The Words of Institution
Text: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
“This is My body.” Those four words have been at the center of a controversy in the church that has spanned well over a thousand years. Once, at a meeting in Germany between Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss Reformed theologian, Luther is said to have taken a piece of chalk and written out “hoc est corpus meum” on the negotiating table. That expression is the Latin for “this is my body,” and Luther thought those words by themselves should end all debate as to what the Lord’s Supper means.
Of course, the debate did not end. It has continued, but it’s a shame that those words are so-regularly used or recited without looking at the larger picture from which they came. Those were the words of Jesus on the night of His Last Supper. He said them, along with the other word of institution, to explain what the meal-ritual that He was sharing with His disciples meant, and they have continued in Christian liturgy ever since.
Here in 1 Corinthians 11, the Apostle Paul demonstrates that Jesus’ words over the meal at the Last Supper are normative for all later Christian worship. “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said…” (1 Cor. 11:23-24). This is the introduction, and then Paul recounts what Jesus said. This lets us know that the Last Supper is the context in which we should understand our practice of the Lord’s Supper. This also means that any controversies or disputes should be clarified from that context. What was Jesus doing at that time? What sort of message was He sending? How does it continue today?
What we will see is that the Lord’s Supper depicts Jesus Himself and His prophetic work in bringing in the kingdom and achieving salvation. We will see the messianic way of greatness through humiliation, and we will see that our celebration of the Supper is a participation in the eschatological New Covenant.
“Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you”
So let’s take at look at those words Jesus spoke. The first line is the one we’ve been mentioning, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you” (vs. 24b).
Now, for all of the emphasis that church history has placed upon “this is My body,” it’s striking to see that the bible itself places all of the emphasis on the second half, “which is broken for you.” At the time of the Last Supper, none of the disciples are marveling at the bread and wondering what sort of miracle has taken place before their eyes. Instead it is all about anticipating what is about to happen, what is about to happen to Jesus.
In Matthew’s gospel, everything leading up to these words is a prediction of Christ’s death. Matthew 26:2 says, “You know that after two days is the Passover, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.” In vs. 12, Jesus says that the woman who anointed Him with oil “did it for My burial.” In vs. 31, Jesus quotes from Zechariah 13 which says that the Shepherd will be struck. Mark’s gospel repeats these same elements.
Luke’s gospel also shows an emphasis on Jesus’ death, but it also has a great emphasis on the eschatological kingdom. Twice in Luke 22, Jesus says that He will abstain from eating or drinking “until the kingdom of God comes” (vs. 16, 18). After saying this, the disciples, amazingly, begin to argue about who will be greatest in this coming kingdom:
Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves.
“But you are those who have continued with Me in My trials. And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Luke 22:24-30)
Here we see that the Last Supper was a prophetic depiction of the coming kingdom of the messiah, and it’s main point was that greatness comes through humility, or perhaps we should say humiliation. The messiah’s companions will not be great like the Gentiles, but they will be great in their service. They will imitate Jesus’s serving others, and they will imitate Jesus’s trials.
The great Biblical scholar, Joachim Jeremias has this say about the Supper’s significance:
[It was]a symbol, a pre-presentation, indeed an actual anticipation of the meal of the consummation. The request of the sons of Zebedee to be allowed to keep, at the meal of the salvation time, the places of honour which they had occupied on earth (cf. John 13:23) is clear evidence that the disciples were aware of this (Mark 10:35-37), and the continuation of the daily table fellowship after the death of Jesus as a sacred rite can be understood only on this basis. The self-humiliation of Jesus in ministering to his disciples like a slave (John 13:1-17; Luke 22:27) can be seen in its true depth only when it is realized that this is the Messiah serving at the Messiah’s meal. (The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, 205)
Here is the main idea: the messiah gives Himself for others, and so His followers must give themselves for others as well. That is what Christ’s words over the bread mean, “This is My body which is broken for you.” His body is broken for us, and as we break the bread and eat it, we confess this and promise to follow afterwards, giving up our bodies for the sake of Christ and the sake of His body, the church.
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood”
This second expression goes with the second association of elements, Jesus’ blood and the wine in the cup. The fact that Jesus doesn’t say, “This is my blood,” but rather, “this cup is the new covenant in my blood,” again shows us His interests. He’s not trying to teach us about how the physical material is changing substance. No, He’s trying to teach us about the nature of the New Covenant. It’s a covenant in blood, the blood of the Messiah, and that blood is shed for the remission of sins (see Matt. 26:28). If it wasn’t clear already, the purpose of Christ’s humiliation is to serve others, to set an example for others, and to forgive the sins of others. It is exemplary, but it is also propitiatory. It shows us a sacrifice that provides forgiveness and salvation.
