The point of the Lord’s precise though mysterious instructions and the disciples finding things just as Jesus had told them to expect is to demonstrate that the Lord was in complete control of events as he moved to the cross. He was not a helpless victim. He was orchestrating events not being overtaken by them. And he was setting up the Passover meal himself, some indication that he saw this as an opportunity to reveal to his disciples the meaning of what was to come. It is interesting to think of the fact that there would have been many such rooms filled with Passover pilgrims eating the Passover meal that night in Jerusalem, utterly unaware that the Lamb of God, foreshadowed in the Passover lamb, was at that moment not far away celebrating his own Passover feast.
It is an interesting question whether there were any others present besides these thirteen men: Jesus and the Twelve. Passover was normally in Jewish custom a family event. No matter Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper, some have suggested that the room had to be a large one, as we read in v. 15, because others were there also, perhaps some of the women who accompanied Jesus from Galilee, of whom we read in 15:41. On the other hand, the account of the Lord’s washing the disciples feet this same night in this same room as we have it in John 13 does not create the impression that there were others in the room besides the disciples.
They are well into the Passover meal when Mark picks up his account of the evening in medias res. The feast has been underway for some time; the first thing we hear Jesus say is that one of his inner circle will betray him.
It has long been noticed that there was no initial suspicion of Judas. Each one wanted to be sure it wasn’t he. Apparently no one said, “I’ll bet it’s Judas. I’ve always had doubts about him!” It is a point often made in the Bible that we cannot read another person’s heart and that there is no way infallibly to decipher the hypocrite. But the “one by one” suggests that Judas also protested his innocence, as is made clear in Matthew’s account of the same scene. A liar to the end.
Those who argue that there were others present at this meal, perhaps a number of others, point to the Lord’s remark, “It is one of the Twelve,” which, they say, would hardly have been necessary to say if only the Twelve were present. It is hardly a conclusive consideration.
We have in this verse in a concentrated form the Bible’s assertion, at one and the same time, of the divine sovereignty, God’s rule over all events, and real human freedom and responsibility. Judas is responsible for his perfidy; it was his act done for his reasons, but he was by no means throwing the divine plan off course! The Lord’s statement that he must go “as it is written” indicates that his ministry was following a divinely ordered plot. The servant of the Lord had come precisely for this: to suffer and die for man’s salvation. And part of his suffering would be his betrayal by one of his closest friends.
Mark’s account is spare in regard to Judas. He doesn’t include Judas’ question to Jesus that we find in Matthew or the Lord’s giving Judas a piece of bread dipped in the dish to mark him out as the traitor and Judas’ departure from the meal.
The “blood of the covenant” harks back to the peace or fellowship sacrifice of Exodus 24:8, as does the “poured out” (24:5) and the “for many” links up with the account of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53:11-12. In other words, the vocabulary of the institution of the Last Supper ties together the death of the Lord Jesus on the cross with all of its anticipations and foreshadowings in the OT.
The final words of Mark’s account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper connects it with the consummation of salvation at the end of history. At the Supper we look back and forward at the same time.
And thus that dark betrayal-night
With the last advent we unite,
By one blest chain of loving rite,
Until he come.
In few words Mark gives us the institution of the Lord’s Supper. In fact, his account is the shortest of the four accounts of the institution that we have in the NT (also in Matthew, Luke, and 1 Cor. 11). By the time the Gospel was written, of course, the Lord’s Supper was long since a fixture of Christian worship and the readers of the Gospel would have known very well what had developed from the Lord’s words and actions at that table that night. The simple statements that the Lord makes all make the point that the ritual Jesus is here introducing represents is the gift of Jesus himself to his disciples. He is offering himself to us in this sacred meal. It is that simple reality that lies beneath our conviction that when we come to the Table of the Lord we come to receive him, to commune with him, to be fed by him.
The final hymn was a part of the Passover liturgy and so, in all likelihood, was one or more of four Psalms, 115-118.
