The Last Supper
The earliest written account of the Last Supper is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church (I Corinthians 11:23-25), and is essentially the same as what is recorded in the three Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).
Jesus and His disciples were celebrating the Passover – the great annual festival of liberation (Exodus 12). While every year the people had been hoping for another liberation (from the yoke of Rome), this time expectations had been raised particularly high. Had not Jesus ridden into Jerusalem to a Messianic welcome? Had He not challenged the authority of the priests and cleansed the Temple? But He Himself had said that He had come “to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) – to liberate His people not from political tyranny but from the power of sin.
The Passover meal has a set format and liturgy that has changed little over the millennia. During the meal, the story of the Exodus was re-told, and two cups of wine were drunk. At the end of the meal came the thanksgiving. After this, no further food was meant to be eaten; so Jesus was doing something quite radical and highly significant when He suddenly took some of the remaining bread, broke it up, and shared the pieces with his disciples. It was a graphic demonstration of how the breaking of His own body (in His death) would enable them to share in His life.
As with the bread, so with the wine: the old symbols were given new significance. This was the third cup of wine, the ‘cup of blessing’ or the ‘cup of redemption’, which was said to represent the blood of the Passover lamb. But from then on it would symbolise Jesus’ own blood, the blood that shields us from God’s wrath and liberates us from the power of sin. This was the new and better covenant that God had promised, a covenant characterised by the forgiveness of all sins (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
Signs and symbols
Why bread and wine? (Why not water, for example?) Melchizedek, the priest-king of Jerusalem (Hebrews 7:1), served Abraham with bread and wine to celebrate his victory in battle (Genesis 14:18). As High Priest in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 6:20), Jesus serves His people bread and wine to celebrate His victory over sin and death.
John’s gospel does not contain an account of Jesus instituting Communion, but does include an extended reflection on its meaning (John 6:30-59). In Holy Communion, the bread and wine are given a new significance by God. They are the outward and visible signs of the inward spiritual reality of receiving life from the body and blood of Jesus. It was not enough for the disciples to observe; they had to participate, by eating and drinking (John 6:53,54). The ‘Lord’s Supper’ is therefore more than just a ritual: by eating and drinking the symbols of Christ’s death, we declare our personal participation in the new covenant (I Corinthians 10:16).
As the writer to the Hebrews reminds us (Hebrews 9:19-22), “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness”. At the first Passover, the doorway of each Jewish household was marked with the blood of a lamb, and whenever a sin offering was made for the nation (e.g. on the Day of Atonement), the sanctuary was sprinkled with blood from the sacrifice. Being ‘marked’ with the victim’s blood associates you with the death (think of forensic science). In Communion, however, the blood is not daubed on our houses or sprinkled on the outside of our bodies, but (symbolically) consumed. When we take part in a communion service and partake of the bread and wine, we are solemnly associating ourselves with Jesus’ death – and with all its consequences (I Corinthians 10:16).