“Did Jesus celebrate the Jewish passover at the last supper?” Ensign, June 1975, 20–21
Richard L. Anderson, Professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University
At the Last Supper Jesus commemorated the traditional Passover meal but also dramatically transformed it. Thus, many details of the Last Supper are but faintly understood if we don’t know the outlines of the traditional Passover of Jesus’ time. For instance, Matthew 26 and Mark 14 both relate the sequence of this first Christian sacrament as first bread and then wine, an order that Paul also agrees with. [Matt. 26; Mark 14] (See 1 Cor. 11:23–25.) But Luke 22 narrates Jesus’ distribution of wine, then bread, and then wine again (Luke 22:15–20), a source of some confusion. But Luke plainly says that only the bread and the second cup of wine were given “in remembrance of me.” He also says that the second cup of wine was “the cup after supper.” Thus Luke reports the Jewish meal first, then uses its bread and wine for the new purpose of commemorating Christ’s sacrifice that was soon to be made.
The Jewish Passover meal is described in part in Exodus 12, with its early symbolism of God’s salvation to Israel in her trials and departure from Egypt. [Ex. 12] Technical questions of the Passover meal’s development do not concern us if we seek to envision the feast that Jesus and his apostles kept. The ritual near their time appears quite clearly in the Passover section of the Mishnah, the early law written at the end of the first century after Christ. Following Herbert Danby’s translation, one may relive the ancient service, which has not radically changed since that time. Four cups of wine were prescribed, and the initial one called for blessings, including one on the wine. As the meal progressed, the father of the household explained the significance of the Passover feast, and at intervals during the meal the entire group sang or chanted Psalms 113–118, such recitation being completed with the final cup of wine. [Ps. 113–118]
The New Testament accounts of the Last Supper obviously fit into the above structure. Luke relates how Jesus opened the feast with a first cup of wine, blessing it and stating that this would be his last Passover with the apostles before his death. Matthew and Mark relate how all sang the hymn before leaving their room. (See Matt. 26:30, Mark 14:26.) During the meal proper Jesus taught much, as hinted at by Luke and as recorded in detail by John. Luke knew that the new Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper began with “the cup after supper” (Luke 22:20), the same Greek phrase used by Paul, though somewhat quaintly translated as “when he had supped.” (1 Cor. 11:25.)
In other words, the feast marking Israel’s past salvation was elevated by Jesus into the remembrance of the world’s salvation through his final sacrifice. From the Passover service he selected bread and wine, and consecrated them as symbols of his body and blood. (See 1 Cor. 10:16–17.) What began with Moses in Egypt culminated with Christ in Jerusalem. Throughout his final Passover meal the Lord stressed the future and not the past. His teachings rose in crescendo to the final act of blessing the bread and wine in remembrance of his new work for man. Thus he taught in action that there was a greater act of God than bringing Israel from Egypt. For through Christ’s sacrifice, God would pass over the sins of all who obeyed him.
As we eat “in remembrance of the body of thy Son” (D&C 20:77) and drink “in remembrance of the blood of thy Son” (D&C 20:79), we partly look back to an upper room in ancient Palestine. Yet the vitality of that act is its power today. For through remembering Jesus’ past sacrifice, we promise to transform our own lives in preparation for an eternal future with him.