The Final Passover, The First Communion
When the hour had come, He reclined at the table, and the apostles with Him. And He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He said, “Take this and share it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes.” And when He had taken some bread and 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 in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood. (22:14–20)
Among the many unforgettable statements the Lord Jesus Christ made was His declaration,
For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. (John 10:17–18)
No one took Jesus’ life. He gave it up. He was not a victim, but willingly offered His life in complete agreement with and submission to God the Father. He died according to the divine plan, orchestrating every act of both enemies and friends to accomplish God’s purpose. He died as the true Passover lamb, whose sacrifice paid the full penalty for the sins of all who would ever believe.
There are many compelling figures surrounding the death of Jesus Christ, including the current high priest Caiaphas; the powerful and influential former high priest Annas; the Jewish leaders—the Sadducees, Pharisees, Herodians, and the Sanhedrin—who plotted and carried out the death of the Messiah; the puppet king Herod Antipas, not a Jew but an Idumean; the wretched Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ; the woeful puppet Pilate, who ordered Jesus’ execution despite having declared Him innocent; and the cowardly disciples, who at His arrest deserted Him.
Those characters will act freely and yet carry out their divinely assigned roles as the drama of the cross unfolds. The central figure is, of course, the Lord Jesus Christ, who eclipses all the others just as the blazing noon-day sun eclipses the stars. He appears as humiliated and yet majestic; suffering and yet exalted; punished and yet innocent; hated and yet loving; subjected and yet sovereign. Far from being a victim, Jesus moved through the events surrounding His death controlled by the Father’s will, kept by the Spirit’s power, and acting on the heavenly timetable, which was established before the world began.
The setting for this section of Luke’s gospel was Thursday night of Passion Week, the beginning of the eight-day-long celebration of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. It was also the night before Christ’s crucifixion, and His final gathering with the apostles before His death, since He would be arrested later that evening after the Passover meal. This section of Luke’s gospel marks the major turning point of redemptive history. Jesus brought the Old Covenant to an end and inaugurated the New Covenant. Thus, He and the disciples celebrated the last legitimate Passover, and the first Lord’s Supper. Jesus culminated the celebration looking back to God’s miraculous historical deliverance of Israel from Egypt and inaugurated a new memorial, looking to the cross and the eternal deliverance accomplished for His people there.
The Final Passover
When the hour had come, He reclined at the table, and the apostles with Him. And He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He said, “Take this and share it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes.” (22:14–18)
The message of Passover is that God delivers through the judgment of sin by the death of an innocent substitute. All the Old Testament sacrifices were symbols of that reality. But those animal sacrifices were not, in themselves, sufficient substitutes, or such offerings would have ceased (Heb. 10:1–2). No person has ever been delivered from divine judgment by the death of an animal (Heb. 10:4). Through the centuries, the people of Israel waited for the sacrifice that would be satisfactory to God, the one to which all the countless animal sacrifices had pointed.
That long-awaited sacrifice would be offered the next day, Friday, while countless thousands of lambs were again being sacrificed on the Passover. At that very time, God offered His sacrifice. He poured out His wrath against sinners on an innocent substitute—the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus was the perfect, final, and complete sacrifice for sin, making this the last Passover approved by God. Symbolic animal sacrifices pointing to the true sacrifice were no longer necessary once the Savior had been offered.
Luke’s treatment of Passover and the Lord’s Supper is brief, since the Old Testament contains a lot of information about Passover, and Paul had already described the Lord’s Supper in detail at least five years before Luke’s gospel when he wrote 1 Corinthians (see chapters 10 and 11). The precise sequence of the many features (e.g., the Passover meal, the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet, upper room discourse [John 13–16], high priestly prayer [John 17], prediction of Peter’s denials, and dismissal of Judas) that took place in the upper room that evening is not known. The hour they commenced, however, was sunset, the time when Passover always officially began. As was customary, Jesus reclined at the table, and the apostles with Him, lying on cushions with their heads near the table and their feet away from it. That Jesus and the Twelve reclined in such a manner indicates that this was a prolonged meal. The custom had changed since the original Passover celebration, a hurried affair before Israel fled from Egypt.
There were several stages in the Passover celebration, spread out over a period of hours and interspersed with conversation. The event opened with a prayer thanking God for His preservation, deliverance, protection, goodness, and blessing. Next came the first of four cups of diluted red wine, known as the cup of blessing. That was followed by a ceremonial washing of the hands, symbolizing the need for cleansing from sin. It was most likely at this point that the disciples began arguing among themselves about who was the greatest (Luke 22:24). In response, Jesus washed their feet (John 13:3–5) and instructed them concerning humility. The next element was the eating of bitter herbs, dipped along with pieces of bread into a paste made from fruit and nuts. That act symbolized the bitterness of Israel’s slavery in Egypt. Then the participants sang Psalms 113 and 114, the first two of the Hallel Psalms (113–118), after which they drank the second cup of wine. After that the father of the family, or as in this case Jesus as the head of the table, explained the meaning of Passover. Then came the main meal, consisting of the roasted sacrificial lamb and unleavened bread, after which they drank the third cup of wine. The ceremony closed with the singing of the remainder of the Hallel Psalms (115–118), and the drinking of the fourth cup of wine.
