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.
Covenants are powerful things. They are binding relationships between two parties, consisting of promises and expected responses and usually accompanied by a sign to serve as a reminder. I am in a covenant relationship with my wife, indicated by the ring round one of my fingers – the one I use as I write this, somewhat strangely since I type with only two fingers, to hit the ‘Shift’ key. I am bound to Gar-Ling for life, to be faithful to her and to help her to be the person God wants her to be. She made similar promises to me too. That kind of covenant I can understand and I’m incredibly thankful for it, but when I begin to translate that experience into the nature of God’s relationship with His people my mind begins to boggle. How can the eternal God, creator of all things, sovereign and all-powerful, bind Himself to sinful people? It is a truly remarkable truth that is worth taking a moment to pause your reading and meditate upon.
The idea of covenant holds the Old Testament together like a backbone. God makes a covenant after the flood with all created species, including humankind, promising never to destroy the earth again in a flood. The covenant with Noah is foundational to our existence in this world – the basis on which we roll out of bed in the morning expecting to roll back in at the end of the day, having enjoyed the light of the sun in the middle (unless it’s a particularly dull day like the ones we have too often in my native Northern Ireland). The real action begins, however, with Abraham, to whom God made three amazing promises, one of which was that all nations on earth would be blessed through his descendant. To this covenant God added, in the time of Moses, His instruction for faithful worship and life together as His nation and, in the time of David, the promise that a king from David’s family would rule His people forever.
In response to God’s covenant, Israel was supposed to be obedient to God’s laws. In doing so, this nation, marked by the sign of circumcision, would demonstrate God’s glory and make Him known to the other peoples of the earth. Sadly, Israel failed to be faithful, leading eventually to exile under foreign powers and the apparent end of the Davidic dynasty. As that judgement loomed on the horizon, God sent prophets to warn His people and to comfort them that one day a new king in David’s line would come to restore the glory of God in Israel. The prophets also spoke of a Suffering Servant who would be faithful to God and would die for the sins of the nation. They told of a glorious future when the curse of sin would be undone and peace would pervade everything. They also spoke of a new covenant to come, a new way of relating to God (the term is used only in Jeremiah 31, but the same concept is found in other prophetic passages).
The new covenant had three promises, which set it apart from the old (see Hebrews 8 or Jeremiah 31). First, God would write His laws on longer on tablets of stone but on the hearts and minds of His people. 2 Corinthians 3:6 makes clear that this is the work of the Holy Spirit, who transforms us into the likeness of Christ, changing us into people who think and feel in line with the heart and mind of God. It’s not that God’s standard of right and wrong, revealed in the Old Testament Law, doesn’t matter anymore, but that we have a new power to enable us to know and obey it. Second, sins would not be remembered any more. Hebrews explains that this promise is fulfilled because Jesus died as the final sacrifice, paying the price for our sins once for all. We don’t need any more sacrifices. Thirdly, all of God’s people will know Him personally. There is no longer a need for a special class of priests to mediate between God and us. These are radical changes that mark the Church and distinguish it from Old Testament Israel. We know God as Father, we can approach Him through the sacrifice of our High priest, Jesus, and we live in the power and under the guidance of the Spirit.
The new covenant is the basis of our relationship to God. It is superior to the Old because Jesus, the mediator of the new, is greater than Moses, through whom God revealed the Old. Wonderfully, it doesn’t depend on our ability to keep God’s standard, but the fact that Jesus already did. It is a covenant Jesus made with us through His blood. That is something worth celebrating and God gave us a way to celebrate it, by re-enacting the meal Jesus had with His disciples when He spoke those words in Luke 22. We call that re-enactment by different names – the Lord’s Supper, reminding us that Jesus instituted it; the breaking of bread, describing simply what it entails; communion, emphasising our oneness expressed in the act; Eucharist, a word meaning that it is God’s gracious gift to us. That practice is at the centre of our lives together as God’s people and when we do it we remember that everything we are and have is thanks to Jesus. We proclaim His death and we look forward to His return, when we will see Him face to face rather than in a fragment of a loaf and a sip of wine. We remember the gospel, which gives shape to the Church and is our unifying hope. We remember too who we are in Christ and what it is that He has saved us for – to continue His mission of sharing God’s love and truth with people who do not know Him.
Every time we take the bread and the cup we should think of the promises of the new covenant. We should thank God for our access to Him, our loving and faithful Father. We should remember Jesus, whose sacrifice has removed our sins once and for all. We should ask God by His Spirit to continue His work of transforming us into the likeness of Christ and empowering us to live for Him. We are God’s new covenant people!