Great Texts of the Bible
The Blood of the Covenant
This is my blood of the covenant, which is shed for many unto remission of sins.—Matthew 26:28.
1. This verse is intensely interesting, because it contains one of our Lord’s rare sayings about the purpose of His death. For the most part the New Testament teachings on that great theme come from the Apostles, who reflected on the event after it had passed into history, and had the light of the resurrection upon it. Still, it is not just to say that the Apostles originated the doctrine of the atonement. Not only is that doctrine foreshadowed in Isaiah 53; in the institution of His Supper our Lord also distinctly sets it forth. Before this He spoke of His life being given as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28), and He called Himself the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep (John 10:15).
2. In the institution of the Supper, Christ distinctly tells us in what aspect He would have that death remembered. Not as the tragic end of a noble career which might be hallowed by tears such as are shed over a martyr’s ashes; not as the crowning proof of love; not as the supreme act of patient forgiveness; but as a death for us, in which, as by the blood of the sacrifice, is secured the remission of sins. And not only so, but the double symbol in the Lord’s Supper—whilst in some respects the bread and wine speak the same truths, and certainly point to the same cross—has in each of its parts special lessons intrusted to it, and special truths to proclaim. The bread and the wine both say, “Remember Me and My death.” Taken in conjunction they point to that death as violent; taken separately they each suggest various aspects of it, and of the blessings that will flow to us therefrom.
It is said that old Dr. Alexander, of Princeton College, when a young student used to start out to preach, always gave him a piece of advice. The old man would stand with his grey locks and his venerable face and say, “Young man, make much of the blood in your ministry.” Now I have travelled considerably during the past few years, and never met a minister who made much of the blood and much of the atonement but God had blessed his ministry, and souls were born into the light by it. But a man who leaves it out—the moment he goes, his church falls to pieces like a rope of sand, and his preaching has been barren of good results.1 [Note: D. L. Moody, Sermons, Addresses, and Prayers, 161.]
1. Christ speaks here of a covenant. Most religions presuppose some form of covenant with the object of their worship. The idea fills and dominates the Old Testament. And thus Christ found a ready point of attachment, a foundation of rock, on which He could build up His new order of truth. A covenant is a compact, an arrangement, an agreement, a contract between two persons or two parties, involving mutual privileges, conditions, obligations, promises. The Hebrew word appears to have the idea of cutting, and hence primitive contracts or covenants were made by the shedding of blood or the sacrifice of an animal.
2. After God had brought the children of Israel out of Egypt, He entered into a covenant with them at Mount Sinai. A covenant is an agreement betwixt two, securing on a certain condition a certain advantage. The advantage under the covenant at Mount Sinai was that the Lord should be their God and they His people; and the condition was that they should observe His Law. “And Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord, and all the judgements: and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the Lord hath spoken will we do.”
But the children of Israel proved unfaithful. In the pathetic language of Scripture, “they went a whoring after other gods, and bowed themselves down unto them: they turned aside quickly out of the way wherein their fathers walked, obeying the commandments of the Lord; but they did not so.” And therefore the covenant was cancelled. “They rebelled, and grieved his Holy Spirit: therefore he was turned to be their enemy.” He abandoned them to the lust of their hearts, and they suffered disaster after disaster till they were stricken with the final blow, the Babylonian Captivity, and laid in the very dust.
But that was not the end.
What began best, can’t end worst,
Nor what God blessed once, prove accurst.
His heart still yearned for them. “He remembered the days of old, Moses, and his people.” He could not let them go, and He turned to them in their misery. He raised up a prophet in their midst, and charged him with a message of hope. They had broken the first covenant, but He would grant them a fresh opportunity and enter into a new and better covenant with them. “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their hearts will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people; and they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more.”
