The Last Passover

The Last Passover

S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.

Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., is a Bible teacher at Believers Chapel, Dallas, Texas.

This is the second in his series of four studies on The Lord’s Supper.

Scripture Reading: Mark 14:12-21


The Apostle Paul wrote, “For even Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us,” and forever established the ultimate meaning of the many passovers Israel has celebrated through the centuries. They have been spiritual services designed to point to the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. No treatment of the passover that fails to see that can possibly tell the true story of the ancient rite. That is something that we must keep before us as we continue our study of the Lord’s Supper.

In our last study we looked at the first passover, and in this study we shall concentrate on the last (valid) one. That this was the last authorized passover is clear, for the rite now stands fulfilled in the death of the Lamb of God. That is what Paul means by his words in 1 Corinthians 5:7, cited above.

There is an interesting question concerning the time of the celebration of the Last Passover and Supper. It is the contention of many commentators and students that the chronology of the Synoptics and of John cannot be reconciled. The Synoptics regard the last supper as a passover meal, while John seems to think that the crucifixion itself took place on the day the passover was eaten. Many attempts have been made to harmonize the two traditions, and probably none of them are entirely satisfactory. It is not at all certain, however, that there is any contradiction in the accounts, as Tasker has pointed out.1 There is some evidence that there was a dispute over the precise date of the passover in the time of the Lord Jesus. According to this view, the Pharisees rightly celebrated the passover on the Thursday night before the crucifixion, while the Sadducees celebrated theirs on the Friday of the day of the crucifixion. The latter was the view of the official leaders, it is claimed. There are many complications and questions concerning the problem, and a plethora of interpretations have been offered. In a recent book I. Howard Marshall, Professor of New Testament in the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, after a rather detailed discussion, has concluded that something like this is probably right. He says, “Our conclusion, then, is that Jesus held a Passover meal earlier than the official Jewish date, and that He was able to do so as the result of calendar differences among the Jews.”2 Now, if these things are historically true, there would be a remarkable fulfillment of the Old Testament record. For, at the very time when the passover lamb was to be eaten, He was being crucified.

Thus, in His death He was the passover lamb, and the leaders were fulfilling Scripture ironically in their murder of Him! It is tellingly true, “Surely the wrath of man shall praise Thee!” (Psa. 76:10).3

The two important characters of the opening part of the account are Jesus and Judas, and the Lord utters one of His most significant sentences in the dialogue between the two when he solemnly declares, “The Son of Man is betrayed! It had been good for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24; cf. Mark 14:21). The statement is filled with important theological content, affirming the sovereignty of God, the responsibility of man, and the everlasting punishment of the finally impenitent. It is a word for our times, for the doctrines of the sovereignty of God and of eternal punishment have fallen upon evil days, even among the companies of those who maintain that they belong to the Lord Jesus Christ. We shall say more on this later.

Some Introductory Considerations

The New Testament ordinances. We have commented on the use of terms for the Lord’s Supper and have suggested that the term the Lord’s Supper is probably the most common one, and that it is a good term for the event, stressing the fact that in it He is the host, and we are the guests.

The importance of the Lord’s Supper. In the early church the Lord’s Supper was the highlight of the corporate worship of the church (cf. Acts 20:7). Its was “to break bread” that they came together in Troas when Paul met with the church there (cf. Acts 20:7). It is the only act of worship for which the Lord gave special direction. Even the very term used for the ordinance, deipnon (AV, “Supper”; 1 Cor. 11:21-22), really means dinner, not supper, and this underscores the importance of the ordinance. Dinner was the most important meal of the day for the ancients, who often had little breakfast and took their midday meal of a few scraps of food wherever they happened to be at the time.

