The Lord’s Supper: Was It a Passover Meal? (1 of 4)

At Trinity Cambridge Church, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, because we believe that it is an indispensable aspect of the church’s ministry. The more I learn about it, the more I realize how deficient my understanding of it was. Perhaps others are in the same boat. The series will include four posts:

  1. The Lord’s Supper: Was It a Passover Meal? (1 of 4)
  2. The Lord’s Supper: What Does It All Mean? (2 of 4)
  3. The Lord’s Supper: What Actually Happens? (3 of 4)
  4. The Lord’s Supper: How Should We Do It? (4 of 4)

Not a Foregone Conclusion
The Lord’s Supper has historically been understood as a Passover meal, due to its depiction as such in the Synoptic Gospels. Matthew writes that “on the first day of Unleavened Bread,” the disciples asked Jesus, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the Passover” (Matt. 26:17-18)? Mark and Luke include similar accounts in their Gospels (Mark 14:12-16; Luke 22:7-13), leaving little doubt that the ensuing Lord’s Supper was a Passover meal.

But recently, scholars have begun to challenge the connection primarily on the basis of Johannine chronology. For example, Scot McKnight (Jesus and His Death), Robert Letham (The Lord’s Supper), and Jonathan Klawans (“Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder?”) all argue that the Lord’s Supper was not the Passover meal, but an ordinary Jewish meal imbued with spiritual significance, one day before the Passover. This is a significant debate, because it not only affects modern-day practice (e.g. Christian-Jewish interfaith Seder/Last Supper), but also our doctrine of Scripture (e.g. does John’s account contradict the Synoptic Gospels?).

Their arguments can be classified broadly as exegetical and historical.

Exegetical Arguments against the Passover View
John 18:28 records that the Jews who led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters for trial “did not enter the [Gentile] governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.” Since, the Passover meal had not been eaten yet at the time of Jesus’s trial, the argument goes, the Last Supper could not have been a Passover Meal.

John further dates the crucifixion to the “day of Preparation of the Passover” (John 19:14), that is, on the day before Passover (i.e. Thursday), which would mean that the Last Supper took place on the Wednesday night of Passion Week, full day before the official Passover meal.

John 13:1 seems to corroborate this, since, Jesus is said to have washed the feet of his disciples and had the Last Supper, “before the Feast of the Passover.” Since the Last Supper took place before the Passover, it clearly cannot be a Passover meal.

Robert Letham argues that the Lord’s Supper is connected not to the Old Testament Passover, but to the covenant meal eaten by Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel on Mount Sinai (Exod. 24:1-11). In this view, Moses’s sprinkling of the blood of the burnt offerings on the altar and on the people is what Jesus has in mind, when he says, “This is my blood of the new covenant.” (The Lord’s Supper, p. 5).

Historical Arguments against the Passover View
Moreover, if Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper during a Passover meal, which is an annual event, it is curious why the early church celebrated it on a daily or weekly basis (Acts 2:46-47).

And if the Last Supper was indeed during Passover, as the Synoptic Gospels indicate, then why is there no mention of the lamb, the main dish laden with pertinent symbolism? They seem to be eating only the bread and wine.

These are strong arguments, but the arguments for the Last Supper’s connection to the Passover are even stronger.

The Chronology of the Synoptic Gospels
First, the Synoptic Gospels are unequivocal in their testimony that the Last Supper took place “on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrifice the Passover lamb,” and the disciples are explicitly told “to go and prepare the Passover” (Mark 14:12-16; cf. Matt. 26:17-19; Luke 22:7-13; Josephus, Ant. 16.6.2 §§163–64).

Johannine Chronology Can Be Reconciled
Second, it is possible to explain the seeming aberrations in John’s Gospel. John notes that Jesus was crucified on the “day of Preparation of the Passover” (John 19:14), this needs not be interpreted as a day of Preparation for the Passover, but the day of preparation for the Sabbath on the week of the Passover. The fact that the “day of Preparation” (παρασκευὴ) is used throughout all four of the Gospels to refer to the day of preparation for the Sabbath lends credence to this interpretation (Matt. 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54).

Even in John, the Jews ask Pilate to break the legs of those who were crucified in order to hasten their death, “since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day)” (John 19:31; cf. Deut. 21:22-23). The “day of Preparation of the Passover,” then, refers to the “day of Preparation (for the Sabbath) of the Passover week.” The crucifixion, then, falls on a Friday, which fits the chronology of the Synoptic Gospels.

John 18:28 poses no greater difficulty. The Jews who led Jesus to Pilate for trial “did not enter the [Gentile] governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.” The “Passover” here does not refer to the Passover meal, but to the Passover feast, which lasted seven days. The Jews, then, are saying that they would like to continue to partake in the feast.

A quick word study on “Passover” (πάσχα) confirms this. Matthew and Mark use the word “Passover” exclusively to refer to the day the Passover meal is eaten or to the actual meal itself (Matt. 26:2, 17, 18-19; Mark 14:1, 12, 14, 16), and they prefer the designation “Unleavened Bread” (ἄζυμος), when referring to the entire feast.

