The Origin of the Lord’s Supper
I’d like to talk to you today about the Lord’s supper, and about the Passover meal. As most everyone knows, the Passover meal “gave birth” you might say, to the Lord’s supper. There’s several passages in the new testament telling us about the Lord’s supper, giving various details. One example is Luke 20:19 & 20, which says.. “And He took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me. And likewise the cup, after supper saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is poured out for you.”
But very few details are given about the Passover meal itself. And so I’d like to tell you more about the Passover meal that the bible doesn’t tell us, because I think it’ll help us to better understand what the bible tells us about the Lord’s supper. And I hope that these details about the Passover meal, will help make the scriptures “come to life” for you, a bit more.
The Mishnah and the Seder Meal
There’s an ancient Jewish writing called the “Mishnah”, and it was written in 200 AD, by a Jewish leader and Rabbi, named Judah HaNisi. Judah was commonly known simply as Rebbi or Rabbi. He lived from approximately 135 to 217 AD. And he was a key leader of the Jewish community in Roman-occupied Judea.
The Mishnah, which means “repetition”, is the earliest authoritative body of Jewish oral law. It was a written “repetition” of the Jewish Oral Law, a law that had governed Jewish teaching and practice for centuries. A law that all Jews, including Jesus and His disciples adhered to. Included in the Mishnah, are detailed instructions of how the Passover meal was to be observed and conducted.
The Jewish people refer to the Passover meal, as the “Seder” meal. The pronunciation of the word is “Say-der”. And the word “Seder” means.. “a set order”. The reason for the name “Seder” is that there had long ago been established (well before the time of Jesus) a very strict order, in which everything was done during the “Seder” meal. The Passover meal, or the “Seder” meal, wasn’t just a meal, but rather, it was a memorial event, and almost everything about it, symbolized something. It symbolized, and memorialized, the day when the nation of Israel came out of Egyptian slavery, by the very hand of God. God says in Jeremiah 31, verse 32.. “..when I took them by the hand, to bring them out of the land of Egypt..”
But the Passover meal also memorialized the harsh slavery that the people suffered while they were still in Egypt. And it memorialized the blood of the Passover lamb that was slain, whose blood was put upon the door posts of the homes of every Israelite, so that the angel of death would “pass over” them, as the first born of every Egyptian household, was killed, both man and beast. And it memorialized the Israelites freedom from their bondage of slavery.
And so the Seder meal was a memorial, just like the Lord’s supper is a memorial. And as I said, it was the memorial of the Seder meal, that gave birth to the memorial of the Lord’s supper. And while the Seder meal helped the Jewish people remember and appreciate their freedom from physical bondage, the Lord’s supper today, helps all of us remember and appreciate our own freedom, from the bondage of sin, through the death of our Savior Jesus Christ.
As I began to tell you, the Mishnah lays out the set order, in which the Seder meal was to be partaken of. And Jesus and His apostles no doubt adhered to that “set order” on the Passover night that we read about in the bible. And so let me tell you a little bit about that “set order” that accompanied the Passover meal.
First of all, the table was set in a particular manner to accommodate the specifics of the observance. Each one had a plate, and each one had a cup. There were serving plates that the food was served from, and there were serving vessels, that the wine was poured out from. There were bowls of water for a ceremonial washing of the hands; And there were bowls of a salt water mixture, used for dipping bitter herbs into, as the herbs were eaten. The bitter herbs are symbolic of the bitter slavery the people suffered, and the salt water symbolizes the tears of the people.
Throughout the observance of the “Seder meal”, there are four specific times in which each person drinks a cup of red wine, symbolic of the blood of the Passover lamb. Each one had a cup, and each cup was filled four times, once during each drinking period. (And people wonder how many cups were used, when Jesus “instituted” the Lord’s supper) The drinking of each cup of wine is similar to a “toast”.
There was always one person who you might say “presided” over the meal. And from what the new testament describes for us, it sounds very likely that it was Jesus who presided over the observance on this occasion. Jesus was the one offering the cups, and Jesus was the one offering the thanksgivings.
