Our Lord’s last meal as a mortal stands out in gospel history as the initiation of events so great in magnitude that every human soul—living, dead, or yet unborn—would come to depend on Jesus the Messiah for immortality and exaltation. The timing for this significant event was the choice of the Master Teacher.
The Last Supper was not only outstanding as a new sacrament. It was also the fulfillment of more than a thousand years of promises repeated and prayed for every year during the Passover service since the days of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. The more we understand and appreciate the Passover service as the Jews observed it in Jesus’ day, the more deeply we can understand our sacramental covenants and marvel anew at the infinite love and sacrifice of our Brother, the Lord Jesus Christ.
As God of the Old Testament, Jehovah specifically commanded his newly freed children to remember their deliverance from Egypt:
“And ye shall observe the feast of unleavened bread; for in this self-same day have I brought your armies out of the land of Egypt: therefore shall ye observe this day in your generations by an ordinance forever. …
“And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service?
“That ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses.” (Ex. 12:17, 26–27.)
By instituting the Passover service, the Lord ensured that his idolatrous children would be better prepared for their spiritual king.
The Passover celebrated Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian bondage. Through his prophet Moses, the Lord displayed his power by a series of plagues. To prepare for the last plague, the awful death of every firstborn of every unprotected household, the Lord commanded each family to sacrifice a perfect, unblemished lamb:
“Ye shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood that is in the bason, and strike the lintel and the two side posts with the blood that is in the bason; and none of you shall go out at the door of his house until the morning.
“For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when he seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you.” (Ex. 12:22–23.)
During that night of deliverance, Israelite families feasted on the meal of the sacrificial lamb and unleavened bread, for they had no time in their urgent haste to wait for leavened bread to rise. (See Ex. 12:39.)
Throughout the 3,000-year history of the Passover ceremony, very little of it has changed. The basic symbols present in the biblical Passover service remain to this day, and the order of service and the meaning of the symbolic menu are the same. Only speaking parts for the children have been added to the Haggadah (the Passover script) to help teach them about the Exodus, and two extra symbolic foods were included in the Seder plate after the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.1 We can ponder the Last Supper, then, in light of this Passover tradition, keeping in mind that the Lord himself established the sacred observance, later to fulfill it and reestablish it as the sacrament.
On the first day of Passover, the Lord sent two of his disciples to locate and prepare a place where he and his disciples could celebrate the Passover. (See Mark 14:12–15.)
The two disciples sent to prepare for the Seder were directed to an upper chamber. While there, they probably inspected the room to make certain it was scrupulously clean. Even today, as the eve of Passover approaches, spring-cleaning is part of every faithful Hebrew’s religious regime.2
The Savior may have carried this tradition to his Father’s house, the temple. He began his public ministry during a Passover celebration by cleansing the temple of money-changers and thieves. (See John 2:15.) He ended his ministry in like manner: After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, amid adoring acclamations of Passover crowds, he again cleared the temple of nonsacred activities. (See Matt. 21:12.) On both occasions, he beckoned the spiritually hungry crowds into the now-clean sanctuary and healed the sick, preached the gospel, and prophesied of his death, resurrection, and second coming.
Mark records that on “the first day of unleavened bread … they killed the passover.” (Mark 14:12.) During the afternoon of the first day of Passover, a senior member of the household customarily took an unblemished lamb to the temple as an offering. The lamb was killed by a priest, then returned to the bearer for the Passover meal.3 For the meat to be fit for the Seder, a priest had to sacrifice the animal in the temple.
This requirement helps to explain why historians reported such large crowds in Jerusalem during Passover week. (Josephus records 256,500 for a single Passover.)4 Out of tradition and religious belief, these tremendous crowds came to Jerusalem, where they had their lambs sacrificed in the temple. By law, these lambs had to be slain within a two-hour period (approximately 3:00 to 5:00 P.M.). This was possible to do because it had become the custom to perform these sacrifices on two successive days.5
If the Savior ate his Passover meal on the first of these two days (which seems to be the case, according to Mark’s chronology), then on the following day, the day of his crucifixion, “our Lord, the real sacrifice of which all earlier altar victims had been but prototypes, died on the cross while the passover lambs were being slain at the temple.”6
The Savior’s identity with the sacrificial lamb is extensively verified throughout scripture, ancient and modern. Isaiah prophesied, “He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter.” (Isa. 53:7.)
