The Newest Covenant
Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying,
"Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant,
which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins
(Matthew 26:27-28 NIV)
Years ago, when personal computers first became available, all you had to work with was a black screen and green letters. Everything a person could do was limited to what could be done with a standard keyboard that had a few extra symbols and some function keys. That was it. If you were a person who liked games, that posed problems—what kind of games can you play with nothing but a keyboard, a black screen, and green text?
Some ingenious fellows created text games. In these, the computer describes a scene, say a room with various objects in it. You then have to type in what you want to do, but what you could do was limited. You could look right, look left, move left or right, and perhaps pick up or drop objects. Then, you could move through this puzzle, picking up bits of information, objects that could be used later, and creating in your mind a mental image of this labyrinth, this maze, and achieve some objective.
I played one of these games once, and learned an important lesson. I had solved the maze. I had been in every room, seen all the information that was there and there was no way out. So I did something different. I looked up. Sure enough, in one of the rooms, there was a hole in the ceiling and I could go up. Problem was, when I went up I entered yet another maze.
I think I must have died in that maze, but I did learn something: Two dimensional thinking is not good enough in a three dimensional world. And it occurs to me that three dimensional thinking may not be good enough to grasp all that is real.
I often encounter this same problem when studying the Bible. I go into a scene, I look around, and I think I have seen everything there, but I haven’t. And just like a text game, it has been necessary to go back over it, room by room, verse by verse, and to ask myself, “What is here that, for one reason or another, I have not seen?”
All too often, our presuppositions, our preferences, influence what we see and what we don’t see when we look at a passage of Scripture. For the most part, we see what we expect to see, and our expectations are all different and they are shaped by many influences. You can play a scene in front of a handful of people and you’ll find almost as many different descriptions of that scene as there are people who watched it. Each observer brings himself to the scene, along with all of his experiences and prejudices.
Thus, it can be useful to go back and approach a subject with fresh eyes, to ask “What have I missed? What is here that I have not seen? What is here that I laid aside because it didn’t fit with my worldview?” It may even be useful to ask, “What is not here that ought to be if my worldview is right?” because the “ought to” may arise from your preconceptions. You have seen what you expected to see.
I said all that to suggest that we take yet another look at the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples. It is the first appearance in the New Testament of the word, “covenant.” If you are reading the King James Version, as fewer and fewer people seem to be, you may miss it altogether. Here’s the way it reads in the New International Version:
Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27-28 NIV).
At this moment, Jesus offered his disciples a new covenant with him. And it was not merely offered to those present. It was for many. To enter that covenant, you must drink. You may not demur, because in drinking the wine, you are literally entering a blood covenant with Jesus Christ. We noted previously that, among the Hebrews, the drinking of blood was prohibited, so the practice shifted to eating a sacrificial meal. An example is the original Passover where the blood was not drunk, but was placed on the door post and lentel, and the lamb was eaten. In the New Testament Passover, the symbolic blood and body of Jesus is seen in the wine and the bread. Matthew describes what happened first: “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26).
For some reason, the idea of the body of Christ has not had the emphasis that is placed on the blood. The importance of this is discussed elsewhere, but when we recall that, in ancient times, the entry into covenant took place in connection with a feast that featured the body of a sacrificial animal, we can begin to understand how Jesus’ blood and flesh was a part of this covenant.
When we come to Luke’s account of the Last Supper, we find a little more detail. For a long time this event has been at the center of what is called the “synoptic problem.” There have been discussions about whether this was a pre-Passover meal, whether Jesus was using a different calendar from the Jews, and even whether the Jews had gotten the timing all wrong. Whatever the case, Luke is clear about one thing; the Last Supper was a Passover:
And He sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.” And they said to Him, “Where do You want us to prepare it? . . . “And they departed and found everything just as He had told them; and they prepared the Passover. And when the hour had come He reclined at the table, and the apostles with Him. And He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:8-16 NASB).
The expression, “earnestly desired,” is very strong. The added, “before I suffer” speaks to the fact that this was an exceptional Passover. The phrase suggests that this Passover was eaten early, because Jesus would die the following day.
