The New Covenant
The New Covenant
St. Luke 22:1-23
In my library I have a whole shelf of books on the Lord’s Supper. Some are very old and some are new. They come from all sorts of different perspectives: Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox. And most of them are focused what happens at the Lord’s Supper with the bread and with the wine and especially how Jesus is present in or with them—or not—and what happens to the people who eat that bread and drink that wine—if anything. The nature of the Lord’s Supper has been a source for disagreement and debate just as much as it’s been a source for unity amongst Christians ever since the days of the Church Fathers. It’s not to say that these aren’t important questions, but what’s striking is that in focusing almost exclusively on the theology of the Lord’s Supper Christians have often missed the real point of it. Too often we’re looking for the right answer to the wrong question. Read the four Gospels and you’ll see that the point they all make isn’t what happens to the bread and wine. No. The truly important thing about the Last Supper that Jesus celebrated with his disciples and about the meal we continue to eat together each Sunday is the story that it tells. Like everything else in the Gospels we need to read the story of Jesus with the story of Israel in the background.
At the beginning of Chapter 22, St. Luke writes that “the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover.” This is why Jesus had travelled to Jerusalem. Every year Jews travelled to Jerusalem to celebrate this meal and it was this Passover meal that told a story—their story.
We read that story in the book of Exodus. Jacob and his sons had gone down to Egypt in the time of Joseph. The Pharaoh of those days had invited them to his land and they lived there in safety as Canaan was ravaged by a seven-year famine. But Exodus begins four hundred years later and as it begins it tells us is that a new Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph. The special relationship between Israel and the Pharaoh of Joseph’s day was gone and the Israelites found themselves enslaved. Out of the misery of their slavery they cried out to the Lord and he heard them. He raised up Moses to deliver them from Egypt. But it wasn’t quite that easy. The Lord met Moses at the burning bush. He sent him to Pharaoh to demand the release of his people, Israel. Ten times Pharaoh refused and ten times the Lord unleashed a plague on the Egyptians. When Pharaoh refused to be swayed by his rivers turning to blood, by hail, by blight, by disease, by pests, or by darkness the Lord sent a final plague. He declared that he would send an angel through the land and that that angel would take the life of all the firstborn sons of Egypt, from Pharaoh to the lowliest slave. And the Lord spoke to Moses. In Exodus 12 we read:
“This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when 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. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 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. (Exodus 12:2-13)
The Lord “passed over” the houses, the families, covered with the blood of the sacrificed Passover lambs. That act was a dramatic demonstration that the Lord is King—even over pagan kings and pagan gods. The next morning, defeated and grieving, Pharaoh told the Israelites to leave. But it wasn’t going to be that easy. Again, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army with its chariots to capture the Israelites and to bring them back. The army caught them with their backs against the Red Sea. The people were afraid, but the Lord performed another miracle and delivered them again. He told Moses to stretch out his hands over the Sea and when he did the waters parted. The Israelites cross to the other side on dry land. When the Egyptians tried to follow, the Lord told Moses to stretch out his hands again. The water rushed back into place, drowning Pharaoh’s army. This was the story of redemption that the Passover told. This was the story that declared Israel’s God to be King. The Lord also said to Moses:
“This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.” (Exodus 12:14)
Within a few hundred years the Israelites had forgotten the Lord’s command to keep the Passover. Needless to say, Israel also stopped living as if her God was King. In 2 Kings we read about King Josiah and his project to restore the temple. In the process the workmen discovered the book of the law. Josiah read there for the first time about the Passover. He called Israel to repentance and for the first time centuries it was celebrated again—just in time for the people to be conquered by the Babylonians and led into exile. And during the exile and the years following, the Passover served not just as a reminder of the Lord’s deliverance of his people from Egypt, but it came to express the hope that Lord would once again hear the cry of his people and deliver them from their enemies. This is what the people travelled to Jerusalem to celebrate every year. In the midst of their trials and tribulation, the Passover reminded the Israelites that no matter how bad things seemed, the Lord was King; he wouldn’t let things go on this way forever. Passover was a feast of remembrance and hope.
For most of the people in Jerusalem that year it was another Passover like every other. They had no idea that the climax of the Passover story and of their Passover hopes was about to happen. As they were going about the usual preparations, Luke tells us two other parties were making their own preparations. First, look at Luke 22:1-6.
Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to put him to death, for they feared the people.
Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them. And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. So he consented and sought an opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of a crowd.
The chief priests and the scribes were at the centre of the Passover every year. It was the priests who sacrificed the lambs for the people. It was the scribes who made sure everyone celebrated the right way. But Jesus has spent the last week condemning them and exposing them. They think they’re at the centre of the kingdom of God, but Jesus has shown that they’re actually at the centre of a movement that has forgotten the ways of God’s kingdom. In fact, they’re at the centre of a movement that actually opposes God. Their temple is going to be judged and destroyed along with everything else associated with their corruption and compromise.
