Every year as the Festival of Passover approaches, the Jewish world is filled with anticipation. We are about to celebrate the national redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt. We recount many dramatic redemptions that our people have experienced through our history. We anticipate the festive gathering of family, friends, students and teachers, with delicious holiday foods and songs of joy. Some enjoy, and some dread, the annual cleaning and the removal of all leavened foods and their utensils from our homes. In the times when Jews live in the Land of Israel, we look forward with joy to the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. During the days of Yeshua, this included a visit to the Holy Temple to bring our lamb for a sacrifice. So when the Gospels record that “the disciples prepared the Passover” (Matt. 26:19), that short phrase covers a tremendous amount of work—cleaning, shopping, cooking, setting tables, and bringing the Paschal sacrifice, generally one to a household. Imagine the lines in Jerusalem as all Israel came to sacrifice and celebrate! Imagine hauling the quartered pieces of lamb home to prepare and cook.
When Yeshua came to Jerusalem with his disciples for the last time, his feelings were surely a mixture of the joys of the festival, the sorrow of his betrayal and death, and the anticipated joy of accomplishing the task for which he came. His last supper with his disciples on that Passover Eve has become a central part of the worship and fellowship of his followers, from that night until today. And yet much of its meaning is misunderstood, or not fully grasped and appreciated. I wish to examine the meaning of what we call “The Lord’s Supper” that we celebrate today “in remembrance of him”.
The Gospel Accounts
Descriptions in the Gospels are short, obscuring the fact that the Passover dinner they celebrated was a full evening of songs, prayers, recitations, questions and answers, and story-telling, all accompanied by a holiday feast.
The Torah commands us to prepare roasted lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter vegetables. The lamb recalls the original lambs slaughtered on Passover, whose blood was spread on the doorposts of each house to spare the first-born from the angel of death in the tenth plague against Egypt. The unleavened bread (matzah) reminds us of the flat bread made by Israel as we departed Egypt in haste, with no time for the dough to rise. And the bitter herb, usually horseradish, signifies the bitterness of slavery, from which we were redeemed (Exodus 12:8, 1:14). We are told to answer our children’s questions that come up because of the unusual foods on the table (Deut. 6:20), and to tell the story of our deliverance.
Rabbinical tradition ordains four cups of wine to remind us of the four promises G-d made at the burning bush (Exodus 6:6‑8). Other traditional foods contribute to the telling of the story and the richness of the meal. Since the Temple was destroyed, it is no longer possible to sacrifice the lamb. Most families do not eat lamb at all on Passover, substituting another kind of meat or poultry.
Luke gives us the longest, though brief, account of Yeshua’s last meal:
RSV Luke 22:14 And when the hour came, he sat (reclined) at table, and the apostles with him. 15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer; 16 for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves; 18 for I tell you that from now on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of G‑d comes.” 19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
Note that the Greek specifically says he reclined at the table. Reclining means lying on couches around the table. One lies on his left side, eating with his right hand. This was a practice of the free Romans, as opposed to slaves, who stand or sit up straight. It is a feature of Jewish fellowship meals in that time, and on Passover it emphasized our deliverance from slavery.
Luke also mentions two of the four cups of wine. The first is the cup of sanctification that we drink at the beginning of Shabbat or festival meals to mark the start of the holy day. The other, taken after supper, is the cup of blessing, over which the grace after the meal is chanted.
The matzah is taken after telling the story. The leader says a blessing, breaks it and gives it to the others, who eat a piece before eating the full meal.
Matthew 26:30 And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
This hymn was the Psalms of Hallel/Praise (115-118), which include many references to the events of this last week of Yeshua’s life.
These brief descriptions of the last supper omit the details of the meal, songs, prayers and other facets of the celebration, but they were surely part of that evening. In fact, if most congregations today would invite Yeshua to their “Lord’s Supper”, he would certainly ask, “Where’s the food?!” Apparently the Gospel writers meant to include the elements that were specifically in remembrance of Yeshua.
It seems unlikely that Yeshua’s followers, or any Jews in the first century, would have separated the bread and wine from the original context of the meal and took them as an independent ceremony. I believe when the scriptures speak of “breaking bread” together, the meal was so common that they didn’t feel the need to mention it. Paul actually had to scold the Corinthian community for their excessive feasting that was contrary to the sacredness of the meal (1Corinthians 11:20‑22). This “supper” is not just a feast; it has many meanings that must be kept in mind while partaking, as we shall see.
