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Why is The Last Supper Critical to the Christian Observance of Lent?

“It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” – John 13:1

Maundy Thursday is an important day in the Christian celebration of Easter. Sometimes called Holy Thursday, the day represents Jesus’s last meal with his disciples prior to his crucifixion on Friday – referred to as Good Friday. These two days represent a critical part of Holy Week, leading up to Easter or Resurrection Sunday.

The Last Supper occurred in an upper Jerusalem room and is reported in all four Gospel accounts. The stories of the Last Supper include countless messages of the lessons that Jesus left us. During the Last Supper, Jesus taught the importance of humility, selflessness, and service to others. It was here in the upper room that Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, even of Judas. At this time, Jesus also predicted Peter’s denial of him. And it was at the Last Supper that Jesus opened up to his disciples that he was about to be betrayed by one of them – of course, by Judas, who ran out on the rest before the meal was completed.

The gospel of John tells us of the many lessons taught by Jesus during this meal: the promise and work of the Holy Spirit, the parable of the vine and the branches, of how the world would hate them, and how their coming grief would soon turn to joy. John 17 is an amazing telling of the prayers of Jesus to be glorified for the disciples and all believers. In fact, John spent what we now see as five chapters of his gospel on the lessons and prayers of Jesus during the Last Supper.

Most importantly, perhaps, the Last Supper has left us the gift, the institution of the Eucharist. Holy Communion. It is a holy celebration wherein Christians eat bread, representing the body of Christ, and drink wine, representing the blood that Christ was about to shed for all of us. Thus, it is – in honor of one of Jesus’s final commands – that all Christians celebrate communion to commemorate the sacrifice of Christ.

Maundy Thursday – and by extension, the Last Supper – has been publicly celebrated by the Church since somewhere in the late 4th century. Historically, the Last Supper has been celebrated as having occurred on Thursday evening just before the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus later Thursday night and Friday. This, too, is considered by many to be the start of Passover.

When did The Last Supper occur?

There seems to be a conflict between the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the gospel of John. The Synoptic Gospels tell us the disciples prepared the Passover meal “on the first day of the festival of Unleavened Bread.” (Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7-8)

“On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?” – Matthew 26:17

John tells us that the event occurred “just before” the Passover Festival –

“It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The evening meal was in progress…” – John 13:1 – 2a

John then further tells us why the Jewish leaders would not enter the Roman palace:

“Then, the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now, it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness, they did not enter the palace because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.” –John 18:28

John also tells us that when Pilate brought Jesus out in front of the people, it was the day of Preparation of the Passover – putting his trial the day before Passover.

“It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon. ‘Here is your king,”’ Pilate said to the Jews.” – John 19:14

According to John, Jesus and the disciples celebrated the Passover the night before the day of Preparation for the Passover. That would mean it was not the same as the Passover meal celebrated by the Pharisees, who would have eaten that meal on the evening of the day of Preparation. That would have been Thursday evening, after sunset, the start of Passover.

Critics of the Bible quickly point out the apparent conflict. Then again, how do we reconcile these two accounts?

One other seeming conflict arises from Jesus’s own prophecy, when he said, like Jonah, “the Son of Man would be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40). How could it be that Messiah could be crucified on Friday, buried and then resurrected on Sunday, which would be only two nights in the heart of the earth? Importantly, how are these conflicts – tensions – between the versions reconciled? Indeed, it is a bit confusing.

Was The Last Supper Celebrated during Passover?

There are many opinions or explanations regarding the specific timing of the Last Supper. Some speculate that perhaps Jesus celebrated a “personal Passover” meal with his disciples just prior to the actual Passover celebration. It hardly seems reasonable to believe that Jesus would not have honored the true Passover.

