RPM, Volume 15, Number 40, September 29 to October 5, 2013

Covenant Theology
The Covenant in Hebrews
The Marriage Feast of the Lamb

By J Ligon Duncan, III

Introduction to Covenant Theology
History of Covenant Theology - Overview of Works, Redemption, Grace
The Covenant of Works (Creation) - Blessings, Obligations, Penalties
Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace
Covenant of Preservation (Noah and Abram)
Abrahamic Covenant (Covenant Signs and Implications)
The Reformed Doctrine of Baptism & New Testament Practice
The Mosaic Covenant
Dispensationalism - A Reformed Evaluation
The Davidic Covenant
OT Prophecies of the New Covenant / The Holy Spirit in the OT & NT
Covenant in the Synoptics, Acts and Pauline Writings
Covenant in Hebrews / The Supper of the New Covenant

As we have already mentioned, Hebrews has more occurrences of diatheke than in the rest of the New Testament. This relative prominence of the covenant conception in Hebrews may be attributed to the authors’ preoccupation with the comparison with the old and with the new religious systems of Judaism and Christianity. I mean it is natural that you would revert to the covenant concept to help you describe the distinctives of the era brought about by the advent of Christ. In Hebrews 7:22, diatheke occurs for the first time. In connection with the priesthood of Melchizedek and here the author says, “Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant,” kreittonon diathekes. In the context the covenant idea is introduced in a discussion of the superiority of Christ’s priesthood over the Aaronic priesthood. Jesus’ priesthood that is according to the order of Melchizedek, the author of Hebrews argues, brings a change of law and a better a hope. Ultimately, Jesus’ priesthood is superior to the older priesthood, because it was established by divine oath. It is this oath that brings to the author’s mind the idea of the establishment of a better covenant. This covenant is mentioned only in passing but will dominate the discussion that follows.

The Mediator of a Better Covenant

The covenant idea is picked up again in Hebrews chapter 8, verse 6, where the author reiterates that Jesus is the mediator of a better covenant. Again, same phrase, kreittonon diathekes. A better covenant which has been enacted on better promises. Paul had spoken of Moses as a covenantal mediator. He had used the technical term, mesites, mediator, in Galatians 3:19 and following. Now Hebrews applies that same term to Christ. Another argument for the author of Hebrews being a Pauline trainee. In 8:5, the whole of the Mosaic cultus, the whole ceremonial ritual, religious system, the whole Mosaic cultus is said to be a copy and shadow hupodeigmati, of Christ’s heavenly ministry, copy and shadow, and of Christ’s heavenly ministry.

As Christ’s ministry is superior to that of the priests, so also is the covenant of which He is a mediator. Christ is superior; His covenant is superior. This covenant is superior, in particular, because it has been founded on better promises. Verse 6. The author spells out these better promises by quoting Jeremiah 31, verses 31-34, and he does that in verses 8-12. But before quoting from Jeremiah 31, he asserts in 8:7, that if the first, covenant implied, had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second covenant implied. In this way, the quotation of Jeremiah that follows, functions as proof of the imperfection of the Old Covenant. If the old were faultless, why did God speak through the prophet of a new one, not like the old one, and as an inventory of better promises of the covenant? So the imperfection of the covenant is in view and the better promises of a better covenant are in view.

There are four promises given in the quotation. The first is that God would put His law in their hearts. Verse 10b. Second, that He would be their God, and they His people. 10c. Third, that all would know Him, from the least to the greatest, verse 11. And fourth, that God would forgive their sins. Verse 12.

The second promise expresses continuity with the Old Covenant. You remember the covenant formula, the Emmanuel principle, “I will be your God, and you will be My people,” had been given to the people under the Mosaic economy, Exodus 6:7, Leviticus 26:12. The other three promises evidenced the discontinuity between the New Covenant and the Old Covenant, because they represent blessings which the Mosaic system was incapable of producing as the author of Hebrews is going to argue for the next two chapters. So the author concludes, when God said a New Covenant, He made the first now obsolete. Verse 13. In the following section, the author of Hebrews, illustrates the obsolescence of the Old Covenant.

The covenant (diatheke) concept in Hebrews

Just a few preliminary observations concerning Hebrews use of the covenant idea. First and most obviously, the author views Christ’s ministry explicitly in terms of Jeremiah’s New Covenant. Second, the idea of covenant as a relationship is prominent in the discussion. The author is concerned with what? People doing what? Drawing near to God. The whole thrust of his argument is that there is greater access to God by virtue of Jesus’ ministry in the New Covenant. Third, the binding character of this relationship is manifest in the author’s reference to the divine oath in establishing Christ’s priesthood. You remember, he says, one of the ways that Christ’s priesthood is better than the priesthood of the line of Aaron, is what? Because God made an oath to Jesus in making Him a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek. He has sworn an oath in establishing Him as our Mediator, and that is something you never did with the Old Covenant priests. The better covenant is a better covenant, because among other things, it is permanent. It is eternal. And it is permanent because of the oath by which God bound Himself to make Christ a priest forever.

