Communion and the New Covenant

Introduction

Take yourself back 2,000 years to Jesus’ time.  It’s Thursday, April 2, 33 A.D.  Jesus is about 36 years old.  He’s been traveling with His disciplines for three-and-a-half years teaching the Jewish people about the kingdom of God.  On this day, the twelve disciples are gathered with Him in a second floor room in Jerusalem celebrating the Passover meal to remember God saving His people from the angel of death and releasing them from the Egyptian captivity. 

The Jewish people have been celebrating this meal annually for over a thousand of years.  In the middle of the meal, Jesus picked up a cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  It wasn’t the first time the disciples heard Jesus make a similar shocking statement.  During the feeding of the 5,000, He told people that anyone who eats His flesh and drinks His blood will have eternal life.[1]  However, the reference to the new covenant might have made them gasp in awe as they considered the implications of His words.

By proclaiming the new covenant, Jesus is drawing a line in the sand of time, and after over a thousand years, initiating a new relationship with God.  Jesus is saying the covenant of Moses, the covenant of the Ten Commandments, has been superseded by something new; something that the Jews have been waiting for since Jeremiah prophesied about it over 600 year earlier.  The disciples came to celebrate the Passover and instead Jesus turned a page in the chapter of history no less dramatic than we think of BC and AD on our timeline.  With this background on the passage, we’ll cover three key points today:

  • First, that the old covenant was inadequate
  • Second, that the new covenant is the fulfillment of God’s better plan
  • Third, that we, the church, receive the benefits of the new covenant during communion

The old covenant was inadequate

To begin with, the old covenant was inadequate because it depended on frail, sinful people to keep it.  Throughout Biblical history, covenants were key turning points in the story of God and His people.  They’re mentioned over 200 times and referenced in over two-thirds of the Old Testament books.  Covenants were initiated by God as agreements that governed the relationship between Him and a person or a group of people.  Let me say that again, covenants were initiated by God as agreements that governed the relationship between Him and His people.  These agreements were sovereignly established by Him, included specific blessings, and could also include requirements that He mandated the people to follow, which couldn’t be violated.  Only God can initiate this kind of a covenant and He is solely responsible for establishing the terms of the agreement.  He chooses the people.  He establishes the rules to be followed.  He determines the blessings that will be received.  There’s no negotiation like we might think of in an agreement or contract today.

Central to the covenant relationship is the exclusivity of it.  It’s unique to the person or people God chooses and He requires complete loyalty back from them.  The strongest example of this is the first commandment, where God requires the Israelites to have “no other Gods before Him.”  The key theme of the covenants is, “I shall be your God and you shall be My people.”

We see covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses and David with these characteristics.  God called each of them specifically and he promised them unique blessings.  To Noah and his descendants, He promised that He wouldn’t destroy the earth with water ever again.[2]  He gave Abraham the promise of land and to be the father of many nations.[3]  With Moses, the people received the promise of being a holy nation for God.  David’s promise was the continued kingship in his family line.[4] 

Though there are many covenants, the Mosaic Covenant with the Ten Commandments is the one specifically described as the old covenant because God established it with the people of Israel as a group when they were called out of Egypt.  This covenant described in the book of Exodus specified how God was to be worshiped through the temple ceremonies and declared who the priests were that were responsible to intercede for the people’s sins.  It detailed the need for animal sacrifices for the sins as well.  This covenant was effectively established at the Passover meal with the blood of the lamb on the door posts and expanded upon at Mount Sinai with more detailed commands. 

All of these elements that God included in the old covenant – the sacrifices, priests, temple and laws – were expressions of His nature.  These practices seem foreign to us, but they show us what He’s like in a concrete, tangible way.  God communicated His righteousness in the law, so people clearly knew what was good and evil.  He was present with His people and gave them the tabernacle and later the temple to dwell visibly in their midst.  He is also holy and separate and could not be directly approached by anyone unholy or impure, so He created barriers in the temple so that common people couldn’t enter and then provided priests to serve as mediators for them.  Sacrifices viscerally brought to life the gravity of sin as one would put his hand on the animal’s head to transfer his sins, while its throat was cut and the blood poured out. 

One rough comparison for these things in present day is a court room.  We’re required to follow specific laws of the country and end up breaking them.  We go to court similar to a temple with its chambers and face a judge who represents the law.  We hire a lawyer as our priest-like mediator to represent us before the judge because we’re not in a position to do it ourselves.  If it’s proven that we’ve broken the law, we must make restitution, which is the sacrifice.

