Jesus Christ, at His last meal with His disciples, commanded His friends and followers to remember Him in a specific way. Although He had earlier warned them of His approaching death (John 12:32-33), they found that certainty hard to accept.
But less than 24 hours later Jesus would be dead, His body hastily entombed and His disciples shocked, confused and scattered.
At that last meal, Jesus Christ told His disciples to eat bread and drink wine as symbols of His body and blood.
"...When He had given thanks, He broke [the bread] and said, 'Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.' In the same manner He also took the cup [of wine] after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me'" (1 Corinthians 11:24-25).
The New Testament Passover is one of the most widely celebrated observances of the Christian faith.
When we partake of the bread and wine, are we merely following a tradition? Does this ceremony have meaning for us in our era? How important is it that we understand the meaning of the Christian Passover?
Lack of comprehension
The first-century congregation of Corinth did not understand the significance of the Passover. They observed it "in an unworthy manner," not "discerning the Lord's body" (1 Corinthians 11:27-29); they did not comprehend its real meaning.
Because of their lack of understanding, Paul warned the Corinthians they could be "guilty of the body and blood of the Lord," and if they failed to properly judge themselves they would be "eat[ing] and drink[ing] judgment" to themselves (verses 27, 29).
Paul took the Passover ceremony seriously. His warning makes it clear that Christians should not only observe what Christ commanded, but should understand the meaning of eating the bread and drinking the wine at the Passover service. It is vital that we understand the intent behind Jesus Christ's commands concerning the Passover. Christ said that unless we (symbolically) eat His flesh and drink His blood, we have no life in us (John 6:53). It is that important.
Once each year, on the anniversary of the night on which one of Jesus' own disciples betrayed Him, Christians should recall and contemplate the meaning of Christ's death through the observance of the Passover service (1 Corinthians 11:26). Paul told the Corinthian members that "Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us" (1 Corinthians 5:7).
The Passover service commemorates the death of Jesus Christ. By participating in the service, we personally proclaim the death of our Savior (1 Corinthians 11:26). We acknowledge that His dying paid the death penalty for us (Ephesians 5:2).
While the "blood" and "body" of Christ refer to the same sacrifice, Jesus Christ shows there is a clear distinction in the meaning attached to each of the two words.
Representing that differentiation are the two specific symbols: bread and wine. Let's examine the special significance of Christ's body and blood as represented by the two simple, unadorned aspects of the observance.
Jesus Christ's body a sacrifice
Let's first understand the meaning of the bread. "...As they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, 'Take, eat; this is My body'" (Matthew 26:26).
The body of Jesus became an offering for sin, for "we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this man ...offered one sacrifice for sins forever ...For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified" (Hebrews 10:10-14).
Our partaking of the Passover bread indicates that we understand that Jesus Christ has put away our sin by the "sacrifice of Himself" (Hebrews 9:26). He willingly consented to suffer an excruciating death for us. His blood was not swiftly shed; He was tortured many hours before He died. He bore in His body the physical suffering caused by sin.
Under the first covenant the sacrifice of animals for sin by the Levitical priesthood could not remove the guilt of the ancient Israelites. Those sacrifices just reminded them of their sinfulness and were only types of the one future sacrifice that could remove all the transgressions of repentant sinners.
However, those animal sacrifices helped the Israelites understand how serious sin is in the sight of God. How much more should the sacrifice of the Son of God for the sins of the whole world help us to understand that sin has brought nothing but tragedy and suffering on mankind. Jesus had to endure intense suffering for our sake.
"Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:4-6).
At the Passover service, when we eat the bread that symbolizes the broken body of Jesus Christ, we should remember and deeply appreciate why He had to offer His body to be beaten and abused as a sacrifice for us. He was "smitten," "afflicted," "wounded" and "bruised" for our transgressions.
Why did Christ have to die?
Why was it necessary for Jesus to die that our sins could be forgiven? Sin is the violation of God's law of love. Through our disobedience, we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We earned the death penalty because of our sins (Romans 5:12; Romans 6:23).
Paul explained the principle of a righteous man who would give up his own life as a replacement for one who is guilty (Romans 5:6-8). We would all be destined for the finality of death had someone not paid the penalty for our sins. Christ substituted His death for ours. His sacrifice became the payment for our sins.
By living a sinless life and dying for us, Jesus took on Himself the penalty that we ourselves should have had to pay. Jesus Christ died in our stead so we could share life with Him forever.
A new way of life
The Passover bread also reminds us of the close relationship Christians have with Jesus Christ, resulting in a new way of life.
After transforming five loaves of bread and two fish into enough food for a crowd of multiple thousands (John 6:5-14), Jesus was followed by crowds seeking Him for the wrong reasons-they wanted a free meal (John 6:26).
"Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life..." He told them (John 6:27).
"...My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world...I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst" (John 6: 32-35).
Speaking of the future Passover symbols of the bread and wine picturing His body and blood, Jesus Christ said, "Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day...[He] abides in Me, and I in him" (John 6:54-56).
