The Messianic Meal
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 10 September 2007; Revised 26 August 2015
Formerly titled "Eucharist or Messianic Passover?
Sources: Bibliographic data for works cited may be found at the end of the article. Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the Messianic Jewish Family Bible: Tree of Life Version (TLV), © 2014 by Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society. Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Hebraic and Jewish nature of Scripture I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).
Then came the day of matzah, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. Now Yeshua sent Peter and John, saying, "Go and prepare the Passover for us, so we may eat." (Luke 22:7-8)
Christian theologians acknowledge that Yeshua (Jesus) and His disciples observed the Pesach or Passover on the night before he died on the cross (Luke 22:15), which for the apostles later became a Messianic meal (1Cor 11:23-26). Yet for centuries Christianity has taught that by giving attention to two specific elements of the meal, the bread and cup, Yeshua established an entirely new rite and infused sacramental significance in those two elements. Many Christians have little understanding of Passover and may assume that it has no value.
Given the lack of knowledge among Christians on this subject and the Christian teaching on sacraments, it's appropriate to ask whether Yeshua really intended to change or abolish Passover. Does the evidence support the belief that he instituted a sacrament or a new rite? Why is the Christian practice of the sacred meal so different from what Yeshua and the apostles celebrated? Why did Christianity substitute a sacrament for Passover and forbid sharing in Passover? Are Passover and the Christian ceremony mutually exclusive or complementary? This article will attempt to answer these questions.
Institution of Passover
"This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you." (Ex 12:2 NASB)
The Passover is a special meal that has been celebrated by Jews since God commanded the observance and gave instructions to Moses. The first Passover was eaten in the context of Egyptian captivity and served as the means of deliverance from slavery and a plague of death on the firstborn. Unlike the previous nine plagues on the Egyptians in which the Hebrews were miraculously protected, they would have suffered the tenth plague if they had not followed the Passover instructions.
The story of the plague and the first Passover are detailed in Exodus 12:1—13:16. Thereafter, Passover would celebrate that rescue and remain a living memorial of God’s great work of redemption (Ex 23:14-15; Lev 23:4-8; Num 28:16-25; Deut 16:1-8). The Passover deliverance made salvation distinctly national in scope and truly set Israel apart as a special people. Slaves and resident aliens (Gentiles) were allowed to share the meal with the Hebrew families as long as they were circumcised (Ex 12:48). This simple provision demonstrated that God’s plan of salvation for Gentiles has always been based on inclusion in Israel (cf. Eph 2:11-13).
Preparations for the first Passover began at the new moon in the first month of spring. On the 10th of Aviv (Nisan) a year-old male lamb would be chosen for each household and subsequently killed on the 14th of the month. Having the lamb for four days in the home allowed sufficient time to determine whether there were any physical abnormalities or health problems in the lamb, because God would accept only a perfect lamb. The blood of the slain lamb was then smeared on the doorframes so that the angel of death would "pass over" over the household and spare the firstborn therein from death.
The first Passover meal had only three ingredients – roasted lamb, unleavened bread (Heb. matstsah, Anglicized as matzah) and bitter herbs (Heb. maror) (Ex 12:8). These foods were chosen for both practical and theological reasons (Deut 16:3). The lamb had to be roasted in its entirety over an open fire without breaking any bones. Under no circumstances was the lamb to be eaten raw or boiled with water. The matzah was prepared as a flatbread, using just whole grain flour, water and oil. The meal was to be eaten in haste with shoes on and staff in hand ready to depart, because they could not be sure when permission would be received from Pharaoh to leave the country. Partaking of a meal with special ingredients to commemorate God’s gracious act of redemption illustrates that from the Hebrew perspective “theology is not only taught, it is also eaten” (Kasdan 27).
Since all leaven had to be removed from homes on Nisan 14 in preparation for the Passover meal (Ex 12:15; Deut 16:4) and only unleavened bread was served at the Passover meal, Passover began the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which lasted seven days to Nisan 21 (Num 28:17). By the apostolic era the term “Passover” had come to mean the entire eight-day festival (Wilson 239). In fact, Luke emphasizes this very point in the beginning of his parallel narrative, "Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover" (Luke 21:1). This unity can be seen as early as the Passover celebrated in the time of King Josiah when Passover sacrifices included both lambs (killed on Nisan 14) and bulls (killed on Nisan 15-21) (2Chr 35:7-9).
Passover After Egypt
“Now this day will be a memorial to you, and you shall celebrate it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations you are to celebrate it as a permanent ordinance.” (Ex 12:14 NASB)
God expressly commanded the Israelites to celebrate the feast of Passover annually in perpetuity, that is, forever (Ex 12:14). Failing to observe Passover would be a sin (Num 9:13). However, a question arose concerning what to do if someone could not participate due to some uncleanness or if on a long journey. The Lord granted an exception that the person could observe Passover 30 days later (Num 9:6-14). With the instructions for the first Passover God also gave direction for future observance of Passover (Ex 12:24-27; 13:1-16; 23:15; Num 9:1-3, 13-14; Lev 23:5-8; Deut 16:1-8). The Israelites would eat the same meal as the first Passover (Num 9:5) and the only work allowed during this period was the preparation of food.
The Lord gave a particular responsibility to fathers to teach the meaning of the Passover to their sons (Ex 12:26-27; 13:8; cf. Deut 6:20-25). The Lord anticipated that in the midst of the Passover meal a son would ask, “What does this service mean?” God instructed the father to reply, “It is the sacrifice of the LORD's Pesach, who passed over the houses of the children of Yisra'el in Mitzrayim, when he struck the Mitzrim, and spared our houses” (Ex 12:26-27 HNV).
