1 Eucharist Why Jesus gave thanks over bread and wine Three questions to begin with: First of all, why did Christians in the early church have a ceremony called Eucharist? Secondly, did Eucharist have the backing and support of Scripture? And thirdly, is Eucharist still relevant for Christians living today? The word itself, Eucharist, may not sound relevant today, because it s mostly been replaced by The Lord s Supper and Communion, but it began as eucharistia, a Greek word meaning gratefulness or thanksgiving, that tied in with Jesus giving thanks for the bread and wine in Matthew 26:26, 27. But even the actual ceremony can seem a bit odd today too, because the use of bread and wine was very much a Jewish custom, conjuring up all sorts of images and echoes from purely Jewish history and Jewish ancestral traditions. That first Eucharist was at a Jewish table too, with only Jews present, and the terms used by Jesus to describe what he was doing were also very Jewish, terms like covenant and the pouring out of blood, verse 28. To a Jew, therefore, the eucharistia wasn t as odd as it would be to us if someone suddenly passed a loaf of bread and a cup of wine round the table and told us to eat and drink to picture his own body being sacrificed. The Jews were familiar with sacrifices, and what those sacrifices were for. So when Jesus talked to his disciples about the blood of the covenant being poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins he was talking to friends and fellow Jews who had centuries of Jewish history behind them, of blood pouring out from millions of their sacrifices for the forgiveness of their sins. The original Eucharist was held at the time of the Jewish Passover too, when Jews filled Jerusalem from all over Judea to buy sacrificial animals and birds at the Temple to have them slaughtered by the Temple priesthood. Blood from hundreds of thousands of sacrifices literally flowed like a river from the altar. So when Jesus talks of the cup they were drinking from picturing his blood being poured out for many, a Jew would have no trouble understanding what he meant, and especially at Passover. And when he talked of the blood of the covenant a Jew would know what that was all about too, because God had chosen Israel from all the nations on earth and promised their ancestors - in a covenant sealed with blood at the time of Moses - that they would be his people and he would be their God, so that through them God would rescue the world from Adam s sin, and get humanity back on track. The blood of that covenant with Israel, then, was the key to God s plan of salvation for all humanity, and creation.
2 And as Jews they d grown up with that. They knew from Isaiah 49:3 that You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendour. They knew verse 6 too, that I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth. That was the purpose of the blood of the covenant, to make Israel the means by which the creator would rescue his entire creation from the ravages of sin. So when Jesus passed the cup and said it was his blood that was now the blood of the covenant, imagine what that meant to a Jew (with ears to hear) in the first century. It was the most exciting news possible, because for the last five hundred years - since the Jews return from captivity in Babylon - God had not displayed his splendour, or brought salvation to the world through them. Their country was in a pathetic state, ruled by pagan Romans, and the Temple was ruled by a corrupt priesthood of mostly Sadducees who were more concerned about pleasing the Romans than pleasing God. But the Jews still kept sacrificing animals at the Temple and the blood kept flowing anyway because God had made a covenant with their father Abraham to bless all nations, and he d sealed that covenant with blood with Israel as the means by which he would bless all nations. The Jews also remembered that when they d sinned horribly and been dragged off into captivity, God had faithfully stuck to his covenant and got the Jews back into Jerusalem 70 years later to rebuild the city and the Temple. But something was still missing. The Jews had a new Temple but God s splendour, God s glory, God s divine Presence, or the Shekinah as the Jews called it, had not filled their Temple like it had filled Solomon s Temple back in 2 Chronicles 7:1-2. Right after Solomon finished praying (to dedicate the Temple in chapter 6), fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the Temple. The priests could not enter the Temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it. God also told Solomon privately that night, in verses 15-18: Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. I have chosen and consecrated this Temple that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there. As for you (Solomon), if you walk before me as David your father did, and do all I command, and observe my decrees and laws, I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father (in 2 Samuel 7:16-17) when I said, You shall never fail to have a man to rule over Israel. It was all so positive. God was dwelling with Israel like he d dwelt with them in the tabernacle in the wilderness, and in the fire and cloud during Israel s exodus from Egypt. He d also promised Israel a royal dynasty from David s family that would never end, confirming yet again that God would be faithful to his covenant with his beloved Israel. But 1,000 years later, as Jesus passed the bread and wine to his disciples, there was no king from David s family ruling over Israel, and no Shekinah in the Temple.
