Matthew 26:17-30 – at the Passover table

(These bible study notes were prepared as part of a series of teachings on Matthew’s gospel, given in Johannesburg between 2007 and 2009.)

On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”
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.’ ” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover.
When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. And while they were eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.”
They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely not I, Lord?”
Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 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.”
Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?”
Jesus answered, “You yourself have said it.”
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”
Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

The Jews commemorated the Passover as the day on which they were redeemed from Egypt and delivered by God’s mighty hand from the bondage of slavery. Many of them were descendents of the ‘firstborn son’ that was spared from death on that fateful night, thus owing their very existence to the survival of their progenitor, who was purchased by God with a lamb. Thus, every generation had to celebrate the Passover as if they had themselves participated in the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 13:5-8). This was to be a lasting ordinance – through-out their generations (Exodus 12:14).

Clearly the Passover had a deeper significance. Even among the rabbis it is understood to point ahead to the future redemption, the ‘redemption which is to come.’

After Israel left Egypt, it has a mottled history. Israel received the Law but the people failed by their own disobedience to secure its blessings and promises. Israel was a Roman tributary at the time of Jesus, having lost all autonomy except in religious affairs. The true bondage – for which Israel was brought again and again under the yoke of foreign oppression – is the bondage to sin, and it is from this bondage that ‘the Lamb of God’ had to deliver them. (See from Deut. 28:15-68 that simple obedience would avoid all the woes of Israel.)

The celebration of the Passover was one of the compulsory feasts for the Jews, a time when every male Israelite had to come up to the Temple in Jerusalem. This was a requirement of the Law:

Sacrifice as the Passover to the LORD your God an animal from your flock or herd at the place the LORD will choose as a dwelling for his Name … You must not sacrifice the Passover in any town the LORD your God gives you except in the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name. There you must sacrifice the Passover in the evening, when the sun goes down, on the anniversary of your departure from Egypt. (Deut. 16: 2, 5-6)

The residents of Jerusalem offered hospitality to visitors at that time,  especially by enabling them to celebrate the Passover meal indoors, as the Law required it. The man Jesus identified to his disciples offered them an upper room – probably the room he had prepared for his own celebration – the upper rooms being in the cleaner and better part of the house. Alfred Edersheim explains:

‘The disciples were not bidden to ask for the chief or ‘upper chamber,’ but for what we have rendered, for want of a better, by ‘hostelry,’ or ‘hall’ – the place in the house where, as in an open Khan, the beasts of burden were unloaded, shoes and staff, or dusy garments and budens put down [Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11].’

Every family or household would send one of its members up to the Temple where they would slay their lamb. This was to recount the lamb slain in Egypt for their redemption, of which the blood had been applied to the doorposts and lintels of the Israelite homes to save from death ‘every firstborn son who opened the womb’. Jesus took his disciples as his family, forsaking natural affiliations for a kinship founded on the will of God (see Mat 12:48-50).

From verses 20 onwards Jesus and his disciples are at the Passover table:

When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. And while they were eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.”
They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely not I, Lord?”

According to tradition, they ate the supper in a reclining position, because it showed that the redemption had been completed, i.e. that they had now come to a place of peace and safety from which they could remember their former bondage. This mandatory ease forms a sharp contrast with the awful terror that was already looming, and would soon precede the final redemption – as we see later in Gethsemane.

During the meal there were four cups of blessing. It was during the last of these cups that Jesus would introduce the bread and the wine as symbols by which his followers would henceforth commemorate the fulfilment of the prophetic Passover of their earlier history, through the New Covenant in his blood. But before Jesus commenced this sacred institution, he became troubled in Spirit, as we see from John’s Gospel, and confronts Judas with his treachery:

After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me … As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.” (John 13:21 & 30)

The significance of this is that Judas would not participate in the fellowship of the broken body and of the blood, with the rest of the disciples. We are reminded of the Law of Moses, which disqualified certain people from joining in the Passover celebration:

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “These are the regulations for the Passover: No foreigner is to eat of it. Any slave you have bought may eat of it after you have circumcised him, but a temporary resident and a hired worker may not eat of it.
“It must be eaten inside one house; take none of the meat outside the house. Do not break any of the bones. The whole community of Israel must celebrate it.
“An alien living among you who wants to celebrate the LORD’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat of it. The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you.” (Exodus 12:43-48)

While these requirements related to external criteria, we know that they were intended as an indication of the true circumcision, being that of the heart. The participants of that meal qualified on the basis that they were fully identified with the redeemed people of God, understanding the significance of their consecration to God and the events by which He had worked redemption for them.

The departure of Judas from the Passover Table is a precedent for excommunication, which Paul instructs the church to follow (1 Cor. 5:1-12). While Jesus died for the sins of he whole world (1 John 2:2), the sin of rejecting his atoning death cannot be forgiven, and having once received him, ‘it is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.’ (Hebrews 6:4-8)

Just like the annual slaughtering of a lamb was to commemorate the Passover until the spotless Lamb should come once for all, so the bread and wine given to the disciples at this time, must commemorate his death until he comes to drink it with us ‘anew’ in his Father’s Kingdom.

Because it is by his broken body that the penalty for sin is paid, by the pouring out of his blood, this body is the bread by which the sinner may obtain life (see our studies on John 6.)

Blood is required to confirm a covenant, and it is this blood that is given to establish the New Covenant, by which Israel’s sins are forgiven and the Law of faith written on their hearts. (See Jeremiah 31:31-34).