On every occasion where this supper is described, it is said that “this is the covenant in my blood,” and the disciples took it and drank it. To any Hebrew this would have been seen as the moment when a covenant is formalized. So Jesus’ disciples, then and now, are in a New Covenant with Jesus Christ. We are, in a very real sense, his blood brothers.
This is markedly different from the conventional view of the “New Covenant.” On the one side, we seem to think in terms of Jesus' blood being shed for the remission of our sins and we passively receive the remission of our sins. In other words, he died, he shed his blood, our sins are remitted and we are the recipients of a free gift from God, all of which is true. There's only one problem and that's the word “covenant.” When people start talking about being “under the New Covenant” they start going astray. Christians are supposed to be in the New Covenant, but the new covenant is a contract and it has obligations that go along with the receiving of the gifts that come our way.
There is another account of this outside of the Gospels. Because the Corinthian church had abused the Passover, Paul felt it necessary to set them straight:
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:23-26 NIV).
Paul went on to caution his readers: “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup” (v. 28). Why this self examination? The answer is because a covenant must be freely and voluntarily entered into. This is not something that you may take lightly; it's not something that is merely handed to you off the shelf. You are entering into a relationship and self examination becomes very important. Why? Because a covenant is not so much about gifts or authority; it's about relationships and obligations.
What obligations? Well, obligations of leadership, obligations of service, obligations of submission. These are all parts of the relationship. The marriage covenant was all about promises made by the groom to the bride and the bride's father. Written promises. Signed, ratified as a contract. It was about obligations he was undertaking on her behalf. And she also had obligations—obligations to be faithful. It was a contract freely entered, but you had to consider the obligations of the contract going in.
Too many people approach the Christian faith not as members of a covenant, but as consumers or receivers of gifts. I think that's a fair statement about the way many Christian people look at their faith. They consider themselves the recipients of gifts and promises. They do not think of themselves as partners in covenant. It is only when we understand this that Jesus’ caution to his disciples that they must count the cost becomes clear.
But why is it important to underline the fact that this was a “New Covenant” being entered into on that last Passover? Well, we learn from Luke that there was a bloc of men in the fledgling church who were still insisting on the Israelite Covenant, even for Gentiles. Luke calls them “certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed” (Acts 15:5). We have already seen that they intended to impose a version of Christian Judaism on the church. If one reads Acts 15 with this in mind, it becomes much clearer. They could not have thought this way if they had not thought the Old Covenant still controlled. In the face of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, it seems inconceivable that anyone could have missed this, but they did.
There’s more. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul addresses the stormy relationship he had with that church, and in the process, helps resolve the issue:
You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts (2 Corinthians 3:3 NIV).
This is an allusion to the New Covenant as described in his first letter and also in the letter to the Hebrews. The law is no longer written in tables of stone, but in the fleshly tables of the heart. He continues.
Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (vv. 4-6).
Paul was speaking to a major transition that had taken place. He was emphatically not a minister of the Sinai Covenant. Paul was not a Levite nor a son of Aaron. He was a Benjamite and had no ministerial role to play in the Sinai covenant. Nevertheless, he was a minister of the Christian Covenant, which he introduced wherever he went among the Gentiles. That New Covenant, therefore, was then in place.
Some of the problem arises from the Book of Hebrews which, if read with all your assumptions intact, can be confusing. This may be a good time to take another look. The author speaks of Jesus, saying, “The Lord sware and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec:) By so much was Jesus made a surety of a better Covenant (Hebrews 7:21-22).
King James readers may stumble over the word ‘testament’ again, but there is no ambiguity in the Greek. This is a better covenant we are reading about. Jesus himself could not be a priest in the Levitical system because we was not born of a Levite. When I think about that, it becomes obvious. Everything would have looked different to a Jew if Jesus had been a descendant of Aaron. He was not. He was, humanly speaking, a Jew. Paul makes a point of this fact noting that the Levitical priesthood had to be a series of men, because they grew old and died. But in Jesus, we have an unchanging priesthood because he lives.
In chapter eight of Hebrews, Paul begins to summarize his argument. This was not just another priest he was writing about. This one is the Son of God.
Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens; A minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man. For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer. For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law (Hebrews 8:1-4).