For the first Passover the lamb was sacrificed, prepared and eaten by each household (Ex 12:3-4). Observance thereafter began to change. The feast was made obligatory for men and voluntary for women (Num 9:2; Deut 16:16). The later narratives of Passover indicate male participation without mention of households, although they may well have shared in the occasion (Num 9:4-10; Josh 5:10; 2Chr 30:21; 35:17).
Another change occurred in the instructions for slaughtering the lambs. The Levites apparently had no prescribed priestly duties prior to the Torah being given at Sinai. The practice of priestly approval of lambs began during the wilderness wanderings with the encampment surrounding the Tabernacle (Lev 17:5). In the covenant given at Moab the Lord commanded that after Israel entered the land promised to their fathers Passover lambs had to be sacrificed at the central sanctuary by a priest before being consumed by the family (Deut 16:5-6).
The dispersion of Jews after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians made observance of Passover impossible, but with the Temple rebuilt under Ezra's leadership, pilgrimages resumed in obedience to the Torah. Thus, the Passover observance in Yeshua’s day meant that thousands of Jews traveled to Jerusalem each year for this special feast. After the lamb was sacrificed at the Temple, the residents and pilgrims (mostly male) conducted the Passover in private homes.
By the first century new customs had come into being for the celebration of Passover. The special observance came to be known by the Heb. term Seder ("say-dur"), which means order or arrangement and refers to the organization of the evening. While the Torah does not provide a chronological sequence of the evening activities, Rabbinic Judaism developed a 14-part Seder. [NOTE: The Haggadah (lit. "telling") that sets forth the Seder service cannot be dated any earlier than the third century A.D. and not in any written form before the 10th century A.D.]
Instructions for Passover were set forth in the Mishnah tractate Pesachim. The written Mishnah is believed to be the work of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch in about A.D. 220. The Mishnah is divided into six orders; each order is divided into tractates; each tractate is divided into chapters, and each chapter has a number of halakhot ("instructions" or "laws"). The Mishnah generally reflects traditions followed in the first century, although to what degree cannot be determined with certainty. Pesachim reveals that among Jews the Passover became more than just a meal, but a sacred celebration, which included ritual washings and the recitation of several prayers and Psalms.
The Mishnah identifies six important customs of the Passover Seder not specifically mentioned in the Torah.
• Bitter Herbs: Since the Torah does not define maror ("bitter herbs"), the Mishnah identifies different kinds of produce that satisfied the requirement of maror (Pesachim 2:7): romaine or other dark lettuce, endive or chicory. Horseradish, which is commonly used today, wasn't adopted until Medieval times. Maror symbolized the bitterness of slavery.
• Wine: The Mishnah specifies the consumption of four cups of wine (Pesachim 10:1). Festivals typically began and ended with a cup of wine, but the Sages believed that for the most joyous evening of the year two more should be drunk. The Mishnah says that even the poorest man in Israel should not drink less than four cups of wine on this occasion, even if they must be given him from the funds devoted to the charitable support of the very poor. (Of the four cups of wine prescribed in the Mishnah the apostolic Last Supper narratives mention only two.) The cups were not identified by name as in the modern Seder, but the cups symbolize the four promises of Exodus 6:6-7:
"'I am the LORD, and I will bring you [Heb. yatsa, to bring out] out from under the burdens of the Mitzrim, and I will rid you [Heb natsal, to deliver] out of their bondage, and I will redeem you [Heb ga'al, to redeem, act as a kinsman-redeemer] with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments and I will take you [Heb laqach, to take into possession] to me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who brings you out from under the burdens of the Mitzrim” HNV
• Dipping Sauce: Sweetness was added to the Seder meal by the use of a dipping sauce called charoset, a mixture of fruit, nuts and wine, symbolizing the mortar used by the Israelites in the building projects (Pesachim 2:9; 10:3).
• Posture: Participants reclined (Heb. shakab) while eating the meal. The first Passover was eaten while standing (Ex 12:11), but eventually reclining became obligatory for the Passover as a sign of freedom (Pesachim 10:1). Non-festival meals were normally eaten while sitting (e.g. Gen 27:19; 1Sam 20:5; Jer 16:8; Ezek 44:3; Matt 14:19; 15:35; Luke 17:7).
• Child's Question: Due to the several customs that made up the Seder the son's question was changed from "What does this rite mean?" (Ex 12:26) to "Why is this night different from all other nights?" (Pesachim 10:4).
• Hymn: The Seder was to end with the recitation of the Hallel, which consisted of some portion or all of Psalm 113 to 118 (Pesachim 5:5).
Pesachim also refers to the Korban Pesach, a sandwich formed with the meat and bitter herbs stacked between two pieces of matzah (Pesachim 115a). The sandwich was intended to fulfill the instruction of Numbers 9:11, "In the second month on the fourteenth day at twilight, they shall observe it; they shall eat it [the lamb] with unleavened bread and bitter herbs." Pesachim identifies the creator of the sandwich as Hillel the Elder, who ruled the Sanhedrin when Yeshua was a child. The Hillel Sandwich was not widely practiced due to the disapproval of other rabbinic authorities.
More traditions not found anywhere in the Talmud developed among Jews in later centuries: dipping karpas (usually parsley) in salt water or wine vinegar, eating a beitzah (roasted egg) as a symbol of mourning due to the destruction of the temple and loss of the chagigah sacrifices; singing Dayenu ("it would have been enough"); hiding the apikoman (dessert piece of matzah) for the children; and singing Chad Gadya ("one little goat") at the end of the meal. In addition, many Jews decline to eat lamb, since there is no Temple for sacrifice and instead place a lamb shank bone on the Passover plate to remind them of the days of the Temple.
