We keep ourselves out of a lot of trouble by remembering the price of our salvation.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 26:17-30
In one of the most important moments in the Bible, Jesus takes the time to give His followers a new symbol of a new covenant with God and a new ritual to keep its meaning in the front of their minds -- the Lord's Supper. We should always remember what Jesus did for us and take our continued loyalty to Him very seriously.
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
The Importance of Rituals. If you have a military background or an athletic background, you know all about the power of a ritual. A “ritual” is simply a repeated ceremony—doing it the same way creates a sense of comfort, stability, or belonging. A lot of families have different kinds of rituals, usually at a birthday or holiday. What kind of rituals did you have growing up? What memories do they bring up? In a religious setting, the idea of “ritual” makes us nervous because we have seen many bizarre or even obscene rituals done in the name of some god. As Baptists, we tend to stay away from that. But are there rituals that we have that are helpful? (The leader guide mentions a wedding. Today in our service there will be a baptism. The lesson is about the Lord’s Supper.) What is the power and importance of a ritual?
“Remember the Alamo!” One of the lesson supplements included this phrase, and as a Texan, I can’t help but jump on board. What is the point of “remembering” something? Why do we make such a big deal out of certain dates? To prove that we do, ask your class what our observed holidays are around here. They’re either related to our nation’s birth or military, or they are someone’s birthday. And of course 9/11 is now on the list. Why do we care about Lincoln’s birthday? Or MLK’s birthday? Or any of those dates? Because someone thinks it’s important that we remember what happened or what a person stood for. Is it? Well, I would say yes. Ask your class what they think is important to “remember” and what do they do to help them remember? I think it would be valuable to point out the rituals we add to the remembrances—like Independence Day parades, or vigils, or visits to cemeteries, and so on. Those rituals reinforce to us what we’re trying to remember.
The Seder Meal Controversy. [Editor's Note: this topic arises because our church practices a seder meal every 3 or 4 years.] A couple of you guys pointed this out to me: there was an article circulating that Christians should not have seder meals; Jesus didn’t do a seder (they did Passover), so by doing this, Christians are just pretending to be Jews.
That’s an interesting argument, and the response depends on our purpose. Have you ever done “cultural tourism” where you join in some ritual just to experience the “local flavor”? Well, some people find that offensive—you’re treating this important ritual as a novelty for your own enjoyment. Further, have you ever done someone else's ritual without truly understanding it -- just doing it because you thought it was cool? That's basically cultural appropriation. Both of those are problematic. But have you ever joined in somebody else’s ritual because you genuinely wanted to understand a part of their life and culture? I think that’s different. But what David does with our seder meal is yet in a different category. He (rightly) believes that the Jewish ritual actually teaches us about Jesus; that’s why we use it.
This Week's Big Idea: Local Beliefs about the Lord’s Supper
Here is a diagram I drew up a few years ago to try to explain what different local churches believe/teach about the Lord’s Supper. You might not care about this at all, or you might have lots of questions (just email me!). The up and down refers to how "supernatural" they think this ritual is. “Sacramental” churches believe that something supernatural takes place in the act of taking the Lord’s Supper that positively impacts our relationship with God. The starred* churches don't have a sacramental view, but they include the ritual of footwashing (which is a powerful spiritual experience for them). “Mere Symbol” churches think of the Lord’s Supper purely as a human ritual. The left and right refers to how open they with their Lord’s Supper. “Open Communion” churches invite everyone present to participate in the Lord’s Supper. “Closed Communion” churches only allow members in good standing to take the Lord’s Supper with them. As you move from left to right on the diagram, criteria are added (in this order): you must be a Christian, you must have examined yourself, you must be a member in good standing of a church of like faith and practice, you must be a member of a church of the same denomination. There are significant differences in belief! (And that’s not even addressing the different methods). Why would I mention this? Because you probably have class members with a range of backgrounds, and I want you to be aware of the potential differences. This is not a lesson to dwell on debates! Be prepared to say that many differences of opinion exist; we don’t have time to talk about them in detail today. (Set up a lunch; I’m happy to join you.)
