As the days speed by in the life of Jesus, we come ever closer to His final hour. Judas has agreed to betray Him (read here) and clock is ticking. But before He departs from this world, He has some final instruction and institutions He will impart to His disciples. Most Christians are familiar with this passage (Luke 22.7-23) because of the scene in which Jesus introduces and institutes the Lord’s Supper. However, there is a lot of theological significance in back of this meal and roots that stretch into the Old Testament.
The Mission for the Upper Room
We’ve seen how in v.1 the Feast of Unleavened Bread was drawing nigh. Now the day of Unleavened Bread has arrived. Most scholars agree this was a day when the Jewish purged their houses of all leaven in preparation for the feast which lasted about seven days (cf. 2 Chron 30.22). It was also on this day that the Passover lamb was to be sacrficed and then the meal (supper) was also eaten. It should be noted that there is a distinction between the Passover meal (one night in which the lamb was slaughtered at twilight, see Exodus 12.6) and the entire Feast of Unleavened Bread (which lasted for seven days, see Exodus 12.18). This is an important to make in order to understand the harmony in the Gospel accounts.
Nevertheless, it was on this day (most authorities say Thursday), Jesus sends Peter and John on a mission to “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we might eat it.” Some commentators say Jesus is here eating the meal in anticipation of his death; this will be one final supper with his disciples. Certainly a possiblity. However, as we move deeper into to the chapter, we do see there is new significance attached to the Passover. Indeed, Jesus takes what these Jews had always known and attaches new meaning to these symbols.
The two disciples ask Jesus where they were to prepare the meal to which Jesus in essence replies, “Follow the man with the jar.” This man would lead to the large upper room where they could eat the supper and also Jesus could impart some final instruction and teaching (He is the Teacher, v.11) to the disciples (John 13-16). Peter and John do what Jesus says and find everything just He said they would (v.13) and so prepared the Passover.
The Meal in the Upper Room
At last, the hour comes when it is time for Jesus to recline at the table and eat this meal with His apostles (v.14). Jesus tells them that he has “earnestly desired to eat this Passover” with them before His suffering. It would seem this is Jesus, knowing His time had come (John 13.1), had a great desire to eat this meal with them. This almost seems like an explanation of why they are doing what they are doing. Of course, while this meal looked back to the great deliverance that God brought for Israel when leaving Egypt, this same meal pointed forward to an even greater deliverance, an even greater exodus (see Luke 9.31) which Jesus would lead in bringing many people out of bondage to sin. This was effected by his sacrifice on the cross, that is, His suffering which is merely hourse away. Others have said there are other reason for the Lord’s earnest desire. One is that these were His dear friends which He was about to leave. Another is that He is their divine Master or Teacher who is delivering His “last lecture.” And also, Jesus is the Founder of the greatest religion on this occassion He sought to transform this memorial supper to have Kingdom significance.
Jesus further explains that He will not eat this meal again “until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (v.16). This same idea seems to be restated in v.18: “I will not drink the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Jesus has been preaching the kingdom since the beginning of His ministry (see Matthew 4.17; Luke 4.43). As discussed before, the kingdom of God is the rule or reign of God. Elsewhere in Scripture, you will find that the kingdom of God has always existed and always will exist and is over everything (Psa 22.28; 145.13; et al.). What does Jesus mean, then, when He speaks of the kingdom’s coming being yet future? This has to do with the entrance of men and women into that everlasting kingdom when they humbly bow the knee to the King of Kings and become citizens of the kingdom. While every man, woman, and child lives under the cosmic sovereign rule of God, not all are citizens of kingdom with the King ruling from the throne of their hearts. Those people who submit their will to the will of God and obey the decrees of the King simultaneously become part of the body of Christ, the church. Hence, the church is composed of kingdom subjects or citizens. One cannot properly speak of being a citizen of the kingdom, a subject to the King, and not be a member of Christ’s church. It is in the church, among His subjects, that Christ dines with His subjects in communion, the Lord’s Supper.
At this point, Jesus takes a cup and tells His disciples, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves.” Scholars call this “the cup of blessing” which was to be drank after the Passover lamb had been eaten. H. Leo Boles in his commentary on Luke writes, “A cup was passed at different intervals; they would eat for a while, then pass the large cup or vessel that contained the wine, and each one would fill his cup, and as they drank, different scriptures would be recited.” By His actions and words, it would seem Jesus is writing the final chapter of the Passover as the Jews knew. There is yet a Passover lamb, indeed, the spotless Lamb of God who was to be sacrificed for the remission of sins (Matt 26.28): Jesus the Christ.
Then Jesus, in the midst of the Passover meal, takes these symbols and attaches new meaning to them. First, he takes the bread and gives thanks for it. The bread Jesus calls His body. It should be noted that there is a textual issue in v.19b-20. You will note that some Bibles have a footnote which reads something like, “Some manuscripts omit, in whole or in part, verse 19b-20”; so reads the ESV. While this is true, only one of the earliest Greek manuscripts omits it and Justin Martyr (early church apologist) accepted these words are part of Luke’s account (c.150 AD). Other later manuscripts may have omitted them because of the issue with Jesus taking the cup first, then the bread. Nevertheless, Jesus txplains His body is given for “you.” Contextually, Jesus is speaking to His twelve apostles. This is the same language used in v.20 when Jesus is speaking of the cup and the fruit of the vine: it is poured out for “you.” Again, contextually, this is spoken for His apostles. However, in Matthew’s account Jesus speaks of the blood being poured for “many” (Matt 26.28). Which is it? Yes. Both. Christ came to be the Savior of the world (John 4.42; 1 John 4.14),, which includes His apostles and everyone else who might coem to Him by faith.
There has been much discussion around the statements of Jesus “This is my body” and “This is my blood” (Matt 26.28). Is this to be taken literal? Usually, those who interpret this passage as literal will run to John 6.55 which says “My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” However, that is dishonest to the Synoptic Gospel accounts of the Lord’s Supper and rips John 6.55 from its context where Jesus is speaking about fellowship with Him (and ultimately with God); merely read the next verse (John 6.56, “…abides in me…” is fellowship language). So, are these statements literal? Or are they to be understood as figurative? That is, the bread Jesus takes and breaks signifies His body and the fruit of the vine in the cup signifies the blood of Christ. Jesus is not advocating cannibalism. In fact, in early church history, the church was accused of cannibalism and they argued against that erroneous rumor. There are similar statements found in Scripture: “The seven good are seven years” (Gen 41.26); “the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom” (Matt 13.38); “Hagar is mout Sinai” (Gal 4.25). All of these former things signify the latter. Jesus employs the same metaphorical language when instituting the Lord’s Supper. This point is driven home further in Luke’s account where Jesus says, “This cup…is the new covenant in my blood.” So is the cup literally the new covenant, some kind of holy grail? Nay, verily. But what’s in the cup bears significance touching the new covenant. No, these statements of Jesus should not be understood as literal.
One final note: “Do this in remembrance of me.” I believe it is significant that Jesus does not say “in remembrance of my death.” Jesus says “in remembrance of me.” Certainly His death is of vital importance to the Christian and His death is a part of His life. But it would seem that Jesus wants us to remember His entire life. Don’t misunderstand; the death of Christ on the cross is of vital importance to every Christian. But just as important, and to a degree more important, is the resurrection, the miracles, the virgin birth, the sinless life, and everything else contained in the gospel accounts.