NOTE ON APIKOMAN: The Mishnah does mention Apikoman (commonly spelled "Afikoman") but not with the meaning commonly associated with it. The Mishnah says, "One may not conclude after the paschal meal [by saying], 'Now to the entertainment [apikoman]!’ (Pesachim 10:7). Apikoman (Heb.אפּיקוֹמן) is a transliteration of Grk. epikōmon (Jastrow), the neuter form of epikōmos, "revelry" (LSJ). (Other suggestions of epikomen, epikomion, and epikomos cannot be found in any standard Greek lexicon.) Apikoman had two functional meanings: (1) dessert or (2) entertainment that follows the meal. Banquets among pagans typically ended with bouts of drinking, revelry and music, and thus the Seder participants were not to remove themselves to another group for such frivolity. The ban on apikoman was meant to preserve the sacred gratitude and reverent joy over the meaning of the meal (Pesachim 86a; 119b). However, by Rabbinic rule the matzah is broken during the meal and a portion set aside for the end of the meal, since the Seder was to end with the taste of matzah on the tongue. Christians have interpreted the practice of hiding and then searching for the apikoman as symbolic of the burial and resurrection of Yeshua, although this practice does not feature in the apostolic Passover narratives.
Yeshua, being an observant Jew, made special arrangements for the twelve disciples to share the meal together at the home of a mutual friend (Luke 22:7-13). See my commentary on Mark 14. There is no evidence of a precise order for the preparation and conduct of Passover in the first century, but most of the Mishnah required customs are featured in the composite record of the apostolic narratives. Nevertheless, within these accounts there is an order followed for the observance. Yeshua complied with required customs and added some new elements:
Before the Seder
• Shabath Seor-Chametz, removal of leaven and leavened products from dwellings on Nisan 14 (Mark 14:12).
• Korban Pesach, the slaughter of Pascal lambs on Nisan 14 (Mark 14:12).
• Kun Pesach, preparation of the Passover with all the required foods (Mark 14:16).
During the Seder
• Erev, conducting the Passover meal in the evening of Nisan 14 as required by Torah (Matt 26:20; Mark 14:17; Luke 22:14; John 13:2).
• Zakur (lit. "all the men"), fulfilling the Torah requirement that all males participate in the Passover (Matt 26:20; Mark 14:17; Luke 22:14; John 13:5).
• Shakab, reclining at table (Matt 26:20; Mark 14:18; Luke 22:14; John 13:28).
• Kos Echad, drinking the first cup of wine. The Passover Seder would normally begin with a cup of wine and the ritual blessing called Kiddush. This cup is not mentioned.
• Rachtzah (lit. "to wash"), washing of hands and feet. Only John mentions washing and that of the feet (John 13:3-5). John says Yeshua arose "from the supper" to perform the task. Foot washing was an act of hospitality conducted prior to eating (e.g. Gen 18:4; 19:2; 24:32; 43:24; Judg 19:21).
• Kos Sheni, drinking the second cup of wine (Luke 22:17). Yeshua gave this cup to his disciples to share, saying that he would not drink the fruit of the vine again "until the Kingdom of God comes" (Luke 22:18). Matthew and Mark associate this saying with the third cup.
• Midrash, teaching on character instead of reviewing the Exodus history which they all knew. Yeshua addressed two crucial character qualities, which should be the outcome of deliverance from death: (1) servanthood, using the foot washing as an acted out parable (Luke 22:25-30; John 13:12-20); and (2) fruitfulness, perhaps built on the usual blessing over the wine (John 14–16).
• Charoset was probably the contents of the bowl into which Yeshua dipped matzah (Matt 26:23; Mark 14:20; John 13:26).
• Maror, bitter herbs (Mark 14:16, 20). Maror was a required food in the meal and was probably dipped with the matzah into the charoset.
• Shulchan Orekh, eating the meal (Matt 26:20-21; Mark 14:18; John 13:4). Presumptively, the meal included lamb (Grk. pascha, Matt 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7, 11, 15).
• Kos Shelishi, blessing and drinking the third cup of wine. This cup represented fulfillment of the New Covenant and Yeshua's atoning sacrifice (Matt 26:27-29; Mark 14:23-25; Luke 22:20; cf. 1Cor 11:25). True to his previous word, Yeshua did not drink of this cup.
• Birkat Hamazon, grace after the meal (Mark 14:23).
• Motzi Matzah, blessing and breaking matzah after the meal for the disciples to share, which symbolized Yeshua's death (Matt 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; cf. 1Cor 11:23-24).
• Midrash, teaching, (John 14-16).The Passover meal is a time of teaching, especially of children to remind them of God's great miracles of the past and God's future acts of redemption. However, such discussion gave way to Yeshua's lengthy teaching recorded in John's narrative. He answers a question that should arise from teaching about deliverance from bondage, "what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness" (2Pet 3:11)?
• Tephillat Hakohen Hagadol. After the extensive teaching reported in John 14-16 Yeshua engages in a unique action for Passover. Since he has acted as high priest in the bread and cup rituals he now prays what could be called Tephillat (prayer of) Hakohen (the priest) Hagadol ("the high" or "the great") recorded in John 17.
• Hallel, closing Hymn, the last portion of Psalm 113-118 (Matt 26:30; Mark 14:26).
• Kos Rebii, drinking the fourth cup of wine. The Passover Seder would normally end with a cup of wine and the ritual blessing of Kiddush.
The most significant elements of Yeshua's Passover observance are clearly the bread and cups of wine. Of historical relevance is that the first mention of bread and wine is in Genesis 14:18 where Melchizedek brought these items to celebrate Abraham’s victory. Later the Torah would prescribe that the daily offering at the sanctuary would include matzah and wine with the lamb (Ex 29:38-43). In that passage God promises, “I will meet you there.”
