Matthew 26 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
The Meaning of Jesus' Death
As Jesus' death approaches, he instructs his disciples more fully in the meaning of his mission. The disciples could not guess that their Teacher's death was part of God's sovereign plan, and they would scatter in fear once it came; but by reinterpreting a familiar ritual (the Passover, an annual celebration of how God delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt), Jesus gave them a new way of looking at God's purposes, which would make sense once he had risen.
Yet Judas would not be the only one to betray Jesus; the context reminds us that all of us are capable of denying the Lord (vv. 33, 35; 26:69--27:10). The joyous occasion of Passover becomes a sorrowful one (26:22; compare 17:23; 18:31; 19:22) by the announcement of betrayal. By dipping with Jesus in the bowl containing the sauce of bitter herbs (26:23), the betrayer had shown himself a treacherous person indeed; rising against one with whom one had eaten violated the sanctity of tradition (compare Ps 41:9).
The Last Supper was a symbolic act, like the triumphal entry and "cleansing" of the temple (E. Sanders 1993:263). Interpreting the elements of the Passover feast (the bread, the bitter herbs and so on) was a standard part of Passover tradition (Jeremias 1966a:56), but instead of using standard explanations Jesus interprets two elements (those representative of food and drink in blessings at Jewish meals) in a strikingly new way.
That the bread is Jesus' body means that it "represents" it (compare the Aramaic in Martin 1982:153). We should interpret his words here no more literally than the disciples would have taken the normal words of the Passover liturgy: "This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate when they came from the land of Egypt." (Even had that bread not been eaten already, one might fear it a trifle stale after some thirteen centuries!) That Jesus was also in his body at the time he uttered the words further militates against interpreting the bread as literally equivalent to his body (Moffatt 1938:168).
The head of the household, who had been reclining, would now sit up to bless (give thanks for) the bread before the meal. After the meal, Jesus interprets the third or fourth of the Passover meal's four cups: this represents the blood of the covenant (compare Ex 24:8). After partaking of this cup, Jesus utters what resembles a traditional vow of abstention (compare Num 6:4; 30:2; 11QTemple 53-54), in this case vowing not to drink wine until the coming of his reign (Jeremias 1966a:182-85). After a few hours of discussion, here perhaps abbreviated, a household would sing the remaining hymns of the Hallel (Ps 113--18), undoubtedly the hymn to which Matthew 26:30 refers (Daube 1963:45; Ellington 1979).