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Passover symbolism during the Last Supper – GD Lesson 23

Posted by BrianJ on July 11, 2007

As I studied the reading for Sunday School Lesson 23 (Luke 22:1-38; John 13-15), I kept coming back to the thought, “How did Jesus use the Passover feast to instruct his disciples?”

I’m going to try to present this sequentially, even though the Gospel authors don’t agree in this respect. The sequence I am following is patterned after a typical Passover feast from the time period (I am relying on many sources for Passover ritual, but the one I should definitely mention is The Temple, by Alfred Edersheim). I don’t know that Jesus’ party followed the same schedule, but I assume that his Apostles would have been familiar with the “norm” and noticed any deviations from it.

Passover as Introduction and Conclusion

I found it particularly interesting that Jesus used the Passover, as opposed to any of the other feasts. What makes Passover such an appropriate time for his atonement? One could argue that other feasts are also rich in atonement-related symbolism; why not choose one of those dates? (Yes, I am assuming that God had some choice in the matter.) For example, why not choose Yom Kippur which, after all, means “Day of Atonement”? Or perhaps Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles/Booths), which commemorates Israel’s forty years in the desert and is also one of the most joyful Jewish holidays. I could think of ways to relate that to the Atonement of Christ, if the two shared the same date.

I’m beginning to think that the reason that Passover was chosen has as much to do with the timing of the feast as it does with the symbolism of the feast itself—or, more precisely, the timing of the institution of the feast. Moses’ instructions concerning the Passover occurred at a unique time in comparison to the other feasts: the Passover precedes the Law from Sinai, whereas the other feasts are part of that Law (Cf. Exodus 12 for Passover; Leviticus for other feasts). This one feature seems important because Jesus’ Atonement fulfilled the “Old” Law and instituted a “new” one: Passover was before the Law and was the end of the Law.

First Cup of Wine: Rejoicing in Jehovah’s Goodness

There were three to four cups of wine—mixed with water—used in the Passover feast. The first cup marked the beginning of the feast and was accompanied with a blessing of praise for Jehovah’s goodness toward Israel. This is probably the cup the Apostles drank as Jesus said,

Take this, and divide it among yourselves: For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come. (Luke 22:17-18)

Why did Jesus promise abstinence? One could say he was referring to his impending death, and using the wine as just one example of food he would not have time to enjoy; i.e. “I will not drink wine, because my death comes too soon,” except that there is a reasonable expectation that Jesus partook of other foods at the Supper. The wine stands out as something uniquely refused. The reason may have to do with the purpose of this cup: the disciples could drink and rejoice in Jehovah’s goodness, but Jehovah himself was too burdened by the thought of his ultimate act of goodness (Cf. D&C 19) to delight in that particular celebration. That juxtaposition is troubling for me: my greatest joy is Jesus’ greatest agony.

Washing the Feet

After the first cup of wine, participants washed their hands. Obviously there was a practical aspect to washing one’s hands before eating, but the ritual cleansing also symbolized making oneself spiritually clean. The account in John 13 isn’t exactly clear on when Jesus “[rose] from supper…and began to wash the disciples’ feet,” but I suppose it was immediately following the first cup of wine.

Jesus plays off of the meaning of this symbol in at least two significant ways:

  1. He washes the disciples; they do not wash themselves—just as his atonement cleans them spiritually, which they cannot do for themselves.
  2. Jesus does not wash his own hands. How then was he made clean so as to be able to participate in the rest of the meal? Jesus could be showing that by serving others one makes oneself clean.

It’s possible Jesus had both meanings in mind when he said of his disciples—and Judas in particular—“ye are clean, but not all” (John 13:10). The eleven were clean because they lived worthy to receive the atonement (meaning #1) and because they served others (meaning #2), but Judas forfeited both, due to his treachery (meaning #1) and his selfishness (Cf. John 12:6).

(Yes, Jesus also makes a point about service and humility, but that does not play off the original meaning of the symbol. As an interesting side note, however, when the disciples later argue about “which of them should be accounted the greatest,” Jesus replies, “he that is chief, [let him be] as he that doth serve” (Luke 22:24-30). Is Jesus teaching that the way to be the “greatest” is to serve others, or is he pointing out that because he (Jesus) serves others he is already the greatest? The former has a sort of job-opening feel—“Wanted: Great People; Qualifications: Serve Others”—whereas the later indicates that that position is already taken. In other words, Jesus is already the greatest, and compared to his glory, of what significance are the differences between the disciples?)

Bitter Herbs

After the first cup of wine and the ritual washing, the head of the dinner party (the father of the home, or Jesus in this case) took some bitter herbs sandwiched between pieces of unleavened bread, dipped them in salt water or vinegar, and ate them. He then gave some to everyone else at the feast. I’ve always thought it strange that Jesus identified Judas as his betrayer with this gesture, rather than simply pointing at him, but maybe the symbolism holds some answers.