In addition, the Torah prescribed that on the Sabbath after Passover sheaves of the barley harvest were to be waved before the Lord in the temple in thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest. This ceremony was called Reishit Katzir ("Beginning of Harvest," Lev 23:9-14). Following the "wave offering," the priests were to present a drink offering of wine and a grain offering consisting of fine flour mixed with oil (Lev 23:12-13). So, Yeshua's emphasis on the bread and cup may point to this ceremony, which symbolizes the resurrection of Yeshua, the "first fruits" of those who believe (1Cor 15:20-23).
One other item of historical interest from the first century A.D. is that at Qumran, the people observed a periodic ceremonial meal in honor of the Messiah, which involved bread and wine (Stern 932f). In all these occasions the portions bore no resemblance to the tiny morsel of bread and the sip or thimble-full amount of wine or juice as in Christian observances.
Paul on Pesach and the Lord's Supper
"Completely remove the old leaven, that you might be a new lump, just as you are unleavened, for also Messiah our Passover was sacrificed 8 so that we might keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of evil and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth." (1Cor 5:7-8 mine)
The apostle Paul provides valuable instruction on Passover that has been little considered by Christians. In addressing a serious matter of sin in the Corinthian congregation Paul makes an analogy with the practice of Passover. He reminds the disciples that Yeshua as the Pesach sacrifice is a sin offering (1Cor 5:7). Paul was not referring to the Passover lamb killed on Nisan 14 for the Seder, because that sacrifice was not a sin offering, but a type of peace offering.
However, the chagigah sacrifices of lambs and bulls on Nisan 15 did include a sin offering (Lev 23:6; Num 28:17-25). In the nativity story an angel of the LORD announced that Yeshua would die to save his people from their sins (Matt 1:21; cf. 2Cor 5:21; 1Pet 3:18). When Yochanan the Immerser said, "this is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world," (John 1:29), he was not referring to the lamb killed on Nisan 14 for the Seder. Rather, Yochanan summarized the Isaiah teaching on the Suffering Servant as one who would be led as a lamb to slaughter and bear the iniquities of his people (Isa 53:5-7; cf. Acts 8:32; 1Pet 1:19). At the last supper Yeshua said of the cup, "this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins" (Matt 26:28). By Yeshua's death occurring during the Passover festival then his death also represented deliverance from eternal death (Rom 6:23; 1Cor 15:22). Paul also states that Yeshua's death was that of a sin offering (2Cor 5:21), as does Peter (1Pet 3:18).
Yeshua was also not the Yom Kippur sacrifice, even though his death did indeed provide atonement. The Yom Kippur sacrifice was primarily concerned with atoning for the sins of the nation on one day. However, the atonement was for unintentional sins only; it provided no remedy for intentional sin, which normally merited the death penalty under the Torah (Num 15:30). Yeshua's death atoned for all sins of all peoples.
Paul goes on to say that the removal of leaven is intended to facilitate the proper observance of the feast. Most versions translate Grk. eortazō in verse 8 as an imperative, "let us keep the feast," but it is actually a subjunctive as in my translation above. The verb eortazō occurs in the LXX in reference to the prescribed feasts (Lev 23), and in this passage refers to observing Passover. He provides a spiritual explanation of why leaven is removed from homes. Leaven symbolizes malice and wickedness, whereas matzah is likened to sincerity and truth. The natural deduction is that disciples should clean out the old leaven, which in context would also pertain to removing the sinning member from the congregation.
"The cup of blessing that we bless—isn’t it a sharing of Messiah’s blood? The bread which we break—isn’t it a sharing of Messiah’s body? 17 Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body—for we all partake of the one bread. ... 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons." (1Cor 10:16-17 TLV)
In chapter 10 Paul alludes to a ritual observance he calls the "table of the Lord" (Heb. S'udat Adonai) and he speaks of the cup of blessing and the broken bread. Paul criticizes Corinthian disciples for thinking they can enjoy a banquet at the pagan temple and then engage in a meal in honor of Yeshua at the congregation. The bread and cup represent the body of Messiah and whatever we do affects our Lord. Such blatant hypocrisy is offensive to God.
"Therefore your coming together at the place is not to eat the Lord's supper. ... 23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Yeshua in that night he was betrayed took bread, 24 and having given thanks, he broke, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this as a memorial to me. 25 Similarly also the cup after having dined, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as, if you drink, as a memorial to me. 26 For as often as if you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes." (1Cor 11:20, 23-26 mine)
Then in chapter 11 Paul makes reference to the "Lord’s Supper," Grk. kuriakon deipnon, regarding which he had given the congregation instruction in its observance based on divine revelation. This is the only time the term is mentioned in the apostolic writings and was probably coined by Paul. Kuriakos means of or belonging to the Lord Yeshua and deipnon refers to the daily main meal (John 12:2), or a formal banquet (John 13:2). Paul addresses a peculiar situation of meals marred by drunkenness and greed (1Cor 11:20-22) and admonished them to conduct the Lord’s Supper with orderliness and holy respect to avoid further divine displeasure. Apparently God's judgment had already fallen on the congregation for their ungodly display (11:29-30). (See my commentary on 1 Corinthians 11.)
Paul's instructions in chapter five for keeping Passover may seem to conflict with his guidance in chapter eleven on the Lord's Supper. The Jerusalem Temple was still standing at this time and all Jews were required to go to Jerusalem for the annual observance of Passover. Jerusalem was the only place where Passover lambs could be sacrificed and while all Jewish males were required to go there for the Passover, the celebration was voluntary for women. Travel from the Diaspora to celebrate Passover could be expensive and hazardous and probably not all Jews attended every year. However, Yeshua had prophesied that the day was coming when worship in Jerusalem would not be possible (John 4:21).