G. C. Berkower, the most widely known Reformed theologian of our day, has pointed out that the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper is of great importance because it is “a divinely ordained act in which God stengthens our faith.”‘ Further, he has pointed out that the church has spoken unanimously about this 4institution throughout the centuries, a fact that is to be explained by the “great clarity with which Scripture speaks of this institution.”5

The roots of the Lord’s Supper. The roots of the Lord’s Supper, we have pointed out, extend back into the Old Testament to its parallel observance, the passover, as the historical conjunction of the two in the present passage indicates. There is a very clear parallel between the two observances. The passover was a memorial of a physical deliverance from the land of Egypt by means of a penal, substitutionary sacrifice, the passover lamb (cf. Exod. 12:1-36). The Lord’s Supper is a memorial of a spiritual deliverance from bondage to sin and the world by means of the penal, substitutionary sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, the antitypical Passover Lamb (cf. . 1 Cor. 5:7). The passover was an anticipation of a future fulfillment in the first coming of the Messiah. It was to be observed “till He come” (cf. 1 Cor. 11:26). The Lord’s Supper is also an anticipation of a future fulfillment in the second coming of the Messiah. It, too, is to be observed “till He comes” in His kingdom (cf. Mark 14:25).

The Preparation For The Passover

The disciple’s question (Mark 14:12). There are three movements in the section. There is, first, the preparation of the passover (vv. 12-16; cf. Matt. 26:17-19). Then, second, there is the celebration of the passover (vv. 17-21; cf. Matt. 26:20-25). And, finally, there is the institution of the Lord’s Supper (vv. 22-25; cf. Matt. 26:26-29). The Markan account, which we are following, has a slightly fuller treatment of the event.

There is no real difficulty in the opening words of verse twelve, in which the disciples on “the first day of unleavened bread” ask where the passover shall be eaten. The feast of Unleavened Bread followed immediately after the passover, but there is evidence that the 14th Nisan, the day of sacrificing of the lambs, was loosely referred to as “the first day of the unleavened bread.”6

The Lord’s commission (Mark 14:13:15). According to the Lukan account the two disciples the Lord sends to complete arrangements for the room are Peter and John (cf. Luke 22:8). They were to enter the city amid the gay crowds and travellers’ tents during the festive celebration of Israel’s birthnight and meet a man with a jug of water. The thing of note in our Lord’s words is the reference to a “man,” for normally the woman carried the water in jugs. Contrary to the comments of some, there is no evidence that this was anything other than an instance of the supernatural foresight of the Lord. It was the providence of God that the man, not a woman, should be in the right place at the right time. “It is God who induces the man, particularly predestinated for the purpose before time began,” Schilder declares, “to leave home with the pitcher at exactly that moment, and to cause him to return at a similarly appointed hour. God makes him stop for a few seconds at the specific corner where he is arrested by Peter and John. GOD HIMSELF SPREADS THE CLOTH OVER THE TABLE AT WHICH THE SON OF MAN WILL LIE TO PARTAKE OF THE LAST SUPPER” (capitals mine).7

The incident may be contrasted instructively with the incident of chapter eleven, verses two and three, in which two disciples requisitioned an ass and her colt for the Lord to make His entry into Jerusalem. Here He asks, but there He demanded. In the one He acts as King, in the other as Mediator. In the one He displays His wealth, in the other His poverty. In the one He claims His right to the royal city, in the other He acknowledges that he does not have a place to lay His head. In the one He is the Son of David, but in the other He is the Son of man. Between the two poles of glory and humiliation He must live His life. At His entrance into our existence His parents hunted for a place for Him to be born, for the House of David was in ruins. And now at His death time He is asking for favors from His friends. Or, is this really a demand, for does He not say that they should say to the owner of the house, “the MASTER saith”?

Edersheim points out that the Lord had only asked for a kataluma (AV, “guest-chamber”), a word that meant an inn, or a guest room, where beasts of burden were unloaded and dusty garments and burdens were put down. Cf. Luke 2:7. However, the owner would show them an anagaion (AV, “a large upper room”), a word that referred to the best room in the house. He added that it would be “furnished and prepared,” words that stress that the large upper room was fit for a king.8 The word “my” in verse fourteen, which is omitted in the AV’s “the guest-chamber,” would seem to indicate that the Lord had made previous arrangements with the owner. Tradition has suggested that he was Mark’s father, but of this there is no evidence.

