Jesus is taking the meaning of the Passover covenant and saying that it is fulfilled in his own life and death. We are saved and delivered from bondage to sin by His death, not the death of a lamb. We have fellowship and a good relationship with God through Him. By our own failings, the covenant was broken, but He made up for that in His own blood. Just as the people of Israel were saved from death and delivered from slavery by the first Passover, so we are saved from eternal death and delivered from slavery to sin by Jesus Christ. Their entry point into relationship with God was the Passover; so our entry point into relationship with God is the “second Passover” – the crucifixion.
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Download Matthew Part 92
Matthew #92. Matthew 26:20-30
26As they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take and eat it; this is My body.” 27Then He took a cup, and after giving thanks, He gave it to them and said, “Drink from it, all of you. 28For this is My blood that establishes the covenant; it is shed for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29But I tell you, from this moment I will not drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it in a new way in My Father’s kingdom with you.” 30After singing psalms, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (Matt 26:26-30, HCSB)
Our text for this week is Matthew’s remembrance of how Jesus celebrated the Passover with the disciples the night before he was crucified. I want to focus on the meaning of what Jesus said and did at that meal. In order to do so, I think it is important for us to understand the cultural and historical background of the Passover.
Let’s start with the history. Sometime around 1800 BC, the family of the patriarch Jacob moved from Palestine to Egypt to escape a great famine. Jacob’s family was well received by the Egyptians, because one of his sons (Joseph) had risen to become the highest official in Egypt apart from the king. Jacob’s family (there were about 70 of them when they came to Egypt) maintained a distinct ethnic and religious identity in Egypt. This was most probably because they were committed to the worship of the one true God, and so avoided the ways of the Egyptians, who worshipped a pantheon of false gods and idols. Over the years, the family of Jacob became a numerous race and they were known as Hebrews. Sometimes they were also called the Israelites, or the “children of Israel” because Jacob had been known as “Israel” during his lifetime.
During the next four hundred years, the Egyptian attitude of tolerance for the Israelites turned to fear. They began to oppress them and made them into a slave-race in order to build great monuments in Egypt. The Israelites cried out to God, and God called Moses, whom he used to deliver the people of Israel from slavery and bondage in Egypt.
The deliverance, however, was something of a process. Pharaoh (all Egyptian kings were called Pharaoh) would not willingly release such a vast resource of cheap labor, and so he repeatedly refused the request of Moses for freedom for the Israelites. Each time Pharaoh refused, God struck the Egyptians with a plague. This happened ten times.
What is not well known about the ten plagues is that each plague struck at a specific “god” that the Egyptians worshipped. For instance, the plague of darkness made a mockery of Ra, the Egyptian “sun-god.” The fact that the God of Israel could make darkness come over Egypt at His whim, showed that Ra had no power, and was in fact, a false god. Likewise, the plague of frogs struck at the god and goddess of fertility (Hapi and Heqt respectively) who were symbolized in Egyptian worship by frogs. Each plague struck similarly at the false religion of the Egyptians, showing the powerlessness of their so-called gods.
After God thoroughly judged the false gods and false religion of the Egyptians, Pharaoh still refused to let the Israelites leave. It was this stubborn refusal that brought about the tragedy and triumph that was the Passover. The Passover was, in fact, the tenth plague. This plague brought about the death of every firstborn male in Egypt. In order to protect the Israelites from the death of their own firstborn males, God gave the people special instructions through Moses.
The people were told to kill a young lamb, which was to be the substitute for the death of the first son. The lamb in question was supposed to be an animal without disease or blemish, one that ordinarily would not have been eaten. The blood of the lamb was daubed on the top, and each side, of the doorposts (interestingly, though they didn’t know it, the Israelites were tracing the sign of the cross in the air as they painted the blood). The blood of the lamb was the seal on their households that protected them from death. Death “passed over” the houses that were protected by the blood of the lamb. After slaughtering the lamb, they roasted it and ate it. Along with the lamb they had vegetables, and a flat bread that was baked without yeast. The reason the bread was without yeast was that God told them to be ready to leave in a hurry – they didn’t have time to wait for bread to rise.
That very night, God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Pharaoh, in sorrow at the death of his firstborn son, called Moses in the middle of the night and told him to take the Israelites and get out. Not only that, but the Egyptians showered their wealth on the Israelites as they left, hoping to appease the wrath that had killed their firstborn sons. And so they left as free men and women. Not only that, but they entered freedom with great riches at their disposal.
Later, God told the Israelites to remember the Passover each year with a special meal commemorating their deliverance. To this day, Jews celebrate the Passover with that in mind.
It is helpful also to understand the cultural background of animal sacrifice, because some of the words of Jesus make use of this. In the very ancient middle east, during the time of the first Passover, when two people, or two entities (like, for instance, two nations) made a solemn agreement, they usually sealed the agreement through the sacrifice of one or more animals. The idea behind it was something like this: “This agreement is so important to me, that it requires the shedding of blood. In fact, if the agreement is broken, more blood will be shed – either mine or yours.” So the killing of animals solemnized and formalized ancient agreements. We might call these sorts of agreements “covenants.”
If the two parties to the agreement were equals, the expectation was that whoever broke the agreement would deserve to shed his own blood to “pay” for the broken agreement. The death of the animals symbolized this. If the covenant was between a greater and lesser party (say, a king, and a nobleman who owed him allegiance), then the lesser party would be expected to shed his own blood if the covenant was broken – no matter which party broke it. Again, this was symbolized by the killing of the animals to formalize the covenant.
