Luke loves meals. This is his seventh meal scene; it is also one of his most dramatic (see 5:29-32; 7:36-50; 9:12-17; 10:38-42; 11:37-54; 14:1-24; two more remain, 24:28-32, 36-43). At the dinner table friends can enjoy fellowship and reflect on events. Such an intimate occasion is the setting for Jesus' final words to his disciples. Added to the intimacy of the scene is its timing. A Passover meal is being celebrated (vv. 7-9). During the celebration of God's saving of Israel, Jesus will discuss his sacrifice on behalf of his disciples. It will be a meal to remember, not only because this event forms the basis of the Lord's Supper but also because Jesus predicts a betrayal, defines true leadership, promises authority to the eleven, predicts Peter's failure and warns of coming rejection. Even as he faces death, Jesus serves by preparing others for their task.
The passion did not catch Jesus by surprise. In fact, many of the Passion events reveal that Jesus is in control; and the Passover meal preparation is no exception. The Passover meal launched the celebration of both Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which ran in the week following Passover. So Luke's introduction makes a combined reference to the two. Jesus directs Peter and John to prepare the meal and tells them where to find the room for it. It was a legal requirement that the meal be celebrated within Jerusalem, which meant that a suitable location was necessary (2 Chron 35:18; Jubilees 49:15-16 even held the temple was the desirable locale). The preparation would involve organizing the sacrifice of lambs in the temple, cooking them, preparing the place, assembling the side dishes and utensils, and serving the wine.
Jesus tells Peter and John that "a man carrying a jar of water" will show them "a large upper room, all furnished." Peter and John find things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepare the meal. The room would have been filled with cushions on which to recline. So Jesus directs the disciples, and they are faithful in following him. They see that he is aware of the events that are unfolding. They can trust him.
The meal itself is fraught with emotion. Jesus expresses how much he has longed to eat this meal with the disciples. He uses a Hebrew idiom, "I have desired with desire," to make the point emphatically (NIV: I have eagerly desired; compare Gen 31:30; Num 11:4). Before Jesus suffers, he has this last meal with them. The meal serves literarily for Luke as a "last testament," Jesus' parting words to his own. Like an ill person on his deathbed, Jesus leaves his last impressions on those who have ministered with him. We can only imagine how he felt knowing what was ahead and realizing, "I will not eat [this meal] again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God." Jesus knows that his earthly ministry is drawing to a close and only the future great messianic banquet table will permanently and physically unite these special men to him again. He knows that the Passover will not touch his lips again until the promise is fulfilled with the consummation of the kingdom of God, just as he had discussed in 21:25-28.
Some see the fulfillment of these words in Acts and in the Lord's Supper, but Jesus does not eat that meal himself, he only is present. Also, the Lord's Supper is not a Passover meal, which is what he alludes to here. Jesus has in mind the great consummation of promise, when he returns to earth and directly and visibly rules with his saints. (I prefer a premillennial approach to the end times. Amillennialists will see this return as involving the setting up of the new heavens and new earth.) With Jesus' return, redemption will draw near and the kingdom will come in its decisive, most fulfilling form.
Like the meal, the cup is a final sharing of fellowship with his disciples. Only Luke mentions this first cup. The moment clearly is bittersweet for Jesus. His destiny requires separation from those he loves. When the kingdom comes, they will resume celebration.
The sequence of bread and cup follows. They form the basis of our Lord's Table. It is likely that Jesus is lifting the third cup of the Passover here. This cup followed the eating of the Passover lamb, the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs. It have followed the explanation of why the meal was being celebrated, a review of the exodus. Thus Jesus' words mirror earlier salvation events and resonate with all the imagery of that linkage. As he reinterprets the symbols, he fills them with fresh meaning.
So the bread is "my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me." Jesus is not arguing that the bread becomes his body, the view called transubstantiation. Nor is he arguing that he surrounds and enters the bread with his presence, a view known as consubstantiation. Like the Passover, the bread pictures his death and represents his self-sacrifice as his body is broken for the disciples on the cross. The Lord is present, but the elements serve to remind and proclaim; the elements are not transformed (1 Cor 10:15-18).