The conclusion of the mission (Mark 14:16). In this short verse in brief compass is contained the visit to the house, the visit to the temple for the slaughter of the Lamb, and the return to the house for the roasting of it.

The Celebration of the Passover

The revelation of the betrayer (Mark 14:17-18). The second movement of the account begins here. As our Passover prepares to eat His Passover, disciples and demons are with Him. Judas, Satan’s man, is right by His side.

In the early chapters of the Gospel of Matthew the Lord Jesus had said that He must “fulfill all righteousness” (3:15) . That is beautifully seen in this paragraph. He, the Fulfiller of the Law of Moses, must execute all its demands to the smallest detail. The passover observance, therefore, must be authentic in every way. All that Moses wrote must be so accurately carried out that there is no flaw in anything. “The birthroom of the Holy Supper must be kept immaculately pure,” Schilder wonderfully comments, adding a few lines later, “He may not and He does not wait to give us the New Testament until the Old is legally fulfilled. Precisely where the switch is laid, the rails must be most true. Nothing can be out of line there, or the place becomes one of disaster. Nothing is wrong. Christ obeys the law perfectly. He prepares the Passover according to all the rules the law prescribes for Him. Neither an ultra-fastidious Jew nor an eager angel can detect the slightest departure from the law in Him. The Gospel of the New Testament enters the hour of its birth; but the law of the Old Covenant prepares the chamber.”9

In Mark’s description of the scene we have the words, “And in the evening He cometh with the twelve. And as they sat and did eat” (AV). This statement of the physical position of the Lord and the disciples is misleading. The text should be rendered, and while they were reclining and eating. The custom was to recline around a low table and eat from that position. The table was a rectangular table, and the guests reclined on their left sides around it. On the left side in the first position was John, who then would be reclining on the breast of the person in the next position, that of the host. In that place, of course, was our Lord, for John did recline on His breast and He was the host. Next to our Lord was Judas, so that He was reclining on his breast. Peter evidently was on the right side of the table, opposite the Apostle John.

These positions would explain how John alone heard the reference to the sign of the betrayal. If Peter had heard it, Judas would not have left the room alive! This explains why the Lord handed the sop to Judas first, since he was in the position of the chief guest at the table. It explains how Judas can ask if he is the betrayer, and no one else be able to hear our Lord’s affirmative reply. It would also explain why Peter, after the dispute over who was the greatest, should take the lowest seat at the table, perhaps hoping that his magnanimous show of humility would gain for him later the position of the greatest (cf. . Luke 22:14-30)! And it would explain how Peter could beckon to John across the table, asking John to inquire about the identity of the traitor (cf. John 13:24).

The ritual of the passover meal was in four parts. First, there was a preliminary course, which began with a word of blessing spoken by the Paterfamilias (in this case, our Lord) over a first cup of wine. Then, second, the liturgy was given, the Paterfamilias explaining, in answer to a question from the youngest son, the meaning of the service. Would it not have been thrilling to hear our Lord’s exposition? A second cup of wine was drunk at this point in the ritual. The main meal followed as the third part of the service, with grace spoken over the unleavened bread. It is probable that the words of institution were spoken at this point in the service. The supper itself began with the eating of the sop, and after this Judas left, his back receding into the darkness. A third cup, with a prayer, was drunk at this point in the ritual, this cup being the cup of blessing, as the Jews called it, and the cup of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 10:10). Finally, the passover concluded with the singing of the second part of the Hallel psalms, the first part having been sung at the beginning of the service. Final praise was expressed over a fourth cup.

The atmosphere of the festive meeting is shattered by our Lord’s words, “Verily I say unto you, One of you who eateth with me shall betray me” (cf. v. 18). The reference of the words, “who eateth with me,” is to Psalm 41:9, and it suggests that our Lord sees Judas as the ultimate reference of the words of the psalmist (cf. John 13:18). Our Lord was not taken by surprise by the betrayal (cf. Acts 2:23-24).

