The Last Supper and the Law
A common adage used by authors is “show, don’t tell.” This saying refers to a writing technique in which sensory details and actions, rather than exposition, are used to connect the reader to the story and characters. As Anton Chekhov famously said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Its an approach that creates a more immersive writing style, allowing the reader to “be in the room” as the action unfolds. And in our ongoing debate with the theology of Torahism, the Last Supper offers a remarkable opportunity to “show, not tell” that the Law of Moses is, in fact, no longer binding on God’s people. So let’s step into the sandals of a first-century Jewish disciple of Jesus in attendance at this meal and see what it reveals.
Jerusalem, ~AD 30
The setting is dusty, ancient Jerusalem, buzzing with Pesach activity. Your fellow Jews have begun eating unleavened bread and are busily preparing for the Passover feast. As a disciple traveling with Jesus for the past few years, this won’t be your first Passover meal with Him. But there is something different this year. Earlier in the week, Jesus entered the city to triumphant shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David!” And as you saw Him waving to the people from atop His donkey, you noticed a heaviness behind His smile. This public adoration would not last long.
Pesach has driven the annual rhythm of your people for more than a dozen centuries. It’s a feast that predates Sinai and the Law of Moses, harkening back to Israel’s final days in slavery in Egypt. That’s when Yahweh gave the first command for this feast, and the Jewish people have been keeping it annually ever since. In fact, when Jesus was still a child, we’re told His “parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover” (Luke 2:41). And as a Jew, you’ve kept Pesach since you were a child, as did your parents and grandparents and great grandparents in an unbroken ancestral chain extending all the way back to Moses.
Because we modern Christians are removed from the importance and weightiness that Pesach held for first-century Jews, let’s take a brief look at the event in the Torah. It will help fill in some backstory for the Lord’s Supper we’re about to experience. The Passover is introduced in Exodus 12, where Yahweh commanded the Israelites to prepare a sacrifice of a lamb without blemish at twilight (vv. 5-6). And God gave them specific instructions,
Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover.Exodus 12:7-11
God not only saved Israel through that first Passover, he then commanded Pesach as an ongoing feast.
And when you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’”Exodus 12:25-27
The Torah provides other instructions about avoiding leaven; removing it from your home, eating unleavened bread for seven days, and so on. These are the very things the Jewish people were doing in first-century Jerusalem leading up to the Last Supper. And there was powerful Christological symbolism in God’s Pesach commands; salvation through the shedding of innocent, unblemished (sinless) blood. But, of course, that theological significance wouldn’t be revealed until centuries later when Jesus became our ultimate Passover sacrifice. (What the living God ordained from the beginning, we humans can only see in hindsight!) So the ancient Israelites wouldn’t have made those connections, nor would Yeshua’s Jewish disciples, at least not until after the Resurrection.
So there you are in Jerusalem, walking alongside Jesus and the other disciples, amid the bustle of a national festival, sensing something is afoot. Let’s pick up the story in Luke:
Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.” They said to him, “Where will you have us prepare it?” He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him into the house that he enters and tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished; prepare it there.” And they went and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.Luke 22:7-13
Picture the scene as you enter that large, furnished upper room where Peter and John prepared the Passover. In the middle of the room, lit by oil lamps, sits a table adorned with bread and wine. The smell of roasted lamb and baked bread greets you as you take your place at the table, among your fellow disciples. The Passover meal is typically held by a family, and the head of the household hosts the event. But tonight, Jesus is Pesach’s head and host.
The Passover Seder as we know it today didn’t develop until long after Jesus, during the age of rabbinic Judaism. But the wine, bread, and washing described in the NT are all in keeping with the Torah celebration of Pesach. We’re not sure if first-century Jews recited some form of Ma Nishtana—“Why is this night different from all other nights?”—but they likely retold the Passover story from Exodus in some way. There would have been the kaddish, the blessing over the wine, the matza bread would’ve been distributed, and there would have been some form of urchatz (ritual washing).
From a theological perspective, as a disciple sitting in that upper room, you don’t have a clear picture of what is coming in the next three days. You don’t even realize that you are about to partake in what will later be called the “Last Supper.” And you don’t understand that everything in Yeshua’s earthly ministry has led to the events of this week. For three years, you’ve walked alongside Jesus as He taught, healed, called, loved, challenged, performed miracles, and prophesied. Somewhere along the way, you began to believe that He was the Christ, the promised Messiah foretold in your Hebrew Scriptures. But what that fully entailed, you couldn’t have known at the time. This week was the culmination of the very reason God became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). It was the whole point of Yeshua’s mission.
You have to wonder what Jesus must have been thinking at that table with His closest friends. They had been through so much together. As they dined and made small talk, Jesus looked around the room at His brothers, knowing that everything was about to change. Tomorrow He would be brutally crucified by the Roman authorities. On Sunday, He would walk out of the grave and nothing would be the same again. His beloved disciples would be heartbroken, confused, and ultimately overjoyed. And the world wouldn’t fully understand what all this meant for decades, maybe even centuries. So that evening, as Jesus took a piece of matza bread prepared for the seder, He knew this meal would be remembered forever. The words He spoke next would echo down through the centuries. Whether His disciples knew it or not, this was His grand farewell speech.
