Strange and Glorious New Rites

At the last supper, Jesus took bread and, having given thanks, He broke it and gave it to His disciples while saying, “Take, eat, this is My body given for you. Do this for My memorial.”

What Jesus did was recognized by the disciples, because it took place every morning and evening. It was the rite of the Tribute, which is described in Leviticus 2. English Bibles generally mistranslate this as “grain offering,” or “meal offering” or “cereal offering,” or simply and very unhelpfully “offering.” But while this rite consists of grain or bread, the name for it is minchah, which means “gift” or “tribute.”

The daily Tribute is set forth in Numbers 28:3-8, and consisted of raw wheat flour mixed with oil. The other varieties of Tribute, however, were baked in various ways, and some were broken up. All were divided, with the priest receiving a portion after the Lord had been given His. The part given to the Lord was called a “memorial” (Lev. 2:2,9,16).

A memorial is an action done before God, or an object placed before God, that reminds Him of what He has done in the past, reminds Him of the covenant, and calls upon Him to come and pass judgment and renew that covenant. In a broad sense, all the rites done before God at the Tabernacle were memorials, but only bread rites are ever actually called memorials (Lev. 5:12; 24:7; Num. 5:15).

What Jesus does is recognizable, but perhaps surprising and even shocking. The disciples did not know that Jesus was God incarnate. Neither they nor His mother Mary nor anyone else could ever have dealt with Him if they had known that. They only knew that He was the Seed of the woman, the son of David, the Messiah. Only after His resurrection did they realize with awe that He was “my Lord and my God” as Thomas put it.

So, when Jesus takes bread and takes a piece for Himself first, calling it His own memorial, it appears that Jesus is taking to Himself the very position that the Lord Yahweh had occupied in the ritual system. The memorial was made to Yahweh, and Yahweh got the first part of the Tribute bread. Now Jesus is saying that the memorial is about Him, and He takes the first piece of bread (which is what breaking the loaf means – He took a piece for Himself).

Then, having reminded these Jews of the daily Tribute rite, Jesus gives them pieces of the bread. They had never eaten Tribute bread because none of them were Aaronic priests. Now Jesus is treating them as priests, a new priesthood with Him as the new Lord.

But then Jesus does something even more radical. He takes a cup of wine, and having given thanks, He gives it to the disciples and says, “Drink of this, all of you. This cup is the new covenant in My blood. Do this, whenever you do it, for My memorial.”

If the disciples had had any doubt about what Jesus was doing with the first ritual, the second left them without any. Every morning and every evening, during the Tribute, wine was poured out as a libation at the altar (Num. 15:1-16; 28:7). None of the wine was given to the priests. It is not clear whether it was poured into the altar (which was hollow), or poured at its base. It is not called a memorial.

All the same, moving from bread to wine in this way, Jesus clearly was re-instituting the Tribute rite in a new way, and the disciples would have recognized this immediately since it happened twice a day.

Why is the wine not shared with the priests; and why is it not called “memorial”? The reason lies in the associations of bread and wine in Biblical theology. Bread is priestly, and the priests eat bread. Wine, however, is forbidden to the priests while they work (Lev. 10:9, and contrast v. 12). When off duty, they might drink, but when functioning as priests, they were forbidden wine. Also, as Hebrews tells us, they always stood and never sat.

By way of contrast, kings are pictured as enthroned in rest, and often as enjoying wine. Clearly, they are not to become drunk, but wine is a symbol of the peace that a good king is to enjoy and sponsor. As Meyers writes, “Bread and wine are food and drink for kings: Royal fare (Gen. 14:18; Gen. 40; 2 Sam. 16:1-2; Neh. 1:11; Esth. 7:1,2,7,8).”1

In Biblical history we move from priest to king, from the Sinaitic Law period, with its emphasis on priests, to the Kingdom Wisdom period. We also move from wilderness to land. The priestly area is, as I discussed in my Through New Eyes, a little zone of wilderness within the land. The Tabernacle is a portable model of Mount Sinai, and the forecourt area around it is wilderness space. The Israelite leaves the land and goes into the wilderness to encounter God at the altar and in the Levitical rituals, and then, renewed, moves back into the land.

The priestly land area is, thus, wilderness. It is the place of bready manna, and hence of Tribute bread. It is not the place of grapes. The land, the kingly area, is the place of grapes. The Lord instituted the libation of wine in Numbers 15 immediately after the spies returned from the land carrying a huge bunch of grapes (Num. 13:23-24). Numbers 15:2 says that the libation of wine is to be added to the bread rituals only after they enter the land. (Notice in Numbers 15:4-10 and throughout Numbers 28-29, the libation of wine always comes after the flour of Tribute.)