The unleavened bread which formed part of the “sop” was meant to remind everyone of the haste with which they were freed from bondage, mirroring nicely the haste with which Jesus would be tried and crucified, and the haste with which we can be freed from sin by calling on his name (Cf. Helaman 5). Sandwiched in between this symbol of liberation were the bitter herbs, representing the trials endured in Egypt. But how did Israel get stuck in Egypt in the first place? Hadn’t Joseph saved Egypt by feeding them through the famine? Didn’t Pharaoh commit the land of Goshen to the Israelites? But, as we know, “there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8), who reneged on the promises between Joseph and the previous pharaoh. Thus, Egypt (and the bitter herbs) represents not only persecution, but also betrayal.

The “sop” of bitter herbs and unleavened bread would have been the last part of the feast Judas ‘enjoyed,’ for “having received the sop [Judas] went immediately out: and it was night” (John 13:30).

Paschal Lamb

The feast on the lamb was obviously a major part of the meal. Strange, then, that there is almost no mention of it in the Gospels. There is rich symbolism between the lamb and Jesus, but since this post is on how Jesus used Passover symbolism to teach his disciples, and there is no record of how Jesus may have done this, that is all I will say about this portion of the feast.

The Wine of Blessing and ‘Extra’ Bread

After feasting on the lamb, participants were not to eat anything more until dawn, although drink was permitted. Jesus, however, apparently ‘broke’ this rule by passing bread along with wine.

And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.’ Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.’ (Luke 22:19-20)

What is the significance of ‘breaking’ the Passover rules with the institution of the sacrament? Possibly this was symbolic of the fact that once Jesus, the Lamb of God, had completed his Passover sacrifice, the ‘rules’ of the Passover no longer applied. In their place we find new rules and a new ordinance to remember them. Thus, the sacrament is an indication or remembrance that The Passover has been fulfilled.

It’s also interesting to note that Jesus used the third cup—the cup of blessing—to institute the sacrament. This cup was drunk in thanks for a meal just enjoyed, whether at Passover or some other occasion. Just as this cup normally stood for thanks for the Passover meal, in the sacrament this cup shows thanks for The Passover sacrifice.

The Hallel

Matthew tells us that “when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives” (Matthew 26:30). I’m not going to go into detail on this, since it is merely mentioned by Matthew, but I felt I should at least mention the hymn. The full Hallel is essentially Psalms 113-118. I mention it because Psalm 118 in particular (especially verse 22) is such a meaningful way to end the Last Supper and frame the discourse that would become John 15-17.

5 Responses to “Passover symbolism during the Last Supper – GD Lesson 23”

  1. Robert C. said

    Brian, this is really great, thanks. I have many thoughts in response, but only time to articulate a couple of them:

    I’ve been wondering about the interesting phrasing of the timing in John 13-17 (see this brief question/comment), and your post somehow gave me some new and interesting thoughts. With the common Mormon belief that the atonal suffering took place primarily in the Garden of Gethsemane, it seems the bread-lamb switch before the crucifixion is interesting. At this point, the law has already been fulfilled. Also, I’m thinking that perhaps Jesus became one with the Father at the Mount of Transfiguration, but he still has to suffer for our sake, so that we might be one as they are one.

    Regarding the “help wanted” version of the chief = servant passage, I think there are many interesting “follow me” or “followers of Christ” passages in LDS scripture that interrelate in interesting ways with this passage.

    Also, very interesting thoughts regarding the sop and bitter herbs and Judas’s betrayal….

  2. brianj said

    Thanks, Robert C. Your thought about Jesus becoming one with the Father has really stuck with the last several days.

  3. Robert C. said

    I’ve been wondering about this more regarding the sacrament, esp. in relation to the cup that Christ did not want to partake of (in Gethsemane). Maybe someone can help me make sense of these thoughts: I was thinking about Christ’s phrase about not wanting to take of the cup (after which he said “nevertheless, thy will be done”)—are there ever good reasons, like the “good” reasons for which Christ had for not partaking of his bitter cup, for us not to want to take the sacramental cup? Was there a “good” reason for Peter not desiring to have his feet washed? I’m usually inclined to think about Christ’s reluctance as being very different than Peter’s reluctance, but perhaps there’s some similarity that I simply am not seeing. There are times that being a member of the Church and disciple really is a burden, and I’m reluctant to partake of that cup. It’s validating for me to think about Christ’s reluctance as a way of acknowledging my own reluctance—validating of course in an inspiring, they-will-be-done, but comforting-validating too since I think our church culture inclines us to feel guilty for feeling that kind of reluctance….

  4. Very worthwhile.

  5. megan said

    Thank you so much for your brilliant insight on the last supper. I found it very helpful in preparing a communion message.

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