I read one statistic recently that suggested that the average British family at Christmas now spend over £1000 on presents, food and decorations. For many Christmas is simply a time for relaxing, giving presents and eating too much. But as we tuck into our Christmas meal this year, I would like you to have in your mind a very different meal. The meal that we are thinking about from the Bible this morning is the last supper of Jesus.
We are concluding our series in Matthew’s gospel looking at the teaching of Jesus, and at first glance you may well wonder what the last supper has to do with the Christmas season. Surely the last supper, Jesus’ final meal, has more to do with Easter. Surely his last meal before being betrayed, brought to a mock trial, and finally crucified on a cross, is not really an appropriate topic for Christmas. Wouldn’t fluffy sheep, wise men, shiny angels, and clean fresh straw be more the image?
Well no I don’t think so. Because the reason the message of Christmas is such good news is because Jesus the saviour was born. The saviour came into the world as a baby born to die – that was God’s Christmas gift. And the end of Jesus’ life should be very much in view even as we again this year celebrate his birth.
So perhaps you would have Matthew chapter 26 verses 17 to 30 open in front of you. I simply have three headings this morning. The Passover Celebrated, the Betrayer Identified, and the Sacrifice Given. You will find those headings on the back of your service sheet. So heading one, the Passover Celebrated.
THE PASSOVER CELEBRATED
I enjoy Christmas dinner. I like turkey and stuffing, roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts. When I was growing up we had a fairly deliberate routine for how it all happened, and what was included, perhaps you were the same. For the Jew however the most important family meal of the year was not Christmas dinner but rather the Passover meal. It was celebrated each year during the feast of unleavened bread. And that is the context of the events we read about in Matthew chapter 26. Please have a look with me at verse 17 and following:
17 On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?” 18 He replied, “Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, ‘The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.’” 19 So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover. (Mt 26:17-19, NIV)
The Passover meal was a highly prescribed event. In our Christmas meal we might include Christmas crackers, turkey, ham, and Christmas pudding. Sometimes we opt out of certain items, we have a less traditional pudding or something. But for the Jew the Passover meal was a ritual meal, as well as being an enjoyable family event. The prescribed food was unleavened bread, herbs, and roast lamb. In Jesus time, it was likely that there were four cups of wine that were shared by the household. The cups were drunk in sequence throughout the meal, and speeches were made and hymns recited at specific points.
When I was at university in Scotland I once attended a Burns Night supper. If you have ever been to one of those you will know that you have to toast the haggis and make certain speeches and read certain poems. Well traditionally in a Jewish Passover meal the oldest son formally asked the father what the Passover meal meant and why it was being celebrated. The father then formally replied, explaining that it was a remembrance of the Lord’s deliverance and his rescuing his people from slavery in Egypt. That was the story we had read in our Old Testament reading this morning (Ex ch12).
Jesus had made arrangement to celebrate the Passover meal with his disciples in Jerusalem and he sends them on ahead to prepare the meal.
THE BETRAYER IDENTIFIED
But the Passover meal on this particular night was different from anything the disciples had ever experienced before. Jesus disturbs them with talk of betrayal and his imminent death. Jesus identifies his betrayer, verses 20 to 25. That is my second heading. The betrayer identified.
I don’t know if you have ever been let down by a close friend or family member. You probably have. I know I have on occasion been hurt when a friend who I was relying on to help me in a difficult situation failed to come to my rescue. In the scheme of things it was such a small and trivial matter, and yet it still hurt.
Jesus has been warning his disciples that his death is approaching. His life is ultimately heading in the direction of death at the hands of the Jews and Roman authorities. But up to this point he hasn’t indicated how that will happen. What a shock then when he tells them that he will be betrayed and handed over by a close friend, by one of the disciples, by one of them.