The Lord says almost nothing ahead of time in any of the four Gospels of the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension to heaven. In almost all cases he either simply predicts his death and resurrection or tells his disciples that he is returning to his Father in heaven. But here we learn that he will not return to his father immediately upon his resurrection and that he will see his disciples again before he departs the world.
We know, very well, of course how empty this boast will prove to be, not for Peter only but for all the disciples, who scattered in terror when the Lord was arrested.
It is a fact that has often been noticed by students of the Bible that at every juncture in the history of redemption in which God’s covenant is renewed with his people there is almost immediately thereafter a betrayal of that covenant on the part of God’s people. In other words, before the ink is dry on God’s gracious promise to be our God and Savior the believer or believers upon whom God lavished this favor are betraying it, breaking their newly cemented bond with the Lord, and counting his grace a little thing.
God made his promise to Noah never again to destroy the world with a flood and we have immediately thereafter Noah’s drunkenness and the sin of filial disrespect committed by Noah’s son Ham. God made his covenant of grace with Abraham and his seed, brought him to Canaan and promised him the entire land as an inheritance for himself and his offspring, and then, at the first sign of difficulty, Abraham deserted the land he was promised for Egypt, lied about Sarah his wife, and threatened the very possibility of offspring as Sarah was taken into Pharaoh’s harem. When God renewed his covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, having already delivered them from slavery in Egypt, before Moses could return from the summit of the mountain, Israel was cavorting like a pagan nation before a gold idol in the form of a calf. When David was granted an eternal covenant and the promise that there would always be one of his descendants on the throne of the kingdom of God, a promise he appreciated at first to be an utterly remarkable condescension on God’s part toward an unworthy man, what did he do but commit adultery and murder the woman’s husband!
And now, here in the Upper Room, Mark draws attention to the same dismal reality by employing once more his sandwich technique. His account of the first Lord’s Supper, which is a form of the renewal of God’s covenant with his people – as the language of sacrifice, of blood, and pouring out, of eating and drinking indicates – is sandwiched between two accounts of treachery and betrayal by his innermost circle of friends and followers, the very men with whom he renewed his covenant there in the Upper Room. The account of the Lord’s Supper begins with the Lord declaring that he would be betrayed by one of the twelve and it ends with his promise that all the rest of those men, the remaining eleven, would desert him in his hour of need.
If we inquire after the purpose of this pattern that God has woven into the history of salvation, as to why every renewal of his covenant with his people is answered by some egregious act of ingratitude and unfaithfulness on his people’s part, the answer surely is not hard to discover. We are being reminded in this powerful way that we do not deserve to be in fellowship with God, we do not deserve to know him as our God and Savior. It is not the worthy for whom Christ gave his life and to whom God grants the privilege of peace and fellowship with him. It is, in fact, to the undeserving and the unworthy that these extraordinary blessings and privileges come. God gives us himself in defiance of our ill-desert.
What more powerful demonstration of that fact can be imagined that the first Lord’s Supper, the very night of our Lord’s arrest and just hours before his cruel death on the cross, was attended by a traitor and a collection of cowards. Men who would either turn the Lord Jesus in for money or would run from him to save their own skin.
The Lord’s Supper, the holiest and purest moment of the church’s life in the world, began and ended with the announcement of treachery to be committed against the Savior by his own disciples. Jesus did not go to the cross because these men deserved it; he went to the cross because they did not deserve his salvation and, therefore, he had to achieve it for them, in their place.
Mark’s way of presenting the institution of the Lord’s Supper, then, highlights the meaning of this sacred ritual. What is the Lord’s Supper but both the embodiment and the practice of our Christian faith. In this Supper Jesus himself, as our dead and risen Savior, is offered again to us and by taking and eating and drinking, we receive him once again. In the action of the Lord’s Supper we confess our faith in Jesus, we offer our thanksgiving for the gift of himself for our salvation, and we look forward to the end of our salvation when Jesus comes again. Is that not the gospel in a nutshell? And is there a more beautiful or fitting expression of it than in the Lord’s Supper? And is there a more beautiful demonstration and practice of the life of love, of humility, and of unity to which all Christian are called, than that we all together come to this same table and eat this same bread and drink this same wine?