In showing the superiority of the New Covenant, the author of Hebrews now compares the priestly ministry of Christ to the priestly ministry of the tabernacle. By focusing on the worship of the Old Testament, of the Old Covenant, and particularly that of the tabernacle, Hebrews is able to bring into bold relief the temporary character of the former order. Diatheke is employed twice in Hebrews 9:4. First with reference to the Ark of the Covenant. And again in mentioning the Tables of the Covenant. The latter usage of the term reminds us of the close relation in which the Mosaic law and covenants stood.

The author reviews the tabernacle furnishings and the rituals of the Day of Atonement in Hebrews 9, verses 1-7, and he concludes by commenting on the role of those ordinances in Old Testament religion. First he says, that the Old Covenant ceremony was symbolic. That only the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, only by blood, only once a year, for him that symbolized, it signified that the way into the most holy place had not yet been disclosed. So as long as the first tabernacle was standing, and that by metonymy, by part for the whole argument, that means what? As long as the Levitical system is in operation, the way into God’s presence, the real way, into God’s presence has not been revealed. You see that argument in verses 8 and 9.

Second, the author says, that the old ordinances were ineffective. That is, the Levitical atonement ritual was unable to make the worshiper perfect in conscience. In Hebrews 10, and this is a fundamental argument of that passage; the old ordinances were ineffective. They couldn’t make you perfect in conscience. They couldn’t deal with the guilt of sin. Third, he argues that the old ordinances are temporary measures. They were until a time of Reformation he says. And hence, the Old Covenant ceremonies inherently imply the need for a new order. As T.W. Manson says, “the lesson which the writer to the Hebrews draws from the whole facts is the self attested insufficiency of the old order of grace.”

And then as we have commented on this before, but beginning in verse 11, of Hebrews chapter 9, the author proceeds to demonstrate the supreme effectiveness of the New Covenant. Christ is the High Priest of the temple, not made with hands, verse 11. He enters into the Holy Place, not by the blood of animals, but by His own blood, verse 12. His sacrifice was not repetitious, but once for all, it obtains eternal redemption, verse 12. If the blood of bulls and goats was effective for ceremonial cleansing, verse 13, how much more will the blood of Christ effect the cleansing of the conscience. And here, in contrast to the symbolic, ineffective and temporary character of the Old Covenant ritual, Christ’s priestly work and sacrifice are seen to be actual, effective, and eternal.

And then in verse 15, he says, “for this reason, He is the mediator of a New Covenant.” That is, the basis of His mediatorship is His sacrificial death. Through His mediation, the better promises of the New Covenant have been effected. He has earned His place by His obedience as Mediator. Furthermore, you remember all the way back when we were looking at Luke, we noticed that Luke tied together the idea of the Abrahamic Covenant being fulfilled in the coming of Christ, in the work of Christ and the forgiveness of sin. Now listen to what the author of Hebrews says in verse 15. His death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant.

Now this is huge. The author of Hebrews is not satisfied to say, that now that Christ has come, His sacrifice serves as the atoning sacrifice, as the atoning offering for all of God’s people present and future for the work of Christ. He wants you to understand that Christ’s sacrifice actually works proleptically. It works backwards in time, as well as, forwards in time. So that Christ’s sacrifice is not only the sacrifice for all of those who are under the New Covenant, but is actually the real sacrifice that brought about union with God, under the Old Covenant, and the Old Covenant sacrificial system was merely a shadow of that real sacrifice. This is why Hebrews is the key book in the New Testament to teach you how to understand typology, because it teaches us that the relationship between Old Testament shadows, and New Testament realities.

Now, another term. Old Testament types and then New Testament antitypes. The relationship is not simply that this happens, the Old Testament shadow happens, and it predicts accurately this thing that is going to happen here in the New Testament. The New Testament reality which is a heavenly reality actually invests the Old Testament type with the only usefulness that it has. You need to read Murray on this, and you need to read Clowney on this as you work through your biblical theology, because it will transform the way you see the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments. Not just that the Old Testament is predicting something that is going to come, but it is that the effectiveness of the Old Testament system itself is dependent upon the heavenly reality of the work of Christ, which is fulfilled in time, after the Old Testament event, but because it is a heavenly reality, it already has significance before it actually occurs in time. And that is why the author of Hebrews can so confidently say, all the Old Testament sacrifices offered from here to here could not forgive sins, and yet at the same time, could be so confident that all the believers in God, from here to here, were indeed accepted in God, because Christ’s heavenly work pertained to them, just like it pertains to us. Now that is mind-boggling stuff. But it is rich. So it is worth pondering.

Question. What about Gentiles in the Old Testament. How did they have access to God? Thank you. I mean all the Gentiles, who trusted in the Lord God of Israel, in accordance with the teaching of His prophets, and yes, proselytes, too, Naaman, and Ruth. Of course we don’t know how many were there, we only have a certain number of them listed for us in the Old Testament, and those are good examples. You know, God clearly discriminates in favor of Israel in that sense, because Israel is given revelation that the other nations are not given. And so their access to God must be through, mediated through, Israel.

