The Cup at the Last Supper: The Words of Jesus and Old Testament Allusions

After Jesus interpreted bread as his body (Matt. 26:26), he spoke of a cup as his blood: “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (26:27-28). His words alluded to at least three places in the Old Testament.

“blood of the covenant”–This alludes to Exodus 24:8. Moses threw blood on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” The context was the sealing of the Mosaic covenant, and the blood he threw was from animals.

When Jesus appropriates Exodus 24, like Moses he is also speaking in a covenant context, only not about that old covenant. He is making a new covenant (see Luke 22:20, which adds the word “new”). This new covenant didn’t involve animal blood. Jesus said the cup was “my” blood.

“which is poured out for many”–This alludes to Isaiah 53:12. The prophet Isaiah said, “Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”

When Jesus appropriates Isaiah 53, he is taking on the Suffering Servant role described by that ancient prophet. The words of Isaiah 53 painted a graphic picture of the suffering and death of Jesus who would pour out his life unto death. The language also shows that his death is substitutionary.

“for the forgiveness of sins”–This alludes to Isaiah 53:4-6. The prophet Isaiah said, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–every one–to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Again alluding to Isaiah 53, Jesus teaches that his upcoming death would achieve the reconciliation with God that sinners so desperately needed. The Son’s substitutionary death had a design, a purpose. The Father would crush him in the place of sinners in order that forgiveness for sinners could justly and permanently applied.

In Matthew 26:27-28, as Jesus spoke about the cup, we learn how he would live up to his name that the angel proclaimed in 1:21: “. . . you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Jesus would bring salvation, saving sinners from their sins.
How will such a feat be achieved?
Through death, his own blood poured out.
His own blood? But the covenant with Moses already prescribes sacrifices.
Yes, but animal sacrifices cannot atone for sin. This will be a new covenant.
How will his death atone for sin?
It will be substitutionary. He will be crushed in our place, bearing our iniquities.
Forgiveness of sins! For how long will this last?
Forgiveness is full and forever. If anyone be in Christ, he is not condemned.

The Most Important Meal in the Ministry of Jesus

Jesus speaking at the last supper

On the week Jesus was crucified, he shared the most important meal of his ministry. The words and actions were full of meaning, and what took place would constitute the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper in the early church (see 1 Cor. 11:23-25).

To understand why Christians look back to the last supper in the Gospels, we must go back even further in Scripture. Exodus 12 instituted the annual Passover meal. Over a thousand years later, Jesus sat down at a Passover meal with his disciples. His meal fulfilled the purpose of that ancient feast, for he himself would be the lamb of God. He would be slain. His shed blood would bring atonement, a covering from righteous wrath.

Normally at a Passover meal, the family head would explain how the elements reminded them of God’s passing over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt (Exod. 12:27). That had been the explanation of the meal for more than a millennium. No one expected a divergence from the script.

But in the Gospel accounts of the last supper, when Jesus began to speak about the elements on the table, he did something different. He didn’t refer to a lamb. He didn’t mention the Israelites in Egypt. He didn’t remind the disciples of God’s judgment passing over houses with shed blood on doorposts and lintels. Instead he took bread and said, “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matt. 26:26). He took the cup and said, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (26:27-28).

No one had ever gathered at a Passover meal and heard those words. Jesus was doing something new. He wasn’t talking about the past, he was talking about the future. He wasn’t talking about a lamb’s death, he was talking about his own. He wasn’t talking about deliverance from Egyptian slavery, he was talking about forgiveness of sins.

More than a thousand Passovers had come and gone since the days of Moses. Now here in Jerusalem, meeting in secret with his disciples, Jesus spoke words connected to a new and greater exodus and to a new and greater covenant.

Did Judas Receive the Bread and the Cup?

jesus gives morsel of bread to judasWhen Matthew narrates the scene of the last supper, Jesus was dining with his twelve disciples (Matt. 26:20). So Judas was present–at first.

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me” (Matt. 26:21). The disciples replied, one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” (26:22). Matthew doesn’t focus on any individual yet. Then after Jesus said it would have been better if the betrayer had never been born (26:24), Judas speaks. “Is it I, Rabbi?” (26:25).