Luke uses the term more interchangeably, referring to the “Feast of the Passover” (τῇ ἑορτῇ τοῦ πάσχα) (Luke 2:41), and even explaining that “the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover” (Luke 22:1), thus proving that the word “Passover” can be used synecdochically to represent the entire feast. But even Luke generally uses the word “Passover” to refer to the meal (Luke 22:7, 8, 11, 13, 15), and when he wants to use the word “Passover” to refer to the Feast, he always clarifies it by pairing it with the word for “feast” (ἑορτῇ) (Luke 2:41; 22:1).

John, however, is an anomaly. He significantly never uses the term, “Unleavened Bread,” and consequently uses the word “Passover” interchangeably to refer to the meal, day, and the feast (John 2:13, 23; 6:4; 11:55; 12:1; 13:1). He sometimes pairs it with the word “feast” (John 2:23; 6:4; 13:1) to make the meaning clear, but most of the time he uses the word by itself (John 2:13; 11:55; 12:1; 18:28, 39; 19:14). In John 6:4, he states, “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand,” demonstrating that “Passover” can again be used synecdochically to refer to the entire feast. With this usage in John established, it is not difficult to accept the suggestion that “the Passover” in John 18:28 refers to the entire feast and not to the Passover meal, in which case they were probably concerned with eating the feast-offering that was brought on Friday morning (cf. Num. 28:18-19).

Finally, John 13:1 does not prove that the Last Supper took place “before the Feast of the Passover.” The statement applies to the foot-washing, which immediately follows the statement, and not to the Last Supper. What about the part of the passage that says that Jesus “rose from supper” (John 13:4) to wash the disciples’ feet? Jews typically ate two meals during the day, one around 10 or 11 in the morning, and another in the late afternoon. On special occasions (like the Passover meal), the late afternoon meals lasted into the night, and therefore onto the next day (in Jewish understanding the day begins at sundown) (Matt. 26:20; Mark 14:17; John 13:30; cf. 1 Cor. 11:23) (Thomas Schreiner, The Lord’s Supper, p. 20). This means that supper began on Thursday, but lasted into Friday, when Passover officially began. Hence, Jesus could have risen from supper to wash his disciples’ feet before the official commencement of Passover.

It is specious to claim that the Lord’s Supper’s primary Old Testament connection is the covenant meal on Mount Sinai (Exod. 24:1-11), when the Lord’s Supper ostensibly takes place in the context of the Feast of the Passover and not during the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot or Pentecost), which celebrates the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

The Lord’s Supper Was a Passover Meal
Scot McKnight insists that if it the Lord’s Supper was a Passover meal, it would have made more theological sense for Jesus to say, “this lamb is my body” as opposed to “this bread is my body,” but this argument overlooks three important facts: (1) the bread, which is readily broken, lends itself quite well to representing the broken body of Christ. (2) In fact, Jesus’s use of bread, rather than lamb, in the institution of the Lord’s Supper may explain the early church’s rationale in celebrating the Lord’s Supper more frequently. (3) There is a very good theological explanation for why the Gospels do not mention the paschal lamb, because the focus is on Jesus, who is the ultimate Paschal Lamb about to be sacrificed.

Moreover, regardless of whether or not the Lord’s Supper was a Passover meal, both the Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel agree that Christ fulfills the typology of the Passover lamb. “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7), and this is what we remember and celebrate in the Lord’s Supper.

This is the first of a four-part series on the Lord’s Supper. Stay tuned next week for my second post, The Lord’s Supper: What Does It All Mean?

The Significance of Passover for Christians

Exodus 12:1-14

“The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, ‘This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household … The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect … Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the people of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. Do not eat the meat raw or cooked in water, but roast it over the fire … Do not leave any of it till morning … 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. On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD. 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. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt. This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD—a lasting ordinance.’”

Numbers 9:11-12
“‘They are to celebrate it on the fourteenth day of the second month at twilight. They are to eat the lamb, together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They must not leave any of it till morning or break any of its bones. When they celebrate the Passover, they must follow all the regulations.’”

Today is the first day of Passover, one of the most important Jewish festivals. But what is its significance for a Christian?

The Exodus
The book of Exodus, which is also part of the Jewish Torah, records that the Eygptians “put slave masters over [the Jews] to oppress them with forced labor … [and] made their lives bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields … [and] used them ruthlessly” (Ex.1:11-14). Moreover, it says that the Pharaoh gave the order to kill every new-born Jewish boy (Ex. 1:22). One baby, however, survives. He is named Moses, and he grows up and is called by God to liberate the Jews from the grips of Egypt.

The Jews had suffered for around 200-300 years under Egyptian oppression. Given this context, and given the deadly consequences awaiting failure, the night of the Passover must have been pregnant with palpable anxiety, as the people carried out the ritual with trembling—the rapid palpitations of their hearts resounding even louder amidst the thick, hushed air filled with fear and anticipation.

