The sign of the old covenant was circumcision. There were other signs and symbols given by God to Israel to designate them as His own, but circumcision was the specific covenant mark. The sign of the new covenant is not baptism, at least it isn’t ever connected as such in the New Testament. While there are some similarities between the two initiating rites, especially that both happen at the beginning and ideally only once, nowhere do we read in the Bible about Christian baptism and a covenant.
We do, however, hear Jesus teaching about the connection between a meal and a covenant. “On the night when he was betrayed” He gave thanks to His Father and gave bread to His men. Then, giving thanks to His Father again, “he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”
The old covenant was not as good. The author of Hebrews says “Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). Then Hebrews quotes Jeremiah 31, leaving in all the parts about “the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
The blood of Jesus acquired and sealed the new covenant promise. That does not, though, mean that Jesus’ blood finished the covenant. Obviously it didn’t. His word guaranteed it, His blood obtained it, and His Spirit will complete it.
So there is both an already and a not yet as well as an in addition. Those of the household of Israel who believed in the first century and centuries since are evidence of the beginning of what still will be finished, atonement and restoration. Gentiles also who believed in Paul’s day and in ours are evidence of God’s grace to extend salvation to the nations. This meal is a long session in the same direction.
Why does God forgive anyone? We come near the beginning of our worship service to confess our sins and seek His cleansing and forgiveness. God says that He will forgive those who repent and believe. He sent His Son as a substitute so that He could grant forgiveness without undermining justice. There is no question that He does forgive, but why does He do it?
He forgives because we need it. Men have been rebelling against His commands since Eden and breaking fellowship with Him. All are guilty before Him, we all stand in need of forgiveness, a need He sees and meets. He is the God of need-meeting. But forgiveness runs deeper than that.
Forgiveness is first subjective and then objective. By subjective and objective I don’t mean forgiveness is just God’s perception, let alone our perception, rather than reality. I mean that, in the simple gospel statement, “God forgives sinners,” the subject of the sentence takes priority over the object. He is the God of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not peculiar to God but it is essential to God. God forgives because that’s who He is.
As Jewish pilgrims sang on their way to Jerusalem for worship, “If you, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with You there is forgiveness so that you may be feared” (Psalm 130:4). This isn’t because He loves to hold it over our heads, always ready to remind us of what He could have done to us. “Remember that time when you…?” We fear Him, we stand in awe of Him, not only because He could have crushed us instead of forgiving us. We stand in awe because He forgives like a great fountain flows. He promises to forgive. He loves to forgive. He is eager to forgive. Forgiveness is not a reluctant position He takes to meet a quota. Spurgeon once said about Bunyan that if you pricked him, he would bleed bibline. If we could prick God anywhere, He bleeds forgiveness.
In Luke’s account of Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper, he chases the eating and drinking with two surprising things.
The first thing that Luke relates after the New Covenant meal is that “a dispute arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest” (Luke 22:24). This may not be the correct chronology, as both Matthew’s account and John’s account of the night of Jesus’ betrayal do not mention this argument between the disciples as happening between the Last Supper and Gethsemane. But it is interesting that Luke would back the two events together. Jesus just said that He was going to suffer, that His blood would be poured out after a betrayal. Then Luke wrote that His men were fighting like kids. It may be because they didn’t fully understand yet, which they didn’t, and it could also be some because men still think that those who serve are not the greatest. Jesus said, “But I am among you as one who serves.”
The second and very next thing that Luke records, after describing the Supper and the greatness of serving, is the coming Kingdom in which His disciples would have positions of greatness.
“You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Luke 22:28-30).
Now would have been a great time for Jesus to correct their false expectations about a national Messiah-King fulfilling Old Testament prophecies concerning the Lord’s rule on earth. Not only did Jesus not correct those expectations, He made them even more personal for His disciples.
The communion table is a foretaste of the Table of the King. We eat and drink around it, not in expectation of a great allegorical table in the sky, but in expectation that Jesus will return in body and reign just as He said. There will be physical bread and wine, and thrones, and we will see them because He gave body and blood for us.
There is a way that we must hate the things of earth so that we can also love the things of earth in a different way. In order to change the world we must not be slaves to the world; we cannot worship the world and offer that to God. That’s idolatry, and the Lord is jealous for His own glory.
So let us take very seriously our responsibility to hate the things of earth as God defines the things of earth. We must take extreme measures as individuals and as a church to deal with “what is earthly” in us.
In Colossians 3:5-11 Paul gives three commands: 1) put to death, 2) put away, and 3) do not lie.
We must “put to death what is earthly” in us, and that includes any sort of sexual sin, whether in our hearts or with our parts. We must kill greed, which is the functional equivalent of idolatry, sacrificing ourselves for the pleasures of money rather than for the pleasures of God. But “on account of these the wrath of God is coming.” Therefore, mortify sin for sake of honoring the marriage bed on earth. Put sin to death in order to be generous with wealth in this world.
We must also “put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk.” This verb could be translated “take off,” as if we were wearing soiled and stained clothes. The contrast comes in the next paragraph with “put on” the character of Christ. Don’t put on rage and bitterness, those are earthly things. Instead, put on kindness and patience here and now. Put on thankful diligence in the work God gives.
And then “do not lie to one another.” We are people of the truth because we are not what we used to be.
Our new selves are “being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” Creation is not the problem, our sin is the problem, and we must be ruthless in repenting from it or it will ruin us. As John Owen wrote, “Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.”