We are approaching the Passover /Easter season, and I pray this will be a spiritually enriching time for you and your family. Hundreds of Jewish people— both believers in Jesus and seekers—will be attending Chosen People Ministries’ Passover events around the globe. Please remember to pray for these outreaches, as many Jewish people will be introduced to the Lamb of God for the first time in a very “Jewish way!”
Your Mission to the Jewish People has produced two new books, which are now available. Both books cover similar material, but the longer book, Messiah in the Passover, goes into greater depth regarding Passover in the Bible, Jewish history, and even Church history. The Gospel in the Passover focuses on the way in which Jesus fulfills the festival.
Passover and the Gospel of John
My chapter in Messiah in the Passover focuses on the Gospel of John, and so, based on that wonderful Gospel, I will try to answer this question: “Was the Last Supper a Passover Seder?” The following is a small portion of the chapter.
The Gospel of John is critical to understanding the Jewish story of Jesus. Many scholars argue that the Gospel of John was primarily written to Gentiles, perhaps because of its A.D. 90 date of authorship as well as for a variety of textual reasons. However, the Gospel of John really should be viewed through a Jewish lens. John himself was Jewish and one of the earliest disciples of Jesus. Traditionally, and without argument, he is thought to be the author of the Gospel that bears his name, the Epistles (First, Second and Third John), and the Book of Revelation. According to early Church tradition, John lived longer than any of the other apostles and died as an exile in the late first century on the island of Patmos.
John’s first-hand experience with Jesus gives him great insight into the details of Jesus’ life. He traveled with the Messiah, heard His sermons, and was perhaps the one who was described as “beloved.” He was present at the foot of the cross, unlike his peers, and was given the task of caring for Miriam (Mary), the mother of Yeshua (John 19:26-27).
He was present with Jesus at every Jewish festival the Savior celebrated. Perhaps this is why we learn some unique aspects of the last Passover supper of Jesus through John—especially from the teaching of the Savior during that meal, generally referred to as the Upper Room Discourse.
John mentions Passover quite often in his Gospel. In his very first mention of Jesus, John refers to Him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). We may assume that his hearers would have understood this comment in light of the Passover.
John describes three different Passovers observed by Jesus: John 2:13, 6:4, and the final Passover, the focus of this chapter, found in John 11:55, 12:1, and 13:1, with additional references in John 18:28 and 19:14. It should also be noted that Luke tells us that John was asked by Jesus to make preparations for this final Passover meal (Luke 22: 8-13).
The Foot Washing
We understand that the Seder observed by Jesus and His disciples would have been more primitive and not as well developed as what was described 200 years later in the Mishnaic tractate, Pesachim,1 or found in the modern Haggadah, the guide to our modern Passover Seder. However, some of the traditions recorded by John run parallel to our modern day Passover Seder and cause us to think that, in fact, Jesus observed a similar Passover to what we know today and what I was raised celebrating each year! As most of us know, Jesus washed His disciples’ feet during the Last Supper.
The washing of hands during the Passover Seder is foundational to foot washing. The modern Haggadah calls upon participants to wash their hands twice for the sake of establishing ritual purity. The first ritual hand washing is called, in Hebrew, Urchatz.2 In this instance, water is poured from a cup, once over each hand and recited without a blessing in preparation for taking the greens, either parsley or lettuce, which is part of the traditional Seder meal.
The second hand washing is called Rachtzah3 and it is done a little later in the Passover service just prior to eating the matzah (unleavened bread). This time, a blessing is said when pouring the water over the hands: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His laws and commanded us to wash our hands.”
These washing traditions harken back to those linked to ritual purity found in the Torah and in particular to various commandments associated with the priesthood and Temple offerings, especially the preparation of the priests for their duties.4 Again, our modern Passover Seder rituals developed over centuries and cannot be simply “read into” the Passover Seder of Jesus. In this instance, however, it appears that the washing of the disciples’ feet should be associated with the liturgy of the Last Supper (or Last Seder) rather than the common washing of feet when entering a house as a guest.
The strongest indication is that the disciples are already sitting at the table and engaged with dinner when the foot washing begins. 5 Jesus decided to use His washing the disciples’ feet rather than their hands to teach the disciples some early lessons about true humility, suggesting that true spirituality is not simply a matter of performing rituals correctly but a matter of the heart. The lessons in humility demonstrated and then taught through changing the hand washing into a foot washing is dramatic and powerful.
So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. (John 13:12-17)
There are many rabbinic teachings found in the Mishnah and Talmud that emphasize the importance of humility.6 We find similar thoughts about humility in the words of Jesus Himself spoken during the Sermon on the Mount, especially as gleaned from the first three beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-5).
Reclining at the Table
Once again, we have good evidence that this meal is a Seder as Dr. Don Carson, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, suggests that the “reclining” posture of the disciples during the meal is another hint that the meal was a Passover Seder: “In short, the posture of Jesus and his men is a small indicator that they were, in fact, eating the Passover meal.” 7
The reclining posture of the disciples and Jesus indicates that the meal was a “special meal” and in this instance, because of the other elements mentioned and the date it took place, it may be seen as a Passover Seder.
The Sop and the Betrayal
Another key to understanding this meal as the Last Seder of Jesus comes when Jesus indicates to His disciples that Judas is going to betray Him. In response to Peter’s asking who the perpetrator will be, Jesus responds, ‘“That is the one for whom I shall dip the morsel and give it to him.’ So when He had dipped the morsel, He took and gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot” (John 13:26).
The dipping of the “morsel” likely refers to one of the various “dippings” that are part of the Seder. It could refer to the dipping of the greens (parsley or lettuce), the bitter herbs, or the charoset (the sweet mixture of apples, nuts, and honey used to symbolize the sweetness of redemption in the midst of the bitterness of slavery represented by the other dippings). We might not know which dipping Jesus is referring to exactly, but clearly this is an unusual action for a regular meal, but not for a Passover Seder.
There are many other reasons why we believe that the dinner recorded by John was an early version of a Passover Seder, but perhaps the above will suffice for now and give you a hunger to learn more about the Passover and the ways Jesus, the Lamb of God, fulfills the Feast.
Enjoy the rest of the newsletter and remember to pray for our staff serving in 17 countries around the globe as they present the Messiah through the Passover in churches, homes, and Messianic congregations and speaking one-on-one with Jewish people who need to know the Lord.
Thanks for your prayers for our ministry. Happy Passover and may the power of His resurrection give you strength to serve Him faithfully!
1 The tractate of the Mishnah about Passover
2 Literally, washing or cleansing
3 Literally, To wash or bath
4 Leviticus 8:6, Leviticus 16:24-25
5 Craig S Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 906.
6 Ibid. 906–907.
7 Carson, D. A.. The Gospel According to John. (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), p. 473.