Have a look at what Matthew tells us, reading from verse 20:
20 When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. 21 And while they were eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.” 22 They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely not I, Lord?” 23 Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 24 The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” 25 Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” Jesus answered, “Yes, it is you.” (Mt 26:20-25, NIV)
Jesus knows exactly what is happening. God is sovereign over the events of Jesus approaching death, and yet Matthew reminds us that Judas makes a deliberate, premeditated, and unrelenting choice to betray Jesus. The disciples are sad when Jesus tells them that a betrayer is in their midst. “Surely not!”, they say. “Surely it couldn’t be me you are talking about, Jesus”.
I actually wonder why they are not more adamant that it will not be them. Peter is soon to declare “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you” (Mt 26:35). But perhaps these disciples have been around Jesus long enough to know their own tendency to sin, their own capability to betray the Son of God, to put him on the cross. Surely not I, Lord?
And yet Judas has already agreed to betray Jesus. He asks the question just like the others, and fits into the crowd, but he is already committed, as we noted a few Sunday mornings ago. Jesus responds, literally, “It is as you say”. You, Judas have spoken the truth, your own lips condemn you.
THE SACRIFICE GIVEN
It is no wonder the disciples are sad. The whole meal is disturbing. Reclining round the table, a small intimate groups, a nice meal, but overhanging it all the shadow of death. And what Jesus goes on to talk about is even more unsettling. He talks about the sacrifice that is about to be given. That is my third heading, The Sacrifice Given, verses 26 to 30.
It was traditional to give thanks, or pronounce a blessing on the food and the wine. It was traditional, as I have mentioned, to make speeches about the significant elements of the meal. But Jesus takes things in a new direction. Look with me at what he says verse 26 and following:
26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” 27 Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Mt 26:26-29, NIV)
Jesus takes the unleavened bread in his hands – these hands that were once the baby hands of the child of Christmas. He takes the bread in his hands breaks it, gives it to his disciples and says “Take and eat; this is my body”. The bread is still in Jesus’ physical hands – he is not saying that the bread has replaced his physical body. This is not cannibalism that he is talking about but still it is shocking language. When his disciples eat the bread they are to think of Jesus body.
Although they do not yet know it, as they watch the loaf being broken in to bits, they are being prepared by the imagery for what they will soon see happening in the flesh. The body of Jesus is going to be torn and broken as the whip tears into his flesh, as the nails penetrate his wrists, and crush his feet. This is my body given for you, this is the sacrifice about to take place.
In a similar way Jesus takes the cup, the traditional element of the meal, and gives it new meaning. Verse 27, he takes the cup, gives thanks, offers it to them saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Now if it was shocking for the disciples to hear talk of Jesus’ body, then this was even more shocking.
Perhaps when you were growing up there were certain things that you were never allowed to do at the dinner table. Maybe you had it drummed into you that you must always hold your fork in a certain way, or tip your soup bowl in a certain direction. Whenever you eat a meal even now you can’t bring yourself to hold your fork in the wrong way. There might even be certain things you know that you would never bring yourself to eat.
Well for the Jew it would have been drummed into them from a young age that they must never ever eat the blood of an animal. It was in their very bones that that behaviour would not be acceptable. That was God’s specific command to his people.
God said in the Old Testament book of Leviticus:
“. . . I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from his people. 11 For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. 12 Therefore I say to the Israelites, “None of you may eat blood, nor may an alien living among you eat blood.” (Leviticus 17:10-12, NIV).
And yet here was Jesus taking the cup, telling them to drink from it and declaring “This is my blood of the covenant” (Mt 26:28). It is shocking language.
For those of us who have grown up in church the language becomes somewhat familiar. But I remember an occasion in the last few years when one of our mission partners was talking about Bible translation amongst un-reached people groups. They mentioned the difficulty of translating this passage in a primitive culture. It is so easy to misunderstand Jesus’ words and think cannibalism. But that is not what Jesus is talking about. Rather he is using powerful imagery that we need to work at understanding.
As I have already hinted, the clue is in considering the purpose of blood as part of the Old Testament sacrificial system. And again the clue is in bearing in mind the Passover story with the blood sprinkled on the door posts. The blood of the sacrificial lamb made atonement for the life of the sinner. The blood on the doorposts marked the household as belong to God and the destroyer passed over.