Now, we have already taken a good long, hard look at verses 16 and 17, and the translation and meaning of diatheke there, so I won’t belabor that, except, just to say this, to reiterate this. One point emerges clearly from verses 16 and 17 of Hebrews chapter 9: the connection between the inauguration of the covenant of Sinai, the Mosaic Covenant, the connection between that and the inauguration of the New Covenant by Christ. The first covenant’s mediator, Moses, inaugurated it with the sprinkling of blood of calves and goats. The New Covenant’s Mediator, Christ, inaugurated it by the shedding of His own blood. The superiority of the New Covenant sacrifice of Christ is manifest in that it brings cleansing from sin, which the sacrifices of the first Covenant could not accomplish. Its efficacy is permanent in duration, and the author reiterates this in the next usage of diatheke which you find in Hebrews 10, verse 16. The author reiterates this as he quotes from Jeremiah 31, verses 33 and 34, and he emphasizes the covenantal promise of the law written on the heart and the forgiveness of sins.

And he concludes, “now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.” Now the forgiveness of sins has been realized in the New Covenant, there is no longer any need for the sacrifices of the Old Covenant. And that is his argument: in the termination of the repeated sin offerings, the finality of the sacrifice of Christ is confirmed.

But Hebrews is not finished with the covenant idea yet. Alongside the greater blessing of the New Covenant, there is a severer penalty for the covenant breaker in the New Covenant. Hebrews 10, verses 28 and 29: “Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses, dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant, to haima tes diathekes, the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified and has insulted the spirit of grace.” That is a hard passage any way you cut it. The author here brings back into view the mutuality of the covenant. Covenant loyalty, covenant faithfulness, and covenant fidelity is expected of those who have united themselves to the New Covenant community. When the covenant is repudiated, the curses come into play. For Hebrews, this is just as true, and indeed more so under the New Covenant, as it was under the old. So the argument that the Old Covenant was the covenant of wrath and curse, and the New Covenant is the covenant of love and mercy, is dispelled. In fact, his argument is that the punishment is severer in the New Covenant for rejecting the revelation of God.

In the next occurrence of diatheke in Hebrews, the author again contrasts the Old Covenant and the New. Christians come not to ominous Mt. Sinai, verses 18 — 21, but to glorious Mt. Zion, verses 22 and 23. And as several of you were pointing out to me, this is picking up on a major theme in the book of Isaiah, and the idea of the mountain of the Lord to which the nations will stream. Christians come not to Sinai, but to Zion, and to Jesus the Mediator of a New Covenant, verse 24, kia diathekes neas mesite Iesou. It is His sprinkled blood which has inaugurated the covenant, and this blood speaks better than Abel’s blood which cried to God from the ground. The author’s final use of diatheke comes in his closing prayer. Where he speaks of the “God of peace who brought up from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant” en haimati diathekes haioniou, “even Jesus Christ our Lord.” Once more, Hebrews emphasizes the everlasting character of the covenant which has been establishes by the blood of Christ. Our own Sam Kistemaker observes this, “Two major themes dominate this epistle. The high priestly work of Christ, summarized in the expression, blood, and the covenant that is eternal.” In this verse, once again, and for the last time, these themes are highlighted. God’s covenant with His people will remain forever. That covenant has been sealed with Christ’s blood which was shed once for all.

So for the author of Hebrews, the first covenant has been set aside in order that the second might be established, chapter 10, verse 9, and the second covenant is the New Covenant inaugurated in Christ’s blood and it is a better covenant. Not only because it is effective in accomplishing what the first covenant couldn’t do because it wasn’t designed to do, but it is better because it is an everlasting covenant.

Seven points of summarization.

One, the author of Hebrews sees the priestly work of Christ as the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s New Covenant. And also, though less prominently, a fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise.

Second, the sacrificial death of Christ establishes the New Covenant. As the blood of the covenant sprinkled at Sinai inaugurated the first covenant, so Christ’s blood shed at Calvary inaugurated a New Covenant. Christ also functions as the mediator of the New Covenant, as Moses, the high priest did under the old.

Third, the New Covenant is superior to the first, that is, the Mosaic covenant, because whereas the first was unable to effect a cleansing of the conscience, the New Covenant brings to us the realization that our sins are forgiven. Hence, in Hebrews, the New Covenant idea is closely connected with the forgiveness of sins. Furthermore, the first covenant was temporary, while the New Covenant is permanent. In it, the whole religious process comes to rest. In both of these, the New Covenant author stresses its discontinuity with the old order.

Nevertheless, fourth, there is continuity between the first and second covenants. In both economies, God has revealed Himself. You remember the opening words of the book, “in past times, God has revealed Himself, many times, and in many ways,” so in both economies, God has revealed Himself, though the latter revelation is ultimate. In both, drawing near to God is the aim of the priesthood in the covenant. In both, “I will be your God, and you will by My people” is the motto, though its fullness is only realized by Jesus’ priesthood in the New Covenant.

Fifth, following on this, the idea of covenant as a relationship is manifest in Hebrews. The mutually binding character of the covenant is illustrated on both the divine and human sides. God binds Himself by oath, to covenant faithfulness in establishing Christ’s priesthood. Those who repudiate the covenant relationship into which they have been brought by virtue of Christ’s blood, are liable to the full force of the covenant curse.

Sixth, every occurrence of diatheke in Hebrews can be reasonably rendered covenant, though it is possible to translate it, testament, in verses 16 and 17 of chapter 9. However, even that passage is better translated as covenant and the idea of covenant is clearly dominant in the author’s general usage of diatheke.