The covenantal connection is very important here, as well. For Jesus’ audience, the expression “blood of the covenant” would have immediately brought to mind the Mosaic covenant. In Exodus 24 we heard, “And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you according to all these words.’ (Ex. 24:8). This shows us that covenants are ratified in blood, and it shows us that the people taking the blood upon themselves are joining in that covenant. Christians today join in Christ’s covenant, by taking His blood upon themselves. They do this through faith, and it is enacted through both sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
But Christ points out that this covenant is the New Covenant, and that is a reference to Jeremiah 31. Jeremiah 31 is a prophecy, and in its day, it was a prophesy about how God would restore Israel after its judgment and exile. It’s interesting to read it from a Christian perspective. Verse 15 is quoted in the gospel account, in connection with King Herod’s murder of the Jewish children. Then, after all of that, the text says that God will make a new covenant (vs. 31) in which His law will be written on our hearts (vs. 33), we will all know Him (vs. 34), our sins will be forgiven (vs. 34), and the whole earth will be made “holy to the LORD” (vs. 40). This is what Jesus was talking about when He gave the cup at the Last Supper. That covenant was beginning then.
But there’s more. The Epistle to the Hebrews gives us extended commentary on this new covenant. Beginning in chapter 8, we are told that Christ “is the mediator of a better covenant” (Heb. 8:6). It then quotes Jeremiah 31. In chapter 9, it picks this topic up again, and says that Christ applied His blood to the “Most Holy Place” in order to redeem us:
But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. (Heb. 9:11-15)
Thus we see that the covenant was ratified in Christ’s blood because Christ’s blood was being offered instead of animal sacrifices. Christ’s blood was being offered to make redemption for our transgressions so that we might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.
And the most amazing part of all comes just a little later. Christ did not merely apply His blood to the earthly temple, but He actually offered His blood in heaven, so that we would be reconciled with God forever—“For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (Heb. 9:24).
This is all mysterious but astounding. The Lord’s Supper shows us the sacrificial work of Christ, and that work included taking His blood to heaven to enter into the true Holy of Holies, to intercede before the very face of God the Father, so that we might have forgiveness and receive the inheritance of sons. When we drink the cup at the Lord’s Supper, we are proclaiming this truth, and we are pledging ourselves to the New Covenant.
“In remembrance of me”
Our last point is the explanatory phrase that comes after both the bread and the wine, “do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:24, 25). As we pointed out two weeks ago, this phrase means at least two things. It means that we personally remember or memorialize Christ’s death. We consider what it meant, and we renew our commitment to it. But it also means that we hold it before God and call Him to remember His covenant promise.
In fact, the Godward direction of “memorials” is a constant theme in the Old Testament. The rainbow is the most important example, as God says:
This is the sign of the covenant which I make between Me and you, and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. It shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud; and I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. (Gen. 9:12-16)
The rainbow was a covenant memorial, but it was God who would remember. He would remember His promise, and He would be faithful to Himself.
The rainbow isn’t the only case where this works. The high priest’s breastplate, also called the ephod, has memorial stones on it (Ex. 28:12, 29; 39:7). The cereal offering in Leviticus is a memorial which is given to the Lord (Lev. 2:2, 9, 16). The trumpets blown over the burnt offerings and peace offerings are also called memorials, and they are given by the people to God (Numb. 10:10). In each of these cases, the memorial may include the people’s memories, but it also includes God remembering His covenant.
When Jesus applies this language to signs which He connects to the New Covenant, He is continuing this same thing. He is giving a new memorial for a new covenant, a memorial of His sacrifice at the cross. We memorialize that sacrifice primarily by doing the Lord’s Supper, by eating the bread and drinking the wine. When we do this, we proclaim the Lord’s death and invoke it before God in heaven.
This is the way that our celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a “sacrifice,” by the way. We are not re-sacrificing Jesus. His work is finished, and He has already offered His body and blood. What we are doing now is proclaiming that sacrifice and calling on God to remember it and honor His own covenantal promise. It’s a sort of prayer. We do it together in faith. We show forth the Lord’s death until He comes back.
So we have seen that the Lord’s Supper is not meant to focus our attention on the elements of bread and wine. Instead, the elements of bread and wine are meant to focus our attention upon Christ and upon His sacrifice. We learn that He humbled Himself and sacrificed Himself for us, to show us how to be great in His kingdom. And we learn that He poured out His blood to forgive our sins, to confirm and ratify God’s New Covenant that redeems us from judgment and death. All of this He did on the Cross, and we remember it ourselves and call it to God’s memory in a memorial service of eating and drinking. That is what this sacrament means, and that is what we are called to do until Christ returns again on the last day.
As we prepare to do exactly that this morning, let us do so in faith and in the full conviction that God will remember His covenant and will be faithful to His promise. Let us believe that He will make these signs effectual means of applying His grace so that we might be more and more united with Christ and empowered to imitate Him.
Let us pray.