The Lord’s Supper has been called a “mystery” by many, and the term seems apt enough. There are many symbols and meanings within this sacred ceremony, and many are hard to interpret. Today, I’d like to speculate a little about one of them.
Jesus referred to the cup saying,
(Mat 26:28) This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
This has always been a puzzle to me. Covenants don’t bleed! Why should a covenant have blood? What on earth does “blood of the covenant” mean?
To answer this, we need to consider how the ancients made covenants.
For thousands of years, men have sealed covenants in blood. In the Middle East, they used to say that they “cut a covenant,” meaning the covenanting parties cut their arms and sucked a bit of one another’s blood. The mingling of blood was considered to bring the parties together so tightly they’d have to honor their words. (See here)
In the Middle East, this practice gave way to the sharing of animal blood in a ceremony that surely seems strange to us today. Even today in some Middle Eastern societies, when a covenant, such as a marriage, is made, the heads of the household make a solemn pact that the wife will be true to her husband and that the husband will not abuse his wife. The two men take an animal, cut in two, then take turns walking between the two halves, stepping in and through the blood.
The ceremony has this meaning: if I do not keep my promise, you may do to me what we’ve done to this animal. The two men pledge their lives to seal the covenant. And in those societies today, when a husband beats his wife or the wife commits adultery, the head of the offender’s household is found dead, killed by the other family in fulfillment of the oath.
Now consider God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17 —
(Gen 15:4-21) Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.”
5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars — if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
6 Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
7 He also said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”
8 But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”
9 So the LORD said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” 10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.
12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.
13 Then the LORD said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.
18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates — 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”
God wanted to assure Abraham of the certainly of his promise, and so he made a solemn covenant. Abraham’s end of the bargain was to have faith in God. God’s promise was “offspring,” which is literally the word “seed,” which is singular. In Galatians 3:16, Paul interprets this as referring to the Messiah.
God also promised to make a great nation of Abraham’s descendants.
Before the ceremony, Abraham suffered “a thick and dreadful darkness,” which means he was very afraid. What was there to fear in making a covenant with God Almighty?
Well, we need to understand the meaning of “faith.” We take “faith” to mean that we accept the truth of what is said. We “believe” the person speaking. But the thought is deeper.
Josephus was a First Century Jew and a soldier. He tells a story of a soldier under his command who was disloyal. He caught him and threatened his life. He then told him to repent and be loyal to Josephus and he’d spare his life, giving him a second chance.
Well, the word translated “be loyal” is what we translate in the Bible as “believe.” He literally told the soldier to “believe in me.” He didn’t claim to be deity. He just wanted the man’s loyalty. You see, “faith” includes “faithfulness.”
Abraham’s end of the covenant was not just intellectual assent, accepting God’s word as true. Abraham was to be loyal to God.
Now, imagine having God himself come to you and ask for a blood oath of loyalty. You could hardly say no! But then, would you really want to bet your life on your ability to keep your word?
To firmly establish the seriousness of the covenant, God asked not for an animal, but every kind of animal used in sacrificial worship. Indeed, Abraham lined up each of the very animals that would later be used as a sacrifice under the Law of Moses centuries later! It’s no wonder Abraham was afraid.
But when night fell and it was time for God and Abraham to each walk between the animals, an amazing thing happened. God passed through both as a torch of flame and as smoke pot. He went through twice — and Abraham didn’t pass through at all.
Rather, when it was time for Abraham to walk in the blood, saying if I don’t keep my promise, you may do to me as we have done to these animals, God himself took the walk — and only God. God promised to pay the penalty for Abraham! [This interpretation is thanks to Ray Vander Laan.]
Now, the blood oath ceremony concludes with the two parties eating the sacrificed animals, the common meal representing the making of a common community, which binds the parties to their promises.
Hundreds of years later, Moses read the Law to the people.
(Exo 24:3-8) When Moses went and told the people all the Lord’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the LORD has said we will do.” 4 Moses then wrote down everything the LORD had said. He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the LORD.
6 Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar. 7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.”
8 Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
Here is the first appearance of the phrase “the blood of the covenant.” It seems strange to us that Moses would divide the blood in half, burning half and sprinkling half on the people. But they were making a blood oath. Half of the blood was sprinkled on God by means of the altar. The other half on the people.
They could hardly all walk through the blood, but by having the blood sprinkled on them, they made an oath: “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.”
(Exo 24:9-11) Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up 10 and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. 11 But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.
God entered into fellowship with the people, allowing their leaders to see him, and they concluded with a feast. This is how covenants were made.
God remembered his covenant. A thousand years later, God said through his prophet Zechariah, looking ahead to the coming the Messiah,
(Zec 9:9-11) Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. 11 As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.
And so we come to the Lord’s Supper. How is this cup, this “fruit of the vine,” the blood of the covenant? There are at least three ways that make some sense.
First, Abraham made a blood oath with God to be loyal to him. The penalty for disloyalty is death. But Abraham did not walk in the blood. God did. And God the Son paid the price that we, Abraham’s spiritual descendants, all owe for our disloyalty. His blood “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” is the price for our breach the covenant with God.
Second, Jesus was also paying the price for every breach of the Law of Moses. The Israelites made a blood oath but couldn’t keep their promises. And Jesus was paying that price, too.
Third, let’s look to the Bible’s next reference to the “blood of the covenant.” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians,
(1 Cor 11:25-27) In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 27 Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.
Paul says the Jesus made a “new covenant” with his blood. As we drink his blood, we are going all the way back to the original meaning of the blood oath — we are drinking the blood of the Messiah, entering into communion with him and promising to be loyal — to be faithful — to him. And he is promising to keep his promises to us. This is serious business.
Finally, Hebrews explains the symbol in unambiguous terms —
(Heb 10:19-22) Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.
The reference to having “our hearts sprinkled” is a reference back to Exodus where Moses sprinkled the people to bring them into covenant with God (see Heb 9:18-22). We have had the blood of Jesus sprinkled on us, making us a part of the holy community, recipients of the promises of the covenant with God, and parties to a blood oath.
And for this reason, the writer warns us,
(Heb 10:26-31) If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. 28 Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.
31 How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Do you see the picture? Why does he say that when we deliberately continue to sin we trample the Son of God under foot? It’s because we’ve taken a blood oath.
Why does such sin “treat as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant”? Because we’ve promised to be loyal to the Son in a blood oath.
As you take this most holy communion, as you feast with God himself, remember two things.
First, remember that God himself has paid the price for your sins. The penalty is paid in the blood of Jesus. When we drink this cup, we are remembering this gift and giving thanks.
Second, remember that if you deny Jesus, if you deliberately continue to sin, you violate that oath, trample on the blood of Jesus, and if you despise Jesus’ blood, you have to pay with your own.
Drink deeply and gratefully. Approach God with confidence. Expect to see him, as Moses did, face to face. Remember that you are feasting with God Almighty.
And so don’t you dare make a mockery of Jesus’ blood. Keep your word. It’s not that you have to be perfect. Just faithful. Just loyal.
This cup is a renewal and participation of a holy blood oath made thousands of years ago. As we take it, we take with Abraham, the Israelites, and the early Christians. We become a part of their household and we share in their covenant.