Seventh, finally, the importance of the covenant idea in the author’s presentation of redemptive history is readily apparent. The first covenant, and the second covenant, the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant, both translate his concepts as epics in salvation history. The New Covenant abrogates the Mosaic Covenant, but it does so by fulfilling it. Listen to that again. The New Covenant abrogates the Mosaic Covenant, but is does so by fulfilling it. In this way, Hebrews asserts simultaneously the continuity and discontinuity of the divine plan. As Geerhardus Voss has said, “more than any other New Testament document, Hebrews develops what might be called ‘a philosophy of the history of Revelation.’ It teaches us about what changes and what stays the same, what is constant, what develops.” The only occurrence of the term diatheke in the book of Revelation is found in Revelation 11:19, in reference to the Ark of the Covenant, and the Temple of God, when heaven was opened and the Ark of His Covenant appeared in His temple and there were flashes of lightening and there were sounds and peels of thunder and an earthquake and a great hail storm. I won’t say much about that except to say that instrument which was such a tremendous symbol of God’s presence with His people in the Old Covenant is picked up upon by John and shown to us in the heavenly temple as a picture, as a reminder, as a symbol of the union with God which is accomplished in the New Covenant. So there again, even the Ark of the Covenant, the Old Covenant patterns, are picked up by John to emphasize New Covenant realities.

Let me do a grand summary in conclusion on what we have done so far. Having surveyed each occurrence of the word, diatheke in the New Testament, it will be appropriate to draw together some common themes related to the covenant idea in the Synoptics, Acts, Paul, and Hebrews.

Conclusion — Common covenant themes in the Synoptics, Acts, Paul, and Hebrews

First we may note that in the Synoptics, in Acts, Paul and Hebrews, the “Christ event” is seen as fulfillment of the Abrahamic Promise. Hence, each evidences belief that the blessings of God’s covenant with Abraham are now coming to rest on all the followers of Christ. Now, let me just draw an implication here. There is exegesis that suggests that God never had in view the blessing of the Gentiles in the forming of them into the Church in the Old Testament, but that the Abrahamic Promises are always and only intended for the physical descendants of Abraham who believed. What you hear me describing is a form of a Dispensational exegesis. It cannot not account for this New Testament pattern which is uniform. Those Abrahamic promises are fulfilled in Christ and they are for all who are followers of Christ whether Jew of Greek. Slave or free. Male or female. The Abrahamic Promises come to rest on all of these.

Second, in the Synoptics, Paul, and Hebrews, the New Covenant established in the blood of Christ is identified as the fulfillment of the New Covenant prophecy in Jeremiah 31. And thus, in the explanation of the meaning of Christ’s death, given by Christ Himself, He relates the meaning of that death, to the covenant, and especially the covenant promise of Jeremiah 31.

Third, the Synoptics, and Hebrews, interpret the death of Christ in light of the Covenant inauguration ceremony of Exodus 34. While there may be hints in the Synoptic, in the Eucharistic narratives, that Christ’s death was also viewed in terms of the Passover lamb of the Exodus, explicit Passover imagery is more readily identifiable in I Corinthians 5:7, I Peter 1:19, and in the writings of the Apostle John.

Fourth, in the Synoptics, Acts, Paul, and Hebrews, the covenant idea is explicitly linked with forgiveness of sins. This forgiveness of sins is seen as a fulfillment of both the Abrahamic Promise, and Jeremiah’s New Covenant prophecy, and is a hallmark of the New Covenant established by Christ.

Let me just come back again and draw a conclusion from that. Do you see why, again, we say that Covenant Theology is just the Gospel? I mean, can you preach the Gospel without addressing the forgiveness of sins? No. Well, here in the New Testament, that concept of the forgiveness of sins is inextricably linked with the fulfillment of God’s covenant initiatives. So Covenant Theology is at the heart of preaching the Gospel of the free forgiveness of sins through the costly work of Christ.

Fifth, throughout the New Testament writings, diatheke is best rendered covenant. There are perhaps, two passages, where it is possible to render diatheke differently: Galatians 3:15, and Hebrews 9:16-17. But even there, the preferred rendering is covenant.

Sixth, Paul, in II Corinthians 3, in Galatians 3, and Hebrews, interprets the history of redemption in covenantal terms. For each of them, the New Covenant is vastly superior to the old. When they are contrasting the new redemptive economy to the old, they represent the era before Christ, in the form of the Mosaic economy.

Seventh, Paul tends to stress discontinuity between the Mosaic economy and the new, between the letter and spirit, while emphasizing continuity between the Abrahamic Covenant and the new, promise and fulfillment. On the other hand, Hebrews while acknowledging continuity between the Abrahamic Covenant and the new, displays both continuity and discontinuity with regard to the Mosaic and New Covenants. For the author of Hebrews, the New Covenant, not only sets aside the Old Covenant order, it fulfills it. And proleptically invested it with meaning.