The narrative continues in Matthew 26:26-28 with the dispensing of the bread and the passing of the cup, and the impression is that all twelve disciples receive the bread and cup from Jesus. Matthew doesn’t report anyone missing.

But the Fourth Gospel sheds some light on this table. When Jesus said “one of you will betray me” (John 13:21), the disciples were uncertain of the betrayer’s identity (13:22). The beloved disciple (probably John?) was sitting beside Jesus (13:25). He asked, “Lord, who is it?” (13:25). Jesus responded, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it,” and then Jesus dipped a morsel and handed it to Judas, who must have been sitting next to him on the other side (13:26). Despite what a moment this was, the rest of the group seemed oblivious (13:28). But Judas knew that Jesus knew.

Now comes John 13:30: “So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.”

Here’s how the events may have unfolded at the last supper. Jesus prophesies a betrayer from the twelve, and the disciples respond with uncertainty (Matt. 26:20-25). With this conversation still hanging in the air, the beloved disciple asks the identity of the betrayer, Jesus says he will give a dipped morsel to the betrayer, Jesus then gives the dipped morsel to Judas, and after receiving the morsel Judas immediately left (John 13:25-30).

Only then does the meal transition to the breaking of the bread and the passing of the cup (Matt. 26:26-28). While Jesus began the meal in 26:20 with all twelve disciples present, by the time he interpreted the bread as his body and the cup as his blood, Judas had already left (John 13:30).

Last Supper, Lord’s Supper, or Marriage Supper: What Do the Miraculous Feedings Foreshadow?

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus miraculously provided food for a crowd of 5,000 (Matt. 14:13-21) and 4,000 (15:32-39). Scholars recognize that these feedings allude to Old Testament stories involving Moses, Israel, Elijah, and Elisha. But in addition to pointing backward, do the stories point forward? And if these feedings are forward-pointing, what is being foreshadowed?

Perhaps the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples, or perhaps the Lord’s Supper which believers practice, or perhaps the eschatological Marriage Supper. Let’s take these options in reverse.

  1. Least controversial is that the miraculous feedings foreshadow the Marriage Supper. Matthew has already reported Jesus’ words about an end-time banquet: “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11). And near the end of the Gospel, Jesus refers to “that day” when he will drink “this fruit of the vine” with his disciples “in my Father’s kingdom” (26:29), another reference to the eschatological meal. In Grant Osborne’s commentary on Matthew, he represents the view of many scholars when he writes, “This was truly a messianic miracle pointing forward to the messianic banquet, an eschatological meal often emphasized by Jesus (Matt. 8:11; Luke 14:15; 22:30) and also a common theme in Judaism.”
  2. But what about the Lord’s Supper? Could the miraculous provision of loaves find meaning in the frequent practice of believers sharing bread and wine together? Leon Morris is hesitant to see in the language any application to communion. Ben Witherington says “it is doubtful that the First Evangelist had any major intent to portray this as a Eucharistic meal.” Craig Blomberg says a eucharistic reading would be anachronistic, though some foreshadowing might be possible. R. T. France is more open to the view, though, writing, “The feeding of the crowd is . . . a ‘foretaste’ of the central act of worship of the emergent Christian community, even though the menu was not quite the same.” Furthermore, consider that the order of taking, giving thanks, breaking, and eating (Matt. 15:36-37) is the pattern of the Lord’s Supper in Acts 27:35 (“And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat”).
  3. The miraculous meals may point to the Last Supper which Jesus shared with his disciples. Grant Osborne rightly notes that the sequence of verbs in Matt. 14:19 (taking, blessing, breaking, giving) is found elsewhere in the Gospel only at the Last Supper in 26:26 (“Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples”). David Turner says it is “at least plausible” that the miraculous feeding foreshadowed the Last Supper. The second miraculous meal tells us that Jesus gave thanks, and this notion was during the actions of taking and giving (15:36). At the Last Supper, Jesus took the cup and gave thanks and gave it to his disciples (26:27).

Before we evaluate these options, let’s avoid the mistake of assuming only one view can be held. Why couldn’t two views be true simultaneously? Or even all three? The eschatological feast is surely the end point of what the miraculous meals foreshadow. But the Lord’s Supper is itself an anticipation of that final feast. In the bread and wine, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26), a coming which leads to table fellowship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 8:11). And isn’t the Lord’s Supper the ordinance which Jesus established at the Last Supper? And wasn’t it at the Last Supper when Jesus also spoke of the eschatological feast in the Father’s kingdom? (26:29).

