This past Sunday my church celebrated communion. Once again, I heard the familiar words about the bread and the cup: “’This is My body, which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me’…In the same way, after supper had ended, He took a cup of wine, gave thanks for it, passed it around to them and said ‘This is My blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’”
These familiar words may just be too familiar, masking their significance, their impact. In these words we may get some insight on how Jesus viewed his own death.
John Stott* is fascinated by why Jesus chose to go to His death. He wonders when Jesus went to His mountain-top transfiguration, why did He come back into this world? Peter, James, and John went to the mountain where they saw Jesus transfigured into a radiant, glorious figure. Moses was by His side as well as Elijah. Many think this was a foreshadowing of the risen Christ but maybe Jesus could have chosen to go to His Father right then. He could have bypassed the cross. He didn’t; He came down from the mountaintop and faced the human experience of death.
Most Christians are satisfied with four precepts that characterize what Jesus did: He died for us, He died for us that He might bring us to God, He died for our sins that we could receive God’s gifts, and He died for our death (our sin should have equaled our death).
John Stott is not “most Christians.” He wants a better rationale for Jesus’ behavior. “Something deeper was happening than mere words and deeds, something below the surface.” Jesus knew He was going to die: “On Maundy Thursday Jesus had already seen the sun set for the last time. Within about fifteen hours His limbs would be stretched out on the cross. Within twenty-four hours He would be both dead and buried. And He knew it” [Stott, 69]. Stott feels the extraordinary thing about all this is that at the height of His powers, Jesus was looking at death as the completion of His purpose here on earth.
When Jesus was in the Upper Room, He uttered the words in the first paragraph of this post. The words about His body and His blood [the bread and the wine] added drama and significance to the meal, but what did the words really mean?
Stott writes that there were three lessons that Jesus was trying to teach.
First of all, He was trying to point out that His death was to be celebrated in a memorial service that would occur over and over again. “Do this is remembrance of Me” and “whenever you drink it” are phrases that point to the idea that the Last Supper will be performed again. The “bread” did not stand for His living body which was before them in the upper room; the bread stood for His body which would be given for them in death. The wine did not stand for the literal blood in His veins; it stood for the blood which was to be poured out for them in His death. Jesus wanted all of His followers to remember His death. Stott goes so far as to say, “There is then, it is safe to say, no Christianity without the cross.”
Secondly, by His behavior in the Upper Room, Jesus was teaching about the purpose of His death. Jesus did not just refer to the wine as blood, He referred to the wine as a symbol of the “new covenant” associated with His blood. Matthew writes that Jesus’ blood was shed “for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus knew He was instituting a new “pact” with His people, a pact that promises the forgiveness of our sins. The “Old Covenant” was established with Abraham, which promised to bless him with good land, abundant prosperity and multitudes of descendants. This covenant was ratified through the blood of sacrifice, but as the years passed, the Israelites continually broke the covenant and provoked God’s judgement. The Prophet Jeremiah knew that the New Covenant was coming, not commandments written on stone but law in the minds and hearts of the people, law that will forgive their sins and remember them no more [Jeremiah 31: 31-34].
Six centuries passed, years of waiting for a Galilean peasant, carpenter and itinerant rabbi to seal the “New Covenant.” Jesus knew He was The Messiah, dying to bring His people into a new relationship with God.
Thirdly, through His death, Jesus taught that believers should participate in their faith personally. How can we do that? When we take communion, we are taking blessed bread and blessed wine. We are not spectators at that point; we become participants. Stott calls the act of communion a “vivid acted parable of receiving Christ as our crucified Savior and of feeding on Him in our hearts by faith” . Jesus had already taught about the “living bread” when He fed the five thousand; note these words from John 6, 53-55: “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is real food and My blood is real drink.” Participation in the Lord’s Supper is not intended to be an option for the believer; we are expected to partake of Christ’s body and His blood.
Keep in mind that all of these teachings in the Upper Room occurred in a context. That context was the Passover. Jesus knew that His death was going to coincide with the annual commemoration of God’s liberation of Israel from the Egyptians. Jesus referred to the Last Supper as the Passover meal but Jesus was taking liberty with the celebration. Passover was supposed to be eaten on Friday evening when Jesus was on the cross. The real symbolic significance of this “rearrangement” is that when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed, Jesus was dying on the cross. Truly the Lamb of God was being sacrificed, and the event was right on God’s schedule, not mans. Stott surmises that Jesus may have been giving instructions to His believers that the annual celebration of Passover should be replaced by His Last Supper.
Jesus understood the purpose of His death and when one looks “below the surface,” the meaning of His death becomes even more important. What I did on Sunday takes on a more important meaning. Communion points to the centrality of Jesus’ death in our faith. Communion was Jesus teaching about the purpose of His death. Communion becomes our participation in the death of Jesus, a very personal participation.
“This is My body, which is given for you.”
“This is My blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins.”
Whenever you do this, remember Him…
*in his book The Cross of Christ