Eighth, you may recall that we read that statement by Delbert Hillers, when he argued that “when the new comes, all the old shadows pass away and that one of the shadows that passed away in the coming of Christian revelation was the covenant.” Well, contrary to the view of Delbert Hillers, in none of the New Testament traditions is the covenant idea itself seen as one of the shadows which passes away with the coming of the new era in redemptive history. It is appealed to in the Synoptics, Acts, Paul, Hebrews, and Revelation, as an adequate expression of the relationship between God and His people established by the work of Christ. In both Hebrews, and Paul, the covenant relationship transcends the temporal characteristics of the Mosaic administration and finds its ultimate realization in face to face communion with the God of the New Covenant. And so, for the New Testament theologians, the covenant idea is inextricably tied to the death of Christ. His blood inaugurated the New Covenant, and without that blood shed, there would have been no New Covenant. It is His death which is the ground of forgiveness of sins in the New Covenant, and His covenant mediation which assures everlasting communion with God.

Now that is the barest of surveys of the New Testament as to explicit references to the term covenant. Can you imagine what we would come up with if we did a more extensive search of ideas connected to covenant. The only reason I wanted to go through that long exercise, not only does it give you a rich resource to work from as you preach the Gospel from the New Testament, but it reminds us of just how pervasive the covenant idea is in the New Testament and when you think about the Gentile character of so many of the early converts to Christianity and to those receiving these letters, it is all the more remarkable that the covenant idea is so woven throughout the New Testament.

The Supper of the New Covenant

Now, to Luke 22. I want you to look closely at this narrative, beginning in verse 14.

“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.’ And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He said, ‘Take this and share it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes.’ And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood. But behold, the hand of the one betraying Me is with Me on the table. For indeed, the Son of Man is going as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!’”

Let me remind you that the place where Jesus was standing when He delivered these words on the night in which He was delivered up, was packed with redemptive historical significance. God had sent Abram to the land of Moriah in Genesis 22 to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah. David, when he had taken the census of his people in pride, and the Lord had determined to send the avenging angel to punish David and Israel for their pride and trusting in fighting men and in horses and in human might, had offered up a thank sacrifice on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite in II Samuel chapter 24. God had spared Israel, you will recall. Seventy thousand had already died. But God spared Jerusalem. And so David offered a sacrifice. You remember the incident, Ornan wanted to give him the field. David said, “Ornan, I will not offer a sacrifice to the Lord that costs me nothing.” And therefore he paid for Ornan’s field and he built an altar and sacrifices of thanksgiving were offered to the Lord. In II Chronicles 3, verse 1, we are told by the Chronicler that Solomon built the temple on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite on Mt. Moriah. The temple mount in Jerusalem is on Mt. Moriah, the same place where the angel of death had withheld his hand from Jerusalem, the same place where Abraham had offered up Isaac in obedience to the Lord and where a substitute had been found for Isaac. And here we are at the Last Passover in Luke 22, verses 14-18. This is the end of the old covenant sacrament of Passover. I want to point out three or four things to you that are striking about Jesus in this passage.

First of all, look at the words of verse 15 very closely. Jesus says, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you.” Do you note Christ’s earnest desire for this event? Christ genuinely earnestly has been anticipating sitting down to this Passover feast with His disciples, even though He knows what it is going to cost Him. Gethsemane is the window which God gives us on the almost paralyzing effect of Christ’s foreknowledge. In Gethsemane we see Christ’s soul bared for a moment, and you see how terrifying the process or prospect of His abandonment to covenantal judgment is to the heart of Christ. And yet that is just one window, and when Jesus says, “I have eagerly desired to eat this meal with you,” you have to recognize that alongside all the genuine paternal love that He has for these men, and with all the genuine divine love that He has for these men, when He says, “I have earnestly desired to eat this meal with you,” alongside of that He knows exactly what that means for Him. He knows that when He sits down to eat this meal with them, He is less than twenty-four hours away from the most fearful event that has ever occurred in the history of the universe. And yet He says, I have eagerly, I have earnestly desired to eat this meal with you. We don’t have a clue. We don’t have a clue as to how glorious that is.

Secondly, notice Christ’s love for His disciples, for His people manifested in this passage. Verse 15 again, “I have eagerly desired to eat this meal with you.” That ought to be enormously encouraging to you, because Jesus knew that not simply Judas, but every last one of His disciples were going to abandon Him that night. And in the hours to come, they would flee, Matthew tells us, they would all depart from Him and He would be left alone. Notice Matthew’s description. Matthew 26, verse 56:

“But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled. Then all the disciples left Him and fled.”

His hour of need. All the disciples left Him and fled. Can you imagine what it must have been like for the inspired author, Matthew, to have to pen those words about himself? And yet Luke says, that the Lord Jesus looked at them that night in full knowledge of what they would do and said, “I have eagerly desired to eat this meal with you.” I know you, I know your hearts, I know what you are going to do, and I want to eat the meal with you. Does that impact how you perceive the love of Christ for you? He knows your heart and all its ugliness and all its sin. And He not only goes to the tree for you, but He desires to sup with you. Now as painful as that is to think about, it is also comforting. Because if He know what I am like, and He knows what I will be like, and He still desires to sup with me, can there be anything of which I am afraid? Can there be anything that separates me from the love of God in Christ?