Take note of all the activity either stated or implied. The disciples receive, they take, they eat, and they drink. And as they do they realize anew the body of the Lord given up for them and his blood poured out for them. Surely, no one can read the institution of the Lord’s Supper in Mark or Matthew or Luke or Paul and not realize that this ritual our Savior established for the use of his church is another way of practicing one’s faith in Christ. It is another way of being his disciple. It isn’t the way, it is a part, a piece of that whole life of faith and discipleship that has been described in the Gospel so far. It is another way of depending upon the Lord Jesus for our very life, of loving him, of demonstrating our thanksgiving, and of belonging to one another as he wishes us to.
Of course, immediately after the Lord’s ascension to heaven, this Lord’s Supper became a regular and sacred part of the church’s weekly worship. It wasn’t the whole of that worship – we know from the New Testament and the materials of early Christianity that there were hymns sung and prayers offered and offerings given and a sermon heard – but it was a beloved part and perhaps from the very beginning the climactic part of that worship. It summed up their whole faith and their entire life as the followers of Christ. It gathered all the Christians together. It unified them week after week in a common act of faith and hope. And it centered them, where they always needed to be and needed to remember themselves to be, in between Christ’s first coming and his second. It was remembrance, anticipation, practice, communion with Christ, fellowship with one another, and a looking to the future all at once and over and over again. It was a summing up and a capping off. It was a way of both acting out one’s faith in Christ and having it renewed and strengthened.
And every time we participate in the Lord’s Supper, every time we eat the bread, his body, and drink the wine, his blood, we participate anew and afresh in his life-giving death. We proclaim it to our own souls as our hope of eternal life, we proclaim it to one another as the salvation that we share, and we proclaim it to the world as its only hope of peace with God. Or, to put it another way, here in the institution, we are reminded as well that it is our covenant with the Lord, or better, his with us, that is being renewed. This is the blood of the covenant, the blood that established God’s relationship with us as his children, the blood that brought us peace with God. Every time we eat and drink this food, our covenant with the Lord is renewed.
But into this happy and holy feast breaks the dark reality of human sin and unbelief even in the church. There is a melancholy and tragic aspect to his supremely beautiful ritual that our Savior provided us as a way of continually participating in his dying and rising for us and our salvation.
We cannot ignore this, much as we might like to, because Mark has drawn our attention to it with the way in which he wrote the account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper.
This alternation of light and shadow, what painters call chiaroscuro, is itself a revelation of the way of the gospel in the world, the gracious offer of salvation and the ingratitude of men.
In thinking about Mark’s presentation of the Lord’s Supper I immediately thought of two books that I have read about the terrible ordeal of the British soldiers in Southeast Asia, captured and put to work on the infamous Burma-Siam railroad during the Second World War.
In the first case, Ernest Gordon relates how the grace of God fell upon a prison camp of dying, emaciated, often desperately sick, and despairing men, and transformed their camp into a community of love and hope. A Christian church rose in the jungle as a witness to eternal life in a world of hatred, cruelty, and death. Here is Ernest Gordon himself.
“I do not know when the church at Chungkai was built. Perhaps ‘built’ is not the right word, for it was not more than a clearing in the jungle. It had for a roof the great vault of the firmament and for its walls the forest of bamboo. There were no doors. One could enter at any point. It was all door. It was hard to know when one was in church and when one was not. I remember watching two POWs carrying a load of bamboo through the neighborhood. As they were jogging along, one of them shouted to the other, ‘Take your hat off Jock; you’re in the house of God’.
“The church was a fellowship of those who came in freedom and love to acknowledge their weakness, to seek a presence, and to pray for their fellows. The confession of Jesus Christ as Lord was the one requirement for membership.
