At the end of his last meal with his disciples Jesus “took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you’.” (Lk. 22:19-20 NIV)
Today I want to focus of the new covenant, which is brought into being by the blood of Jesus. To understand the significance of the new covenant we need to go back into the Old Testament. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and he placed on the earth all kinds of plants and animals. He was pleased with these and called them good. But he wanted more than this. God desired a creature with whom he could have fellowship. So he made humans in his image, male and female (Gen 1:26-28). Right from the beginning it was God’s intention to have a people who belonged to him and who would love him as he loved them. He blessed the first humans because God desires good for us and wants more than simply existence for his creatures. He wants humans to be creatures who can share in the fellowship he has with his Son in eternity. But it did not take long for the first humans to be unfaithful to God, to disbelieve his word to them and to disobey him. From then on the OT history is one of God working to make a people for himself. This is the purpose or the goal of covenant.
The first mention of covenant is in Genesis 6. Gen 6:5-7 records that God was grieved and in pain because of the violence and evil thoughts of humanity so he decided to send a great flood. However, instead of simply killing everybody, God made a covenant with Noah and saved him by having him build an ark so that Noah and his family would survive the flood (Gen 6:18). God established this covenant so that he would still have humans in his image, in whom he could see his reflection.
The next recorded covenant is with Abraham. God desires more than simply having a world populated by people. He wants those people to be his and to bless them. His intention is to redeem a people for himself. So some time after the flood God made a covenant with Abraham so that he could bless Abraham and through him bless all the nations of the earth (Gen 12:1-3; 15; 17). In other words, God’s covenant with Abraham served as the foundation of a covenant with all the nations of the world so that God might have a people for himself, a people who are his and can love him as he loves them. He desires to bless his own people.
The covenant with Abraham is extended to a covenant with the nation of Israel. He rescued Israel out of Egypt because he remembered his covenant with Abraham and heard their cries for help when they were oppressed there. God made a covenant with them at Mt Sinai (Deut 5:2) and gave them the law. They were intended to be his treasured possession (Exod 19:5). The problem was that Israel did not obey the LORD and they continually broke the covenant and worshipped false gods (e.g. Josh 7:11; Judges 2:20; Jer 22:9). It actually did not take very long after the Exodus before the nation of Israel began to complain about the God who rescued them from Egypt. They whinged and wanted to go back to Egypt. They made a golden calf in order to worship it, even while Moses was on Mt Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. Generally speaking, Israel was unfaithful to the covenant. Yet despite the fact that Israel did not keep the covenant, the LORD God did not ever break the covenant. The Psalmist says, “He remembers his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations” (Psalm 105:8). Daniel prays to the LORD saying, “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments” (Daniel 9:4). So the problem is that although God made a covenant with the people of Israel and kept the covenant himself, Israel broke the covenant. So how can God’s desire for a people of his own come about, when the people simply don’t do what they should do?
The answer is of course that there is a new covenant. The new covenant is different to the old covenant. The new covenant is better because it is transformative. “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:33 ESV). “I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me” (Jer. 32:40 ESV). The promise is that the law will not be something external anymore, but rather written on the heart so that doing what God commands will flow directly out of the inner being. Instead of the people being rebellious and doing whatever they want to, they will fear God and always turn to him. This is the covenant which Jesus spoke about at the last supper.
The question is how can this new covenant come about since humans have pretty much remained the same since the fall? The answer to that question is found in the servant songs of Isaiah.
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it: “I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isa. 42:1-7 ESV)
This is of course a prophecy about the one to come, Jesus Christ. He is the one on whom the Spirit is poured out and he will establish justice on the earth. Verse 6 is very important: “I will give you as a covenant for the people.” The covenant is bound up in Jesus, not just in what he does but in who he is. Jesus is not merely a human being but rather the God-man. We are familiar with the idea that Jesus reveals God to us. Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). What is perhaps less familiar is the idea that Jesus offers up humanity to God. He is the one human being who is utterly obedient to God in every way. He offers to God the perfect human act of an obedient life (Heb 10:5-7) and he does this on our behalf. Therefore as the God-man Jesus stands on both sides of the covenant. He is the God who desires to make a covenant with humanity and he is the one human being who is faithful to the covenant. Jesus Christ is faithful keeper of the covenant on both sides of the covenant. He is God who faithfully keeps his covenant of love with Israel and he is a human who is faithful to the covenant where Israel utterly failed to keep the covenant. In this sense we can say that God has given Jesus as a covenant for the people.
How does it help us that one man was faithful to the covenant when every other human being failed? The answer to that is that Jesus does not come into the world as a private individual to do things on his own behalf alone. He is a public person who does everything on our behalf, on behalf of humanity. God knows that Israel as a nation is unfaithful to him and disobedient to his law. So he sent his Son to be formed in our likeness, to take on our humanity (Phil 2:6-8). In other words, Jesus joined himself to the human race. He does not represent only one human but every human. When Jesus is faithful as a human being to the covenant he does this as representative of all humanity, that is, Jesus is faithful to the covenant for us all. We find confirmation of this in Gal 4:4-5 “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive the full rights as sons.”