Thirdly, again, in verse 15, we see here a reminder. Christ’s reminder to, and encouragement of the disciples. Notice His words,” I have eagerly desired to eat this meal with you before I suffer.” Three little words: Before I suffer. Christ is reminding the disciples again of His coming crucifixion and He is offering this as an encouragement for His disciples’ later reflection, so that when they are restored, when after the resurrection, they are drawn back in again, the disciples can remember, He told us that this was going to happen before it happened. This was not an accident. He did not simply fall into the hands of the Romans. He did not simply fall into the hands of the Jews. This is not a great cosmic glitch. This is not something that God did not foresee. This is not something that He did not foresee. He told us this would happen. Why didn’t we see that at the time? You see what an encouragement this would be to them. How discouraging it would be to them for this to happen and not to have been warned. They were faithless enough as it is.

Fourthly, in verses 16-18, we see a glorious pledge of Jesus Christ to all His people. Here, He expresses His complete commitment to our redemption. “I shall never eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” As Passover symbolized Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, so also it pointed forward to the ultimate deliverance from sin and death which was to be accomplished by Christ. Christ asserts here that He will not eat that Supper until total salvation has been visited on all His people. Then He will sit down and sup with His people in the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. And there is an interesting passage, and I just want to share it with you in passing, found in Luke 12, when Jesus is telling the disciples to be ready for His coming and He says this about the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. Verse 37,

“Blessed are those slaves whom the master shall find on the alert when he comes; truly I say to you, that he will gird himself to serve, and have them recline at the table, and will come up and wait on them.”

Now, I want you to see the rich investment of that chapter. You remember the great controversy of the Upper Room was whether Peter would allow the Lord Jesus to wash his feet at the table. Peter was struck by the inappropriateness of the Lord, his maker, his master, his Savior, washing his feet in the manner of an oriental slave. And Jesus is saying to His disciples, this is not the last time I will serve you. I will serve you in the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. You will recline at the table. The Bridegroom himself will serve His people. And you will be there, friends, if you trust in Christ.

Now let’s look at the Lord’s Supper itself. Verses 19-20. Now remember the disciples still have the taste of the Passover lamb in their mouths. And Christ takes bread and breaks it, and He says something that had never ever been said before at a Passover meal. Not for fourteen hundred years had anything like this ever been said at a Passover meal. He says, “this is My body, which is for you.” Now the disciples could not have missed the connection that Jesus is making for them there. They could not have missed the fact, that fact is they still taste the Passover lamb and the bitter herbs, and here is Jesus breaking this bread and saying, “this is My body.” He is drawing as close a connection between His death and the slaughter of the Passover lamb as you could possibly draw.

The Bread

So let’s look at the bread. When He says, this is my body, which is given for you, do this in remembrance of me, in verse 19, what does He mean? Well friends, first of all, He doesn’t mean transubstantiation. Jesus is standing in front of them. He doesn’t mean that this bread has magically transformed itself into “My flesh.” He was standing before them. They clearly understood the representative nature of what He was saying. He was no more saying that the bread has turned into His body, than He meant that He was a gate, or that He was a door, when He used that type of representative language in the Gospels. He is standing before them and the purpose of doing this is to do what? To explain the meaning of what He was going to do tomorrow. All the disciples’ hopes were going to come crashing down around their ears, tomorrow. Why? Because all their preconceptions about what Christ was here for and about the kingdom of God were going to brought to nothing. And Jesus is absolutely determined to explain to them again the meaning of what was going to happen, the meaning of His death, the meaning of His sufferings, and the theological, the redemptive historical significance of what He was going to do.

And the first thing that He does, in the breaking of the bread and giving it, is point them to the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, who was “bruised for our iniquities.” Now, I know that my dear brother, Knox Chamblin likes to stress the fact that the best manuscripts do not speak of this phrase, “This is my body, which is broken for you.” He likes to stress that the Passover lamb and the sacrificial animals of the Old Testament all had to be perfect with no broken bones and of course, that is a stress of the Gospels themselves, which make it very clear that in the way that Christ was treated on the cross, no bones were broken, He was a perfect sacrificial body. But at the same time, we need to understand that the broken bread here and the body which is going to be killed, is directly corollary to the bruised, to the crushed servant of Isaiah 53. His body will be metaphorically broken for the sake of His people. By His stripes, we shall be healed. By His death, we shall be raised to newness of life.

Furthermore, the vicarious, the substitutionary nature of His actions are stressed. This is My body which is given for you. This stresses the substitutionary character of His actions, His sacrifice, precisely in the language of Isaiah 53, verses 4-12: “All we like sheep have gone astray. But the Lord has laid on Him, the iniquity of us all.” He is a substitute. And then Christ calls them to remember. And that is ironic as well, because they forgot. “Don’t ever forget the meaning of what I am doing tomorrow, and every time you come to eat this meal together, from hence forth until the marriage supper of the lamb, you remember the meaning of what I did for you.” That is what He is saying. Do this in remembrance.

The cup.

