I’m meditating on a phrase Jesus used at his last supper: This is my blood of the covenant (26:28). What did he mean by my blood? How is his blood covenantal?
Since this was a Passover meal, I’ve heard people say that Jesus was the Passover lamb sacrificed for us. You can draw that parallel (as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 5:7, to ask us to live unleavened lives). But I doubt that’s what Jesus was saying.
Firstly, the Passover lamb was not a sacrifice for sins. The Passover blood did not make atonement; it identified the households that belonged to YHWH so death would pass over them.
Secondly, Passover was not a covenant. That comes later in the Exodus story. After God rescued his people from enslavement to Pharaoh, Moses led them to the mountain where they met their new King. The Lord introduced himself and set out the terms of the covenant, asking them to agree to the covenant that recognized him as their ruler. In the covenant-making ceremony, the people were marked as devoted to him by sprinkling them with blood — the blood of the covenant:
Exodus 24 7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.” 8 Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (NIV)
With the covenant formally established, the sovereign invited the leaders of his nation to a meal at his Sinai palace. As his covenant people, they now have a place at his table, in his providence and presence:
24 9 Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up 10 and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky. 11 But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.
The Passover Festival celebrated this entire story, the birth of their nation. It included freedom from oppression and rescue from death, but the point of the Passover rescue was to lead a people into life under God’s leadership, as the covenanted community under his sovereignty: his kingdom. That’s the covenant meal Jesus anticipated with his followers.
So what did Jesus mean by my blood, and how does that establish a covenant?
This is the first occurrence of covenant, but we can see how Jesus has been using the word blood:
- The leaders of Jerusalem participate in the blood of the prophets (23:30).
- Because of what they are about to do to him, God will hold them accountable for every murder in history: Upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered … (23:35).
We’re talking about bloodshed: the blood of the prophets, the blood of Abel, the blood of Zechariah, the blood of Jesus. My blood means my murder, my assassination by the leaders of Jerusalem. This is exactly what Jesus has been telling his followers to expect ever since they declared him to be God’s Christ (16:21; 17:23; 20:18; 21:38; 26:2).
And now, in this intimate setting around a table with his closest friends, he says the treachery is worse than Jewish leaders handing him over to their enemies. One of the twelve is handing him over to be killed. The blood of Jesus is on Judas too.
The Last Supper is framed in betrayal. Matthew’s account begins: Truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me (26:21). Mark underscores: — one who is eating with me (14:18). Luke follows Jesus’ statement about his blood with this explanation: The hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table (22:21). There can be no doubt what Jesus means by my blood.
Bloodshed and covenant
Bloodshed was a covenant violation (Exodus 20:13). This bloodshed — the treachery against God’s Anointed — was the most grievous covenant violation. It’s a point that all the synoptics underscore: Woe to the man who betrays the Son of Man (Matthew 26:24; Mark 14:21; Luke 22:22). Matthew adds, It would be better for him if he had not been born.
So what happens now? Is this enough to abrogate the covenant?
That’s a question Israel had faced repeatedly throughout their history as God’s covenant people. The first time was before they even left Sinai, offering themselves to a golden calf. Despite the pain and rejection they caused, their unfaithfulness ended up revealing God’s faithfulness (Exodus 34:6-7). That became the story of the covenant people throughout the Old Testament.
Because of his covenant faithfulness, God never gave up on his people, though he did bring an end to their existence as an independent nation because leaders like Manasseh shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from end to end (2 Kings 21:12-16). In exile, under foreign rule, Israel wondered whether they had ceased to be God’s people: if you have utterly rejected us (Lamentations 5:19-22).
God answered their question through the prophets. Despite their unfaithfulness to the covenant, their faithful sovereign will not give up on the covenant:
- In my faithfulness I will reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them (Isaiah 61:8).
- I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you (Ezekiel 16:60).
- I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. (Jeremiah 31:31-40).
- Because of the blood of the covenant with you, I will free your prisoners (Zechariah 9:11).
Did you notice Zechariah picking up the founding phrase from Exodus 24? The blood of the covenant occurs nowhere else in the Old Testament, so he must be referring to the moment when Moses splattered blood on the people who agreed to God’s covenant, marking them as the nation under covenant to God.
And there’s something else about the context of this verse from Zechariah. This is the passage where Zechariah describes the king entering Jerusalem on a donkey (9:9). Matthew says that the Messiah’s triumphal entry fulfilled what God had promised through Zechariah (21:5-9). The crowds recognized him as the son of David arriving in the name of the Lord to save them (21:9). On the basis of the blood of the covenant God had made with Israel, their faithful sovereign had now sent his Anointed to rescue them.
My blood of the covenant
The covenant has two sides. From the faithful sovereign’s side, the blood of the covenant is his guarantee of faithfulness to his nation. But from the people’s side — given their history of unfaithfulness and bloodshed — there’s a truly ominous ring to the Messiah speaking of my blood. As he exposes the betrayer in the inside circle, it can only mean the assassination of the ruler that God, in his faithfulness, has given his covenant people.
So, is his blood — the murder of God’s Messiah — the treachery that finally destroys the covenant? Is God now so upset that he gives up on his people? Ever since arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus has been using confronting phrases such as bring those wretches to a wretched end so they’re broken in pieces and crushed (21:41, 44), exiled into the darkness (22:13), leaving their house desolate (23:38), a carcass where vultures gather (24:28), exiled to the place for play-actors (24:51), outside where it’s dark and remorseful (25:30), punished and excluded from eternal life (25:46), and better to have never been born (26:24). Have they now reached the place they feared in the final verses of Lamentations where they are no longer God’s people? Is the blood of the Messiah the final straw that undermines the covenant?
