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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : VII The Last Supper

The Life Of Jesus Of Nazareth by Rush Rhees

VII The Last Supper

189. On Thursday Jesus and his disciples returned to Jerusalem for the last time. Knowing the temper of the leaders, and the danger of arrest at any time, Jesus was particularly eager to eat the Passover with his disciples (Luke xxii.15), and he sent two of them -- Luke names them as Peter and John -- to prepare for the supper. In a way which would give no information to such a one as Judas, he directed them carefully how to find the house where a friend would provide them the upper room that was needed for an undisturbed meeting of the little band, and the two went on in advance to make ready. When the hour was come Jesus with the others went to the appointed place and sat down for the supper (Mark xiv.17; Luke xxii.14; Matt. xxvi.20).

190. The gospels all report the last evening which the little company spent together. There is a perplexing divergence, however, between John and the others concerning the relation of this supper to the feast of the Passover. In their introduction of the story, Mark and his companion gospels indicate that the supper which Jesus ate was the Passover meal itself. John, on the other hand, declares that it was |before the feast of the Passover| (xiii.1) that Jesus took this meal with his disciples. John's account is consistent throughout, for he states that on the next day the desire of the Jews to |eat the Passover| forbade them to enter the house of the governor lest they should incur defilement (xviii.28). The other gospels, moreover, hint in several ways that the day of Jesus' death could not have been the day after the Passover; that is, the first day of the feast of unleavened bread. Dr. Sanday has recently enumerated these afresh, remarking that |the Synoptists make the Sanhedrin say beforehand that they will not arrest Jesus 'on the feast day,' and then actually arrest him on that day; that not only the guards, but one of the disciples (Mark xiv.47), carries arms, which on the feast day was not allowed; that the trial was also held on the feast day, which would be unlawful; that the feast day would not be called simply Preparation (see Mark xv.42, and compare John xix.31); that the phrase 'coming from the field' (Mark xv.21 [Greek]) means properly 'coming from work;' that Joseph of Arimathea is represented as buying a linen cloth (Mark xv.46) and the women as preparing spices and ointments (Luke xxiii.56), all of which would be contrary to law and custom| (HastBD ii.634). In these particulars the first three gospels seem to confirm the representation of the fourth that the day of the last supper was earlier than the regular Jewish Passover. On the other hand, a strong argument, though one that has not commended itself to other specialists in Jewish archaeology, has been put forth by Dr. Edersheim (LJM ii.567f.) to prove that John also indicates that the last supper was eaten at the time of the regular Passover. In the present condition of our knowledge certainty is impossible. If John does differ from the others, his testimony has the greatest weight. While not conclusive, it has some significance that Paul identified Christ with the sacrifice of the passover (I. Cor. v.7), a statement which may indicate that he held that Jesus died about the time of the killing of the paschal lamb. If John be taken to prove that the last supper occurred a day before the regular Passover, Jesus must have felt that the anticipation was necessary in order to avoid the publicity and consequent danger of a celebration at the same time with all the rest of the city.

191. Whatever the conclusion concerning the date of the last supper, and consequently of the crucifixion, the last meal of Jesus with his disciples was for that little company the equivalent of the Passover supper. Luke states that the desire of Jesus had looked specially to eating this feast with his disciples (xxii.15). The reason must be found in his certainty of the very near end, and in his wish to make the meal a preparation for the bitter experiences which were overhanging him and them.

192. It is customary to connect as occasion and consequence the dispute concerning precedence which Luke reports (xxii.24-30), and the rebuke which Jesus administered by washing the disciples' feet (John xiii.1-20). The jealousies of the disciples may have arisen over the allotment of seats at the table, as Dr. Edersheim has most fully shown (LJM ii.492-503); such a controversy would be the natural sequel of earlier disputes concerning greatness, and particularly of the request of James and John for the best places in the coming kingdom (Mark x.35-45), and would lead as naturally to the distress of heart with which Jesus declared that one of the disciples should betray him, and that another of them should deny him. The narrative in Mark favors the withdrawal of Judas before the new rite was appointed. This must seem to be the probability in the case, for the presence of Judas would be most incongruous at such a memorial service. John's mention of his departure before the announcement of Peter's approaching fall confirms this interpretation of Mark (Mark xiv.18-21; John xiii.21-30).

