The Lord’s Supper was instituted as part of a Passover meal. The Passover, of course, celebrates God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage.
By the time of Jesus, the meal was celebrated with four cups of wine, each reflecting a promise of God made to Moses and Israel at the beginning of their delverance —
(Exo 6:5-8) “Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.
6 “Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. 7 I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. 8 And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the LORD.'”
RVL finds that at least three of the cups were recorded in the Gospels’ account of the Last Supper.
Imagine Jesus presiding over the Last Supper, a traditional Passover meal that gives new significance to each cup. In the traditional Passover meal, the head of the household would recite each promise from God with each cup.
The first cup, preceding the meal, is the Cup of Sanctification – based on God’s statement, “I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians”
The second cup, preceding the first course, is the Cup of Judgment or Deliverance — based on God’s statement, “I will deliver you from slavery to them”
(Luke 22:17) After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you.”
The family would then take the meal together, followed by the third cup, the Cup of Redemption – based on God’s statement, “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm”
(Luke 22:20) In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”
The fourth cup is the Cup of Protection – based on God’s statement, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God.” In fact, pesach, translated Passover, most literally means “protection.”
Jesus did not take this cup, forfeiting the Passover, God’s protection against the death angel. Instead, he said,
(Mat 26:29) I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
Although Jesus drank no more wine, he did drink from another cup. You see, the traditional Passover has a fifth cup, taken from Jeremiah —
(Jer 25:15-17) This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, said to me: “Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. 16 When they drink it, they will stagger and go mad because of the sword I will send among them.” 17 So I took the cup from the Lord’s hand and made all the nations to whom he sent me drink it:
This is the cup of God’s wrath, also known as Elijah’s cup. Malachi prophesied that Elijah would return shortly before the coming of the Messiah and day of God’s wrath against all wickedness.
(Mal 4:5) “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.”
At this part of the Passover ceremony, the door is opened, and the head of household says, “Pour out your wrath on the world!”
In the traditional ceremony, this cup is filled but not drunk — not until the coming of Elijah. But Jesus drank the cup.
(Mat 26:39-42) Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” … 42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath against the nations.
Church of Christ application
We have a strong tradition of dispensational teaching, that is, we teach that there were three “dispensations” — Patriarchal, Mosaic, and Christian. Each dispensation replaced and repealed the one preceding. We are no longer under the Patriarchal or Mosaic dispensations.
There is truth, of course, in the observation that Christianity has important differences from the God’s relationship with the Patriarchs and the Israelites. But it’s a colossal mistake to therefore treat the Old Testament as a dead letter, no longer essential to our understanding of God, Jesus, and our salvation. Indeed, this understanding flatly contradicts Paul, who writes —
(1 Tim 4:13) Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.
(2 Tim 3:16) All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,
In both passages, Paul is referring primarily to the Old Testament. Large portions of the New Testament had not yet been written, and the epistles had not yet been gathered and compiled into a single canon. We are commanded teach and train from the Old Testament.
When we take the trouble to understand First Century Judaism, which was steeped in the Law and the Prophets, we understand our own Christianity in much greater depth. We understand the Lord’s Supper in greater depth.
The Lord’s Supper is built on a tradition that by the time of Jesus had developed over 1,500 years. We don’t understand why Jesus chose to institute communion at the Passover or what the cups meant. We just know we’re supposed to pass a tray of Welch’s around and stare at the floor in silence to please God. But God chose to tie our observance to the Passover. Surely there is deep symbolism in it.
For example — and this is just one example — when we see Jesus speak of his death as drinking a “cup,” we should see the reference to Jer 25. Jesus drank the cup destined for the nations and so brought salvation to the nations. (I leave the meaning of the other cups for us today as an exercise for your small groups and Bible classes.)
And in the reference to “all the nations,” we should hear the echoes of God’s covenant with Abraham — to bless all nations through his seed. You see, it all ties together. It’s all one narrative. It fits.
In the Lord’s Supper we have Abraham, Jeremiah, and Jesus all converging. And there’s so much more — which we ignore by treating the Old Testament as obsolete and meaningless. It’s like referring to the soil under a tree as worthless. After all, the soil doesn’t produce fruit or firewood! That comes from the tree! But the tree comes from the soil and quickly dies if uprooted.
The tree is not the soil, but God made the soil for good reason.