Paul had to drive this point home. Among Hebrews of this period, the priests, sons of Aaron, were the spiritual leaders of the people. Many would not have understood how a man who was not even a Levite could serve. So Paul was making the point: this is not just another priest; this is the son of God. Continuing: “But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises” (v. 6).
Now, if you read this in a straightforward fashion, you can’t miss it. The author says that Jesus is the mediator of a better covenant. Not that he will be, he is. Continuing:
For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah (vv. 7-8).
It is from this verse, a citation from Jeremiah, that the idea of a New Covenant arises. But there’s a problem here and the astute reader will pick it up. This covenant says nothing about Gentiles. This covenant is made with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It is a New Covenant to be made with those people—a promise that, to this day, has not been fulfilled.
Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people (vv. 9-10).
Plainly, this covenant still lay in the future when Paul made this citation. Consequently, the days will come when Israel will be reconciled with Judah, both of them will be reconciled to God, and God will enter into a New Covenant with them—a new social contract. This is utterly apart from the personal Christian Covenant as we know it.
But then there is this: “In that he says, a new covenant, he has made the first old. Now that which decays and waxes old is ready to vanish away” (v. 13). I can hear a believing Pharisee argue, “See there, the old covenant has not passed away.” And they are absolutely correct. It has not. It is still there. It is still the social contract between God and Israel, which also, by the way, requires circumcision for any son of Israel. But that’s an ethnic covenant, a covenant with a people, not a covenant with individuals.
When Christians use the term “New Covenant,” they usually are not talking about this new Israelite covenant. We are talking about the Christian Covenant, the one Jesus made with his disciples in the night in which he was betrayed and which we confirm in the Christian Passover—the bread and wine that symbolize the body and blood of Christ.
There are two singular moments in a Christian’s life when he must make a positive response to Christ. The first is baptism, and the second is in the moment when he accepts the bread and wine.
With the emphasis placed so strongly on faith alone, I get the feeling that some people accept salvation passively. It is true enough that we cannot accomplish our own justification before God. No one can say it better than Paul did: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
This is also evident in the ceremony of the Day of Atonement when the entire ceremony of reconciliation is carried out by the High Priest, while the people stand doing nothing. Nothing at all. Yes, they are fasting, but that is also doing nothing, not even eating.
But from the moment of reconciliation, the ongoing relationship with God is far from passive. It is not merely forgiveness of sin and opening the gates to heaven, it is a covenant one enters with the Son of God. Baptism and justification only open the door to that relationship. They do not create it nor do they sustain it.
The question is, have you personally made a covenant with God? And that’s a different matter all together. It may be here that we can find an answer to a troubling paradox which keeps bothering people. At the hour of justification, there is nothing you can do for yourself. Justification is by faith alone. There is not one law you can keep, there is not one thing you can do, to accomplish your own justification. That’s all done for you by Jesus Christ. All you’ve got to do is, well, nothing.
But then you start reading the Bible and you find in the New Testament obligation after obligation. There are demands that God makes of us. Yes, justification is by grace, but the process doesn’t stop there. It only begins there. It is very clear that there is another side to this equation that all too often has not been addressed. Jesus has offered us a covenant with him, but we have to take the step of agreeing to and accepting that covenant with all its responsibilities and obligations.
When I conduct a service of the Christian Passover, I always include a reading of selections from Jesus’ discussion with the disciples on that fateful night. It is an unusually long discourse, but it is rich with meaning. Every year, we revisit this talk and reflect on what it means to us. Each time, we can discover what might be there that we have not quite grasped before. In recent years, I have personally begun to feel the increasing weight of obligations. On that night, in the room where they had gathered to share a last supper together, Jesus said:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father. And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it (John 14:12-14).
This Scripture is the reason most Christians close their prayers with the formula, “In Jesus’ name.” But this is much more than a formula for prayer. It is an acknowledgment that we are in covenant with Jesus, and we bear his name. It is not entirely different from a wife who bears her husband’s name, and whatever she does, she does in his name. Jesus seems to be saying that whatever you ask the Father as one who is in covenant with his Son, he will do. The comparison with marriage is apt, because marriage also is a covenant. Just as a husband has to pick up responsibilities for his wife, and the wife for the husband, so the church has to pick up responsibilities for our Lord. Each of us and all of us have obligations to Christ and for Christ. We must never allow those things to get away from us.