Passover and the Lord’s Supper
If you’ve paid attention to David’s sermons about the Lord’s Supper, you have heard all of this before. But everything we can do to help our church members understand and appreciate the Lord’s Supper is a good thing! Jesus and His disciples were in Jerusalem for the Passover. Having recently read the Pentateuch, we know that the plagues, the Passover, and the Exodus are the defining elements of Jewish identity. The Passover was the primary ritual that God gave to the Jews to help them remember who they were and are: former slaves rescued by a loving God. Every year Jews were to share a Passover meal, a careful ritual whose every detail taught a lesson. Many people made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the Passover so they could also offer their sacrifices at the Temple.
We skipped things out of order so we could cover the Resurrection on Easter morning, so now we’ve gone backwards a few days. The Olivet Discourse (last week) probably took place on Tuesday night after Jesus had pronounced the heavy woes on the hypocritical Jewish leaders. On Wednesday, Jesus likely stayed in Bethany (although He may have been sending instructions to Jerusalem). That is also the day that the religious leaders would have put together their final plans. Then on Thursday, they would have all traveled to “the upper room” for their Passover. This room is called the cenacle. It is traditionally located in the far south of the old city. This is also the room where Jesus first appeared to the disciples and likely even the room of Pentecost. It’s a big deal. Wouldn’t you know that the exact site chosen by early Christians is also where the Jews say is the tomb of David and Muslims claim as a mosque? It’s not the most efficient location considering that they would have had to walk all the way through the city to get there and be in close proximity to some key enemies. This leads me to believe that there were not many options in a crowded Jerusalem, and so the owner of the house was a wealthy friend of Jesus. One obvious candidate is Nicodemus, but many people believe it to be Mary the mother of John Mark; Mary owned the house where the disciples were praying in Acts 12, possibly the same place. We are fairly confident that the disciples were not the only people in the upper room—just the only people at the table.
We cannot say loudly enough how intentional God and Jesus were about all of these details. All of these things happened at Passover because Jesus was about to lead a new exodus, and the angel of death was about to pass over the souls of believers for all eternity. Consequently, where Passover is the defining memorial of the defining moment in Jewish history, the Lord’s Supper is the defining memorial of the defining moment in Christian history. We cannot stress enough how important the Lord’s Supper is! Now - we must not make it something it isn’t (which is what the Catholics have done), but Baptists have never been accused of overemphasizing the Lord’s Supper! Usually, in our race to make it as unspiritual as possible, we communicate the message that there is nothing particularly special about it at all. And that’s not true. Jesus commanded us to do it for a reason.
Part 1: Preparation (Matthew 26:17-19)
On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do You want us to prepare the Passover so You may eat it?” “Go into the city to a certain man,” He said, “and tell him, ‘The Teacher says: My time is near; I am celebrating the Passover at your place with My disciples.’” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover.
For some reason, some Christians get really bent out of shape about this detail in assuming that it has to be some miraculous prophecy (like finding the donkey). Finding a large, empty room in Jerusalem the night of Passover would absolutely be a miracle! But no, Jesus simply planned all of this in advance. And in His planning, Jesus allowed more people to be a part of this important event. In this case, someone would have been responsible for the furniture, cleansing the utensils, and removing all of the yeast. Passover was a family event with the grandfather presiding; Jesus was creating a new family. Matthew is intentionally vague about this man the disciples would find; his identity is not important to the narrative. Luke pointed out that he would be carrying a water jug (22:10), a strange action for a male. Mark said that the space was a large, furnished, upstairs room (14:15).
Get your class thinking: what preparations do we make for the Lord’s Supper today? Churches certainly do work, but the attendees are also expected to prepare (see 1 Cor 11). Do you take your preparation seriously?
Aside: Feast of Unleavened Bread
God gave the Jews a series of religious celebrations to commemorate important aspects of their identity as well as His. “Seven” is prominent. Every seventh day was a Sabbath—strict rest from sunset to sunset (remember that the Jewish calendar day began at sunset before midnight). The seventh month contained four festivals. The seventh year was a Sabbath year, and the year after the seventh-seventh year (50th) was a Jubilee. The Feast of Unleavened Bread lasted 7 days and started on the 15th of the first month (after two full weeks and when the moon was full).
By Jesus’ day, many Jews came to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. This was the first of the annual festivals. We can think of the schedule of events like this: the sacrificial lamb was selected on Palm Sunday, killed on Maundy Thursday, and then the Passover was observed that evening. The Feast of Unleavened Bread started on Good Friday and lasted for 7 days (during the Exodus, the people did not have time to let their bread rise). If you came to the seder meal, you saw lots of details that translate directly to Christianity. However, we don’t want to think of the Lord’s Supper as a variation of Passover but rather as a replacement. We don’t want to try to line up all of the details.
