One of the most intriguing and difficult topics I've studied in the past year is the timing of the events surrounding Jesus' death and, in particular, the meal which is commonly referred to as the Last Supper. When did Jesus eat the Last Supper? Was this meal the Passover? After learning what I found, I was blown away! I'm really excited to share this with you.
The Gospel Accounts
Let's start by considering the four gospel accounts.
Matthew, Mark and Luke
On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?" He replied, "Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, 'The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.' " So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover.
Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they killed the Passover lamb, His disciples said to Him, "Where do You want us to go and prepare, that You may eat the Passover?” And He sent out two of His disciples and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him. Wherever he goes in, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, “Where is the guest room in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?”’ Then he will show you a large upper room, furnished and prepared; there make ready for us.” So His disciples went out, and came into the city, and found it just as He had said to them; and they prepared the Passover.
Then came the Day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover must be killed. And He sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat.” So they said to Him, “Where do You want us to prepare?” And He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him into the house which he enters. Then you shall say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, “Where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with My disciples?”’ Then he will show you a large, furnished upper room; there make ready.” So they went and found it just as He had said to them, and they prepared the Passover.
Reading these three accounts, it seems crystal clear that Jesus instructed His apostles to prepare the Passover meal for them to eat that same day. But there's a problem...
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.
And supper being ended, the devil having already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray Him... Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I shall give a piece of bread when I have dipped it.” And having dipped the bread, He gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. Now after the piece of bread, Satan entered him. Then Jesus said to him, “What you do, do quickly.” But no one at the table knew for what reason He said this to him. For some thought, because Judas had the money box, that Jesus had said to him, “Buy those things we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor.
(John 13:1-2, 26-29)
And a few chapters later, the Holy Spirit says:
Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas to the Praetorium, and it was early morning. But they themselves did not go into the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover.
Say what?!? How can this be? John is 100% clear that these events happened before the Passover. Yet John seems to be entirely out of harmony with Matthew, Mark and Luke.
This might get a little complicated, but stay with me because it's crucial to our understanding. In Old Testament times the Hebrew day began at sunset and continued until the following sunset. This is evidenced by the creation account:
And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
(Gen. 1:5 AMP)
So, for example, our Sunday night would be the Jews' Monday, and our Monday night is their Tuesday.
The Roman day, however, began at sunrise and continued until the following sunrise.
"Like us, the Romans divided each day into 24 hours, and they assigned 12 to the daytime and 12 to the night. These did not run from midnight to midnight as our modern method of timekeeping does, but from sunrise to sunrise." (http://www.roman-britain.org/calendar.htm)
By the time of Jesus’ crucifixion the Jews had begun using Roman measurements for hours of the day (Mark 15:1, 25, 33). Additionally, Peter said at Pentecost (just 50 days after Passover):
For these men are not drunk, as you imagine, for it is [only] the third hour (about 9:00 a.m.) of the day;
(Acts 2:15 AMP)
So let's insert a chart here to help illustrate our timeline and fill in the details as we go. (Click the images to open them full-size.) Note that our timeline runs from Thursday thru Sunday, and that we are using the Jewish system of measuring days—from sunset to sunset.
Now that we've laid this foundation, let's look at some details of the Passover meal from the Old Testament.
The Passover Meal
Now the LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, "This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you. Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying, 'On the tenth of this month they are each one to take a lamb for themselves, according to their fathers' households, a lamb for each household. … You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month, then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel is to kill it at twilight.
(Ex. 12:1-6 NIV)
The Passover lamb was killed at twilight on the fourteenth day. In other words, the lamb was killed as the Jewish day was transitioning from the fourteenth to the fifteenth of the month. Therefore the Passover meal, which was eaten at night (Ex. 12:8), was eaten "early" into the fifteenth day of the first month in the Jewish calendar. This first month was called Abib (Ex. 23:15). (The month's name was eventually changed to Nisan, per Neh. 2:1 and Esther 3:7. However, I will use Abib throughout this article. Click here for more information on Nisan.)
Additionally, the Passover was the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which ran from Abib 15-21.
And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the LORD; seven days you must eat unleavened bread.
(Lev. 23:6 NKJV)
Filling in the Timeline
Now let's fill in the events recorded by the gospel accounts on our timeline. The first step is to fill in the various names which are given for different days of our timeline. I find this necessary in order to keep the days straight in my mind because they are referred to by different descriptions.
Naming the Days
The Preparation Day
Now on the first day of the Feast of the Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying to Him, “Where do You want us to prepare for You to eat the Passover?”
(Matt. 26:17; see also Mark 14:12 and Luke 22:7)
Now it was the Preparation Day of the Passover, and about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, “Behold your King!”
We know these events happen on Abib 14 because Mark 14:12 and Luke 22:7 tell us this day was the day that the Passover lamb must be killed. My belief is that the Jews referred to Abib 14 as the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread because it was on this day the Jews would remove all leaven from their house (Ex. 13:6-7).
This day is also referred to as the Preparation Day of the Sabbath, because, according to John 19:31, the following Sabbath day was "a high day", indicating it was not Saturday or a weekly Sabbath. In Ex. 12:16, we find that Abib 15 and Abib 21 (the first and last days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread) were to be "a holy convocation" and no work was to be done on those days, thus the reference to Abib 15 as a Sabbath.
Therefore, in this week, there were two Sabbaths on back-to-back days, Friday and Saturday.
Placing Specific Events on the Timeline
This is where things get tricky. Up to this point I have given scripture to back up every statement. Unfortunately the scriptures don't tell us the exact timing of certain specific events, therefore I've given my best effort to place them appropriately based on what the scriptures do reveal.
