This message is to share with you some thoughts on the origin and meaning of the "bread and wine" symbolism used at the last supper, especially in the context of first century Judaism.
For some further information on the events of the last supper see my article "The Night He Was Betrayed" which has been reproduced here.
During Jesus' last meal with His disciples He prayed over bread and wine and said “This is my body” and “This is my blood” (
But is that plausible within the context of first century Judaism? What Jew would tell another to drink blood, even symbolic blood? The thought of drinking blood, even animal blood, was blasphemous. To imagine drinking human blood and consuming it with human flesh could only make the blasphemy worse. Yet there is no hint in the accounts of the last supper that Jesus' disciples were shocked or even puzzled by this saying.
So what did Jesus mean?
In earlier messages I've emphasised the importance of the meal table in Jesus' teachings. In contrast to the meals of the Pharisees in which only the ritually pure could participate and from which the blind, crippled and diseased were excluded together with the "sinners" (including those with heretical doctrines), Jesus was welcoming and inclusive. He taught "when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind" (Lk 14:12). He ate with "sinners" and refused to wash His hands after being in contact with common people and before eating.
Jesus’ meals were also meant to be a taste of the kingdom to come. The prophets taught that in the kingdom to come God would "share His table" with "all peoples" on his holy mountain (e.g.
Isaiah 25:6–8). Jesus shared that hope:
“Many shall come from east and west, and feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 8:11; Luke 13:28–29)
Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus’ meals were inclusive. He avoided any exclusive practices that would divide the people of God from one another and accepted all the people of God at His table, including tax agents and other suspicious characters, and even notorious sinners. The meal for him was a sign of the kingdom of God and everyone was to have access to it.
It's important that we see the last supper not only in the context of Jesus teaching about the Kingdom of God, but also in the immediate context. Jesus had just created a furor at the Temple by driving out the animals being sold for sacrifices, and the money-changers. He objected to merchants selling sacrificial animals in the vast outer court of the Temple (and no doubt He objected even further to the fact that the chief priests were making a personal fortune from this trade).
The Gospels record several dramatic moments when Jesus challenged religious practices:
1. His first recorded miracle was to convert water used for ritual purification into wine which was to be drunk in celebration (John 2:1-11. Note especially verse 6).
2. He declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19)
3. By refusing to wash His hands before a meal He declared all people clean. In other words, there was no need to wash away their 'contamination' before He could eat. (Luke 11:37-40; Matt 15:2; Mark 7:1-4).
4. He worked on the Sabbath (John 5:16-18).
5. By driving sacrificial animals from the Temple courts He declared an end to animal sacrifices.
In the context of His actions at the Temple, Jesus’ words can have had only one meaning. He cannot have meant, “This is my own body and blood”; that would have been shocking and would have been understood as blasphemous. Jesus’ point was that, as true worship and sacrifice could not be practiced at the Temple it was no longer possible or necessary to perform animal sacrifices. The common elements of a meal were to be the new 'offerings' to God: wine would replace the blood of sacrifice, and bread would replace the flesh of sacrifice. These were His substitutes for the animal sacrifices at the Temple. When he said, “This is my blood, this is my flesh,” he meant that the wine and bread were replacing the blood and flesh of animals being sacrificed at the Temple.
Jesus was in effect saying that by sharing meals in anticipation of the kingdom, He and his followers offered more acceptable worship than what was offered in the Temple. The wine was better blood, the bread better flesh, than Temple sacrifices that were being controlled by the religious authorities to line their own pockets.
No where else does Jesus speak of His own death as an 'atonement'. In sharing bread and wine at the last supper He is not speaking of His own death as a human sacrifice. We should remember too that this was Passover and Paul makes a connection with the timing and speaks of Jesus as "Christ our Passover lamb" (1 Cor 5:7). But the Passover lamb was not offered as an atonement or as a sacrifice for sin. It was not a sin offering. Every part of the lamb was to be consumed in a meal in which everyone was to participate: the whole family together with neighbours. There had to be enough people present to ensure that nothing was left over (Exodus 12:4, 10). This was a festive meal, a celebration of freedom. People often confuse the Passover lamb with the sin offerings and think of "Christ our Passover lamb" as a sacrifice for sins. This has led to further confusion about the meaning of the "body" and "blood" references during the last supper.
For many Christians, including Christadelphians, the primary focus of Communion is on the death of Christ as an atonement for sins. This is especially so in relation to the communion 'cup' as a symbol of shed blood. However, it's important to note that the Passover lamb was not sacrificed as an atonement, and Jesus' reference to the wine as a symbol of blood was to the "blood of the covenant". Sacrifice in confirmation of a covenant was never for atonement.
Jesus is, however, saying that this is a radical change in the way God is to be worshipped. He says of the wine: “This is my blood of the covenant.” (
For Jesus the 'last supper' was the first of a new type of Passover - a remembrance of the deliverance from the bondage of sin and the institution of the new covenant and a new community of covenant-people. The Kingdom of God had come and this meal was a foretaste of the Messianic banquet of which he had spoken so many times.