The Four Cups
Now I want to tell you about the four cups. But before I do, I want you to understand the meaning of the word “cup”. In general, the word cup can refer to a literal cup, or it can refer to the contents of the literal cup, or it can also be applied figuratively, to represent what
God has allotted, or ordained. The scriptures sometimes refer to the cup of God’s wrath, or to the cup of judgment. Sometimes it refers to the cup of salvation, and sometimes it refers to the cup of suffering. Jesus used the word “cup” in this manner the evening before His crucifixion, when He prayed to His Father saying.. “Father, if it be Thy will, may this cup pass from Me.” (Mathew 26:39)
But as for the usage of the word as it relates to the Seder meal, the “cup” never refers to the actual physical vessel, called a cup. But rather, the reference is to what each cup of wine symbolizes.
The first cup is referred to as the “cup of sanctification”, symbolic of how the people had been sanctified by God, and that cup takes place at the very start of the meal, after a beginning prayer.
The second cup is referred to as the “cup of plagues”, and it’s symbolic of the ten plagues that God sent upon the Egyptians. It’s interesting that in Luke’s account of the Lord’s supper, two of the four cups are mentioned. In particular, the second and third cups are mentioned. One cup was mentioned in Luke 20, verse 17, Jesus offered this cup before the main meal, when He spoke of the bread being “His body”. And the other cup is mentioned in verse 20. And Jesus offered this next cup, after they had eaten the main meal.
But back to the second cup.. The second cup is taken at a specific point during the observance. Before the second cup is taken, the bitter herbs dipped in the salt water are eaten.
Now at this point, you might find these words interesting, from Mark 14:18 thru 20; “And while they were reclining and eating, Jesus said; Truly I tell you, one of you who is eating with Me will betray Me. They began to be grieved and to ask Him, one after another; Surely not I? And He said to them; It is one of the twelve, one who dips with Me in the bowl.”
Have you ever wondered what Jesus was talking about there? What were they “dipping” in a bowl? Well, the answer is, they were almost certainly, dipping the bitter herbs in the bowl of salt water. This was and is, an integral part of the “set order” of every Seder meal.
And after the bitter herbs are eaten, a piece of unleavened bread is eaten, and after that, is when the second cup of wine is taken, the cup of plagues. And after this, the main meal is eaten. The main meal consisted of lamb, unleavened bread, roasted egg, various herbs, and something called “cheroset”, which consists of fruits and nuts blended into a paste like mixture. The mixture is symbolic of the mortar that the Israelites produced in making bricks for the Egyptians. This fruit and nuts mixture was eaten by spreading it between two small pieces of unleavened bread, making a kind of sandwich.
Now, this brings us to the third cup of wine or juice, which is referred to as either the “cup of redemption”, or more commonly “the cup of blessing”. And this cup is taken at the end of the meal, after everyone has eaten. And after drinking this cup, a prayer of thanksgiving is made to God for the food He has just blessed them with, and for all that it represents.
Now here’s what’s really interesting about the third cup that’s taken after the meal. This is the cup that Jesus used, when He said to His disciples.. “This is the new covenant in My blood which is poured our for you.” Luke 22, verse 20. We know this was the third cup, because that verse says.. “In the same way, AFTER SUPPER, He took the cup, saying; This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is poured out for you.” And the apostle Paul confirms this in 1 Corinthians 11, verse 25, when he wrote these words.. “In the same way, after supper, He took the cup, saying; This cup is the new covenant in My blood; Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
Can’t you just picture the Lord Jesus, as He poured out the fruit of the vine, into each one of the cups of His apostles, and saying the words.. “This is the new covenant in My blood which is poured our for you.” These scriptures seem to come to life as you read them.
A New Meaning, and New Covenant
So then Jesus put a new addition to the meaning and symbolism of the third cup. It was still the “cup of redemption” or the “cup of blessing”, but now it was also the “cup of the new covenant in Christ’s blood”.
And Paul refers to this cup, as “the cup of blessing”, in 1 Corinthians 10, verse 16, with these words.. “The cup of blessing that we bless, (in other words, this cup of blessing which we give thanks for) is it not a participation (or a sharing, or a communion) in the blood of Christ?” And he goes on to say in the same verse.. “The bread that we break, is it not a participation (or a sharing) in the body of Christ?”