The original audience of the miraculous feedings may not have realized the significance of the meals. But the point isn’t whether the original eaters or listeners would have sensed a deeper resonance of truth. The point is for the original readers of Matthew’s Gospel, readers which had an inspired collection and organization of stories and narration and teachings. The readers of Matthew’s Gospel were decades after the events of Jesus’ earthly ministry and thus decades after the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper at the Last Supper (see 1 Cor. 11:24-25; Luke 22:19). When these readers and hearers of Matthew’s Gospel learned about Jesus taking, blessing, breaking, and giving bread, discerning elements (pun intended!) of the Last Supper, Lord’s Supper, and Marriage Supper is not only plausible but reasonable and, I think, even probable.

So, yes, I’m saying the miraculous feedings foreshadowed the meal Jesus shared in the upper room, the meal the church shared (and shares) together, and the meal on the last day when we recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

We need not be bound to only one view of what the feedings point to. If you look at a map and locate Nashville, Tennessee, you will notice that I-40 leaves Nashville to the west, and it will take you to Oklahoma City. And if you said, “I’m going to travel on I-40 from Nashville to Oklahoma City,” it would also be correct for someone to say, “You know, along the way, you’ll go through Memphis and even Little Rock.” This is true because I-40 takes you from Nashville to Oklahoma City but through other cities along the way. The trajectory of travel is advanced, not hindered, by these other places prior to your final destination.

The map illustration is a way of saying that the miraculous meals point to the Marriage Supper, but this trajectory does not exclude a foreshadowing of the Last Supper and Lord’s Supper–which themselves continue pointing to the final feast at the table with the patriarchs.

Weekly Lord’s Supper at Kosmosdale Baptist Church

Kosmosdale Baptist Church now takes the Lord’s Supper on a weekly basis. We were doing it the first Sunday of each month, but there are biblical and theological reasons for increasing the frequency.

  1. The early church had the Lord’s Supper with their meal together, and they gathered each week to do so (cf. Acts 20:7; 2:42, 46; 1 Cor 10:16; 11:20, 23-24).
  2. Paul said we proclaim the Lord’s death whenever we partake of this ordinance, so wouldn’t we want a weekly proclamation? (1 Cor 11:26).
  3. It is a visual aid for the Gospel. The bread represents Christ’s body, and the cup represents his blood. Body broken, blood shed–that’s Gospel content.
  4. It maintains the distinctiveness of God’s people. The Lord’s Supper isn’t for unbelievers, so the weekly partaking of that ordinance serves as a reminder of God’s people being set apart through their faith in the Savior.

Usually pushback comes in a couple ways:

  1. Won’t a weekly Lord’s Supper make the service longer? I don’t think this is a good objection. After all, omitting an offering, excluding a public reading of Scripture, dropping some of the worship songs, and cutting the sermon in half would all make for a shorter service, but is that really what we’re after? No, of course not. The Lord’s Supper might add a few minutes to the service length, but if you start on time and do announcements efficiently, you might not be able to tell at all. In the end, don’t you think we should seek to conform the content of our worship to the practice of the early church as much as we can discern it?
  2. Won’t a weekly Lord’s Supper become void of meaning? This objection doesn’t stand either. The content of a worship service shouldn’t be defined by what we find maximum meaning in each week. That measuring stick is too relative. Not everyone finds the sermon as compelling each week. Not everyone is equally moved by the songs chosen for worship. Probably not everyone will give rapt and total attention to the public Scripture reading. Nevertheless, churches do weekly things in a worship service that may not always be exciting to every person every time. Our subjective enjoyment in an element of worship does not determine whether it should or shouldn’t become a corporate and frequent practice. Rather, I think we should consider the pattern of the early church and seek to follow their lead. And if it is correct that the early church took the Lord’s Supper each week, then they apparently didn’t believe the frequency nullified the meaning of the ordinance.

See the excellent reflections on this topic by Jim HamiltonRay Van Neste, Mike Willis.