3 Something had gone horribly wrong. Instead of Israel being God s instrument, or agent, in rescuing humanity from Adam s sin and solving the ever- present problem of evil, Israel itself needed saving. It was like sending an icebreaker to free a ship stuck in Arctic ice and the icebreaker itself getting stuck. The rescuer now needed rescuing too. It seemed like God s plan had stalled. Prophet after prophet had been sent to Israel to get them to remember why God had chosen them, but as Hosea wrote in Hosea 11:2, the more I (God) called Israel, the further they went from me, and in verse 7, My people are determined to turn from me. And now, as Jesus passed the bread and wine, the Jews were completely powerless to be what God had chosen and called them to be. But in synagogue and Temple they still sang and read the Psalms, because - despite everything they d done to displease God and break their side of the covenant - they still hung on to that one tiny thread of hope they had left in Psalm 105:8-10 that He (the Lord our God, verse 7) remembers his covenant forever the covenant he made with Abraham, the oath he swore to Isaac. He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree, to Israel as an everlasting covenant. That was the story of all stories, and the only story in the world that counted. It was the story of God choosing Israel as his partner and agent to bring salvation to the whole earth, and because God was faithful to his covenant he would see it through to the end. So even though Israel had made a horrible mess of things, Psalm 106:40-42, and Therefore the Lord was angry with his people and abhorred his inheritance and he d handed (his people) over to the (pagan) nations...and subjected them to their power, they (Israel) could still depend on verses 43 and 45, that Many times he (God) had delivered them and for their sake he remembered his covenant. God had made a covenant with Israel in Exodus 19:5-6, that out of all nations you will be my treasured possession and you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. And in Exodus 24:8, Moses had taken blood from sacrificed bulls, sprinkled it on the people, and solemnly declared: This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you. From that moment on, then, the blood of the covenant was the lifeblood of Israel, guaranteeing God s faithfulness to see his plan through. Nothing would stop him using Israel to fulfill the promise he made to Abraham back in Genesis 12:3, that all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. But that meant the world depended on Israel. The covenant stated that all nations would be blessed through Israel, but only if Israel was a holy nation and a kingdom of priests. What the world desperately needed, therefore, was God doing something about Israel. While Israel wallowed in its sins and remained utterly powerless under the rule of pagan powers and a corrupt priesthood in the Temple, they were no help to anybody. What Israel desperately needed was another show of God s power, like the Shekinah in Solomon s Temple, and the rise of another great king from David s royal family.
4 The whole world was waiting for that to happen too. But nothing the Jews had done since building their second Temple had brought the Shekinah back to the Temple. No king from David s royal dynasty had risen to rule the nation either. Even when Judas Maccabaeus cleansed the Temple on December 25, 164 BC (the origin of Hanukkah), and a new group called the Pharisees tried to instill even stricter obedience to the Torah by adding all sorts of extra laws to obey, the Shekinah, the glory of God s divine Presence, had not returned to Israel, and that meant the world and all creation would have to keep on waiting for its rescue from the ravages of sin, death and evil. But then an angel announced to a young Jewess in Matthew 1:23, that she would give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means God with us. Oh, so the divine Presence of God, the Shekinah, had come to dwell with Israel in a person, not the Temple. And when King Herod wanted to know where this baby person was born, he was told In Bethlehem in Judea, Matthew 2:4-5, in fulfillment of the prophecy in Micah 5:2 that out of you (Bethlehem) will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel, verse 6. So just like that we suddenly have a ruler and the Shekinah, the two things Israel so desperately needed to be what the world was waiting for them to be. And then John the Baptist turns up in Matthew 3:2, yelling, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. You mean, heaven itself is coming to the earth too? Yes, and specifically to Israel as well, because the call was for them to repent. But if repentance was now possible because God was now setting up his kingdom on earth in Israel, that meant the time had come at last when Israel would become a holy nation and a kingdom of priests, which was exactly what the whole world and all creation had been waiting for. And this was the moment it was happening. The evidence started pouring in that it was true too, because in Matthew 3:5, People went out to him (John) from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of Jordan. Confessing their sins. So, all of a sudden, repentance and confession were sweeping the land, a clear sign that something was up and the divine Presence was on the move. But repentance and confession had happened before in Israel, and it had always fizzled out - just like it had after building their new Temple five hundred years earlier. If God really was about to bring his salvation to the ends of the earth in fulfillment of his promise to Abraham to bless all nations through his descendants, then something else needed to happen that had never happened before in Israel, which John the Baptist admitted too. I baptize you with water for repentance, he said in Matthew 3:11. BUT after me will come one.who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire, to burn up all the sin and evil in Israel. That s what was needed, just as predicted in Ezekiel 36:25-27, when God said, I will cleanse you from all your impurities and.i will give you a new heart, and I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
