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The Last Supper: Matthew 26:17-35

The Last Supper

17 On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”

18 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.’” 19 So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover.

I’m skipping ahead in the week to the Last Supper in order to cover the “events” of Holy Week. Most of my life I’ve thought of that week in terms of its events; the Triumphal Entry, the cleansing of the temple, the Last Supper, the arrest and trial, etc. But if you read through the chapters of any of the gospels, what you find is that Jesus did a lot of teaching that week. He taught in the temple courts for three days after he cleared out the money changers, and a lot of that teaching is recorded. John has four chapters of teaching at the Last Supper! But for my Holy Week posts each year, I focus on the events. That’s why I’m skipping ahead to the Last Supper. This event didn’t take place until Thursday, as we all know, but too many things happened on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to try to cover all of those events on those two days.

The Last Supper appears in all four gospels. (Mark 14:12-26, Luke 22:7-20, John 13-17) The synoptic accounts are all similar to each other, but each contains details that the others do not have. John’s account is the longest by far, five chapters! See my post on Mark’s version of the Last Supper here, and Luke’s here.

Mark says that Jesus sent two of his disciples to make preparations for the Passover meal. Luke identifies those two disciples as Peter and John. This involved finding the room where the meal would be held, and making the sacrifice of the paschal lamb and preparing it for the meal. This was an all day job. Jesus seems to have prearranged for the place where he would celebrate the Passover with his disciples. Since they were to call Jesus “the Teacher” (other translations translate it “the Master”) when they inquired about the room, scholars agree that this meal was held in the home of a supporter, even a disciple, though not one of the Twelve. Many scholars believe that the Last Supper was held in the home of John Mark’s family. In Luke, Peter and John are told to find a man carrying a water jar and ask about the room. This does appear to be some sort of prearranged signal, since men did not carry water jars in that culture. They carried water in skins. So a man carrying a jar of water would be unusual, and easy to spot. It seems likely that all of this was done in order to hide the location of the meal from Judas, who could then report Jesus’ whereabouts to the chief priests and have him arrested there. It’s entirely possible that Judas tried that when Jesus sent him out, but they were already gone when Judas and the Temple guards arrived.

In Jerusalem at Passover, homes all over the city were opened for pilgrims to celebrate the feast. It was common for hosts to combine several families in one large room for their Passover meals. But Jesus was able to get a room for himself and the Twelve alone.

20 When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. 21 And while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.”

22 They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?”

23 Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 24 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.”

25 Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?”

Jesus answered, “You have said so.”

Judas had just gone to the chief priests and elders to ask for money to turn Jesus over to them. (26:14-16, blog) Imagine his shock at finding out that Jesus knew about it already! Of course, the other disciples were dismayed at this news. Jesus had told them before that he would be betrayed, (17:22, 20:18) but this was the first time that he revealed that the betrayer was among their number. Those who were innocent immediately began asking if they could possibly be the one who would do such a thing. Jesus’ only answer to them was, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.” They had all done that. In Middle Eastern culture, it was and is still considered the worst form of treachery to betray someone after having broken bread with them. Breaking bread was what families did, what compatriots did. By saying that one who had dipped his hand into the bowl with him would betray him, he was exposing the depths of Judas’ treachery.

I think Judas only asked the question because all the others did. Not to do so would arouse suspicion. But Jesus did not give Judas a direct yes, he simply said, “You have said so.” This is the same response that he later gave to Pilate. (27:11) I think Jesus answered Judas cryptically because if Judas’ guilt was revealed to the group, they would have stopped him. Though John says that Jesus did reveal who the betrayer was to him, and he revealed it to Peter, the rest of the group assumed that Judas was going to pay for the meal when Jesus sent him out. (John 13:21-30) In any case, no one did anything to stop Judas, either out of ignorance or because Jesus implicitly forbade them. When someone close to us is on the road to ruin, are we oblivious to what’s going on with them? Or, even knowing the direction they’re headed, do we keep silent? Peter and John had the excuse that Jesus did not want Judas to be stopped. We don’t have that excuse.

26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”

27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you.28 This is my blood of the[b] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

30 When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

There are strict traditions about what is eaten and what is said, by whom and in what order, when eating the Passover. If you’ve ever attended a Seder meal, you know what I mean. It seems they had already gone through the established ritual, and then Jesus shared with them a new supper, the Lord’s Supper. The Passover was central to the old covenant, and the Lord’s Supper is central to the new covenant. Jesus is starting the new covenant right here, in that moment.

The bread that’s used for Passover is, of course, unleavened bread. It breaks like a cracker. I imagine that Jesus held up a piece of the unleavened bread that they had been sharing for the feast, and broke it using two hands, then held it out to the disciples on his right and left as he said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Luke adds the phrase given for you. (Luke 22:19) Peter and John had just spent hours preparing the lamb for this feast, and they all had eaten of it. Did they realize at that time that Jesus was referring to himself as the sacrificial lamb? Probably not. But later, I think they must have reflected on that.

