Thursday, March 20, 2008

The meaning of the last supper

Today is Maundy Thursday, the anniversary of when Jesus celebrated the Passover with His disciples the night before His crucifixion.

This message is to share with you some thoughts on the origin and meaning of the "bread and wine" symbolism used at the last supper, especially in the context of first century Judaism.

For some further information on the events of the last supper see my article "The Night He Was Betrayed" which has been reproduced here.

During Jesus' last meal with His disciples He prayed over bread and wine and said “This is my body” and “This is my blood” (Matthew 26:26–28; Mark 14:22–24; Luke 22:19–20). For many Christians, especially Gentile (non-Jewish) believers, that could only mean that Jesus referred to himself: Bread and wine were tokens of Jesus body and blood. To many Christians later in history these words would mean that the bread and wine literally became His body and blood when believers consumed them.

The traditional understanding of the bread and wine, known in many churches as Eucharist, and to Christadelphians as "the emblems", is that Jesus was telling His followers to eat bread and drink wine as if they were his own flesh and blood. The celebration of "Holy Communion" or "breaking bread" was to be a memorial of Jesus' voluntary death as a sacrifice offered for the sins of mankind. The bread and wine were intended to be visible reminders of His body which was nailed to the cross and His blood which was shed there.

But is that plausible within the context of first century Judaism? What Jew would tell another to drink blood, even symbolic blood? The thought of drinking blood, even animal blood, was blasphemous. To imagine drinking human blood and consuming it with human flesh could only make the blasphemy worse. Yet there is no hint in the accounts of the last supper that Jesus' disciples were shocked or even puzzled by this saying.

So what did Jesus mean?

In earlier messages I've emphasised the importance of the meal table in Jesus' teachings. In contrast to the meals of the Pharisees in which only the ritually pure could participate and from which the blind, crippled and diseased were excluded together with the "sinners" (including those with heretical doctrines), Jesus was welcoming and inclusive. He taught "when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind" (Lk 14:12). He ate with "sinners" and refused to wash His hands after being in contact with common people and before eating.

Jesus’ meals were also meant to be a taste of the kingdom to come. The prophets taught that in the kingdom to come God would "share His table" with "all peoples" on his holy mountain (e.g. Isaiah 25:6–8). Jesus shared that hope:

“Many shall come from east and west, and feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 8:11; Luke 13:28–29)

Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus’ meals were inclusive. He avoided any exclusive practices that would divide the people of God from one another and accepted all the people of God at His table, including tax agents and other suspicious characters, and even notorious sinners. The meal for him was a sign of the kingdom of God and everyone was to have access to it.

It's important that we see the last supper not only in the context of Jesus teaching about the Kingdom of God, but also in the immediate context. Jesus had just created a furor at the Temple by driving out the animals being sold for sacrifices, and the money-changers. He objected to merchants selling sacrificial animals in the vast outer court of the Temple (and no doubt He objected even further to the fact that the chief priests were making a personal fortune from this trade).

The Gospels record several dramatic moments when Jesus challenged religious practices:

1. His first recorded miracle was to convert water used for ritual purification into wine which was to be drunk in celebration (John 2:1-11. Note especially verse 6).

2. He declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19)

3. By refusing to wash His hands before a meal He declared all people clean. In other words, there was no need to wash away their 'contamination' before He could eat. (Luke 11:37-40; Matt 15:2; Mark 7:1-4).

4. He worked on the Sabbath (John 5:16-18).

5. By driving sacrificial animals from the Temple courts He declared an end to animal sacrifices.

To the priests and the religious authorities this last action was the most radical of them all, and threatened their livelihood.

Soon after this “cleansing” of the Temple, Jesus again celebrated a meal as a foretaste of the kingdom, just as he had before. But he added a new dimension of meaning, related to His actions at the Temple. Jesus said over the wine, “This is my blood,” and over the bread, “This is my flesh”.