5 But that would take time, and a lot more waiting, while the Spirit went to work on Israel. What was needed was a way of speeding things up. To a Pharisee the way to do that was for all Israel to obey the Law better. To the Essenes (of Dead Sea Scrolls fame) it was clean up the Temple. To others it was start a revolution. The solution, however, was Jesus asking John in Matthew 3:15 to baptize him to fulfill all righteousness. It was in Jesus that all the righteousness Israel needed to be a holy nation and a kingdom of priests would be fulfilled, not in their law keeping, or Temple cleansing, or violent attacks against the Romans. And the Spirit was with him already making it possible, because At that moment, verse 16, heaven was opened, and he (John) saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him (Jesus). All the pieces were falling into place: Immanuel, God the divine Shekinah, was with them, and then the promise of a ruler in Israel, the sweeping desire to confess sins and repent, the promise of the Holy Spirit and fire to cleanse the nation of its sin, and now a person with the Spirit who could fulfill all the righteousness the nation needed. There was even more too, in verse 17, because a voice from heaven said, This is my Son. Well, to a Jew, the Son of God was the Messiah, the Anointed One of Daniel 9:25, the ruler (same verse), who would appear after seventy times seven years since their captivity in Babylon to finish transgression, to put an end to sins, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, verse 24. He would put an end to sacrifice and offering too, in verse 27, meaning the Temple was no longer necessary. But, take note, was this Anointed One and ruler also from the royal family of David? Yes, he was, Matthew 1:1 - he was Jesus Christ the son of David. And the reason the Temple and the sacrifices were no longer necessary was Jesus amazing challenge in John 2:19 - Destroy this Temple, and I will raise it again in three days, because, verse 21, the Temple he had spoken of was his body. There was no need for the Temple anymore because HE was the Temple. So now they had their Messiah with the Holy Spirit from the royal family of David, who would end all need for the Temple and sacrifices, because all righteousness and all atonement and forgiveness of sin would be fulfilled in him. It sounded extremely promising. Ah, but what proof could he offer that the Shekinah, the glory of the Lord that had filled Solomon s Temple, was now filling him? Well, they didn t have long to wait for an answer, because soon after Jesus gathered his disciples he went to a wedding and changed gallons of water into splendid wine, the first of his miraculous signs, John 2:11, and thus revealed his glory. And with his Shekinah thus revealed, all the pieces were in place from all those prophecies in their scriptures, that God had returned to Israel at last, to clean her up and make her a holy nation - so that he could start bringing salvation to the ends of the earth.
6 It was like the Exodus out of Egypt all over again. God had been faithful, heard the cry of his people, and here he was, yet again, rescuing his beloved Israel from slavery through another prophet like Moses. It was like a whole new start, a reenacting of the covenant promises to Abraham and Israel - only this time the blood of the covenant being poured out wasn t the blood of bulls, it was the blood of Jesus. It was a horrible shock to Jesus disciples that he had to die, but when Jesus took the bread and the cup picturing his death in Matthews 26:27 he gave thanks. To him the bread and wine were a eucharistia, a celebration of gratefulness and thanksgiving, because his blood would guarantee the completion of God s covenant to Abraham. The blood of bulls couldn t guarantee it, nor could Israel because of her unfaithfulness, but the blood of the one Israelite who had been faithful to everything God had given him to do, could. It explains why Jesus was thankful. He gave thanks because his Father had found a way of maintaining his covenant to bless all nations through Israel. A faithful Israelite s blood had been shed, and that was the blood of the covenant needed on behalf of Israel to make her a holy nation and kingdom of priests. Now the salvation of all creation from the ravages of sin and evil could begin. Jesus then promised his disciples in verse 29, that he would not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until the day I drink it anew with you in my Father s kingdom - meaning that he WOULD be drinking it with them later, because he knew his blood had guaranteed the completion of God s covenant to Abraham. In the meantime, or from now on, however, there would not be a lot to celebrate, because there was much suffering and hard work to be done to deal with evil and heal the damage. But the day was coming when they d be celebrating together in a world totally ruled and healed by the Father s kingdom. And they d celebrate with wine, picturing the blood of the covenant - the shedding of Jesus blood - that had made it all possible. But how is all this relevant to us? Well, we are the proof that the covenant was renewed by Jesus blood. God promised Abraham that all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. The you - we now see - came down to just one Israelite in the end, but from the obedient life and sacrifice of that one faithful Israelite a new Israel emerged, a new Temple, a new Shekinah, the Holy Spirit, that now filled a new holy nation and kingdom of priests called the Church, made up of all nations. And here we are today, as members of that new holy nation, taking bread and wine in gratitude to the Father for finding a way through the blood of his Son to maintain and renew his covenant to bless all nations through his new Israel, the Church. Through us now, the new Temple filled with the Shekinah, he is bringing his Kingdom, his glory, his salvation to humanity and all creation - which hopefully explains why Christians celebrate the Eucharist, why it s scriptural, and why it s relevant for us today.