This is such an important part of the Christian Gospel of Jesus Christ, and not just because of the significance of the Holy Communion where we remember this Last Supper that Jesus and his disciples enjoyed together before his betrayal and subsequent death. There is also a lot of symbolism within the story which would have meant so much to those listening but might well be lost for us in a non-Jewish setting.
What I'd like to do is look at the Passover meal and its significance to the Jews, and then see how Jesus took this simple and recognisable part of Jewish heritage and extended it beyond its original meaning to include the sacrifice he was about to make on the cross.
This is so typically Jesus; taking the ordinary things of life and using them as pictures, visual aids that his listeners could more easily relate to.
Jesus and his disciples had come to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. As always there were rules applying here and during the Feast all Jews were supposed to stay within the city boundaries. Unfortunately, the city was packed with people for such an important festival and therefore it was deemed acceptable to have lodgings in the surrounding villages, as long as the actual Passover meal was celebrated in Jerusalem.
So we have Jesus and his disciples in Bethany, and Jesus already having made plans for where the Passover meal is going to be eaten.
Jesus told them to go to a certain man in the city and tell him, "Our teacher says, My time has come! I want to eat the Passover meal with my disciples in your home. " They did as Jesus told them and prepared the meal.
The Passover Meal was the start of a whole week called the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and in this case started on the Thursday Morning when all the leaven or yeast in a house would be cleared out. This was a symbolic moment remembering two things. Firstly it was to remember the time when the Israelites had had to flee from their life of slavery in Egypt.
Exodus 12:33 " The Egyptians urged the people to hurry and leave the country. 'For otherwise,' they said, 'we will all die!'"
No yeast, so the dough wouldn't rise but the bread could then be baked in a hurry, producing something nearer to our cracker. Secondly, it reminded the people that in Jewish thought leaven is associated with corruption - think how rumour and corruption spreads, just as yeast cells will multiply given the right conditions fermenting and then ultimately spoiling if left unchecked.
So on the Thursday morning the disciples would have gone off to Jerusalem; found the house that Jesus had directed them to, gone through the ritual search for yeast, cleaned out the room and prepared the unleavened bread.
The next job would have been to prepare the Passover Lamb for the meal. On the Thursday afternoon the disciples would have taken a lamb to the Temple to be sacrificed, the carcass being returned to the house for consumption later.
Again, this was a symbolic ingredient, going back to the days in Egypt in the time of the plagues. The Israelites were to be spared so that the Egyptians would let them go - indeed want them to go.
Exodus 12:21, Then Moses summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go at once and select the animals for your families and slaughter the Passover lamb.
There were four other ingredients for the Passover meal that would need preparing:
A bowl of salt water to remind them of the many tears shed by the people whilst they were in slavery in Egypt, and of the salty waters of the Red Sea which God had parted in order that they might enter the Promised Land.
A bunch of bitter herbs would be gathered, to remind them both of the herbs used to smear the lamb's blood over the door, and also of the bitterness of slavery.
A paste was made from apples, dates, pomegranates and nuts - strangely to remind them of the clay from which they had been required to make bricks in Egypt - and through it sticks of cinnamon were placed to remind them of the straw with which the bricks had been made.
And fourthly there would be four cups of wine to remind them of the four promises of Exodus 6:6-7
“Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. 7 I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.
So can you picture in your minds the busy Thursday morning and afternoon that the disciples had had in making sure all the preparations were completed. And at any time after 6 pm Jesus would have joined them and the meal would have begun.During the meal, hymns would be sung - the Hallel, which means Praise God! and this was basically Psalms 113-118 and ending with Psalm 136.
Now I'm well aware that I've deliberately missed out a section of this passage concerning Jesus prophesying his betrayal, and Judas realising that his moment had come. I've done that not because I think it's unimportant, but simply because I want to concentrate on the significance of the meal.
I mentioned earlier that Jesus was superb at taking the everyday items of people's lives and using them as visual aids to get across a point, and in the setting of the Passover meal that's exactly what Jesus does here. All the symbols that were placed on the table had something to say about whom he was claiming to be and what he was about to do for mankind.
The aim of the Passover meal was to remind the people of Israel that it was God who had liberated them from years of slavery in Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land. Jesus became flesh and blood in order to liberate mankind from slavery - not to Egypt or any other earthly government or power - but slavery to that old-fashioned word sin and also slavery to fear and the very real bondage that this can create in lives.
Jesus offers liberation.
The Passover Lamb, sacrificed and consumed at the meal was a symbol of God's protection, his loving arms, of safety. We've heard the passage where Moses tells the people to mark their doorways with the blood of a lamb. When disaster came upon the country of Egypt the only houses saved were those with the mark of the lamb upon them. God had saved his people as he had promised through his prophet Moses so that they might reach the Promised Land.
"Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world" are words that form part of a well used prayer. Jesus, the Lamb of God saves mankind from the consequences of sin as he promised through his word, in order that mankind might know life in the Kingdom of God - that very real Promised Land. As one commentator puts it, Jesus offered safety on earth and safety in heaven, safety in time and safety in eternity.
Jesus offers Salvation
When Jesus gave one of the cups to his disciples to drink from, he said to them "Take this and drink it. This is my blood, and with it God makes his covenant with you ."
The Passover Meal speaks of a relationship between God and the Israelites, and the importance of remembrance. The Old Testament talks of a Covenant between God and his people - God promises to look after, deliver and care for them if they will do their part, live lives that are worthy of being called a Chosen People and acknowledge and offer their lives and service to the one true God.
Jesus speaks at the meal of his blood being the blood of the covenant. This is Jesus telling his disciples that God is entering, through him, into a new relationship with his people.
Through the Passover meal and all its significance and symbolism, Jesus has a simple picture for his disciples and for us to grasp onto.
"Because of what I am about to do for you and for all people a new relationship is possible between mankind and its creator. You have seen how much God loves you despite the separation that sin creates - you celebrate this each year through this meal. Through the sacrificial offering of life, as with the lamb's blood in Egypt salvation is possible for those who will grasp hold of God's promises."
"Through the sharing of this meal," says Jesus. "You enter into this New Covenant and relationship. Through my sacrifice and blood will come your salvation, your deliverance from sin and fear, your promise of eternal life with me in the Kingdom of God - the Promised Land."
Jesus knew what was about to happen to him. He knew that he would be betrayed, led before the Sanhedrin as a prisoner and from there to crucifixion; but from his words it is clear that he did not see this as a defeat - he's talking of the Kingdom and glory, not humiliation.
Then they sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives.
The meal would have ended with the singing of the final hymn, The Great Hallel of Psalm 136 as Jesus and his disciples made their way to the Mount of Olives.