In the context of His actions at the Temple, Jesus’ words can have had only one meaning. He cannot have meant, “This is my own body and blood”; that would have been shocking and would have been understood as blasphemous. Jesus’ point was that, as true worship and sacrifice could not be practiced at the Temple it was no longer possible or necessary to perform animal sacrifices. The common elements of a meal were to be the new 'offerings' to God: wine would replace the blood of sacrifice, and bread would replace the flesh of sacrifice. These were His substitutes for the animal sacrifices at the Temple. When he said, “This is my blood, this is my flesh,” he meant that the wine and bread were replacing the blood and flesh of animals being sacrificed at the Temple.

Jesus was in effect saying that by sharing meals in anticipation of the kingdom, He and his followers offered more acceptable worship than what was offered in the Temple. The wine was better blood, the bread better flesh, than Temple sacrifices that were being controlled by the religious authorities to line their own pockets.

No where else does Jesus speak of His own death as an 'atonement'. In sharing bread and wine at the last supper He is not speaking of His own death as a human sacrifice. We should remember too that this was Passover and Paul makes a connection with the timing and speaks of Jesus as "Christ our Passover lamb" (1 Cor 5:7). But the Passover lamb was not offered as an atonement or as a sacrifice for sin. It was not a sin offering. Every part of the lamb was to be consumed in a meal in which everyone was to participate: the whole family together with neighbours. There had to be enough people present to ensure that nothing was left over (Exodus 12:4, 10). This was a festive meal, a celebration of freedom. People often confuse the Passover lamb with the sin offerings and think of "Christ our Passover lamb" as a sacrifice for sins. This has led to further confusion about the meaning of the "body" and "blood" references during the last supper.

For many Christians, including Christadelphians, the primary focus of Communion is on the death of Christ as an atonement for sins. This is especially so in relation to the communion 'cup' as a symbol of shed blood. However, it's important to note that the Passover lamb was not sacrificed as an atonement, and Jesus' reference to the wine as a symbol of blood was to the "blood of the covenant". Sacrifice in confirmation of a covenant was never for atonement.

Jesus is, however, saying that this is a radical change in the way God is to be worshipped. He says of the wine: “This is my blood of the covenant.” (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24. Compare Luke 22:20 and 1 Corinthians 11:25, which speaks of “new covenant.”)

When Jesus referred to His blood as 'the blood of the [new] covenant', He was referring to the sacrifice which sealed a covenant. He is undoubtedly linking the blood with which Moses sealed the covenant in Exodus 24:8 and the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34. The words in Jeremiah refer to the community of God's people receiving God's law in their hearts and minds and is contrasted with the exodus from Egypt which was being celebrated at that time in the Passover meal ("It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt"). Jesus undoubtedly had Jeremiah's words in mind at this Passover-celebration from Egypt, and Jeremiah revealed that the new covenant will be different to the old, as the new community of the covenant-people will be different from the old community. The emphasis again is on the Kingdom which Jesus is inaugurating.

For Jesus the 'last supper' was the first of a new type of Passover - a remembrance of the deliverance from the bondage of sin and the institution of the new covenant and a new community of covenant-people. The Kingdom of God had come and this meal was a foretaste of the Messianic banquet of which he had spoken so many times.


Steve said...

The picture in this message is
"The Last Supper" by the Italian artist Fra Angelico (1387–1455). A prior of the monastery of San Marco in Florence ("Fra" means brother), Fra Angelico set the New Testament scene in his own realm, amid columns and arches reminiscent of a Renaissance church. For Fra Angelico, Jesus is more like an abbot with his monks than a Galilean rabbi with his disciples.

In his painting, Fra Angelico links Jesus' offering with an Old Testament vision. The banner above the scene quotes Ezekiel 39:17, in which God tells the, birds and the beasts that they will consume Israel's enemies: "I will prepare for you a sacrifice on the mountain so you may eat flesh and drink blood." The New Testament words "the one who consumes my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life" (John 6:54) appear below.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your continuing articles Steve, where you set out so clearly the cultural background to the events that have become so ritualised within Christianity, and around which we CD's have tried to build so much of our religious experience.

