VIII. In My Blood

It is through a pledging of covenant between the prototype head and those who would become his people that a body is formed. Covenant is the bond that holds individuals together into a body. Or perhaps more accurately put, covenant is the form taken by the love that cements individuals into a body.

Now the very concept of "covenant" assumes a prior event, a foundation, a prerequisite, before the covenant itself is even possible. This is the calling out. Out of his own graciously offered love and goodwill, the head first must act to release the people so that they are free to make a covenant. Were it not for the theological encrustations that hide its true beauty, the best word to describe this step would be "redemption," that is, the buying off of the present owner in order to set a slave free. Clearly, before there is any chance of a new body coming into formation, the constituents must be freed from all past alliances, disentangled from the mass, called out to become a separate people.

My thesis is that the Lord's Supper is essentially a fellowship meal celebrating the new covenant. And quite obviously the old covenant is the model for the new. Regarding the old covenant, the initiatory act of redemption was the escape from Egypt, a literal coming out of slavery. For the new covenant (and thus for the Supper) it is regarded that Jesus the leader-lord has brought his people out of the slavery of the old age and into the freedom of the age to come. To put it in a way that the New Testament does not make explicit but certainly assumes: Baptism precedes the Supper. The Supper is celebrated by those who already, through baptism, have experienced the forgiveness, the endowment with the Holy Spirit, the death and resurrection that spell freedom from the slaveries of the past. Christians come to the Lord's table as free men, as men who have been freed to no other purpose than that, voluntarily and in freedom, they might gather to covenant themselves into the new body of Christ.

In one sense this experience of redemption stands prior to the Supper; but because it is so absolutely prerequisite, it would seem appropriate that the Supper include a recollection and celebration of that previous event as well. By design, every occurrence of the Supper should include a reminder that the people come to it as baptized Christians and thus as redeemed slaves, as free men.

However, redemption does not stand as an end in itself, as an independent good; it needs covenant as its guarantee and completion. It is as essential that redemption and covenant go together as that a spoon have both a handle and a bowl. Unless slaves are first redeemed there is no possibility of their covenanting into a body. But also, unless they use their newly found freedom to form a covenant body, they will be fair game for the next slave hunter that comes along.

In the first place, covenant is the leader-lord graciously inviting men into the relationship of bodyhood with himself and describing to them the character that this body will need to take. In the second place, covenant is the people responding to this invitation, pledging themselves to the leader-lord and his terms and to one another within those terms.

The old covenant opens in Ex. 20:1 with the reminder, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery," which is to say, "I redeemed you and made you the free men you are today." Then Yahweh invites, "You shall be my people," and the people respond, "You are our God." The new covenant opens with the reminders, "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" and "... must consider yourselves as dead to sin and alive to God ..." (Gal. 3:27 and Rom. 6:11). Then Jesus invites, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood.... This is my body-for you." And his followers respond, "My Lord and my God!" The wording is different; the economy is the same.

In passing, there is an important implication to be noted. Covenant is a profoundly religionless concept, and to understand the Supper as a covenant meal has the effect of preserving its religionlessness as well. Covenant contains not a hint that the things of God have passed into the control of man, that man now has some sort of claim upon God or a means of channeling his grace. Covenant is initiated by the leader-lord and cannot be initiated in any other way; its terms are his terms. All that the people can do or need do is to respond--either accept or reject. And the Lord's Supper does not enable us to make Jesus more present or less present; it is our opportunity to respond to the covenant invitation which, in his abiding presence, he offers to us.

And let it not be thought that I am injecting all this covenant emphasis into the Lord’s Supper. All four of the bread-and-cup accounts (the three synoptics and Paul) report the cup-word as a reference to the new covenant; the preferred wording is, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood" (1 Cor. 1:25). Just as impressive is an additional verse from Luke's account, a verse the full significance of which is usually lost in translation. Literally, Luke 22:29 reads: "I am covenanting a covenant with you, according as my Father covenanted a kingdom to me."

