It is customary to offer a condemned death row prisoner one last meal of his or her choice just prior to execution. Various countries have different traditions in this regard. Historically, the “little glass of rum” is granted to the condemned in France. In America, most states give the meal a day or two before execution and use the euphemism “the special meal.” In Florida, the food for the special meal must be purchased locally and is limited to $40. In Oklahoma, where folks are more frugal, the cost is capped at $15.
In September 2011, the state of Texas abolished all special-meal requests after the condemned prisoner Lawrence Russell Brewer requested a huge meal that included a plate of two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions, a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger, a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, jalapeños, a bowl of fried okra with ketchup, a pound of barbecued meat with half a loaf of white bread, three fajitas, a meat-lover’s pizza (topped with pepperoni, ham, beef, bacon, and sausage), a pint of Blue Bell ice cream, a slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts, and three cans of root beer. After he received all this food, he didn’t eat any of it. He said he wasn’t hungry.
For just a moment, imagine that you are on death row and you are going to be executed tomorrow. What thoughts might roll through your mind? And if you could choose one last meal before you depart from this world, what would you eat?
Even though he did not commit any crimes and Pontius Pilate had not yet sentenced him to die, Jesus was already on death row. As a matter of fact, Jesus was on death row before he began his ministry—even before he was born in Bethlehem. It was God’s plan to send his son to die for the sins of the human race at least since the fall of Adam and Eve when they ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Do you remember the prophecy that God spoke to Satan way back in Genesis 3:15? “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” Jesus was condemned to die before he was even born, and Luke now describes his special meal the night before his execution. Today, Jesus’ “special meal” is commonly called the “The Last Supper.”
As Jesus prepared for his last meal on earth, he used the occasion to teach his disciples some final spiritual lessons. I don’t have enough time to share all of them with you in one sermon, but allow me to highlight four of them for you. And I would like to serve them to you in the metaphor of a four-course special meal.
1.) First Course: Divinely Directed Details (7-13)
The day of Unleavened Bread had arrived and Jesus sent Peter and John to prepare for the Passover feast. This was the commemorative meal where the Jewish people ate special foods to remind them of how God delivered their ancestors from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Among other things, the meal included unleavened bread, roasted lamb, bitter herbs, and red wine.
Peter and John already had their grocery list, but they did not know where they were supposed to prepare the meal. When they asked Jesus about the location, he gave them strangely specific instructions to follow a man carrying a jar of water who will lead them to a certain house with an upper room that would already be furnished for their feast. And sure enough, the two disciples found things just as Jesus said.
This passage shows how Jesus divinely directs the details of people’s lives. Through his sovereign foreknowledge and providence, he had already prearranged the details of the Passover meal, right down to the man carrying the water jar the furnished upper room.
Just as he did for his disciples here, Jesus divinely directs the details of our lives too. He knows all things and he is in control of every aspect of our existence. We often use the cliché: “Everything happens for a reason.” This is true! Even when things don’t make sense to us, we can trust God’s plan for our lives and for the whole world, down to the very last detail.
2.) Second Course: The Last Supper becomes the Lord’s Supper (14-23)
As Jesus and his disciples sat down at the table to eat, he told them that he was eager to eat this special meal with them before he suffered. He knew that this would be his last Passover meal before his crucifixion and he wanted to celebrate it with his apostles. He also knew that the feast was about to find its fulfillment. Passover was a time to look back and remember how God had saved his people in the past. Just as the lamb’s blood was sprinkled on the door posts to provide salvation in the original Passover, now Jesus, the lamb of God, would be slain to atone for the sins of the human race once and for all.
So, as Jesus ate his final Passover meal, he inaugurated a new Christian tradition. He transformed the last supper into the Lord’s Supper. He took the bread and the cup, gave thanks, and distributed them among the disciples. These elements were meant to be symbols of Jesus’ body and blood that he freely gave for redemption. He commanded his disciples to do this in remembrance of him.
Jesus tuned the last Supper into the Lord’s Supper; and therefore, we celebrate communion on the first Sunday of every month by eating the bread and drinking the cup together. Jesus did not specify how often or in what manner this ordinance should be observed, but it is meant to be regularly practiced in the church until the Kingdom of God is consummated when Jesus returns. Contrary to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church (that believes the elements actually become the body and blood of Christ), the bread and wine are symbols to remind us of Jesus’ body that was broken and his blood was shed for us.