Christ’s words to the disciples in verse 15, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer,” likely were spoken just after the men had reclined at the table. They are intensive and forceful; the Greek text could be translated, “With desire I have desired.” These words indicate that this final Passover would be the fulfillment of a most powerful, emotional longing in the heart of the Lord. In a few hours He would go from eating again a sacrificial lamb to dying as the one true Lamb of God to validate the New Covenant. His whole life He had anticipated this hour, surely with increasing emotion.
The Lord’s next statement, “For I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God,” reveals that although this was the final Passover of His life, there will be another time when He celebrates the Passover with His own. That will take place in the kingdom of God (cf. vv. 18, 28–30; 1 Cor. 11:26). According to Ezekiel’s description of the future millennial temple, Passover will be cele brated in the millennial kingdom (Ezek. 45:21)—not remembering the exodus, but the cross. Until then, there are no divinely authorized Passovers. The regular celebration of Passover by the Jews is an expression of their rejection of their Messiah.
Jesus’ promise was wonderful news to the apostles. He had taught them the previous evening on the Mount of Olives what would happen in the future (Luke 21:7–36). Now in this reference to His kingdom He reassured them that His death was not the end of the story. He will rise and return to establish His promised kingdom in which His true followers will join with Him.
Jesus’ taking a cup and giving thanks (eucharisteō, from which the English word “eucharist” derives) marked the beginning of the Passover celebration. This cup, which He then commanded the disciples to take … and share … among themselves, was the first cup, called the cup of blessing. The apostle Paul referred to it in his instructions to the Corinthian church regarding communion (1 Cor. 10:16). The head of the table extolled God for His goodness, mercy, and provision through the years. Traditionally, he would also extol the glory and righteousness of Israel. But Jesus in all likelihood did not do that, since apostate Israel’s apostasy had reached its apex in eagerness to crucify the Messiah.
His words in verse 18, “For I say to you, I will not (ou mē; the strongest form of negation in Greek) drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes,” emphasize once again that this was the final Passover until it is reinstated in the millennial kingdom. These were words of comfort and hope for the disciples.
The fruit of the vine is a symbol of fruitfulness, blessing, and joy, reflecting God’s goodness to His people in delivering them from bondage. There will be a future salvation for the believing remnant of Israel (Rom. 11:1–32), when they and all believers will celebrate the Passover with Christ and extol the goodness of God. The cup of blessing here looks past the judgment that would fall on Jerusalem in the holocaust of a.d. 70, in which the Romans would utterly destroy both the city and the temple and scatter the people, to Israel’s ultimate salvation and blessing.
The First Communion
And when He had taken some bread and 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 in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood. (22:19–20)
It is impossible to overstate the monumental change these few simple phrases introduce. Christ’s words signaled the end of the Old Covenant, with its social, ceremonial, dietary, and Sabbath laws, and installed the New Covenant. With these words, Jesus marked the end of all the rituals and sacrifices, the priesthood, the holy place, and the Holy of Holies, the curtain of which God would soon split from top to bottom, throwing it wide open (Mark 15:38). All that the Old Covenant symbolism pointed toward would be fulfilled in the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ taking of the bread and giving thanks took place after the singing of the first part of the Hallel (Pss. 113, 114), followed by the second cup of wine, and the explanation of the meaning of Passover, while they were eating the main meal (Matt. 26:26).
Having taken the bread, Jesus then broke it and gave it to them. The bread was no longer the Passover “bread of affliction” (Deut. 16:3), nor was the breaking of the loaf a figure of Christ’s death, since none of His bones were broken (John 19:36; cf. Ex. 12:46). The disciples’ all partaking of the same loaf symbolized the unity of the body of Christ.
The Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation perverts the intent of Jesus’ reference to the bread as My body. According to that doctrine, during the mass the substance (though not the outward appearance) of the bread and wine are changed into the actual body and blood of Christ. The Lutheran notion of spiritual presence (known as consubstantiation) is also an errant view of our Lord’s words. According to that view
the molecules [of the bread and wine] are not changed into flesh and blood; they remain bread and wine. But the body and blood of Christ are present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. It is not that the bread and wine have become Christ’s body and blood, but that we now have the body and blood in addition to the bread and wine. (Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985], 3:1117)
Christ’s statement is no more to be taken literally than are His references to Himself as a door (John 10:9), vine (John 15:1, 5), and bread (John 6:35, 48). Such language is figurative, symbolically conveying spiritual truth using everyday items. Bread pictures things that are earthly, fragile, and subject to decay, symbolizing the reality that the Son of God took on human form and became subject to death.
