We are going to consider one of the most solemn and edifying subjects presented to us in the Bible. We refer to the Lord's last supper, of which we read in Mark 14: 12-42. The Lord's Supper was held at the Passover, which is the first night of the Jewish Feast of Unleavened Bread. It was at the celebration of the first night of this Feast called today the "Seder Night", that our Messiah and Lord presided before He suffered. Our understanding of the ceremony known as the Breaking of Bread will depend on the extent to which we are familiar with the Jewish Passover ceremony. It is a solemn and edifying subject, because it holds up Christ crucified to our wondering gaze.
The Feast of Unleavened Bread is one of the three Pilgrim Festivals of Israel, the other two being Pentecost and Tabernacles. On these three occasions, the Law of Moses required the people to be present at the Temple in Jerusalem (Deut. 16:11,14)and to rejoice before God. It has been given a threefold meaning by the teachers of Israel.
(1) It is the Season of Redemption, when they remember their redemption from Egypt.
(2) Jewish tradition teaches, that the Messiah will appear to redeem Israel at the Passover, and that He will be preceded by Elijah the prophet (Mal- 4:5). Accordingly, a cup of wine is filled in honour of Elijah, and at a certain point in the celebration the door is opened to admit him in case he is standing outside, waiting to announce Messiah's coming.
(3) It is also the beginning of barley harvest, when the corn stands ripe in the fields. It is significant that Ruth the Moabitess was redeemed into the light and blessings of the people of God at this season of redemption (Ruth 1:22; 4:9,10).
The preparations for the Passover began early, perhaps a month or so beforehand. Workmen were sent out by the Jewish Council to repair the roads leading to Jerusalem. This was necessary, as the heavy winter rains had washed away part of the soft upper surface of the roads, leaving them cracked, uneven and holed. Isaiah in foretelling the coming of the Messiah, referred to this custom in his prophecy (Isa. 62:10-12): "Go through, go through the gates; prepare the way of the people; cast up, cast up the highway; gather out the stones; lift up a standard for the people." Visitors were received into most houses, as this was a religious duty and a privilege.
The graves and sepulchres were also whitewashed, in order to make them conspicuous; their brilliant whiteness in the glaring Eastern sun served for warning, and for proclaiming their uncleanness to the pilgrims - any one who touched these was rendered ceremonially unclean. Such persons were not allowed to partake of the Passover until the second month (Num. 9:6-I2). The Lord Jesus compared the religious hypocrites of His day to these whitened sepulchres (Mat. 23:27-28).
In the home, the housewife would be cleaning the house from top to bottom, as no trace of leaven was to be found in their dwellings during the Feast (Exod. 12:18-20). Perhaps this is the origin of the annual custom of spring-cleaning. New cutlery and crockery, pots and pans were brought out and used, and then carefully stored away until the next Feast. Around sunset of the day preceding the Passover, the master of the house personally convinced himself that there was no leaven remaining in his possession. He searched all the rooms in every corner, often with a brush and by the light of a candle (see Zeph. 1:12), after saying the following blessing: "Blessed art Thou, 0 Eternal our God, King of the Universe, who hast sanctified us by Thy commandments, and commanded us to remove the leaven." In the New Testament, this figure is used, in order to remind us to use the same diligence in spiritual matters: "Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth." (I Cor. 5:6-8).
Four days before the Passover, the people selected their lamb for the sacrifice (Exod. 12:3-6). We can picture the anxious owner carefully re-examining it during the three to four days before the great night; and in the same manner, if we substitute years for days, the Lord Jesus was scrutinized most critically by all. Then, being found without fault in the sight of God and of honest men even of dishonest men, He was sent to the Cross for our sins! (See John 1: 29; Luke 23:13-15, 47; John 8:46.)
The custom at the feast was for the celebrants to sit reclining on their left elbows, as the sign that they were at liberty and at ease from Egyptian oppression. The ceremony was usually presided over by the master of the house; in this case it was the Lord Himself Who led the service. The guests of honour would be sitting at His right and left hand, the left being the highest place of distinction. It is very probable that Judas was in this place, and John in the other. It explains why Judas was able to talk to the Lord without being overheard by the rest, since their heads would be very close together when the former sat upright.
