This year at BBC, we plan to do something we have never done before: to begin our Easter weekend at its true beginning, which is Thursday evening.
The Gospels, as has been well noted, primarily focus on the final week of Jesus’ 33 years on earth. It has been estimated that as much as two-thirds of the material in the Gospels focus on the events on this final week, commencing with Palm Sunday. Though the incarnation, which we celebrate more intensely at Christmas, is the greatest of all miracles, nevertheless it is Easter and its associated events that culminate the primary purpose for the incarnation. It is therefore not only right, but spiritually beneficial, for us to the full Easter period—beginning Thursday—focusing on these historic and eternally significant days.
As we do so I am centring my thoughts and messages around three God-centred statements, which I believe accurately summarise the emphasis of each of these days.
The first statement is this: “Dear God, it’s Thursday.” On Thursday, the day before Jesus’ crucifixion, we have the final God-expected observance of the Passover, leading to the institution of a new feast: the Lord’s Supper. Following this, we hear our Lord’s agonizing prayer in the Garden (Luke 22:44). His hour has come. He prays in preparation and in a sense, even in desperation.
The second statement is this: “O, my God, it’s Friday.” On Friday, the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus was abandoned by God in darkness as was treated as a sinner on behalf of all whom His death would save. He would cry out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
The third statement is this: “Thank God, it’s Sunday.” On Sunday, of course, three Jewish days after Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus rose from the dead forever vindicating His penultimate words on the cross: “It is finished” (John 19:30). What Jesus promised on Thursday and paid for on Friday was forever proven on Sunday. And we join the song-writer in crying, “Hallelujah! What a Saviour!”
In this study—taken from a sermon preached on Maundy Thursday before we, as a church, celebrated, contemplated, commemorated and consecrated around the Table—I want to take the time to review all that proceeded the institution of the Lord’s Supper on that Thursday evening. As we do so, may we grow in our adoration of Christ Jesus, our Passover Lamb, who has been sacrificed for us (1 Corinthians 5:7).
Honouring the Old, Bringing in the New
On the night on which He was betrayed, our Lord Jesus Christ commemorated the Passover meal with His disciples. He was well aware that He would soon be arrested, beaten, humiliated and crucified. But He also knew that, three days later, He would rise from the dead, never to die again.
Instituting a New Ordinance
Armed with this knowledge, our Saviour took the bread, after the meal, broke it and gave it to the disciples. He said to them “Take, eat; this is My body.” He then took the common cup, gave it the disciples, and said, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”
It was a solemn and memorable occasion, and one worthwhile remembering at Easter time. This was the initiation of the perpetual ordinance, which followers of Jesus have commemorated for nearly two thousand years so far—though there will come a day when we will do it for the last time (see 1 Corinthians 11:26).
But the initiation of this new ordinance did not come in a vacuum. It was preceded by some four thousand years of promises and prophecies and by some 1,500 years of prescriptive pictures ordained by God. They all came to their focal point on a particular week and, most significantly, on the following weekend. Let’s follow some of those events, up until the very night in which, late at night, Jesus would pray, in Gethsemane, something like this, “Dear God, it is Thursday.”
The Passover Week (Matthew 21–25)
The Sunday preceding Easter (resurrection) Sunday is often referred to as Palm Sunday. On that particular day in history, the Lord Jesus entered Jerusalem for the final time. He entered the great city at which He would die. Not long before this, He had noted the apostate condition of what should have been the city of God. In Luke 13:33 Jesus, prophesying His impending death, said, “It cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem.” What horrific words!
There were two reasons that He must be killed in Jerusalem. First, it was the murderous character of the city (Matthew 23:29–36); and, second, it must happen for prophecy’s sake. But it is one of the saddest statements in history: The city chosen to house the dwelling place of God—the temple—had become “a dwelling place of demons, a prison for every foul spirit, and a cage for every unclean and hated bird” (Revelation 18:2). It had become a spiritual cesspool; the soil from which would grow a root of bitterness (see Deuteronomy 29:18 and Hebrews 12:15). Small wonder, therefore, that after His resurrection He commissioned His disciples, not from Jerusalem, but from Galilee. It was into this Babylon that Jesus entered and in which He would die.