The phrase which is given for you introduces the most important truth in the Bible—substitutionary atonement. As noted above, Passover conveyed the twin truths that divine wrath and justice can only be satisfied by death, but that death can be the death of innocent substitutes for the guilty. The millions of lambs that were slain throughout the centuries were all innocent. Animals are incapable of sinning, since they are not persons, and have no morality or self-consciousness. Jesus, however, is both innocent and a person—fully man as well as God. Therefore His substitutionary atonement death was acceptable to God to satisfy His holy condemnation of sin. Isaiah wrote, “He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed” (Isa. 53:5; cf. v. 12). Jesus “bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds [we] were healed” (1 Peter 2:24). God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
Then in the same way (that is, with thanks; cf. v. 19) Jesus took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” The cup was the third cup, which came after the meal. That it was poured out for you “for forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28) is another declaration of Christ’s death as a substitute for all who would believe. Sin can only be forgiven when satisfactory payment to God in the form of the death of the perfect sacrifice has been rendered. The Lord Jesus’ death was that payment. As the infinite God incarnate, He was actually able to bear the sins of and suffer God’s wrath for those sins on behalf of all who would ever believe, rescuing them from divine judgment by fully satisfying the demands of God’s justice.
His death inaugurated the new covenant which, like the Old Covenant, was ratified by the shedding of blood (Ex. 24:8; Lev. 17:11; Heb. 9:18–20). The New Covenant (Jer. 31:31–34; cf. Ezek. 36:25–27) is a covenant of forgiveness (Jer. 31:34) and the only saving covenant. As noted above, it was ratified by the blood of Christ, whose death as an innocent substitute satisfied the demands of God’s justice. (For a detailed discussion of the New Covenant, see 2 Corinthians, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 2003], chaps. 7 and 8.)
Regular observance of the Lord’s Supper is to be a constant reminder to Christians of the Lamb of God, chosen by God, sacrificed for sinners, whose death satisfied the demands of God’s justice, and whose life was poured out on our behalf so that our sins can be fully and forever forgiven. Paul summarized the significance of the Lord’s Supper when he wrote to the Corinthian believers,
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” 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.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. (1 Cor. 11:23–26)
The First Supper
And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” (Luke 22:14–15)
It is customary for a condemned man to be given one last request before he is put to death. That convention is observed in America by giving criminals on death row a feast before they are executed. Typically the menu is printed in the newspaper, presumably to satisfy the morbid interest of public curiosity. People want to know: What did the condemned man eat and drink before dying?
We could ask the same question about Jesus Christ, for he too was a condemned man, with one last meal to eat before dying. This was the night on which Jesus was betrayed. Soon he would be condemned and crucified for crimes he did not commit. In just a few short hours he would be arrested and accused, then beaten and abused. He would be dead before nightfall the following day, his lifeless body put in a tomb. This was the last night of our Savior’s life on earth, and he had one last meal to share with his disciples.
Christians usually call this farewell feast “the Last Supper.” This title makes sense because it was the last time that Jesus would celebrate Passover with his disciples, and the last time he would eat and drink anything with them before he died. But it was also the first time that Jesus celebrated communion with them, the sacred meal also known as the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. So in a sense the Last Supper was also “the First Supper”—the first supper of the new salvation that Jesus gave his disciples by giving them himself. In the words of T. W. Manson, the Lord’s Supper “indicates and inaugurates a redemption effected by the death of Christ as a sacrifice.”
The Heart of the Host
The first thing to understand about this supper is how eagerly Jesus wanted to share it with his disciples. We have already seen the deliberate preparations he made for this meal (see Luke 22:7–13), and how careful he was to make sure that it took place before he was betrayed. But as he sat down to the meal, Jesus opened his heart to his disciples. Luke tells us that “when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God’ ” (Luke 22:14–16).
In God’s perfect timing, the hour had come for Jesus to sit with his beloved disciples, waiting on them at the meal that signified their salvation (cf. Luke 12:37). With a heart of love, their host told them how much he had been looking forward to being alone with them around the table that night. The words he used for “earnest desire” (epithymia epethymēsa) express intense longing. Jesus Christ was a man of perfect passions. We have seen these passions throughout Luke’s Gospel: his scornful contempt for religious hypocrisy, his merciful compassion for the lost and broken, his holy jealousy for the true worship of God. Here we see his ardent affection for his disciples. There is no one Jesus would rather have been with on this last night than his closest friends. As he looked into the faces of the men gathered around the table that night, his heart was full because his intense longing to share this meal with them was satisfied.
Why did Jesus have this deep desire? It may have been because Passover was such a blessed occasion for the people of God. Passover was a sacramental celebration of God’s deliverance—a commemoration of Israel’s exodus. Every year the people of God offered a lamb to remember the sacrificial blood that had saved their ancestors on the famous night in Egypt when the angel of death passed over their houses. They ate bitter herbs to remember the bitter years of their slavery to Pharaoh, but they ate them while reclining at table—a symbol of freedom to show that they were no longer slaves. They also ate unleavened bread to symbolize their hasty departure the night they made their exodus from Egypt. The people of God looked forward to doing all of this at Passover. For Jesus and his disciples, the feast brought back some of the happiest memories of childhood: making the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, eating roast lamb with their families, and praising God for his salvation.
