Matthew 26: 17 - 29 Passover with Jesus1Corinthians 11: 23 - 2623 For I received from the Lord what I also handed
on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a
loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This
is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do
this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as
you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until
The Passover was instituted as a day of remembrance to be observed annually to perpetuate the tradition that the Lord delivered Israel from Egyptian exile and brought them to a land promised to them Exodus 13: 3-16. Would not this celebration have a special meaning for those actively resisting the Roman occupation in the first century? The celebration would take on this significance when those celebrating took the Romans as analogous to the Egyptians, as an alien power in the person of a god king. Jesus and John the Baptist's "kingdom of heaven" was a teaching in opposition to Herod's client kingdom and to Rome itself. We can discern a mix of nationalist resistance and religious tradition in the Jesus movement that we see in liberation movements throughout history and in the present. In this way, a Passover meal could be a type of political theater that looks forward to the defeat of the empire and liberation of the Jewish people. It would not have that meaning for the high priest of Herod's Temple, who was appointed by the Roman prelate. Herod the Great had been appointed King of the Jews by the Roman Senate, he was the Roman client king. The rebuilding of the Temple was one of his architectural projects and it was still under construction. This is the same Herod Matthew tells us ordered the massacre of the children after he was told of the birth of a Messiah, and it was his son Herod Antipater the gospels and Josephus tell us was worried enough about the influence of John the Baptist to have him killed. Herod Antipater was appointed by Caesar Augustus.
If we think of Herod and the Temple priests as representatives of a ruling class loyal to the Roman occupation, we can see a revolutionary context of the Passover as celebrated by Jesus and his followers. And when Jesus answered, "You say so" when Pilate asked him if he was the king of the Jews, he may have been wryly pointing out that this title was decided by the Romans.
The synoptic gospels tell the story of the last supper as a Passover meal, but don't identify Jesus with the slaughtered lamb, as one might expect, but with a loaf of bread and a cup of wine. The breaking of the bread recalls the feeding of the multitudes, as well as Jesus' warning about the "leavening of the Pharisees," and also his response to the temptor who told him he could break his wilderness fast by turning stones into bread. Some say that it is unthinkable that an observant Jew like Jesus would speak of drinking blood, even metaphorically, and that this story about the institution of the "Lord's Supper" was later inserted into a tradition about Jesus' last Passover with his disciples, but Paul drank the metaphorical blood. The first Christians continued to observe both Passover, and communion with bread and wine as well.
The part about the blood of the covenant refers back to Exodus 24: 3-8, when the Israelites collectively agreed to follow the Law given to Moses. For Paul, the death of the Messiah signalled a new relationship to that Law, through the spiritual (existential) transformation of those who are committed to Jesus' teaching to the point of identifying with his sacrifice. For Matthew's community the new covenant took the place of an entire meaning system whose collapse was dramatized by the destruction of the Temple and the holy city by the Romans during the war with the Jewish nationalists decades after Jesus' death.
During this meal Jesus claimed that all his disciples would desert him, and one would betray him. If the disciples were thinking of the Passover's revolutionary message, Jesus was telling them that they had to look at themselves, as well, as enemies of the Messiah.
Remember back in Matthew 20 when the mother of James and John asked a special favor of Jesus?
She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
24 When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”