Blood of the Covenant
The Gospels’ record of the Last Supper of Yeshua and His disciples includes a statement that is often recited even today during the Christian celebration of communion, also called the eucharist: “This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24). Yeshua said this while holding a cup of wine. After eating the Passover meal, participants in a Passover Seder pour a third cup of wine to accompany Grace after Meals, the traditional Jewish prayer recited after eating a meal including bread. The Mishnah says, “They mixed a third cup for him, and he says a blessing for his food.” Some refer to the third cup as the cup of thanksgiving because it accompanies Grace after Meals. Likewise, Paul refers to the cup of the Master as “the cup of thanksgiving” (1 Corinthians 10:16). The text in Luke and 1 Corinthians explicitly states that Yeshua took the cup “after they had eaten,” “after the meal.” He took the third cup that accompanies Grace after Meals, as it says, “When He had taken a cup and given thanks …” (Matthew 26:27). The Greek word eucharisteo means “to give thanks” and, in this context, implies only the traditional Jewish practice of pronouncing a thanksgiving blessing to accompany a meal. The sacramental meaning of the word developed in later Christian tradition. The blessing spoken over the cup is not a blessing of the wine but a prayer of thanks to God. Our Master pronounced the blessing for wine and distributed the cup to His disciples, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” As He passed the cup of thanksgiving to His disciples, Yeshua instructed them henceforth to take the wine of Passover in remembrance of Him. With those words, He once again invested new symbolism into the Passover ceremony. He did not institute a new ritual or replace the previous symbolic associations. Previously, the disciples of Yeshua drank four cups at Passover in remembrance of the salvation from Egypt. As stated above, God ordained Passover as a “memorial” of the exodus. Rabbi Yeshua told His disciples to henceforth take the cups of Passover in remembrance of Him. He invoked three covenantal passages from the Scriptures: Exodus 24:8, Jeremiah 31:31, and Zechariah 9:11. Exodus 24 details the rituals of the blood-covenant ceremony at Mount Sinai—the original wedding ceremony between God and Israel. When Israel accepted the terms of the Torah, Moses splashed the people with sacrificial blood and declared, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Exodus 24:8). Jeremiah 31 describes the promise of the new covenant of the Messianic Era: “‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah … I will put My Torah within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people’” (Jeremiah 31:31, 33).
The writer of the book of Hebrews develops the “blood of the covenant” theme further, demonstrating that just as the covenant at Sinai was inaugurated with blood, so too, the new covenant needed to be inaugurated with blood (Hebrews 9:18ff.). Zechariah 9, a passage heavy with messianic prophecies, declares, “Because of the blood of My covenant with you, I have set your prisoners free from the waterless pit” (Zechariah 9:11). By alluding to these texts, Rabbi Yeshua indicated that He is the agent to bring about the new covenant: the Messiah. The new covenant, however, will not be sealed by sacrifices but by His own martyrdom. Blood which is “poured out” refers to the blood of martyrs—in other words, an idiom for a sacrificial death. Yeshua looked to the messianic prophecies of Isaiah 53. He also knew the Pharisaic theology of how the suffering of the righteous atones for sin. From that theological matrix, He spoke of His spilled blood providing forgiveness for sins. Tradition has embellished the ritual of the cup, but the original context indicates a simple Passover rite common to every Jewish home, albeit augmented with additional symbolic associations. The ritual does not imply literally ingesting blood; rather, it symbolizes Yeshua’s willing, sacrificial death: “For as often as you drink the cup … you proclaim the Master’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). As noted above, the traditional blessing for wine thanks God for creating the fruit of the vine. As He passed the cup to His disciples, Yeshua said, “I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25). The shared cup is often understood as sharing in a blessing bestowed by Yeshua, but the symbolism has more to do with the fraternity of a common bond. The act of drinking together unites the participants into a table fellowship with one another. The significance of the action is not so much in establishing a new rite or transmitting a blessing as it is a recognition that this was to be the last occasion on which they were able to raise the glass together with the Master.