Others speculate that the Last Supper was not a Passover meal but a different one, claiming that when the disciples asked the question of Jesus, they weren’t referring specifically to the Passover meal. This would seem to be contradicted by the disciple’s question in Matthew 26:17:

“On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”'”

There are also advocates for the viewpoint that a different calendar and perspective might have played a part in what might appear to be an inconsistency. The Galilean Jews celebrated Passover a day before Judean Jews. Thus, the synoptic Gospels recognized Thursday as the day of preparation – and Passover on Friday or sunset on Thursday. John used the Judean calendar of those who had Jesus crucified, meaning sunset Friday was the start of Passover and a special Sabbath. This is not entirely unreasonable. However, we still must assume that Jesus did not celebrate Passover in accordance with the Jews of Jerusalem.

What did Jesus mean regarding three days and three nights in the heart of the earth?

Jesus’s own words regarding three days and three nights in the heart of the earth can also be difficult for some to comprehend. Torahclass.com contends the Galilean Jews, such as the disciples, celebrated the beginning of Passover the evening before Preparation Day, which would have been Wednesday evening – after sunset. The Galileans called this meal seudah maphsehket – or “last supper.” This would have been the last supper before Passover – and was the “first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread.” (Mark 14:12). It represented the last supper of the Jews before the Passover. It would have been leading up to what would have been the traditional Passover Seder meal that Thursday night. And to the Galilean Jews, this would have been the start of the celebration of Passover. Since Jewish Biblical days ran sunset to sunset, this does mean that the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples, by Jewish calendar reckoning, was the first meal on Thursday.

A Wednesday Last Supper would mean that Jesus was crucified on Thursday, Preparation Day – the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, and the day the sacrificial lambs were killed in the afternoon. Of course, it would be appropriate that Jesus, our perfect sacrificial Passover lamb, was also killed on the day that the sacrificial lambs of Passover were sacrificed. The next day – Friday – would then have been a festival Sabbath, followed by Saturday, the end of week Sabbath. Of course, then, the Pharisees would have celebrated the Seder meal on Thursday evening after the sacrifice of the lambs.Then, Sunday:

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.” – John 20:1

On this point, all four gospels agree. (Matthew 28:1; Luke 24:1; Mark 16:2)

Why is The Last Supper Crucial to Christianity?

The Biblical record is difficult to reconcile. To say that the writers paid little attention to the specifics of dates would be an understatement. Certainly, our attention to specific dates today is a far cry from the more flowing, less strict attitude of Biblical writings. The term “AD” didn’t even exist then, and there was no universally accepted calendar. Thus, the records were far less accurate than what we expect and are accustomed to today. Writers of the time were less concerned about quoting specific dates.

The question remains, though – does it really matter? Were the Biblical writers correct in their lack of concern over specific dates?

As I write this, it happens to be Leap Year. There will be many children born on February 29 whose birthdays are celebrated on a different date. Biblically speaking, we know that Jesus was not born in the winter since the shepherds remained in the fields. Yet, we celebrate Christmas on December 25. Why? Well, that’s a discussion for another time. But what we celebrate is the birth of our Savior, regardless of the date.

What is important about the Last Supper – and frankly about the crucifixion – is not when they took place, but that they took place. We aren’t celebrating a day, but rather the event – the sacrifice for us of the Lamb of God. We celebrate the body and blood of Christ Jesus, who gave himself for us.

It is often said that Mark’s gospel was actually written from the words of the Apostle Peter. If true, and there is little reason to believe otherwise, then this is what Peter remembered:

 “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take it; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,’ he said to them. ‘Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’” – Mark 14:22-25

Photo Credit: ©Pexels/Magda Ehlers


SWN authorGreg Grandchamp is the author of “In Pursuit of Truth, A Journey Begins” — an easy-to-read search that answers to most common questions about Jesus Christ. Was he real? Who did he claim to be? What did he teach? Greg is an everyday guy on the same journey as everyone else — in pursuit of truth. You can reach Greg by email greg.grandchamp@gmail.com  and on Facebook

Matthias David
Matthias David
Working in His vine, as He does even more at mine.
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