We can begin to see, now, why the bread is a memorial and the wine is not. Bread is for beginnings. It is alpha food. You start the day with it. Wine is for the end of the day. It is omega food. The memorial Tribute told Israel that God had started His great work. He had instituted priestly worship. He had fully instituted it, although it would be modified in the future. They were allowed to come before God and remind God that He had finished the beginning, so to speak. They could bring the memorial bread before Him and ask Him to renew the beginning, to give them a new start.

The kingdom, however, had not arrived. And although they came into the land, and eventually had a Davidic king, the wine was never fully there. They might not drink it in God’s presence, but had to pour it out. There was no memorial in the wine, because the end had not come. The kingdom had not fully come. Hence, they could not bring memorial wine before God and ask Him to renew the “ends of the ages” and the “fullness of the kingdom.”

When Jesus says that the wine is now to be drunk, and that it is a memorial, He is telling the disciples that the end of the ages has come. The kingdom has come. The rite that He leaves with them for us memorializes first the fullness of the beginning with alpha bread, and then memorializes the fullness of the completion with the omega wine.

A bit more can be said about this. In the Tabernacle and Temple, there was bread in the Holy Place, a priestly area where the priests did their daily work. God was enthroned as king in the Holy of Holies, but no priest or anyone else was allowed to go in that room. Man was not invited to share rule with God. This is part of the reason why kingly wine is excluded from the Tabernacle. If man is going to drink wine in the presence of God, then man must be in the throne room with God and seated with Him. And before Jesus, there was no man fit for this glory. Hence, the wine was brought near, but then poured out.

When Jesus told the disciples that they were to drink wine in the presence of God, seated as they were at a table, He was telling them something very radical. He was telling them that they were not only now all “Aaronic priests ” and entitled to sacred bread, but that they were now also kings who were entitled to be in God’s throne room and share wine with Him. This was a sign that the entire history of redemption and maturation was being brought to its finish. As John would be shown in Revelation, the saints would sit on thrones around the throne of God in the heavenly Holy of Holies, a point also made by the author of Hebrews in his way, and by Paul who tells us we are seated in the heavenlies in Christ.

(Anyone who realizes what all this means will find it impossible to defend kneeling or standing during the Lord’s Supper. The whole meaning of the rite is that we are co-kings with Christ, seated and relaxing with wine with Him.)

In Leviticus 2, the bread memorial is linked with the covenant: The salt of the covenant is required with every Tribute (v. 13). As you will expect, the libation of wine is not linked with the covenant. But Jesus makes another radical change. He does not say that the bread rite is the covenant or the new covenant, but He associates the covenant with the wine rite. The Old Covenant was priestly, but the New Covenant is kingly.2

James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This post was originally found in Rite Reasons No 90. 

References   [ + ]

1. Jeffrey J. Meyers, “Concerning Wine and Beer,” Rite Reasons 48-49.

A couple of observations strike me as I bring this essay to a close. The first is that throughout virtually all of church history, the theological discussions about the Lord’s Supper have revolved around the bread, the body of Christ, and what the body means, and if and how Jesus mayor may not be hiding in the bread, and so forth. Of course, any theology that tries to argue for some kind of localized presence of Jesus in the sacrament has an immediate problem with the fact that there are two rituals here, and so is Jesus present in both the bread in the wine, or half in each, or what? This may be part of the reason why some traditions find it convenient to forget about the wine and blood when they do sacramental theology. The medieval church decided that the blood was in the body, so that the wine rite could be eliminated. All medieval discussion is about the body: mystical, corporate, sacramental, personal.

In Contrast to this whole tradition, the rites Jesus instituted lay the weight upon the wine and the cup and the blood. This, not with the bread, is where the covenant is located. This is the new and striking part of the double rite. Hence, the whole history of theological reflection is at the very least off base in its emphasis.

Secondly, we notice that in connection with the wine, Jesus says, “whenever you do it.” He does not say this in connection with the bread. It has been argued that perhaps because wine is expensive, the poor churches might not have had wine every week. Bread, however, would always be available, because if the church had no money even for bread, the church would be dead.

This is possible, I suppose, but I think there is another suggestion that is better. We read in Acts that they broke bread from house to house. Scholars have shown that this is not an expression that is ever used for regular meals, and so it clearly refers to the rite instituted by Jesus. But evidently only to the first rite. In small gatherings, they did the bread rite, but not the wine rite. In I Corinthians II, when Paul discusses doing both rites, he says that it is “when you come together” that they are to be done.

The picture that seems to emerge is that the dual rite was done when the whole church was gathered, and hence was a covenant renewal because the covenant is associated with the cup. But smaller groups might and did meet more informally during the week and would share bread employing the first rite, which was not a covenant renewal.