Mark 14 describes the events leading up to the Last Supper, the details of the meal, and the effects of that evening. It is relatively easy to read through the account of the meal without imagining the scene. Thus we fail to realize the emotional drama that unfolded in the upper room. Let’s see if we can recreate the scene and thereby learn some of the practical consequences of the events.
The disciples would have made their way down darkened streets to the place where Jesus had instructed them to go. As they climbed the outer stone staircase, they would have wondered about the significance of this meal about which their Master had made several comments recently. At the top of the steps, they would have pushed open the door on its leather hinges and entered into a smoke-filled room. Oil lamps would have cast a warm glow on the rough stone walls. On the floor there would have been a number of hay cushions and woven mats.
Jesus had taken the role of servant at the doorway as the disciples removed their dusty sandals; in this capacity he washed their feet and dried them. There was much embarrassment at this act, but they each in turn submitted to his careful kindness. They rinsed their hands in the water from the jug in the corner, and made their way to sit down. Again, there was some debate about where to sit, or rather where the Master was going to sit, so that they could be close to him.
In the alcove at the side of the main room, two or three women were preparing dishes for the thirteen men. The wood for the fire had been collected earlier, and the vegetables brought in from the villages where they lived. The pita bread had been baked earlier; its aroma, mixed with that of the vegetables, was enticing. Wine in its leather wineskins had been carried up the stairs by one of the disciples and was now being poured into newly glazed mugs and passed around the room.
There was an air of expectancy tinged with fear and uncertainty. The conversation was in hushed tones, and everyone was uncertain about what was going to happen. They thought that they had been planning for the Passover meal. But this was a day early, and it wasn’t quite right!
The meal was probably served hot. It resembled the Passover meal, with its bitter herbs and unleavened bread, and its multiple cups of wine to aid digestion. As they ate, they talked quietly amongst themselves. Then Jesus announced that one of them was going to betray him. He gave a piece of bread to Judas, who took it and afterward went out quietly into the dark night.
Initially, each man thought that the betrayer may have been himself. But later, when it finally emerged that the betrayer was Judas, they were understandably filled with consternation and anger at the betrayal.
Jesus continued to teach them, and their eyes would have been drawn to their Master as he spoke to them about his true nature, his sacrifice, and his resurrection. Possibly there was an intensity of commitment, an identification with Jesus, and a sharing in his work that they had never experienced before. Yet even at this moment of heightened awareness, there were still doubts and uncertainties.
Then Jesus took a piece of the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to each of the disciples in turn. He took the last of the wine, blessed it, and passed it around to the disciples. Thus they all shared the wine together. After they had sung a hymn they went out to Gethsemane. At the table and along the road, Jesus taught them many things; surely they listened to him with some fear and trembling.
In many ways this was an ordinary meal, a group of men meeting together to share food, wine, and conversation. At this time of the year, in Israel, it was also customary to meet and have a special meal together. But, in another sense this was a meal like no other!
The timing of the meal was significant. It came at the time of the Passover festival, but not exactly at the time for the great Passover meal itself. In fact, Jesus was to be sacrificed at the very time when the Passover lambs were being killed in the temple courts. However, all the symbolism of the Passover was to be fulfilled in him. His body was the “bread broken”; he was the bread of life! He himself was the Lamb, selected and prepared — the Lamb of God destined to “take away the sin of the world”! He was the lamb, “pure and undefiled”, foreordained from the beginning of time. He was the one who was to be “Christ, our Passover Lamb” (1Co 5:7). However, he was also “the Lamb” to be raised from the dead, to be glorified by being exalted to the throne of God. And the Lamb described by the apostle John in the Book of Revelation: “a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne” (Rev 5:6). He was to be the “first begotten from the dead”, given immortality, never to die again.
These are the things Jesus taught the disciples at the meal table and as they walked through the streets of Jerusalem, out of the city gate, and across the Kedron Brook to Gethsemane (cp John 13:31-17:3).
However, let’s get back to the Last Supper. It was a relatively ordinary meal, yet at the same time a meal alive with high drama. The emotional stakes were high, and the tension was acute. How would we have felt if we had been present?
Would we have been embarrassed that we had allowed the Master to wash our feet? Would we have helped to prepare the meal? Or would we just have arrived at the last minute, hoping that someone else had done everything? Would we have been jostling for position, trying to be on the right hand of the Master, so that we would be included in the discussion? Would we have listened spellbound to the teaching, but secretly hoped it would not involve any serious personal commitment and sacrifice? Would each of us have thought deeply and sadly that it could have been “I” who betrayed Jesus? Would we have shared Peter’s denial, vehemently claiming that we would give all and never deny our Lord and Master?
And yet, I am sure that if we had been there, we would have tried to do what was right. We would have failed to achieve the high standard set by the Master’s example. Surely in some way, each of us would have been somewhat like Judas and Peter. Like them, we are frail, erring creatures, prone to sin and failure. The one betrayed and did not seek forgiveness, while the other denied and repented. The one died, but the other lived. Whatever our response to the Master, however, we come to the Lord’s Table, whether we have betrayed or denied, whether we have not done what we could, whether we have done what we should not have done. The Lord shares this bread and this wine, and we receive it gratefully. We know that in him, the Lamb of God, we are forgiven, and refreshed and reinvigorated by this meal. It is a simple and ordinary meal, yet it speaks volumes in spiritual lessons.