The Blood of the Covenant
The Blood of the Covenant
by William Klock
In our liturgy of the Lord’s Supper we recall each week Jesus’ words as he shared his last meal with his disciples. “On the night he was betrayed, our Lord took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ Likewise after supper he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them saying, ‘Drink from this, all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”
“This is my body” and “This is my blood of the new covenant.” We’ve heard it a thousand times. What does it mean? Something happens when we come to the Table. The Lord’s Supper does something. But what? And how? Theologians have been arguing over these questions for most of the Church’s history. One of the most famous of those arguments took place between Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. They represented opposing wings of the German Reformation. In 1529 Philip I summoned them to Marburg in the hopes that they would settle their differences. Luther and Zwingli reached agreement on fourteen of fifteen articles of faith, but when it came to the Lord’s Supper they were deadlocked. They both agreed that the bread and wine in the Supper were symbolic, but Luther took that “is” in “this is my body” rather literally. Jesus’ body and blood is present in, with, and under the species of bread and wine. Zwingli held that the thing signified was in heaven and there it stayed. Luther angrily stabbed his finger into his beer and wrote on the table in foam: “Hoc est corpus meum”—“This is my body”—then, in good form, threw a cloth over the words and told Zwingli to pray that God would open his eyes.
Luther’s problem was one that has plagued the Church for over a thousand years. The idea that Jesus’ body could be with, in, and under the elements of bread and wine was something of a toned-down version of the Roman Church’s belief that while the bread and wine retain their natural outward forms, their inner substance is changed—transubstantiated—into the substance of Jesus’ body and blood. But this idea doesn’t come from the Bible. Centuries before, Christians had tried to explain how the Lord’s Supper worked, looking for a way to explain the idea of sacramental union with Jesus, and to do it they latched onto the philosophical language of the Greeks—particularly of Plato and Aristotle. And just like that, the Lord’s Supper was pulled out of its biblical context.
Luther appealed to the Gospel writers. Jesus said, “This is my body”. And so somehow it has to be. But there was another Father of the Reformation there at Marburg, Johannes Oecolampadius. He unfortunately didn’t hold the sway of Luther or Zwingli, but he later wrote of that dispute that Luther, not knowing Aramaic, wasn’t aware that that “is” on which he based his whole argument was never spoken by Jesus. Aramaic doesn’t work that way. That “is” had to be added by Luke and Mark and Paul when they translated Jesus’ words into Greek, because that’s how Greek works—and Latin and German and English. Oecolampadius astutely observed that the meaning of those words was not to be found in their grammar, but in their Old Testament context—in the covenant rituals of Israel.
I say all of this because this morning, as we come to Exodus 24, we’re gong to be hit—smack!—in the face with these Old Testament covenant rituals. Not only that, but we’re going to hear the very words of Moses that Jesus was drawing on when he said of the cup, “This is my blood of the new covenant”. What we read in Exodus here is tied closely to what we do every Sunday as we come to the Lord’s Table and I want you to keep the Lord’s Supper in mind as we read this passage. The Book of the Covenant—the stipulations of the covenant between the Lord and his people—has been given. But it’s not enough to say it. You have to do it, if you will. A covenant isn’t a covenant until both of the parties involved have gone through the covenant-making ritual. That’s what we see here. Again, Exodus 24:
Then [the Lord] said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship from afar. Moses alone shall come near to the Lord, but the others shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him.” (Exodus 24:1-2)
Moses has come down the mountain to address the people and now the Lord summons him back up. This time Aaron’s to come with him, as well as Aaron’s two older sons, and the elders of the people. The purpose is worship. The Lord has spoken and worship is the proper response. But it’s not just worship. They’re not just going up to pray and to sing “A mighty fortress is our God”. The sense of the Hebrew word is that of bowing down as a subject would to a king. Imagine the angels and elders in John’s Revelation, prostrating themselves before the throne of God, casting their crowns at his feet, and singing “Holy, holy, holy”. The Lord—their Creator who is holy, holy, holy whether they sing it or not—has graciously delivered them from slavery, called them to be his people, and is entering into covenant with them. The natural response of human beings in that situation is to bow before him in humble awe and adoration. Not only that, but they’re also being summoned into his presence. This is the same God who will say in Chapter 33, “Man shall not see me and live”. Bowing down before him would have been their most natural response.
The other thing to notice here is the three-tiered nature of their approach. Moses alone is summoned to come near to the Lord. Aaron, his sons, and the elders are to go up to the Lord, but their worship is from afar. They can’t enter fully into his presence. And the people themselves, they’re to remain at the bottom of the mountain. Remember back the Lord’s warning back in Chapter 19: no one was to so much as touch the Lord’s mountain. To do so meant death.
This is setting up for what comes next. Most of the rest of Exodus is about the instructions for and building of the tabernacle and what we’ll see is that the tabernacle is like a portable Mt. Sinai. The people gather at the foot of the mountain—that’s as close as they dare approach the Lord. Aaron, who will be the high priest in due course, and the elders may climb the mountain, but are not permitted fully into the Lord’s presence. Only Moses is permitted to approach the summit. The tabernacle will be structured the same way. The people may enter the outer court, the priests may enter into the holy place where the sacrifices are made, but only the high priest may enter the holy of holies where the Lord is manifestly present in a cloud of glory.
