Matthew 26:17-30 The Covenant Meal

Mosaic from the Cathedral in Monreale, Photo by Sibeaster shared as public domain https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Last_Supper.jpg

Matthew 26: 17-30

Parallel Mark 14: 12-26, Luke 22:7-23

 17 On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” 18 He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” 19 So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal. 20 When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; 21 and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” 22 And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” 23 He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 24 The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” 25 Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”

26 While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is my blood of thecovenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

30 When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

The basic story of the Lord’s supper is one of the most frequently heard narratives in churches that regularly celebrate communion, but sometimes that familiarity can make hearing the particularities of Matthew’s narration of this meal challenging. Most churches use a conglomeration of the language of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and 1 Corinthians in their words of institution, and other than the introducing the words occurring ‘in the night in which he was betrayed’ we often overlook the prediction of Jesus’ upcoming betrayal and the denial by the disciples. Matthew also grounds the language of this celebration in the Jewish language of covenant and the connection with the celebration of Passover heightens this covenantal understanding in Matthew’s gospel.

Matthew begins the story in a more abbreviated manner than the other gospels, but also focuses his narration on particular elements. Only Matthew brings both Greek concepts of time into the beginning of this scene. While Matthew, along with the other gospels, uses chronological time to state when this story occurs in relation to the Passover celebration on the calendar, Matthew also uses the Greek idea of kairos[1] in the information the disciples are to give to a certain man who Jesus will celebrate Passover with. Matthew’s narration also gives the impression that Jesus will be celebrating with the man along with his disciples.[2] Matthew omits the manner in which the disciples identify which ‘certain man’ they will approach, but the title they are instructed to use for Jesus with this man indicate he is probably not a person whose faith understands who he is dining with. Although Jesus has stated previously that the disciples ‘have one teacher, and they are all brothers’ (23:8) normally the address of Jesus as teacher indicates either a perspective without faith.[3]

In the evening Jesus arrives to the Passover celebration which has been prepared and reclines[4] with the twelve at the meal. During the meal Jesus announces that one of the twelve will ‘hand him over’[5] The disciples have previously been distressed when Jesus announced his ‘being handed over’ but the information that one of the twelve will be the one responsible for this causes them great distress or excessive grief and they each respond with a strong denial which expects a negative response the “Not I being (the one), Lord?” Note the title used by the eleven disciples in contrast to Judas’, “Not I being (the one), Rabbi?”[6] Throughout Matthew, those who respond to Jesus appropriately almost always address him as Lord. Jesus’ response to Judas will be identical to his later response to Caiaphas and Pilate, “You said (so).” Jesus returns to his favored ‘Son of Man’ title when he indicates he will go ‘as it has been written’ while at the same time declaring ‘woe’ on the one who is the agent of handing the Son of Man over. Woe was used previously in the ‘seven woes’ directed towards the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23, and now Judas in aligning with those opposed to Jesus finds himself as one under the same sentence as these Pharisees and scribes who, in Matthew’s view, are leading people astray.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul all narrate the words around the bread and cup in a similar way, focusing on the bread as the body and the wine as the blood of the covenant. Matthew’s unique addition to this formula is that this blood of the covenant is for the forgiveness of sins. For Matthew, Jesus’ narrated mission spoken by the angel of the Lord is, “that he will save his people from their sins.” (1:21) We now see Matthew narrating what this forgiveness of sins will look like, and what a renewed covenant with their God will look like. At the beginning of Matthew, the announcement of Jesus’ vocation saving people from their sins immediately follows the genealogy which demonstrates their position as a people in exile awaiting deliverance. As the gospel concludes the reintroduction of the forgiveness/releasing many from their sins invites us to understand the crucifixion in the framework of the renewal of the covenant between God and the people

The language of ‘the blood of the covenant’ first emerges in relation to the people of Israel in Exodus 24 when Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and seventy elders of Israel meet on behalf of the people and Moses offers an offering and cast the blood of the offering upon them to mark the covenant relationship that the people of Israel had agreed to with the LORD God.  During the Exodus narrative after the people are sprinkled with the blood of the covenant, Moses and the leaders are invited to dine with God on the mountain. (Exodus 24:9-11) The image of the blood of the covenant is also echoes in Zechariah:

As for you also, because of the blood of the covenant with you, I will set you prisoners free, O prisoners of hope. Zechariah 9:11

For the prophets, the renewal of the covenant will bring about the end of the exile and a renewed relationship between the people and their God. In the Exodus God brought the people out of Egypt to be something new and marked that relationship with the covenant. In the exile the prophets dreamed of a renewed covenant with God that brought about the end of the exile, and here this new covenant will emerge in a world dominated by Rome.

