Read the passage here.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. It’s the season before Easter where, traditionally in the Christian church, we prepare ourselves for the death and resurrection of Christ – that is Easter. The 40 days of Lent recall the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness as a preparation for His ministry. As Jesus fasted 40 days, traditionally Lent is marked by fasting – usually of meat. But the point is reflection and preparation. We think about the sacrifice of Jesus, which reflect and is a culmination of God’s purposes to redeem humanity from our sin and restore creation to what God intended.
Over the past several years, we’ve worked our way through the Pentateuch, immersing ourselves in God’s story of redemption, understanding that we are part of that story. And as we’ve worked through the Gospel of Matthew, we’ve hopefully been seeing how that story culminates in the person and ministry of Jesus. And as we live our lives 2000 years after Jesus, we continue to try to live out that story as we look forward to God’s completion. God’s story of redemption continues to be worked out in us.
As we know, many years before the time of Jesus, the children of Abraham were slaves in Egypt. Since the time of Joseph and his brothers, sons of Jacob (who was also named Israel) and Abraham’s descendants, the people had been in Egypt, rescued by God from a severe famine. In that time, they grew numerous – so numerous that the Egyptians put them into slavery for fear that they would overrun the country.
God saw their suffering and determined to rescue them. God raised up a leader named Moses and sent him to Pharaoh to demand the release of the Israelites. Pharaoh refused. But after 9 divine signs, God told Moses that the Israelites would be freed after the tenth. So God, through Moses, told the Israelites to be ready for the tenth sign and their deliverance.
Exodus 12:1 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, 2 “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. 3 Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lambfor his family, one for each household. 4 If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. 5 The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. 6 Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. 7 Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. 8 That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. 9 Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. 10 Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. 11 This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.
12 “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. 13 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.
14 “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance…
[Moses to the leaders of the Israelites] 24 “Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. 25 When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. 26 And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ 27 then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” Then the people bowed down and worshiped. 28 The Israelites did just what the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron.
This is the festival of Passover that the people of Israel celebrated each year. It was an integral part of their sense of identity, as the people of God, because through it they remembered that God rescued them from slavery and formed them into a nation. It is a remembrance of the unique relationship between God and Israel; but more importantly (in my mind) it’s a reminder that God saves, God delivers, God redeems.
And it’s this festival, as we mentioned last week, that forms the backdrop of our passage today – indeed, that forms the backdrop of the entire crucifixion of Jesus. So it’s this that we have to keep in mind as we consider our passage today, Matthew 26:17-30.
As usual, there’s more to this passage than we can discuss today. In particular, the episode between Jesus and Judas deserves examination. But we talked about Judas last week – how Judas’ disappointed expectations of the Messiah might have led to his decision to betray Jesus. We shouldn’t ignore this part of the passage, but I want to focus on the relationship between the Last Supper and the Passover, so I’ll leave with you to reflect on the verses on Judas’ betrayal (vv. 20-25).
Carrying on, we see that in the opening verses of this episode (vv. 17-19) Matthew explicitly demonstrates that the context of the Last Supper is the Passover.
Mt. 26:17 On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”
18 He replied, “Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, ‘The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.’” 19 So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover.Matthew 26:17-19
The disciples, being good Jews, would have understood the importance of this meal – it was an integral part of their identity as people of God, the people of Israel. And as we have seen, God specifically commanded that the nation of Israel continue to observe the Passover. And, with respect to practices that developed over the century, they continued to do so. Jesus, also raised as a good Jew, would have been familiar with the normal practices of the Passover and its significance.
Again, the Passover was an important part of the Israelite identity. In many ways, it was the event that signified their birth as a people, as a nation.
The Passover marked the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. They were a people oppressed, a people who were suffering. And God saw their suffering and determined to deliver them.
But the Passover – that is, the deliverance of Israel – also reached back into history. Because God chose Israel and called Israel to be a blessing to all the nations. When God spoke to Abraham, he was speaking into a context where the people did not know God. Where “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). So when God spoke to Abraham and promised that, through him, God would create a nation – a people who would be blessed to be a blessing – God was speaking to His intention to redeem fallen humanity, fallen creation.
The Passover was an in-history, lived demonstration of that intention. The Passover was a concrete instance of God interceding in history to effect salvation (though of course, we can argue that God is concretely active in all of history).
And the thing about the Passover (though there are many things) is that God did it. God rescued Israel. God saved His people. Now certainly Moses participated in it. The leaders and people of Israel responded. But it was God’s activity. The 10 signs, if nothing else, should show us that it is God alone who is mighty to save.
And the Passover meal yearly reminds the people of that. It reminds the people that God, in His determination to save, instructed the Israelites to sacrifice a lamb, and mark the households of every Israelite with the blood. And the angel of God passed over all of the households that were marked as God’s. And the Passover meal reminds the people that this marked the beginning of their journey through the wilderness, where God made clear His intention to create a people by giving that people His law, the covenant Law.
So, yet again, this is the context. This is what’s going on when Jesus gathers His disciples together one last time. However, in this meal, Jesus does something different. Instead of pointing backwards to what God had done in Egypt, instead of pointing to the blood of the lamb which was painted on the doorframes, designating the Israelites as safe from God’s wrath, Jesus points forward. Jesus points toward the cross. We read:
26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”
27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of thecovenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”Matthew 26:26-29
Now this is important. Obviously, most of us will recognize this as important. But Jesus’ words here, “This is my blood of the covenant…” call back to Exodus 24. In Exodus 24, after Moses reads the words of the Covenant Law to the people, and they agree to obey the word of God, we get this:
3 When Moses went and told the people all the Lord’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the Lord has said we will do.” 4 Moses then wrote down everything the Lord had said.
He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the Lord. 6 Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he splashed against the altar. 7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.”
8 Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”Exodus 24:3-8
So the people are marked by blood, both in the saving and the keeping. It’s the blood on the door frames that saved the people from God’s wrath in Egypt. And it’s blood again that marks the people as participants in God’s covenant. And this is important because here, in Matthew, Jesus now says that this wine is “my blood of the covenant.” What constitutes the people of the New Covenant is now the blood of Jesus Christ – and as we now know, this symbol points towards the cross.
Most of us should know, and we will see again as we continue in Matthew, that this is the main thing – the cross of Christ. It’s through the cross that God demonstrates His love for us. It’s through the cross that we are redeemed from our sins – that which keeps us from God. It’s through the cross that we are formed as a people called according to His name.
In this Last Supper, Jesus points towards His death. The disciples maybe still don’t get it. But it’s unlikely they would have missed the connections (however strange to their ears) between what Jesus was saying and the Passover. And hopefully we can understand (as the disciples eventually would) that by setting in this in the context of Passover, Jesus re-defines what it means to be God’s people. Jesus connects His death with the redemption of God. And we are recipients of that. We are part of the New Covenant. What the Passover anticipates, Jesus fulfills. So perhaps the Last Supper is better understood as the First? Because as Jesus did with the disciples, we continue to do.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. And as we’ve said, we are going to be celebrating communion each Sunday over the next several weeks leading up to Easter. Prior to the pandemic, here at Grace we have typically celebrated communion monthly. And this is a pretty common practice among Protestant churches. But maybe it’s not such a great practice. I’ve heard a variety of reasons why communion is not celebrated more regularly. I’ve been a part of churches that only do it a few times a year (and I’ve been part of a church that did it weekly). But perhaps we have something to learn from the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox who celebrate communion weekly (or more). Because in communion, we remember the Lord’s death. We remember that it’s by the blood of Jesus that we have life. We remember that who we are as the people of God is solely because of what God has done through Jesus Christ.