1.) The disciples ask Jesus where to prepare the Passover. I had always believed that this occurred early in the daytime hours, no later than early afternoon. However, given the timing of other events which happened this same Jewish calendar day, that theory seems impossible. I now believe the disciples asked Jesus this question just after sunset as the day had just changed from Abib 13 to Abib 14.
2.) The same evening as when the disciples asked Jesus where He would eat the Passover, Jesus sat down in that room with them and ate the Last Supper (Mark 14:12, 17). This meal must have been a seasonal celebratory meal, much like you and I might have "Christmas dinner" with friends and family on December 22. This meal could not have been the actual Passover meal for the following reasons:
- The evidence given to us by John (13:1-2, 26-29; 18:28, 38-39), as noted in the Gospel Accounts section at the top of this article, clearly shows that the Passover hadn't occurred yet.
- Jesus told Peter and John to prepare the meal in the upper room (Luke 22:12), yet the Passover lamb could not be killed inside the city gates.
Therefore you shall sacrifice the Passover to the LORD your God, from the flock and the herd, in the place where the LORD chooses to put His name...“You may not sacrifice the Passover within any of your gates which the LORD your God gives you; but at the place where the LORD your God chooses to make His name abide, there you shall sacrifice the Passover at twilight, at the going down of the sun, at the time you came out of Egypt.
- There is no evidence that Jesus was present and participated in the killing of the Passover lamb which was a requirement of the Jews (Ex. 12:3-4).
From my study I have concluded that it was not very long between when Jesus told Peter and John to prepare the Passover in the upper room and when they sat down to eat dinner. This seems to be the only possible timing where all the events fit together as revealed by scripture.
3.) Once supper is over, Jesus washed the disciples' feet as revealed in John 13:3-10. This included Judas. Judas then left the group to betray Jesus, and Jesus taught them the words of John 13:31-17:26. Then Jesus and the 11 went to the garden of Gethsemane. After being in agony and praying three times, Jesus arose to meet His betrayer.
4.) Judas, accompanied by troops and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees armed with torches and weapons, approached Jesus to betray Him there in the garden.
5.) After a grueling series of trials lasting through the night and into the morning of Abib 14, Pilate sentenced Jesus to death. Jesus was crucified at the 3rd hour of the day which, by Roman days, was about 9:00 AM.
6.) Jesus bled out upon the cross from 9AM to 3PM. From noon until 3PM there was darkness upon the earth. At 3PM Jesus cried out with a loud voice and breathed His last (Mark 15:34-37). According to the Jewish historian Josephus, this was the same hour that the Jews began slaying their Passover lamb (War of the Jews, 6.9.3)! How powerful is this?!? It brings new and special meaning to 1 Cor 5:7b which says, "For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us." Not only is Jesus our Passover lamb, but He was offered as our sacrifice at precisely the time as the physical Passover lamb. Only GOD could pull this off!!! How amazing and wonderful!
7.) When evening came, Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate and asked for Jesus' body. Joseph buried Jesus in a tomb. John 19:31 tells us that these events occurred on the Preparation Day for the Sabbath, but then adds that this Sabbath was "a high day". This indicates that the following day would be Abib 15, on which GOD had prescribed a day of rest (see Ex. 12:16).
As the day transitioned from Abib 14 (the Preparation Day for the Sabbath) to Abib 15, It would also have been this same evening when the Passover meal was eaten (John 18:28; Ex. 12:8).
8.) The following morning, still on Abib 15, the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate and asked for him to secure Jesus' tomb to prevent Jesus' disciples from stealing His body (Matt. 27:62-66). It is worth noting that the "Day of Preparation" here must still be referring to the Day of Preparation for the Passover; otherwise the chief priests and Pharisees were (by their own traditional understanding and regulations) breaking the Sabbath.
9.) Saturday passes quietly, Jesus still laying in the tomb lifeless.
10.) At dawn on Sunday, Abib 17, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb, where Jesus met them! ALIVE!!!
I've spent a lot of time studying this subject, and the longer I've studied it, the more convinced I am that this timeline is accurate. It's the only timeline I could piece together that allows all four gospel accounts to harmonize. I have, however, tweaked it several times over the past year. Let me offer a few concluding thoughts:
- This timeline fits with Jesus' statement in Matt. 12:40: For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
- Many believers teach that the bread of the Lord's Supper must be unleavened because the Passover meal was eaten with unleavened bread. This cannot be proven either way, but my personal belief is that, because Abib 14 was the Preparation Day for the Passover—when leaven was removed from the Jews' homes—it is likely that the bread Jesus used was unleavened. Additionally, Paul taught that sin within the church was equated with leaven (1 Cor. 5:6-8). Put all of this together and, to me, unleavened bread seems to make the most sense.
- As our Passover lamb, Jesus was not killed inside the city gates; rather, He was led to Golgotha, a place outside the city walls (Heb. 13:12). This is consistent with the Law of Moses as mentioned previously.
- Remember that, in the grand scheme of things, getting all the specific details correct here isn't that important. Don't misunderstand me—GOD gave these words to us for us to understand them, but a person can misunderstand whether the Last Supper was the actual Passover meal and still be saved because they know Jesus. That's what matters! This is a reminder that I need sometimes, perhaps you do too.
- If you're wondering, click here for an explanation of why Passover and Easter falls on varying dates on our calendar each year.
What do you think? Is there something I've missed? Comment below and thanks for reading!