As we consider this memorial feast, we should return and try to recapture the disciples’ thoughts as they heard it for the first time. Why? Decades later, three of the gospel writers recorded the scene for the church that then was, and the Holy Spirit preserved it for the church of all time exactly as it was instituted, not as it came to be under later ecclesiasticism. When the Corinthians abused the feast, the apostle Paul pointed them back to “in the night in which he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus….” Thus, we see that what they saw, what they understood on that night is essential to our understanding and proper observation of this memorial. Too often, our understanding has been so colored by interpretations and happenings since “the night in which he was betrayed” that we miss essential points and bend passages to mean what we have come to understand instead of understanding what happened and the meaning God intended.
First, the disciples that night did not know about the cross and sacrificial death of Jesus. Certainly, the supper is pregnant with that meaning by the time the disciples began to meet on the first day of the week. It will blossom more fully in our spiritual minds if we first comprehend their understanding. Otherwise, we may be missing significant nuances in the glare of the obvious. Yes, Jesus taught them about the coming cross over and over beginning at Peter’s confession (Mt 16:18). After the supper he stated that he, “the shepherd,” would be smitten and they would be scattered. Peter, understood that much and denied that he would ever leave the Lord. Jesus also referred to the resurrection: “after I am raised up, I will go before you into Galilee.” Still, they did not understand the death, burial and resurrection.
In our classes we often point out all the clues and remark how dense they were. Be cautious: Out of a nation that God carefully prepared for two thousand years, a large number chose to follow Jesus. He then prayed all night and from those chose these 12. They were the culmination of God’s plan, the best of the best in the best nation in the entire world. Sometimes we seem to join the council in their contempt “that they were unlearned and ignorant men” in opposition to God’s choice of them (Ax 4:13).
So, then, if even they missed what later the Holy Spirit certified as the main point, what did they see, what did they understand that we may be missing in the glorious light of that greatest of all truths?
First, they undoubtedly were excited by his statement that the kingdom would come before the next Passover, “With desire I have desired to eat this Passover …for … I shall not eat it until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Lk 22:15-16). They also heard him say that “this is my blood of the new covenant” (Mt 26:28). They knew that every covenant, from God’s covenant with Abram to the covenant with Israel at Sinai, had been inaugurated with the blood of sacrifices (Gen 15:9-21; Ex 24:5-8). They knew that Jeremiah promised a new covenant at the time of the Messiah (31:31-34). They must have been bursting with excitement for he had just proclaimed, now is the time, I am the man.
Then, let us note some simple things from their observations on that night. When he said, “This is my body,” they could see Jesus standing there and knew that the unleavened bread had not become his body. They would immediately understand the metaphor being familiar with many such from God’s preparation in the Old Testament, e.g., God is a rock (Psa 18:31), “Judah is a lion’s whelp” (Gen 49:9). When he “took a cup” and said, “This is my blood,” (Mt 26:27-28), they knew it had nothing to do with the container. Jesus specified, “This (the antecedent of which is “cup”) is my blood.” They understood and did as he said, “Drink ye all of it,” and it was still fruit of the vine.
So, then, what did they think he meant by his expressive figures? What teaching had they received that led to the understanding they had?
The first place we think to look for a clue to their knowledge is John 6:48-58. We have often read this over the supper and tend to equate the bread in John 6 as the bread of the Lord’s Supper and the blood of John 6 as the fruit of the vine. Jesus was teaching something else entirely. Anything more than a careless reading of the passage and context shows that Jesus uses both the body and blood in reference to his having come down out of heaven as the bread of life. In other words, his incarnation is the body and blood which he challenges them to partake of, in a spiritual sense, of course. In the context of the Lord’s Supper, that would refer to the body, and to only the body. John 6 is not a prequel to the Lord’s Supper at all. It is a challenge to those alleged disciples to dispense with all other philosophies or sources of life. He is it. Eat him and him only as spiritual sustenance. Who he was and What he was and How he lived are the bread of life. Certainly, they so understood it—they said it was a hard saying, they understood exactly and rejected it as too hard, too demanding. The apostles also understood but they knew they had no choice, “To whom shall we go? …we have believed and know that thou art the holy one of God,” (the incarnate).
Often, speakers who bless the bread talk of his body as it hung on the cross. No, his body on the cross is referred to by, “This is my blood.” The blood refers to death as in Isa 53:12, “He poured out his soul unto death.” “The life is in the blood” (Lev 17:11) refers to the blood he sacrificed, the life he gave and the carcass hanging on the cross is not what he meant when he said, “This is my body.” That phrase refers to the incarnation. When we take of the bread, we are to be remembering that “The word became flesh [“This is my body”] and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). “This is my body” includes all that life from when he “emptied himself and took the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men and being found in the fashion as a man” to the night in which he was betrayed. All that happened after the fatal kiss in beatings, mockings, scourgings, in thorns and nails, are included in “This is my blood”—“becoming obedient unto death, yea, the death of the cross” (Phil 2:6-9).
This is the pre-eminent falsehood of the insertion in 1 Cor 11 that “This is my body which is broken for you.” Not only do all scholars, and the overwhelming majority of manuscripts, agree that the word “broken” is an insertion and not written by Paul or the Holy Spirit, the meaning of “body” is the incarnation, not Jesus on the cross. That, John specifically says, was not broken in the context of the giving of the life of the Pascal lamb, i.e. “This is my blood” (Jn 19:36). If we who often think the disciples were dense understand what they understood “in the night in which he was betrayed, we would know that the incarnation was not broken, by its nature could not be broken. From John 6, they knew that body = bread down out of heaven = his life, and when he stood before them, that is what they heard. They knew that “This is my body” referred to his incarnation.
At least two of the disciples had heard John the Immerser proclaim, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world” (Jn1:29,35). On this night, as they ate the Pascal lamb and Jesus spoke of “his blood which is poured out for many unto the remission of sins,” they certainly connected the memorial they were eating with something greater that was about to happen. Their comprehension was vague, but they understood that in the future, remembrance of Jesus and salvation from sin would mark their Passover, not the remembrance of salvation from Egypt.
God said, “When I see the blood, I will pass over you.” (Ex 12:13). As year by year the Israelites replicated the event, there was no death angel, no passing over, but a memorial to renew their gratitude for the salvation of God. It seems that we wish magic from the Lord’s Supper. We pray that “it is to us by faith” something more than just bread and grape juice. We invest it with magical properties--we are “safe” for the week if we really, really think about it hard when we partake. NO! As the Israelites' Passover was a memorial, so the Lord's Supper is a memorial to remind us of the love of God, the salvation of God, the sacrifice of the son of God. That memory is then to build our gratitude to the level that we go out and live like the one we remembered. Taking “in an unworthy manner” has nothing to do with how hard we think about Jesus on the cross for a few moments before and after we feast, and everything to do with how we live the week before and after. “For Christ our Passover has been sacrificed, let us keep the feast [week of unleavened bread that followed the Passover] …with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Cor 5:7-8).
Say, “This is my blood” and we think of Jesus’ blood pouring from “his head, his hands, his feet,” but they thought of death. Say, “This is my blood” in their context, the Passover, and they automatically would think of the slaughtered lamb and its blood smeared on their doorways in memorial of deliverance. Add “of the New Covenant” and they add the death of the sacrifice that inaugurates a covenant.
To the Twelve who heard them, those four words did not mean the same as we think today. But, they had a breadth of understanding that we seldom think on and they quickly added Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection after Pentecost. Would not our memorial be richer and more accurate if we focused more fully on “the night in which he was betrayed?”