There is more, however. Jesus was not just longing for Passover, but also anticipating his death on the cross, and it is in this context that he earnestly desired to eat and drink with his disciples. Jesus was specific about this. He said, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). For many months Jesus had been telling his disciples that he would “suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed” (see Luke 9:22). Now the conspiracy was under way that would culminate in his crucifixion. But there was something Jesus wanted to do first: before he suffered, he wanted to host the farewell feast for his disciples that would help them understand what he was about to do for their salvation.
Jesus also desired to have this of all Passovers with his disciples because the feast was about to find its fulfillment. Passover was a time to look back and remember how God had saved his people in the past. In the plan of God, however, Passover also looked forward to the full and final salvation that God would provide in the person and work of the Messiah. So Jesus said, “I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:16).
At first it may sound as if Jesus was telling his disciples that after an undetermined delay, he would sit down and share this meal with them again. If so, then Jesus must have been thinking in terms of his coming glory and referring to the last of all feasts—what the Bible calls “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9). Yet Jesus may simply have meant that he would never share Passover with them again. In Hebrew usage, the word “until” does not necessarily imply that something will happen again. To cite just one example, when the Bible says that the prophet Samuel “did not see Saul again until the day of his death” (1 Sam. 15:35), this does not mean that Samuel bumped into Saul the day that he died, but that he never saw him again at all. Similarly, Jesus was telling his disciples that this was their last Passover. Soon that sacrament would find its true fulfillment in the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, and they would never have occasion to celebrate it together again. Instead, the people of God would celebrate the new sacrament of the new covenant in Christ by eating the bread and drinking the wine of the Lord’s Supper.
These were some of the reasons why Jesus was so eager to celebrate this Passover with his disciples—the disciples who later that very night would abandon Jesus and deny ever knowing him as the Christ. Johnny Cash once wrote a simple gospel song that captures something of the warm intimacy that the Savior shared with his friends around the table that night. In the song Jesus says to his disciples:
I can tell by your faces
That you don’t understand
The awesome things you’ve felt and seen
At the touch of my hand.
But someday you’ll understand it,
When the Father means for you to
But for now drink the cup and break the bread
And I’ll eat my last supper here with you.
Then comes the refrain:
Have a little bread, Simon;
Pass the wine to James my brother.
Go ahead and eat, fellas, And love one another.
Have a good time, friends,
’Cause tomorrow I must die.
And I’m never going to eat with you again
Till we eat the marriage supper in the sky.
Needless to say, the words “go ahead and eat, fellas” do not appear in any reputable English translation of Luke’s Gospel. This phrase is not part of the words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament for the Christian church. But it does express the friendly affection Jesus had for his disciples, and the love he felt for them in his heart as they sat down to share their last Passover, which was also the first supper of the kingdom of God. Jesus gave this sacramental meal to his disciples because he loved them.
The Cup of Thanksgiving
The transition from Passover to the Lord’s Supper helps explain why Luke tells us about two cups in this passage, and not just one. Anyone who is familiar with the Christian sacrament of the Lord’s Supper knows that there is only one loaf of bread and one cup of communion. In Luke’s account of the Last Supper, however, Jesus offers his disciples both a cup of thanksgiving (Luke 22:17) and the cup of the new covenant (Luke 22:20).
Some scholars think that having two cups is a difficulty and have tried to get around it by claiming that the last half of verse 19 and all of verse 20 are not part of the original manuscripts for the Gospel of Luke. They point out that these verses (which are absent from some ancient manuscripts of the New Testament) sound almost exactly like 1 Corinthians 11:24–25, so they may have been “borrowed” from the apostle Paul. Yet the vast majority of the ancient biblical manuscripts include the full text of verses 19 and 20. The reason a few manuscripts differ is probably that some scribe or other tried to resolve the difficulty himself and decided that there should really be only one cup.
Not only do both cups belong here, but they both help us to understand what Jesus was teaching his disciples. In all likelihood, the first cup was not part of the Lord’s Supper, but part of the traditional celebration of Passover. Four cups of salvation were raised during the Passover meal—one for each promise of deliverance that God gave to his people through the prophet Moses. This seems to be the context for what Luke tells us in verses 17 and 18: “And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, ‘Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes’ ” (Luke 22:17–18). It is not entirely clear which cup this may have been, but whether it was the first cup of the feast or the last, it was part of “this Passover”—the one that Jesus said he wanted to celebrate with his disciples (Luke 22:15).
The first cup that Luke mentions was for thanksgiving. When Jesus raised it for his disciples, he first gave thanks to God. We do not know exactly what Jesus said when he prayed. Presumably, he praised the Father for his mighty works of saving power. But it is enough for us to know that he celebrated this feast with a glad and thankful heart, and that when he gave this thankful cup to his disciples, they drank it together. They were sharing a communal celebration of God’s saving power.