Celebrating the Last Supper of Yeshua: Seven Aspects
I find seven distinct facets of the “Lord’s Supper” that can serve as models to help us understand what our celebration is about. I separate them for discussion purposes, but in reality they are all happening simultaneously.
The Gospels portray the last supper as a Passover meal. The story of Israel’s redemption and national birth is thereby connected with the death and resurrection of Yeshua, which are about to happen. Yeshua’s death is taken to be a sort of re-enactment of the deliverance from Egypt. It is not only for personal redemption, but for the birth of the people of G‑d. The Lord’s Supper is intended to be a unifying act among Yeshua’s followers; a celebration of our peoplehood. It ought not to be a cause of divisions and strife (1Corinthians 11:18‑34).
Now every celebration of the Lord’s Supper does not need to be a full Passover meal, but the themes of Passover are part of it. As well, Paul says by partaking, “we tell of the Lord’s death until he comes” (1Cor. 11:26). Therefore, some sort of telling of the redemption is an integral part of the meal—beginning with the bread, then eating the food, then concluding with wine and giving thanks for the meal and all it represents.
The first Passover happened on the night Israel left Egypt. The blood of the lamb on the doorposts, the unleavened bread, their hasty departure, were the redemption event. The Torah then commands us to hold a celebration every year on Passover to commemorate the redemption. Those annual lamb sacrifices were not redemptive. They were a remembrance of the redemption. They were “fellowship offerings”—the type of sacrifice a person brought on special occasions to sacrifice, then eat them, after the priests’ share was separated. The phrase “a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt” is still part of our sanctification prayer that we say at the beginning of every festival and Shabbat meal.
Likewise, the last supper of Yeshua happened on the night he was betrayed. That meal itself was part of the redemption. Yeshua took the bread, and the wine, and declared them to represent his body and blood that were about to be sacrificed for “many”. And he said to do this “in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). So when we take the Lord’s Supper, it is not a new sacrifice, but a remembrance of the original sacrifice.
A remembrance is not only a recollection of historical facts or verses from the Bible. It is a re-enactment, a re-experiencing, and a recommitment to those events. The bread and the wine become for us the body and blood of the Paschal lamb, and so also of Yeshua, whose sacrifice secured our redemption. But remembrance is a two-way street. G‑d also remembers his covenants with our ancestors, with our nation, and with our Messiah, so this experience renews our mutual relationship with G‑d.
- Covenant Renewal
There is a similar theme in the making and renewing of the covenant with G‑d in the Tenakh. After the deliverance from Egypt, G‑d made a covenant with Israel to become his people. This began at Sinai with the Ten Commandments and the giving of the Torah, culminating in the acceptance of the covenant by the people.
Exodus 24:7 Then [Moses] took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the L‑RD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.”
Once the people accepted the terms, Moses sealed the covenant with sacrificial blood.
Exodus 24:8 And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant which the L‑RD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
This statement is similar in form to Yeshua’s statement over the cup of wine.
Matthew 26:28 “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Hearing these words, the disciples would have remembered the Sinai covenant, and the response of the people, “All that the L‑RD has spoken we will do, and we will obey”. And so should we, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
There have been many times in Israel’s history when they renewed their covenant with G‑d. Some examples are found in Joshua 5:10, 2Chron. 30 and 35, and Nehemiah 8:6. These covenant renewal ceremonies included a recital or re-enactment of the redemption story (Deut. 26:1‑11), the affirmation of the covenant by the people, including the recital of blessings and curses (Deut. 28), and a communal meal before the L‑rd (Exod. 24:11).
These elements are all present in the Lord’s Supper. In addition to declaring over the bread and wine that they are the body and blood of Yeshua sacrificed for us, there are hints of additional telling of his story, such as when Paul writes, “you declare the Lord’s death” (1Cor. 11:26). He goes on to say,
11:29 “For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”
By taking the covenant meal, and not keeping the covenant, one brings the curses upon himself.
- Communal Sacrifice
The Catholic and Orthodox churches have long regarded the Eucharist as an actual sacrifice, some believing that the bread and wine become the physical body and blood of Yeshua. This idea is repulsive to Jews, who would never eat human flesh nor drink blood. However, there is a sense in which the Lord’s Supper could be seen as a metaphorical sacrifice. The Paschal lamb offered every year for the festival was of the type of sacrifice called a zevach shlamim, a fellowship (“peace”) offering. Passover is just one example. There were many occasions when these fellowship offerings were sacrificed. This type of sacrifice was brought to the altar, then the portions for the priests were separated, and the rest was taken by the one who brought it, to be eaten by his family (Lev. 7:11, Deut. 12:17). Like the annual Passover lamb, the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper can be looked upon as symbol of the body and blood of the original sacrifice, and also of Yeshua (John 6:53). Eating the Supper together is a metaphor for the communal offering eaten on festivals and special occasions, as it were, in the presence of G‑d.
