The most fundamental truth of Christianity is that Jesus, who is God in the flesh, died and was resurrected to redeem humanity from the slavery of sin and death.
One of the easiest things to determine in the New Testament is the “season” of Jesus’ death. All four of the Gospels spell out that Jesus died during the Passover season. He apparently died at the time the Passover lambs were being slain at the Temple in Jerusalem, 3:00 pm on the 14th day of the first month of the Jewish calendar. For Christians, Jesus was the ultimate Passover lamb, whose blood enables us to be released from the clutches of sin and its ultimate result: death.
Oddly enough, the order that things happened in during Jesus’ final “passover” meal with His disciples is not easy to determine. The eyewitnesses seem to disagree if the taking of the bread and wine occured before or after the meal. Only one account of the washing of feet occurs, in John 13:12-20. As Jesus was getting his disciples settled in for the meal, there seems to have been a big debate among them over who would be the greatest in the Kingdom (Luke 22:24-30). This seems to have been the natural trigger for Jesus’ to wash the disciples’ feet and teach them about how to be greatest in the Kingdom by service to one another.
Why a Passover meal to signify freedom from sin?
Many Old Testament prophets used the original Exodus from Egypt as the analogical lens through which the salvation of Israel from the foreign oppression initiated by Babylon would reach its ultimate end. There is not space here to discuss this in detail, but look up Deut. 30:1-10 (a return to both the land and the law of God), Jeremiah 31:16-17, 31-34 (notice that the return and the new covenant are linked, including the language of exodus in v. 32). The point is that Jesus wanted to make this “passover meal” (one night before the Jewish celebration, for obvious reasons), his “last supper” a celebration of the freedom from sin that makes the “new covenant” possible. God’s grace released the Israelites from Egyptian slavery so that they could enter covenant with Him.
There were many symbols that any Israelite would recognize from the time of the Exodus. The preeminent one is the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts, to “seal” each Israelite home against the predations of the death angel. Another is the “manna,” a supernatural bread from heaven that fed them in the wilderness until the actually entered the Promised Land. A third is the pillar that was cloud by day and fire by night. These combine into metaphor for complete salvation: a powerful liberative act, followed by a sustaining food and a protective presence throughout the long deliverance process.
The bread represents the ancient manna, corresponding to Jesus’ presence in our lives through the Holy Spirit (which also represents the “pillars of fire” seen on the disciples at Pentecost). Jesus himself is our sustenance in the trying times until he finally establishes his universal rule on earth at his return.
In ancient times, covenants were ratified with a blood sacrifice. As Jesus prepares to celebrate his last supper with his disciples, he passes a cup of wine among the believers, saying that it represents “my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24 NRSV). This phrase echoes Exodus 24:8, at the time God spoke to them at Mt. Sinai. Moses says, after a sacrifice, “See, the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
Make no mistake. When you go through the waters of baptism in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, you are entering a covenant, not a country club for retired sinners. A covenant entails both priviliges and responsibilities. That night, Jesus was preparing them for the responsibilites. Serving one another in love is part of the responsibility of being in covenant with Jesus. Proclaiming Jesus as Lord is another. Enduring tribulation for Jesus’ sake is yet another. You can find all of that in Jesus’ Passover address to his disciples as recorded in John 13-16.
There will be more about Jesus’ Final Passover in the next post.