At the outset of the ceremony, a winecup would be filled and drunk. The first cup, of which there were four, was called the cup of Sanctification, because of the opening prayers that marked the start of the feast. The Master then washed His hands and dipped a piece of parsley or lettuce in salt water, which was eaten. The story of the deliverance of Israel from Egypt was read or told, and the cup filled a second time. For obvious reasons this cup was called the cup of redemption.
The time for the meal had now come and usually a slave came round with a jar of water, so that the guests could wash their hands. A towel tied at his waist was used by them in drying their hands, and he also had a bowl to catch the water that was poured over their hands. On this sacred occasion, it was the Lord Who took the place of the slave, in order to impress upon His disciples the need to be clothed with humility - the more so, as they had been disputing as to who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven (John 13:3-17). We will do well to remember this lesson!
Having resumed His place at the table, the Lord then said the blessing "Blessed art Thou, 0 Eternal, Our God, King of the Universe, who bringest forth bread from the earth!" Each guest now took his turn in dipping a piece of unleavened bread in the bitter herbs and eating it, as laid down in the Law of Moses. This is the sop referred to in the narrative. The master of the house might, at this juncture, use his prerogative and confer honour on the one he loved most, by putting his own sop in the mouth of his friend. Judas had this high honour at the hands of the Lord; but Satan entered into him, because he did not receive it with grace in his heart. What a lesson! Blessings conferred by a gracious God on a graceless person, will in the end add an intolerable weight to his condemnation.
The evening meal having been concluded, the Lord followed the usual custom of breaking another piece of unleavened bread and sharing it with His disciples. As He did so, He said, 'Take, eat; this is my body." In today's Jewish ritual, the piece that is used at this identical point is the middle of three pieces used. It surely conveys to us the thought that if we regard the three pieces as types of the Trinity, the middle piece would be the type of the Son, Who is the second Person; and that as surely as that middle piece is broken, so His body was broken for us on the cross. We cannot be sure that in His days there were three pieces used; but if there had been, He would at this point break the same middle piece as is broken today. As He did so, He said, "This is my body which is broken for you." (I Cor. 11:24) The third cup, called the cup of blessing was now filled and drunk. "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?" (I Cor. 10:16). The same title is given to this cup today by the Jewish people. As our Saviour took it and gave it to the disciples, He said, "This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many." He also went on to say, "I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new (with you) in the kingdom of God."
The psalms that were then sung before they left the upper room were Psalms 115-118, with their numerous references to the Messiah, such as - "The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner. This is the LORD'S doing; it is marvellous in our eyes." (Psa. 118:22, 23). These were ordinarily followed by the drinking of the fourth and last cup, called the Cup of Praise. We know that Messiah did not drink it, but that He hinted it was being reserved for all His redeemed in Heaven (see Isa. 25:6). We also know that He did drink, from another and a terrible Cup, in the Garden of Gethsemane that same night. Unless He had done so, we would never have been entitled to share the cup of praise in Heaven - we refer to the cup of the wrath of God, which was our just retribution. Messiah drank it for us, and left us the sweet cup of mercy and love that belonged rightfully to Him alone - "O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, Thy will be done" (Matt. 26:42)- It was the will of the Father, as well as His own, that He should drink it instead of us.
At the time that Messiah's life was being cut short on the cross, the same evening witnessed a procession of pilgrims making their way down to the fields of the Kedron valley, where the barley stood ripe in them. The Law of Moses required the people to cut down a sheaf of the firstfruits, and to wave it before the LORD on the morning after the Sabbath (Lev. 23: 1 0-1 I) - It is wonderful to realize that as the priests were doing this very thing, the disciples were being surprised with the glad news that their Messiah had risen from the dead. He truly fulfilled the Type, as we are reminded in I Cor. 15:20- "But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept." Likewise, just as the people were able to partake of the harvest after the waving of the sheaf, so may all Messiah's people all believers-partake of the fruits of His victory over death and and the grave!