They’ve heard Jesus condemnation of them and they’re angry. They’ve been trying all week to find some way to take him down or some justification to hand him over to the Romans for punishment, but they haven’t been successful. But now Luke tells us, the Satan—the Accuser—comes to their aid. They’re coming up short, but the Satan now somehow gets hold of Judas, who, in his greed, betrays Jesus and collaborates with the chief priests. The devil had confronted Jesus in the wilderness at the very beginning of his ministry, but Jesus sent him packing. Now he’s back and it’s here we that Luke reminds us again that he’s the real enemy. The Jews were convinced that when the Messiah came the final showdown would between him and the Romans, but here we’re reminded again that the Romans aren’t the enemy of God’s people. The devil is the enemy. It’s not Rome’s fault that Israel is living in exile. It’s not Rome’s fault that the Lord’s presence is no longer in the temple. Israel has been deceived by the Satan and she long ago threw in her lot with him. Just as he duped Adam into sin, so he has duped Israel into sin. Just as he had lied to Adam about the way to wisdom, so he had lied to Israel about the way to peace. He’s convinced Israel that the nations whom she was supposed to bless—the nations she was supposed to introduce to the Lord—he’s convinced her that those nations are her enemies and he’s convinced her to despise and to hate them and left her thinking that the only way deliverance can come is through violence and war.
This is why Jesus wept over the city. Israel had been duped. She no longer knew the way that makes for peace. But as the Satan makes his preparations to bring Jesus down, Jesus is making his own preparations:
Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.” They said to him, “Where will you have us prepare it?” He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him into the house that he enters and tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished; prepare it there.” And they went and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover. (Luke 22:7-13)
This is the setup for the final battle. The Satan manipulates the chief priests and one of Jesus own disciples to destroy him—and as we’ll see, Jesus understands the prophecies and maybe he’s guessed something from Judas’ behaviour—but instead of running away to a safe place, instead of stopping Judas, he makes his own preparations, sending his disciples to make ready this room for a Passover meal.
When we compare all four Gospels one thing that poses a problem for us is the day these events too place. Did Jesus and his disciples celebrate this Passover meal on Passover or was it the day before? Or maybe even the day before the day before? Whatever the case, and we don’t have time to settle it this morning, what we do know is that Jesus didn’t actually celebrate this Passover on the Passover—it was at least a day early. It was on the day of the Passover itself—on Friday—that he was crucified. And that hints at why Jesus would have done this. He disrupted the temple when he first got to Jerusalem and over the rest of the week, the main focus of his teaching has been on the coming destruction of the temple. The kingdom is coming and the temple is going to be replaced by something better. And so it makes sense that Jesus would celebrate this Passover meal a day early. It sent a powerful message to his disciples. On Thursday there were no lambs available. That means he and his disciples celebrated without one. That might seem odd since the lamb was the centre of the Passover. It was the blood of the lamb that saved the firstborn sons back in Egypt, after all. But there was precedent. When the Jews were in exile and when they had no temple, they celebrated Passover without lambs. And Jesus chooses deliberately to do this—to celebrate Passover without a lamb. He’s sending the message again that the temple and its priests and its sacrifices are about to become obsolete. How? He gets at this in what he says as he celebrates the meal.
Part of the Passover meal involved the host retelling the events of the God’s deliverance in the exodus as the various elements were eaten. Again, Passover told a story. The disciples had celebrated Passover meals like this their whole lives. They knew what it all meant and that makes what Jesus says and does all the more powerful, because he draws on the exodus imagery and history, but as he does so he redraws all of it around himself. Look at verses 14-20:
And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat ituntil it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
When the Passover was celebrated for the first time the night before the Israelites left Egypt, it was celebrated with urgency. The unleavened bread they were commanded to eat was a symbol of that urgency—no time for yeast or for rising—the Lord was going to act and he was going to act soon. He had heard the cries of his people and he would deliver them. The same kind of urgency comes through here too. Jesus knows that his time of suffering has come. He’s spent three years calling people to repent because the kingdom is at hand. Now it’s finally here. The words are a little different in each of the Gospels, but Jesus makes the point that this is his last meal he will eat before the kingdom comes. The final showdown is now, the curtain is about to rise on the final act of Israel’s history. And Jesus tells his disciples, it won’t look anything like what the people expected.
Jesus takes the Passover bread, he breaks it, and he passes it around to his disciples, just as it would have been done at every other Passover meal. The famous rabbi Gamaliel, who lived at the same time as Jesus, said that the bread of the Passover was a symbol of redemption. And now Jesus takes that bread and puts a new twist on it. It’s still about redemption, but now it represents his body, which will be broken in a new act of redemption. He then took the cup of wine and he gives new meaning to it, too. His body will be broken like the bread and his blood will be poured out like the wine. The key phrase here is that he describes his blood being poured out for them to form a new covenant. To understand this we need to go back to the story of the first exodus again.
