All who are thirsty
As the annual celebration of Passover approaches, Jewish families across the world will begin preparations to commemorate the miraculous deliverance of their ancestors and forefathers from their tyrannical Egyptian slave masters. Families will gather to celebrate the event with a traditional festive meal and service, or Seder. This follows the Hagaddah (The Telling), a printed Order of Service which contains readings and songs and unfolds the story of deliverance for those taking part in the meal. Although Passover is a celebration of Israel's deliverance from Egypt, Gentile believers in Messiah can also look back and give thanks that through his servant Moses, God freed his people from the burdensome yoke of their Egyptian masters and led them to the Promised Land.
Central to the Passover meal are the four cups that are shared as the family progresses through the Haggadah. Each cup represents an aspect of God's goodness to his people, the basis of which can be found in Exodus 6:6-7.
Following the Brechat Haner (the kindling of the Passover candles and the blessing that accompanies it), the Cup of Sanctification – a memorial of God bringing his people out from the burden of the Egyptians – is shared between those present. Later, a second cup, the Cup of Judgement or Deliverance, which recognises God's deliverance of his people from slavery, is drunk. The Cup of Redemption which acknowledges Godʼs promise to redeem his people 'with an outstretched arm', is drunk after the Passover meal, while the Cup of Praise or Restoration, which celebrates the LORD's declaration 'I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God,' is drunk last of all. In between the cups, various items of food are shared, each representing different aspects of the exodus from Egypt.
Last and first things
If we skip back back 2000 years to the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples before his crucifixion, we can see the significance those cups played in the Gospel narratives. In Luke 22 we find Jesus giving thanks and offering the first cup to his disciples after having said a blessing or Kiddush over the wine, before breaking bread and instructing his followers to eat and drink in remembrance of him. This marks the institution of the Lord’s Supper but it is also important to realise that Jesus did this in the context of sharing the Passover meal which he had ‘earnestly desired’ to share with his disciples before going on to suffer and die on the cross.
In the account of the Last Supper found in Luke's Gospel, we read of only two cups. These are taken to be the first and third cups. The second would most likely have been drunk at the time Jesus washed his disciples' feet (as recorded in John 13:3-12), in addition to or as a substitute for the traditional ceremonial washing of hands that takes place at that point in the Seder.
The significance of the Passover Seder in the Last Supper accounts, especially in regard to the third cup, should not be lightly dismissed. For Jewish people, the Cup of Redemption was, and still is, a symbol of the blood of the Passover lamb and is of preeminent importance for our understanding of the New Covenant established by God through his Son as 'our Passover' (1 Cor 5:17).
God's calling of his son Israel out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1) foreshadowed the calling of God's Messianic Son out of Egypt when, in the early years of the life of the Lord Jesus, his parents brought him from exile in Egypt to Galilee. Jesus the Son of God would grow up and go on to Calvary as the Passover lamb providing his people with complete and everlasting redemption through his death and subsequent resurrection.
Another significance of the third cup at the Last Supper is also worth noting. According to the account in John 13, Judas, who was to go on to betray Jesus, left the meal after Jesus had dipped the morsel of bread and offered it to him. This would have either been the bitter herbs or the sweet haroseth mixture which followed the sharing of the second cup before the main meal of lamb was eaten. By leaving the table, Judas did not partake of the Cup of Redemption and, by missing out on the main meal, was left open to the consequences of Number 9:13 which states: 'But if a man who is ceremonially clean and not on a journey fails to celebrate the Passover, that person must be cut off from his people because he did not present the LORD'S offering at the appointed time. That man will bear the consequences of his sin'.
If you are wondering about the fourth cup, which should have followed the sharing of the Cup of Redemption, Mark records that the Lord Jesus did not take this cup, but instead looked forward to the day when he would drink it new in the kingdom of God (Mark 14:24-26).
The empty chair
These days, Jewish tradition dictates that there is a fifth cup at the Passover table. An extra place is laid out and a cup of wine placed alongside it. This place is set for the prophet Elijah in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah and the expected redemption of Israel. Each year at the conclusion of the Seder, Jewish children rush to the front door of the house to look down the street to see if Elijah is heralding the coming of the Messiah. Each year they return to the adults alone and disappointed. Each year Elijah's place remains empty.
The empty seat is a symbol of something sadly missing in the ongoing celebration of the Passover Seder. While we can look back at and be glad for the Lord's deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt, the unfilled place at the Passover table and the untouched cup of wine should cause those of us who are believers, and who have drunk of the true cup of redemption, to mourn over the lost sheep of Israel just as the Lord Jesus did. It should also serve to motivate us in our efforts to reveal the truth of the gospel to our Jewish friends and acquaintances, as well as being a reminder of how blessed we are to know true deliverance and the invitation to come and eat with Messiah himself.