One of the “unsolvable mysteries” of the Gospels is the mystery of exactly when and how Passover was celebrated in first century Jerusalem. Was the last supper a Passover meal? Was it a pre-passover meal? Did people from out of town celebrate Passover a day before the residents of Jerusalem to accommodate the huge crowds that gathered?
In the three synoptic Gospel’s the last supper on Thursday seems to be the Passover meal. But in John’s gospel, the lambs being sacrificed for the Passover meal are being killed in the temple prior to the evening feast on Friday, at the same time that Jesus, the Lamb of God is being killed on the cross.
And the oldest mention of the last supper is extremely brief and raises some very interesting questions too.
1st Corinthians 11: 23 "For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me."
Paul’s description of the Lord’s supper is written no more than 30 to 35 years following the event described. Paul claimed to have seen Jesus in his conversion vision, (see Acts 9:1ff). Here he seems to be claiming another direct revelation from Christ: “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…”
It’s possible that he received it from the other Apostles and is passing it on and simply relaying that he believed their witness that it came from the Lord. But he seems to say that Jesus himself told him about the Last Supper.
These questions help us realize that we are dealing with very old documents. We see that we still have a limited grasp of first century history, and the customs of the second temple period. We don’t know as much as we would like about Paul.
I love the technical questions, and they are important. But beyond them is something even more important. The Gospel differences and seeming inconsistencies tells us that these accounts were not just a dry historical record. Each of the evangelists is taking what happened but emphasizing certain events, and things Jesus said to make a theological case.
In the three synoptics and 1st Corinthians we see Jesus who takes bread and wine, and calls it his body and blood. In John’s gospel Jesus actual body and blood are poured out on the cross as the Passover.
We have Luke who seems to say the Jesus did not drink the fourth cup, the last cup of the Passover, and John who portrays Jesus as drinking sour wine from a sponge moments before he proclaims “It is finished.”, perhaps implying that Jesus was drinking the final Passover cup as he transforms it forever.
All four gospels, and Paul’s account in 1st Corinthians, tell us in no uncertain terms that a New Covenant has begun.
For those of us who are not Jewish the word covenant may not carry any great weight.
For first century Jews it was a slap in the face, a punch to the solar plexus, a statement of unbelievable audacity or outright heresy. It was a statement that deserved a death sentence. Jesus is saying that he is God, and that as God he is now making another agreement in the line of covenants he has made with his people. Wow!!
In the middle of the supper in John’s Gospel, Jesus gets up, goes to get water, strips down, and washes the disciples feet.
When I juxtapose Jesus claim of divinity, and his act of absolute servanthood, I am unable to say anything but “Thank you for your love.”
When I hear his words from John 13:34 “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." I say, “Lord, save me, help me, give me grace.”
May this night be for us a night where the technical mysteries, and the much greater mystery of the God of the universe showing his unending love for the world, bring us back to his table to receive all that he has for us.