Toward a Better Understanding of Passover
Part 12 - Last Supper a Passover?
by: Jim Rector
Was the Last Supper a Passover meal? The question may not be the easiest to answer. First of all, it definitely took place during the Passover season. The 14th day was considered a part of the spring Festival each year by the Jews of that time. We know, for a fact, however, that it occurred prior to the slaying of the lambs and the official commencement of Passover. John’s gospel account shows this very clearly when he discusses the trial of Yahshua. Notice the following proof:
“Then led they Jesus from Caiaphas unto the hall of judgment, and it was early (early morning of the 14th day); and they (Jewish leaders) themselves went not into the judgment hall, lest they should be defiled (made ceremonially unclean); but that they MIGHT EAT THE PASSOVER” (Jn. 18:28).
This commentary fits in perfectly with the festival timing that we have been covering. In the early morning hours of the 14th day, while Yahshua was being tried and falsely accused, the Passover lambs were yet to be slain, and the paschal meal was future still. John makes another statement to this effect as well. Several hours later that morning, as Christ was appearing before Pilate, we read:
“When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he brought forth Jesus, and sat down in the judgment seat in a place that is called the Pavement, but in the Hebrew, Gabbatha. And it was the PREPARATION OF THE PASSOVER, and about the sixth hour; and he said unto the Jews, Behold, your King! But they cried out, Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him” (Jn. 19:13-15).
This too lines up well with the correct chronology of events regarding Passover. In every case, the New Testament confirms the Old in calling the 14th day of Nisan the day of the preparation of the Passover.
So, armed with these facts, what are we to make of the Last Supper itself? There are certain factors that seem related to a Passover seder. There was a meal involved. There was bread and wine. Some think that the sop Christ gave to Judas may be a reference to the bitter herbs commanded to be eaten at the Passover meal.
It is certainly possible that the Last Supper could have been a Passover type of event. In the first century, Jewish law actually permitted the eating of the Passover on the beginning of the 14th day under certain circumstances. Whether or not Christ took advantage of this technicality is difficult to know.
It is unquestionable that the Last Supper transpired before the Feast of the Passover. Once again, John makes this very plain by saying:
“Now BEFORE THE FEAST OF THE PASSOVER, when Jesus knew that His hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end” (Jn. 13:1).
Of course, the account continues on immediately to the Last Supper scene, where Christ rises from the meal and washes the disciples’ feet.That the setting in John 13 is the same as the synoptic gospel accounts of the Last Supper is incontestable.A full meal is involved in all four cases. The same language is employed in all the descriptions with respect to Christ knowing that His hour had come. The same people are involved in all four accounts. Judas is particularly prominent in each of the gospel narratives of the Last Supper , being pointed out clearly by the Messiah as His betrayer.And in all four records, the prediction of Peter’s three denials is stated.
Clearly there are aspects of the four accounts that include information particular to the individual writer’s inclination and objective. John especially relates much more of what transpired that night than any of the other gospel writers. None of this, however, forms any kind of basis for assuming that all four accounts of the Last Supper are in agreement.
With this in mind, notice a oft-overlooked and very telling piece of evidence in the book of John. As the apostle summarizes his account of that evening, he refers to Christ giving the sop to Judas Iscariot, thus denoting the one who will betray Him. Now notice the following information:
“When Jesus had thus said, He was troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray Me . . . He then lying on Jesus bosom says unto Him, Lord, who is it? Jesus answered, He it is to whom I shall give a sop when I have dipped it. And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. And after the sop Satan entered into him. Then said Jesus unto him, That which you will do, do quickly. Now no man at the knew for what intent He spoke this unto him. For some of them thought, because Judas had the bag, that Jesus had said unto him, BUY those things that we have need of FOR THE FEAST . . . He then, having received the sop, went out immediately, and it was night” (Jn. 13:21-29).
This passage confirms the truth of when this supper actually occurred. If the 14th day had been a holyday or high Sabbath, none of the disciples would have mistakenly thought that Yahshua would ask Judas to go and buy food for the Feast. Although it may not apply to many from our background, there are those who believe that this meal occurred on the evening of the 15th in accordance with the correct time for actually eating the Passover. But for the very same reason, this cannot be either, because then the 15th would have been a holyday and the Christ’s words to Judas would not have been so misunderstood by the disciples. No, this event had to occur at the beginning of the 14th, in the evening, and furthermore the 14th day could not be an annual holyday. There would have then been ample time for Judas to have made purchases before the onset of the Feast and the first holyday of Unleavened Bread. So the statement in John’s account makes a lot of sense, and completely agrees with his other comments with respect to the Passover still being a future event.
In gathering and eating this final meal with His disciples early on the 14th day, before His approaching death, was Christ meaning to change the timing of Passover, or are there any instructions from Him that He was setting an annual date for this occasion to be held by His followers thereafter? Frankly, there is absolutely no evidence that anything of the kind happened. The disciples clearly were anticipating the Feast of Unleavened Bread or Passover, as the whole time period was often called. It is clear that they knew it was still in the future. They had to know that they were not eating the sacrificial lamb that night, because those animals had not yet even been offered and would not be until the next afternoon.
Although there may be certain aspects of that evening’s experience that could be seen as related to a Jewish seder, there is no doubt that the Last Supper was held prior to the Passover. If one wishes to say that Christ and the disciples were eating a type or kind of Passover, or that, because of the fact the Messiah would be dying soon, He purposely observed Passover a day early this one time, it really doesn’t make that much difference. No matter what was happening, we can know for a fact that the lambs were to be slain the following afternoon, and that by far the most significant thing is that Yahshua would become the ultimate Passover Lamb by dying at precisely the right time! Nothing can or ever will change that.
While it is true that Christ told the disciples to prepare the Passover, and that He said, “With desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer,” but neither of those statements need confuse the issue at hand. If indeed this Last Supper should be interpreted as an early Passover meal held by the Savior in anticipation of His forthcoming death, or if we are to see in this event simply the final gathering of Christ and the disciples before the Passover, these statements can still be correctly understood in their proper light. When He said that He desired to eat this Passover with the disciples, it could easily be a reference to the entire Festival of Passover or the Days of Unleavened Bread. And, in fact, after His resurrection, there is no doubt that Christ did continue to meet and keep the remainder of the Passover feast with His disciples, and probably in the very same place that had been prepared earlier. It is also possible that His statement may have been said in the manner of a wish – a wish that He could eat that particular Passover with them, but knowing that He would become the Passover and die, He could not.