When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. And while they were eating, he said, "I tell you the truth, one of you will betray Me." They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, "Lord, is it I?"—Matthew 26:20-22.
"Sanctify yourselves, for there is to be a feast of the Lord!"
Such was the customary summons to the Jews of old on the occasion of their solemn festivals. The silver trumpets sounded, "Prepare to meet your God, O Israel," and blessed were the people who knew the joyful sound. With the prospect we have before us, today, of keeping the New Testament Sacramental memorial, I have selected these words as an appropriate theme for meditation. Let us gather with sacred interest around this scene in the upper chamber of Jerusalem, and may God the Holy Spirit direct, inspire, and sanctify our thoughts.
Let me speak of these four points—
The rite celebrated.
The company assembled.
The announcement made.
The manner in which the announcement was received.
I. THE RITE.It was the Passover Supper. It would be altogether out of place here to examine a question which has given rise to conflicting opinions, whether the meeting of our Blessed Lord and His disciples described, was the actual commemorative Jewish feast; or whether, as from a comparison of dates there seems some grounds for surmising, it partook rather of the nature of a private observance in anticipation of another on the 14th day of the month Nizan; that date being held, with greater chronological accuracy, to have fallen on the following evening, corresponding with our Friday. The preponderating arguments, supported by most reliable authorities, seem to incline to the long accepted view that it was the actual Passover feast, the same that was being celebrated universally that night in Jerusalem. If so, it was the close of what must have been in all respects a remarkable day in the City of Solemnities. Within the walls, supplemented by tents or booths in the Valley of the Kedron and on the slopes and in the green hollows of Olivet, it is computed that two million people were assembled to keep the annual festival. Each family had to provide itself with a lamb, and take it to the Temple for sacrifice. Relays of priests were there standing in a row, with gold and silver basins, into which the blood of the animal was poured, while its carcass was returned to the owners, and by them prepared for the evening meal. At eventide came a hush of silence after the busy day—a day noisy with the tramp of the multitudinous pilgrims, the bleating of the sacrifices, the festal songs of Levites and worshipers, and the blare of the silver trumpets. Now, each house-door was shut, each tent-curtain drawn; and, save for the strains of the Hallel, a sacred silence pervaded the scene, while the immemorial feast was kept. It was the grandest and most impressive of all the types of the ancient dispensation. Though unrecognized by few in that vast assemblage, the Great Antitype Himself was there; the true Paschal Lamb about to take away the sin of the world.
"The evening had come," the last evening He was to spend in peaceful communion with His disciples. In the mysterious appropriate twilight, when the full moon was rising over Jerusalem, He had crossed from the hamlet of Bethany, and gathered the chosen apostles in a small room on Mount Zion; possibly the same apartment that had been hallowed to Him on many previous similar occasions, when He accompanied His Mother and "the multitude that kept holiday" from Nazareth—a room moreover, that more likely was soon to have a new consecrated association, as the scene of the joyful benedictions of Easter Evening. The Jewish memorial was now to be merged in the Christian. Not that the national commemoration was to be altered for something diverse in kind and significancy. The two rites were each sacramentally expressive of the same peerless gospel truth. The testimony of Jesus, the one prospective the other retrospective, was the spirit of both ordinances. The older is to be interwoven with higher, diviner mysteries. If change there was, the change has been likened to that in a tree when the blossom drops off to make way for fruit. And though "the Lord's Supper" is never to be superseded by any other rite on earth, it may itself be regarded as a transition Ordinance, which will attain its full consummation and perfection in the sublime Heavenly Festival; where, with no traitor and no betrayal to interrupt its celebration, we shall, as glorified guests, "sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of God."