The disciples’ response (Mark 14:19). One by one, grieved, they replied, “It isn’t I, is it, Lord?” When Judas’ turn came he exclaimed, “It isn’t I, is it, Rabbi?” The difference in Judas’ words recalls the statement of the Apostle Paul, “no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Spirit” (cf. 1 Cor. 12:3). It is one of the many statements to the effect that faith is a gift of God, and that effectual grace is necessary for our salvation. Salvation begins with God, not man. It is also an indication that Judas was not a genuine believer, although an apostle of Jesus Christ. It is also an illustration of how close a man may be to Jesus Christ, and yet be lost. He certainly had the apostles fooled, too. Judas is a message for the church of Jesus Christ, for those within the body externally. A solemn thought!

The Lord’s answer (Mark 14:20-21). The identification of the traitor can be found in the act of the dipping of the sop, our Lord says. It was the custom of the host to take a piece of bread and dip it into the common dish, using it to take out of the dish a choice morsel of the meat. This was handed to the honour guest as a token of courtesy. The Lord said that the act would identify the traitor. Shortly afterward this is what He did (cf. John 13:26), but evidently even then Judas was not recognized. The act itself was a gracious act, the Lord offering Judas a last chance to change his mind, but it failed. Instead of receiving the Saviour, he received Satan (cf. John 13:27)! How could Judas desert Christ? How could Adam desert God (cf. Rom. 3:10-12)? Men are sinners. The other day our president, Ronald Reagan, said, “Men are basically good, but are prone to evil,” a self-contradictory statement. He was wrong in the first clause, but right in the second, which only goes to show that politicians are not necessarily (if ever) good theologians!

The final statement of cur Lord is a compendium of good theology, teaching the sovereignty of God, the responsibility of man, and the reality of eternal punishment.

The sovereignty of God is taught in the opening words, “The Son of man goeth as it is written of Him.” God’s sovereign plan included the betrayal and death, and nothing can prevent its consummation (cf. Acts. 2:23).

The following words, “but woe unto that man BY WHOM (Judas is the instrument, not the author, of the betrayal), the Son of man is betrayed,” illustrate most aptly the fact that God’s sovereign work does not overrule and cancel out man’s responsibility for his sin. Judas is responsible for his instrumentality in the sovereign activity and purpose of God. He wilfully betrayed the Son for the sake of filthy lucre. The final words, “It had been good for that man if he had not been born,” one of the most poignant statements in the New Testament, makes it plain that our Lord did not know as truth the modern doctrine of universalism, that is, that everyone is ultimately going to be saved. He rather believed that the unbelieving, if finally, impenitent, spend eternity in conscious, everlasting punishment. If men ultimately find their way into the presence of God, the statement could never be made that it had been good for that man if he had not been born. As the poet has put it,

“Who counts the billows,
When the shore is won?”

In my notes, from a source that I have only incomplete knowledge of, there is a paragraph that solemnly presents the truth of eternal judgment. “The eternal punishment of the wicked, the eternal happiness of the righteous, and the eternity of God, as far as revelation is concerned, form the same building. The universalist has placed his shoulders against the basement pillars, and if he succeed the whole structure falls; but he and his co-laborers may toil and sweat, and leave their bones to moulder away in the cellars, but God lives on, the righteous shout on, and the damned groan on, — throughout all eternity — O eternity!” It is a solemn fact, and may the reader settle his heart on the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ now and forever.

1 R. V. G. Tasker, The Gospel according to St. Matthew, p. 244.

2 I. Howard Marshall, Last Supper and Lord’s Supper (Grand Rapids, 1980), p. 75. Many important and difficult things are discussed in this fine work (by an Armanian).

3 David Hill, The Gospel of Matthew (London, 1972), pp. 335-37.

4 G. C. Berkouwer, The Sacraments, trans. by Hugo Bekker (Grand Rapids, 1969), p. 188.

5 Ibid.

6 C. E. Cranfield, The Gospel according to Saint Mark (Cambridge, 1959), p. 240.

7 K. Schilder, Christ in His Suffering, trans. by Henry Zylstra (Grand Rapids, 1938), pp. 150-51.

8 Alfred Edesheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids, 1953, reprint of 3rd ed., 1886), II, 483-84.

9 Schilder, pp. 157-58.