Is it not a grand thought that between us and the infinite Divine nature there is established a firm and unmovable agreement? Then He has revealed His purposes; we are not left to grope in darkness, at the mercy of “peradventures” and “probablies”; nor reduced to consult the ambiguous oracles of nature or of Providence, or the varying voices of our own hearts, or painfully and dubiously to construct more or less strong bases for confidence in a loving God out of such hints and fragments of revelation as these supply. He has come out of His darkness, and spoken articulate words, plain words, faithful words, which bind Him to a distinctly defined course of action. Across the great ocean of possible modes of action for a Divine nature He has, if I may say so, buoyed out for Himself a channel, so that we know His path, which is in the deep waters. He has limited Himself by the utterance of a faithful word, and we can now come to Him with His own promise, and cast it down before Him, and say, “Thou hast spoken, and Thou art bound to fulfil it.” We have a covenant wherein God has shown us His hand, has told us what He is going to do and has thereby pledged Himself to its performance.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
3. This new covenant was to be, so the tremendous promise runs on, a spiritual one, an experimental and universal knowledge of God, a covenant of pardon, complete and sure. Jeremiah was allowed to see the covenant only as Moses saw the promised land from Pisgah. He never saw it realized, but he knew that every promise of God is an oath and a covenant. For he had learnt in the shocks and changes of his life the unfailing pity of Him with whom he had been privileged to have fellowship and to hold “dialogues.” The old agreement was, “If ye will obey my voice and do my commandments, then”—so and so will happen. The old condition was, “Do and live; be righteous and blessed!” The new condition is, “Take and have; believe and live!” The one was law, the other is gift; the one was retribution, the other is forgiveness. One was outward, hard, rigid law, fitly “graven with a pen of iron on the rocks for ever”; the other is impulse, love, a power bestowed that will make us obedient; and the sole condition that we have to render is the condition of humble and believing acceptance of the Divine gift. The new covenant, in the exuberant fulness of its mercy, and in the tenderness of its gracious purposes, is at once the completion and the antithesis of the ancient covenant with its precepts and its retribution.
This glad era was ushered in by the Lord Jesus Christ, “the mediator of a better covenant, which hath been enacted upon better promises”; and, since it was necessary that a covenant should be ratified by a sacrifice, He, the true Paschal Lamb, at once Victim and Priest, sealed the new covenant with His own precious blood. Thus it was that He interpreted His Death in the Upper Room. “He took a cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is shed for many unto remission of sins.”
The covenant is explicitly declared to be founded on Christ’s expiatory death, and to be received by the partaking of His body and blood. This importance of the person and work of Jesus, both for the inauguration and the reception of the covenant, agrees with the view that the covenant designates the present, provisional blessedness of believers, for this stage is specifically controlled and determined by the activity of Christ, so that St. Paul calls it the Kingdom of Christ in distinction from the Kingdom of God, which is the final state. The Covenant idea shares with the ideas of the Church this reference to the present earthly form of possession of the Messianic blessings, and this dependence on the person and work of the Messiah (cf. Matthew 16:18; Matthew 18:17). The difference is that in the conception of the Church, the organization of believers into one body outwardly, as well as their spiritual union inwardly, and the communication of a higher life through the Spirit stand in the foreground, neither of which is reflected upon in the idea of the Covenant. The Covenant stands for that central, Godward aspect of the state of salvation, in which it means the atonement of sin and the full enjoyment of fellowship with God through the appropriation of this atonement in Christ.1 [Note: Geerhardus Vos, in Hastings’ Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, i. 380.]
The Sealing Blood
1. Christ regards His own blood as the seal and confirmation of the covenant. Covenants were ratified in different ways; sometimes, for instance, the contracting parties were held to be bound by eating salt together; sometimes by partaking together of a sacrificial meal; sometimes by passing between the divided pieces of slaughtered animals; and especially by the use, still prevalent in many parts of the world, of blood, as by each of the parties tasting each other’s blood, or smearing himself with it, or letting it be mingled with his own, etc., or by both jointly dipping their hands in the blood of the slaughtered animal. The idea, therefore, of a covenant in blood would not appear strange and new to the Apostles, or occur to them as repugnant, as it does to the minds of men of the Western modern civilization. To us, however far from the ideal we fall, and whatever compromises we adopt, we know our word ought to be our bond, our “yea” yea, and our “nay” nay. We have our stamped contracts because the ideal is still beyond the powers of human nature at large. But in the early days the shedding of blood was a form of ratification which no other emphasis could equal. It united, it “at-one-d,” the parties concerned with a firmness which no verbal agreement could accomplish.