Paul received the plan for the Lord's Supper directly from Yeshua, which would in the short term benefit uncircumcised disciples (Hellenistic Jews and Gentiles). The Jerusalem Council had ruled that Gentile disciples did not need to be circumcised, which would effectively prevent many disciples from partaking of the annual feast in Jerusalem. For the rest of the present age the Supper would serve as a continual reminder of Yeshua's last supper and its spiritual message. It could be that the original instructions for the Lord's Supper were based on the Passover menu, especially the unleavened bread and wine, since these were the elements Yeshua emphasized at his last Seder. The word "supper" connotes a real meal, not just a ceremonial token of the elements. The design of the Lord’s Supper meant it could be observed anywhere (e.g., Corinth).
The meal shared by the congregation would be considered a "love feast," a term preserved by Judah, the half-brother of Yeshua (Jude 1:12). The carried-in meal was no doubt patterned after the practice of the newly formed congregation in Jerusalem in which disciples devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and prayer with one another (Acts 2:42). The expression "breaking bread" does not refer to the Lord's Supper, but simply to sharing a meal which commenced with a blessing over bread (Matt 14:19). Then the Jewish participants break off a piece of the loaf and eat it, so that the blessing of God specifically for his provision of bread to eat will not have been said in vain (Stern 227). The mention of apostolic teaching in concert with the meal is also typical of Jewish practice that included Torah study with eating (Avot 3:17). We can easily imagine that the "love feast" included the four elements of Acts 2:42.
While all Christian traditions have a prescribed ritual and frequency for the sacred ceremony, Paul offers no guidance on either issue, other than the general allowance, "as often as you…" (1Cor 11:26). Presumptively, any ritual would include the traditional Hebrew blessings over the bread and cup. Unlike traditional Passover, which is family-centered, the observance of the Lord's Supper appears to be shared by the congregation (1Cor 11:33). The Lord’s Supper only requires bread and cup sanctified for that purpose.
From Lord's Supper to Eucharist
Given biblical history, we must ask, "If Yeshua observed Passover as his last meal, and gave Paul guidance for the observance of a Messianic meal, why do Christians observe a ritual that seems to have little in common with it?" After the death of John, the last of the original Jewish apostles, church leaders sought to distinguish and separate the Christian religion from Judaism. The effort to define “Christian” unfortunately led to impugning Jewish traditions and institutionalizing replacement theology, called Supersessionism, and antisemitism.
The label “Christian” originated with Paula and Barnabas in Antioch (Acts 11:26). See my web article What is a Christian? The name soon became the accepted term in the Roman Empire for followers of Yeshua. (See Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, XV, ca. 115 AD). The use of "Christian" became common coin in the Church shortly after the death of John, but took on a different meaning. By the fourth century "Christian" meant someone who had been baptized into the Church according to the Church’s ritual and who submitted to the Church’s authority, but because Jewish believers, referred to as "Nazarene Christians," practiced circumcision, the Catholic Church refused to consider them worthy of inclusion (Augustine, Anti-Donatist Writings, VII, 1).
Initially the Church was divided over recognizing Passover, since it was obviously associated with the death of Yeshua. The Eastern Church celebrated the annual anniversary of the crucifixion at the same time as Passover, but the Western church chose to ignore the Torah calendar. The subject became a point of contention between the two factions of early Christianity. In A.D. 175, Pope Victor condemned using the "Jewish" calendar for dating holy days and then in 325, the Nicea I Council rejected Passover as the date for celebrating Yeshua’s death and resurrection. During the 4th-7th centuries many local Church councils forbade sharing festivals with Jews, and finally in 787 the Nicea II Council forbade Christians from all Jewish practices.
As Christianity disassociated from its Jewish roots, church leaders developed significant theological positions related to the last meal of Yeshua. First, they removed the bread and cup from their connection with a communal meal and labeled the new ritual "Eucharist," which comes from a Greek word meaning "thanksgiving." The term "Holy Communion" used by many Christians as a synonym of Eucharist refers to the actual reception of the Eucharist. Second, the elements could only be prepared and dispensed by the clergy, which transformed servants of Yeshua into an elite class that could control access to heaven.
The Mystical Meal
In spite of the meaning given to the bread and cup in the Lord's Supper by Yeshua and Paul, the church fathers created a major paradigm shift. Ignatius (AD 30-107) determined the bread and cup to be the "very flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ” (Smyrnæans 7; Philadelphians 4), and the "medicine of immortality" (Ephesians 20). Ignatius demonstrates a new development in theology, since Clement of Rome (A.D. 30-100) offers no hint of sacramentalism in a discussion of the Eucharist in his Epistle to the Corinthians written ten years earlier. In other words, the communion elements literally become the body and blood of Yeshua (later called transubstantiation).
The doctrine of transubstantiation — from the Latin trans (across) and substantia (substance) — was controversial in church history and not made official dogma until the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, reaffirmed at the Council of Trent (1545-1563), and reaffirmed again at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The belief in Yeshua being literally or mystically present in the Eucharist elements naturally led to treating the rite as a means of conveying salvation grace. To justify this viewpoint Catholic theologians appealed to a literalistic interpretation of John 6:53, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.”
The arguments against the Catholic interpretation are straightforward. First, Yeshua addressed the teaching in the Johannine passage to Jewish synagogue leaders, not to his disciples. Second, John offers no theological instruction on the observance and meaning of the Lord's Supper as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 11. Third, Yeshua does not prescribe any kind of religious ceremony to be conducted by priests. Fourth, John makes no connection to the bread and cup rituals of the Passover Seder. Fifth, in the Lord's Supper narratives Yeshua does not say, "this is my flesh (sarx)," but "this is my body (sōma)." Sixth, wine might be the "blood of grapes" (Deut 32:14), but drinking wine does not thereby constitute drinking human blood, a practice banned by the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:20, 29). Seventh, to conduct a ceremony that supposedly converts wine into Yeshua's blood, even in a mystical sense, violates God's instruction to Israel prohibiting the practice of sorcery.