II. THE COMPANY ASSEMBLED.The MASTER and His disciples—the Shepherd, and the flock that are so soon to be scattered.
The Passover Supper was essentially a gladsome family gathering. Relations and friends living in distant and diverse parts of Palestine, were enabled once a year—in this the loveliest season, when the land was in its full wealth of floral beauty, and its skies undimmed with a cloud—to meet at the sacred festival and renew suspended communion. Jesus, who habitually and scrupulously accorded with all innocent traditional usages and customs, was not likely to make any exception in the present case. We might naturally have expected Him, therefore, to regard it as a fitting opportunity of gathering (shall we say, not in the limited apartment of a house, but within some commodious tent of Galilean pilgrims on the Mount) all that were nearest and dearest of His family and friends, "His cousins and brethren." Would not the Marys of the Lakeside be there; and the Bethany sisters, with their restored brother; besides many other intimate friends and recipients of His grace and mercy? Above all, would not the dear earthly Mother, whose love and presence must have been vividly associated, as we have just remarked, with many such previous anniversaries, have had her special summons? No! Every one of these we have named are conspicuous by their absence. They receive no invitation. It is to be a sacredly private and confidential meal with His own chosen disciples. The specific words of the invitation are in every way remarkable. "With desire have I desired" (with great desire) "to eat this Passover with YOU, before I suffer." And when Peter and John, at their Lord's bidding, track the footsteps of the water-carrier to his house, they deliver this as their message—"The Master says, My time is at hand; where is the guest-chamber, where I shall eat the Passover with My disciples?"
Solemn convocation! Monarchs of the earth were that night sitting on thrones of state or dreaming of conquest. But what was all the glory encircling them, compared with the undying interests which center in that little band?
Imagine the scene. The Divine Lord had just performed, in their presence, an act of unparalleled humility. "Jesus, knowing that the Father had committed all things into His hands, and that He came from God and was going to God." "Came from God!"—At that moment, with the full consciousness of His underived glory—in His hand the garnered treasures of the universe. "Was going to God!"—With all the prospect of His approaching triumph over death and the grave, and His ascension to His Mediatorial Throne—yet then, He undid His loose upper garment, took a towel and girded Himself, and washed the disciples' feet. Going from couch to couch on which they were reclining, carrying in His own hand the bronze laver, and stooping to this menial office "as one who serves!"
Having resumed his white festal robe, He invites them to partake of the provided Feast. But in doing so, He renews the significant intimation of what was before them and Him. It was a feast preliminary to His own "suffering." We need not have wondered if this theme of suffering, like a somber keynote of plaintive minor, had run through all His discourse; if the shadow of the morrow's cross projected on His path had occupied and engrossed His mind to the exclusion of all else. But see His unselfishness! With the anticipated agony—the surcharged clouds gathering more ominously and ever nearer around Him—the gleam of the torches and the flash of the swords at hand, the buffeting and the ignominy—sadder than all, the consciousness of the desertion of His own tried and trusted disciples—still He seemed to have no thought for Himself or about the brimming of His own cup.
His tenderest sympathies and longings and anxieties are for them. He has assembled them in this quiet guest-chamber, to breathe farewell words of comfort and peace—"These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full." Further, in order that they might retain these valedictory utterances in visible and permanent memorial, He proceeds to institute the sacred Ordinance—a keepsake and legacy of love, which would be treasured by them when He Himself would be visible no more. Yes, "having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them unto the end!"
In all the other homes and within all the other tents of the City of solemnities that night (it was a very distinctive feature in the ceremonial observance), there was delivered, by the presiding head of the family, a narrative or rehearsal of the flight from Egypt and the subsequent wilderness journey to Canaan. In His opening valedictory discourse in the 14th chapter of John, Jesus, as it has been well said, "elevates and transfigures past historical events by transferring them to Himself and speaking of His own 'Exodus.'" (Dr. Maclear)
We may even expand the thought, and note how, as if under a series of new gospel metaphors, He rehearses the wilderness wanderings of His people to the end of time; comforting in the first instance the Pilgrim Band around Him, as He points them to "the Way, the Truth, and the Life," unfolding Himself before them as the wondrous Tree which will sweeten their bitterest Marah-pools—the true desert Rock, from whose smitten sides the waters of everlasting consolation flow in a perennial stream—the true Elim, with its stately palms of refreshment and wells of consolation—the true Joshua, conducting them at last in peace and triumph through the dry channel of Jordan, until landed in the Heavenly Canaan—the Father's House with its many mansions, which He was going before to prepare for them!