The call to remember shows the symbolic nature of the meal. "Keep in mind my sacrifice" recalls the Hebrew concept of zikron, where something is to grip the memory (Ex 2:24; Lev 24:7; Num 5:15; 10:9-10; Ps 20:3; Ezek 21:23). When the church takes this meal looking back to this event, it becomes a statement of solidarity with Jesus, a public covenant renewal—which is why taking the meal is such serious business for Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you." The new covenant is a major theme of the New Testament (see Jer 31:31; Mt 26:28; Lk 24:49, the Father's promise; Acts 2:14-39; 2 Cor 3—4; Heb 8—10). Jesus' blood is shed for his followers. By it he purchases the church (Acts 20:28). The foundation for a new era is laid. A new sacrifice brings an era of fresh fulfillment. That new era starts with Jesus' death and the distribution of the Spirit.
Two features are key to this understanding of the sacrifice of Jesus as pictured by the cup. First, his death takes our place in paying for sin. Paul says this most explicitly in Romans 3:20-26. Luke's language only leaves it implied, though he is aware of the teaching, as Acts 20:28 shows. Second, Jesus notes that his death is inseparably connected to the establishment of the new covenant. A covenant is always inaugurated with the shedding of blood. By far the most eloquent explanation of this new covenant idea is found in Hebrews 8—10.
Jesus sits at the table and reveals why he is going away: to provide a new sacrifice for forgiveness that will open the way for the coming of God's Spirit (24:44-49). In order to give the Spirit, he must give himself. John 14—16 discusses this point in detail in a text unique to that Gospel. Jesus will sit again at the table one day. But then he will do so having offered himself so that others might sit with him. That is the story of God's grace.
There is great pathos here. Even as Jesus gives himself for those he loves, one of them is giving Jesus over in betrayal. The table fellowship is not pure. One sits at the table who longs for Jesus to be removed. So "the Son of Man will go as it has been decreed, but woe to that man who betrays him." Jesus reveals that his death is no surprise. His passing away is not a sign of a plan disappointed or of salvation gone awry. Still, the betrayer is responsible to God for his betrayal. Judas may have met the leadership in private, but God was not fooled. As with all secretly plotted sin, God was there. Luke has placed this remark in a different order from the parallels, where Jesus reveals his knowledge before the meal. The effect is to magnify the note of irony. As Jesus dies to secure forgiveness for others, he himself meets with betrayal. Even one of his own betrays him (Ps 41:9). Woe will befall Jesus' rejecter. It is a fearful thing to reject the One who gives his life to secure our forgiveness.
The disciples do not know who the betrayer might be. So they speculate with one another: "Who would do this?" Sometimes those allied to Jesus are near him for a time before they reveal that their heart truly lies elsewhere. As John 6:70 puts it, Judas was "a devil" even though for more than three years he looked like Jesus' devoted follower. Those who know the Son cling to him; those who do not know him depart from him through denial (Col 1:21-23).
So what makes for greatness? Faithfulness, yes, but even more the service that reveals faithfulness. Amazing as it seems, in the midst of Jesus' revelation about his coming suffering the disciples are fighting over who is number one among them. The text speaks of a "rivalry" (NIV: dispute) breaking out among them. Using the comparative "greater" with a superlative force, the disciples want to know who God puts at the top of the Best Disciple list.
In response, Jesus contrasts leadership in the world with leadership in the kingdom. In the world leadership involves the bald exercise of authority—people lord it over others. In the ancient world when men exercised such power, people publicly recognized their authority and called them benefactors. A benefactor in the ancient world had clients who were to appreciate their lower position (Josephus Jewish Wars 3.9.8 459; 4.2.5 113). Glory and honor came to the leader.
In contrast stands greatness in the kingdom. The disciple-leader should serve with youthful deference. The greatest among the disciples will be the one who is like the youngest and like the one who serves. Jesus points to his own example, not that of the culture. In the ancient world the greater person sits at table while the lesser person serves the meal (see 17:7-10). The Greek interrogative particle ouchi expects a positive reply to the question whether the one at the table is considered greater than the servant. But Jesus notes that he is among the disciples as one who serves. The offering of his life for them is service. He has taught them in service. John 13 tells us that before this meal, Jesus washed the disciples' feet in humble service. Greatness is defined not by position nor resume, but by one's attitude and service.
As Jesus calls them to service, he also gives them a promise. He notes their constancy; unlike the betrayer, they have continued with Jesus in his trials. In the face of pressure, like exemplary disciples, they have stood firm with God's chosen one. So they will share in something he already possesses. The Father has assigned to Jesus a kingdom. Authority has become his (Mt 28:18-20). So he will assign them a role with him. They are to share in his rule. The rule in the future involves table fellowship with Jesus and authority over God's people, Israel. They will celebrate with him at the messianic banquet table, and they will administer justice over Israel. Their union with Jesus means that they share in the benefits of his rule.
