What Was the Last Supper and Why Do We Remember it Now?
What Was the Last Supper and Why Do We Remember it Now?
Britt Mooney Contributing Writer
Christians all over the world celebrate some form of this event, and it’s come to be known as the Last Supper. Christ instituted it 2000 years ago. Does the Last Supper have meaning for us today?
As a kid, Communion scared me. Not because of the symbolism or the story of the cross of Jesus, but since my mother gave me the church yell-whisper at around five years old. The first time I held a tiny cup of grape juice and knelt near the altar with a little cracker in the other hand, she threatened me with the penalty of death if I spilled a drop on the white church carpet.
I didn’t, thankfully, but that is my earliest memory of Communion.
When I was 15 years old and a new believer after fully committing my heart to God, my pastor brought in a Messianic Jew to host a Passover Seder at our church around Easter. The Jewish rabbi explained and showed the symbolism of Christ within the Seder. From that day, I never looked at Communion or the Lord’s Supper as some liturgical ritual. It was real, relational, and powerful.
Jesus sat down with his disciples, the men closest to him through three years of hard and world-changing ministry. It was the night before his death on the cross, and in the midst of celebrating the Jewish celebration of Passover, the Son of God shared deep truth and comfort to prepare them for what was to come.
Amazingly, Jesus redefined Passover for those that follow Him, made it completely new, explaining it as symbolic of the New Covenant. With that revolutionary revelation, he instructed them to continue participating in the dinner to remind each other of those new truths, a tradition infused with complex and powerful meaning. Christians all over the world celebrate some form of this event, and it’s come to be known as the Last Supper.
Christ instituted it 2000 years ago. Does the Last Supper have meaning for us today?
Get your FREE Holy Week Guide here. Have encouragement delivered straight to your inbox!
What Was the Last Supper and What Happened that Night?
To understand the radical nature of what Jesus said that night, we must begin thousands of years before Jesus, to Moses. Whether we’ve read the first five books in the Old Testament or seen The Ten Commandments (or both), most know the story in Exodus of how God delivered the nation of Israel from the bondage in Egypt.
The people of Israel moved to Egypt during a famine while Joseph was the Governor of Egypt. They stayed after the famine ended, and over time, economic and racial tensions grew between the people of Israel and Egypt. A later Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites as a solution.
The cry of the Israelites reached God, and He raised up the Israelite Moses to deliver them. Through Moses, God sent several plagues to break the oppressive Egyptian rulers, ultimately killing the firstborn of every household without the blood of a lamb over the doorway. The angel of Death would “pass over” a house with the blood.
Thousands of Egyptians died that night.
That did it. Egypt ran the Israelites out of the country. As a reminder of His deliverance, God instituted the Passover celebration, a feast used as a way to teach the Israelite history and the establishment of the Old Covenant.
In the time of Jesus, the Jews and Israel were once again under oppression, this time with Rome, and Jesus took his disciples to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, as a good Jew would. They enjoyed a room that had been prepared for others but unused and now given to Jesus and his guests (Luke 22:7-14).
Passover is a celebration. There is a ton of food—lamb is the central dish along with unleavened bread—as well as dancing, singing, and drinking wine.
While they ate the dinner together already full of history and meaning, Jesus started teaching. There are different moments when the meal stops, and everyone drinks a cup of wine together. At these pauses, the host of the meal teaches about the history, including the plagues and the death of the firstborn.
Jesus, however, did something different. He used those moments to teach about Himself, His death, and the institution of the New Covenant.
He picked up the cup of redemption, passed it around, and said, “This is my blood, shed for you.” He tore a piece of unleavened bread and said, “This is my body, broken for you.”
Then he told them, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Mark 14:22-25).
In other words, when you celebrate Passover, from here on out, it’s not about Moses and the deliverance from Egypt anymore, at least not alone. It’s not about the Old Covenant. The blood in the cup isn’t symbolic of the blood of the lamb spread over the door that keeps us from the angel of Death. The unleavened bread isn’t symbolic of the bread made for travelers, made in a hurry to escape Egypt.
The Passover no longer means the kickoff of the Old Covenant.
Something new has happened. The blood is now the shed blood of Jesus on the cross. The bread is now the body broken by whips and nailed to the cross. Jesus is the lamb that died for us, to deliver us from the eternal oppression of sin.
The Passover is now symbolic of the New Covenant.
This would have been radical, almost heretical, to the Jews of Jesus’ day. The Passover was never connected with the Messiah, who Jesus claimed to be. Christ focused more on the promises and prophecies of David, not Moses, at least to the Jews of that day.
In essence, Jesus taught that the Passover was not simply remembering an historical event. The Passover also prophetically declared the ultimate solution and deliverance through Jesus Christ.
It wasn’t outside the scope of the Old Testament writings to teach this. Moses prophesied a “prophet like me,” (Deuteronomy 18:15) one that would bring a covenant after the earthly king system failed. Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesied a New Covenant that was different than the old one (Jeremiah 31:31-34, Ezekiel 36:24-28).
