February 13 is Ash Wednesday, which begins the liturgical season of Lent, traditionally a time when we Christians, in preparation for the celebration of Easter, examine our hearts and reflect on Jesus’ suffering in our behalf. One of our most cherished ways of calling to mind Jesus’ work on the cross is the sacrament of Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper. It seems fitting here, then, to consider a few Scripture passages that relate to the Lord’s Supper and ask what they teach us about the meaning of Jesus’ death and the meaning of the sacrament itself.
In Mark 14:24, as Jesus and his disciples eat the Passover meal, Jesus says, “This is my blood of the covenant, poured out for many.”1 The phrase “blood of the covenant” calls to mind the establishment of the covenant between the LORD and the people of Israel on Mount Sinai in Exodus 24:4-8. In that passage, Moses wets the people with the blood of oxen that have been offered to the LORD and says, “See the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you . . . ” (v. 8).The idea of establishing a covenant takes us back to a time even earlier in the history of the people of Israel, the time of Abraham. In Genesis 15, Abraham, at the LORD’s command, brings to the LORD a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon. He cuts the heifer, the goat, and the ram in half, lays the halves opposite each other, and waits. Around sunset, Abraham falls into a deep sleep, and a “deep and terrifying darkness” (v. 12) comes over him. As Abraham sleeps, “a smoking firepot and a flaming torch” (v. 17), symbolizing the presence of the LORD, pass between the halves of the animals.” The LORD says to Abraham, “To your descendants I give this land . . . ” (v. 18). In Abraham’s world, the Ancient Near East, the parties to a covenant typically passed between the pieces of slaughtered animals and said something like, “May the gods do to me what has been done to these animals if I ever violate this covenant.” By passing between the pieces of the animals, the LORD Himself takes this oath of self-curse, pledging to remain faithful to Abraham and his descendants. To say that the blood of Jesus is the blood of the covenant, then, is to say that his death establishes a covenant relationship between God and human beings. The Lord’s Supper calls us to remember both our status as God’s covenant people and the great price at which that status was bought for us.