READ : Mark 14:22-24
And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”
Mark 14:22-24 rsv
Do you know what a covenant is? That’s not a word we use every day, is it? A covenant is a kind of agreement, but not just any kind. It’s a formal, solemn, official sort of bond, intended to be binding always.
Both parties to a covenant commit themselves. They bind themselves with promises. They pledge that they will be faithful to the terms of the agreement. Sometimes they exchange gifts as signs of the covenant between them.
COVENANTS WE MAKE
The covenant we are probably most familiar with in everyday life is marriage. In marriage a man and a woman commit themselves to each other. “I, John, take you, Mary, to be my wedded wife. I, Mary, take you, John, to be my wedded husband.”
Then follow the vows. “And I do promise and covenant before God and these witnesses to be your loving and faithful husband . . . your loving and faithful wife.” Sometimes the partners spell out the obligations they are assuming: to love, to cherish, to honor, to keep. And in token and pledge of that covenant they often exchange rings. That seals the agreement. They sometimes even say, “till death us do part.” A marriage is both a happy occasion and a solemn covenant.
Friends sometimes covenant together also, as young David did with his Israelite friend Jonathan. Nations make solemn agreements to respect one another’s borders or defend mutual interests. All kinds of official transactions involve commitments, promises and pledges. Much of the fabric of human society depends upon people making and keeping such covenants.
GOD’S COVENANT WITH ISRAEL
In the Bible, covenant is one of the central themes: God making agreements with His people. One of these was formed at Mt. Sinai after God had delivered Israel from their bondage in Egypt. Through Moses, He gave them His Law on tablets of stone – what we call the Ten Commandments. He pledged Himself to be their God, their Guide, their Keeper, their Portion. He would be with them always as their loving, faithful Savior.
Their part was to recognize and honor Him as their God, to love Him and keep His commands. This they pledged themselves at Sinai to do. We read about this in the book of Exodus, chapter 24. “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do,” they promised (v. 3). They offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to God. When Moses read to them from the book of the covenant, from God’s revealed Law, they said again, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.”
Then, to seal the covenant, Moses took part of the blood of the offerings and sprinkled it on the altar of worship. The rest He sprinkled on the people. This was a covenant by animal sacrifices, a solemn agreement ratified by blood. God the Redeemer and His redeemed people had pledged themselves to each other. He had shown His love for them in choosing, calling, delivering Israel, in making Himself known to them. They had responded to that love in grateful trust and obedience. God and His people were henceforth covenant partners.
The Old Testament is the record of how God kept faith with them and how they, on their part, proved unfaithful to Him. They went aside to other gods. They broke His commandments, forgot His mercies, and turned their backs on Him. When He called them to repent and return, they would not listen. Strangely, tragically, they hardened their hearts against His love. Finally, God let them eat the fruit of their own way. Forsaking His protection, they were overwhelmed by their enemies. They suffered terribly, were taken captive and languished in bitter exile. They had broken covenant with their God. What was left for them then?
THE NEW COVENANT IN CHRIST
One of God’s faithful prophets during the exile, Jeremiah, sounded in the midst of the darkness a note of hope. Listen to his words. This is from Jeremiah 31:31 (rsv):
“Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, `Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Think of that! God will make a new covenant with His people. He will renew the old one which they have broken so dismally. This new covenant will be based on free forgiveness for those who have sinned. It will involve also an inner transformation of the people. God’s law will no longer be for them an external code written on tables of stone. It will be now an inward disposition. God will inscribe it, as it were, on their hearts. They will have a new willingness to walk in His ways. Best of all, in the new covenant, God will reveal Himself to His people more fully than ever before. From the least of them to the greatest, they will all know Him in a richly personal way.
Now all of that is in the background when the Lord Jesus has the Last Supper with His disciples and when He talks about covenant. Listen to these words from Mark, chapter 14, beginning at verse 22: “And as they were eating, he [Jesus] took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”
We need to understand this in the setting of a passover meal. Jesus is presiding over the feast as a father would with the members of his family. Step by step He interprets the elements of the meal. The food has already been served but not yet eaten. As Jesus lifts the platter of unleavened bread, He probably recites the Aramaic formula prescribed in the liturgy, “This is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Let everyone who hungers come and eat. Let everyone who is needy, come and eat the passover meal.”