Let us pass for a moment, in this rapid reference, from the Master to theGUESTS. It is interesting, in the prospect of our own Communion, to note the variety of character surrounding that supper-table. Each member of the company has his own individuality, different mental and moral, as doubtless they had varying physical features—yet all, with one exception, are loving and beloved. In several—it may be diverse ways—they manifest their attachment and devotion. Outspoken, impulsive Peter, full of words, yet genuine, ardent, sincere. Silent, meditative John, wrapped in contemplation, in restful affectionate confidence leaning on his Lord's bosom. Calm, intellectual Thomas, and others of similar temperament; not saying much, or professing much—rather battling with doubt—cast down because unable to show the same vehemence of love which some of their more enthusiastic fellow-apostles exhibited. In this respect they were types of the variety of guests that would in all future ages assemble round the same sacramental Table. They were representative communicants; representatives of that diversity of character which must ever distinguish God's true people, on similar solemn occasions.
Some, of ecstatic frame and feeling, souls burning with ardor—others, fearful, distrustful, rejoicing with trembling; yet, though in a different way, equally conscious of love to their Lord—equally owned and recognized by Him, "who accepts according to what a man has, and not according to what he has not." Some, who I may venture to call, without for a moment implying or intending disparagement, demonstrative Christians, who can at once show what they are—unfurl their banner and display it—others, like the Mother of our Lord, who "kept all these things in her heart." God will not reject because the one is devoid of the complementary gifts and graces of the other. "There are diversities of gifts, but the same spirit."
III. THE ANNOUNCEMENT MADE.The Paschal meal and its attendant ceremonies were over. The cup of blessing and thanksgiving, we may suppose (according to olden custom), had four times gone round. The great Hallel—the closing psalm of praise, had been at least partly sung. The new rite is about to be instituted. But before it is so, there is something of sorrowful import burdening the mind of the loving Master. He has, until now, kept it from the guests; He can do so no longer. He reluctantly adds new drops to their cup; but the sad story must be told. All in a moment, with startling abruptness, their hour of hallowed communion is broken by the communication, "Truly, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray Me." How every word—syllable by syllable—must have gone like fiery arrows to their hearts! "Verily I"—I, your Lord and Master—I, the gracious One who called you from your homes in Gennesaret, and honored you to be my confidential friends. I, who during three years of hallowed converse have given you proof of nothing but pure, unselfish love! "Truly, I say." Too well do I know the sad truth. It is no perhaps, no surmise or contingency—something regarding which I may have been mistaken or misinformed. As the omniscient Lord, I can certify the painful reality. It is my own betrayal! I am to be ignominiously delivered up for crucifixion and death. By an act of secret treachery, my life has been compassed, and the assassins are already prowling on my path.
Worst of all, it is "one of you" that is to be the guilty agent in consummating the foul deed. It is not an enemy, then I could have borne it—but he that dips with Me in the dish, eats with Me at table, the man I have received—welcomed—honored as a brother and friend, "has lifted up his heel against Me." A wicked bribe is to conquer and cancel the memories of much recent kindness. Need we wonder that another Evangelist should tell us, in a parallel passage, that "as Jesus testified these things, He was troubled in spirit." It was not the nail and spear of Jew or Roman which now entered His soul. It was the thought of injured goodness and unrequited love on the part of a faithless disciple. It was Sinless Purity incarnate, wounded in the house of His friends. He wept over a whole city; now His mighty soul is bowed in sorrow by the base conduct of one Apostate, and the keen anguish seems too deep for tears!
