Christ’s death and our life

“Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci at Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy.

By John R. W. Stott –

Jesus was spending his last evening on earth in quiet seclusion with his apostles. It was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and they had met to eat the Passover meal together in a friend’s house. The place is described as “a large upper room, furnished and ready,” and we can picture them round a low meal-table, reclining on cushions on the floor. Evidently no servant was in attendance, so that there had been no one to wash their feet before the meal began. Nor was any of the apostles humble enough to undertake this menial task. It was to their intense embarrassment, therefore, that during supper Jesus put on a slave’s apron, poured water into a basin, and went round washing their feed, thus doing what none of them had been willing to do.

He then proceeded to tell them how authentic love always expresses itself in humble service and how the world would identify them as his disciples only if they loved one another…. He also spoke much of his impending departure, of the coming of the Comforter to take his place, and of this Spirit of truth’s varied ministry of teaching and witnessing.

Then, at some point while the meal was still in progress, they watched enthralled as he took a loaf of bread, blessed it (that is, gave thanks for it), broke it into pieces and handed it round to them with the words, “This is my body, which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper had ended, he took a cup of wine, gave thanks for it, passed it round to them, and said either “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” or “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me” (the words of administration are recorded somewhat differently by Paul and the Synoptic evangelists).

These are tremendously significant deeds and words. It is a pity that we are so familiar with them that they tend to lose their impact. For they throw floods of light on Jesus’ own view of his death. By what he did with the bread and wine, and by what he said about them, he was visibly dramatizing his death before it took place and giving his own authoritative explanation of its meaning and purpose. He was teaching at least three lessons.

The first lesson concerned the centrality of his death.Solemnly and deliberately, during his last evening with them, he was giving instructions for his own memorial service. It was not to be a single occasion, however, like our modern memorial services, the final tribute paid by friends and relatives. Instead, it was to be a regular meal or service or both. He specifically told them to repeat it: “do this in remembrance of me.” What were they to do? They were to copy what he had done, both his acts and his words, namely to take, break, bless, identify, and share bread and wine.

What did the bread and wine signify? The words he had spoken explained. Of the bread he had said “This is my body given for you,” and of the wine “This is my blood shed for you.” So his death spoke to them from both the elements. The bread did not stand for his living body, as he reclined with them at table, but his body as it was shortly to be “given” for them in death. Similarly, the wine did not stand for his blood as it flowed in his veins while he spoke to them, but his blood which was shortly to be “poured out” for them in death. The evidence is plain and irrefutable. The Lord’s Supper, which was instituted by Jesus, and which is the only regular commemorative act authorized by him, dramatizes neither his birth nor his life, neither his words nor his works, but only his death. Nothing could indicate more clearly the central significance which Jesus attached to his death. It was by his death that he wished above all else to be remembered. There is then, it is safe to say, no Christianity without the cross. If the cross is not central to our religion, ours is not the religion of Jesus.

Secondly, Jesus was teaching about the purpose of his death.According to Paul and Matthew, Jesus’ words about the cup referred not only to his “blood” but to the “new covenant” associated with his blood, and Matthew adds further that his blood was to be shed “for the forgiveness of sins.” Here is the truly fantastic assertion that through the shedding of Jesus’ blood in death God was taking the initiative to establish a new pact or “covenant” with his people, one of the greatest promises of which would be the forgiveness of sinners. What did he mean?

Many centuries previously God had entered into a covenant with Abraham, promising to bless him with a good land and an abundant posterity. God renewed this covenant at Mount Sinai, after rescuing Israel (Abraham’s descendants) from Egypt. He pledged himself to be their God and to make them his people. Moreover, this covenant was ratified with the blood of sacrifice: “Moses … took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.’”

Hundreds of years passed, in which the people forsook God, broke his covenant and provoked his judgment, until one day in the seventh century BC the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, saying: “‘The time is coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord.

“‘This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the Lord. ‘For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more’” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

More than six more centuries passed, years of patient waiting and growing expectancy, until one evening in an upper room in Jerusalem a Galilean peasant, carpenter by trade and preacher by vocation, dared to say in effect: “this new covenant, prophesied in Jeremiah, is about to be established; the forgiveness of sins promised as one of its distinctive blessings is about to become available; and the sacrifice to seal this covenant and procure this forgiveness will be the shedding of my blood in death.” Is it possible to exaggerate the staggering nature of this claim? Here is Jesus’ view of his death. It is the divinely appointed sacrifice by which the new covenant with its promise of forgiveness will be ratified. He is going to die in order to bring his people into a new covenant relationship with God.

The third lesson Jesus was teaching concerned the need to appropriate his death personally.If we are right in saying that in the upper room Jesus was giving an advance dramatization of his death, it is important to observe what form the drama took. It did not consist of one actor on the stage, with a dozen in the audience. No, it involved them as well as him, so that they took part in it as well as he. True, he took, blessed and broke the bread, and then he explained its significance as he gave it to them to eat. Again he took and blessed the cup, but then he explained its meaning as he gave it to them to drink.

Thus they were not just spectators of this drama of the cross; they were participants in it. They can hardly have failed to get the message. Just as it was not enough for the bread to be broken and the wine to be poured out, but they had to eat and drink, so it was not enough for him to die, but they had to appropriate the benefits of his death personally. The eating and drinking were, and still are, a vivid acted parable of receiving Christ as our crucified Savior and of feeding on him in our hearts by faith. Jesus had already taught this in his great discourse on the Living Bread which followed his feeding of the five thousand:

“I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink” (John 6:53-55).

His words on that occasion and his actions in the upper room both bear witness to the same reality. For him to give his body and blood in death was one thing; for us to make the blessings of his death our own is another. Yet many have not learned this distinction. I can still remember what a revelation it was to me as a young man to be told that any action on my part was necessary. I used to imagine that because Christ had died, the world had been automatically put right. When someone explained to me that Christ had died for me, I responded rather haughtily “everybody knows that,” as if the fact itself or my knowledge of the fact had brought me salvation. But God does not impose his gifts on us willy-nilly; we have to receive them by faith. Of both the divine gift and the human reception the Lord’s Supper remains the perpetual outward sign. It is intended to be “a participation in the body and blood of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:16).

Here then are the lessons of the upper room about the death of Christ. First, it was central to his own thinking about himself and his mission, and he desired it to be central to ours. Secondly, it took place in order to establish the new covenant and procure its promised forgiveness. Thirdly, it needs to be appropriated individually if its benefits (the covenant and the forgiveness) are to be enjoyed. The Lord’s Supper which Jesus instituted was not meant to be a slightly sentimental “forget-me-not,” but rather a service rich in spiritual significance.

John R. W. Stott (1921-2011) was a supremely gifted evangelist, teacher, preacher, scholar, and Christian statesman. For many years he served as the rector of All Souls Church in London. He is the author of many books, including The Cross of Christ, from which this article is adapted by permission. By John R.W. Stott, (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL), 1986, pp. 67-71.


  1. According to Leviticus, Passover is the First Feast, then Unleavened Bread is the 2nd Feast, followed by the Feast of First Fruits, on which Christ arose. A careful reading of the Gospel of John, KJV: John 13: 1 begins by saying: “Now “before” the feast of the Passover”; meaning 1 day before Passover, Jesus held his last Supper. No orthodox Jew would do any work on Passover, or do anything to be ceremonial unclean for the day of Passover. Therefore, Jesus was betrayed, tried, and Crucified on the same day before Passover. A Jewish day is from sundown (night) through daylight till sundown began a new day again. He was buried on the beginning of Passover at sundown.

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