Peter proclaimed: “Ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things … but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world.” (1 Pet. 1:18–20.)
Mormon cried out, “O then ye unbelieving, turn ye unto the Lord; cry mightily unto the Father in the name of Jesus, that perhaps ye may be found spotless, pure, fair, and white, having been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, at that great and last day.” (Morm. 9:6.)
Only the sinless, unblemished Messiah could redeem us from our sins and placate the harsh demands of justice. Like the children of Israel, we, too, can be saved from the destroyer by the blood of the Lamb if we will but “strike it upon the lintel and upon the doorposts” of our lives through repentance.
The fruit of the vine—wine or grape juice—served two separate purposes during the ancient Seder service. It serves the same purpose today. The first glass symbolizes rejoicing for freedom won. A blessing is pronounced on the wine or grape juice:
“Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who created the produce of the vine. Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has … sanctified us with His Commandments. And Thou hast given us, O Lord our God, in love, … the Festival of Matzot [unleavened bread], the season of our freedom … and hast given us for our inheritance Your appointed holy times in rejoicing and gladness.”7
The Messiah did not bless this first cup in the traditional manner. Instead, he “took the cup, and gave thanks, and 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.)
There would be no joy for the Savior until his mission on earth was completed, until he returned a glorified, resurrected being who had conquered all things in behalf of his sin-bound brothers and sisters.
As part of the Passover preparation, the upper chamber would have been purged of leaven (yeast). No products containing leaven could be present anywhere in the house.8
The eating of unleavened bread, or matza, has always been a distinguishing feature of the Passover. In fact, the scripture often calls the celebration the “Feast of Unleavened Bread.” (See Ex. 12:17; Matt. 26:17.) Today, as anciently, members of the household comb the entire house the evening before Seder, looking for any crumbs of bread or bottles of yeast-fermented beverage. The pile of leavened products are then taken from the home and burned. For an entire week, the only bread that can be eaten is matza.
The Lord expressly commanded this part of the Passover:
“Seven days … ye shall eat nothing leavened; in all your habitations shall ye eat unleavened bread.” (Ex. 12:19–20.)
Paul elaborated on the meaning of leaven in the Passover when he wrote: “Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?
“Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us:
“Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Cor. 5:6–8.)
Did the Lord break unleavened or leavened bread when he introduced the sacrament? In the Greek manuscripts, the word azumos is used when speaking of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the word artos is used when describing the bread used in the Last Supper. The use of either type of bread would have been consistent with the Master’s teaching style of traditional Hebrew observance and symbolic innovation. Had he broken matza, he would have conformed to Passover ritual yet imbued matza with a new meaning. Had he broken a new loaf of leavened bread, he would have dramatically illustrated the new leaven of salvation, which he introduced into the world:
“Another parable spake he unto them; the Kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.” (Matt. 13:33.)
Just as the bread represented Christ and his atoning sacrifice, his disciples were to spread his message of salvation. They were to act as leavening agents, themselves empowered by the new leaven of the gospel.
As he does today after cleansing his hands, the Seder leader anciently gave thanks to God, blessed the matza, and passed it around for others to eat.9Matza was the symbol of freedom, the Israelites having left Egypt so hurriedly that bread could not properly rise.
The Lord added new meaning to the symbolic bread when 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.” (Luke 22:19.)
The bread still represents freedom—freedom from death and sin—but it also represents the medium through which that freedom is won. Likewise, when we take the sacramental bread, we are symbolically making the Savior a part of us, of our lives. Jesus is the bread of our lives, the only means of redemption. Jesus often referred to himself as the bread of life during his ministry. (See John 6:47–51.)
In the Seder, when all have eaten a portion of matza, the leader traditionally tells the story of the Exodus, pausing four times during his narrative to bless the fruit of the vine and to pray for fulfillment of divine promises:
“Save us, O Lord, we pray thee. We pray thee, O Lord, prosper us … May the All-Merciful make us worthy to see the days of the Messiah, and the life of the World to come. ‘He is a tower of salvation to His King and shows kindness to His anointed, to David and to his seed forever.’ He who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace for all of us and for all Israel. And say, Amen!”10
Again, the Lord departed from tradition by augmenting the meaning of the wine or grape juice: “This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.” (Luke 22:20.)
The promises were fulfilled that night through the shedding of the blood of God’s own beloved Son. The juice no longer represented anticipatory promises but promises faithfully kept.
“And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it.” (Ex. 12:8.)