In Romans 6:1-6, Paul shows that once we are symbolically united with Christ in death through baptism, "we should no longer be slaves of sin" but "should walk in newness of life."
The bread we eat at Passover demonstrates our commitment to live in Christ and allow Him to live in us.
The apostle Paul described this commitment in Galatians 2:20: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me."
Paul understood that controlling his own life was no longer important. His relationship with Jesus Christ, surrendering his life to the One who had willingly given His life for Paul, was now far more important to him.
The apostle John described this relationship very succinctly: "Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, 'I know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked" (1 John 2:3-6).
The Passover bread reminds us that Jesus Christ, the true "bread of life," must also live in us, making it possible for us to walk in newness of life, living just as He lived.
The Passover wine
Why did Jesus command His disciples to drink wine as a symbol of His blood? What meanings are wrapped up in this extraordinary analogy that are vital to our understanding when we drink the wine at Passover?
Notice the meaning Jesus gave to the Passover wine: "Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom'" (Matthew 26:27-29).
What does Christ want us to understand about His shed blood?
First, Christ knew that our drinking wine as a symbol of His shed blood would impress indelibly in our minds His death for the forgiveness of our sins. "This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me" (1 Corinthians 11:25).
God forgives our sins through Jesus' blood. We are taught that "the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7). Jesus Christ "loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood" (Revelation 1:5). Christians normally understand this basic tenet of faith-that our sins are forgiven through the blood of Jesus Christ-but not all professing Christians fully comprehend how this is so. Let's be sure we understand.
Paul explains that "according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission" (Hebrews 9:22).
In the context of the Old Testament, God instructed the priesthood to foreshadow the shedding of Christ's blood by a system of cleansing and purification through the blood of sacrificed animals.
He commanded the nation of Israel to undertake this temporary system of the ritualistic cleansing from sins (Hebrews 9:9-10). Animal sacrifices served as types of the one and only future sacrifice, Jesus Christ, who would pay the penalty for the sins of everyone once and for all.
Sacrifices were a reminder
In reality, the sins of the people under the old covenant were not forgiven through the blood of the animals they sacrificed. Those sacrifices only reminded them that they were sinners (Hebrews 10:1-4).
All those sacrifices, with their emphasis on blood, looked forward to the real "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29).
Further, the ancients understood that life is in the blood (Genesis 9:4). When a person loses his blood, he dies. Therefore it is appropriate that blood make the atonement for sin (Leviticus 17:11). Jesus' blood was shed, or poured out, while He hung on the cross (Luke 22:20; Colossians 1:20). His life drained from Him when He lost his blood (Isaiah 53:12). By allowing sinners to shed His blood, He gave His life for us.
When we drink the wine at the Passover service, we are to consider the gravity of its meaning. It represents the very life's blood that flowed from Jesus Christ's dying body so we may have complete forgiveness of our sins (Ephesians 1:7).
The shed blood of the righteous Jesus Christ for our sinful life should powerfully motivate us never to want to sin again. It is the way our merciful God chooses to reach us in our obstinate states of mind.
Our wanting never to sin against our Savior is not the same as our acquiring the means to overcome sin. To effect the necessary change within us, God provides us the help of the Holy Spirit. However, the blood of Christ deals a powerful blow to sin because His undeserved death for us is one reason we should not want to sin again. It is the realization of the magnitude of Jesus' sacrifice for us that should bring us to repentance (Romans 2:4). Upon our repentance and baptism for the removal of those sins, God imparts the Holy Spirit to enable us to change.
Conscience freed of guilt
The second point Christ wants us to understand about His shed blood is that not only does it cover our sins, but makes it possible for us to be rid of guilt.
Notice Hebrews 9:12-14: "Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?"
When God grants us a pardon, we are no longer guilty in His eyes, but we still need to solve the problem of our guilty feelings-our guilty conscience. That is why Paul declares that the blood of Christ cleanses our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. How can this be?
The word conscience comes from "conscire," meaning "be conscious of guilt.". Our conscience is our awareness of right and wrong. When a person has no sensitivity to or awareness of right and wrong, we say he has no conscience.
Paul said the consciences of some people are seared (1 Timothy 4:2); that is, they have suppressed their awareness of right and wrong and have no desire to alter that tragic situation.
When God calls a person whose conscience is still sensitive to right and wrong, and that person is faced with the understanding that someone else had to die for him-and all along he has been unaware of or ignored this truth-his conscience is affected (Acts 2:36-37). The realization of this truth brings home to him how ungodly he is, how far he falls short of the goodness of God (Romans 5:6-8). He becomes acutely aware of his own guilt; his conscience plagues him.
What can he do?
His awareness of the awesome meaning of the death of Jesus Christ for his sins awakens in his conscience a desire to obey God (Romans 7:20-21). He can then accept Christ's sacrifice for his sins and have faith that Christ took all his guilt upon Himself. Now he can rest assured that he can continue in "newness of life" (Romans 6:4) with a clean conscience; he can be confident that all his guilt has been erased.