Blood coming upon the people can be both judgment and forgiveness. Previously in Matthew 23, in the seven woes against the scribe and Pharisees, the blood of the prophets testified against them:

so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Amen, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation. (23:35-36)

Judas will later despair of handing over innocent blood (27:4) which leads him to hang himself. Those who innocent blood testifies against find themselves in a state of woe. Yet, blood here also releases/forgives sin and the practice of sharing the bread and wine in the context of the Passover meal echoes the claim of God’s action to gather together the covenant people. Sin and debt are often held together in Matthew and this also echoes both the release from debts in the Jubilee practice of Leviticus 25 and the remission of debts in Deuteronomy 15. The multiple echoes and rich imagery of this scene existed before the church began to think liturgically and theologically about the practice of communion, but an examination of these themes can enrich both the practice and beliefs practice within communities. The practice of celebrating this meal in the church enacts covenantal relationship between God and God’s people and links the church’s action and life to the life and practices of the people of Israel. The language suggests that Matthew understands Jesus’ actions here framing Jesus’ upcoming death on the cross as a sacrificial offering that seals a new covenant relationship between God and God’s people. Just as Moses and the chief men ate and drank in the presence of God, now the disciples are (unaware) invited to dine in the presence of the ‘God who is with us’.[7] This also invites us to reconsider the traditional interpretation of Mathew 27:45 where the people ask for “his blood to come upon us.” Matthew as the most Jewish gospel, I believe, is preparing us to consider:

deeper intentionality at work here, not the intentionality of the hostile, fickle crowd, but the intentionality of the God who has sent Jesus to the lost sheep of Israel. (Hays 2016, 135)

One of the gifts of studying Matthew’s gospel is the way that listening closely continues to unlock new resonance and depth in the narration of Jesus’ life and teaching. The twelve original disciples have frequently misunderstood Jesus and have demonstrated themselves to be ‘little faith ones’ who do not fully grasp everything happening in the moment. Yet, they are continually invited to learn in participating with Jesus in these moments which will define the experience of what it means to be followers of Christ as they later begin to form communities that can practice and learn and reflect upon their faith which allows them to see what God is doing in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.


[1] The Greek concept of kairos is the concept of ‘appointed’ specifically in Biblical though ‘divinely appointed’ time in contrast to chronos (chronological) time which is the time measured in hours and days on clocks and calendars.

[2] Matthew’s sparce narration of this scene Jesus’ instructions state ‘to/toward you to make the Passover with my disciples.” When translations state ‘at your house’ they are harmonizing with Mark and Luke.

[3] See for example Matthew 8:19, 9:11, 10:24-25, 12:38, 17:24, 19:16, 22:15-40

[4] Dining in this context was done ‘reclining at the table’ with tables lower to the ground, rather than sitting elevated in chairs like most modern people assume.

[5] This is the Greek paradidomi which occurs frequently throughout the passion narrative.

[6] Rabbi was previously used in 23:8-9 as a title used by the Pharisees and not to be used by the disciples, it is also used by Judas in 26:48 when he hands Jesus over.

[7] Matthew’s gospel is bracketed by the claim of Jesus as Emmanuel, ‘God with us’ and as we’ve seen throughout this investigation this theme emerges at multiple points in the echoes and language choices of the gospel.

2 thoughts on “Matthew 26:17-30 The Covenant Meal

  1. Pingback: Matthew 26: 36-46 Jesus and the Disciples in the Hour of Testing – Sign of the Rose

  2. Pingback: Matthew 27:1-14 Blood Money, The Potters Field, and an Amazed Pilate | Sign of the Rose

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