Then Jesus took the cup, and said that the wine was “my blood of the covenant.” Some manuscripts say the new covenant. The disciples might not have understood the bread being identified with Jesus’ body, but they all understood what the blood of the covenant was. The blood of the covenant between God and Israel was the sprinkled blood of sacrifices, which temporarily covered their sins. (Exodus 24:6-8) But here, Jesus was establishing the new covenant. He called the wine that he held in his hand my blood of the new covenant. Under the old covenant, the blood of bulls and goats only temporarily covered up sin. Under the new covenant, the blood of Jesus doesn’t just temporarily cover our sin, it removes it completely.

It was forbidden to drink blood under Mosaic law. This was a radical departure from Judaism. Jesus said to his disciples that he would not partake again of the fruit of the vine until he drinks it new in his Father’s kingdom. Of course, he hardly had the chance to eat or drink again until after his resurrection. I’ve always thought of this saying of Jesus as meaning that he would not partake until we all get to Heaven, but now I wonder about that. The way Mark puts it, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, I will not drink wine again until the day I drink it new in the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:25) In Luke, Jesus says this same thing, not only about the wine, but the meal itself (Luke 22:15-18). Jesus did eat with his disciples after the resurrection (Luke 24:42-43, John 21:12-13, Acts 1:4), so it seems to me that Jesus was saying that the next time he ate and drank with his disciples, the kingdom of God will have come. And it had, in the form of his church.

Then they sang a hymn, and left for the Mount of Olives. Singing is also a traditional part of Passover. How could Jesus sing, knowing what would soon happen? Because his attitude of praise was not based on his circumstances, but on his adoration of the Father, as ours should be. The traditional psalms that were sung at the end of the Passover meal were Psalms 116, 117, and 118. Read those Psalms and imagine how they would have ministered to Jesus on the night before his death.

Jesus Predicts Peter’s Denial

31 Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written:

“‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’[c]

32 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”

Having told the Twelve about Judas’ betrayal earlier (though he didn’t reveal his betrayer’s identity to all of them), Jesus now reveals to the rest of the apostles that they would not behave that much better. Though the focus is on Peter’s denial of him in the next verses, Jesus makes clear right up front that none of them would stand by him in his darkest hour. All of them would fall away.

Jesus quotes this verse from Zechariah 13:7 as prophecy of what would soon happen. Only part of that verse is contained here. If you read the entire verse, it’s clear that God is orchestrating this whole thing. It doesn’t excuse the disciples for deserting Jesus, or Peter for denying him, but in that prophecy, God is the one who calls upon his sword to strike the shepherd. I think, in this case, God’s sword represents the religious leaders and the Romans. They were the tools that God used to make sure his Son became the sacrifice for our sins.

Then Jesus gave them this word of hope. After he rose, he would meet them in Galilee. They were in Jerusalem for Passover at that moment, far from home. The first time Jesus met them after his resurrection, they were still in Jerusalem (Luke 24:33-36). But he did also meet them in Galilee, and that was where he restored Peter (John 21). Jesus wasn’t telling his disciples to go straight to Galilee, and that’s where he would first meet them after he rose. He was telling them that they would be restored to him back home in Galilee, where they all were from.

33 Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”

34 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”

35 But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.

The disciples were so sure of themselves. But none of us really knows what we will do until the pressure is on. Jesus showed them here that he knew them better than they knew themselves. And he didn’t only know the bad, he also knew the good. In spite of Peter’s protestations to the contrary, Jesus knew that Peter would a) deny him three times, and b) that he would hear the rooster crow. That meant that Jesus knew that Peter would stay near him, even while denying that he knew him. Only Peter and John stayed near Jesus during his trial, so they were probably the only ones who heard the rooster crow. The rest, who ran and hid, probably never heard the rooster. Jesus was as much as saying, “I know you will fail me, but I also know that you will stay near me and repent.”

In Luke’s account of this conversation, Jesus tells Peter that he has prayed for Peter that his faith would not fail (Luke 22:32). The apostles all claimed that they would die with Jesus rather than desert him. They all denied Christ in their own way. But all of them who heard this (Judas was gone by then) were later restored. Jesus also knows that we will fail him from time to time. As 1 Corinthians 10:12 says, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” We may even, through our actions or attitudes, basically deny knowing Jesus at some point. Jesus knows this about us, and yet he continues to love us, and pray for us, that our faith may not fail. He intercedes for us even now. (Romans 8:34) And he goes ahead of us, to meet us and restore us to him. He also knows that if we will stay near him like Peter did, and not run away, not only will we be restored to him, but we will be able to strengthen our brothers and sisters, as Peter did.

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