Meanwhile, you and your fellow disciples are reclining at the table, expecting Jesus to lift the matza bread and say a traditional Pesach blessing. “This is the bread of affliction which our forefathers ate in Egypt; whoever is hungry, let him come and celebrate Pesach.” And then He would hold up the wine and speak the kaddish, “Blessed art thou, oh Lord, who has created the fruit of the vine.” That’s what you were all expecting that evening, but it’s not what happened. Instead, Jesus,
took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”Luke 22:19
What a strange thing to say. What do you mean this bread is your body? What do you mean “in remembrance” of you? You’re sitting right here in front of me. Tonight was no typical Pesach.
And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”Luke 22:20
Your blood? What do you mean by “the new covenant”? Are you talking about the prophecy of Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah)?
As a disciple expecting a traditional Passover Seder, these words would have come as a shock. And maybe you were used to Jesus saying and doing surprising things. Yet here was this man, this rabbi you knew and had come to love, taking a centuries-old Hebrew institution commanded in the Torah and pointing it to Himself.
The New Testament writers provide just a skeletal narrative of this meal, leaving out a lot of detail in order to focus on the most essential points. So if the discussion around the table included talk of the Exodus out of Egypt, or the Torah commands about leaven, eating in haste, and the rest, none of the Gospel writers mentioned it. Instead, they centered their accounts of this historic meal on the farewell message of Jesus. And what words did He want to leave for His disciples and by extension, all believers today?
Rather than pointing to the Torah, or Moses, or Egypt and the historical roots of Pesach, Yeshua declared that Passover was all about Him. And He issued a command previously underheard of in Hebraic tradition: as often as you eat of the bread and drink of the wine, do so in remembrance of Him. Let that sink in. Our Lord chose the setting of the Pesach seder not to reiterate the importance of Torah feasts or Mosaic tradition but to proclaim the New Covenant had arrived and to introduce a new sacrament. He appropriated the Passover bread and the wine as symbols of His imminent sacrifice, infusing them with new meaning. This is my body and my blood, eat and drink in remembrance of me.
And He didn’t say, “this is the renewed covenant in my blood.” He wasn’t renewing the Passover feast. No, He introduced something entirely new. Passover undoubtedly foreshadowed the crucifixion; salvation through blood. But it had nothing to say about resurrection or victory over death and sin. The Resurrection is the single most important event in the history of the human race; it’s the linchpin of the Christian faith (1 Cor 15:12-19). And from the beginning, Yahweh ordained that His Son would not only shed His innocent blood and die during Pesach but that appointed time would also serve as the foundation of the Resurrection and the inauguration of Yahweh’s promised New Covenant.
The Last Supper shows us another important way that Jesus pointed Pesach to Himself. In Jewish tradition, there’s a ceremonial Passover washing called urchatz, where the host of the Passover Seder washes his hands to ritually purify himself during the meal. In John’s account of the Last Supper, we read how Jesus staged a reversal of urchatz. Rather than washing himself before the meal, he washed his disciple’s dusty, grimy feet. This event paints an even more vivid picture of how the Lord’s Supper reveals that the Mosaic law had ended.
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.John 13:3-5
Did you catch that? Jesus knew the Father “had given all things into his hands.” All authority on heaven and earth had been given to Yeshua, and what did He do with it? Did He command His followers to keep Pesach feast every year? No. He got down on His knees and served His sinful, fallible human disciples, the men who couldn’t quite understand what He was saying and would even betray him. Jesus’ farewell statement that evening extended beyond words. This was a powerful object lesson in humility.
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.Luke 13:12-15
Again, Jesus commandeered the Passover elements for Himself. And the truth is, they were pointing to Him the entire time. They were the shadows, and Jesus is the substance.
Don’t miss the importance that this was a Passover meal. The eating of food in Scripture is often far more than just refueling our bodies. As Chad Bird points out in his book Unveiling Mercy, in Hebrew theological categories, to eat is to acknowledge that we’re not self-sufficient, that life comes from outside us as a gift. We need food like we need God, who is the ultimate provider of our food. Which is the idea behind the concept of fasting.
In the Garden, with the forbidden food, Adam and Eve weren’t looking to the Lord but to themselves. They’d been deceived, and every human being after them would pay the price. And food later plays an important role in God’s salvation of His people. He miraculously provided the wandering Israelites with manna and quail in the wilderness. And while still in slavery in Egypt, the Passover meal signaled the rescue of Israel as a nation. Indeed, that rescue is precisely what Jesus and His disciples were celebrating at the Last Supper. And the bread and wine offered by Jesus at that meal was the beginning of the reversal of that infamous bite taken in the Garden. As God had promised in the Garden (Gen 3:15), He had sent His Son to turn all that around. Thus, at the Last Supper, the phrase “take and eat” was infused with an entirely new meaning.
Wrap it up, Solberg
The Last Supper underscores the difference between Torahism and mainstream Christian theology. Torashism points us toward the Torah, and Moses, and God’s appointed feasts for Israel. But that’s not what Jesus did at the Last Supper. If He addressed any of these things during His farewell address, the NT authors did not find it worth mentioning. Rather, they wanted to show us, in no uncertain terms, that at the Last Supper, Yeshua appropriated Pesach for Himself. Our Hebrew Roots friends also say we must not celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday but that we should rather keep Passover. But that’s not what Jesus commanded. He said to eat the bread and drink the wine in remembrance of Him. Indeed, the New Covenant, ratified by His blood, began on Easter Sunday.
And please don’t misunderstand. There is nothing wrong with a Christian choosing to celebrate Passover. It’s a beautiful and profound perspective from which we can to contemplate the work of Christ. And under the New Covenant, the Torah feasts have not been forbidden. They are permitted but not required of followers of Jesus.