But before they go up the mountain, the covenant has to be ratified. Look at verse 3:
Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. (Exodus 3:4a)
“Words” and “rules” refer respectively to the Decalogue—the Ten Words—and the Book of the Covenant. These are the people’s end of the covenant. Moses has spoken them and the people respond enthusiastically, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” It’s one thing to read about this scene in the text, but imagine the spectacle. This is a people just freed from slavery and miraculously delivered and cared for in the desert. They’d collected the Lord’s miracle bread just that morning. And there he is in the cloud on the top of the mountain. He’s spoken through Moses. He’s declared, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” It had to be an exciting thing to behold and in their excitement the people enthusiastically commit themselves to this covenant with the Lord. And having done that, Moses commits it all to writing. That’s what you did with the terms of a covenant. So that’s the first half: The terms have been given, the people have committed themselves to those terms, and then they’ve been recorded for posterity. The second half of the covenant ritual begins in the second half of verse 4:
He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he 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.” (Exodus 24:4b-8)
The next morning Moses built an altar and erected twelve pillars. The altar represents the Lord. The pillars represent the people, all twelve tribes. We’ve seen this sort of thing before. Pillars were erected as silent witnesses to covenants. Jacob and Laban erected a pillar as a witness to their covenant. The same thing was done at Shechem to witness the covenant between Israel and the Lord. This day the people were excited and enthusiastic about this covenant with the Lord, but emotions are fickle. We all know this and it’s why we can be glad that our salvation is not dependent on how we feel about God or our faith on any given day. Our salvation—just like Israel’s—is founded on the sure and certain promises of God. He made a promise to you in the waters of the baptismal font. And on your worst day, when your faith is weak, when you’ve stumbled into sin, when the Lord seems distant, the reason we can be certain of our standing before him, the reason we can fall on our knees and ask him for forgiveness, the reason we can draw near to him, is because our union with him is not rooted in how we feel or what we do, but in his promise and in the covenant he made with us in our baptism. I picked on Luther earlier, but he was right about most things and one of those things was this. When he doubted, when his faith was weak, when the attacks of the enemy were strong, he would grab his forehead where the priest had poured the water on him and he would remind himself, “You are baptised!” Similarly, for the days in future when Israel’s faith would not be so strong, when her service would not be so enthusiastic, these monuments stood to remind the people of both the Lord’s promises and of the commitment they had made to him in faith. The people could look at those pillars and they would remember the Lord’s covenant with them at Mt. Sinai. And while Moses built the altar and set up the pillars, he sent the strong young men to round up oxen to offer to the Lord.
Two sorts of sacrifices were made. The burnt offerings were just that. The entire animal was burned as an offering to the Lord. Parts of the peace offerings were burned, but the rest was eaten by the worshippers in a banquet that celebrated the covenant with the Lord. The blood of the sacrificed oxen was collected by Moses in basins. This was the usual practise. Blood symbolised life and life belongs to God and to God alone. As part of the sacrifice the blood was poured or splashed onto the altar, the life returned to the Lord. But this one time, Moses splashed only half of it on the Lord’s altar. Then he turned to the people and read to them again the words of the covenant. Again, they responded, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” And then Moses splashed the other half of the blood on the people. It’s not clear whether it was the whole crowd—that would be a lot of blood—or just the seventy elders, or as many seem to think, the twelve pillars which stood to represent the people. Whatever the case, it highlights the Lord bringing the people into his presence. Genesis depicts the Lord creating human beings from the dust. It’s an image of our mortality. In the Lord’s presence we shared in his life and driven out of his presence death became our enemy. Here at Mt. Sinai Israel returns to the life-giving presence of the Lord. Here at Sinai, in the blood splashed on the people in this covenant ritual, we’re given hope. The Lord is setting in motion a plan to destroy death and to bring humanity back into his life-giving presence. And so Moses declares, “Behold the blood of the covenant.”
Blood has been shed to witness the promises of the Lord and his people. It’s not the first time. Going back to Abraham, the sign of the Lord’s covenant was circumcision. The Lord had promised to elderly, childless Abraham that he would make of him a great people who would bless the nations and so the covenantal sign was the letting of blood from the organ associated with reproduction. And when the Lord passed over the houses of his people in Egypt, sparing the lives of the firstborn, it was because of the lamb’s blood on the doorposts, once again marking out the people in covenant with the Lord. Blood is life. It’s shedding covers sin as a reminder that the wages of sin is death. And that covering of blood marks out the people of God.
Look now at verses 9-11:
Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.
