Luke records that just prior to His arrest and crucifixion, Jesus ate a meal with His disciples. “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”” (Luke 22:19-20 NIV)
We’ve read and heard those words so many times that we tend to gloss over them and miss the meaning. What did Jesus mean when He called the cup a ‘new covenant’? What is a covenant? Another word for ‘covenant’ is ‘testament.’ Our Bible is divided into two sections which we call the Old and New Testaments. We call them that because they describe the two major covenants which have defined God’s relationship with mankind. Jesus called the covenant He was instituting ‘new’ because it supersedes the covenant which God had established with the Jewish people. But what is a covenant? A covenant is usually defined as a binding agreement between parties with stipulations and promises.
Who are the parties in the new covenant? God is one of them, we are the other. In order to bring the covenant into effect, Jesus Christ acted as the mediator between us and God.
What are the stipulations of the new covenant? In other words, what are the parties obligated to do? Reams could, and have, been written in answer to this question. In summary, our obligation is to answer God’s call and to accept Jesus as our Lord and Christ. For His part, God has obligated Himself to redeem us from the penalty of sin. He did this through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
What are the promises in the new covenant? It is interesting to note that in the new covenant, the promises are all on God’s side. We cannot promise Him anything, for aside from our self, which belongs to Him anyway, we have nothing we can give. Very briefly, among the things which God promises in the new covenant are, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, eternal life, a kingdom, participation in the divine nature and a new heaven and earth.
This whole process is summarized in Hebrews 9:15 where it says, “For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance–now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.” (NIV)
So far, I’ve talked about the new covenant in terms of a contract. While it is mind-blowing that God would bind or obligate Himself to do anything for us, there is much more involved in the biblical concept of covenant than just entering into a contract. When someone initiates a covenant, he has the best interests of the other party in mind. Not only is the covenant in the best interests of the other party, but if the other party is in danger of defaulting or breaking the covenant, he will extend whatever help is possible to help the other party keep the covenant. The Old Testament uses a Hebrew word hesed to express this. It is usually translated by words such as ‘faithfulness’ or ‘loving-kindness.’ When the Old Testament talks about God’s love or faithfulness, it often refers to God’s actions which are designed to help His people keep the covenant they have entered into with Him.
The concept of hesed is carried over into the New Testament. It shows up in the words mercy and grace. When we read of God’s mercy, when we speak of God’s grace, we are really talking about what He is doing to help us either come into covenant relationship, or keep covenant with Him.
Today we’re here to remember what Jesus has done for us. In the verse with which I began this talk, Jesus gave the bread and cup to His disciples as a memorial. Each week we eat the bread, we drink the cup to remember that Jesus gave His life so we can enter into a covenant relationship with God. These emblems not only remind us of what Jesus has done, they are also part of God’s mercy and grace to us. In helping us to remember, they also help us to renew and keep the covenant.