Once again, Jesus said that he would not share this cup with them again until kingdom come. Or, to take what he said more literally, he would not drink any wine of any kind. Again, it is hard to be entirely certain what Jesus meant by “until” and what he meant by “the kingdom of God.” Many of the early church fathers thought Jesus was talking about the resurrection of his body: his lips would touch no wine until he was raised from the dead. Possibly the word “until” means here what it seems to mean in verse 16, namely, that he will not share this Passover with them again. More likely, Jesus was looking forward to the banquet he has promised to share with us in the coming age. He would not keep a feast of the same kind again until he ate the last of all suppers, on the day when “the grand Consummation has arrived with the final victory over all the evil powers.”
What does seem clear is that Jesus connected the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to Passover. “Jesus is interpreting His death in a Passover context,” writes Leon Morris, “and making it clear that it has saving significance.” The Last Supper is both the last Passover and the first communion. By way of analogy, this meal is like a video sequence in which one image fades away while at the same time a superimposed image is coming into focus. The meal morphs from Passover into communion, from the Last Supper of the old administration to the first supper of the new covenant.
F. W. Krummacher used a different analogy to make the same point, comparing the meal in the upper room to a blossom on a tree that grows into fruit. “Christ has exalted the Mosaic festival of the Passover,” Krummacher said, “by changing it into His sacrament.” Jesus made this change because it was one of the best ways for his disciples to understand his saving work. Seeing the Lord’s Supper in the context of Passover teaches us what Jesus was doing for us on the cross. The apostle Paul made a similar connection when he said, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival” (1 Cor. 5:7–8).
The Bread of Remembrance
This brings us to the two elements Jesus used to celebrate the First Supper: the bread of remembrance and the cup of the new covenant. We begin the way that Jesus did, with the bread: “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’ ” (Luke 22:19).
The people of God always ate bread when they celebrated Passover. But here, by the words that instituted the Lord’s Supper, Jesus invested the breaking of the bread with new and surprising significance. It is not simply what Jesus did that is important here, but also what he said. The words “do this” indicate that Jesus intended the sacramental acts of breaking the bread (and pouring the cup) to be repeated in the worship of the church. But in order for us to know what it means to “do this” in remembrance of Jesus, the physical sign of breaking the bread must be interpreted by the sacramental words of our Savior. They are words it takes only a moment to understand but a lifetime to comprehend, for although they are simple in themselves, they reveal many deep mysteries of the gospel.
What are some of the things we learn from what Jesus said about the bread? We learn that the bread of this sacrament is to be received with thanksgiving, for Jesus gave thanks before he broke it (Luke 22:19). This is why some Christians call communion “the Eucharist,” which is simply the Greek word for giving thanks (eucharisteō). The Lord’s Supper is a gift of God’s grace, and therefore it is to be received with a grateful heart.
We learn further that the sacramental bread “is” the body of Jesus Christ. This immediately raises further questions, because our interpretation of what Jesus meant by saying this depends on what our definition of “is” is. Some Christians believe that Jesus is speaking literally here, and therefore that in some way the physical essence of the bread must be changed or transubstantiated into the very body of Christ. There are many reasons to think that this interpretation is incorrect, including some that are obvious from the immediate context. What sense does it make to say that the bread is identical with the body of Christ when Jesus is right there with his disciples already, in his physical body, breaking bread with them?
The disciples themselves would have been astonished that anyone would even think of taking Jesus literally here. The very idea would have been alien to their whole way of thinking about Jesus or the sacraments. By this time they were well used to their Lord speaking to them in figures of speech. When Jesus said, “I am the door” (John 10:9), they did not start looking for his hinges, and when he said, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35), they did not assume that his dough was made from scratch! The disciples instinctively recognized that Jesus was not speaking literally at all, but using metaphors to make a spiritual comparison.
Similarly, when Jesus said “This bread is my body,” he was not giving his disciples a philosophical theory of the sacraments, but drawing a simple comparison that would help them understand the meaning of his death. He was not describing a physical change, but making a sacramental identification. The union or association between Jesus and the bread is not physical, but spiritual. To say that the bread is his body is to say that it “represents” or “signifies” or “symbolizes” his body. In the words of John Calvin, “the bread is called body because it is symbol of the body.”
Undoubtedly one of the reasons Jesus chose bread to serve as this sacramental symbol is that bread is so basic to life itself. We cannot live without our daily bread. So when Jesus tells us to take and eat the bread that signifies his body, he is giving us something we cannot live without—something we need to nourish our souls.
Jesus gives us this life-giving nourishment in the bread of the Lord’s Supper. “Give” is just the word to use, because Jesus said, “This is my body, which is given for you.” In breaking the bread, Jesus is offering us himself. To be more specific, he is offering us himself in his bodily sacrifice for our sins.
There may be a reminder of this bodily sacrifice in the very fact that the sacramental bread is broken. This action echoes the famous prophecy in Isaiah 53, where it was promised that our Suffering Servant would be “wounded for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5). Thus the breaking of the bread may serve as a sacramental signification of the bruised servant—a depiction, so to speak, of his sacrifice.
The atoning death of Jesus is even more obviously signified in the words “for you” (Luke 22:19). The New Testament uses this language to indicate that Jesus died on our behalf, that his sacrifice was substitutionary (e.g., Gal. 1:4; 3:13). When Jesus said to his disciples, “This is my body, which is given for you,” he was already looking ahead to what he would do for them and for all his disciples on the cross. Jesus was speaking of himself as a saving sacrifice. He would give himself for us, dying in our place to pay the death penalty that we deserve for our sins.