The revelation that Jesus combined these elements from the Old Testament in Himself—an eternal King in the line of David (2 Samuel 7:12-16), an eternal Kingdom described by Daniel (Daniel 2), another prophet like Moses to bring a second covenant, and a New Covenant, along with the Son of Man that would die (Isaiah 53:7)—would have blown their minds.
What Jesus does at the Lord’s Supper, in conjunction with all His teaching, was to declare Himself the fulfillment of EVERY promise of the Old Testament.
Yet Jesus also takes it a step further. In a verse the King James version misinterpreted, He says that He was going to prepare a room in His Father’s house for them, and He would return to bring them there (John 14:3) (The King James translated it “mansions.”).
In that culture, when a man would get engaged to a woman, he would go to his father’s house and build on an extra room for them to live together. When that room was finished, he went back to the woman and brought her to this new, prepared room to live as husband and wife in the father’s house. This was the picture in their minds when He says He goes to prepare a place and will return.
The Son of God. A King. A Kingdom. A Covenant Bringer. A Sacrifice. A Savior.
And a Husband. In a Family.
He injects romance into the event, a promise of the future fulfillment of joy and restoration and intimacy.
What Does the Bible Say about the Last Supper?
Passover was only meant to be done once a year, but the ideas of eating together as an expression of the Christian community happened often with the first disciples (Acts 2:42).
Jesus was the host of the Passover feast the night before His death. During the redemptive conversation with Peter after the Resurrection, Jesus tells Peter to “feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). Three times. While that is also symbolic, the apostles actually passed out bread, literally fed the followers of Jesus, which got so time-consuming that they had the people choose leaders to take over that part of the ministry (Acts 6:2-6).
The Church in Acts ate together constantly, every day. Paul “broke bread” with believers before teaching all night (Acts 20:7).
Outside of the Gospels and Acts, the most discussion we have on the Last Supper (Lord’ Supper/Communion) comes from Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. He describes a meal where the local church gathers and shares together, not simply some crackers and juice, and warns them to treat one another with hospitality and love in the midst of remembering the body and blood of Jesus. Again, this appears to be a regular, even weekly, event instead of once a year and incorporated a whole meal.
Both letters to the church in Corinth are corrective, so we must take that into account, but it still gives us great insight into the perspective of the early church.
Some were getting drunk on the wine and others filled their bellies while a few went hungry at the “Lord’s Supper.” That isn’t an expression of the equality of the Kingdom of God and the love of a family. Selfishness shouldn’t exist there, and Paul’s warning is that people who don’t treat the sacred meal seriously could get sick and die (1 Corinthians 11:30).
How Do Christians Observe the Last Supper?
Over time, the meal celebration became more ritualistic, and most Christians today call it Communion. As a holdover from the Catholic and Orthodox liturgical traditions, a large percentage of Christians have a cracker and wine or grape juice in a solemn affair to remember the death and sacrifice of Jesus.
How often the ritual of Communion is observed varies from one denomination to another. Some groups require participants to be card-carrying members of that church. It is more common today to open Communion for everyone. Some churches observe Communion once a year (like Passover) while others have it more often, every week in some cases.
Generally, Catholics still believe in something called Transubstantiation, which means that when a priest blesses the wafer and wine, they literally become the body and blood of Jesus. Protestants and evangelicals believe the juice and cracker are simply symbols.
That describes the majority of modern Christians. There are believers who celebrate it in different ways, however, including cultural contexts. People in the house church or small church community movements celebrate it as a meal together. Messianic Jews follow the traditional Passover structure and teach Jesus in the midst of that.
Despite how seriously people may feel about their particular tradition, it is the meaning that should inspire us with the revelation that the Son of God came to Earth to give His life to save us from our sin and give us eternal life through an intimate relationship with Himself and His Father through the Holy Spirit. That is an eternal truth, not limited by time, so even though the dinner happened 2000 years ago, the impact and power of the meaning hasn’t diminished one iota. We are called to constantly walk within that eternal reality. The tradition or ritual are only teachable moments as a community of the substance we have continually in Christ.
If you’ve never participated in a traditional Jewish Passover hosted by either a Messianic Jew or a person who has been taught those connections, I highly recommend it. There is no legalistic obligation to do it, but the depth and richness of the celebration is amazing and inspiring. I highly recommend it!
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Mizina
Britt Mooney (with his amazing wife, Becca) has lived as a missionary in Korea, traveled for missions to several countries, and now lives in Suwanee GA as a church planter that works bi-vocationally with Phoenix Roasters, a missional coffee company. He has a podcast about the Kingdom of God called Kingdom Over Coffee and is a published author with Say Yes: How God-Sized Dreams Take Flight.
This article is part of our larger Holy Week and Easter resource library centered around the events leading up to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles help you understand the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates and encourage you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ!
At Easter, the Son of God took on the world’s sin and defeated the devil, death, and grave. How is it, then, that history’s most glorious moment is surrounded by fearful fishermen, despised tax collectors, marginalized women, feeble politicians, and traitorous friends?
In The Characters of Easter, you’ll become acquainted with the unlikely collection of ordinary people who witnessed the miracle of Christ’s death and resurrection. This FREE podcast provides a fresh approach to the Lenten season and can be used as a devotional or study for both individuals and groups.