Yeshua was not mentally confused about the difference between bread and wine and His own physical body. Literalistic interpretations could lead to some bizarre conclusions, such as the body of Yeshua must have been made of wood (John 10:7, 9) or at the last supper he cut out a piece of His own flesh and drained His blood for the disciples to ingest like cannibals (Matt 26:26-28). The texts on the Yeshua’s Passover do not imply that the meal ingredients were infused with any divine attributes or that they were transformed into something else. There was also no promise of participants gaining any intrinsic spiritual benefit by partaking of the meal.
Protestant churches reject transubstantiation, but generally refer to the meal as a sacrament to be dispensed only by ordained clergy, although no apostolic instruction limits distribution of the elements solely by ordained (or licensed) ministers. Some Evangelical churches avoid using sacramental terminology and allow lay persons to assist in the distribution of the bread and cup. For most Evangelicals the Lord’s Supper is primarily a symbolic act of obedience that memorializes the death of the Redeemer and anticipates His Second Coming.
The Sacramental Meal
The doctrine of transubstantiation facilitated the view of the Eucharist as a sacrament. If the bread and wine actually changed into the body and blood of Yeshua, then there must be some benefit derived by partaking of it. In the history of Christianity three different definitions of sacrament have developed.
The oldest definition of sacrament is a manifestation of grace. That is, a sacrament is a visible sign of invisible reality or an outward sign of inner grace. Viewing the sacred meal as a sacrament means that the bread and cup are a manifestation of real grace, that is, a vehicle in which God's actual presence abides and from which God may impart salvation grace. Since the merit is in the meal, faith is not required to receive the benefit of the ritual. The merits of the meal are transferred upon consumption.
Second, a sacrament was not only a manifestation of grace, but also a means of grace. This viewpoint is a natural conclusion of the first definition, and a part of the theology of sacrament until the Methodist revival. To John Wesley, a means of grace referred to those means by which God "might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace." Wesley did not mean that one is saved or sanctified by consuming the sacred meal, because the principal agents in transformation are the Holy Spirit and faith. Wesley insisted, "Whosoever, therefore, imagines there is any intrinsic power in any means whatsoever, does greatly err, not knowing the Scriptures, neither the power of God" (Sermon 16, Means of Grace). Salvation is by grace through faith, not by any work man may perform. That being said, Wesley enjoined all who would seek an increase in the grace of God to wait for it by the obedience of prayer, searching the Scriptures and partaking of the Lord's Supper.
Third, with the rise of Evangelicalism many Christians came to view a sacrament as a memorial of grace. In one respect this viewpoint rejects the historic definition of sacrament. Many Christians would contend that the sacred meal, as Paul said, is a memorial of the atoning death of the Savior, and a celebration of grace previously received rather than the grace being received through the conduct of the ceremony. Some Christian groups prefer the term "ordinance" in order to stress this viewpoint.
In contrast Judaism does not attach any sacramental value to any of the rites and festivals of God's appointed times, since Jews are merely obeying God’s commandments. The Lord's Supper by biblical definition is a memorial of Yeshua's atoning sacrifice (1Cor 11:26), as well as a testament of the unity of God's people (1Cor 10:16-17). The biblical corollaries are the covenantal signs God established: the rainbow (Gen 9:13), circumcision (Gen 17:11) and Sabbath observance (Ex 31:13). The two elements of the Lord's Supper are signs of remembrance, that is, they call us to remember what God has done for us and the grace we have received from Him.
The Sacred Elements
While the Catholic Church and most Protestant churches today use a small unleavened wafer or cracker, Eastern Orthodox and some Protestant churches following Reformation tradition use leavened bread in the Lord’s Supper observance, "seeing the leaven as a symbol of new life in Christ" (Tait). Some note the biblical practice of offering leavened bread in the Tabernacle/Temple in conjunction with peace offerings (Lev 7:13) and on Shavuot (Lev 23:17-20), but these offerings were the only times that leavened bread was allowed in the presence of the Lord.
Some scholars argue for the use of leavened bread because of the use of Grk. artos (Heb. lechem), in the institution ritual of the Lord's Supper (Matt 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19). Artos refers to a baked product produced from cereal grain and also to food or nourishment in general, in contrast to azumos, which means bread made without leaven or yeast. The argument is that Yeshua and his disciples ate leavened bread in this meal, in spite of the fact that unleavened bread is mentioned in the introductory portion of these narratives. Not considered by these scholars is that artos is used in the LXX of the showbread (Heb. lechem happanim, "bread of the Presence" or lit. "bread of the faces") maintained in the Temple (Ex 25:30; 35:13; 39:36; 40:23; Num 4:7; 1Sam 21:6; 1Kgs 7:48; 1Chr 4:19; 23:29; 28:16; 2Chr 2:4; 13:11; 29:18; Neh 10:33). Showbread is mentioned in the apostolic narratives (Matt 12:4; Mark 2:26; Luke 6:4).
Showbread was unleavened (Lev 8:2, 26; 24:5). This usage demonstrates that the definition of artos is not based solely on its leaven content. In the apostolic narratives "loaf" or "cake" would be a better translation than simply "bread" (Marshall). The use of artos in Synoptic narratives follows the specific mention that the event occurred at the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (azumos). It could well be that the use of artos hinted at the showbread. Twelve loaves representing the twelve tribes was prepared weekly (Lev 24:5, 8; 1Chr 9:32) and intended for consumption by the priests (Lev 24:9). The one exception occurred when David took this bread to feed his men when he was fleeing from King Saul (1Sam 21:1-6; Mark 2:25). The action of David portended a Messianic fulfillment. Yeshua, the Great High Priest and Davidic King, was offering the bread intended only for priests to his disciples who would share in his body. Certainly the broken bread symbolized the sufferings of our Lord (in which we share, 1Cor 10:16), but as showbread Yeshua also pointed to his people becoming a kingdom of priests (Eph 4:12; 1Pet 2:5-9; Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6).