As Jesus entered the city, the crowds cried out (reciting Psalm 118:26), “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matthew 21:9). The word “hosanna” means “deliver now.” It was a cry for deliverance; unfortunately, it was not a cry for undeserved deliverance from sin but rather, for most, a largely self-centred cry demanding deliverance from an undesirable situation. The people shouting this desired deliverance from the rule of Rome and from ignominy and insignificance (like many professing Christians today in South Africa who are consumed with the concern for political change while giving little thought to the need for nationwide repentance).
The crowd was certainly excited, for the people cried out, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matthew 21:9). In fact, they were so persuaded that Jesus was coming in God’s name that they cried for the second time, with great confidence, “Hosanna in the highest!” That is, the deliverance will reach even to heaven!
Most were confused. They thought that Jesus was merely from Nazareth and only a prophet (Matthew 21:10–11). But it would not be long until their view would change and they would conclude that Jesus of Nazareth was actually nothing but a pest who needed to be exterminated.
Jesus’ first act upon entering Jerusalem was to head straight to the temple and drive out the moneychangers and all else that had corrupted its purpose (Matthew 21:12–13). This, of course, was the second time that He had done this, the first being at the commencement of His ministry (see John 2).
It is interesting that His three-year ministry was bookended by these cleansings. It gives us greater insight into Psalm 69, which portrays Jesus as one whom zeal for God’s house had eaten up (v. 9). As a very important aside, in a matter of days the temple would become completely irrelevant to God’s true people and to His purposes. The true Temple would be destroyed and then would rise again (John 2:19).
What I find so captivating is the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to the old covenant in every jot and tittle. Until He died, the temple was indeed a part of God’s covenantal economy. Jesus was faithful!
Healing and Saving
Once the temple was cleansed, Jesus healed the blind and the lame. But no doubt His healing went further than their physical needs. Rather, He was sovereignly and savingly entering these into the race of grace. But from there it is, as they say, all downhill; at least with reference to the increasing hostility.
Notably, Jesus apparently deliberately added fuel to the fire (Matthew 21:28–23:39). He confronted the hypocritical, heartless and heedless shepherds of Israel with a barrage of parables. And in each case He made it abundantly clear that their party was about to be over. Their opportunity to be fruitful in God’s vineyard was about to come to an end.
Perhaps most notably we see this in Matthew 21:33–46. There, Jesus threw down the gauntlet as He clearly said, and they clearly perceived, that God was taking His kingdom from their stewardship and was giving it to a people that would be fruitful. In New Testament language, God was taking His kingdom purposes from those under the old covenant (Israel) and was giving it to those under the new covenant (the church). This was the proverbial last straw, for v. 46 informs us that they “sought to lay hands on Him.” They could not take His life then, but they were determined to do so at some point. And, by God’s grace, they would (Acts 2:22–24)!
The next several days passed with increasing confrontation and increasing hostility. I assume that they also passed with increasing temptation from the evil one. The devil would have sought to get Jesus to turn away from the Father’s will. But, thank God, Jesus persevered.
Preparing for the Feast
After these four very intense days it was now Thursday and the Passover Feast must be observed. Again, Jesus obeyed every jot and tittle of the law. He arranged a place for the meal and the disciples made the necessary preparations. The sacrificial lamb was purchased (no longer were they for sale in the temple!) and the bitter herbs were prepared along with the unleavened bread.
According to Ezekiel 45:21 the Passover Feast had become a weeklong event (cf. Luke 22:1, 7; Acts 12:3–4).
The First Passover
This meal had been observed by the Jews (though not with consistent faithfulness) since the Lord had delivered their forefathers from Egypt.
You may recall that the meal was implemented in Exodus 12. It was in accordance with the tenth and final plague in Egypt, in which God put to death the firstborn of every Egyptian family and livestock. The Lord provided a means of deliverance through the death of a substitute. A lamb was to be selected by each family and then kept in their home for four days. On the evening of the Passover, it was to be slain, roasted and eaten by the family. (A lamb could be shared among smaller families.)