In this regard, even if John should be correct in dating the last supper the evening before Passover, the synoptic writers are theologically correct in their desire to make of it a Passover meal. Of course, technically speaking, Passover is the celebration only of the redemption from Egyptian slavery and not the making of the covenant at Sinai. However, all the evidence (which we shall examine in due course) indicates that the Jews did not do too good a job of keeping the events compartmentalized. (God bless them; it goes to prove our contention that redemption and covenant ultimately are the bowl and handle of the same spoon.) In the first century, Jews, Jesus, and Christians would have understood Passover as a covenant meal as well as a celebration of the escape from Egypt.

(For that matter, the theme of covenant is not entirely absent from the account of the escape. Many scholars are convinced that the blood used to mark the door posts of Hebrew homes so that the angel of death would "pass over" is to be understood as covenant blood. Thus, in the escape itself there is an antetype of Sinai. The connection is a valid one.)

At this point, leaving Passover for the moment so that we may circle back upon it, we must consider that the Old Testament presents two different rites celebrating two different aspects of covenant.

  1. The first marks the inauguration, the original pledging and sealing of the relationship. It takes the form of a pouring out of blood.
  2. The second is the repeated occasion which recalls, reaffirms, renews, furthers, and deepens the covenant which had been inaugurated earlier. It takes the form of a fellowship meal.

Rather clearly, the New Testament understands Calvary as being the spot at which its covenant was founded and the Lord's Supper as its regular celebration. However, the very nature of the case made necessary a chronological inconsistency: the commemorative meal was established before the sealing of the covenant took place. We shall find evidence that the New Testament writers themselves saw the problem and understood that the Supper rightfully needs to be transposed from the precrucifixion situation of the last supper into the post-resurrection situation of the church. It follows that for us the Supper ought not to be an attempt to return to the upper room perspective; a full awareness of Jesus' death and resurrection forms the proper background for the Supper. In some respects, the experience in the upper room was a foreshadowing rather than a full portrayal of what the Lord's Supper is all about.

But we need now to attend to the act of inaugurating the covenant. Whether we are dealing with covenant stories concerning Abraham, the escape from Egypt, Sinai, or the cross, blood (blood that has been shed) figures strongly in the account. In biblical thought, blood is the symbol of life; blood is liquid life. And shed blood is a symbol of life given or shared. It is not, in the first place, a symbol of death, of life lost or taken. It represents the act of love and grace in which one voluntarily devotes his life to another. The blood shed and the body broken say pretty much the same thing; and it is apparent that the Supper tradition prefers the latter metaphor to the former.

The blood ceremony which is most revealing is that recounted in the Sinai story of Exodus 24. Moses builds an altar that, of course, is symbolic of God. Animal sacrifices are made and the blood is collected and then divided into two basins. The blood from the one basin is splashed against the altar. After the people declare their desire to make the covenant, the second basin is sprinkled over them. Clearly the symbolism is intended to portray a sharing and self-giving between God and the people which is so complete that an intermingling of blood (life) is the only proper expression for it.

It should be plain that the new covenant's counterpart of this occasion is not the Lord's Supper but Calvary, there where the blood of the Lamb was spilt. In himself, Christ represented both God and man. There was no need for sacrificial animals; Christ's act went beyond the mediatory symbols of the cult to be the thing in itself, a pouring out of life which covenanted man and God together into a relationship deeper and more intimate than anything even imagined before. "Through him God was pleased to reconcile himself to all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood on his cross," as Col. 1:20 puts it.

This act is the equivalent (better, the fulfillment) of the Sinai blood ceremony. And obviously it is as little necessary or appropriate to repeat Calvary as Sinai. Those events--according to the very nature of covenant sealing, if on no other grounds--are once for all and essentially unrepeatable. The cup of the Lord's Supper certainly is not intended as a covenant-making that displaces Calvary; but neither is there evidence to suggest that the Supper in any sense marks a re-presentation, a replication, a reprise of Calvary. That act was complete and entire in itself; there is nothing that we can add to it. The Christian gospel has no need or any place for another blood ceremony; that matter was well cared for a long time ago. The significance of the eucharistic cup must be sought elsewhere.