Oh! let that single unhappy traitor tell us, what one sin, trifled with—tampered with—can do! His name, "Judas," means "praise of God." We have every reason to believe that he was once as earnest and faithful as his brother Apostles—as unselfish in his motives as they, in joining Christ and the Disciple-band—God's candle shining on his head. But covetousness—the base and degrading love of money—assailed his better nature. In an evil hour he dangled its forbidden gold and silver chains, and they became fetters to bind him. The master-passion by degrees took full possession of his soul—dominated his will and affections—crushed every lofty aspiration—all that once was fair and lovely and of good report, and left him, at last, a blighted blackened ruin, demon-haunted and defiled!
The most dreadful sin that ever stained the catalogue of creature guilt, came to brand his name and memory with infamy. As we see him leaving abruptly the supper-table, and from the lighted room plunging into the dark streets with a deeper darkness in his soul; from no one figure in all sacred story comes there so terrible a lesson—a lesson that may well be enforced by the inspired monitory words—"You, therefore, beloved, beware lest you also, being led away by the error of the wicked, fall from your own steadfastness." "Who can understand his errors? cleanse me from secret faults."
4. THE WAY IN WHICH THE ANNOUNCEMENT WAS RECEIVED.
"They were exceeding sorrowful, and began every one of them to say unto Him, Lord, is it I?" What, rather, might we have expected? Surely that the disciples, after a first moment struck speechless with shame and amazement, would have united in an instantaneous disavowal—spurned and repudiated the incredible imputation, saying—"Lord, it cannot be that villainy so base can possibly be ours. We could not be such disloyal renegades towards One so kind and indulgent as You!" Or, if not this, that each would look with a suspicious eye on his neighbor, or cast an uneasy glance on Judas. But, they were too busy with their own untrustworthy spirits to have time, or thought, or room to fasten accusation on others.
Instead of the query passing from lip to lip, "Is it you? every eye was turned to their injured Master as they inquired, through anguished tears, "Lord, is it I?" As much as to say—'Fearful beyond words is such an impeachment—yet we cannot, we dare not say it is impossible. We know too much of the wickedness and waywardness of these hearts of ours. We have proved weak and cowardly in the past—broken reeds. We know too well, if left to ourselves, Satan would desire to have us, that he may sift us as wheat—"Lord, is it I?"' Was that apprehension—that unconscious self-distrust and misgiving—unwarranted? Never were these disciples, we believe, more touched with the love of their Lord, or more conscious of the sincerity and loyalty of their own, than now. Yet, they all, a few hours later, forsook Him and fled!
Brethren, it is well for us, in our seasons of devoutest consecration, to cherish a sense of our own frailty the fickleness and fitfulness of our best frames, the instability of our best purposes. Even on the holy ground we tread today, be it ours to avow, in profound humility and godly fear, "Lord, it is Your grace alone which keeps me from being another Judas. I cannot trust this traitor-heart. I shall go to Your table, uttering and deeply feeling the confession, by the grace of God I am what I am!"
Yet, let me add, on the other hand; as God's appointed ordinance—if partaken of in a spirit of lowly, earnest faith, it cannot fail to prove a quickener in the divine life, stimulating to new and more devoted obedience. Though in many ways our hearts may condemn us, He who is "greater than our hearts" will accept our offerings, and give us strength equal to our day. The very approach to Him, through His special means of grace, will secure its own pledged and covenanted blessing—"You meet him who rejoices and works righteousness; those that remember You in Your ways" (Isaiah 64:5). "I will make them and the places round about my hill a blessing—and I will cause the shower to come down in his season there shall be showers of blessing" (Ezekiel 34:26).
Doubtless, on many a future dark and perplexing day, when their Master was gone, and they had to fight single-handed the battles of the faith, would the Apostles revert to this hallowed hour of a first Communion. May He, whose presence and blessing now, as then, gives to the solemn Ordinance all its preciousness, make Himself known to us in the breaking of bread—revealing the mystery of His suffering love, the completeness and glory of His final victory; and fulfill in our experience His assured promise—"In all places where I record My name, I will come unto you and bless you."