The blood was put in a basin and applied to the doorposts and the frame above the door. As the Death Angel passed throughout the land that night, all were spared who were marked by the blood. As the Lord said, “When I see the blood, I will pass over you” (Exodus 12:13). They obeyed and God did as He promised. God is faithful to His promises. He delights to save; He delights to save those who “hope in His steadfast love” (Psalm 147:11).
Out with the Old, In with the New
That first Passover, of course, pointed to the ultimate sacrificial Lamb: the Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:29). He had now arrived. He would soon be sacrificed. And all of God’s chosen sons would escape the wrath of God for all eternity.
It is for this reason that there would never again be a need to observe a Passover Feast; in fact, what God’s new people would need was a new meal. Since “Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us,” we have been once and for all “unleavened” and are “a new lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6–8). In other words, those whom Jesus, as the Passover Lamb, saves are God’s new covenant people and so we get a new meal.
History and His Story
But having noted this, it is helpful for us to understand the Passover root of the fruit of the Lord’s Supper. The original Passover was a means of gracious deliverance. Later, it became a remembrance of that deliverance. It became a means of grace to strengthen the people of God as they remembered God’s powerful rescue.
The Passover meal was prophetic of the Lamb of God, who would come to deliver His chosen people from God’s wrath for all eternity. In the original Passover, the people put to death the sacrificial lamb. But in its fulfilment in Christ, it was God Himself who put to death His appointed Lamb (2:22–23; 4:27–28). God selected the Lamb. The Lamb was without blemish or spot. The Lamb’s blood was sprinkled on those whom God intended to save (Hebrews 10:22; 12:24; 1 Peter 1:2). God’s Lamb is appropriated by everyone whom for whom the Lamb was sacrificed to save (John 6:37; 53–56).
Fencing the Table
There is a beautiful, almost seamless, transition from the old covenant Passover to the new covenant Passover. I say almost seamless because there is, it appears to me, a very significant event that occurred between the Passover meal and the inauguration of the new covenant meal. That is, between the Last Supper and the Lord’s Supper the Twelve became the Eleven.
In attempting to harmonise the Gospels, it appears that it was at the Last Supper, at the Passover meal, that Judas departed to betray Jesus (e.g. John 13:21–30). After Judas had gone, then Jesus enacted the ordinance of Communion. This makes perfect sense, since only those who have a saving interest in the Saviour can be in communion with Him.
The Passover meal for centuries, when it was observed, was a meal that entire households of Jewish people would observe. Sadly, as was evident during this Passion week, many participated who in fact were at the same time rejecting the Lord’s appointed means of salvation (see John 18:28). It had become merely a nationalistic and ritualistic festival. Though it was a legitimate old covenant responsibility, it had in reality, for most, lost its meaning. And it was about to come to an end.
When the Lord inaugurated His Supper, He made it clear that this was a new covenant meal; and that it was only for those who were beneficiaries of the new covenant. He “fenced” it by sending Judas away.
Though there would be nothing necessarily sinful from this point on for a Messianic (Christian) Jew to observe the Passover, nevertheless what followed the Last Supper is what has become a blessed obligatory meal for followers of Jesus.
The Passover Lamb would soon be slain—once for all—and so any further observance of this meal would be unnecessary; in fact, it would be redundant.
The Setting for the Supper
John 13 provides a wonderful picture into what took place before the institution of this new meal. It provides for us the mindset we should have as we partake of this new meal.
A New Manner
This new meal is predicated upon the reality that our Lord and Saviour has provided the ultimate act of sacrificial service in laying down His life for us. And as we contemplate this we are to emulate it towards one another—as illustrated by Jesus in washing His disciples’ feet (John 13:1–17).
The Passover was to be eaten with shoes on one’s feet, ready to flee at any moment. In a sense, this new meal is to be eaten barefoot, with a willingness to wash one another’s feet and to be washed ourselves (vv. 8–10).
As we partake of this meal, we are to do so with the heartfelt commitment to take up our cross and to humbly serve those for whom Jesus died. We are to forgive, to seek forgiveness, and to serve.
A New Maturity
In vv. 18–30, we see that this meal requires a new maturity. Jesus had spoken of the cross on several recorded occasions. Presumably, He spoke more frequently of it than has been recorded (John 21:25). But now the time had arrived. And it was time for them to grow up and to face the facts, troublesome as they might appear. Unfortunately they would fail in the following hours, but eventually they would get it. They would learn that to follow Jesus is to follow a hard path. A cross is involved. Betrayals will occur. Heartaches will come. Yet our biggest problem will be taken care of.
