We continue our reading notes on Matthew’s Passion narrative, in the weeks leading up to Easter.
Matt 26:17-1926:17 On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?” 18 He replied, “Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, ‘The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.'” 19 So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover.
There is a well-known issue of chronology here, between Matthew (along with Mark and Luke) over against John. John describes Jesus’ last supper as taking place before the Passover, and the crucifixion taking place on the Passover day – the day of preparation for the Passover meal, when the lambs were slaughtered. If Jesus was crucified when the lambs were killed, that (of course) makes a theologically significant point!
But how do we reconcile John’s account with the other three Gospels? They describe Jesus’ last supper as a Passover meal – meaning Jesus wasn’t crucified until the next day, which would be the day after the lambs were slaughtered. Most would say Jesus (for whatever reason) celebrated the Passover meal a day before the official day – maybe he was following a different calendar (like we see evidence of among the Qumran community), or simply did it early because he knew time was running out.
Verses 18-19 emphasise the way Jesus is in control of events. “My appointed time is near” is probably not just a reference to his crucifixion, but also the time in which he would be vindicated and be given “all authority” (see 28:18).
Matt 26:20-2526:20 When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. 21 And while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” 22 They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?” 23 Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 24 The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” 25 Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?” Jesus answered, “You have said so.”
This passage identifies the betrayer as one of the Twelve (cf. Ps 41:9). The disciples are more focused on exonerating themselves rather than the fact that Jesus was about to be betrayed by one of his closest friends. To share a meal together in the ancient world was a sign of intimacy, so one who as “dipped his hand into the bowl with me” is a metaphor for a close associate.
Verse 24 echoes the early passion predictions of 16:21, 20:18, and 26:2, adding an explicit note that this is “as it is written” (i.e. in the OT prophecies of the suffering of the Messiah/Servant). But the betrayer is still culpable, even thought it is part of God’s plan. Again we see Jesus’ suffering as part of God’s sovereign plan at the same a result of human conspiracy and betrayal.
Judas’ question shows his status now as an outsider: the others call him “Lord,” but he calls Jesus “Rabbi.” This is significant, as a few chapters back (23:7-8) this term was defined as Pharisee-language, rather than that of Jesus’ followers. Judas is the only one in Matthew’s Gospel to call him “Rabbi” – and he does so again in 26:49 when he betrays him (see tomorrow).
Matt 26:26-3026:26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” 27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” 30 When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
The Passover was already an interpreted meal where each element of the food had significance – we looked at that last week in our study of Exodus. (Almost like we planned it that way.) Jesus follows that practice but gives the meal a new meaning, suggesting a New Exodus to be accomplished by his death.
In the context of a symbolic meal, “this is my body” wasn’t meant literally. In the Passover liturgy they would say: “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate when they came up from the land of Egypt” – without thinking that the bread actually changed into a different substance. (Also, it’s clear that at the time, the bread wasn’t literally Jesus’ body, as Jesus’ body was literally sitting there holding the bread.)
“My blood of the covenant” is a probably a reference to the blood of Ex 24:8, which symbolised the sealing of the old covenant at Mount Sinai. The “pouring out” of Jesus’ blood for the forgiveness of sins also echoes Isa 53:12, and the “many” echoes Isa 53:11. This is significant, as it seems Matthew is linking Jesus’ coming suffering and death with the servant figure in Isaiah – again showing that in fulfilling OT ideas of Messiahship Jesus didn’t have a military or political role in mind. It’s possible that Matthew’s addition of “for the forgiveness of sins” echoes Jeremiah (31:34) – Jeremiah connects the idea of forgiveness of sins with the new covenant foreshadowed in the Old Testament.
What Jesus is referring to in verse 29 (when he “drinks it new”) may be a reference to the post-resurrection meals (although Matthew doesn’t emphasise these as much as Luke does). More likely it’s referring to the eating and drinking of the great banquet when the kingdom arrives in all its fulness. This is possibly a traditional vow of abstinence while he is fulfilling a sacred vow/duty (see Num 6:4; 30:2).
The hymn (verse 30) was probably Psalms 115-118, the remaining part of the ‘Hallel’ (Ps 113-118) which was customarily sung at Passover.
Matthew’s account of the last supper highlights its significance as a Passover meal. It shows that Jesus’ death is a redemptive death, bringing about a second Exodus and a new covenant. The Passover setting, Jesus’ words about the bread and wine, and his allusions to Jeremiah 31 and Isaiah 53 give a strong hint to us, as readers, of the meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death that’s about to occur.
To think about
We often overlook the impact of being betrayed by a close friend. Although Jesus was God, he also had the full range of human emotions. Think about what this must have been like for Jesus.
In what ways did Jesus “fulfil” (or better, “complete”) the original Passover and Exodus from Egypt?