Let’s make this clear. My wife can enter into deals in my name because she carries my name. We can do things for one another, on behalf of one another. In other words, we are able to act together because we have a covenant relationship.
Thus, “in my name” means more than “by my authority.” My wife carries my name. Even so, as one in covenant with Christ, I bear his name. I have heard prayers ended, “We ask this by the authority of your son Jesus Christ.” Here’s the problem. Just because you claim that authority doesn’t mean you have it. And just because you pray “In Jesus’ name,” doesn’t mean a thing if you are not in covenant with him. If you are in covenant, there is another side to the equation. It is unfortunate that Bibles have a break between verses 14 and 15. Here is how it should read: “If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it. If ye love me, keep my commandments.” It is a classic statement of two sides of a covenant. Jesus continued:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that bears not fruit he takes away: and every branch that bears fruit, he purges it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abides in me, and I in him, the same brings forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing (John 15:1-5).
These, too, are the words of blood covenant. The more we know about covenants, the more we understand this remarkable conversation. It is not a marriage, but it is so like marriage that the analogy works. “I am the vine, you are the branches” is an analogy. So it was when Adam said of Eve, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” The imagery that Jesus develops on this fateful night is the same sort of oneness, not so much a oneness of flesh as of spirit.
Perhaps you can hear the overtones of the marriage contract in this. The old ties must all be laid aside. Jesus’ teaching about this is firm. Challenged on the question of divorce, he said:
Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder (Matthew 19:4-6).
In other words, the man and his wife, when they come into this marriage relationship, are no longer two, they are one flesh and therefore cannot be joined to someone else. The old ties with your family must be severed. You must move out of your dad’s house. You establish your own place of residence. You've got to be separate from your old family because you are creating a new family, a new covenant, and a new relationship. You still have the responsibility for honoring your father and your mother, but the covenant that you had with them is not the same as the one you are entering into now with a new wife. So Jesus says you can't come to me unless you're willing to sever the ties with your mother, your father, your sisters, and your brothers. You are entering into a new family. And when speaking of counting the cost, Jesus went on to say: “So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33 KJV).
C.S. Lewis has a chapter in Mere Christianity that helps a beginner understand all this. It is titled, “Counting the Cost.” When I was baptized, the minister took me to Luke 14 and went through these very severe statements of Jesus about counting the cost of following him. At the time, I wondered why we were wasting our time. Cost? What cost? I have found the treasure hidden in a field. It is worth everything, forget about the cost, get me under the water. Nevertheless, the bottom line remained:
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. . . So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26, 33).
It is almost startling when one compares it to what was said at the marriage of Adam and Eve. “For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife.” In a very real sense, we are leaving our old family and joining a new one. I didn’t take this seriously enough when I was baptized, because the rationale was all wrong. It involved being willing to die for Christ, if necessary, at some time in the distant future. Actually, it is easier to say yes to facing death someday than it is to say yes when your church asks you to spend a day painting a widow’s home this week.
But my understanding was limited. I didn’t think I had any choice. “It’s God’s law. I have to obey God.” My attitude was, “Count the cost? There’s nothing to count because there’s no choice. The Kingdom of God is out here, the Pearl of Great Price, all these things, they are the treasure hidden in the field. No, no, no, I don’t need to count the cost; I’ll do it.” And under the water I went.
The problem is that this decision is going to start costing me tonight and tomorrow, not someday. Because at the point of time when you say before God, in the presence of witnesses, “I repent of my sins, I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Savior, and as my Lord and Master” that means, “Whatever he says, I do tonight, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, and forever.”
So, are we in the New Covenant right now, or is it a someday thing? We can be, but we shouldn’t answer too quickly. It is not enough to merely be a recipient of the grace of God. One has to consciously and freely make a decision to accept his covenant. This we confirm when we partake of bread and wine as symbols of Christ’s body and blood. Happily, we have a chance to confirm that covenant every year at the Christian Passover. But it is a serious matter. Having entered covenant with Christ, we now must take up our cross and follow him.
Contact us Copyright 2009 Ronald L Dart, all rights reserved.