Just as symbolism is an inseparable part of the Passover meal, so also, symbolism is an inseparable part of the Lord’s supper. Those who believe that the unleavened bread and the fruit of the vine miraculously become the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ, are totally missing the point.
While “the cup of blessing”, taken after the Seder meal, was symbolic of the blessings that the Jews received, as a result of their freedom from the bondage of physical slavery, so also, “the cup of blessing” in the Lord’s supper, is symbolic to Christians, of the freedom from the bondage of sin that we enjoy, through the sacrifice and death of Jesus Christ.
The fourth cup at the Seder meal is the “cup of Hallel”. Just think of the word Hallelujah, and you’ll get the meaning of the word Hallel. The word means.. “praise”. And the Jewish practice is that Psalms 114 thru 118 are sung. These are referred to as the “great Hallel Psalms”. And then after Psalm 118 is sung, the fourth cup of wine is taken. And that concluded the Seder meal and celebration.
A Shared Experience
Now let me say something about the “participation” or the “sharing” that Paul mentioned, in the body and blood of Christ. To help us understand the point that Paul is making here, I’ll first share with you something that’s been written about the Seder meal, (the Passover meal) and about the “four cups”.
“What is striking here is not just the practice, (the writer is referring to the practice of drinking four cups of the fruit of the vine) “What is striking here is not just the practice, but the use of language. All through the Seder liturgy (the “liturgy” is simply what is recited) All through the Seder liturgy, there is reference to ‘the cup’ or ‘the four cups’. But no one.. (no one familiar with the Seder meal) ..thinks that this refers to one, or to a set of physical cups..
..But rather, the language of the ‘cup’ here, refers not to a single vessel, or a set of vessels, but to a shared experience, and a shared understanding of the symbolic meaning of what it happening in the ritual.” Each “cup” represents a shared experience.
Now listen to the words of Paul once again, from 1 Corinthians 10:16.. “The cup of blessing that we give thanks for, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” In other words, is it not a sharing in the blessings, that the body and blood of Jesus Christ bring to us all?
Yes, it is a sharing with God and with Jesus, of their love and their forgiveness. It is exactly what is referred to as “fellowship”. Listen to the words of the apostle John, in 1 John 1:1 thru 3.. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life; And the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you, the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us; That which we have seen and heard, we proclaim also to you, so that you too, may have fellowship with us, and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
This is the sharing, this is the participation, this is the fellowship, that is symbolized in the partaking of the Lord’s supper. Yes we’re “proclaiming His death till He comes”, (1 Corinthians 11:26) but we’re also sharing the experience of salvation! Why would anyone NOT want to participate in the Lord’s supper, on the first day of the week, just as Christians did in the first century?
In 1 Corinthians 11, verse 20, Paul rebukes the Corinthians brethren for their abuse of the Lord’s supper. And here’s what he says.. “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.” Some versions phrase it a bit differently; Some say.. “Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper,”
But whichever way you phrase it, the point is the same; And that point is, that you SHOULD be coming together to eat the Lord’s supper! That should be one of your primary purposes for assembling together in worship. We should all desire to eat the Lord’s supper, as a symbol of the thankfulness that we feel for the “sharing”, for the “fellowship”, that we enjoy, through the forgiveness of our sins, and of our hope of eternal life in heaven.
When God inspired Paul to write in 1 Corinthians 11:27, that we should eat the Lord’s supper “in a worthy manner”, He was talking about our attitude, our heart’s intent, while we partake. God certainly didn’t mean that we had to in some way be, “worthy” of God’s blessings. No one is “worthy” of any of God’s blessings! So then don’t let that lead you astray, or confuse you, and cause you to think that’s there’s some reason NOT to partake of the Lord’s supper. There is no reason not to, and every reason to partake!
Jesus said in Luke 22:15.. “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” And I think this is the same “earnestness” that we should exhibit, in coming together to eat the Lord’s supper. To earnestly show our love for God, to earnestly show our fellowship with God, and to earnestly show our thankfulness to God, for all He’s done for us, and especially for the body and blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.