But the old covenant was flawed and necessitated a better one.[5]  Flawed not because of God.  He kept His part of the agreement.  Not because of His law, which is right and good.  The covenant failed because of the other party in the agreement – the people, the Israelites.  The priests who stood between the people and God were temporary and sinful.  These priests died and were replaced each generation.  Some were good like Samuel and some were evil like his sons.  None could make perfect intercession for the people.  Because of their depraved nature, the people broke the requirements of the law as Israelites killed, stole, coveted and followed idols.  Even the patriarchs were failures as Noah, Abraham, Moses and David did not follow God without fail.  The ritual sacrifices happened year after year after year because the offerings were an inadequate atonement.  The blood of bulls and goats could never take away sins of people, and therefore only served as a reminder of the penalty for sin. 

All of these things were temporal and inadequate because they depended on frail, sinful people.  Yet, the elements of the old covenant served as the foundation for something better.  In Jeremiah 31, Jeremiah prophesied that God would establish a new covenant and write His laws on people’s hearts.  He said,

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke,… For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

The new covenant is the fulfillment of God’s better plan

Return back to the first century in the upper room with the disciples.  They grew up with the rigid laws, ritual sacrifices, ornate priests and beautiful temple of stone and gold.  It was the air they breathed.  It was all they knew, but they also knew a new covenant was coming someday.

And then, as they were celebrating God’s faithfulness of providing salvation from Egypt through the old covenant, Jesus spoke the words, “this cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”.  By proclaiming the new covenant, Jesus fulfilled Jeremiah’s prophecy from 600 years earlier.  With this announcement, Jesus once again laid claim to deity, since only God can establish a covenant.  Just like that, an epoch of history was closed and something new was established.  This new, perfect and final covenant superseded the inadequate old Mosaic covenant and was the fulfillment of God’s better plan for the world from the beginning of time.  This is our second point.  The new covenant is the fulfillment of God’s better plan for His people.

In the new covenant, God once again reached into space and time and dictated a new agreement.  He built on the elements He established in the old covenant, but made everything better.  He provided a better sacrifice, a better priest, a better law and a better temple.  He added a new recipient of the covenant to make it better as well.

God provided the better sacrifice as the propitiation for sin through His own Son.  Jesus said the “new covenant is in My blood poured out for you”.  He was foreshadowing His impending death that would come just a few hours later.  Once again, as we’ve repeatedly encountered throughout history, God gracefully provided substitutionary blood sacrifices to His people.  He provided for Adam and Eve through the death of an animal to cloth their nakedness with its skins after they ate the forbidden fruit in the garden.  He provided Abraham a ram to kill in the place of Isaac when He tested Abraham’s obedience.  He passed over the first born of the Israelites who had lamb’s blood on their doorposts as they were preparing to be freed from Egypt and head to the promised land. 

And now we see that the ultimate fulfillment of the covenant was planned before the foundation of the world through Jesus and His death on the cross.  The final, definitive sacrifice made the old covenant sacrificial system null and void, as “For by a single offering Jesus has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified….and where there is forgiveness, there is no longer any offering for sin.”[6]  Because of Jesus, it’s final and completed.  There is no need for the sacrifice of atonement over and over and over again with bulls and goats.  This is only possible because Jesus lived the perfect life to fulfill the covenant requirements of the law.[7]  Jesus is the perfect, sinless, final sacrificial lamb.  The better sacrifice.

Not only was Jesus the better sacrifice in the new covenant, He’s the final, better priest.  As the perfect, permanent priest, He makes intercession for His people, so there’s no longer the need for a human mediator between us and God.  As Hebrews 7:23-25 tells us, “The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but Jesus holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Jesus as the better priest provides direct access to God the Father.  Aaron’s son’s could be fired from their jobs as priestly intermediaries because His people could go straight to God for forgiveness.

Through Jesus’ teaching, he established a better law.  He raised the standard above what was expressed in the Ten Commandments to go beyond our external actions and include the motives of the heart.  When He taught during the Sermon the Mount, He proclaimed, “you have heard it said, but I say to you…. if you’re angry with your brother, you’re liable to judgement; if you look on a woman with lust, you’ve committed adultery; love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.  You must be perfect as you heavenly Father is perfect.”[8]  He also added separately, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”[9]  In the new covenant, commandments are no longer external, written on tablets of stone.  They’re internal, written on hearts of flesh just as Jeremiah prophesied.  Through the indwelling of the Spirit, God makes His chosen people sensitive to His commands to help them do the good works that He prepared beforehand that they should walk in them[10] under the better law. 

Through the new covenant, a better temple was built at Jesus’ resurrection.  One not made with stone, stuck in a specific location.  As Jesus said, Destroy the temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”[11]  In Him, there is no longer a need to worship God in Jerusalem because there is a better temple through His presence and the Spirit.  We come to Jesus directly to worship and serve God.

