Before He Rose: Maundy Thursday
The Passover, Then and Now
The low table was set for 13 on that Thursday evening. Cushions—or perhaps low benches—surrounded it so guests could recline while eating special foods, singing hymns, and retelling the amazing story. For every person in that upper room overlooking Jerusalem, the ritual had no doubt been an annual event all throughout life.
This time, however, would be different. Until now, the disciples had understood the service and symbols in a concrete, historical way. But in celebrating His final Passover on earth, Jesus exposed the ceremony’s deeper layer of significance.
As Christians anticipate Resurrection Day this Sunday, Passover is being celebrated in Jewish homes around the world. During the eight-day festival, all leaven is omitted from the diet; in fact, yeast, baking soda, and any other “rising agent” are physically removed from the house.
The holiday opens with a ceremony known as the Seder. Hebrew for “order,” the word refers to a prescribed sequence of readings, prayers, and symbolic foods commemorating the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt.
The most famous Seder of all time was that last supper, which took place just hours before Christ’s crucifixion. Previously, Passover’s ancient symbols had only pointed back to the Israelites’ miraculous redemption from bondage. But now, as Jesus led His disciples through the feast rituals, He revealed their full messianic significance at last. Two of these symbols have not only survived in Jewish observance; they’ve been incorporated into church tradition as well.
First is the bread, which was not a plate of plump rolls, as Leonardo da Vinci imagined it, but rather, flat unleavened flour “cakes”—a reminder of the dough that had no time to rise when the Israelites hurriedly left Egypt (Exodus 12:39). Matzoh, a large, crispy cracker, is the commercial product that meets the requirement for bread made without yeast (v. 15). On the Seder table is a cloth bag with three separate compartments—a sheet of matzoh is slipped into each one.
Just before the meal is served, the middle matzoh is removed from the bag and divided in two. One piece is broken and distributed, while the other is wrapped in a napkin and hidden nearby. As a rule, this is the children’s favorite part of the Seder, because searching for the matzoh is like a game, and the leader typically pays a price to buy it back. Participants, however, are usually unaware of the true underlying meaning. The three matzohs are often said to represent either the main branches of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform) or its patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But neither idea explains the curious steps involved in the ritual.
Jesus explained the mystery when He broke the bread, handed pieces to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body” (Matthew 26:26). The rich meaning is now clear. In the Bible, leaven symbolizes sin, so bread without yeast represents God. The divided bag, with the matzohs unified and yet distinct, stands for the Trinity. The middle one signifies the Son, who left His Father’s side to dwell among us (Galatians 4:4) and was broken for mankind (Isaiah 53:5), wrapped in a burial cloth
(Matthew 27:59), hidden away in a tomb (Matthew 27:60), and raised back to life (Matthew 28:6). And just as our ransom was costly (1 Corinthians 6:20), there is even a redemption price involved!
The other symbol Jesus explained was the wine, which is actually poured four times at a Seder. At the beginning of the evening, the cup of sanctification is consumed. Next is the cup of deliverance, from which ten drops are removed—one for each plague visited upon the Egyptians (since our joy is diminished by their suffering). The third, known as the cup of redemption, celebrates God’s mighty act in ending His people’s bondage. And the fourth, called the cup of completion or praise, is taken at the end of the evening. Scholars believe it is the third one—the cup of redemption—about which Jesus said, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27-28).
The elements of Communion come directly from the Lord’s final Seder. There, as He so often did, Jesus met people where they were in their understanding and led them into deeper awareness. That’s a good example for us to follow as we speak of the Savior to others.
And whenever we partake of the bread and the cup, we are to remember the night Jesus sat with His disciples and opened their eyes to the great truth: He was about to pay an enormous price to redeem humankind from a bondage far worse than Egyptian servitude—slavery to sin. Because the Savior gave up His life to pay the penalty we owed, our transgressions are forgiven, and we are assured of eternal life in God’s presence.
So when you next take Communion—perhaps even during this Holy Week—look back on what Christ did for you, look forward to His return, and remember that Jesus is our Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7).
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