The apostolic record is clear that Yeshua and the apostles celebrated Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread in accordance with the rules prescribed by God in the Torah (Matt 26:17; Mark 14:16; Luke 22:8; John 13:1) and the Mishnah. There would not have been any leaven or leavened bread in the house (Ex 12:15; 13:7). If the meal included leavened bread then it would not have been a true Passover. Given Paul's analogy of leaven to sinful behavior, the use of unleavened bread, then, signifies a commitment to get rid of personal sin in order to emulate and honor our sinless Lord. The pierced unleavened bread in the sacred meal appropriately symbolizes the sinless body of Yeshua that was pierced for the world.
ADDITIONAL NOTE: Some Christians have erroneously concluded on the basis of 2 Corinthians 5:21 that Yeshua became sinful on the cross. The source of this mistaken belief is the failure of standard Christian Bibles to accurately interpret the Hebrew theology of the verse in harmony with the rest of Scripture. The TLV renders the verse, “He made One who knew no sin to become a sin offering on our behalf, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” In the Tanakh the Hebrew word chattath (rendered by Grk. hamartia in the LXX) may mean either "sin" or "sin offering" (BDB 308). The Complete Jewish Bible, Mounce Reverse-Interlinear New Testament, New Living Translation, The Message and the Orthodox Jewish Bible concur with the use of "sin offering" in the TLV. Yeshua as the unblemished Lamb of God, the perfect Passover lamb, bore our sins as a sin offering. He did not become sinful (cf. John 1:29; 9:16; Rom 8:3; 1Cor 5:7; 2Cor 5:21; Heb 7:26; 9:26; 1Pet 1:19; 2:24; 1Jn 3:5; Rev 5:12).
The Catholic Church and some Protestant churches use wine in the Communion ceremony, but other Protestant and Evangelical churches prefer grape juice. All the narratives of Yeshua's Passover meal identify the contents of the cup shared at the meal simply as “fruit of the vine” (Matt 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18), which is an allusion to the kiddush or Jewish blessing recited over the cup, “Blessed art Thou, Adonai our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.” Paul's instruction on the Lord's Supper likewise does not specifically identify the beverage. Interpretation of the Hebrew idiom has been long debated. Did Yeshua use wine or did he use fresh grape juice?
Those in favor of unfermented grape juice claim the Torah prohibited priests from drinking fermented wine or strong drink when they offered sacrifices in God’s presence (Lev 10:9; Ezek 44:21). Some Bible expositors have even asserted that the Hebrew and Greek words used to mean "wine" in the Bible actually referred to grape juice. The lack of the word “wine” in the apostolic narratives also imply that fresh grape juice was used. Yeshua even refused the alcoholic wine while on the cross (Mark 15:23). Yeshua exemplified sanctification (John 17:19), and as the perfect Lamb and the perfect High Priest he would have followed the Torah standard.
In reality, using grape juice for communion was not even an issue in the Church until the temperance movement of the late 19th century. The campaign for social change deemed all alcoholic beverages, regardless of whether fermented, brewed or distilled, to be dangerous and poisonous to drink and therefore evil. Motivated by biblical and scientific arguments, Protestants searched for a way to make unfermented grape juice. Thomas Welch, an American Methodist dentist, was the first to succeed on a large scale and through the marketing by his son, Charles, "Welch's Grape Juice" became both a popular beverage and the preferred alternative for the communion table of most Protestant churches (Tait).
The argument in favor of wine has first century language in its favor. The biblical words for "wine" do, in fact, mean the fermented beverage. After all, the pasteurization process to prevent fermentation of grape juice wasn't discovered until the 19th century. Although not required many Jews diluted wine with water for Passover observance, because in ancient times wine was very potent (cf. Isa 28:7; Pesachim 108b). The warnings against drunkenness in Scripture exist because fermented wine was an important part of Jewish culture and some people overindulged. There is no evidence that Yeshua changed the traditional Jewish beverage for his Passover meal.
As for the Torah prohibition, this intent of the rule was to avoid drinking to such a degree as to inhibit reasoning (Lev 10:10). Often forgotten is that when sacrifices were offered daily and during festivals wine was also presented and drank (Ex 29:40; Lev 23:13; Num 15:5; Deut 32:38). God had no aversion to using wine in ceremonies and there is no biblical reason to assume that He has changed His mind.
In the final analysis, both wine and grape juice qualify as "fruit of the vine" and there seems to be no spiritual advantage in the use of one over the other. Wine has the advantage of biblical sanction and custom, but grape juice would be more practical in many circumstances.
Theology of a Messianic Meal
Yeshua’ memorable words at his last meal reflect awareness that all Israel was gathered around the Pesach lamb "in commemoration of the past, in celebration of the present and in anticipation of the future" (Edersheim 814). Yet, Yeshua’s teaching throughout the meal invested new meaning and purpose into the Passover observance.