To say that Jesus died “for you” is to say something more than that he died for your benefit; it is to say that he died in your place, suffering the death that you deserved to die. This can be illustrated from something that happened not long after the end of the American Civil War, when a man in farm clothes was seen kneeling at a soldier’s grave in Nashville, Tennessee. A sympathetic bystander asked him, “Is that the grave of your son?” “No,” the farmer replied, “I have seven children, all of them young, and a wife on my poor farm in Illinois. I was drafted into the Union army, and despite the great hardship it would cause to my family, I was required to serve. But on the morning I was to depart, the man who now lies in this grave—my neighbor’s oldest son—came over and offered to take my place in the war.” When the farmer stepped away, the bystander could see the words he had written on the gravestone. They simply read, “He died for me.” This is the testimony of every believer in Jesus Christ: we have a Savior who offered himself in our place. Whenever we break bread at his table, we say, “He died for me.”
The old Scottish Presbyterian John Willison summarized everything we have been saying about the bread in his Sacramental Catechism. The catechism asks, “What is the meaning of the words, ‘This is My body, broken for you’?” Then it gives this answer: “The meaning is that this broken bread is Christ’s body spiritually and sacramentally, or that it signifies and represents His body, and is a visible sign and token of His body’s being broken, bruised and crucified; yes, crucified for you, even wounded for your transgressions, and bruised for your iniquities.”
We remember all this every time we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). So we break the bread in remembrance of Jesus, calling to mind the body that he sacrificed for our sins. We do not sacrifice Jesus all over again, of course. The sacrament is to be celebrated the way that Jesus celebrated it: not on an altar, but at a table. We do not repeat or reenact the sacrifice of Jesus, but we do remember his once-and-for-all death for our sins (see Heb. 7:27). We remember Jesus himself, who even now is blessing us by his grace. We are called to remembrance because “our Savior knows that we have worldly hearts and treacherous memories, and that we stand in need of all these memorials to keep up the lively remembrance of His love.”
By faith and by the living presence of the Holy Spirit, we also do something more than remember: we have real spiritual participation in the life of Christ. The apostle Paul taught this by asking, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). Yes, the Lord’s Supper is a spiritual participation in the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The sacrament is more than a remembrance. But it is not less. As often as we do this sacrament, we remember what Jesus did for us in his death and gave to us when he offered his body for our sins.
The Cup of the New Covenant
It was not just his body that Jesus offered for us, but also his blood, which is signified in the cup of the new covenant: “And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’ ” (Luke 22:20).
This is the second cup that Luke has mentioned in his account of the Last Supper. The first cup—the cup of thanksgiving—was probably part of Passover. The second cup—the cup of the new covenant in Christ’s blood—is certainly part of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Like the bread, the cup is a symbol that signifies Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. Just as the bread signifies Christ’s body, so also the cup signifies his blood. These two words—the “body” and the “blood”—appear together several places in Scripture (e.g., Lev. 17:11–14; Deut. 12:23; Heb. 13:11). When they do, it is always in the context of sacrifice. “The body and the blood” is sacrificial terminology, which makes sense, because it is of the very nature of a sacrifice to separate the blood from the body. When a sacrifice is offered, blood is poured out, which Jesus signified by pouring out the cup for his disciples. Even before he shed his blood on the cross for our sins, he gave us the sacrament that shows this sacrifice.
Jesus said that in pouring out his blood he was establishing a new covenant, the new covenant that was brought into being by his death as a sacrifice. To understand what this means, we need to begin with the old covenant, and the sacrificial blood on which it was based. It is characteristic of the covenants that God has made with his people for salvation that they are made by sacrifice. A covenant is a bond in blood, a solemn commitment that God will keep his saving promise to the very death. This is always indicated by a blood sacrifice.
One of the best places to see this is Exodus 24, a passage in which God makes a covenant with his people through the prophet Moses and speaks specifically about “the blood of the covenant.” On the day that covenant was confirmed, Moses collected the blood of many sacrifices into large basins and threw half of it against the holy altar of sacrifice in the house of God (Exod. 24:6). He took the other half and threw it on the people, saying, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you” (Exod. 24:8). Making the covenant was a messy, bloody business. It was not signed like a contract, but sealed in blood. This was a sign of God’s mercy, for the blood on the altar showed that the people had forgiveness for their sins, while the blood on the people themselves showed that they were included in the covenant of salvation.
That was the old covenant, but now Jesus had come to establish a new covenant. This was the covenant that God promised through the prophet Jeremiah, when he said, “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.… For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:31–34). Even the old covenant was a covenant of grace, but it was always looking forward to the time when God would fulfill all the promises of salvation. God promised to write his law on our hearts. He promised that he would be our God, and we would be his people. He promised to forgive all our sins forever.
