The Lord's Supper in Redemptive History

Looking Back

The Gospels tell us that the Lord’s Supper occupies a significant place within redemptive history. It looks back to events that precede it and looks forward to events that will follow it. The Lord’s Supper looks back to the Passover. Jesus institutes the Supper in the context of a Passover meal. The Supper is not annexed to the Passover meal, but it is part of the meal itself.[1] In light of this fact, what is striking is what we do not see in the Gospels’ account of the institution of the Supper—a lamb. The lamb was the centerpiece of the Passover meal and, we presume, was part of the meal that Jesus and his disciples celebrated together on the eve of his death. The Gospels, however, make no mention of a lamb in connection with the Lord’s Supper. 

The reason that there is no lamb in the Lord’s Supper is that Jesus Christ himself is the Passover Lamb of God (John 1:29, 36; 19:36; 1 Cor. 5:7). The yearly Passover lambs all pointed to and found their meaning in the Passover Lamb, Jesus Christ. He dies on the cross as the Passover Lamb of God. What the Exodus Passover (and all subsequent Passover observances) anticipated now finds its fulfillment and realization in the death of Christ on Calvary. His shed blood will cover the sins of his people (Rom. 3:25). In Christ, God passes over his people in judgment, punishing their substitute for their sins (2 Cor. 5:21). As a result, everyone who puts his or her trust in Christ has been redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet. 1:19). 

There is a complementary way in which we see the Lord’s Supper looking back to what has gone before it. The Passover meal was a founding ordinance of the old covenant. This meal was instituted on the eve of the Passover event and on the cusp of the exodus. The Passover and the exodus were the founding redemptive events of the covenant that God made with Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai. 

In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus announces that the “cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). The Supper, then, will be an ordinance of what Jesus calls the new covenant. This ordinance and the covenant to which it is joined point to the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross (“in my blood”). With the resurrection of Jesus, the death of Christ serves as the historical, redemptive foundation of the new covenant. Both covenants are founded upon a great redemptive event, and both covenants have a meal instituted to commemorate that event.

The new covenant is not something that first appears in the teaching of Jesus. As we saw in the first chapter, the prophet Jeremiah spoke of it centuries before (Jeremiah 31). In this promise of the new covenant, God pledged, among other things, to “forgive [sinners’] iniquity, and [he] will remember their sin no more” (31:34). God of course forgave the sins of his old covenant people before the new covenant era. Paul mentions Abraham and David as only two examples among many whose sins were forgiven before the ministry of Christ (see Rom. 4:1–25). God’s promise in Jeremiah says that under the new covenant, the basis upon which God forgives his people in every age would once and for all be accomplished in history. Under the old covenant, God forgave his people because of the work of the Christ who was yet to come; under the new covenant, God forgives his people because of the work of Christ who has already come. For that reason, all the sacrifices, which served as so many shadows of Christ (Col. 2:16–17), came to their appointed end. The substance has come. There are no more Passover lambs because the Passover Lamb has come and accomplished his work of saving sinners in his death and resurrection.

Here we see an important difference between the Passover meal and the Lord’s Supper. The Passover meal looked forward to the Messiah who had yet to come in history. The Lord’s Supper looks back to the Messiah who has already come in history. We live not in the era of promise but in the era of fulfillment. We are the people of God upon whom “the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). 

Looking Forward

As important as it is to recognize that the Supper looks back to the finished redemptive work of Christ for sinners, it is no less important to realize that the Supper also looks forward into redemptive history. Jesus says, “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29). Jesus tells his disciples that he will voluntarily refrain from drinking wine until a set time in the future. That time is linked to the “day” of “my Father’s kingdom” or “the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25; cf. Luke 22:18, “until the kingdom of God comes”). Jesus is thinking here of the kingdom of God in its consummate manifestation, when he returns in glory to judge the world, ushering his people into the full inheritance of the kingdom (Matt. 25:34), when they “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt. 13:43). 

It is then that Jesus will resume drinking the fruit of the vine. He is anticipating, in other words, the great messianic banquet we saw in the last chapter to be the hope of the Prophets, which will be realized at the return of Christ (Matt. 25:10; Rev. 19:7). The Lord’s Supper serves, then, to point the people of God in hope to the certain return of Christ and to the consummation of their salvation in Christ.

The Lord’s Supper, therefore, always and simultaneously points in two directions, backward and forward. It points backward to the finished work of Christ on the cross. The Supper, in particular, underscores this finished work as the fulfillment of the words and works of God in redemptive history leading up to the cross. It also points forward to the certain hope of the glorious return of Christ at the end of the age. It reminds God’s people of the certainty of this hope—that the great, promised messianic banquet awaits us. If God was faithful to bring his promised Son into the world the first time to live, die, and rise again for our salvation, we can surely trust his promise that Jesus will return at the end of the age to consummate the application of his saving work in our lives.


Content adapted from The Lord's Supper as Sign and Meal of the New Covenant by Guy Prentiss Waters. The article first appeared on Crossway.org; used with permission.

Notes

  1. ^ Scholars debate this point. For a helpful and concise argument why this Supper was a Passover meal, see Andreas Köstenberger, “Was the Last Supper a Passover Meal?,” in The Lord’s Supper: Remembering and Proclaiming Christ until He Comes, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Matthew R. Crawford, NAC Studies in Bible and Theology 10 (Nashville: B&H, 2010), 6–30.
Photo of Guy Prentiss Waters

Guy Prentiss Waters

Guy Prentiss Waters (PhD, Duke University) is the James M. Baird Jr. Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, and was formerly an associate professor of biblical studies at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi. Guy and his wife, Sarah, have three children.‚Äč

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