suffer with Him, and even to die with Him. In hushed tones it may have been easy to hear one of them muttering under his breath, “If only I had….”
His resurrection appearances over the last 40 days and the flame of hope that had reignited in their chests as He reminded them of His words before the cross had prepared them for this day. Connecting the dots between prophecies and fulfillment, Jesus’ words would have been treasured as they reminded each other of things He said as they prayed, and worshiped together, waiting.
And then, on the Day of Pentecost, the promised Holy Spirit came and all of a sudden these eyewitnesses had their eyes opened to see beyond the facial expressions, the tone of voice and the look in His eyes; now they remembered everything…everything!
I can imagine the conversations:
“Peter! Do you remember what He said at supper that night?” James might have asked. “Do this in remembrance of Me,” Peter replies.
“It’s time to tell them,” says Thomas. “They need to know everything He said that night and we need to make sure they never forget.”
“That’s it!” said Bartholomew. “But where are we going to find enough bread and wine to feed 3,000 people?”
John quickly replies, “Oh, you of little faith!” And they all laughed until the tears came.
“You’re right, Thomas,” Peter said. “As difficult as it will be, it is time to tell them our story so they can share in our sorrow and regrets from that night. Then they will be able to embrace our joy, too, as we share the promise, the love and the hope that fills our hearts because of the body He gave and the blood that He shed…for us.”
Line them up…the gospel accounts of the last supper in Matthew 26:26-30, Mark 14:22-25, and Luke 22:15-40 along with John’s notes in chapters 13-17 and Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and we have the closest possible eyewitness accounts of the important elements of the last supper of Jesus Christ with His apostles before His death, burial and resurrection. Whatever Jesus might have told them during the time between His resurrection and ascension we are not privy to know. All we know is that the new disciples “devoted themselves…to the breaking of the bread” (Acts 2:42). With the coming of the kingdom after His resurrection, perhaps they had opportunities to share again in the Lord’s Supper, as Paul would call it (1 Corinthians 11:20). Now, instead of being filled with sorrow, they would understand the need to celebrate the end of old and the advent of the new, celebrating the final, once-and-for-all unblemished sacrifice of the sinless Passover Lamb of God.
Looking over these parallel accounts there are a few things that are obvious. First, this was the Passover meal. Thanks to Luke the pouring of the wine at the beginning and end of the meal and the breaking of the bread at the first of the meal confirms that the Lord’s Supper with His disciples was part of the Passover meal. Jesus Himself told them, “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” (Luke 22:15-16). And with the pouring of the wine the feast began as He continued: “For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:17-18). Finally, at the end of the feast the traditional glass of wine was filled once again just like Luke tells us: “after the supper he took the cup” (Luke 22:20).
Second, this was the final Passover meal because the Lamb of God would now be offered once-for-all. There would not be another. This puts Jesus’ comments into context when He told them that He would not enjoy this meal with them again until after His suffering, “until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:15-16). With His death, burial and resurrection the final sacrifice would be given, the blood would be offered and received for the last time. As the Hebrew writer says it, “…we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).
Third, following His resurrection He had meals with them during the 40 days before His ascension. With His appearance to the men on the road to Emmaus He broke bread and with them (Luke 24:13-35). In the upper room He ate fish with the disciples (Luke 24:41-43). And on the seashore of Galilee Jesus had a pile of burning coals with fish on them…and bread. Just like He talked about in John 6. Just like the apostle Paul tells us He did on the night He was betrayed in 1 Cor. 11:23-26.
Bread that He would take and give to the disciples during breakfast on the seashore (John 21:13).
It seems odd to me that Luke would tell us that “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” in Acts 2:42 and then repeat in verse 46 that “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (emphasis mine). These two activities must have gone together in the early church because they wanted to a) remember and b) they wanted to celebrate what Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection and ascension had done for them. Of course! At mealtime, we sit down with bread, the main course and something to drink. What a wonderful time to remember, as He Himself had said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:25, italics mine).
Now, on the this side of Pentecost, it was all so plain. It only makes sense that their first efforts to remember His sacrifice would involve doing all they could to reproduce the atmosphere and the focus of that night with the new pair of eyeglasses they had been given by the Spirit. How could they make this a permanent memory for the average disciple? At the universal time of every day in every culture when families come together to eat the common staple: bread. Which, by the way, reminds us of Jesus’ words: “I AM the bread of life!” in John 6:35. In fact, remember the time He grossed out His audience, telling them that remembering Him would involve eating His flesh and drinking His blood (John 6:48-59)? Now we understand and we come together to give thanks!
These elements resonate in other passages that tell us that they made it a point to participate in the Lord’s Supper when they came together, intending to ‘break bread’ on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). However, after Paul’s lengthy sermon that went past midnight and the Eutychus incident afterwards, it appears that they partook of the meal early Monday morning (Acts 20:7-12). In Corinth and to Jude’s audience the early church coupled coming together for fellowship around the dinner table with the lord’s supper itself (cf., 1 Corinthians 11:20-22, Jude 1:12).
My conclusion is that the Lord’s Supper was part of the Love Feast that replaced the Passover Meal as a festive occasion of remembrance. I also conclude that it was not an annual meal in the Passover tradition, nor was it a ‘Sunday only’ event; but, rather, a whenever-you-come-together-to-eat occasion. It just makes sense that Christ’s followers would come together to eat and remember the reason for their fellowship: the death, burial and resurrection of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
What better way to remember than, as we break bread to eat, we remember the Bread of Life and the forgiveness of our sins through the shedding of His blood?! This is what brings and binds us together. This is what strengthens and encourages us as we face our challenges and encourage each other to speak about our Lord’s sacrifice with boldness. It certainly sustained the early church and, I believe, it has the power to sustain us in troubling times as well because moves us to remember….
An excellent study of communion is a book by John Mark Hicks entitled Come to the Table: Revisioning the Lord’s Supper, 2008.”