It is customary at this point in the Passover service to eat bitter herbs, such as horseradish or green onions, representing the bitterness of bondage. Very often, crushed herbs (marror) are eaten on matza, along with haroset (a mixture of apples, nuts, and spiced sauce). Haroset represents the mortar that the Israelites used for making bricks.11
Though scripture does not specifically mention this tradition, Jesus may have followed this well-established pattern. It is worth noting that, at the time when Jesus and his disciples would have been eating this unpleasant part of the meal—immediately following the blessing on the juice—Jesus became deeply “troubled in spirit.” As they ate, the Savior testified, “Behold, the hand of him that betrayeth me is with me on the table.” (Luke 22:21; see Matt. 26:21.)
The Lord had washed the feet of Judas Iscariot as lovingly as he had washed the feet of all the others. He had offered Judas the emblems of eternal life, a supreme gift of love. Knowing that this Apostle had eaten to his own damnation, the Lord probably could not have helped feeling utter sadness as he contemplated the loss and betrayal of one he loved.
Complementing bitter herbs are dishes of salt water, into which diners dip greens (karpas), such as lettuce or onion stems. Salt water represents the tears of slavery.12
We can find only a hint that Jesus and his disciples followed this custom. After Jesus declared that a traitor was present, his disciples began speculating about who could be the guilty one. “And they were exceedingly sorrowful, and began every one of them to say unto him, Lord is it I?
“And he answered and said, He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me.” (Matt. 26:22–23.)
The bitterness and tears of spiritual bondage, in contrast with the joyful gladness of freedom, could not be better illustrated.
Those who choose to follow the Savior partake of the joy and redemption that can come only from the Lord’s atoning sacrifice, represented by the fruit of the vine and by life-giving bread. Those who reject Him partake of misery and spiritual enslavement, as represented by bitter herbs and salt water.
Following the symbolic meal of the Exodus, Jesus and his disciples would have begun to eat a feast,13 which anciently included the sacrificial lamb. After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, however, Jewish families refrained from eating roasted meat so as to avoid the sacrilege of eating unfit meat (meat that could not be prepared in the temple). A roasted shank-bone was added to the Seder plate to symbolize the Passover lamb.14
At this time in the Seder, the Passover leader typically comments on the theme of freedom. (Modern rabbis often quote rabbinical proverbs or discuss historical events, like the Holocaust, the Russian persecution, or the state of Israel.) John recorded the most magnificent Passover discourse in the history of mankind, which began shortly after the feast. (See John 13–17.)
The Lord prefaced his discourse by washing the feet of his Apostles, usually a token of honor a host bestowed on esteemed guests.15 The Savior thus tenderly exemplified the high virtues of a Master who served, a Master who loved. (See John 13:12–15.)
Following this act of love, the Lord expressed love for his Apostles throughout the rest of the evening, admonishing them to follow his example:
“As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. …
“This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.” (John 15:9, 12.)
The Savior dwelt on the message of love, predicted the circumstances of his own death, comforted the Apostles with the assurance that he would return, explained the role of the Holy Ghost, and offered an intercessory prayer to God on behalf of “his own, which were in the world.” (John 13:1; see John 13–17.)
These same messages should permeate our thoughts as we ponder the Savior’s life and mission during our sacramental prayers.
“And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives.” (Mark 14:26.)
The Seder service traditionally ends with songs of praise and freedom.16
What hymn did the Savior of mankind sing on his way to Gethsemane? Here the scriptures are silent. Perhaps it was the Hallel, the name given to Psalms 113–18 [Ps. 113–118], which Israel sang at the great feasts. Or perhaps it was Psalm 136 [Ps. 136], known as the “great Hallel.”17 Family circles at the Passover and in the temple recited these psalms. All of them are hymns of praise and thanksgiving for the Lord’s might and deliverance. Psalm 118 [Ps. 118] is a messianic hymn reflecting upon the Savior’s redemption of mankind from physical and spiritual death. Psalm 116 [Ps. 116] also speaks of deliverance from death.
Hundreds of Passover hymns have since been composed and sung over the centuries—some biblical, others rabbinical, others written by modern psalmists. During this Passover season, millions of Jewish families will sing one such hymn:
Therefore, let us rejoice
At the wonder of our deliverance
From bondage to freedom,
From agony to joy,
From mourning to festivity,
From darkness to light,
Before God let us ever sing a new song.18