“Two Chinese were among those baptized. Some British troops had found them still alive after a massacre on one of the beaches by the Japanese. The soldiers brought them back to Changi, dressed them in British uniforms and equipped them with fictitious identities. They were absorbed into the life of the camp and had come on with us to Chungkai. Here they were so impressed with what they had seen and heard of the example of their Christian fellows that they asked to be admitted to the Christian faith.
“Ours was the Church of the Spirit. It was not hidden in a corner, nor off on the periphery. It was the throbbing heart of the camp – giving life to it, and transforming it from a mass of individuals into a community.
“At one end of the clearing, prayerful hands had fashioned a Holy Table of bamboo on which were placed a cross and a lamp. … These symbols were meaningful to us. The Holy Table reminded us of the holy fellowship to which we belonged, a fellowship made possible by the sacrifice of Him who is Lord of the Church. Around the common table we gathered in visible evidence of His presence with us to heal, restore, and to save.
And then this.
“The first communion which I attended was memorable. The elements were of our daily life: rice baked into the form of bread and fermented rice water. The solemn words of the fraction were said:
“Who the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread and when he had blessed it and given thanks, he brake it and said, Take, eat, this is my body which is broken for you; this do in remembrance of me.
“We broke the bread as it was passed to us and handed it to our neighbour. The elements were returned to the Table, a prayer of thanksgiving said, a hymn sung, and a blessing given. We slipped quietly away into the singing silence of the night, cherishing as we did so our experience of the communion of the saints – the Holy Spirit had made us one with our neighbours, one with those at home, one with the faithful in every land, in every age, one with the disciples.” [To End All Wars, 152-156]
Little could the disciples that night in the Upper Room know what power to bless, to heal, and to help would be given from heaven to God’s people through the ages to come by the ritual that Jesus had established before their very eyes. See in your mind’s eye those men, barely more than skeletons – malnourished and virtually all of them sick from one thing or another – taking that Supper together and participating once again, in that far off jungle, in the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That so many of those men did not live to see the end of the war makes the scene so much more poignant and beautiful.
But I have another book on my shelf telling another POW’s story. This man, Eric Lomax, was also a Christian. Interestingly, he had come to Christ as a young man in Edinburgh before the war through friends who had brought him with them to Charlotte Chapel, a prominent Baptist church in the town, pastored in those days by the redoubtable J. Sidlow Baxter. Lomax was also in the British army when Singapore fell, was captured and spent the war as a POW working on that railway of death. The account he gives of the cruelty of his captors and the inhuman conditions of his captivity turn the stomach. He hated the movie Bridge on the River Kwai because he felt it so terribly understated the suffering endured by the captives made to work building the railroad through the jungle. It was much worse than the movie made it appear!
At one point in the book Lomax admits that it was his Christian faith that got him through that terrible, unimaginable ordeal. But here is a great sadness. He gave it up after the war and when he got home. He gave it up. He turned his back on the Lord Jesus and the reality expressed in the Lord’s Supper and in which reality he had himself participated so many times. He blamed the Christians he knew. He said they were hypocrites. Perhaps so, though it is hard to read Lomax’ book and take too seriously his spiritual judgments. Nevertheless Judas too had his reasons for betraying the Lord. No doubt he also thought the other disciples were hypocrites. But Peter’s betrayal is evidence enough of the frailty and weakness of Christian people. Lomax may be right. [Eric Lomax, The Railway Man.]
But then, that is the point is it not? And is this not the point that Mark is making, ordering his narrative as he has: Christ died for the unworthy, not the deserving. The meal that we eat here in this sanctuary Sunday by Sunday is set by pure grace and eaten by those who would certainly starve had Christ not brought us food.
There is no single fact in all the world more needing to be believed every day of our lives, no fact so necessary to know if one would be saved, no fact that more reveals the meaning of human life, the way of salvation, and the heart of the living God than that God in Jesus Christ has been merciful to sinners, and gracious to the undeserving. Get that, keep that in the front of your mind and you will live and love as a human being should!