Jesus is pointing to his own blood poured out – just like wine poured into a cup. It is blood given in sacrifice. Look again at what he says verse 28.
“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt 26:28, NIV).
Jesus’ blood is soon going to flow as his hands, feet and side are pierced. It is going to be poured out. But Jesus explains the purpose. The blood will flow so that many people can have their sins forgiven.
The reason Jesus speaks here of covenant is because in this meal Jesus is inaugurating a new covenant (Jer 31:31-33). God is going to relate to his people in a new way. In the past it has been through the blood of sheep and bulls. But now it will be on the basis of Jesus’ blood shed once for all, that people have their sins forgiven. The blood of Jesus will now be what turns away God’s wrath and allows destruction to pass over the individual Christian. It is a completely new covenant, totally superior to the old way of relating to God.
And of course, the events of Easter, made it clear to the disciples what Jesus was talking about. Jesus was given a mock trial, was handed over to Roman soldiers to be crucified, even though he had done nothing wrong. His hands and feet were pierced, his body was broken, his blood was poured out for you and for me. And God’s wrath was directed at Jesus as the sins of the world were placed upon him. The new covenant between God and man was made possible as Jesus cried “It is finished” and committed his spirit into his Father’s care (John 19:30).
Christ the Saviour was born at Christmas. Yes, a tiny baby, whose birth we celebrate. But more than that, a baby who would grow up, die on a cross, be raised to life on the third day, and bring salvation to millions of people. As you celebrate Christmas, as you eat your Christmas meal this week, it is well worth having in mind the last supper of Jesus, his last meal before he died.
So as I conclude, let me ask you about your response to this Bible passage. It might well be that the story is very familiar to you. You are a Christian, you regularly participate in Communion, the language of “body broken and blood shed” is well-known. Well let me encourage you to use the events of Christmas to keep your heart focussed on Jesus.
As you give and receive presents remember God’s ultimate gift, the birth of his Son and his death on the cross. Even if you receive something you don’t particularly want remember that God’s gift was exactly what you needed. As you eat the Christmas meal think of that final Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples.
But perhaps, you have not thought about Jesus death before. Perhaps you have had little understanding of why Christians eat bread and drink wine during a communion service. Well if that is the case, you have an opportunity this Christmas to get your relationship with God sorted out. The offer of a new covenant, a new relationship with God is available only through Jesus and his death on the cross for your sin.
Christians celebrate Christmas (Christ’s birth) and Easter (Christ’s death on the cross) and in between we regularly celebrate communion together – we remember his death for our sin, his body broken, his blood shed. We break a loaf of bread and eat it together, we distribute a cup of wine, perpetuating the events of the last supper of Jesus. They are physical things that we can touch and taste.
Perhaps on Christmas Day you will get a photograph album out and sit and talk with your guests about past events and holidays. We benefit from something to look at when remembering the past. But Jesus has given Christians something even more helpful than a two dimensional image. He has given us physical bread and wine that we can touch and taste, that help us remember his death and salvation. God does that over and over again in the Bible – piles of stones, special places, significant meals, that help his people physically remember his saving action. Now it is bread and wine shared among a group of Christians.
But if you this morning, have not yet recognised Christ’s body and blood in the bread and the wine, then you have not yet accepted Christ as your saviour. And if you are not yet trusting in Christ’s death on the cross to save you from God’s coming judgement, then you need to decide today how you are going to respond to this Bible passage. Are you going to ask Jesus to save you? Are you going to trust in his broken body and shed blood? Are you like Judas in rejecting him, or like the other disciples in accepting him?
This passage however does not just focus on Jesus death. As I finish, take a look at verse 29. Jesus says,
"29 I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Mt 26:29, NIV)
That is a note of hope even though the events of the crucifixion have yet to be played out. That is the hint of resurrection and of Jesus coming again in victory and triumph. That is the hope of eternity that the Christian has to look forward to.
Jesus is coming back, his kingdom will be fully and finally established, and those who have trusted in his broken body and shed blood will share life with him for eternity.