He is the LORD our God; his judgments are in all the earth.
He remembers his covenant forever,
the word he commanded, for a thousand generations,
the covenant he made with Abraham,
the oath he swore to Isaac.
He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree,
to Israel as an everlasting covenant
1 Corinthians 11:23-25
"The time is coming," declares the LORD,
"when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them," declares the LORD.
"This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God, and they will be my people.
No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying,
'Know the LORD,' because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest," declares the LORD.
"For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more."
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 broken 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."
Have you ever asked yourself the questions, "What does 'new covenant' mean? How can the everlasting covenant be old or new if it is everlasting? And what does it have to do with the cup?" We all have read and heard the words of the apostle about the Lord's Supper so many times that we have gotten use to them. However, is there something important that the disciples heard in the Savior's words that we simply miss out, something that made clear sense to the audience of that time, but has lost its meaning today?
The life of every ancient Jew consisted of various laws, traditions, instructions and scenarios, which were both oral and written. The Passover meal that Jesus was eating with his disciples was one of the annual events. When they followed the narrow staircase to get to the upper room, the lamb was already slaughtered and cooked in the proper way. Everybody took their places and the Teacher traditionally raised the First Cup. To the ritual word of prayer He added that next time He would be drinking with his disciples in the Kingdom of God. The comment only brought more excitement into the celebration - a few days before Jesus was greeted as a King, and if not for all of the holidays, such as Passover and Sabbath, he probably would have already been anointed to the Kingship. However waiting a couple days was not that big of a deal.
Then, by tradition, Jesus raised the bread and thanked the Lord for it. While dividing it with the others he said: This is my body, which is broken for you. (The Teacher often spoke of Himself as of a sacrifice recently, but the point of the words was not yet clear; while the words were familiar). The bread was distributed and the meal had started. Everything was in accordance with the ancient rituals that remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Every element of the Passover meal symbolized the events of the Exodus from Egypt. When the meal was over and the Teacher raised the Last Cup - a Cup of Thanksgiving, or of Gratitude, - He said the words that no one ever expected to hear: "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you" (Luke 22:20). What do the words "This cup is the new covenant" mean? The disciples wondered if it was the Teacher who messed up the scenarios or they themselves were a part of a completely different ritual.
In order for us to understand what the disciples heard in the words of Jesus, we need to figure out what meaning and significance the word "covenant" had, which in our culture is lost. We are familiar with Old Testament (Covenant) and New Testament (Covenant) as with two major parts of the Bible. However for the people of ancient times covenants were of deeper significance, since they were standardizing the married life and were an important part of everyday life in general.
The core of a covenant relationship is the combination of blessings and responsibility. Therefore there are two types of violations of the covenant relationship mentioned in the Scripture. The first type is when one receives all the blessings of the covenant relationship but avoids the responsibilities. The sin of this type of the violation is called "fornication." Another type is when the one who has taken the responsibility does not fulfill it. And this sin is called "adultery." Both of these concepts God uses not only in relevance to certain individuals (e.g. Hosea 4:14) but to whole nations as well (e.g. Jeremiah 3:6-9).
We are enraptured with the metaphorical Bible dialect; however it is possible that it is not a metaphor at all, but a covenant terminology. What was the order of entering the covenant relationship that every Jew dealt with? How did a young man and a young woman (let them have typical Jewish names John and Mary - Johanann and Miriam) entered the marriage relationship?
Entering the marriage relationship had three stages: the oath (Making or Entering the covenant), the betrothal (Renewal of the covenant) and the return of the groom (Fulfillment of the covenant). The distinctive feature of the first stage was that neither groom nor bride were a part of it often. Sometimes they even had no clue about it and both of them could have been infants at the moment. The responsibility of this stage was on the fathers of John and Mary - the father of the groom would come to negotiate with the father of the bride.
At first the negotiation has a business-like nature; however when the fathers would come to consent, the father of the bride would sacrifice a couple of birds or an animal (a lamb, a kid or a calf), depending on what he could afford. The blood of the creatures was poured on the ground and chopped carcasses of the animals were put at two sides. After the animals were sacrificed the fathers exchanged the oath to give their children to each other and corroborated the oath by walking barefoot on the blood between the chopped carcasses of the animals calling for various curses in case the oath is violated.
This way the covenant was entered. Then the sacrificed animals were properly cooked and families would start celebrating the event. The celebration feast lasted from one to several days, after which the father of the bride would come back home and life would take its usual turn with the exception of one thing - from now on John and Mary existed only for each other. From now on they were officially the groom and the bride. Any violation of this relationship, either by the will of one of the young people or by the will of one of the fathers, would be considered fornication - the violation of the marital covenant.
Now you can imagine what associations Jews had when they heard the story of Abraham in the synagogue.Genesis 15:6-12, 17-18:
Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
In this narration people of Israel saw the Entering the covenant between two fathers: God the Father and Abraham, the forefather of all believers. Therefore not without reason the Scripture refers to Israel as to the bride of God. The mystery of the Son and the Spirit was not yet revealed, so God was mystically perceived as both - Father of the Groom and the Groom Himself at the same time.
Meanwhile John and Mary were growing up playing with their peers continuing in it till 'the fullness of time' would come (Galatians 4:4) - when the groom and the bride reached marital age. The bride would no longer play with other children, but would learn the mastery of housekeeping. If she ever appeared on the street, her face had to be covered with a veil.