I cannot begin to tell you how far my thinking has shifted in relation to the Memorial Meeting, and the Bread and the Wine, over the last 30 or so years.

I once used to view the MM as some kind of "absolution" for sins committed, and the Bread and the Wine as being [almost magic... certainly mystical] in somehow removing the blots from my 'sullied garments'.

For a long time now, I have resisted the temptation to bring my 'load of sins' on Sunday to 'dump' at the Table [as if the Table were some kind of alter of Atonement] preferring to deal with sins and shortcomings as soon as they occur, and 'on my knees' and with Jesus as my friend, seeking guidance, wisdom and strength to overcome.

Until now, the words, "This is my Flesh, this is my Blood" have deeply puzzled me [taken alone, the words are most perplexing, given how we feel about 'drinking blood' and 'eating human flesh'].

The information you have just shared with us brings those words into a new light, and a deeper meaning. Of course, Breaking Bread is a Jewish idiom for simply having a meal.

How utterly wrong we CD's have been over the years to then use the 'Lord's meal table' to which all sorts and everyone have been invited, as some sort of control mechanism, almost as a weapon, to try and control those who [we feel] should not be part of "the Group." [After all, in our "CD culture", our salvation depends on our having kept as 'pure a group' as possible... especially when it comes to our understanding of "the Truth" and especially "the Atonement."] {I have even heard it seriously suggested, that CD's MUST be right on the Atonement, for we are the only religion that sees the Atonement in the way that we do!}

Atonement = "At-one-ment"... Jesus used His meal table to break down social and religious and cultural barriers, yet the very simplicity of Jesus' meal messages appear to have been so totally lost on our community.

Even today, we hear of leadership in some CD Meetings seeking to persuade their members to disassociate from other meetings... meaning that they will no longer share the Lord's meal table with them. As part of "policing" this practice, it has been proposed that certain visitors between meetings will be intercepted at the door and interviewed as to their understanding of certain documents created by fallible men to determine their fitness to come in and to "take the emblems" (?)

Worse, we know of at least one recent case when a notable Brother visiting from overseas came to a certain city, letters were sent out discouraging the members of a certain meeting from even attending the combined Memorial Meeting at which our erstwhile Brother was going to be speaking.

Does our community really believe in guilt by associaton? Does the Bible teach this somewhere? Did someone forget to tell Jesus about guilt by association?

How will we explain to the Lord, that we used the very instrument He gave us for reconciliation and Christian living and togetherness, as an instrument to "keep the Truth pure?"

Thank you Steve.... Bread and Wine.... very practical "symbols" of a better way to draw closer to God and with all His people.

Just as the priests ate of the sacrifices being offered to God under the Old Covenant, so now we, as New Covenant "Priests and Levites" all get to eat at a meal prepared in memory of the one who so loved us, that He was prepared to die, so that we could all live together.... as ONE, in Him, in Love.

Let the Sonshine keep shining in, Steve.
Many Thanks for this blog.

Unknown said...

I am not satisfied that as Christians we fully understand the significance of the wine and the bread that Jesus referred to at the table of the Last Supper.

How can the eating of physical bread and drinking of wine made from the grape help us to grow spiritually? We are supposed to be strengthened spiritually by studying and meditating on the Scriptures that were inspired by God.

These Scriptures referred to as the WORD of GOD are the only means of getting to know the standards and principles of God that we are all required to live by and to build a RELATIONSHIP with HIM.

We can eat bread made from wheat and drink the wine of grapes and still do not know God or have a close relationship with HIM. I suggest that the breaking of bread and the drinking of wine that Jesus was referring to is the studying and meditating on HIS Word/ HIS Standards/ HIS Principles when we are alone, when we meet or fellowship together. This reminds us of HIM and why HE was crucified. This is the only way to KNOW HIM.

If there is another way please educate me Saints.