This brings us to the second sort of covenant ceremony, the fellowship meal. There is no competition between it and the blood ceremony. In no sense does the meal represent the inaugurating of a covenant. Quite the contrary, the meal must assume the prior occurrence of the blood sealing if it is to fulfill its function at all. The meal is an occasion of recollection, celebration, reaffirmation, and rededication-but all of this within the context of the relationship which God has already established and definitely not as an attempt to re-do or improve upon anything done earlier.

The Sinai model makes the relationship plain. Following the account of the blood ceremony, Ex. 24:9ff. reads: "Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel.... also they beheld God, and they ate and drank" In due course we shall see how extensively the concept of a covenant meal pervades the Old Testament and how it ties across to the Lord's Supper; but for the moment, let us follow up our consideration of blood.

The eucharistic cup, we maintain, belongs in the tradition of the fellowship meal of covenant celebration rather than in the tradition of blood poured out in covenant inauguration. If that be so, then the actual presence of Jesus' blood in the Supper is not called for--no more than there is any suggestion that the elders of Israel carried sacrificial blood up Sinai and drank it; no more than covenant blood is involved in the descriptions of other covenant meals. What we do when we drink the cup of the Lord's Supper is make a pledge to God, to Christ, to one another; the symbolism is not entirely different from that of drinking a toast. For this, the presence of the covenant blood is neither necessary nor appropriate.

Undeniably, the contents of the eucharistic cup are meant to remind us that the covenant we celebrate (the covenant sealed at Calvary) was sealed in the blood of Jesus. This fact is precious and all-important to the meaning of the Supper. But this is not to say that the contents of the cup must in any sense be the blood of Jesus. No blood ceremony is involved in the Supper itself. The blood (the poured-out life) of Jesus is crucial to the New Testament understanding of Calvary and the covenant sealed there. But to attempt to bring that blood over into the Supper only confuses things and actually detracts from the once-for-all sufficiency of what God did through Christ on the cross.

Admittedly, the biblical testimony is not unanimous in support of my point. Paul's account in 1 Cor. 11 (our earliest reference to the Supper) reports the cup-word as "This cup is the new covenant in my blood." Luke (in the passage that does not appear in all the early manuscripts of that Gospel) agrees. Contrariwise, Mark and Matthew report the cup-word as "This is my blood of the covenant." Only the recalcitrant passage of Jn. 6:53 goes so far as to speak of drinking blood. Paul's statement in 1 Cor. 10:16, "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?", is ambiguous. It could intend a drinking or assimilating of the blood of Christ. It could just as well mean a sharing in the benefits, the new relationship, made possible in the blood of Christ. My impression is that most New Testament scholars accept the Pauline "This cup is the new covenant in my blood." as more likely the original. The Mark and Matthew revision probably represents an effort to get the cup-word into parallel with the bread-word, "This is my body."

There is another consideration that bears upon our point. Recall that any drinking of blood was forbidden--completely and unquestionably forbidden--by Jewish law. A good Jew would no more have thought of drinking blood than he would of defecating in the holy of holies of the temple. If, then, in the upper room, out of a clear blue sky the good Jew Jesus had said to his good Jewish disciples, "Drink this cup of blood," there would have been trouble. I doubt whether psychologically these men could have brought themselves to do it. And even more to the point, if, in the earliest church, Jewish converts had to disregard one of their most deeply ingrained taboos in order to be Christian, surely some echo of this trauma would have gotten into the record--as the trauma of accepting Gentiles into the people of God most plainly did.

Thus, although we must admit that there are some texts that point in another direction, the Old Testament parallels, the best textual notices themselves, the Jewish prohibition against drinking blood, and the generally antisacramentalist bent of both Judaism and early Christianity--all would suggest rather strongly that the Lord's Supper was not intended to be a blood ceremony requiring either the actual or symbolic presence of blood. At Calvary was shed the blood that inaugurated and sealed the covenant (and this is the only blood that needs to be involved); the eucharistic cup is part of the subsequent covenant celebration by which Christians pledge themselves anew to the covenant already sealed and remind themselves that it was through the giving of his blood that the covenant was made possible.