Jesus' words about greatness and rule are especially important, since they come in the shadow of his death. He wants to remind his followers that no matter how bad the suffering, rejection and persecution get, a day will come when vindication and authority will reign. We can suffer now if we remember not only what Jesus did but also what he will do. Though the authority given to the eleven is unique, all disciples share the promise of reward and a place at the table of messianic fellowship.
Not all of Jesus' news is good. The cosmic battle is not just between Jesus and Satan. Anyone associated with Jesus is subject to satanic attack. Nothing makes this clearer than the section where Peter is warned about his coming denials. Jesus' awareness of events continues as he predicts Peter's temporary unfaithfulness. Verses 31-32 are unique to Luke and follow his stress on prayer. Satan has put in a request to sift all the disciples like wheat. Though Peter is discussed individually in verse 32, the use of hymas, the plural "you all," in verse 31 shows that he is only part of the coming battle. "Sifted like wheat" is an idiom that in our culture would parallel "take someone apart" (Amos 9:9 has the image). Perhaps Satan believes that if Peter is shamed, others will be disheartened.
Jesus' prayer has dealt with the threat through a request not that the failure be prevented but that any permanent damage be averted. His request is that Peter's faith may not fail. Here is our advocate stepping to our defense through a ministry of prayer. Peter will make no total renunciation of Jesus. The disciple's failure of nerve will not come because of a failure of heart, nor will it be permanent. There will be restoration. In fact, Peter will turn from his denial. His call then will be to strengthen his fellow disciples. What he will be able to teach them may well be revealed by his response. Having learned that failure is possible and the flesh is weak, Peter will be able to strengthen the saints. Though failure is regrettable, sometimes our best lessons come in reflection on failure.
Peter is sure that he is ready to serve in prison, even to die, for Jesus. He is perceptive in that he understands that Jesus' suffering will envelop his followers. Yet he is confident that he can face whatever comes. Though such self-assurance might seem commendable, one's own strength is not sufficient to resist severe temptation (1 Cor 10:12-13). Peter is brave in the privacy of a quiet meal, and when the soldiers show up, he will initially take up arms to defend Jesus. But what will he do when those hostile to Jesus ask him where his allegiance lies? Jesus' prediction of a triple denial before the rooster crows shows that he knows Peter better than Peter does. When we try to stand up to pressure in our own strength, we may wilt. Self-confidence when we are not relying on Jesus is deceptive.
Peter will be able to strengthen fellow believers after his fall because he will understand how easy it is to fall. He can call on them to embrace God's mercy, be prepared to suffer and be ready to give a defense because he will have experienced all of these opportunities himself—some with failure and others with success.
Jesus teaches God's grace in this warning to Peter: Do not trust in your own strength, but realize that after failure there will be opportunity for restoration. Jesus intercedes for his own even when he knows they will fail him. Intercession evidences the Savior's love (1 Jn 2:2). Even disciples who fail in a moment of weakness can experience the success of God's work. The lesson is an important one not only for Peter but also for all the disciples he represents. Though Satan will come after all of them, Jesus will be praying for them all.
Jesus' final words make it clear that circumstances are changing. Opposition to the disciples is rising. Where before Jesus had sent them out empty-handed yet they were provided for (9:1-6; 10:3-4), now they will have to take provisions and protection for their travel. They will have to procure a sword. Scripture such as Isaiah 53:12 is finding its fulfillment in Jesus. Jesus is rejected; he is numbered with the transgressors.
The disciples take Jesus' remarks literally and incorrectly. They note that they have two swords, but Jesus cuts off the discussion. Something is not right, but it is too late to discuss it. As the arrest will show, they have misunderstood. They draw swords then, but Jesus stops their defense in its tracks. He is not telling them to buy swords to wield in physical battle. They will have to provide for themselves and fend for themselves, but not through the shedding of blood. They are being drawn into a great cosmic struggle, and they must fight with spiritual swords and resources. The purchase of swords serves only to picture this coming battle. This fight requires special weapons (Eph 6:10-18).
Humility, dependence, promise of authority and reward, warnings about opposition and the pursuit of faithfulness are the topics of Jesus' final testament meal. Luke assumes that disciples will engage the larger world and face a great cosmic battle. But they are not to withdraw or be afraid. Rather, with humility and looking to God, they can face suffering and the world bravely and effectively. Jesus is about to exemplify the walk of the innocent before a hostile world. His success is not indicated by his withdrawal or even his survival; it is indicated by his faithfulness (1 Pet 2:21-25).
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