There was often another piece involved as well. In addition to the shedding of blood as a declaration of the seriousness of the agreement, usually the two parties would then eat together. Most often, what they ate was the animal (or animals) that had been killed as part of the covenant. This eating together indicated that the two parties now had fellowship with one another. There was now a positive relationship present. The meal was a celebration of that good relationship. So solemn agreements – covenants – were formalized by the killing and eating of animals.
With this understanding, now we can see this: the Passover was the formalizing of God’s covenant with his people. God was saying to his people: “I will stand by this covenant that I am making with you. If necessary, blood will be shed in order to satisfy this agreement.” So the people killed the lambs, and celebrated the agreement with the Passover meal. In addition, as I have already mentioned, the death of the lamb protected the people of Israel, and delivered them from slavery in Egypt. I also want to point out, that this covenant-agreement between God and his people came before the laws which were given at Mount Sinai (the 10 Commandments etc.). God made a similar covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15), and the Passover was, in a sense, a reiteration of that covenant; only this time it was made with all of God’s people as a whole. My point is, this covenant was established before the people had done anything to please God or follow his laws. It is a covenant of God’s promise to save and deliver his people; a covenant of Grace. It was the entry point into their relationship with God.
Each time the people of Israel celebrated the Passover, it was, in a sense, a renewal of the covenant that God had made with them. The shedding of the blood of the lamb reminded them of the seriousness of the agreement. The eating was a celebration of their fellowship with God, and with each other.
Now we have a better basis on which to evaluate the words of Jesus. There are two moments within the Passover meal when bread is formally broken and shared by all those present. The first is towards the beginning. Part of the broken bread is taken and hidden away, and is afterwards called the “afikomen,” or “bread of life.” Later, that piece is taken out and shared among all of those present. It is probably this piece – the bread of life – about which Jesus said: “Take and eat it; this is my body.” What Jesus is doing is putting himself into the middle of God’s covenant with his people. He is saying: “This meal, this covenant-agreement, is about me.”
His next action makes it even more clear. He takes the cup, and says: “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood that establishes the covenant; it is shed for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Jesus is clearly saying that the original Passover-covenant between God and his people is established not by the sacrifice of lambs, but by his own sacrificial death. He is taking the meaning of the Passover covenant and saying that it is fulfilled in his own life and death. We are saved and delivered from bondage to sin by His death, not the death of a lamb. We have fellowship and a good relationship with God through Him. By our own failings, the covenant was broken, but He made up for that in His own blood. Just as the people of Israel were saved from death and delivered from slavery by the first Passover, so we are saved from eternal death, and delivered from slavery to sin, by Jesus Christ. Their entry point into relationship with God was the Passover; so our entry point into relationship with God is the “second Passover” – the crucifixion.
Just as the first Israelites celebrated their fellowship with God by eating the Passover lamb, so, in Communion (also called “The Lord’s Supper” or “the Eucharist”), we celebrate our fellowship with God that is made possible by the death of Jesus.
Just as the Passover was a renewal and reminder for the Israelites of God’s covenant with his people, so our own celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a renewal, reminder and acceptance of God’s covenant with us through the blood of Jesus Christ.
This is the meaning of Communion. This is why Paul says:
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1Cor 11:26, ESV2011)
Now, one more thing. Some people get caught up in arguments about what, exactly, happens, when we take the bread and wine. The Roman Catholic view is that the bread and the wine essentially turn into the physical presence of Jesus (i.e. the bread and wine turn into the body and blood). After all, Jesus said “This is my body…this is my blood.” In our Matthew text for today (and also the parallel text in Mark), he does not add “do this in remembrance of me.” The Reformed view (most Baptists, Evangelical Free etc.) is that the bread and the wine simply remind us of the presence of Jesus: all it is, is a remembrance. The Lutheran view (which I subscribe to) is that the bread and the wine are somehow used as a means to bring us the presence of Jesus.
A helpful way of understanding this is to picture a radio. When you turn it on, what happens? In the Catholic view, when you turn it on, the radio becomes music. In the reformed view, when you turn it on, the radio reminds us of music. In the Lutheran view, when you turn it on, the radio becomes the vehicle which brings us music. Thus, in the Lord’s Supper, we don’t believe that the bread and the wine actually change into flesh and blood. Neither do we believe that it is only a symbol – a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice. Instead, we believe that through eating the bread and drinking the wine in faith, Jesus comes to us. The bread and the wine are vehicles of God’s gracious presence. He uses them to come to us in a special, tangible way. We don’t pretend to know how, but he has promised his presence with the bread and the wine. All we need to do is to receive it in faith. And so, though we don’t explain it perfectly, we believe that when you get the bread and the wine, you are getting Jesus too. You are renewing the covenant which he made with you, a covenant established by his death and resurrection. You are celebrating the fellowship you have with God, and with one another.
An additional thought. Jesus taught his disciples to do this. After his resurrection, they did that, and taught the next generation to do the same. That generation carried it on to the next, and so on. What this means is that in every celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we could trace it back, hand to hand, person to person, generation to generation, to the very supper that Jesus had with Peter, James, John, Matthew and the others. There is a real-life historical connection to Jesus every time we take Communion. It connects us to all of Christianity throughout the ages, and to the physical life on earth of Jesus Christ himself.
What a gift! This is one reason the early Christian church made Communion (“the breaking of the bread”) central to their life and worship (Acts 2:42). Perhaps we should do the same.