April 17, 2014 Broadcast

The Last Supper (Maundy Thursday)

A Message by R.C. Sproul

On the Thursday before Easter, Christians around the world gather to commemorate the Last Supper and to wash one another's feet. This day is known as Maundy Thursday. Dr. Sproul is preaching today's Maundy Thursday sermon from Luke 22.

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    The Lord's Supper Instituted

  2. devotional

    Preparing for the Passover

  3. article


The Lord's Supper Instituted

Human beings have a tendency to sacralize time and space. In other words, there is something within us that seeks to commemorate and set apart certain places and dates that have been important in our lives. We build monuments in areas where battles were fought that changed the course of a nation’s destiny. Days are marked on the calendar to celebrate the birth of a country and even our own entrance into the world. We are driven by an almost insatiable desire to remember the past, and we associate special memories and feelings with places and dates.

The sacralizing of time and space is approved by the Lord, at least when it comes to the landmark events of redemptive history. God commanded the celebration of the Passover to recall and proclaim His great redemption of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery (Ex. 12). Later on, the feast of Purim was established so that the Israel might never forget Yahweh’s dramatic intervention to defeat the Persian enemies of His people in the days of Esther and Mordecai (Est. 9:20–32). Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper, we see in today’s passage, in order that we would remember His death on our behalf (Luke 22:19).

Undoubtedly, our Father marks out these occasions of remembrance because it is when we forget Him and His great work that we break His covenant. Apostasy, that act in which a professing believer abandons his confession of faith and leaves the covenant community, happens when we forget all the goodness of the Lord toward us. Consciously reminding ourselves of His great salvation is one way that we can work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12–13) and thereby persevere in faith until the end of our lives.

Celebrating the Lord’s Supper is one way in which we recall God’s sacrifice of His Son. The bread and wine visibly depict the broken body and shed blood of Christ Jesus and help us remember His death, although the remembering of His death is not all that happens at His table, as we will see in the days ahead. Nevertheless, the Lord’s Supper is tied inextricably to the past, orienting us to the death of Christ for His people, the single greatest event in world history.

Preparing for the Passover

With the Passover at hand, the disciples come to Jesus to inquire of the place where the meal is to be eaten (Matt. 26:17). This festival, one of the most important feast days on the Jewish calendar, has to be celebrated within Jerusalem proper, and so our Lord and His followers must find a place to eat the Passover meal within the city, for they have been staying in Bethany (v. 6). Christ is able to direct His disciples on how they may find a room in which to eat the Passover, and they then go forth to follow His instructions (vv. 18–19).

Day fourteen of the Jewish month of Nisan is the Day of Preparation for the Passover on which the lambs are slaughtered at twilight (Ex. 12:5–6). The sacrifice occurs in the afternoon, which is the end of the day (Jews consider the setting of the sun as the beginning of a new day). Fifteen Nisan, which begins at sundown immediately following the afternoon the lambs are killed, is the actual feast day (v. 8). Some scholars believe Jesus dies as the lambs are being slaughtered on the fourteenth of Nisan, in which case our Lord and His disciples eat the Passover one day in advance. Others say that Christ and His followers follow the traditional schedule, meaning that Jesus dies on fifteen Nisan, a day after the lambs are sacrificed. Either way, the Last Supper is a Passover meal, which will help us interpret its meaning properly as our study progresses.

According to custom, Christ and His apostles will begin the Passover meal with a prayer of thanksgiving over the first of four cups of wine. A course of herbs follows, along with the Passover haggadah (recollection of the exodus events) and the singing of the first part of the Hallel (Pss. 113–114). A second cup of wine begins the main course of lamb, after which is the third cup, the cup of blessing. A prayer of thanksgiving, the rest of the Hallel (Pss. 115–118), and the fourth cup of wine round out the celebration. All of this will take time to prepare, which accounts for the disciples’ concern to get things started early.

Jesus follows the Passover customs, but He guides all the events. He determines where He will eat the supper and makes provisions. He sovereignly lays down His life, no one takes it from Him unwillingly (John 10:11–18).


