This is one of the most famous scenes in the world: Jesus’ last supper, reinterpreted through Renaissance eyes. (For a start, in the original they would have been lying down on their sides, and in a much smaller room!) What’s the story behind this scene? Why is Jesus celebrating this ritual meal? And for us – how did we get our communion service out of it?
The Lord’s Supper has a long history. It traces its roots back to the Passover, recorded in Exodus chapter 12. Yet as Christians we do not, now, simply celebrate a Passover meal. It was redefined – decisively – by Jesus just before his death. So what we’re doing today is looking at the Passover meal in Exodus 12, I and then a little later next week we’ll look at its transformation by Jesus as recorded in Matthew’s gospel. (We begin a pre-Easter series in Matt 26-28 next week.) But we must start with…
The First Passover
As we’ve seen this week, Israel were slaves in Egypt, crying out for rescue. God appeared to Moses in a burning bush, and sent him to go to Pharaoh to demand he let God’s people go. God sends 9 plagues, and after each of them Pharaoh agrees to free God’s people, before changing his mind shortly afterwards. So God announces the final plague: the death of the firstborn, whether human or animal. God exercises his right over his creation to punish them for their sin.
The problem was: how could he stop his “angel of death” killing Israelite firstborn? Israel, while they were his people, were still sinful, too. So God ordered a ritual, to make two points very clear: to show that if they were to escape God’s judgement, there had to be a price paid; and that God treated his people differently from those around – that he showed them mercy they did not deserve.Ex 11:7b Then you will know that Yahweh makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.
The ritual was, in effect, a lamb roast. Kill a lamb without defect as a sacrifice to God; put the blood on the top and the sides of your doorpost so that God’s judgement would pass over the Israelites. It’s like a sign on the door saying “a lamb has died in our place, try next door.”Ex 12:13 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you.
They were also to eat the meat, roasted over a fire with bitter herbs, symbolic of the bitterness of their slavery.
And they were to make bread without yeast symbolic of the haste with which they had to leave – there was no time to wait for dough to rise. That’s why they ate in their travelling clothes:Ex 12:11 This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.
It was the world’s first lamb kebab to go.
The next morning when they wake up, all the Egyptian firstborn sons are dead, and the Israelites are spared. Pharaoh sends them off with all their livestock and extra gold and silver… And so the Israelites are rescued from slavery in Egypt. That is the first Passover.
The Passover commemorative meal
Although their rescue from Egypt happened once, they were to commemorate it – to re-enact it – every year, to remind them of what God had done for them. (There were various forms of the Passover celebration throughout the centuries; this is the simplified explanation.)
The meal was the same as the one they ate in Egypt: they sacrificed a lamb, roasted it in bitter herbs, and ate it with unleavened bread.
At this point in the meal, the ritual was that a young boy would ask “what does this ceremony mean?” It comes from the command given to them by God:Ex 12:26-27 And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’
The head of the household will then explain the story of the Exodus. Not just for benefit of the children who haven’t heard before – but for everyone, to remind them of what God had done to save Israel. (Rabbi Akiva, legend has it, spoke all night.)
In our Lord’s Supper, we still do this. We explain every time at least one aspect of Jesus’s sacrifice for us. Why? Not just for the benefit of the few who haven’t heard about it before; or to learn something new about it; but mainly to remind ourselves, through regular repetition, of what Jesus has done to save us.
And to equip us to be able to explain it to others: to our children, and our friends who don’t know Jesus. If you hear the essence of the gospel explained often enough, you’ll find yourself being able to repeat those words, phrases, and ideas, too.
That’s what God wanted Israel to be able to do: to be able to recite his great and mighty acts on their behalf, so that all nations would hear about his power & his mercy.
A lot of the psalms do that – God’s great saving acts put to music. And there were six of them which were sung at the Passover. Pss 113-18. They are collectively called the “Hallel” because the word “Hallelu-jah” (praise Yahweh) occurs throughout. These psalms indeed praise God – specifically for the events of the Exodus. For example:Psalm 114:1-4, 7-8; 117 When Israel came out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of foreign tongue, Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel his dominion. The sea looked and fled, the Jordan turned back;the mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs. …Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob, who turned the rock into a pool, the hard rock into springs of water. … Hallelujah, all you nations; extol him, all you peoples. For great is his love toward us, and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever. Hallelujah.
The words of the Hallel cover about two pagesof our bibles, and the whole family that gathered to celebrate the Passover would sing it together. To remind themselves of what God had done for them.
Read the Hallel sometime today in preparation for Jesus’ passover (and our own celebration of the Lord’s Supper) which we’ll look at next week. Because our communion service is very similar: we do it regularly in remembrance of what Jesus has done for us. It’s no longer a Jewish Passover, because Jesus’ death and resurrection superseded all that. It remembers not a rescue from Egypt, but a rescue from sin. But like the Israelites, we eat and drink in thankfulness. And while we don’t eat it with a staff in hand and our cloak tucked into our belt – we still eat it ready-to-run. Because we don’t belong here. We are strangers who are not at home in this place. And our Saviour may come for us at any time.