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There is perhaps no more scathing an indictment leveled at a church than that of the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth: “When you come together it is not for the better but for the worse” (1 Cor. 11:17). The Corinthians left worship in worse shape than when they came. The Apostle doesn’t hold back: “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat” (v. 20). Their errors were so severe that the Lord’s Supper wasn’t even recognizable. In fact, their practice of the sacrament had more in common with pagan temple feasts than with the meal of the Lord, prima facie evidence that they were in desperate need of reform. Perhaps they misunderstood from the beginning the nature and purpose of the sacred meal.

In any case, Paul sets out to steer the ship back on course by reminding the Corinthians that the manner in which he taught them to celebrate the Lord’s Supper was delivered to him by Christ, in all likelihood through a private revelation some fifteen years before Paul delivered it to the Corinthians. He chronicles the precise order of events: “The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’ ” (1 Cor. 11:23–25).

Notice that Paul specifies the night as the one on which Judas betrayed the Lord. That night was the celebration of the feast of the Jews, the Passover (Luke 22:1, 7; John 6:4). Thus, some background on this feast can be helpful for understanding the context of the Last Supper.

The Passover was instituted on the night of the tenth plague in Egypt (see Ex. 12:14, 18). Pharaoh’s stubbornness persisted through nine plagues. Finally, the Lord said to Moses: “Yet one plague more I will bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt. Afterward he will let you go from here. When he lets you go, he will drive you away completely” (11:1). At the behest of the Lord, each Hebrew household was to take an unblemished lamb and kill it at nightfall. Its blood was then to be smeared on the doorposts and lintel of the home. After that, the family would hastily consume the roasted lamb, with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, on that same night (12:5–8). If the household was unable to finish the lamb in its entirety, the remainder had to be burned; none could be kept until the morning (v. 10). The blood served as a propitiatory symbol so that the Lord would pass over those homes whose doorposts and lintels had been smeared with blood. Louis Berkhof notes what this meal was to signify for the Jewish people:

The lamb was slain by the Levites, and the blood was manipulated by the priests. . . . But though it is first of all a sacrifice, that is not all; it is also a meal, in which the roasted lamb is eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, Ex. 12:8–10. The sacrifice passed right into a meal, which in later times became far more elaborate than it originally was. The New Testament ascribes to the Passover a typical significance, 1 Cor. 5:7, and thus saw in it not only a reminder of the deliverance from Egypt, but also a sign and seal of the deliverance from the bondage of sin and of communion with God in the promised Messiah.1

On midnight of the same night, “the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians. And there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead” (Ex. 12:29–30). The only households that remained intact were those who took shelter in God’s provision of a sacrificed lamb. The Lord further told Moses and Aaron, “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast” (v. 14).2 Even after the exodus goal was accomplished (Ex. 15:13, 17: “You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode. . . . You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain, the place, O Lord, which you have made for your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established”) and the Israelites inherited the promised land, the feast was to be an everlasting statute.

The ascended Lord, the Lamb who was slain, is present with His people, causing them to feed upon Him by faith.

After Moses, the Israelites often failed to faithfully celebrate the Passover on the appointed day in the appointed place. The author of Kings, while recounting Josiah’s reforms, notes the sinful negligence of the Jews with regard to this feast: “And the king commanded all the people, ‘Keep the Passover to the Lord your God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant.’ For no such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah. But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was kept to the Lord in Jerusalem” (2 Kings 23:21–23). The Chronicler similarly acknowledges, “They had not kept it as often as prescribed” (2 Chron. 30:5). Before Hezekiah and Josiah, the last time the Passover is mentioned is when the Chronicler refers to the feast’s celebration in Samuel’s day (2 Chron. 35:18).

Seventy years after the Babylonians destroyed the temple, the returned exiles celebrated the Passover again in David’s city on April 21, 515 BC. Unsurprisingly, this perpetual meal began to morph through the second temple epoch between the return from exile and the coming of Christ. Geerhardus Vos describes the process whereby the meal became more elaborate during this period:

Later, other features were added to these. These added features are therefore of importance, since they are connected with the institution of the Lord’s Supper, and so after the fact received a certain sanction from Christ. A cup of wine was poured at the beginning of the Passover and blessed with a prayer of thanksgiving by the father of the home. Then they drank from it one by one. After this, hands were washed and they ate some of the bitter herbs, while a passage was read out loud. Then a second cup of wine was poured. The son asked about the purpose of the meal; the father explained it to him (Ex. 12:26–27). The Hallel was sung, as well as Psalms 113 and 114, after which the second cup was drunk. Only then came the actual meal. At its conclusion the father of the house washed his hands, thanked God, and took a third cup. This was also blessed and was called “the cup of blessing” par excellence (1 Cor. 10:16). Finally, after this third cup was emptied by the guests, a fourth cup was poured. Again, the Hallel and Psalms 115–118 were sung. The father blessed this fourth cup with the words of Psalm 118:26, and one drank from it. Altogether, then, there were four cups.3

It is in this context that Jesus expresses His desire to celebrate the Passover meal once more with His disciples, just hours before His crucifixion (Luke 22:7–15). Ironically, the Jewish authorities intended to delay their plans to murder the true Passover Lamb until the Feast of Unleavened Bread had ended, lest an uproar break out (Matt. 26:5). In God’s wisdom, the death of Christ would coincide with the Passover feast, symbolically fulfilling all that the Passover meal represented.

Presumably, the disciples knew exactly what they were celebrating—this was the lifeblood of the Jewish liturgical calendar. They were in the appointed place, at the appointed time, when they received Jesus’ directive: “ ‘Go into the city to a certain man and say to him, “The Teacher says, My time is at hand. I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.” ’ And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover” (Matt. 26:18–19).

Jesus’ instituting words, “This is my body, which is for you,” introduces a dramatic switch in this historical Hebrew practice. He changes the words of the liturgy to figuratively associate His body with the bread and His blood with the wine (1 Cor. 11:25: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood”), since there had to be a visible sign to take the place of the lamb. As such, the customary cup now took on new significance; it represented the shedding of blood, the blood that Moses sprinkled on the people at the Sinai covenant ratification, saying, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Ex. 24:8).

Jesus supplies the primary purpose of this new covenant feast: “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25). Paul clarifies that this mandate has an expiration date: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (v. 26, emphasis added). Thus, the supper is “to be observed in his church, unto the end of the world, for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of himself in his death” (Westminster Confession of Faith 29.1). As such, it is for our sake, offering “spiritual nourishment and growth in him” (WCF 29.1), as we feed upon Christ “inwardly by faith” (WCF 29.7) and spiritually receive Christ and all of His benefits. The ascended Lord, the Lamb who was slain, is present with His people, causing them to feed upon Him by faith. To be sure, as Calvin noted, “he does not change his place, but communicates to us from heaven the virtue of his flesh, as though it were present.”4

This sacrament, which is to be celebrated until the second advent of Christ, is God’s tangible reminder to us that “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). We’re reminded that Christ’s blood protects us from the wages of our sin. Let us not neglect so great a salvation (Heb. 2:3), and let us not neglect or take lightly the sacred meal that communicates such benefits to us.

 

  1. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1938), 644. ↩︎
  2. The Passover meal, then, can justly be called the crescendo of the seven-day festival named the Feast of Unleavened Bread. When the Israelites were settled in the land and the Solomonic temple was constructed atop Mount Zion, the Passover was to be celebrated in a particular location—Jerusalem. ↩︎
  3. Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, trans. Annemie Godbehere et al. (Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham, 2012–16), 5:205. ↩︎
  4. John Calvin and John Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Bellingham, Wash.: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 1:382. ↩︎

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