To say that Jesus died “for you” is to say something more than he died for your benefit; it is to say that he died in your place, suffering the death that you deserved to die. This can be illustrated by something that happened not long after the Civil War ended, when a man in farm clothes was seen kneeling at a soldier’s gave in Nashville, Tennessee. A sympathetic bystander asked him, “Is that the grave of your son?” “No,” the farmer replied, “I have seven children, all of them young, and a wife on my poor farm in Illinois. I was drafted into the Union army, and despite the great hardship it would cause to my family, I was required to serve.”
But on the morning I was to depart, the man who now lies in this grave—my neighbor’s oldest son—came over and offered to take my place in the war.” When the farmer stepped away, the bystander could see the words he had written on the gravestone. They simply read, “He died for me.” This is the testimony of every believer in Jesus Christ: we have a Savior who offered himself in our place. Whenever we break bread and drink the cup at his table, we say “He died for me.” (Ryken 468)
3.) Third Course: An Awkward Argument (24-30)
During the feast, Jesus had already sparked tension in the discussion by publicly stating that one of the disciples sitting at the table was going to betray him. What an uncomfortable conversation that must have been for Judas, as the rest of the disciples began wondering which one of them was going to do this?
To make matters even worse, a dispute arose among the disciples as to which of them was the greatest. What an incredibly awkward argument this was; didn’t they realize that Jesus was sitting right there? Didn’t they understand that this was exactly the type of arrogance and competition that Jesus despised? I can only imagine the disappointment on Jesus’ face as he listened to his beloved disciples spoil his special meal by bickering over whose best. (This is like the couple who went out for a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner and spent the whole evening arguing over which one was going to pay the babysitter.) The disciples still had so much to learn about the kingdom of God.
So, Jesus draws a comparison between greatness in the eyes of the world and greatness in the eyes of God. He points out the worldly perception of greatness is attached to power, authority, wealth, and fame, but God defines greatness by humility and servanthood. This is exactly what Jesus modeled throughout his ministry.
This is still a powerful lesson for us today! Our world continues to define greatness through the lens of power, wealth, and fame, and it is easy for us to be influenced by this type of thinking. Like Jesus’ disciples, we can fall into the trap of measuring success by our bank accounts, possessions, and titles. But we must remember Jesus’ teaching: True greatness is measured by how much we are willing to sacrifice and serve others!
Do you want to be truly great in Jesus’ eyes? Don’t talk about how great you are! Be humble! Put others before your own needs and desires! Serve the people who are in positions that are lower yours! Then you will be great, like Jesus!
4.) Fourth Course: The Sifting of Simon (31-34)
As the dinner conversation continued, Jesus singled Simon Peter out for special attention, because Satan has zeroed in on this disciple, asking to take him through a sieve. Like wheat separated from chaff, Satan asked to test what Peter is really made of. (Some of you may remember that Satan did this to Job in the Old Testament.) But Jesus has prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail. This does not mean that Simon would succeed in the short-run, for Jesus goes on to note that when Peter has “turned back,” he will be called on to strengthen his brothers.” This implies that there will be temporary failure before final restoration. (Bock 560)
Well, Peter doesn’t like hearing that he would fail, and in a classic case of overconfidence, he declares to Jesus and the rest of the disciples that he was willing to face imprisonment and even death. But Jesus responds with the simple rebuke: “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”
Once again, we must remember that we are all in a cosmic spiritual battle. Satan still seeks to sift Jesus’ followers through a sieve by testing their faith. He uses the old tricks of childhood trauma, tragic loss, disease and debilitation, pressure and pain, fear and loneliness to get people to doubt God and turn their backs on him. If Peter could succumb to Satan’s sifting, we should certainly not be overconfident about our faith! Instead, let us humbly ask Jesus to sustain us by his grace.
And finally, even if we do fall into temptation and our faith fails, let us not linger there forever! May we quickly confess our failure, repent from our sin, be restored, learn from our mistakes, and then get back to serving and strengthening our brothers and sisters!
As I mentioned earlier, there are many other lessons we could learn from Luke’s account of Jesus’ special meal, but these must suffice for today. I encourage you to read this passage again and meditate on its meaning for your life and faith! And may we always remember:
Jesus divinely directs the details of our lives!
- Communion commemorates the fact that Jesus died for us!
- True greatness is defined by humble service!
- Even when Satan sifts our faith, Jesus sustains us by his grace!
This should give you enough to chew on for a while!