193. The paschal memories furnished to Jesus an opportunity to establish for his disciples an institution which should symbolize the new covenant which he was soon to seal with his blood. Jesus regarded this new covenant as that which was promised by the prophets, especially Jeremiah (xxxi.31-34), and his thought, like that of the prophets, goes back to the story of the covenant established at Sinai (Ex. xxiv.1-11). In this way he gave to his disciples a conception of his death, which later, if not immediately, would help them to regard it as a necessary part of his work as Messiah. They were now oppressed by the evident certainty that the near future would bring their Master to death; he accordingly gave them a sacred reminder of himself and of his death as an essential part of his self-giving |for them;| for whatever the conclusion concerning the disputed text of Luke (xxii.19), the institutional character of the act and words of Jesus is clear. As Holtzmann remarks (NtTh i.304): |The words 'this do in remembrance of me' were perhaps not spoken; all the more certainly do they of themselves express what lay in the situation and made itself felt with incontestable conclusiveness.|

194. Several hints in the records seem to connect the meal in various details with what is known of ancient custom in the celebration of the Passover. The hymn with which according to Mark and Matthew the supper closed is easily identified with the last part (Psalms cxv. to cxviii.) of the so called Hallel, which was sung at the close of the Passover meal. The mention of two cups in the familiar text of Luke (xxii.17-20) agrees with the repeated cups of the Passover ritual; so also do the sop and the dipping of it with which Jesus indicated to John who the traitor was (John xiii.23-26; Mark xiv.20). If it could be proved that the customs recorded in the Talmud correctly represent the usage in Jesus' time it would be of extreme interest to seek to connect what is told us of the last supper with that Passover ritual as Dr. Edersheim has done (LJM ii.490-512). The antiquity of the rabbinic record is so uncertain, however, that it is only useful as showing what possibly may have been the case. All that can be asserted is that the rabbinic ritual probably originated long before it was recorded, and that as the last supper was a meal which Jesus and his disciples celebrated as a Passover, it is probable that some such ritual was more or less closely followed.

195. Luke and John give the fullest reports of what was said at the table. All the gospels tell of Peter's declaration of superior loyalty and the prediction of his threefold denial; Luke, however, adds that in connection with it Jesus assured Peter of his restoration, and charged him to strengthen his brethren (Luke xxii.31-34). John alone gives the long and full discourse of admonition and comfort, followed by Jesus' prayer for his disciples (xiii.31 to xvii.26). It is evident from the words of Jesus as he entered the garden of Gethsemane (Mark xiv.33, 34), as from those which had escaped him when the Greeks sought him the last day in the temple (John xii.27), that his own heart was greatly troubled during the supper by the apparent defeat which was now close at hand. His quietness and self-possession during the supper, particularly when tenderly reproving his disciples for petty ambition, or when solemnly dismissing the traitor, or warning Peter of his denials, must not blind us to the depth of the emotion which was stirring his own soul. It is only as we remember his trouble of heart that it is possible justly to value the ministry which in varied ways he rendered to his disciples that night. In the discourses reported by John he showed that he realized that the approaching separation would sorely try the faith of his followers, and he sought to strengthen them by showing his own calmness in view of it, and by promising them another who should abide with them spiritually as his representative, and continue for them the work which he had begun. He therefore urged them to maintain their devotion to him, still to seek and find the source of their life and secret of their strength in fellowship with him -- present, though unseen among them. He sought to convince them that his departure was to be for their advantage, that fellowship with him spiritually would be far more real and efficacious than the intercourse they had already enjoyed. He whose own heart was |exceeding sorrowful even unto death| bade his disciples not to let their hearts be troubled nor afraid. How long the conversation continued, of when the company left the upper chamber, cannot be told. At some time before the arrival at Gethsemane Jesus turned to God in prayer for the disciples whom he was about to leave to the severe trial of their faith, asking for them that realization of eternal life which he had enjoyed and exemplified in his own intimate life with his Father. With this his ministry to them closed for the time, and, crossing the Kidron, he entered the garden of Gethsemane weighed down by the sorrow of his own soul.

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