All of the elements in the old covenant were breadcrumbs, they were signs, they were types, they were shadows, pointing to fulfillment in Jesus through the new covenant, the better covenant that He established.  They were given by God to demonstrate the need for and dependence on Him.  The law provided the knowledge of sin[12] to humble humanity by showing its continual frailty and failure.[13]

The new covenant wasn’t the back-up plan.  It was always God’s plan because Jesus is, “the lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world.”[14]  Though Jesus perfect humanity, it was the only way God could fulfill the justice His holiness demanded for our sin.  It was the only way His wrath against covenant breakers could be fully and finally satisfied.  Through the covenant, we get a view of God’s character – His goodness, love, mercy and grace.  We see His goodness and love expressed in the design of this new covenant as everything centers on Christ.  We understand His mercy, as He fulfills the obligations that His people never could.  We feel His grace, as He gives the benefits of Christ’s righteousness to the underserving.

We receive the benefits of the new covenant during communion

Lastly, the benefits of the new covenant to us, the church.  In communion, we experience God as the initiator and provider of the new covenant.  When we take communion as the new covenant in Jesus’ blood, we’re reminded that our loving God initiates the covenant relationship with us.  As I mentioned earlier, the central theme of the covenants throughout the Bible is, “I shall be your God and you shall be My people.”  This is exactly how Paul describes the church in II Corinthians 6:16 when He says, “For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’”  It’s no longer the children of Abraham who are the promised people, but now anyone who calls on the name of Jesus will be saved[15] through a circumcision of the heart by the Spirit.[16]  The church is therefore the better recipient of the covenant.  As Paul explained in Ephesians 3:6, “through the Gospel the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

As the recipients of the new covenant, we have two sacraments – baptism and communion.  Baptism happens once to symbolize our new birth in Christ through His death and resurrection.  Through communion, we have a tangible, repeated sign of God as our new covenant provider; not just of a temporary meal that satisfies us briefly, but one that reiterates the good news week after week.  The good news that He’s satisfied with us in Christ for eternity and that we can add nothing to His completed work 2,000 years ago.  Communion is the new Passover meal, replacing the annual Jewish celebration of the old covenant.  It’s a celebration of His saving work in us, not just once from physical slavery in Egypt, but permanently from the all-consuming slavery of sin in our lives.

The old covenant condemned and enslaved.  It was a weighty burden to the people, but the new covenant frees[17] bringing life through forgiveness and reconciliation.[18]  Because of Jesus, the temple veil was torn in two providing us direct access to the Father in ways that were inconceivable at the time of the disciples and before them.  We have no need to confess to a priest as an intercessor between us and God or to sacrifice an animal for our sins.  God provided for us through the broken flesh and poured out blood of Jesus. 

If the new covenant is new to you, and you’re trying to live under the old by keeping the law, then you’re dead in your trespasses and sins.  Repent of your feeble effort to gain God’s favor through prayer, donations, service or whatever it might be and accept God’s forgiveness as tangibly represented in the communion cup.  Then celebrate with great joy[19] what came on Sunday – Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and yours as well if you put your faith in Him to save you.

Conclusion

Reflect on how the old covenant was inadequate, that the new covenant is the fulfillment of God’s better plan and that we, the church, receive the benefits from God as the initiator and provider of the new covenant through communion.

What we’re remembering through communion and celebrating by drinking the wine that symbolizes the blood He shed for us, is the final covenant.  The perfect covenant that offers us access to the Father, through the Son, with the guidance of the Spirit who has been given to us knowing that God has chosen us to be His people and He our God.  In communion, we look backward to Jesus’ institution of the new covenant.  Yet like those before us, we still await something.  We still await the final completion of the new covenant promises through the resurrection of the body, reuniting with the elect, restoration of the earth and return of the King.

When you prepare to taste the bread and the cup, reflect deeply on this great God of ours.  Reflect on how He had a covenant plan for the church from long ago.  Reflect on Christ who makes this relationship possible as the one who fulfills the whole law, offers Himself as the perfect sacrifice, assumes the high priesthood and becomes the great temple of worship for us all.  Then taste the new covenant of Jesus blood and know that He is good.[20]


References


[1] John 6

[2] Genesis 8-9

[3] Genesis 15

[4] 2 Samuel 7

[5] Hebrews 8:7

[6] Hebrews 10:14,18

[7] Matthew 5:17

[8] Matthew 5:27-48

[9] John 13:34-35 and that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” in Mark 2:27

[10] Ephesians 2:10

[11] John 2:19

[12] Romans 3:20

[13] 1 Corinthians 10:5,11)

[14] Revelation 13:8

[15] Romans 10:13

[16] Romans 2:29

[17] Galatians 4:21-31

[18] 2 Corinthians 3:7-18

[19] Matthew 28:8

[20] Psalm 34:8

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