First, Yeshua connected the Passover to the prophecy of a new covenant that God had promised Israel through Jeremiah and Ezekiel:
"Behold, days are coming” —it is a declaration of ADONAI— “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—32 not like the covenant I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they broke My covenant, though I was a husband to them.” it is a declaration of ADONAI. 33 But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days —it is a declaration of ADONAI— I will put My Torah within them. Yes, I will write it on their heart. I will be their God and they will be My people." (Jer 31:31-33)
"I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances." (Ezek 36:27 NASB)
"He took the cup after the meal, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:20; cf. 1Cor 11:25)
The mention of the New Covenant by Yeshua emphasizes the continuation of the authority and relevance of the previous covenants God made with Abraham (Gen 12, 13, 15, 17), Moses (Deut 4, 5) and David (2Sam 7:12-16; 23:5), all of which were given to Israel as permanent and special blessings (cf. Rom 9:4; 11:29; Eph 2:12). Yeshua did not abrogate the promises of the Older Covenant since he did not come to abolish the Torah (Matt 5:17). In his last meal with the apostles he affirms in the most positive manner God’s intention that “the just requirement of the Torah might be fulfilled in us” (Rom 8:4 NIV). Yeshua embodied the fulfillment of the ancient promises and therefore the New Covenant deserves a New Messianic Passover.
Second, Yeshua pointed out that the meal portended his sufferings that included betrayal, unlawful arrest, physical abuse, verbal torment, public humiliation, flagellation and the agony of being impaled on an execution stake (Matt 16:21; Luke 22:15). The meal therefore honors and hallows the sufferings of Yeshua so that the community celebration could be rightly deemed “the fellowship of His sufferings” (Php 3:10; cf. 1Pet 4:13). The Messianic meal is a reminder of the incarnate Yeshua, truly human and born of woman with a physical body and blood in His veins, who felt and endured pain and is fully able to understand and sympathize with our needs (cf. Gal 4:4; Heb 4:15; 1Jn 1:1).
Third, Yeshua deliberately transferred the redemption typology of the Pesach lamb to his anticipated sacrifice on Golgotha. It is with this significance that he commanded his disciples to "do this as a memorial to Me." The original purpose of the Passover was to celebrate the greatest deliverance from death and bondage in Hebrew history and that through a human servant, Moses. Yeshua commanded that in the future the special meal should be observed as a celebration and proclamation of the atonement for the sins of the whole world accomplished by His death (1Cor 11:26). Partaking of the bread and the cup calls to mind both the magnanimous grace of God and the terrible cost of the atoning sacrifice to save us from eternal death.
Fourth, the meal not only remembers the origin of salvation by a sacrificial lamb and memorializes the death of Yeshua, the perfect Lamb of God, but also anticipates the glorious consummation of His kingdom on earth and the continuance of Passover, at least into the millennial kingdom. Departing from the usual practice, Yeshua declared at the beginning of the meal:
And He said to them, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will never eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God." And when He had taken a cup and offered the bracha, He said, "Take this and share it among yourselves. For I tell you that I will never drink of the fruit of the vine from now on, until the kingdom of God comes." (Luke 22:15-18)
Sharing the meal reflects our trust in his promise to be reunited with us in his kingdom when we join with the patriarchs in a great banquet (Matt 8:11).
Return to Our Roots
The unfortunate fact of history is that the separation of Christianity from its Jewish roots ended observance of the Passover by Christians, as well as all the other divinely appointed festivals, without Scriptural authority. (See my web article God's Appointed Times.) While Yeshua used the bread and the cup to illustrate and memorialize his atonement, he never suggested in deed or word that the Passover or a Messianic meal should be abandoned. The apostles, who faithfully kept the Torah calendar, would have been shocked at such a suggestion.
By the same token Passover observance should be invested with its full Messianic significance by appropriate Scripture reading and reflection on the sufferings of our Lord. As for frequency Passover is an annual event and the Torah schedule should be followed. As an abbreviated Messianic meal the Lord's Table (just the bread and cup) may be conducted as often as desired. In keeping with Paul's instruction the Lord's Supper could be conducted in connection with an actual fellowship meal, either at the beginning or the end.
In the view of this writer Christians need to carefully consider the roots of the Lord's Supper ordinance in Passover. Church leaders should consider how the Lord’s Supper could be taught and administered to conform more to the original example and instruction of our Lord. However frequently the abbreviated Lord’s Supper may be conducted, precede the distribution of the bread and juice with teaching that explains the scriptural reason for sharing the symbolic ritual and its connection to Yeshua's Passover.
Christians would also greatly benefit from participating in a Messianic Passover. Celebration of this memorial and memorable event shows respect for the divine instructions of the Torah, and sends the message that they love the Jewish people and appreciate the banner of faith carried by the faithful remnant of Israel for so long throughout history.
God’s appointed times of spiritual celebration and worship detailed in the Torah were originally intended for all mankind (Lev 24:22; Num 15:16; Acts 17:26). When Yeshua returns and establishes his millennial kingdom, he will oversee the restoration of all the festivals that God ordained (Lev 23:4; Isa 66:22-23; Ezek 46:1-11; Zeph 3:18; Zech 14:16; Matt 26:29; Col 2:16-17). So, fostering greater knowledge of Passover in collaboration with Messianic Jewish congregations can only strengthen the Body of the Messiah and appreciation for all that the meal symbolizes and prepare Christians for the religious calendar of the millennial kingdom.
BDB: The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Oxford University Press, 1907. Reprinted by Associated Publishers and Authors, Inc., 1981.
Edersheim: Alfred Edersheim (1825-1889), The Life and Times of Yeshua the Messiah. New Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1993.
Jastrow: Marcus Jastrow, Dictionary of Targumim, Talmud and Midrashic Literature. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1903, 1926. Online.
Kasdan: Barney Kasdan, God’s Appointed Times. Lederer Messianic Publications, 1993.
LSJ: Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon. Rev. Sir Henry Stuart Jones. Clarendon Press, 1940. Online.
Marshall: Alfred Marshall, NASB-NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English. Zondervan Pub. House, 1986.
Stern: David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary. 5th Ed. Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., 1996.
Tait: Jennifer Woodruff Tait, New Wine, New Wineskins, ChristianityHistory.net, 1 January 2005.
Wilson: Marvin R. Wilson, Our Father Abraham. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989.
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