Judas never knew the answer to that question, but we do. God answered it on the third day after they killed his Anointed. In his faithfulness, the heavenly sovereign acted not to destroy his unfaithful people, but to raise up the ruler he had anointed for the world. Jesus receives all authority in heaven and on earth. Not only Israel but the nations are to learn obedience to all that he commands. He is the present king, the king who always remains with his people, until the era of his reign is fully here (Matthew 28:18-20).
God has not changed his mind because of human unfaithfulness, the blood of his Messiah. In his faithfulness, he has extended the covenant, calling the whole earth under the reign of his anointed. You could call that a new covenant, as Luke does (22:20), following Jeremiah (31:31). This new covenant has grown out of the blood of the Messiah! The generosity of the eternal sovereign is utterly astounding: for the world that poured out the blood of his Son, he gives an amnesty — the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28). That phrase isn’t the main point of the story (Mark and Luke leave it out), but it is the astounding corollary of the new covenant.
Renewed in my Father’s kingdom
That’s why his Last Supper is the covenant meal. Remember how the elders of Israel were invited to a meal with God in confirmation of the covenant? Jesus tells his disciples to anticipate such a meal, for the new covenant establishes a new kingdom.
After his blood has been shed, his Father will raise him from the dead and give him universal kingship — all authority in heaven and on earth. He has already told them they will see him coming into his kingdom in their lifetime (16:28). They will eat and drink with him again as the new covenant people of his kingdom (Luke 22:16-17). And they did (Luke 24:30-42; John 21:9-14; Acts 1:4).
We might have expected the blood of the Messiah to be the ultimate failure of the covenant, the ultimate divorce between heaven and earth. Instead, it became the basis of the new covenant as our faithful sovereign raised him from the dead, forgiving our sins and restoring our covenant relationship so earth is a kingdom of heaven. That is grace.
The entire story is there in the Messiah’s phrase, my blood of the covenant: the mix of human unfaithfulness and divine faithfulness, of human betrayal and divine persistence, of human sin and divine forgiveness, of human failure and divine restoration. My blood of the covenant establishes the earth as his Father’s kingdom.
Is that how you read?
Matthew 26:17-29 (my translation, compare NIV)
17 On the first day of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus to ask, “Where would you like us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover meal?” 18 He said, “Head into the city to that person’s place and say to him, “The Teacher says, ‘My time is close. With you I will hold Passover with my disciples.’” 19 The disciples did as Jesus directed them, and prepared the Passover.
20 When evening came, he was seated with the twelve. 21 As he ate with them, he said, “Truly, I tell you, that one of you will hand me over.”
22 They were deeply distressed and each one started saying, “Surely not me, Master?”
23 Jesus replied, “The one dipping his hand in the dish with me will hand me over. 24 Certainly the son of man exits life in the way it has been written about him, but what disaster befalls the person through whom the son of man is handed over; it would be good for him to have never been born.”
25 Judas (the one who hands him over) responded, “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?” Jesus said, “It’s as you said.”
26 As he ate with them, Jesus took some bread and offered a blessing. He broke it and gave it to his disciples saying, “Take and eat: this is my body.”
27 Taking a cup and offering thanks, he gave it to them saying, “Drink from it, all of you, 28 for this is my covenantal blood being poured out for many for cancellation of sins. 29 I tell you, from this moment I will not drink the vine’s produce with you until the day when I drink it with you anew in my Father’s kingdom.”
What others are saying
Michael Gorman can puts us in touch with others who understand atonement in new-covenant terms: The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014), 11–14 and 236–237:
[T. F.] Torrance argues that Christ’s life and death effect both the fulfillment of the covenant — God’s desired relationship with a people — and its transformation into the new covenant. For Torrance, Christ’s atonement encompasses his entire life (with a strong emphasis on the incarnation), not only his death, but it culminates on the cross. “Christ fulfills the covenant in that he is the embodied communion between God and man, and in that he is himself the instrument whereby the covenant is established … The Son offers his life and death in a covenant sacrifice for the remission of sins and the establishment of covenant communion between God and humanity.”
[quoting Thomas F. Torrance, Thomas F. Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ. (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster), 22.] …
Vanhoozer seeks to bring together “judicial” and “relational” models of the atonement in an understanding of Jesus’ death as “the climax to a covenantal drama.” [quoting Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 387] …
Torrance’s theology, Shelton’s volume, Vanhoozer’s approach, and other hints at the emergence of covenant notwithstanding, the lack of a theory or model of the atonement called “new-covenant” is remarkable. After all, according to all three Synoptic Gospels, this appears to have been Jesus’ own interpretation of his death on the night before he died. …
Atonement in this model is about the creation of a liberated, forgiven, Spirit-infused, and transformed people, the people of the new covenant. …
In the new-covenant model the atonement produces not merely beneficiaries but participants: participants in the cross and therefore also participants in the life-giving self-giving of God. This participation is made possible by God’s prior participation in our situation, that is, by Christ’s incarnation, life, and death among us and for us. …
It is my strong conviction that the kind of holistic, communal, participatory, missional model of the atonement that we have called the “new-covenant” model is precisely what the church needs to appropriate, articulate, and actualize today. I look forward to others joining the conversation and, more importantly, putting this model and its participatory practices into practice.