Words of Institution
April 17, 2014
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The terms “testament” and “covenant” are often used interchangeably in many translations of Holy Scripture. Both are used for the biblical Greek word diathēkē, which is the word Jesus uses in the words of institution. Matthew and Mark report that the cup that Jesus blesses is the blood of the diathēkē; Luke and St. Paul explicitly state that this is the kainē diathēkē—the new diathēkē.
What is a diathēkē? It’s an arrangement between two or more people—a legally binding contract, a solemn contract sealed in blood. The Hebrew word for covenant, derives from the word, “to cut;” a covenant was sealed by the two parties slaughtering an animal and passing between the two pieces. The sense of the covenant is: “let the same thing happen to me as this animal if I break my end of the bargain.”
Jesus says that the blood that He sheds, the blood that He distributes under the wine in the Sacrament, is the blood that seals a new agreement. The blood of Christ does two things: it first fulfills your end of the bargain of the old covenant; it also provides a new testament that provides you a divine inheritance.
Jesus’ Blood Is a New Testament for You That The Old Covenant of the Law Is Fulfilled on Your Behalf
The Old Covenant is the covenant of the Law. It’s not a covenant that you chose to enter into, but it’s one that you’re expected to keep. Though God is eternally faithful to His end of the agreement, you find every opportunity to break trust and turn it to your advantage. The Old Covenant of the Law is a two-way agreement that promises life from God, but you have turned your end into a dead-end.
The Law of God is not a contract you signed on the day you were born. You didn’t consent to it at any particular age. Chances are good that you can’t recall walking through the severed pieces of an animal to seal an agreement with God. But it applies to you nonetheless. The Old Covenant of the Law is not something you choose to enter into like some earthly contract. You were born into it. It applied to your parents, and to your parents’ parents—all the way back to the parents of all men. In the beginning the Old Covenant required no blood because both parties were faithful to their end of the deal. But man lost trust. He broke the agreement, and rejected God’s end of the agreement. He rejected the life of God.
The first cutting of a covenant happened when God cut the skins off of an animal to clothe the naked man and woman. The first blood shed in the history of the world was shed by God’s hand. In a sense, He said, “May the same thing happen to Me as to these animals, if I don’t hold up my end of the bargain.”
The Old Covenant was renewed with each old sacrifice—Abel’s, Noah’s, Abraham’s. It was renewed when God gave Abraham the sign to cut his own flesh and the flesh of his boys. It was renewed when He gave Moses the Levitical sacrificial system. To be a faithful under the Old Covenant was a bloody mess. A covenant is a legally binding agreement sealed in blood, after all.
But throughout the ages God continued to remain faithful to His end of the agreement despite man’s continual unfaithfulness, despite man transgressing the Law in new and creative ways, always attempting to turn the Law to his own advantage, keeping the shell of its letter but emptying it of its spirit, desiring sacrifice and not mercy.
God continued to be faithful to His end of the agreement, but in being faithful He in a sense also broke the covenant. His end of the deal was to provide Life—true Life. But in the day that man transgressed the Old Covenant of the Law, He did not truly die. God did not, and has still not, removed His hand from creation. He has not condemned all things to eternal death. Life goes on.
With every cut of the priests’ knives under the Old Covenant, with every drop of blood spilled on the altars of the Old Covenant, God was saying, “Let the same thing happen to Me as is happening to these animals.” And so, in the fullness of time, the Son of God became flesh and blood, so that His flesh could be cut and His blood could be shed. God doesn’t keep His end of the Old Covenant, because He cannot bear to condemn you to eternal death.
The death of Jesus satisfies the legal agreement of the Old Covenant of the Law. In the Incarnation and Crucifixion of Jesus, God preserves His own justice by willing submitting Himself to what the broken covenant demands. The Old Covenant of the Law is a two-way agreement, and God finds a way to keep both ends.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night in which He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to His disciples and said, “Take, eat, this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me.” In the same way also He took the cup after supper, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you. This cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do as often as you drink it in remembrance of Me.”
The words of Christ instituting the Sacrament of His body and blood are a New Testament. The blood shed by Christ is a new diathēkē, though it is not a covenant like the Law. This new diathēkē—this new testament—is still a legally binding agreement between two or more parties. The only difference in this testament is that one of the parties is dead.
A last will and testament is a legal declaration that distributes a person’s property upon his death. This is not a two-way agreement, but a unilateral declaration. The goods delivered by a testament are pure, unadulterated grace; you can’t expect to do something in return for a dead man.
When Christ speaks to His disciples on this most Holy Thursday evening in which He is betrayed, He is declaring what will happen to His personal property upon His death the next day. The Son of Man had no place to lay His head—and even His clothing was stripped from Him in His last hours—there is an even greater treasure that is distributed by this testament. This cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
This means that Christ fulfills the Old Covenant on your behalf. He is the One who remains faithful to man’s end of the agreement by His perfect obedience to the Law. He is the One whose flesh is cut and whose blood is shed for all who have abandoned the Old Covenant. He is the One who remains faithful on God’s end of the agreement and continues to provide Life—true Life—by the New Testament in His blood. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there also is life and salvation.
The New Testament in Jesus’ blood is unlike any other will or testament ever to have gone into effect. Dead men need someone who is not dead to administer the testament. But Jesus is the dead Man who is risen. He becomes the administrator of His own Testament. The Sacrament is not simply a remembrance of something a dead man did two thousand years ago. The Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood is the pledge and promise of the living God, and the means by which He delivers the treasures of heaven.
The covenants of old were sealed with blood when both parties passed through an animal’s body. This New Testament puts Christ’s true body in you, it seals you with His true blood. The Sacrament is God’s new diathēkē, His testament to you that He alone has fulfilled the demands of the Law on your behalf, and that He offers to you all the benefits of His sacrifice and shed blood, all wrapped up in a meal of bread and wine.
“Take, eat, this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me…Drink of it, all of you. This cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do as often as you drink it in remembrance of Me.”
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard