What was the first Lord’s Supper like? What did they eat? How long did supper last? These are actually questions that, because of the Jewish Passover Meal, we have some pretty clear answers to.
My goal is to take you through the Lord’s Supper as found in the Bible and flesh it out with the cultural aspects of the Passover Meal that Jesus was celebrating with His disciples. Then we’ll make some comparisons between the Passover Meal and the Lord’s Supper.
One thing I noticed as I worked through descriptions of both ancient and modern Jewish Passover meals is how God-focused their celebration was. The Jews spend hours at this meal, stopping to tell the story of redemption from Egypt, asking questions, and singing. Each part of the meal symbolizes some aspect of God’s work in their history.
We might say a prayer before a Thanksgiving Meal or read the Christmas account from Luke before opening presents, but that’s it. Perhaps there’s a lesson for us right there. How can we make our celebrations—especially those that are supposed to be about God—more God focused?
The Lord’s Supper was a Passover Meal eaten by Jesus and His disciples right before He was arrested, tried and crucified.
Jews typically ate two meals—a breakfast around 10 AM and the main meal around 4 or 5 PM. A Passover Meal would last until midnight.
At the Passover Meal, the most important part was the Passover Lamb that was killed and roasted over fire. It would have taken several hours to prepare the lamb and we see this preparation happen in Mark 14—
12 And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the passover, his disciples said unto him, Where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou mayest eat the passover [i.e., the Passover lamb]? 13 And he sendeth forth two of his disciples [Peter and John—Luke 22:8] , and saith unto them, Go ye into the city, and there shall meet you a man bearing a pitcher of water: follow him. 14 And wheresoever he shall go in, say ye to the goodman of the house, The Master saith, Where is the guestchamber, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples? 15 And he will shew you a large upper room furnished and prepared: there make ready for us. 16 And his disciples went forth, and came into the city, and found as he had said unto them: and they made ready the passover. 17 And in the evening he cometh with the twelve. (Mark 14:12–17)
There does not seem to be an exact order of the Passover Meal. I’ll just cover the major elements. In some cases, I had to choose between conflicting sources as to what the order would be.
Jesus and His disciples would have laid on the floor around the table, reclining on their left arms. Jews would either recline like this at every meal or else they would sit, as we do today. But at the Passover Meal they would always recline, because reclining symbolized freedom from bondage in Egypt.
The meal would have started by drinking the first of four ritual cups. The general consensus among rabbi’s is that these four cups symbolize God’s promises in Exodus 6:6-7—
6 Wherefore say unto the children of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you out of their bondage, and I will redeem you with a stretched out arm, and with great judgments: 7 And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and ye shall know that I am the Lord your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. (Exodus 6:6–7)
The Passover Meal would start with drinking from the first cup, called the Cup of Sanctification—“I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.” It is called the Cup of Sanctification because it set apart the Passover Meal to God.
Then they would sing the first part of the Hallel. The Hallel is Psalms 113 to 118. So the first verses of this would be:
1 Praise ye the Lord. Praise, O ye servants of the Lord, Praise the name of the Lord. 2 Blessed be the name of the Lord From this time forth and for evermore. (Psalm 113:1–2)
Then they would have taken some sort of green vegetable (today it is often parsley) and dipped it a bowl of salt water. Why salt water? The water represented the tears that were shed in bondage in Egypt, and also the salt water of the Red Sea that God parted for them.
Four questions were asked by the youngest present, usually one of the children. The fact that a child is supposed to ask these questions goes back to Exodus 12:26—
26 And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service? (Exodus 12:26)
There are variations on the four questions, but they all go back to a central question: Why is this night different from other nights?
I read somewhere that, at least in modern days, that the children will practice asking the questions weeks ahead of time—much like what happens with our Christmas programs.
Then the leader—the father or grandfather or, at the Lord’s Supper, it would have been Jesus—tells the story of the Jews up until the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. Exactly how to tell this is laid out in a manual for Passover called the Haggadah (Hah Gah Dah). It begins:
We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the L-rd, our G‑d, took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm. If the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our fathers out of Egypt, then we, our children and our children’s children would have remained enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. Even if all of us were wise, all of us understanding, all of us knowing the Torah, we would still be obligated to discuss the exodus from Egypt; and everyone who discusses the exodus from Egypt at length is praiseworthy.1
This would begin a lengthy teaching session after which, the second cup, called the Cup of Plagues, would be taken. Neither the first or the second cup are the cup that we think of when we take communion—that would be the third cup. But the second cup does appear in Luke 22.
17 And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves: 18 For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come. (Luke 22:17–18)
If you ever wondered why Jesus takes the cup twice in Luke 22, this is why. He was taking the second cup of the Passover Meal.
At some point, I think between the second and third cups, they would have eaten some bitter herbs to remind themselves of the bitterness of captivity in Egypt. Today, horseradish is often used. This is the dish that Jesus was referring to when He told how the traitor would be exposed:
23 And he answered and said, He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me. (Matthew 26:23)
How appropriate is it that Judas the betrayer would be revealed when he dipped his hand in the dish of bitter herbs! Bitter is betrayal!
Also after the second cup, they would eat the unleavened bread. This is where Jesus…
19 …took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. (Luke 22:19)
Why unleavened bread? Unleavened bread is made without yeast. In the Bible, yeast is symbolic of sin. So during Passover time, the Jews would remove all traces of leaven from their homes. They would sweep the floor and carefully clean all the pots that might have traces of leaven. This is commanded in Exodus 13:7.
In modern times, this still happens. One man remembers his mother cleaning leaven out of the pots, the bread box, and the oven before Passover. Then, as an extra precaution, she lined the bread box and oven with aluminum foil.2
When we take communion, we are called to examine ourselves and confess any known sin. Paul writes:
28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. (1 Corinthians 11:28)
Yes, our sins are forgiven the moment we start trusting in Jesus Christ. But we still sin and our sin, while it cannot remove our salvation, does interrupt our fellowship with the Lord. The Lord’s Supper gives us an opportunity to restart by cleaning the leaven out of our heart homes.
At this point in the evening, they would have finally gotten to eat that roasted lamb.
After they had eaten the main course of supper—the roasted lamb—Jesus took the third cup of the Passover meal.
20 Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you. (Luke 22:20)
The third cup is the Cup of Redemption: “I will redeem you with a stretched out arm.” It’s a perfect fit for what Jesus was about to do on the cross for our sins…He was about to redeem us. So Jesus says, “This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.”
At this point they would have finished singing the Hallel Psalms, as Matthew 28:30 describes—
30 And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives. (Matthew 26:30)
The Psalm they would have ended on would have been Psalm 118. Listen to the final verses of what they would have sang before the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus.
26 Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord: We have blessed you out of the house of the Lord. 27 God is the Lord, which hath shewed us light: Bind the sacrifice with cords, Even unto the horns of the altar. 28 Thou art my God, and I will praise thee: Thou art my God, I will exalt thee. 29 O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: For his mercy endureth for ever. (Psalm 118:26-29)
Can you imagine what Jesus might have been thinking as He sang, “Bind the sacrifice with cords”? Did He think of His arrest and being thrust into the control of the people who hated Him?
Right before they left, they would drink the fourth cup, the Cup of Praise:
“I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and ye shall know that I am the Lord your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.” (Exodus 6:6–7)
At this point, Jesus and His disciples would have walked out the door and headed to the Garden of Gethesame.
How does the understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a Passover meal help us today? Look at the parallels between the two:
1) In the Passover Meal, God’s covenant with His people is remembered. In fact, there’s a great emphasis on retelling the story during the Passover Meal.
In a similar way, the Lord’s Supper also remembers the New Covenant God has made. Jesus says, “This cup is the new testament [covenant] in my blood, which is shed for you.”
2) The Passover Meal remembers also the slavery that the Israelites endured in Egypt. The bitter herbs and the salt water both were reminders of their bondage in Egypt.
The Lord’s Supper acknowledges that we were once captive to sin. As sinners, we face a penalty of eternal death. There is no way to escape that through our own power.
3) Another parallel is the remembering of the Lord’s deliverance of the Jews from Egypt.
For Christians, the Lord’s Supper reminds us of our deliverance from sin. Jesus said:
28 For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. (Matthew 26:28)
Jesus’s death sets us from sin when we trust in Him. When we trust in Christ, we are immediately freed from the penalty of sin. We are no longer under condemnation.
4) The blood of the Passover Lamb reminds Jews how the blood painted on their door frames kept the angel of death from visiting their homes during the final plague on Egypt: the death of the firstborn.
How is our deliverance from sin and its penalty of death achieved? John the Baptist answered that question for us:
29 The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. (John 1:29)
Christ Himself became our sacrificial lamb and took our penalty for us. Because of this, we can be saved and live our lives differently. Paul urges:
7 Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: (1 Corinthians 5:7)
2. Steve Herzig, Jewish Culture and Customs (Bellmawr, NJ: The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, 1997), 120.