The Passover Lamb
One could picture the solemnity of the scene as they carefully examine the lamb to check that it is without blemish, stab it, pour the blood out into a basin, sprinkle it across the lintel and the side door posts, then roast the meat. One could imagine the intense emotions stirring as they distribute the lamb joint by joint, painstakingly ensuring that no bone is broken, and eat it hastily with their rough hands, calloused from hard labor.

There is tension as they look into each other’s determined eyes whispering, “Soon, the God to whom we have cried out day after day will answer our prayers. Soon, our Lord will avenge our enemies. Soon, Our God will deliver us from slavery.” The significance of the Passover, for any observant Jew, could hardly be overstated.

The Second Exodus
It is possible for Christians to empathize with the Jews and celebrate the Passover because we have experienced the same deliverance from our own spiritual Egypt. The slavery in Egypt can be likened to slavery to sin, just as Apostle Paul wrote of his past as a man living according to the law apart from the grace of God, “I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do … For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out … What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? … a slave to the law of sin” (Rom. 7:13-25).

Then, he answers his own question, “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! … Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do … God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering … [we] are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit of God” (Rom. 7:25-8:3; 8:9). Christians wearied from their slavery under the law of sin, like the Jews worn out from their slavery under the Egyptians, are freed at once, not by anything they have done, but by the sacrifice of Jesus, the Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7), and invited to live victoriously in the Spirit of life through grace.

The Second Passover Lamb
There are more than a few parallels between Jesus and the Passover lamb. As Charles Spurgeon points out in his sermon Christ Our Passover, delivered on December 2nd 1855, the gentle, innocent lamb without blemish aptly captures the image of Jesus Christ, the guileless and sinless man declared blameless by the Pilate (Lk. 23:4), who nevertheless accepted his death sentence without retaliating.

As the paschal lamb’s wool is shorn and the animal killed, Christ was ripped naked and crucified. Furthermore, just as the paschal lamb was to be a male of the first year, a lamb in its prime, so Christ died on the cross at the zenith of his manhood at the age of 34. Just as the lamb was not to be killed prematurely or too late, Christ was offered, not as a young boy who is not yet mature, nor as an old man whose body is growing frail, but as a full man at the height of his strength.

Moreover, just as the Passover lamb was set aside for 4 days before Passover, Jesus commenced his ministry after his baptism and continued for 4 years until his death, and upon entering Jerusalem to be set apart for his death, celebrated the Passover with his disciples 4 days later, except this time offering himself instead of the Passover lamb, saying as he broke the bread, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me,” and as he poured the wine, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Lk. 22:7-20).

The picture I took of the Upper Room in Jerusalem (2007), where, reputedly, Jesus had his Last Supper with the disciples.
The picture I took of the Upper Room in Jerusalem (2007), where, reputedly, Jesus had his Last Supper with the disciples.

Likewise, his death resembled that of the Passover lamb, since his blood was poured out, and he was pierced onto a cross and endured a long painful death which is similar to the process of roasting, in which the lamb is pierced and hung over the fire. No bone of his body was broken (Jn. 19:33-36), and he was not to be left on the cross until morning (Jn. 19:31) just as the Passover lamb was not to be left until morning.

In this manner, Jesus fulfilled the Messianic role of Savior and Redeemer. Just as the Old Testament prophets predicted the Messiah would be, Jesus was from the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10-11), line of David (Jer. 23:5), and was born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2) of a virgin mother (Is. 7:14). He was a Galilean (Is. 9:1-7), the Son of Man (Dan. 7:13-14) and the Son of God (Is. 7:14).

He was sold for 30 pieces of silver (Zech. 11:12-13) and people divided and cast lots for his clothing (Ps. 22:18), and as he was dying He cried out “‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani’—which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” thus quoting Psalm 22:1 and pointing to the prophecies concerning him contained in the Psalm.

He was despised (Ps. 22:6-7; Is. 53:3), pierced in his side (Zech. 12:10) and in his hands and feet (Ps. 22:16), yet his bones were not broken (Ps. 22:17; 34:19-20). He died and resurrected after three days and thus fulfilled the Sign of Jonah (Ps.16:10; Hos. 6:2; Jon. 1:17), and was exalted to the right hand of God the Father (Ps. 110:1-4). All of these prophecies are plainly fulfilled and explained in the Gospels.

Prophet Isaiah summed it all up when he prophesied:

Isaiah 53
“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering (cf. Mt. 27:27-31) … Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities (cf. Mt. 27:32-44); the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth (cf. Mt. 27:13-14) … And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living … He was assigned a grave with the wicked (cf. Mt. 27:38), and with the rich in his death (cf. Mt. 27:57-60), though he had done no violence (cf. Mt. 26:52), nor was any deceit in his mouth (cf. Mt. 26:55). Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer (cf. Mt. 26:42), and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering … After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied (cf. Mt. 28:6); by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many (cf. Mt. 28:19-20), and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great (cf. Mk. 16:19), and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors.”

This great sacrifice, amazing grace, and unconditional love demand a response. Just as Charles Spurgeon, once again, said, “If he gave his all to me, which was much, should I not give my little all to him?”