For so many of the years that I have been a part of church, communion has seemed to be something tacked on to a service, and then only 4-5 times a year. For those in Protestant evangelical expressions of the church as myself this is pretty standard. When communion has been offered, it has usually been either hurried through, or an event of morbid introspection when a Christian remembers how Christ died for his or her personal forgiveness of sin. And while I don’t disagree with the fact that Jesus died for our sins I can’t help but wonder if Jesus didn’t mean something much, much bigger when he introduced communion to his disciples during that Passover meal just before he went to the cross (Luke 22:13-20 .)
Jesus could have achieved the work of Calvary at any point during the Jewish calendar. Probably the day that would have made the most sense, at least to Protestant Evangelicals, would have been Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most Holy day of the Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur was a national day of atoning for the sins of Israel. It was a day of repentance, fasting, prayer, and sacrifice. It seems that the Day of Atonement would have been a better fit for what many Evangelicals have seen as the central reason Jesus came, namely, to forgive us of our sins. Yet our problem is not simply that we need to be forgiven of our sins but that we need to be set free from sin.
Jesus did not come during Yom Kippur but during Passover because as New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright notes, “Jesus’ ministry had a Passover shape to it.” Think of the night when Jesus introduced one of the central sacraments of the church – communion. Jesus does this in the midst of celebrating the Passover meal with his disciples. In doing this Jesus reconfigured the Passover meal around his Messianic work. The bread and the cup were tied in with the symbolism of the very feast which was being celebrated that week in Jerusalem, a feast which had been celebrated by the Jews for over a thousand years commemorating how God heard the cries of his people in slavery and rescued them. Passover speaks of the final decisive miracle God used to break his people out of slavery.
What then do you think that Jesus might have meant by introducing communion in the midst of a Passover meal just before going to the cross. I believe the meaning is pretty simple and pretty profound. In the same way that the blood of a lamb was applied to the doorframes of the Hebrew people so that judgment and death would pass over so the blood of Jesus is being symbolically applied to the hearts of his followers as they take the cup of the New Covenant. A new Passover is about to take place that will be cosmic in its scope.
Does the cup of communion speak of forgiveness of sins? You bet, but so much more than that. See, it is not just a matter that each of us has sinned, but we are also born into a world enslaved by sin. Like the Hebrew slaves in Egypt we have been born into bondage, born into slavery. We need only to turn on the news or to see this slavery all around: children growing up in poverty, abuse, addiction, corporate greed, war, murder and so on. It is everywhere we turn. Sadly it is even within us. We are both victims of sin and participants in sin. But the good news is that Jesus is the Passover Lamb of God who takes away not merely the sin of one group of people… but of the world! His blood applied on our hearts, like the lambs blood of old in that first Passover is the decisive blow to sin and death. God has heard our cries in slavery and has answered in mercy and compassion by sending his own son who took the form of a slave (Philippians 2:6-11) to bust us out of prison!
What was the purpose of the first Passover?
Was it simply so that the Hebrew people could be forgiven of their sins?
No, it was to set them free so they could begin an Exodus to the Promised Land. This then sheds light on the cross of Christ. As Paul wrote in Galatians 5:1 “It was for freedom that Christ has set us free.” The cross and the resurrection aren’t simply about forgiving us of our sins so that we can one day go to heaven when we die, but rather the beginning of a New Exodus from sin and slavery.
In the first Passover God got his people out of Egypt in one decisive act but in the Exodus God was getting Egypt out of his people (this part took a whole lot longer). The Exodus was a time of miraculous provision in which God began to break that old slavery mindset off of his people by humbling them and causing them to come to him daily for provisions (Deuteronomy 8:2-5 ). In the same way, as people of the New Passover, we have been decisively set free from the slavery of sin, and as people of the New Exodus, we are being renewed by Jesus Christ, our daily bread.
The New Exodus is about following not a pillar of fire but of following King Jesus. It is about learning to live by a new kind of life that is native to the promised land which we will one day experience in full. So yes, in Jesus we are forgiven of our sins but more than that we are set free from the very slavery of sin and we are being formed into a new kind of people that are not identified by race, gender, nationality or even by the Old Testament Law but by Jesus, whose blood is upon our hearts.