Jesus is the answer to all the old promises of the covenant. This is what Jesus was telling his disciples the night of the First Supper. The new covenant had come! Jesus said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant.” Then he added these staggering words—words that take our breath away, if we understand what they mean: “in my blood” (Luke 22:20). What is new about the new covenant is that it is established by the blood of God. Of all the things that we could say about the newness of the new covenant, this is the place where we must begin: with the fact that the Son of God shed his own blood for our sins—“my blood of the covenant” he calls it in the Gospels of Matthew (26:28) and Mark (14:24).
The old sacrifices were getting God’s people ready to understand this amazing reality. The Old Testament is full of blood sacrifices: the sacrifices of Adam, Noah, and all the patriarchs; the sacrifices that were offered at Passover; the sacrifices that Moses made to establish the covenant; the sacrifices at the tabernacle and later at the temple; the sacrifices on the day of atonement—on and on and on it goes, blood after blood after blood. These old covenant sacrifices were offered again and again because they were only animal sacrifices, and therefore in themselves they could not atone for human sin.
Then Jesus came to offer once-and-for-all atonement for sin through the sacrifice of his blood. On the eve of that sacrifice, he announced that he would establish the new covenant with his very own blood—the blood he would shed on the cross for our sins. Understand that God has never asked anyone else to shed any blood to establish the covenant of salvation; he offered the covenant blood himself. This is what Jesus was emphasizing when he instituted the Lord’s Supper. “It is my blood that will do this thing,” he was saying. “It is my blood that will establish the covenant. It is my blood that will atone for your sins. It is my blood that will gain your salvation. All that I ask of you is to believe in the cross where I will give my blood for you, and then by faith you will drink in all the benefits of the sacrifice I have made for you.”
A Sacrament for You
This was the legacy Jesus left for his disciples the night that he was condemned to die. Rather than thinking of what he wanted to have for himself—the way people usually do when they are led to their execution—he was thinking about what he wanted to give of himself. He would give his disciples a meal to remember before making the sacrifice they could never forget.
Do you understand what Jesus has done for your salvation in his death on the cross? Do you understand the bread of remembrance and the cup of the new covenant that Jesus gives in the Lord’s Supper? As J. C. Ryle explained, “The two elements of bread and wine were intended to preach Christ crucified as our substitute. They were to be a visible sermon, appealing to the believer’s senses, and teaching the old foundation-truth of the Gospel, that Christ’s death on the cross is the life of man’s soul.” This is also the foundation-truth of the Christian life: Christ’s death on the cross for the life of your soul.
If you understand this sacrament and the sacrifice that it signifies, then know this as well, and know it for sure: Jesus desires to share his supper with you every bit as eagerly as he wanted to share it with his disciples the night of the First Supper. Jesus died for you as much as he died for them, and he loves you as much as he loves them. It is to you that the bread is given and to you that the cup is poured, because it was for you that his body was broken and for you that his blood was shed.
Luke 22:19. Which is given for you. The other two Evangelists leave out this clause, which, however, is far from being superfluous; for the reason why the flesh of Christ becomes bread to us is, that by it salvation was once procured for us. And as the crucified flesh itself is of no advantage but to those who eat it by faith, so, on the other hand, the eating of it would be unmeaning, and of hardly any value, were it not in reference to the sacrifice which was once offered. Whoever then desires that the flesh of Christ should afford nourishment to him, let him look at it as having been offered on the cross, that it might be the price of our reconciliation with God. But what Matthew and Mark leave out in reference to the symbol of bread, they express in reference to the cup, saying, that the blood was to be shed for the remission of sins; and this observation must be extended to both clauses. So then, in order that we may feed aright on the flesh of Christ, we must contemplate the sacrifice of it, because it was necessary that it should have been once given for our salvation, that it might every day be given to us.
19–20 As stated above, these words of institution may come from a non-Markan source. Similar wording in 1 Corinthians 11:24–25, written before AD 60, shows that it was probably an early source used by both Luke and Paul. This supports the reliability of Luke’s research (1:1–4). The suffering motif is consistent with Jesus’ understanding of his mission as the Suffering Servant.
The “bread” (arton, GK 788, v. 19) was the thin, unleavened bread used in the Passover. “Gave thanks” translates the verb eucharisteō (GK 2373), the source of the beautiful word Eucharist often used to signify the Lord’s Supper. Luke alone has “given for you” (hyper hymōn didomenon [GK 1443]) in the saying over the bread, as well as “poured out for you” (to hyper hymōn ekchynnomenon [GK 1773]) in the cup saying (v. 20). The “pouring out” may be interpreted as a symbolic act that points to Jesus’ own death on the cross (see, however, L. C. Boughton, “ ‘Being Shed for You/Many’: Time-Sense and Consequences in the Synoptic Cup Citations,” TynBul 48 : 249–70, who points to the possibility of a future reference in this present passive participle).