From their miraculous deliverance at the Red Sea, the Lord led the people into the wilderness and met them at Mount Sinai. Moses went up onto the mountain and there the Lord gave him the law, written on stone tablets. The Lord had rescued the people and now he wanted to enter into a covenant with them, but before that could happen they had to accept the terms of the covenant—they had to agree to live according to his law. Moses told the people everything the Lord has spoken and in response they declared, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And so in Exodus 24 we read:
Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. 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.”
Again, Moses threw the blood of the sacrificial oxen on the people and declared, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you.” And now Jesus offers the Passover wine to his disciples and tells them that it represents his blood poured out for a new covenant with the Lord. What happened to the old covenant? Sin happened. Israel pledged: “All this we will do.” But she didn’t do it. She was duped by the Satan just as Adam was. And so now Jesus gives his blood. He offers himself as a pure, spotless, once-and-for-all Passover lamb for the sins of his people, that they might finally be reconciled to the Lord once and for all.
In the Last Supper Jesus announces a new exodus. This is what Israel wanted: another exodus from her exile. But it’s not going to happen the way she expected. Instead of the Messiah raising a violent revolt, he will give himself over to the enemy. He will give his own life as a sacrifice for Israel’s sins. And through that sacrifice he will lead the remnant of faithful true Israel into a once and for all exodus from her enemies. And, again, Jesus highlights the urgency of all this. As they share the cup he says:
But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” And they began to question one another, which of them it could be who was going to do this. (Luke 22:21-23)
Everything has been set in motion. This is going to happen. Jesus’ mission is about to be fulfilled by submitting to the judgement, the punishment that others deserved. Just as Pharaoh so long ago had done his worst to oppose the Lord, the Lord—the true King—had used Pharaoh’s sin and hate and rebellion to bring about his own plan of redemption, now again the Satan is about to do his worst, but again the Lord will reveal his sovereignty. The Satan thinks he can finally defeat the Lord by crucifying his Messiah, but in doing so the Sovereign Lord will bring about the Satan’s own defeat. Jesus dies, but he dies as the Lamb of God and in doing so he conquers sin and death, he frees all who take hold of him in faith from their bondage to sin, and he leads them in a new exodus into a new kind of life.
Brothers and Sisters, we come to the Lord’s Tablet his morning. As he commanded the Israelites to observe the Passover every year as a reminder of his deliverance of them from the bondage Egypt, so Jesus commanded his people to continue to observe his Supper as a reminder of his deliverance of us from the bondage of the Satan, from the bondage of sin and death. Like Israel, it’s easy for us to forget what the Lord has done for us. The kingdom has come, but it hasn’t been fully consummated. It’s “already, but not yet”. We’re still surrounded by a hostile word, just as Israel was. But that’s the point. God called Abraham and his children to be a light and a blessing to the nations so that that hostile and sinful world might know him. Israel failed. And yet Jesus came into the world not to condemn, but to redeem. God wants the world to know him. And so Jesus gathered a faithful remnant from Israel, he freed them from the bondage of sin, just as the Lord had once freed Israel from the bondage of Egypt. And now he calls this new Israel—his Church—to be a light and a blessing to the world. He calls us, Brothers and Sisters, to live the same sacrificial life that Jesus lived—loving our enemies, doing good to our persecutors, giving our very selves for the sake of the people around us, walking the way of the Cross—as we follow him and only him in faith. It’s not easy. Just as old Israel so often grumbled against God in the wilderness, just as she longed for the fleshpots of Egypt, just as she refused to go forward in faith into Canaan because she was afraid of giants, so we, the new Israel, can so easily find ourselves longing for the old sins from which we’ve been freed, grumbling about our lot in life, hating our persecutors and wishing them judgement and harm, and so often afraid to go forward in life and mission because we see “giants” ahead, because we’re afraid to make the sacrifices that Jesus calls us to make. Friends, when you’re afraid, when you’re dissatisfied, when you lack faith to live for others, think on the Cross. Think on the love that Jesus poured out there for us—for men and women who were not his friends, but his enemies. Remember that while Israel struggled to follow a law written on stone tablets, Jesus has written his law of love on our hearts by his own Spirit. Brothers and sisters, remember that rather than condemning us, Jesus has redeemed us with his own blood that we might, with the same kind of love, make his redemption known to the rest of the world.
Let us pray: Father, as we come to your Table remind us of the story. Remind us that we are your new Israel, redeemed in love by his body broken and his blood shed at the Cross. Remind us to think on, to meditate on this love you have shown us—that for your rebellious enemies you spared not your own Son. And, Father, as we think on your love for us, fill us with your grace and strengthen our faith that we might follow where Jesus leads, ready to give our lives and our very selves for the sake of making your love known to the world around us. We ask this through Jesus, our Saviour and our Lord. Amen.