Joel Beeke

Matthew 26 offers a series of short but brilliantly lit scenes surrounding the betrayal of Jesus. The chapter opens with Christ announcing the end of His public preaching ministry. After this, He says to His disciples: “After two days is the feast of the passover, and the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified” (v. 2, KJV).

To us, looking back on history, Christ’s intent to die on the cross could not be clearer. But the disciples do not grasp His meaning; they are still clinging to their own hopes for Christ and His kingdom. Some Christians today are similarly blind to Scripture. They only consult the Word to confirm their preconceived ideas and expectations.

Like a filmmaker, Matthew moves his focus to a different scene. The Sanhedrin, the highest court of the Jews, is assembled in the hall of Caiaphas. They duly observe the formalities of meeting, but their purpose is to plot the murder of Jesus. After deliberation, a motion is passed to take Jesus quietly and kill Him (v. 4). An amendment is added, specifying that this arrest not be done “on the feast day, lest there be an uproar among the people” (v. 5). What a mix this meeting is of parliamentary procedure, political savvy, and heinous sin!

Matthew next swings his focus back to Jesus, who is being entertained in the house of Simon the leper in Bethany. The all-male dinner party is interrupted by a woman who carries a beautiful alabaster container filled with perfumed oil. She breaks the container and pours its liquid upon the head of Jesus.

The disciples (stirred by Judas; John 12:4–5) protest this seemingly purposeless waste. Jesus points out that the disciples may give to the poor any time they care to. What’s more, He says that the woman grasps what they refuse to accept: He is about to die, and this woman acknowledges that fact by pouring her ointment on her Savior. 

Christ’s rebuke reminds us that He weighs our deeds against the motives of our hearts. At times we Reformed Christians promote utility at the expense of beauty. But Psalm 90:17 tells us that our profession of true religion should be adorned with the beauty of the Lord. Furthermore, our public worship should reflect that beauty. “Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary” (Ps. 96:6).

Matthew then moves to Judas, who slips away from the disciples and goes to the priests to make a deal with them if he delivers Jesus: “What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you?” he asks. 

Matthew tells us that “they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver” (26:15). Some scholars translate the Greek verb for “covenant” here literally (“to weigh”), meaning that the priests weighed the silver to assure its value and paid Judas on the spot. The King James translators, however, use the word covenant to mean “to establish” or “stand firm,” inferring a solemn oath or religious covenant. Either meaning still reveals that heinous sin is again cloaked with the formalities of religion and the law.

The thirty pieces of silver also reflect contempt for Jesus. This small sum represents the damages assessed against a farmer whose ox happens to gore a servant and cause his death (Ex. 21:32). Christ’s life is sold for a paltry price, showing the vast chasm between Christ’s sworn enemies and the willing Sufferer (Ps. 22; Isa. 53; Zech. 11:12–13).

The focus finally returns to the Passover. During the meal, Christ states with certainty: “One of you shall betray me” (Matt. 26:21). The solemn joy of the feast gives way to sorrow. The disciples fearfully ask, “Lord, is it I?” (v. 22). Jesus offers a cryptic response: “He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me” (v. 23). The problem is that at some point in the meal all of the men would have dipped their hands into the dishes set before them. Christ is thinking of prophecy, however, and what was written concerning the one who should betray Him (Ps. 41:9).

Christ adds, “The Son of man goeth as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed” (Matt. 26:24), bringing together the two ideas of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. In His divine sovereignty, God can use the sinful actions of men to accomplish His holy purpose, without in any way diminishing the guilt of the sinner. 

At last, Judas works up the nerve to ask, “Master, is it I?” (v. 25). Christ’s answer, “Thou hast said,” seems less than direct; however, the original is strongly affirmative. We today would say, “You have taken the very words out of my mouth; I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

Thus Matthew pictures the betrayal of Christ by focusing on all the characters involved. He uses the same technique to describe Christ’s subsequent sufferings and death. The care with which Matthew offers each detail reveals the importance of those sufferings. However awful are the deeds of wicked men and false friends, Christ is accomplishing the plan of God for the salvation of His people.

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