The Last Supper Before the First Easter

By Dr. Robert Jeffress

Passion Week is about the events leading up to the two most important events in Christianity—the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.   

On the Thursday evening before those two events, Jesus gathered with His disciples to observe the Passover meal—a 1400-year-old tradition the Jews had to commemorate their Exodus from Egypt. That Thursday evening, Jesus transformed the purpose of the Passover meal into a ceremony that would become known as the Lord’s Supper that would memorialize the sacrifice Christ made on the cross on our behalf.

In his book THE GOD DELUSION, Oxford scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins explained the main reason he believes Christianity is a myth: “I don’t see Jesus coming down and dying on a cross as worthy of that grandeur . . . If there is a God, it’s going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian or any religion has ever proposed.”  

Of course, Dawkins is actually making a case for Christianity. If the Christian faith were manufactured, then it would have been much more elaborate than God coming to earth and being crucified on a wooden cross for the sins of the world. But that message which is “foolishness to those who are perishing,” is the power of God for salvation. And we see that truth explained in both word and ritual in Jesus’ final meal with His disciples before His death.

When we come to Luke 22, we are in the final week before the Crucifixion. Remember, Jesus entered probably on Monday to the praise of the people—of course, that wouldn’t last long. He spent those final days in Jerusalem teaching in the Temple. It was during that week that he chased out the money changers.

This incited the religious leaders to question His authority and plot to kill him. They tried to trap him into charges of blasphemy so that the Jews could kill him or treason by the Romans. But all their efforts fell flat.

And that’s where we pick up the story beginning in Luke 22.

1. The Betrayal Preceding The Passover (Luke 22:1-6)

The term Passover was often used in the first century as a catch-all to describe the celebrations of the Passover between the 14th and 15th of Nissan that was immediately followed by the week-long observance of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Both celebrations were seminal events on the Jewish calendar. They celebrated the Passover yearly with a meal of roasted lamb, bitter herbs, unleavened bread, fruit sauce, and four cups of wine that told the story of Israel’s 400 years of bondage, followed by God’s miraculous deliverance.

For Jesus and His disciples, their final Passover meal together would occur on Thursday, April 2, AD 33. However, the events in verses 1-6 take place probably on Tuesday or Wednesday. While all the Jews who had come to Jerusalem were busy preparing for Passover, the religious leaders were busy looking for a way to rid themselves of Jesus forever.

And then, suddenly, out of the blue, the opportunity came knocking at the door. And that opportunity was named “Judas.”

“Iscariot”—literally, “Ish—Hebrew for “man” from the village of Kerioth. In Luke 6, Jesus prayed about the 12 who would be His apostles, and then He selected them. Luke 6:16 names Judas last.  

We are tempted to think, “Well, that was certainly a mistake! Maybe Jesus should have prayed a little longer.” No, Jesus knew exactly what Judas would do; it was all part of God’s plan. But notice how God’s plan was accomplished.

According to Matthew 26:15, Judas would tell the Jewish authorities where they could find Jesus and arrest Him at night—when the people wouldn’t see it—for 30 pieces of silver. Interestingly, Zechariah 11:12, written 700 years earlier, predicted that someone would betray the Messiah for 30 pieces of silver. As evil as this act was, God would use this evil act of Judas to accomplish His eternal plan of salvation. This betrayal set the stage for the Passover Day itself and what would occur afterward in the Garden of Gethsemane.

2. The Observance of the Passover (Luke 22:7-30)

According to Josephus, there were as many as 2.7 million Jews in Jerusalem for the Passover, and 256,000 lambs were slaughtered. The number may have been exaggerated by Josephus, but it was crowded. Regulations said that the Passover lamb had to be slain between 2:30 and 5:30pm in the Temple area before it was consumed by families that evening.

Now let me stop here and answer a question many have about apparent discrepancies in the Gospels–especially regarding the timing of Passover. Why were Jesus and His disciples observing Passover meal on Thursday night, while John 18 clearly indicates the religious leaders did not observe Passover until Friday evening? The lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple area at the same time on Friday afternoon that Jesus—The Lamb of God—was dying on the cross.

