Jesus gathered his friends together for one last blow-out party. There was food, conversation, and probably singing. The occasion was Passover, an annual celebration of the Jewish people to commemorate a real event that took place in history. The details are in Exodus 12, but we’ll summarize it for you here.
While the Hebrew people were in bondage in Egypt, God sent Moses to tell Pharaoh to free the slaves. Pharaoh refused. So God sent ten plagues as a sign he was serious. Each plague was a specific attack on one of Egypt’s gods. Pharaoh’s firstborn was considered the heir to divine status. So the tenth plague was the angel of death–sent to take the firstborn child.
Miraculously, God made a way for death to pass over the homes of the Hebrew families. Each family was told to sacrifice a year-old lamb, without defect, and spread its blood over the sides and tops of the doorframes. Then they were to roast the lamb and eat it as preparation for travel.
That night happened as God said it would. The angel of death passed over the homes marked with the lambs’ blood, sparing the Hebrew children. As Egypt was in the throes of grief after losing all of their firstborn children, Pharaoh released the slaves, and they began their journey back to their homeland in Canaan.
In Jesus’ day, as they do now, Jewish families gathered together to remember and celebrate the feast of Passover as a reminder of their deliverance from slavery. Eating the same meal their ancestors did, the family listens to the story again. Remembering ancient history is a way for Jews to connect with their past, identify with it, and let God do again in that present moment what he did so long ago. While they may not be experiencing a literal slavery, maybe they seek a release from the bondage of an addiction or from a nagging fear.
Jewish philosophers view time not as a circle or as a line but as a spiral that moves from one fixed point to another like a stretched-out Slinky ®. Time has repeating patterns (like Passover), but it constantly moves forward. Remembering and reliving the past through repeating patterns– whether it’s a Passover feast or any recurring commemoration–is a kind of time travel. It is a moment when God does it all over again for the first time.
When Jesus invited his disciples to a celebration in the upper room, they gathered together to remember what God had done in the past. But what they didn’t know was they were about to make history. At that moment in time, a new sacrificial lamb would be revealed.
All the traditional elements of Passover were present: songs, prayers, readings from the scriptures, candle lighting, blessing of the wine, and washings. There was also the breaking of the middle matzo–the Yachatz, a pouch containing three matzos. The two outside matzos represent strength and unity. But the middle matzo, the Afikomen, which means the bread of affliction, was taken by the leader (in this case, Jesus) who removed and broke it.
A great drama takes place with the Afikomen. Three matzos are placed in one pouch. The middle one is taken, broken, wrapped in white, hidden away, found, redeemed, and shared by all. This middle matzo has taken the place of the lamb in importance, as shown by the fact that everyone at the table must partake of it. Traditions associated with the Afikomen add to its drama. European Jews (Ashkenazi) believe it has the power to heal the sick. Oriental Jews believe it can calm a stormy sea.
And while this breaking of the bread would have seemed very common to the disciples, Jesus did something that should have seemed strange to them:
As they were eating, Jesus took some bread and blessed it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take this and eat it, for this is my body.”
And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to them and said, “Each of you drink from it, for this is my blood, which confirms the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of many. Mark my words–I will not drink wine again until the day I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.”
Uhm, that had to be a little weird.
Usually they wrapped it in a cloth and hid it. Instead, Jesus said this was his body, something about a covenant, and a sacrifice for sins. The disciples should have found this to be pretty disturbing. It was like Thanksgiving only instead of serving pumpkin pie, Mom talks about her death.
Were the disciples disturbed by this proclamation?
The next verse says, Then they sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives.
Think about it this way; to the disciples, this event would have had the significance of a Christmas or anniversary spent with friends. It was a celebration. At the time, they didn’t know it was Jesus’ last supper. It is only through the lens of history that this particular feast takes on the significance of the Last Supper. Only in hindsight are the traditional elements of this holiday recognized as a metaphor for a much more significant spiritual event:
The three original elements of the Passover were bitter herbs, unleavened bread, and the lamb. Bitter herbs speak of bitter bondage. Believers are to reflect at communion and realize the bitter bondage of sin and the cure for that bondage–the Lamb, Jesus Christ. He was pure, sinless, without spot–just like that unleavened bread.
When Christians remember Jesus at communion, they remember that He–the second person in the Godhead–was taken, broken (or killed), hidden away in a tomb, and then raised from the dead. Believers remember Him by taking a little piece of unleavened bread and eating it. It means He came. The Afikomen is back, not as the Passover lamb bringing physical salvation in Egypt, but as the Savior, the Passover Lamb who brought spiritual salvation to the world.
This ancient Jewish feast–celebrated for thousands of years before Jesus–was given new meaning and fuller revelation by the Messiah. Now Christians reenact the elements of Passover in The Lord’s Supper.
In Matthew 26, Jesus instituted communion. He took unleavened bread, symbolic of His pure and spotless body, and the cup, representing His blood. The cup He took was the third cup, the cup of redemption. He did not drink the fourth cup, saying he would not drink it until he drinks it with us in His Father’s Kingdom.
Through the history of this single meal, God speaks to us–from the past–of our future. It is a living memory, and a way to pull the past into the present.
One of the things that history tells us, God has a way of messing with time. While we’ve all experienced a sense of déjà vu, God seems to be able to predict future events in great detail thousands of years before they happen.
And sometimes he can do it in freaky ways.