What does this have to do with what Jesus said at the last supper? Covenant is always sealed with a sacrifice. The sacrifice of Jesus, however, is not an animal sacrifice but a sacrifice of himself (Heb 7:27). It was necessary that Jesus give himself completely to the Father on the cross since he must be faithful in all things. There is no situation, no matter how difficult in which Jesus does not do the will of God. He demonstrates his complete faithfulness to the covenant by submitting to the Father’s will even unto death. Obedience unto death is the ultimate act of covenant faithfulness. In this he parallels and surpasses the OT saints, such as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who refused to bow down to an idol and were thrown into the fiery furnace (Dan 3). Daniel refused to stop praying when the king decreed that prayer was outlawed and he was thrown into the lions’ den (Dan 6). The difference between Jesus and those OT saints is that they were rescued and he went to his death.
There are blessings for covenant faithfulness and curses for disobedience to the covenant (Deut 28-29). Throughout his whole human life Jesus obeyed the law and was utterly faithful to the covenant. According to Deuteronomy Jesus should be nothing but blessed. But in order for God to establish his new covenant in which sinful, unfaithful humanity is transformed, Jesus, the one who knew no sin, had to become sin (2 Cor 5:21). So Jesus faithfully and obediently went to the cross. There he became a curse for us (Gal 3:13) so that we might receive the blessing of Abraham, that is, the Holy Spirit (Gal 3:14). In his assumption of our humanness Jesus bore all the consequences of our rebellion so that we might be transformed into the people who love God and are faithful to the covenant.
But if Jesus is not blessed because of faithfulness to the covenant then the word of God appears to be void. So he cannot stay dead. He cannot stay in the state of being a curse for us. Therefore, God raised him from the dead. This is his vindication, his justification (1 Tim 3:16). It is the demonstration that all God’s promises are true; he is completely faithful to the covenant. Even when things appear otherwise we can be sure that God’s promises are true. They are all true and now they are all ‘yes’ in Christ (2 Cor 1:20), because Jesus has experienced the utter faithfulness of the Father in being raised from the dead.
This implies several things for us:
First, the shed blood of Jesus means that the covenant remains secure forever. The blood of Jesus secures the new covenant since it is more significant and more powerful than any blood shed before or since (Heb 12:24). There is nothing more to be done to secure the covenant. Since it is secure we are secure in that covenant relationship. When we put our faith in Jesus we are the people of God. He can say of us, “You are my people and I am your God.” Since God does not break the covenant and he has made the new covenant by the blood of his Son, we are secure. The covenant cannot be broken on the human side since Jesus has faithfully kept it for us. Every time we participate in communion we are reminded of the security of the new covenant, that his blood was shed to cleanse us from sin and to make us children of God. His body was broken in order to secure salvation for us. This covenant is unbreakable.
Second, since Jesus has been completely faithful to the covenant as a human being, he gives us who are in union with him the capacity to be similarly faithful to the covenant. Our participation in the communion meal as a celebration of the covenant is about more than simply forgiveness of sin, as wonderful as that is. We celebrate the fact that God has renewed his covenant with humanity through Jesus and made for himself a people who will keep the covenant. We are the people of God and we are able to love and serve him because of what Jesus has done in overcoming sin and transforming humanity. He has given us his indwelling Holy Spirit so that we can live the same kind of obedient life that Jesus did. This is the promise of the new covenant: “And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezek. 11:19 ESV).
Third, we know that we can trust that God will always keep the covenant, since he has demonstrated that he has gone to great lengths to make this covenant with us. His promises have been completely fulfilled for Jesus and they will be completely fulfilled for us who believe in Jesus. So we, too, will be raised from the dead. Then everything will be completely made right. Acts 17:31 tells us, “For God has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all humanity by raising him from the dead.” The promise of judgement is not necessarily scary as such. This is a promise that justice will be done, which is something which should matter to Christians, since so often Christians must suffer in the present and lose property, friends, and lives because of the work of the gospel. All the miseries of the present will be undone, just as the suffering of the cross is now undone for Jesus because of his resurrection.
So when we take communion, we do so knowing that the blood of Jesus is the seal of the covenant of God. We eat his body and drink his blood as a way of proclaiming his death and the covenant he made by shedding it. We proclaim this until he comes and consummates the covenant by raising us from the dead, setting all injustice right, putting a complete end to sin, and finally joining with the church in the great wedding supper of the Lamb. In the mean time we know that the covenant is secure because of Jesus. We cannot undo it. God’s promises are absolutely yes and amen in Christ. We, therefore have nothing to fear.