The significance of the entire Passover meal (Luke 22:14-18):

This final Passover meal is significant because it serves as the link between Israel’s national and physical “salvation” through the Exodus that Moses would provide to what was really needed—spiritual salvation that only Jesus could provide.

In Greek, the desire is expressed as epithymia epethymesa, literally meaning, “With desire I have desired” in Luke 22:15. For Jesus, this meal represented a final fellowship with His closest followers before His death.

Eating this meal with His disciples was essential so that Jesus could both transform the meaning of this meal and also impart some important teaching to His disciples.

Now the Passover Meal or Seder is quite an elaborate presentation because it is designed to tell the story of God’s deliverance of Egypt.  

Every element of the meal tells the story–the bitter herbs represent the bitterness of 400 years of slavery, and the paste-like mixture of fruit represents the mortar the Israelites used in forced labor to make the pyramids.  And course, the lamb reminded them of the sacrifice for sins.

But Luke, written for the Gentiles, does not give a detailed explanation of the entire meal but instead focuses on two elements of the meal that would become part of the new meal we call The Lord’s Supper. To understand where these two elements fit into the traditional Passover meal, here is an outline of the meal centered around four cups of wine:

The four cups of wine in the Passover meal:

The first cup is blessed by the head of the family and shared, followed by herbs dipped in sauce (This is what Jesus did in verse 17).

The second cup follows a liturgical explanation for why the Passover is celebrated and the singing of Hallel Psalms—the Psalms of praise and thanksgiving (including Psalm 113-118—usually Psalm 113, 114).

The third cup follows the blessing and breaking of unleavened bread and the meal of lamb.

The fourth cup follows the singing of additional Hallel Psalms (Psalm 114-118).

The bread used in the Passover meal was unleavened bread—that is, no yeast in it—for two reasons. First, it symbolizes that on the night of the Exodus, the Israelites didn’t have time for the bread to rise—they had to bake it hurriedly to be ready to leave when Moses gave the “go” signal. But also, leaven represents “sin” in the Old Testament, which was important since the bread would represent the body of Christ, who is without sin.

In the Old Testament, the old agreement was based on keeping God’s numerous regulations. But of course, it was impossible to keep those regulations, so in the Old Testament was a provision for the sacrifice of sins which involved the sacrifice of animals.

What was needed was a once for all sacrifice for sins that would “propitiate”—satisfy—the demands of God.

And that is what the blood of God’s own sacrifice—made on our behalf–would do. The New Testament—the new agreement—is based on the blood of Jesus Christ.

Remember, on that first Passover night, God had instructed everyone who wanted to escape His judgment to place the blood of an innocent animal on the doorposts of their home. God promised the Israelites: Only the blood of Jesus Christ, the true Lamb of God, can adequately atone for–cover—our sin. And when we trust in Christ to be our Savior, God no longer sees our sins but the blood of His Son, and He “passes over us” in judgment.

3. The Purpose of the Passover (Luke 22:18-32)

It’s easy to study this chapter and get lost in the chronology of the last week of Jesus’ life, or in the elements of the Seder meal and how it corresponds to Israel’s exodus, or even to focus on the horrible ordeal Jesus was about to endure on the cross—and miss the whole point of this chapter—which is really the whole point of human history.

It’s found in two simple words repeated twice in this chapter: “for you.”

The Greek preposition “for” is “uper” is the foundation of the Christian faith. “Uper” doesn’t mean only “for the benefit of” it means “in place of.” We call it the substitutionary atonement of Christ.

In other words, Jesus is saying, “My body” instead of yours is the one being offered as a sacrifice for sins.  My blood is being poured out for your sins instead of yours.” Instead of God directing His punishment toward us who deserve it–He poured out His punishment on Jesus, who is our substitute.

Jesus was saying to His disciples, “The sacrifice I’m about to make is not for someone else, but it is FOR YOU.”


Full Passage: Luke 22:1-38