Written Word

The Lord’s Supper – Part 3

Israel’s deliverance from bondage in Egypt provides the backdrop against which the Lord’s Supper was instituted: “While they were eating [the Passover meal], Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 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. When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” (Matthew 26:26-30)

How are we to understand what Jesus said? His words have been a source of contention over the centuries. Roman Catholics see in his words the institution of the Mass, while evangelicals see in them the pattern for a memorial of his death.

The conversation in the upper room that night would have centred on the Passover and Israel’s deliverance from slavery. Throughout his ministry Jesus had spoken of liberation. “You will know the truth,” he said, “and the truth will set you free… if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:32,36) With his atoning death shortly to take place Jesus picks up the themes of freedom, deliverance, redemption, forgiveness. Pardon would be free, but not cheap. He uses sacrificial language when talking about forgiveness. The sacrifice of his body and blood is the grounds upon which the justice of a holy God is satisfied thereby making possible the gift of forgiveness. With the food of the Passover meal before them, Jesus takes the bread that they had been eating and says, “Take and eat; this is my body.” And he does the same with the wine they had been drinking, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for man for the forgiveness of sin.” The death of Jesus will bring about a new Exodus for the people of God. And just as Israel commemorated their deliverance through the Passover, so the new “Israel of God” – the church – would, through the Lord’s Supper, commemorate our freedom from the bondage of sin.

Once the Spirit came on Pentecost the apostles understood what Jesus meant. When Jesus gave them the bread and said it was his body, they didn’t take him literally, nor did they when he said the cup contained his blood shed for the forgiveness of sins. How could this be his atoning blood when he had not yet died upon the cross? Furthermore, the Apostles held to strict dietary laws, one of which prohibited eating anything that contained blood. They would never have drunk the blood of Jesus without raising objections.

Let’s refresh our minds on just how strict the apostles were on this matter of eating blood or eating anything that was classed as unclean. After Jesus’ resurrection, the kingdom of God was being extended to the Gentiles and God gave Peter a vision, a vision that meant all people, irrespective of race, were acceptable to him on the basis of the death of Jesus. Peter saw a vision in which many different animals were before him. The Lord said, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Immediately Peter objected, “Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” The account goes on to tell us, “A voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God had made clean.’ This happened three times…” (Acts 11:7-10) As more Gentiles were coming to faith in Christ and being baptised, some guidelines needed to be put in place. After the church met in Jerusalem it was decided that the following instructions be given to the Gentiles: “You are to abstain from… blood, from the meat of strangled animals… You will do well to avoid these things.” (Acts 15:29) The apostles could not make such statements pertaining to blood if they believed that in eating the bread in the Lord’s Supper they were actually eating the body of the Saviour and in drinking the wine they were actually drinking his literal blood.

When we listen to the words of the Lord himself we know that we cannot be wrong. He said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19) The Lord’s Supper is therefore a memorial of what he did for us in his death upon the cross. It’s a past event that we commemorate each time we share in the Supper. Finally, our Lord’s concluding words, “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” are a reference to that time when we will be together with the Lord in the kingdom of heaven. This unbroken fellowship with him for eternity will have been made possible by his atoning death upon the cross. Those who have received the blessing issuing from his death commemorate this when they partake of the bread and the wine. We look back to what he did and forward in certain hope of what is to come. He said, “Do this in remembrance of me”. (Luke 22:19) And that is what we should do.