No need for self-reproach
When our conscience is purged, we are freed from guilt. We were all guilty because we all violated God's holy law and fell short of His glory (Romans 3:19, Romans 3:23). Sin is breaking God's law (1 John 3:4). When our sins are removed after we repent (Psalm 103:12), there should be no more self-inflicted guilt or self-reproach.
Unfortunately, many people still feel guilty after they have repented and have asked God to forgive their sins. While our conscience should rightly convict us if we sin again, we should not continue in self-condemnation over the sins God has forgiven, but be able to operate confidently in the freedom from guilt God provides (1 John 1:9; 1 John 3:19-20).
We express our faith, our confidence, that through the blood of Christ we are truly forgiven when we partake of the wine at the Passover service. The taking of the wine should impress upon us that we are free from sin and guilt, and that we do not stand condemned before God or ourselves (John 3:17-18).
This is what it means to have "our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience" (Hebrews 10:22).
Access to the Father
The third point Christ wants us to understand about His blood is that it makes it possible for us to come before the very throne of God.
Under the old covenant, only the priest could enter the area of the tabernacle known as the "Holiest of All" (Hebrews 9:6-10). In it was the "mercy seat," which represented God's throne.
In Leviticus 16 is explained a ceremony that took place each year on the Day of Atonement, when the high priest sprinkled the blood of a goat, representing the future sacrifice of Jesus Christ, on the mercy seat so the Israelites could be symbolically cleansed of all their sins (Leviticus 16:15-16).
Because the blood of Jesus Christ has cleansed us and made us pure, each of us enjoys direct access to the Father (Hebrews 9:24). Jesus, as our High Priest, has entered into the Most Holy Place by His own blood (Hebrews 9:11-12). In fact, we can approach God without hesitation or fear of rejection, but with confidence and assurance because of the blood of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 10:19-22).
Let us rejoice, when we take the wine of the Passover, that the blood of Christ has made us worthy to experience an intimate relationship with our Father!
Blood of the covenant
The fourth point to understand is that the blood of Christ signifies that He has entered into an agreement-a covenant-with us. When Jesus instituted wine for the New Testament Passover, He said: "Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant..." (Matthew 26:27-28).
Why is taking wine, symbolic of His blood, called the "blood of the new covenant"?
Once again we go to the Old Testament for background information. Paul explained that both parties under the old covenant manifested their agreement by the ceremony of sprinkling of blood. The Bible writers called this blood the "blood of the covenant" (Hebrews 9:18-20; Exodus 24:3-8).
It is of utmost importance that we understand that our repentance of our sins, our baptism and acceptance of the blood of Jesus Christ to redeem us from the penalty of eternal death-coupled with our belief in His promise to forgive our sins-constitute a covenant.
By accepting the blood of Christ for the remission of our sins, we enter into a covenantal relationship with the God of the universe. The terms of this covenant are absolute, because it was sealed with the shed blood and death of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 9:11-15). We renew that covenant every year when we partake of the Passover. Let us understand the terms of that covenant relationship.
"'This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days,' says the LORD: 'I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them,' then He adds, 'Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more'" (Hebrews 10:16-17).
We have already seen a major difference between the old and new covenants. Cleansing from sin is no longer accomplished by the sacrifice of animals, but by the blood of Jesus Christ.
There is another major difference. Under the new covenant, we learn that God will write His laws in our hearts and minds. Under the old, God simply gave His laws on tables of stone. The Israelites agreed to obey His laws without understanding that, by their own human efforts, they were unable to do this (Exodus 24:7-8).
His laws in our heart
This shows us the chief weakness of the old covenant (Hebrews 8:7-10). Israel did not have the heart to faithfully keep God's commandments (Deuteronomy 5:29). Under the new covenant, God is writing His law in our hearts and minds. Not the laws of physical purification contained in the system of sacrifices, washings and service in the tabernacle; instead, He is adding to our very being His holy and righteous laws, which define right behavior and attitudes toward Him and our neighbor (Romans 7:12).
When we partake of the wine, we acknowledge the covenant relationship ratified by the blood of Jesus Christ. We are in effect saying we will allow God's Spirit to work in our hearts and minds, meaning that we will keep God's laws out of a deeply thankful attitude for His forgiveness of our sins. Without the gift of the Holy Spirit, we cannot muster up the spiritual strength to obey His laws.
The apostle Peter refers to us as the "elect...for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:2). The Passover wine is a yearly renewal of our agreement to this covenantal relationship.
As we can see, the Passover is one of the most meaningful events of the year in the life of a Christian. We have seen that some in the early Church who were partaking of the Passover symbols of bread and wine were guilty of the blood and body of the Lord because they never understood or bothered to learn the real meaning and significance of their actions.
They allowed neither the depth of spiritual understanding nor the appreciation of the sacrifice of Christ to effect a spiritual change in their lives (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). It is important for us to fully understand the spiritual implications of our participation in the Passover.