Episode 126 - The Last Supper, part 2
Hey I’m Josh Hawkins, welcome to episode 126 of Opening Up the Gospels. In Episode 125 we looked at the events in the morning of Thursday of Passion Week, when Jesus asked Peter and John to go into Jerusalem to prepare the Passover. The lamb likely would have been purchased on Wednesday by Judas, and Peter and John had to take it into the Temple with thousands and thousands of other worshippers to be sacrificed by the priests in the manner prescribed by the Law. Surely thoughts of Jesus’ death must have been heavy on their hearts, even if they still didn’t completely understand what He had said to them. Now we finished the last episode with Jesus and the other ten arriving to the upper room of what some say was the house of John Mark in Jerusalem. There is not much in the way of biblical evidence for this, but tradition holds that it was the same house that Peter came back to after the angel freed him from prison in Acts chapter 12. Today, a shrine exists in Mount Zion in Jerusalem which is supposedly the site of the last supper. Though there might be some merit historically, we can’t say definitively that this was the location. Even without this detail, all four of the Gospels give us numerous details about this night that we can be certain of. Though we can’t get an exact reconstruction of all of the events of this evening, we’ll see how much the Gospels complement one another and give us a clear picture of what happened.
Now the details of how this Passover meal was celebrated makes the record of it in the Gospels so much more comprehensible. While we don’t have any exact historical descriptions of the celebration that we can definitely date to around 29 or 30AD, we do have enough history and Rabbinic tradition just because of how long the Passover has been celebrated. Remember, the Passover celebration was instituted all the way back in the time of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. So even though there may be nuances and differences of how it was celebrated in Jesus’ day, we can at least see the main framework from history and the writings of the Rabbis.
As we look at the events of the Last Supper, we have to keep in mind that this night was absolutely unlike anything that modern 21st century Westerners think of as a night around the dinner table. We have to put aside our concept of a 45 minute meal in our home or even a feast or wedding celebration and think very differently. Jesus and the Twelve would have been around the table together for hours for a meal that consisted of many stages. If you grew up in America like me, a long dinner might last an hour or two. We can’t take that duration and then cram all of the events we see from this night in the Gospels into that time frame. We have to totally change our perspective and realize that this meal took place in many stages and there was much liturgy and tradition associated with it.
Let’s talk about the setting for a second, specifically about the table that Jesus and the Twelve sat around. Believe it or not, how we picture the table really matters when looking at some of the later details of the evening. The table would have been much lower to the ground than our modern ideas of a dinner table. Sometimes, the table was even hung from the ceiling with chains or ropes. Pillows or cushions would have surrounded it, and Jesus and the Twelve would have reclined on the cushions with their head toward the table, leaning on their left arm and keeping their right hand free for eating. One of the ends of the table would have been used for dishes and food, which means that Jesus and the Twelve would have been reclining around it in the shape of a horseshoe. Can you picture that? There are just so many misconceptions we have when approaching this scene. Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting from the late 15th century really doesn’t help clear up any of those misconceptions either. Jesus was not a caucasian sitting in a chair with the Twelve flanking Him on his right and left. Seriously, that’s not even close. Again, we should picture the table perhaps like a rectangle, sitting low to the ground, where the Twelve would be reclining on pillows around it, resting on their left elbow. Likely the seating was not perfectly symmetrical, due to the fact that there were 3 sides free, and 13 people around it. So again, get the da Vinci painting out of your mind.
Alright, so let’s get back to the scene. As the ten arrived with Jesus and met Peter and John in the upper room, one of the first things on their mind was where each of them would be seated. It’s not like Jesus just sat in the middle or at the head of the table and everyone else picked a random spot. Everything in ancient Judaism was honor-based, even as some Middle Eastern cultures are today. So as they came in, the question was “who would occupy the place of honor?” The order of the seating would determine who had the most honor. This should remind us of something we’ve already looked at back in episode 96, where Jesus told the story in Luke 14 of a man who came into a wedding and sat at the place of honor and then was asked to move to a lower place after another guest came in. He was humiliated because he was asked to move, and thus dishonored in front of all the other guests. There, Jesus encouraged His hearers to take the lowest place in humility, not the place of honor. We’ll see in a little bit how one specific disciple of Jesus truly must have taken those words to heart. So back to the scene - as the ten arrived with Jesus, Luke 22 tells us that a dispute arose among them as to who was the greatest - who should occupy the place of honor. Let’s read starting in verse 24:
"A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves."
(Luke 22:24–27 ESV)
Jesus here expresses such patience and tenderness with His disciples. I think we can imagine these words being spoken as they all stood around the table, jostling for their positions. Think about it. This is the night before Jesus is going to die, and it seems like these guys’ hearts are so distant from Jesus’. They get into an argument about which one is the most awesome among them all, about who Jesus’ favorite is, about who is the most important, and what does Jesus do? He tenderly teaches them once again as to what true greatness looks like: humility and lowliness. That’s what will characterize His future kingdom and what the Jewish people will embody on that Day as examples to the rest of the nations. Now notice what Jesus says: “let the leader be as one who serves” and then he says “I am among you as the one who serves”. Mark those words - just keep them in mind, and you’ll see what they transition to in this scene. Jesus continues in Luke 22:
"You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel."
(Luke 22:28–30 ESV)
The disciples would indeed be great - not in this age, but in the age to come, as they would be given positions of authority over the Twelve tribes of Israel: not because they would be evil dictators or prideful emperors, but they would be humble servants in the future kingdom of God. Because just as Jesus would endure the crucible of suffering, so too would they share in that fellowship with Him. Oh, this is just so stunning. I can only imagine what they must have thought about this after Jesus had risen and ascended back to the heavens. But even before then, there were some in the upper room who heard and took Jesus’ words to heart in the moment, and one that we know about for sure is Peter. As we are going to see, the events later on in the evening will show that Peter took the last place at the table. Look at the seating arrangement here. Remember, the table places are honor based. This could have been the first time that Jesus was the “head” or the “master” or leader of the prayers at the Passover meal. And we know that the places of honor would be to the right and to the left of the head or master, with the people on the left and right being at the places of honor. The least important would take positions at the other end of the table. So as I mentioned, Peter takes the last place at the table. John takes the position to the right of Jesus, and Judas, the one who betrays Him, takes the place of honor at the left of Jesus. How do we know this? Well that’s what I’m going to develop in the coming episodes for you. So look at this - Judas has the place of honor. My gosh. What does this show us about what was in his heart? Had he even heard Jesus’ words, or was he just completely blind because of his pride and sinful heart?
Well definitely come back next time as I continue to walk through the scene of the Passover meal. I’ll spend some more time developing the details as they give us so much insight into the last hours of Jesus’ life. If you’ve missed any of the episodes in this series, you can find them all on my website - www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels. God bless, and come back next time.