Then each of the other elements was also explained in the light of Israel’s experience in bondage. The bitter herbs reminded them of their galling slavery. The stewed fruit, which had the consistency and color of clay, recalled their making bricks as slaves. The pascal lamb provided a reminder of God’s gracious passing over of Israel when the plague of death came to Egypt.
Just before the meal came the blessing of God for the gift of bread. The head of the family would sit up from his reclining position, take a cake of the bread and recite a blessing over it in the name of all. Those around the table would identify themselves with the blessing by saying their Amen. The family head broke a piece for each person present, the bread passing from hand to hand until it reached all the guests.
Then Jesus parted with tradition. While the bread was being distributed, He said, “Take, this is my body.” They knew that He was soon to go away. The gift of the bread was a pledge of His continuing presence with them all the days. Even as Jesus prepared for death, this word anticipated His resurrection and His real presence with His followers later at the Lord’s Supper.
After the meal, He took the cup and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them and they all drank. And He said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”
Do you see how the new covenant became reality? It was to be based, as we saw, on God’s free forgiveness. The old covenant had also been an agreement by sacrifice. But that involved the blood of animals, which only hinted at God’s purpose to deal with sin. The cup at the Last Supper pointed to the outpoured life of Jesus Himself. He would suffer for the sins of His people. He would stand in their place, bear their sins, give His life so that they could be forgiven.
Then He would rise from the dead, triumphant over the grave. He would appear to His followers and be received up into heaven. There as the reigning Lord, He would send forth His Spirit to His people. The Holy Spirit would enter the hearts of all who believe in Jesus, bringing to them His risen presence. Christ by the Holy Spirit would transform them within, putting His law into their minds, writing it upon their hearts, creating in them a new power to obey and love.
And so the heart of the promise would be fulfilled: from the least of them to the greatest, God’s people would know Him. They would see Him more clearly than ever before as revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. They would enjoy the miracle of communion with Him. They would experience His presence with them all the days. They would celebrate the crowning miracle of the new covenant.
We live in a world where covenants are often broken. That’s one of the saddest realities in our human experience. Nations break their solemn treaties with one another, going to war on a pretext. Business partners renege on their promises, all to pursue selfish advantage. And yes, husbands and wives break their promises to each other, leaving behind them a trail of broken hearts and scarred lives. What could be sadder than that? There’s something in all of us of the covenant-breaker.
And in so doing we break covenant with God also, don’t we? It was before Him that we promised that spouse of ours to be faithful unto death. We swore before God to tell the truth when we gave testimony in court or signed an official agreement. Maybe there was a time when we made confession of our faith in Christ and promised to be His faithful disciples throughout our lives, but now we have drifted away and forgotten those vows of ours. We pledged ourselves to bring up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, remember that? But we haven’t given much attention to their spiritual welfare perhaps, haven’t taught them the Word of God, haven’t prayed for their hearts to be open to the Lord, haven’t sought to live before them a godly example. We’ve been unfaithful to God, all of us, in so many ways.
Isn’t it great to know that there is a new covenant, that into this world of infidelity and broken promises has come a faithful Savior? We sing about that in the first question of a great catechism, “My only comfort in life and death is that I belong, body and soul, not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” He is the covenant-keeper who stood in our place and fulfilled all righteousness on our behalf. He drank to its bitter dregs the cup of judgment we had deserved. Now He’s alive, loving us still, mighty to save.
He’s saying to you today that there is a new beginning for your life in spite of all your sins, all your broken promises, all your wanderings from God. Because Jesus died and rose again, there is forgiveness for you and for me. Because He’s alive and sending forth His Holy Spirit, you can be transformed on the inside. God can write His law on your heart. You can know Him as one of His redeemed children. You can begin to do His will from the heart. Because of the doing and dying, the rising and reigning of Jesus Christ, you can be a partner with God in the new covenant. You can find in Him the power to be faithful unto death. Oh, may it be so, as today you put your whole trust in Jesus Christ!
Prayer: Father, we confess that we have all shown ourselves somewhere along the way in life to be covenant-breakers. Forgive, we pray, our sins and grant us through Jesus Christ to know cleansing and a new heart, and to be living partners with You in this wonderful new covenant, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.