As we partake of the meal we must remember the words that Christ’s body was broken and His blood shed. Let’s us wake up and grow up in our biblical understanding that to follow Jesus is difficult (see Hebrews 12:1–17). As Bonhoeffer said, when Jesus bids a man to follow Him, he calls him to come and die.
A New Mandate
Third, we see in vv. 31–35 that there is a new mandate. It seems from comparing the parallel accounts that these were some of the last words Jesus spoke to the disciples. And it is interesting that they were spoken in proximity with the institution of the Lord’s Supper. He perhaps spoke them immediately before or after the Supper. Regardless, they define for us the expectation that our Lord has for His people.
Those who embrace Him, evidenced by participation in this meal, are to love one another. Jesus ushered in a new emphasis concerning our relationships with one another. The proper observance of this meal should go a long way towards empowering us to love both God and one another in a profound way. As we partake, let us do so with this new mandate in mind.
A New Means of Grace
Finally, let us learn that the Lord’s Supper is a new means of grace. We know from other Gospel accounts that, after the disciples shared the Lord’s Supper, that they sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:30). Not long after this, they went to a garden in Gethsemane where Jesus often took His disciples for times of instruction and prayer. While there, Jesus began to intensely pray, “Dear God, it’s Thursday.” He knew that Judas and the temple guard were on their way. He knew that He would be betrayed by one whom He loved, be arrested, subsequently beaten and ultimately crucified. But worse, He knew that He would be forsaken by the Father. His “Dear God” on Thursday would soon become the desperate cry “My God” of dereliction on Friday.
In this garden, in His hour of deep need, His disciples would not only fall asleep but would soon desert Him. But note the timing: It was immediately after partaking of the Lord’s Supper. This is significant.
This meal, as we observed, was a meal of remembrance of God’s covenant faithfulness. It is a means of grace. And no doubt, having just celebrated this, Jesus was strengthened for His impending ordeal as He remembered His Father’s faithfulness.
But notice that this means of grace was also for the disciples. You might ask, but did they not miserably fail? Yes, but apart from this means of grace how much worse it might have been! In fact, their identification with Jesus at the table may have been a key in His identifying with them when He protected and preserved them from the soldiers (John 18:1–11).
My point is simple but important: This commanded meal is God’s good gift to us. As believers properly partake, we are strengthened in and by the gospel for the various Gethsemanes that lie before us. In other words, it empowers us with gospel hope as we find ourselves praying, “Dear God, it’s Thursday, and Friday is coming.” In a real sense it reminds us that Sunday is coming. Thank God.
In closing, let me briefly point out the proper way that we as Christians are to observe this meal.
It is a celebration of the Passover Lamb who has taken away our sins. There is no other deliverance which we need more than this; there is no other deliverance that we should appreciate than this.
It is a commemoration that Jesus laid down His life for us once for all in order to forever deliver us from the wrath of God. Primarily we to remember Him.
It is a contemplation of the covenant faithfulness of God to save His people from their sins. Jesus said that we are to observe this ordinance in remembrance of Him (1 Corinthians 11:24–25). Yes, as we have just noted, we are to remember Him. But “remembrance” is covenantal terminology (see, for example, Genesis 9:15–16; Leviticus 26:42, 45; 2 Chronicles 6:42; Nehemiah 1:8; etc.). The point is that we are to remember that God remembers His covenant to save us. Of course this also applies the other way. We are to remember that we have covenantal responsibilities (see below). But fundamentally we remember that God always remember—He will neither forget nor forsake us.
It is a renewed consecration to the Lord as we are renewed in our hope in His steadfast love. We remember our privileged responsibilities of grace (Ephesians 2:8–10).
This was a new meal for the disciples. It was a new means of grace. Though it has been observed for nearly two millennia, nevertheless it has not lost its significance. Let us partake with gratefulness that Jesus Christ, our Passover, has been crucified for us. Let us bow our heads and hearts and wills as we thankfully pray, “Dear God, it’s Thursday.” Thank you, in Jesus’ name.