The preceding argument assumes, of course, that the Lord's Supper is in essence a covenant meal. We need to establish that identification somewhat more solidly. The connection is the Passover. As has been noted, strictly speaking the Passover is a celebration only of the escape from Egypt. On the other hand, biblical tradition regarding the covenant meal is rooted, as we have seen, at Sinai as the elders ascended to eat and drink before Yahweh. The practice of such fellowship meals is mentioned time and again throughout the Old Testament, often within the context of purely secular, man-to-man covenants. An interesting detail is that in a number of these accounts salt is mentioned as having ritual significance. Similarly, in some documents of the early church salt is again mentioned as being used in the Lord’s Supper. Yet, although the Passover tradition and the covenant-meal tradition have no necessary and inherent connection, there is good evidence that they tended to merge. Some scholars believe that the unleavened bread ceremonial of Passover actually came into that service by way of a ceremony of covenant renewal held at Shechem following the occupation of Canaan.

Then, several hundred years later, comes the story of King Josiah. The accounts in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles are in essential agreement, but Chronicles is a little more pointed to our purposes. According to that account, the lost book of the covenant is discovered in the temple, presented to the king, and validated by him. "Then the king sent word and gathered all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. The king went up to the house of the LORD; with all the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests and the Levites, all the people both great and small; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the LORD; The king stood in his place and made a covenant before the LORD, to follow the LORD, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of the covenant written in this book. Then he made all who were present in Jerusalem and in Benjamin pledge themselves to it" (2 Chron. 34:29-32).

Rather plainly, Josiah saw this as the renewal of a covenant which God and Israel had previously sealed; there is no hint of a blood ceremony performed on this occasion. But just one verse later, the text continues:

"Josiah kept a Passover to the LORD in Jerusalem; they slaughtered the passover lamb on the fourteenth day of the first month. He appointed priests to their offices and encouraged them in the service of the house of the LORD.... The people of Israel who were present kept the passover at that time, and the festival of Unleavened Bread for seven days. No passover like it had been kept in Israel since the days of the prophet Samuel; none of the kings of Israel had ever kept such a passover as was kept by Josiah" (2 Chron. 35:1 and 17-18). Passover is understood as the appropriate means for affirming and celebrating the covenant; the relationship is assumed as logical and natural.

When, then, we discover covenant language in the Lord's Supper accounts (the word "covenant" in each and every version of the cup-word, plus the additional reference in Luke) and the tendency to associate the Supper with Passover (whether by the actual identification as per the synoptics or the previous evening as per John), the intended relationship seems clear: The Supper is a table fellowship in which a covenant is pledged, renewed, and celebrated--as Passover itself largely had come to be understood.

If the Supper is a covenant meal, a further consideration must be raised concerning the nature of the covenant that is celebrated. To whom and with whom is this covenant pledged? Is Christ one of the covenanting parties, or is he simply the mediator of a covenant between God and man, himself the sacrifice whose blood is used to seal the covenant but whose role ends with that? Obviously, the first alternative is the correct one; but some aspects of the upper room experience tend to point toward the second. By virtue of its place in the sequence of events, the upper room is oriented strongly (almost exclusively) toward Christ's crucifixion, the sealing of the covenant. With this, it is very nearly implied that in Christ's death the covenant is complete and that it would be largely incidental whether he were then resurrected or not.

Clearly such an implication lies far from the New Testament intention. This covenant creates the body of Christ and not simply the people of God. And Christ’s relationship to his body is qualitatively different from that of, say, Abraham to Israel: Christ is present as living Lord and active leader of the caravan. The new covenant in Christ wants and requires the resurrection which was not needed in earlier covenants. The very nature of the gospel, then, would suggest that a resurrection emphasis needs to be included if the Lord's Supper is to speak the full truth about its covenant. Nevertheless--although understandably so--the upper room hints of the resurrection only very obliquely if at all. There is evidence that the early Christians sensed the difficulty; and that is why we suggested earlier that in some ways post-Easter celebrations of the Supper give it a fuller and more accurate expression than did the upper room itself.

