Why does the cup precede the loaf in Luke’s account of the inaugural Lord’s Supper?
Three accounts in the NT record Christ taking the bread first, and then the cup (see Matt. 26: 26-29; Mark 14: 22-25; 1 Cor. 11: 23-28). In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul puts the cup first (see 1 Cor. 10: 16-22), but the subject there is not the order of the Lord’s Supper—either then or subsequently—but the fellowship associated with it. The cup awakens tender thoughts in the heart as to Christ, and this may be why the apostle leads with it in order to spur the saints to “flee from idolatry” (v14).
It is only in Luke that we get a cup historically mentioned both before and after the loaf: “And having received a cup, when he had given thanks he said, Take this and divide it among yourselves. For I say unto you, that I will not drink at all of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God come. And having taken a loaf, when he had given thanks, he broke [it], and gave [it] to them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. In like manner also the cup, after having supped, saying, This cup [is] the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22: 17-20). However, it is a misconception to take the first cup mentioned as relating to the Lord’s Supper. Christians have a habit of reading themselves into passages of Scripture where they actually do not feature, and it is important to appreciate that in this passage there is a distinction made between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper. It is in verses 19-20, that we get the institution of the Lord’s Supper itself, and in its historical order, first the loaf, and then the cup. Indeed, if that cup is also described in v17 before the loaf, there an unexplained return to the same subject in v20 after the loaf. Furthermore, the cup in v20 appears deliberately separated from the cup of v17 by the words “after having supped” (v20) because the word supped does not mean sipped (as it might easily be misread) but refers to the Passover supper that preceded the Lord’s Supper.
The section begins with the Passover, and the Lord’s earnest desire to celebrate it with His disciples ahead of His death (see v15). We cannot conceive what passed through His holy mind at the time, because He was, of course, to be the fulfilment of the feast (see 1 Cor. 5: 7). His disciples are not representative Christians in the passage, but Jews—although the Lord can only celebrate the Passover with them rather than the nation as a whole. However, Israel will be brought to Christ when He returns to reign, and thus, in that sense, the Passover will be “fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22: 16). Scripture itself teaches that the Passover will be celebrated in the kingdom (see Ezek. 45: 21-24)—no doubt with an enhanced depth of meaning, as a memorial of the Lamb who has suffered for the nation.
Now unlike in Luke 22, the Mosaic Law does not mention anything about a cup in connection with the Passover, it being accompanied only by “bread of affliction” (Deut. 16: 3). At some point after entering the land, the Jews added multiple cups to the Passover ritual, but this has no Scriptural authority. The Lord took account of this difference between the commandment of God and the tradition of the elders in the way that He acted. On the one hand, He partook of the Passover in obedience to God’s Law, while on the other, He only “received” (Luke 22: 17) the cup of human tradition that was handed to him. He also did not drink it saying “I will not drink at all of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God come” (v18)—the kingdom of God come being typified by the Feast of Tabernacles, at which rejoicing on account of the fruit of “thy winepress” (Deut. 16: 13) was a characteristic feature. The Passover cup of Luke 22: 17, 18 is not connected to the Lord’s Supper, and is not accorded with any particular significance by Christ—but He graciously did not unsettle the disciple’s minds by overtly rejecting what had become a traditional part of the feast. All He said was simply “Take this and divide it among yourselves” (v17).
Some may point out that in Matt. 26: 29, the Lord’s words about not drinking of the fruit of the vine are associated with the Lord’s Supper, and therefore the same must be true in Luke 22: 17, 18. If we discount the possibility that the Lord may have spoken in that way more than once, there is still a problem because in Matthew the Lord utters the words after having taken the loaf, while in Luke it is before. Clearly each writer had a purpose in the order with which he grouped his facts—Luke perhaps emphasising that the Passover as currently celebrated was not a time for rejoicing, while Matthew associated the same words with the Lord’s Supper as not being an occasion of celebration (the Lord being rejected—see Matt. 9: 15).