The people of Israel feasted to celebrate their covenant with the Lord while Moses and his entourage went up the mountain as the Lord had said. And on the mountain they see God. We get a sense of how big a deal this is in that it scandalised later Jews. The author of Targum Onkelos, when he translated this into Aramaic, changed the wording so that it was the sacrifices that Aaron and the elders saw, not actually the Lord himself. But it’s right here in the text. They saw the Lord. If they hadn’t seen him, it makes no sense that the author makes a point of telling us that the Lord didn’t lay a hand on them. And yet it seems that seeing him was so overwhelming, all they could do was look at the pavement under his feet. Even that was glorious—like looking at heaven. And there in his presence they feasted—they ate and drank to celebrate the covenant that had just been ratified.
Now, we’ll carry on with the rest of the chapter from verse 12:
The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses rose with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. And he said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we return to you. And behold, Aaron and Hur are with you. Whoever has a dispute, let him go to them.”
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
The Lord, for his part of the covenant, inscribes the terms of the covenant on stone tablets. Moses wrote it on parchment or papyrus on behalf of the people, but the Lord carves it forever on stone. It foreshadows how the relationship will go between the Lord and his people. Moses and Joshua leave the elders midway up the mountain and proceed to the summit where they wait for six days in preparation. On the seventh the Lord calls Moses into the cloud where he stays for forty day and nights. The narrator gives us this image from the perspective of the people. They saw the Lord’s presence on the mountain like a devouring fire. They quaked in fear as they saw Moses disappear into it. We’re told nothing of how Moses felt—whether he was apprehensive, scared, joyful—I expect a little of all that. He went in prepared, but the narrator sets things up for Moses’ emergence forty days later. The people assumed he was done for after all that time in the devouring fire, but that’s another sermon.
Now, what does this mean for us? Well, again, consider that this is the scene that Jesus was drawing on, that he was recalling to the minds of his disciples as he handed them the cup of wine in that last supper and said to them, “This is my blood of the new covenant”. In the book he published last Fall on the Lord’s Supper, our brother Matt Colvin, noted that the Jews saw an organic connection in the blood of the covenant, from circumcision, to the blood of the Passover lambs painted on the doorposts, to the blood sprinkled on the altar and the people at Mt. Sinai. The blood of the covenant was what marked out the people of God with his promise, but it was also recalled year after year as the people participated in the Passover down through the generations. A thousand years later, God’s people who had never known Egypt and had never been to Sinai, would participate in those events as they ate the Passover meal with their families, knowing that the blood of the covenant marked them out just as much as it had their ancestors. And in that meal they looked forward to the day when the Lord, in his eternal faithfulness, would fulfil the terms of his covenant. This is why we see the prophets so often looking forward to a great feast in the future, a wedding banquet on the day when the Lord would return to finally set all to rights.
Note how Passover worked. It was a meal. A ritual meal, but a meal nonetheless. The lamb, the bread, the wine were all laden with symbolism, but they were still just lamb and bread and wine. The Passover did its thing through the retelling of the story of the Lord’s deliverance and through the people sharing in, participating in that meal—even the little children, whether they fully understood or not. They participated in the meal the Lord had given them and in that they participated in the events that had made them the Lord’s people.
And in the last supper, as Jesus picked up the bread and as he passed the cup of wine to his friends, he knew they were laden with all of that meaning. The disciples knew it all and they’d just recalled it all for themselves that night. And then Jesus said, “This is my blood of the new covenant”. He was preparing them for his death the next day. Blood would be shed once again and in that blood a new covenant would be ratified. And so Jesus told them to celebrate—to eat—this new ritual meal until his coming again, until the day when he returns to fulfil the covenant and to set all to rights. We eat it until them and each time we recall and participate in the events of his death and resurrection. Each time we are reminded that through our baptism we have been called into covenant with the Lord and that his promises to us—promises of forgiveness and new life—have been ratified by the blood of Jesus, by the sacrifice of the very Son of God. As we recall in the liturgy, he “made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.”
Brothers and Sisters, the point of the Lord’s Supper is not for us to find assurance by looking for Jesus “really present” in the bread and wine in some way defined by Greek philosophy. Nor do we come to find assurance as if the Lord’s Supper were an “edible flashcard” as Matt insightfully describes what it has become in many Protestant circles—where we make our way through a series of introspective intellectual steps as we come to the Table—steps which have ended up excluding the children of the covenant. Brothers and Sisters, we come to the Table and we receive God’s assurance as we participate in the covenant meal Jesus has given us. We come. We eat. We drink. We recall our baptism and the promise the Lord presented to us in the waters: I will be your God and you will be my people. And we participate in the events by which the covenant was ratified by Jesus, his body broken and his blood shed for us. Here he sprinkles us once again with his blood and we leave in assurance—his people, forgiven of sin; his people, plunged into God’s own Spirit; his people, bound together as one; his people, living in a joyful hope of the day when sin and death are vanquished forever. Come to the Table this morning. Remember the promises of God. Know his faithfulness as you participate once again in the death and resurrection of Jesus which made those promises sure and certain, and then sing the words of the Gloria in thankfulness and in faith-fill hope: Glory to God, Glory to God, Glory to God in highest. Amen.
 I’m indebted to Matthew Colvin for pointing this out in his book, The Lost Supper: Revisiting Passover and the Origins of the Eucharist (New York: Fortress, 2019), 29.
 Ibid., 79.