How the resurrection theme comes to be incorporated into the Supper forms a very interesting study. Think back and you will realize that although the Gospels give us a very limited amount of material regarding the post-resurrection appearances of Christ, mealtime occasions figure very prominently. Matthew relates a bare minimum of post-resurrection stories. Mark gives us next to nothing--although, depending upon which manuscript of Mark one follows and how much of the damaged ending one accepts, there is a reference to the risen Christ appearing to his disciples at mealtime. Luke has Jesus breaking bread with the two disciples he accompanied on the road to Emmaus and then joining the gathered disciples at mealtime and eating fish with them.

John presents the risen Lord appearing to the fishermen-disciples on the seashore and preparing and serving them breakfast. "Jesus now came and took the bread, and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish" (Jn. 21:13). And if the feeding of the five thousand is taken as a picture of the Lord's Supper (which John at least most surely intends), and if, as many scholars believe, it is to be understood as a type or back-reading of a resurrection appearance, then here is another meal of the risen Jesus with his followers in which the menu is loaves and fish. And finally, in Acts 10:40-41, while speaking to Cornelius and his friends, Peter says: "God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people, but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead."

Now all of this emphasis on post-resurrection meals (of bread and fish) cannot be sheer coincidence. What the writers seem to be feeling toward is a Lord's Supper (better, a continuation of the Lord's Supper), with a focus upon the celebration of the resurrection. The idea gains plausibility when we discover that with impressive consistency the early Christian artistic depictions of the upper room or subsequent Lord's Suppers give prominence to a table setting of loaves and fish. The capstone, then, comes with the realization that a fish was the symbol of Jesus Christ in the usage of the early church.

The customary explanation of the fish symbol is that the letters of the Greek word "fish" form an anagram of the Greek words "Jesus Christ God's Son Savior." My own opinion is that this explanation is too sophisticated to account for the symbol's rising to dominance in a folk culture; such clever devices are very often inventions after the fact. Rather, the evidence suggests to me that fish was the main dish in the Lord's Supper of the early church. (Clearly these Christians did not feel that the connection between the Supper and Passover was such as to require the continuance of lamb and unleavened bread; the Supper is not understood as a new Passover in that literal a sense.)

In the course of time, then, this fish which graced the Lord's table became the symbol of the Lord himself. And notice that this symbol--unlike the cross, which points back to an event of the past--peaks specifically of the one who is present with his people as they gather to commune with him and celebrate the covenant which binds them into a living relationship with him. The fish is the symbol of the resurrected, living, present Christ. And it is this fish, recall, that will evolve into the dolphin, the resurrection fish that always comes up. (In the pictorial glossary of the early church, water came to represent baptism; the fish came, out of the context of the Lord's Supper, to represent the living Lord; and the fish in water forms a beautiful combination--which itself emphasizes the joy, the exaltation, the victory, the praise, the thanksgiving that attends the resurrection.)

In the early church the Lord’s Supper did not take the form, as it so largely does with us, of a commemorative funeral for Jesus. Of course, we do not want to forget that the covenant which we celebrate was sealed in his blood and that that blood does represent a pouring out of himself unto death; but the Supper has built-in features to prevent that sort of forgetfulness.

I do not know how many Christians will choose to use fish in the Lord's Supper. It can be done in various ways besides serving fish dishes, perhaps by using the motif in table decorations. But in whatever way it is done (and always with appropriate explanation and interpretation, of course), the presence of the fish can help restore to the Supper the note of joy it so desperately needs. And, note well, this does not represent "celebration" injected simply for the sake of celebration. The fish knows what is the object and ground of its celebration--nothing less than festive fellowship with the Resurrected One who gives us the victory over death, sin, and the world.