“In remembrance of me” (v. 19) directs our attention primarily to the person of Christ and not merely to the benefits we receive (of whatever nature we may understand them to be) from partaking of the bread and cup. The final cup, following the sequence of several refillings during the Passover, signifies the “new covenant” (v. 20) in Jesus’ blood. The disciples would have been reminded of the “blood of the covenant” (Ex 24:8), i.e., the blood used ceremonially to confirm the covenant. The new covenant (cf. Jer 31:31–34) carried with it assurance of forgiveness through Jesus’ blood shed on the cross and the inner work of the Holy Spirit in motivating us and enabling us to fulfill our covenantal responsibility.
19–20 Jesus follows generally the order of the Passover celebration, but lingers over the bread and cup in order to charge them with interpretive significance that draws on yet departs from the meaning of Passover. Interestingly, though sacrificial images are present in these verses (see below), Jesus evokes no direct comparison between the Passover lamb and himself, preferring instead to interpret the bread and cup.60 Nor does Luke portray the manner of his death with reference to the breaking of the bread, an act that is merely preparatory to the distribution of the bread and devoid of symbolic significance. If the breaking of the bread bears no metaphorical weight, this is not true of its distribution, however. “Giving one’s body” is potent as an image for giving one’s life (in battle) for the sake of one’s people.62 The sequence Luke describes with reference to the bread—took + gave thanks + broke + gave—is reminiscent of Jesus’ actions in the feeding of the multitudes in 9:16. It is remarkable that the feeding miracle is also set in a co-text in which kingdom proclamation and messianic suffering figure prominently (9:1–27). The Scriptures employ the image of “the cup” both with reference to participation in salvation and, especially, with reference to divine judgment.65 Similarly, “blood poured out” signals violent death. Jesus, then, is not enacting (or teaching his followers how to reenact) his death through his actions;67 rather, he is interpreting through his words the significance of this Passover and, thus, of his death.
Jesus follows up the bread word with instruction to “Do this in remembrance of me.” The notion of “remembrance” is pivotal to the celebration of Passover and cannot be limited, as it often is in English usage, to the idea of cognitive recall of a prior occurrence. In the biblical tradition, cognitive (or affective) recall is often triggered by verbal communication for that purpose, and this provides the impetus for some response or action. In a related sense, “remembrance” is often employed with the sense of “the effect of the recollection of the past for present or future benefit.”69 With the repeated celebration of Passover as precursor, and with this linguistic background for the understanding of remembrance, we may understand Jesus as instructing his followers not only to continue sharing meals together, but to do so in a way that their fellowship meals recalled the significance of his own life and death in obedience to God on behalf of others. This recollection should have the effect of drawing forth responses reminiscent of Jesus’ own table manners—his openness to outsiders, his comportment as a servant, his indifference toward issues of status honor, and the like—so that these features of his life would come to be embodied in the community of those who call him Lord. “A meal in memory of Jesus is one which celebrates and prolongs his lifestyle of justice and of serving the Father’s food to all.”
If “the cup” is a metaphorical referent to divine judgment, the train of thought thus initiated is helped along by the reference to “blood poured out,” which signals violent death and sacrifice. The phraseology of v 20 (“new covenant in my blood”) goes further, alluding to two OT texts that indicate Jesus’ interpretation of his death as an effective, covenantal sacrifice. The language of “new covenant” is drawn from Jer 31:31–34; there, as in the portrayal of the ministry of Jesus in the Third Gospel, the eschatological work of God is developed with reference to the forgiveness of sins. Indeed, throughout Luke-Acts, Jesus is presented as the Savior who grants forgiveness of sins. Setting the cup-word within the larger framework of Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ ministry disallows any notion of a “new covenant” discontinuous with the old, for Luke has emphasized the continuity between the ancient purpose of God and its fulfillment in the coming of Jesus. Similarly, in a number of Qumranic texts, the phrase “new covenant” functions as a cipher for a renewal of the covenant in conjunction with those whom God has called.73 Additionally, in the phrase “covenant in my blood,” one may hear an allusion to Exod 24:8, the covenant sacrifice that, in targumic texts, is interpreted as having been effective as an atoning sacrifice for the people by which they were brought into covenant with Yahweh. By means of this allusion, a typological relationship is drawn between the covenant sacrifice of Exod 24:8 and the death of Jesus, so that Jesus’ death is said to atone for the sins of the people and thus to enable their participation in the renewed, eschatological covenant with God.
“Covenant” is fundamentally a relational term, pointing in this case to the bond of fidelity and love between God and humanity. The “you” with whom Jesus thus renews the divine covenant refers to the apostles who have joined him at the table, but it is precisely here that Luke’s rationale for designating them in this co-text as “apostles” (rather than “disciples”) comes into sharp focus. As “apostles,” they are chosen to represent and to lead Israel (cf. 6:12–16; 22:29–30); hence, this covenant is extended beyond Jesus’ immediate table partners to all who embrace “good news to the poor” (see above on 4:18–19).
It is remarkable that this Lukan text attributes such far-reaching significance to the death of Jesus, since the notion of the cross’s substitutionary role is completely missing in the missionary sermons in Acts and otherwise present only in Paul’s farewell address (Acts 20:28). Elsewhere, Luke emphasizes more pointedly (and pervasively) the salvific role of Jesus’ exaltation.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Vol. 3, p. 212). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.