January 14, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Matthew 26:26-30.
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, from now on I shall not drink this fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it with you new in the kingdom of my Father.” Then, after singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
The Passover, of course, commemorates the liberation or deliverance of the Israelites from enslavement in Egypt. The New Jerusalem Biblical Commentary references the Targum Neofiti I, the largest of the rabbinic commentaries on the Pentateuch. It elaborates on Exodus 12:42, “four great events of salvation history took place or were to take place on the Passover night: the creation of the world, the blinding of Isaac, the exodus from Egypt, and the coming of the messiah.” This night then in Jerusalem was the fourth and final great event of salvation.
What is this salvation? What are we being saved from? Barclay writes, “First and foremost then, Jesus claimed to be the great liberator. He came to liberate men from fear and from sin. He liberates men from the fears which haunt them and from the sins which will not let them go.” Barclay links fear and sin. I don’t think that he means that fear leads us into sin. I think he means that sin traps us in fear of being found out, fear of revenge or retribution, fear of being punished, fear of being cut off from God.
Matthew has done something very interesting in his gospel, though, in a reference to Leviticus. He added “for the forgiveness of sins” to Jesus’ words, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.” Neither do Luke and Paul include forgiveness in their telling of the Last Supper. For Matthew forgiveness was the hallmark of the new covenant with God. Forgiveness of our sins was the whole point of Jesus’ death, because with it comes liberation from both sin and fear.
The New American Bible notes that the blood of the covenant is a reference to Leviticus 17, which is about the offering of a sacrifice upon the altar and a prohibition against partaking of the blood of the slaughtered animal. Verse 11 reads, “Since the life of a living body is in its blood, I have made you put it on the altar, so that atonement may thereby be made for your own lives, because it is the blood, as the seat of life, that makes atonement.” The notes explain, “Hence, the sacrifice of an animal was a symbolic act which substituted the victim’s life for the life of the offerer, who thus acknowledged the he deserved God’s punishments for his sins.”
But for Matthew, Jesus was the embodiment of the new covenant with God. He freed us from the old belief that we deserved, and hence received, God’s punishment for our sins. As Barclay writes, “In particular the Passover Lamb was the symbol of safety….So, then, Jesus was claiming to be Saviour. He had come to save men from their sins and from their consequences. For much of my life, and still sometimes today, I have been entrapped in the old belief; I hadn’t accepted the new covenant. I couldn’t bring myself to believe that God is not going to punish me for my sins. He loves me no matter what. If I can accept that and truly believe it, it will liberate me from sin and from much of the desire to sin; it will lead me to act from His love for me in loving others instead of hating and offending and harming others.
Jesus told his disciples that night that by his blood they were liberated from sin and he tried to liberate them from fear as well. At some level the disciples understood this all that night. And so they left the upper room Jesus lead them in singing praises of God. The New Jerusalem Biblical Commentary states that the hymn they sang on the way to the Mount of Olives was the Hallel based on Psalms 115-118. In those psalms David sang, “I will raise the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD….I will offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the LORD….The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone….Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.”
Blessed is the new covenant, the forgiveness of our sins.