And then the cup in verse 20. “This cup, which is poured out for you, is the New Covenant in My blood.” Christ is saying to the disciples that His blood, symbolized in the wine of that cup, His blood will seal the covenant. This cup is the new covenant in My blood. For six hundred years the godly of Israel had been waiting for the fulfillment of the promise given to that broken nation through the weeping prophet Jeremiah. And Jesus, to this tiny little circle of the remnant of Israel, announces on this night “the promise has arrived in Me. And the promise will be inaugurated in My death.” This is so shocking. This is so surprising. It is so glorious. This promise, this glorious promise accomplished in the death of the Messiah. That is what He is saying to His disciples. This cup is the new covenant in My blood. His death is substitutionary. It is stressed here again in the cup word, “this cup is for you, My blood is poured out for you, the cup is poured out for you.” I am not having to do this for Myself. I am doing this because I love you, I am doing this in your place.

And I want to stress that, friends. This is strictly substitutionary atonement. It is not simply that Christ is doing this for our benefit. He is doing it in our place. And the horror of what the Lord Jesus is doing here, the greatest horror is the curse which He receives from His Father in order to fulfill the requirement of the atonement. You see, we so often focus on the physical dimensions of the Lord’s suffering. And I don’t mean to down play those by any stretch. And we focus on His physical death and the anomaly of that. Death is brought into the world by sin, and Jesus didn’t sin. By no right should He have had to have died. But you see, those things are not the horror.

It is very important for you to understand that the cross itself is not the curse. It is but he instrument of the infliction of human suffering on Christ. The greatest horror of what Jesus endured for us, and even the cross itself, that cruel, that torturous instrument of punishment, the great suffering which Christ underwent was the divine censure of His own Father. And that is why He cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” That is why Paul can say, “He made Him, who knew no sin, to be sin for us. That we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” The horror of the cross is that on the cross, the wrath of God strikes out at the one place in the universe where it has no right to strike out. And the only explanation of that is for us. The Father loves us so much that He is ready to do that. The Son loves us so much, He is ready to take our place. And how this relates to the perichoresis circumincessio, the Father, of the Son, and of the Spirit, I have no idea. I have not the foggiest. How that eternal, unbroken communion of the Father, Son, and the Spirit relate to that moment of divine damnation of the Son. But I know that it is the most real moment in the history of the universe, in some ways, almost eternal, and the blackness, just as in the plague of death in Egypt. And so Jesus says, this cup is the new covenant. This cup points to the act of atonement. And that act of atonement is the long awaited event that brings about the realization of the promises given by God by the prophet Jeremiah.

Words of warning.

Two words of warning based on the truth of this passage. And the first warning is to the self-righteous. There are a lot of people in the world, relatively moral people, people that we tend to call in the South, good people, salt of the earth people, who think that they can come into fellowship with God by their own righteousness. Such is their conceit. They don’t see themselves as utterly offensive and estranged from God. And they think that somehow on their own merits, they might be received before Him. There are many ways up the mountain. Many ways into fellowship with Him. But you see, the Lord’s table is set out there on the floor of the sanctuary to say there is one way into fellowship with God, and to come in your own righteousness is the supreme offense that God will not tolerate. Because to come in your righteousness and say, “Lord I don’t need your Son, I am acceptable on my own merits,” is to say, into the Father’s ears, “Your Son’s cry of dereliction wasn’t necessary for me.” And the Father will not hear that. Had there been any other way, to save you, I assure you the Father would not have heard that cry. And to say, “Lord, you must accept me though I have not embraced Your Son,” is to say, “Lord, that cry was a waste.” And the Lord will not allow in His presence any who are ambivalent about His Son’s damnation.

And so the Lord’s table, you see, rubbishes all human righteousness. It stands as a perpetual reminder of the one immortal, incomparable, indescribable irrepeatable transaction, and our embrace of Christ as He is offered in the Gospel, which is what it represents, teaches us that every time we cry out, “Abba, Father,” that the Father remembers that the reason why He is now our Father, is because there was a time when His own Son, couldn’t call Him Father, for your sake. So anyone who comes to Him and says, “you’re my Father, but I don’t need your Son as my Savior,” has no idea of the wrath that they are inviting upon themselves. Self-righteousness is not a good plan at the judgment day.

One other word of warning. For those who hate their brothers, and this is a standing issue in the Christian community, the Lord Jesus and the disciples wouldn’t have written about it so much if this were not a perennial pastoral problem. We know it ourselves friends, even amongst those with whom we are called to minister. We hurt one another. It is hard to love the saints. I shared with you before the words of the godly Highland lady to the minister at the door: “You know, the older I grow, the more I love the Lord’s people and the less I trust them.” Because the Lord’s people will hurt you. You will be pouring your heart to minister to them and they will break it and they will step all over it. And it produces a bitterness. The Lord Jesus at the table asks us to look at our relationships with our brothers and sister, even our feeble and weak and sinful and immature brothers and sisters. Look at those relationships through the crucible of what He has done on the cross, because all who are united to Him in His death are irreversibly united to all who are united to Him in His death. We can’t get away from one another. We belong to one another. And that means that my experience, that my gifts, that my abilities, that my love, that my loyalty, they belong to you, brothers and sisters. They are not mine. “We are not our own,” Calvin said, “we are God’s, we belong to Him. And because we are His in Christ, we belong to one another.” No wonder the early Christians in Jerusalem sold all they had and shared with one another. They understood that there was nothing that they could selfishly employ now for their own enrichment at the expense of others, because they belonged to one another. They had been bought with a price. And so my pain, and my comfort, which I gain from God, my walking through the valley of the shadow of death and my experience on the mountains, it all belongs to you. To be used for your blessing and edification. And so I can’t afford to hate my brothers, because I have been bought with a price. And now I must encourage my brothers to love and good deeds.