The next festival is the Feast of Weeks, which took place the day after 7 complete weeks from Passover, which is why it is also called Pentecost (50). During the seventh month, Jews observed the Feast of Trumpets (1st day—Rosh Hashanah or the Ten Days of Awe), Day of Atonement (10th), Feast of Tabernacles (15th), and more.
Part 2: Betrayal (Matthew 26:20-25)
When evening came, He was reclining at the table with the Twelve. While they were eating, He said, “I assure you: One of you will betray Me.” Deeply distressed, each one began to say to Him, “Surely not I, Lord?” He replied, “The one who dipped his hand with Me in the bowl—he will betray Me. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about Him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” Then Judas, His betrayer, replied, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” “You have said it,” He told him.
There is a great deal of unknown as to where this happened in the meal. If you joined us for the seder meal, you know how David thinks it was integrated (and it really doesn’t matter unless you know the meal very well). But at some point in time, Jesus broke the script with a terrible announcement. To this point, He had regularly told the disciples that He would be killed; He had never said He would be betrayed. Depending on how much time you think you need to spend on explaining the Lord’s Supper, you could take a bit of time here: write the words “Loyalty” and “Betrayal” on the board. Ask your class the difference between them and for examples of them. But then, most importantly, ask your class to examine their relationships. Have they ever broken trust, broken a promise, backed out of an agreement? If Judas’s betrayal horrifies us, we should all be challenged never to do anything like that to anyone else (even if it’s not to the level of Judas). The Gospel writers never really try to explain what happened to Judas. None of the disciples suspected him; they were all doubting themselves! We just have “Satan entered him” in Luke 22:3.
When you read all of the Gospel accounts together, it sure seems obvious that Judas was going to be the man, and yet everyone was still surprised when that actually happened in the garden. How is that possible? I think it’s because we don’t want to believe that someone we know so well would be capable of such an act. But I also think that Jesus gives us more than enough love that we can open ourselves to mistreatment from the world (and even our friends) for the sake of the gospel. Jesus knew this would happen—even at the hands of a friend—but still loved His Father enough to obey Him. Sadly, Judas would be eternally cut off. This “woe” is no joke; see John 17:12 for more.
Should We Give Judas a Break?
In Dante’s Inferno, Judas is one of the three great traitors being slowly eaten by Satan in the lowest pit of hell. That’s a far cry from the vision of Judas we are given in movies like “Jesus of Nazareth” in which Judas is misguided and mistaken, but not a bad guy. In that movie, Judas was trying to force Jesus into taking on the Roman authorities because he didn’t understand Jesus’ mission. So who is he? I don’t think we have any evidence to say that Judas was a good guy who made a bad decision. He was known to be a greedy thief (John 12), and he betrayed Jesus for money. There is nothing flattering in the Bible about him. He certainly regretted his decision, but we aren’t told about repentance. So why would Jesus pick him? Because someone had to betray him—may as well be a truly evil person (read Luke 22 and our passage).
Part 3: Remembrance (Matthew 26:26-30)
As they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take and eat it; this is My body.” Then He took a cup, and after giving thanks, He gave it to them and said, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood that establishes the covenant; it is shed for many for the forgiveness of sins. But I tell you, from this moment I will not drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it in a new way in My Father’s kingdom with you.” After singing psalms, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
There are only a few key passages in the Bible from which we understand the Lord’s Supper. Here’s a brief summary of what Matthew records for us. Note that Jesus only took the bread and one cup from all of the elements of the Passover meal. He would be the Passover lamb, so that big element was no longer necessary. And the other elements tied mostly to the Exodus. But the bread and cup are universal symbols that all cultures would understand (and have access to). Jesus took the piece of bread and broke it so He could distribute a piece to each disciples; after they ate, He told them that it was His body. That’s rather odd. It goes back to John 6:53, in which Jesus told the crowd that they had to eat His flesh and drink His blood (I talk about the misunderstandings of this passage below). So here we learn that He was speaking metaphorically, but it’s still odd. This is where we realize the importance of the Lord’s Supper. When we eat the bread and drink the juice, we are doing more than remembering Jesus’ sacrifice—we are participating in it. Seriously. Follow the metaphor in your head. We are drinking Jesus’ blood. Why would He want us to think that way unless there were something very visceral behind it? When we observe the Lord’s Supper, we are metaphorically taking into our bodies the life-giving blessing of His sacrifice, and we are identifying ourselves with it.