The betrothal time was at the hand. As soon as the groom was ready to pay the dowry (in Hebrew - Mohar, a price for wife, a bride ransom - see Gen 34:12, Exodus 22:16-17, 1 Sam 18:25), he came to her parent's house with his two friends who would serve as witnesses. The feast would start - the women (all but the bride, who was hiding behind the screen or at the women's side on the house) would serve the meal, while the men were talking about all the news, their families, their economy and wealth, expectations for harvest, and so forth.
Nothing was revealed about the real purpose of the visit; however everybody knew why John is there and why he is so nervous. At the end of the feast the last cup was raised praising God for the meal, for those who were present there, for what they have and for their families. After the prayer the groom, as if by chance, would ask the father about his daughter, the bride, if she is doing well and why she is not here with them. The father would convince the guest that everything is fine and send for his daughter, Mary. Slowly (hurriedness would be a sign of immodesty), with her face covered with a veil, the bride would come out to join the guests. The culmination point was when the groom took his cup and said, "This is the cup of the covenant between you and me- with this cup I am offering you my life." If the bride accepted the proposal she would slightly raise the veil and drink from the groom's cup. From this moment they were engaged and had all the legal rights of husband and wife, including the rights of widowhood and inheritance. The betrothal was a new covenant, for the bride and the groom were no longer under the old covenant entered by their fathers. The new covenant was between the bride and the groom personally.
Even though the bride did have a right to reject the cup, everybody expected her to accept it. The opposite would be a shame to both the groom and the father of the bride. Therefore if there were some reasons for Mary not to marry John, as a good daughter she had to ask her father ahead of time saying: "Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." And if it really were possible the father would try to settle everything with the family of the groom, finding him another bride and paying the penalty enough for the groom to cover dowry expenses and the disappointment well enough. However the breaking of the marital covenant was a quite a rare phenomenon and tried to be kept it in secret between the families. For example when Joseph, the groom of Mary, the mother of our Lord, found out that she was pregnant not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly (Matthew 1:19).
When the bride would take the cup the groom's witnesses gave the dowry to her father. The amount of the dowry was agreed on ahead of time, and reflected either the well-known merits of the bride, or the status of her family, or how much the groom appreciated his potential wife. After fulfilling all the rituals the groom would leave immediately, telling his bride: "I am going to prepare us a dwelling, and when everything will be ready I will come back for you. Neither I nor my witnesses, no one but my father knows when it will be. Wait on me. If something unexpected happens you know where to find me". The bride stayed and prepared for the wedding. She kept the cup and drank from it in remembrance of her beloved.
The groom himself would come back to his father's house and start working on preparing the dwelling for him and his new wife. If there were a couple of houses on the father's property, John could ask his father to allow him to re-equip one of those, but often he had to build his own wedding chamber. Father was watching after his son and the way he prepared himself for family life, and then in about a year he would say: "you are ready, my son, go bring your wife." No matter if it was day or night John would leave everything and would go for his beloved Mary. His friends accompanied him. They were yelling out loud: "the groom is coming!" blowing horns, and if it was dark, carrying torches. Anyone who saw them or heard them would join them, also yelling "the groom is coming!" so the good news would reach the bride as soon as possible, so she would get ready quickly.
When the procession was approaching the house of the father of bride, she would take her already prepared belongings and, followed by her friends, go outside to meet her groom. Everybody went back - to the house of the groom. The bride's friends also had to be always ready for the event, since as soon as the procession entered the house of the groom the gate was locked. Those who did not come in with the rest of the guests (for instance, because of the lack of oil in their lamps) had to stay outside, for the bride was in the middle of celebration and did not have time to come open the gate.
In the house (the courtyard) the bride and the groom stood under the ritual tabernacle while the blessing prayer was read. After the prayer the bride drank from the cup again and gave it back to the groom. He would finish the drink, after which he put the cup on the ground and broke it with his foot. The cup was no longer needed since the groom did not have to offer it to anybody else.
After all the rituals, the groom's mate would see the couple off to their wedding chamber and eventually announce the guests that the conjugal union is accomplished. After that the feast went on for a week. Throughout this week the bride would never go out to the guests - she fully belonged to her new husband.
The last supper took place the day before the Passover celebrations. That year the Passover fell on the day of the Sabbath. The rabbis thought that any celebration on the day of Sabbath was a violation of the fourth commandment. In this case the Passover had to be celebrated a day earlier. However the true Passover took place when it was supposed to, for Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed (1Cor 5:7) - on the next day. What was the significance of the last supper then? The answer to that question can be found in the words of our Savior: "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." (1Cor 11:25)
The last supper was the betrothal, the covenant renewal. The precious dowry has already been prepared to be paid and the Groom was assuring His Bride: In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going (John 14:2-4). No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father (Mark 13:32).
We are the church - the beloved Bride of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who loved us so much that gave His own life as a matrimonial dowry for us sinful people. Having such a testimony of His love we live in constant anticipation of Him, ready to follow Him to the Dwelling of our Heavenly Father. We keep ourselves pure and chaste to be ready to meet Him at any moment when as Scripture says, the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words. Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night (1Thes 4:16-5:2). Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming (Matt 25:13).
Who knows, maybe at this very moment the angels raise their trumpets and our Heavenly Groom puts His foot on the cloud. The Spirit and the bride say, "Come!" And let him who hears say, "Come!" He who testifies to these things says, "Yes, I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus (Rev 22:17,20).