For the ancient Jews – and still for Jews today – Passover was an annual meal that commemorated a defining moment in the history of Israel. More than a millennium before the time of Jesus, the Israelites had been enslaved to Egypt’s pharaoh, trapped in miserable bondage. After sending many plagues to Egypt to loosen the pharaoh’s oppressive grip on Israel, one night God sent the final plague; he unsheathed the sword of divine justice. And this justice would fall on everyone. It could not “pass over” the Jews simply because they were Jews. In every home in Egypt – of Jews and Egyptians alike – someone would die under the wrath of justice. The only way for your family to escape was to put your faith in God’s sacrificial provision; namely, you had to slay a lamb and put the blood on the doors as a sign of your faith in God. In every home that night there would either be a dead child or a dead lamb. When justice came down, either it fell on your family or you took shelter under the substitute, under the blood of the lamb. If you did accept this shelter, then death passed over you and you were saved; that’s why it was called Passover. You were saved only on the basis of faith in a substitutionary sacrifice.
This is how God delivered the Israelites and led them into freedom, into the Promised Land. Every year the Passover meal commemorated this deliverance, which had been the most important moment in the life of Israel as a nation and as a people.
The Passover meal had to be prepared in a certain way and had a distinct form. It included four points at which the presider, holding a glass of wine, got up and explained the feast’s meaning. Jesus was the presider at this Passover meal with the disciples, and Mark recounts what happened.
Imagine the astonishment of the disciples when, blessing the elements and explaining their symbolism, Jesus departs from the script that has been reenacted by generation after generation.
Instead of saying, “This is the bread of our affliction, which our fathers ate in the wilderness.” he shows them the bread and says, “This is my body.”
What does that mean? Jesus is saying, “This is the bread of my affliction, the bread of my suffering because I am going to lead the ultimate exodus and bring you the ultimate deliverance from bondage.”
Jesus’ words mean that as a result of his substitutionary sacrifice there is now a new covenant between God and us. And the basis of this relationship is Jesus’ own blood: “my blood of the covenant.”
Jesus’ last meal with his disciples departed from the script in another way too. When Jesus stood up to bless the food, he held up bread. All Passover meals had bread. He blessed the wine — all Passover meals had wine. But not one of the Gospels mentions a main course. There is no mention of lamb at this Passover meal. Passover was not a vegetarian meal, of course. What kind of Passover would be celebrated without lamb? There was no lamb on the table because the Lamb of God was at the table. Jesus was the main course.
On the cross Jesus got what we deserved: The sin, guilt, and brokenness of the world fell upon him. He loved us so much he took divine justice on himself so that we could be passed over, forever.
Note from King’s Cross: Understanding the Life and Death of Jesus