Words of encouragement.

Two words of encouragement. Christ’s death, that scene that we see in the Last Supper in the Last Passover in the inauguration of the Lord’s Supper, that scene which we are reminded of every time we come to the Lord’s table, doesn’t it remind us of God’s sovereignty in our lives even in the worst of times. Jesus makes it so clear to His disciples. He says, “don’t be mislead by the events that are about to occur. I am going to be betrayed, but this is according to the predetermined plan of God. “ You remember His words, in Luke 22:22, don’t forget them: “The Son of man is going as a complete and total accident.” NO. That is not what it says. “The Son of man is going because God only controls good things and not bad ones, and He is going to fall into the hands of bad men.” NO. That is not what it says. “The Son of many is going as it has been determined. Not by some impersonal universal force of fate, but by the heavenly Father, it has been determined.” And so He says to His disciples. Don’t forget that what is going to happen to Me is not by accident, but by the predetermined plan of God.

And is it a coincidence, my friends, that the first two chances Peter has to preach the Gospel, he mentions just that. Is that just coincidence? That when you turn with me to Acts chapter 2, and in verse 23, when Peter is preaching his heart out in this evangelistic sermon and says, “men of Israel, listen to these words. Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God and with miracles and with wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know, this man delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to the cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.”

Is it an accident that Peter, who betrayed his Savior, Peter who heard his Savior tell him that he would not betray him, who contradicted his Savior and put to shame, not once, not twice, but thrice, who was later restored by his Savior, not once, not twice, but thrice, could not refrain in this evangelistic message, from reminding everyone there, believer and unbeliever alike, that what had happened to the Lord Jesus Christ was according to the determinate counsel, foreknowledge, and eternal decree of the Sovereign God of heaven and earth?

And if the Lord Jesus’ death, the wickedest event, the blackest event, the wrongest event in the universe is under the sovereign and determinate control of the almighty God, is there anything in our life and experience that is outside that control? And do you understand that if there is just one thing outside of that control, then we cannot sing with Paul, “neither death, nor life, nor earth, nor hell, nor times destroying sway, can ere efface us from His heart or make His love decay.” If there is something out there outside the sovereign control of God, then maybe there is something out there that can snatch us out of the hand of God. And Paul says, “Nothing such exists. Not one molecule in this vast universe is outside of His control.”

But the second thing is this. Perhaps, you are one of those Christians, or perhaps you minister to those Christians who struggle with a lack of assurance. I have just been written to by one, in the last week, a dear earnest child of a preacher struggling with assurance, who just can’t believe, just can’t believe that Christ’s grace is for her. And they sense their unworthiness, and they don’t even want to come to the Lord’s table, and for believers who are troubled by their struggles with sin and they feel unworthy to take the supper, remember this.

First, Jesus knew His own disciples would fail Him and abandon Him. He told them that they would and yet He loved them and it was to those wretched disciples that He said, “I have eagerly desired to eat this meal with you.” Because their participation in that meal was not ultimately dependent upon their worthiness, their worthiness was not the determining factor. His love was. May I translate that? Your worthiness is not the determining factor in coming to the table. Because the table of the Lord is not about your worthiness; it is about His worthiness. And that is why David Dickson said something like this. “When I come to Christ, I take all my evil deeds and all my good deeds and I pile them up in a heap and I flee from them to Christ.” Because the table is not about my worthiness, or my deeds at all; it is about the deeds by which He earned me. You all know that famous provocative statement by Rabbi Duncan of New College when he said, “sin is the handle by which I get hold of my Savior.” Now that is a striking saying, isn’t it? What did he mean? He is saying this, “when I open my Bible, I don’t see anywhere written, ‘God loves John Duncan,’ but when I open my Bible, I read ‘God loves sinners and has given His Son for them, and if those sinners will trust in Christ, then I will save them.’ And then I insert my name into those passages, because I am a sinner and I read, ‘God loves John Duncan, because John Duncan is a sinner who has trusted in Jesus Christ,’ and therefore I may be assured of His love, so it is my sin by which I get hold of my Savior. It is my recognition that I am a sinner that deserves to be condemned and it is that very recognition which Satan tries to use against me, which is in fact, the handle whereby I realize that all the benefits of God’s grace are for me.” They are not for the righteous, they are for sinners.

And so he could say to that godly Highland woman who was struggling with assurance and had not come to take the Lord’s Supper for years, and elders had urged her to come to the Lord’s table, but she kept saying, “I am not worthy,” and Duncan approaches her at the communion season, and she says, “but I am a sinner.” And he says, “take it woman, it is for sinners.” That is the whole point.

You see, the table teaches us that it is Christ who stands us before God. The covenantal mediator becomes the covenantal curse so that we might stand covenantally righteous before Him. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf in order that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. That is Covenant Theology. Believe it. It is the Bible. Preach it. Revel in it. Let’s pray.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the web page. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template. Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any error to be with the transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permissions information, please visit the FPC Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.

Copyright © J Ligon Duncan, III, The First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Mississippi.

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