- Fellowship Meal
The traditional Jewish practice of the fellowship meal is another model that helps us understand the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Since Second Temple times, Jewish groups like the Pharisees and the Essenes have held sacred fellowship meals. The Pharisees took the revolutionary step of applying the laws of purity and sacrificial food to laymen and common food. Thus every Jew could conduct his meals as if he were a priest eating food from the Temple. This could be done on any occasion when a fellowship meal was appropriate, such as Shabbat and festival meals, special family or community occasions, or students eating with their Rabbi.
The diners would recline around the table. Hands were washed before the breaking of bread. One then takes a loaf of bread, says the blessing, breaks it and gives to everyone at the table, who then eat the bread. The meal follows. Words of Torah are taught or discussed. One Rabbi says (Pirkei Avot 3:3), “If three have eaten at one table and have spoken words of Torah, it is as though they had eaten from the table of the L‑rd.”
After the meal, a cup of wine is taken, and over it is recited the Blessing after the Meal. This cup is called the “cup of blessing”, which is no doubt what Paul was referring to in (1Cor. 10:16).
Hebrew 13:10 says, “We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.” In those days, when the Temple was corrupt, any Pharisee or Essene could have said the same. The fellowship meal was a reflection of the Temple as it should be, and as it once was.
The fellowship meal can be an encounter with the risen Yeshua. Luke 24:30 is our paradigm for this experience. Two disciples meet Yeshua on the road to Emmaus. They don’t recognize him. When he explains the scriptures about himself (his haggadah?), they invite him to stay for dinner. He takes the bread, recites the blessing, breaks and distributes it, and suddenly they recognize him, and then he vanishes. Those disciples ran to tell the others how “he was known to us in the breaking of the bread”.
- Eschatological Feast
The Lord’s Supper has a future orientation. This is true of the Passover celebration, which concludes looking forward to the coming of Elijah to herald Messiah’s coming, to the restoration of Jerusalem, and to the final redemption.
Of the Lord’s Supper, Paul writes that we “tell of the Lord’s death until he comes” (1Cor. 11:26), which suggests looking forward to his coming. Yeshua himself said (Luke 22:16, 18), “I shall not eat [the Passover] until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God,” and, “I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of G‑d comes.” He also left us with a future expectation.
Now we all know from experience that we do not fully realize all of these dimensions of the Lord’s Supper when we take it; rather we merely taste of them. But as we taste, may we develop a longing for the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Bread and Wine
How can we say that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper become the body and blood of Yeshua? Obviously we do not believe that they are miraculously transformed into his actual body and blood. On the other hand, we do not want to dismiss them as mere symbols, no different from any other bread and wine. I believe there is a way, an analogy based on the Jewish practice of designating tithes and offerings as gifts to the Temple.
As long as your bushel of wheat or your lamb or other animal remain in your barn, they are the same as the rest of your property. But from the moment that you designate them to be tithes or offerings, a change in their status occurs. They look and behave the same as the others. But they are no longer yours; they are now G‑d’s, and they may only be used in accordance with the laws of the Temple. They are now holy.
Applying this analogy to the bread and wine of the fellowship meal, when we recite over them the words of Yeshua, pronouncing them to be his body and blood, and when we recite the benedictions over them, the previously common bread and wine become holy, symbols of the covenant Yeshua made for us with G‑d. As with other holy food, using it in an inappropriate manner can bring judgment on the violator. But for the true worshipper, they impart the blessings and promises of the covenant.
Putting it All Together
It is difficult to imagine all of these models at once while partaking of our fellowship meal. It may be helpful to focus on one at a time. But gradually the full multi-faceted experience grows. We can share in the last supper of Yeshua, along with the covenantal rites of the Tenakh, through the simple taking a meal together, with breaking of bread in the beginning, and wine (or grape juice) and the grace after the meal at the end, recounting the stories of our redemption while enjoying the food and fellowship. In so doing, we reaffirm our commitment to G‑d, his people, and his Messiah.