We are going to be sharing together in the Lord’s Supper next Sunday, Lord willing, and so I want us to look at the Scriptures and remind ourselves what this meal of Jesus means. Today we look at the symbolic meaning of the bread and the cup, and next week I would like for us to look at what it means for us to receive these elements.
Let’s begin by reading Matthew 26:26-28 –
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
The first thing we need to note, is that –
The supper symbolically portrays Jesus’ death on the cross
- He says of the bread – “this is my body” (v. 26). The bread is connected to his body
- He says of the cup – “this is my blood” (v. 28). The cup is connected to his blood
Now, some Christians take this too literally. They say that the bread and wine turn into Jesus’ real body and blood in one way or another. But Jesus is using figurative language. And the reason we know this, is that Jesus’ body and blood were still a part of him, with the disciples in the room as he spoke. What Jesus is saying is that this bread is a symbol of my body, and this cup is a symbol of my blood.
But the point is not just that these elements represent him the bread and cup represent his death on the cross.
- That the bread is broken as it was distributed to be eaten shows that his body is broken – an image of his death on the cross
- That the cup is poured out when they drank it shows that his blood is poured out – an image of his death on the cross.
These two elements signify Jesus’ death on the cross.
But there is another layer of meaning that helps us to understand the meaning of the bread and the cup, and thus Jesus’ death on the cross. This comes to us from –
The Exodus event
– and how God delivered Israel from Egypt. Jesus himself makes this connection. He intentionally uses the bread and the cup to connect his meal to the Exodus story. Let’s look at how this is so.
First, the bread comes from the Passover meal. Jesus makes it clear that the Last Supper is a Passover meal when he says, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” – Luke 22:15. The Passover was the event that set Israel free, the meal celebrates that deliverance [Mishnah mPes 10.5]
And then the cup is identified by a phrase that comes from the covenant ceremony, from Exodus 24, when Israel entered into covenant with God. Jesus calls the cup the “blood of the covenant” – Matthew 26:28.
So there is a clear connection.
- The bread not only points us to Jesus on the cross, it also points back to the Passover
- The cup not only points us to Jesus on the cross, it also points back to the covenant ceremony at Sinai
Let’s look at this in more detail.
When the Exodus story begins, Israel was in slavery without God, afflicted and miserable. But God heard their cries for help and acted to deliver them.
One of the ways he saved them was the the Passover – Exodus 12:6b-7; 11-13
. . . the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight. Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it . . .. In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.
What do we learn from the Passover meal? 1) There is a sacrificial death. They were to “kill their lambs” and put the blood on their door frames – 6b. 2) This death brings salvation to Israel. Not only are they not killed by the plague, they are delivered from slavery, misery and death in Egypt. v. 11 says, they are to eat it “with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand” because they will be leaving just after this.
And then we have the covenant ceremony – Exodus 24:5-8. This is when Israel entered into covenant with God at Mt Sinai.
And Moses sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord. And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
What do we learn from this covenant ceremony? 1) There is a sacrificial death. They “offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen” – v. 5. 2) This death brings Israel into a new relationship (or covenant) with God. They received from God forgiveness for their sins (Moses took the blood and threw it on the people. Also, Hebrews 9:20-22; and Exodus Targum). And they committed to obey God. “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” – v. 7. Even though they knew of Yahweh before, they were not in this kind of relationship with him. So this really is a new.
Bringing this all together
When the Exodus story is brought in as a background to the event of Jesus’ death on the cross, we learn several things. First, just as the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, so we are enslaved to Sin, Satan and Death; without Christ we are slaves to these hostile powers, lost in the world. There is a parallel here.
Second, just as they were delivered from slavery, so are we through Christ.
- In the Passover, there was a sacrificial death (a Passover lamb) and this death brought salvation from slavery.
- So, Jesus’ death is sacrificial (he is our Passover lamb) and it brings us salvation from slavery to Sin, Satan and Death.
The bread reminds us of this. It points back to the Passover deliverance and forward to Jesus’ death on the cross and makes the connection between the two.
Finally, just as they entered into a relationship with God, so we enter into a new covenant relationship with God.
- In the covenant ceremony there was a sacrificial death which brought them into a new relationship with God, through the forgiveness of their sins and their commitment to obey God.
- So, Jesus’ death is sacrificial and it brings us into a new covenant relationship with God in the same way. We are forgiven, as Jesus said, “for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” – Matthew 26:28. And we commit to obey God in baptism, to quote Jesus from Matthew 28:20, “to obey all that I have commanded you.”
The cup reminds us of this. It points back to the covenant ceremony and forward to Jesus’ death on the cross and makes the connection between the two.