Most importantly, Jesus explained that this is a new covenant with the people of God. I strongly recommend that you guys watch the “Covenant” video from the Bible Project to get a good sense of what this really means. If you’ve been keeping up with your Bible reading, you would realize how central the idea of covenant has been to the Old Testament. But now God’s covenant will include the full forgiveness of sins, not just the forbearance of them as with the sacrifice of goats and bulls. But note that the effect will only be for many, not all. This is how I explain it: Jesus death was sufficient to forgive every sinner who ever lived, but it is only efficient for those who trust in Him for that forgiveness.
But then there’s the sad news: everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. Jesus knew that the next time He would have this experience with His disciples would be at the great banquet to usher in God’s eternal kingdom on earth. And that made Him sad. He knew that the disciples would suffer long and die horrible deaths. And He would not stop that. It is the way of this world and the cost of being Christian. But it still made Him sad. So does that mean Jesus isn’t seeing the disciples in heaven in the meantime? Well, maybe? We really don’t know how time works in heaven. Jesus might be just sitting on the throne waiting for His time to return; the time to enjoy company at a feast is not yet. But hear Jesus’ anticipation! He was looking forward to that day. All of the sorrow and pain could be endured because He had a greater reward coming. And we should also face this life with joy and anticipation because we will be there at that banquet! And then they sang; Psalms 113-118 were a part of the Passover, so they’re the most likely candidates.
Aside: Dining Practices
I saw an article on this subject that I really enjoyed. Though they are changing (and you can initiate a “manners” discussion at your own risk), every culture has “manners” for eating. Why? Because eating isn’t really just a physical thing—it has a strong social component. Old tradition was for Jewish families to sit on a rug around a pot of stew. The primary “utensil” was a piece of bread. Wealthier people might have a table and stools. By the first century, Jews had starting using the Roman custom of eating around a triclinium, which was a u-shaped table. Servants didn’t reach over the guests; they served from inside the table. It was a very short table surrounded by pillows. Guests would recline on their left arm and eat with their right hand. (Here’s the truly bizarre thing: some scientists have looked at the physiology of the GI tract and said that the stretch produced when you lean on your left side actually makes it easier for food to get into your stomach. Huh.) The two most important guests would sit next to the host, and then in declining importance. It seems likely that John was reclining to Jesus’ right (the most important place) and Judas to His left. There are records of dinners in that day with appetizers, side dishes, and multiple main courses. Meals around a triclinium were important ordeals, often with observers (poor people who were amazed), often used to display status. Jesus would have treated this last meal with utmost care and investment.
Closing Thoughts: What Do We Get Wrong in the Lord's Supper?
People really argue about this. Denominations exist purely because of this. If you look back to the diagram on the second page, you see a wide range of possibilities for what to do with it. Let’s start with the Roman Catholics, who take a hard reading of John 6:53, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life in yourselves.” In other words, you have to take the Lord’s Supper to be saved. Well, once you’ve said that, what’s to stop you from asking a bunch of related questions? How many times do we have to do it? How often? How could ordinary wine be necessary for salvation? And then it spiraled out of control from there, where we are left with the bizarre doctrine of transubstantiation, in which they teach that the bread and juice are miraculously transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ by a ritual performed by a special priest. And then the ritual in which it is observed becomes a real re-crucifying of Jesus (the Mass). But next we go to the Lutherans, where Luther said, “The ‘is’ in ‘This is My body’ has to mean something.” He rejected the Roman Catholic doctrine, but could not go fully Protestant, and so landed on a mediating position we now call consubstantiation, in which the actual body and blood of Jesus are present inside the elements. It’s still a miracle, and it’s still necessary for salvation. John Calvin stepped a little further back from that with a doctrine we now call “real presence” in which he said that Jesus was really present in the elements, but not in a miraculous way (it’s like a hot spot of Jesus’ presence). His contemporary Ulrich Zwingli went to the extreme of saying that the Lord’s Supper was a “mere symbol” of the crucifixion. Here’s the thing to realize: those positions are not purely based on a careful reading of the relevant passages; they are based on an entire “theology” of how those people wanted to interpret the Bible. The Bible is somewhat vague about a number of those matters—intentionally so, if you ask me. Why? Because we cannot explain everything in words.