Jeremiah’s reference to Sinai bids us turn to that wonderful scene where the high mountains formed the pillars and walls of a natural temple, and where the first covenant was ratified with abundance of sacrificial blood. Moses, we are told, read the Book of the Covenant in the ears of the people; and, taking the blood, sprinkled half of it upon the altar with the twelve pillars and half upon the people. The law was thus given with a covenant of blood. God thus bound the nation to Himself. He had offered great blessings if the people would keep the words of His law; His people had responded: “All that Jehovah hath spoken we will do.”
Now it is impossible to suppose that Christ had no reference to the promises made through Jeremiah, and, through them, to the scene at Sinai. His Apostles, at least, so understood His words, “the new covenant in my blood.” The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews calls Him the new Moses, mediating a better covenant, founded on better promises. The cross was in His view, though none of His disciples saw it, in the Upper Room. But He saw that His blood was to be the sacrificial blood in which the “new covenant” was to be sealed, confirmed, ratified. He was inaugurating a “new people,” and was to lead them forth out of the Egypt of sin and alienation into the Promised Land of holiness and the fellowship of God. He was to be the leader of a new emigration from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light and love. The bonds broken under the old covenant were to be reknit under the new covenant. The cup is the pledge, the symbol, of that new bond. And every time we drink the cup we are renewing the covenant which God has offered to all men in and through Christ.
When the Greeks and the Trojans called a truce pending the single combat between Menelaos and Paris, they ratified it by a sacrifice.
He spake, and the throats of the lambs with pitiless blade he severed,
And laid them low on the earth all quivering and gasping
For lack of vital breath; for the blade their strength had stolen.
And anon from the mixing-bowl they drew the wine in goblets,
And poured it forth and prayed to the gods that live for ever.
And thus said one and another among the Achæans and Trojans:
“Whiche’er of us, breaking the oaths, may do harm unto the others,
Their brains on the ground be scattered e’en as this wine is outpourèd—
Theirs and their sons’—and their wives be a prize unto others.”
The custom was universal. The heathen observed it, and so did Israel. Thus it is written: “Gather my saints together unto me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice.”1 [Note: D. Smith, The Feast of the Covenant, 41.]
2. Christ’s death was the consummation of His infinite sacrifice, the further reach of His redeeming Love. When He had yielded His life in steadfast devotion to the Father’s honour and patient travail for the souls of men, what more was possible? “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The cross is our Lord’s divinest glory; “for this,” says Clement of Alexandria, “is the greatest and kingliest work of God—to save mankind.”
His death was not an isolated event. It did not stand alone. It was the consummation of His life, the crown of His ministry, the completion of His redemption. When the New Testament speaks of His death, it means not simply His crucifixion on Calvary, but all that led up to that supreme crisis—His steadfast obedience to the Father’s will, which continued all the days of His flesh and found its ultimate expression when, with the cross before Him, He said, “Not my will, but thine, be done,” and so freely gave Himself into the hands of wicked men to be mocked and tortured and slain. His entire life was sacrificial—a truth which St. Paul expresses when he says, “Being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross.”
Here is a fundamental truth, essential to a just appreciation of our Lord’s redeeming work; and in these moving lines the poet has perceived what theologians have too often missed:
Very dear the Cross of shame
Where He took the sinner’s blame,
And the tomb wherein the Saviour lay,
Until the third day came;
Yet He bore the self-same load,
And He went the same high road,
When the carpenter of Nazareth
Made common things for God.
A life of loving and constant obedience—this is God’s requirement. This it is that we have failed to render; and His doing on our behalf what we have failed to do is our Blessed Lord’s Atonement for the sin of the world.1 [Note: D. Smith, The Feast of the Covenant, 52.]
The Remission Secured by the Sealed Covenant
1. “Shed for many unto remission of sins.” Remission literally means “to throw back, or throw away,” and the term is used simply because, when God forgives our sins, He is contemplated as throwing them away, tossing them clear off, outside of all subsequent thought or concern in regard to them. There is another expression used in Scripture for the same thought, which is also figurative. “Repent and turn,” says Peter, “that your sins may be blotted out.” They are contemplated in that expression as having been written down in some book of God’s remembrance, as it were, and God in forgiving them is figuratively represented as blotting out that writing. And blotting out with the ancients was a little more complete than it is, usually, with us. When we write something down with ink, and blot it out, there still remain some marks to indicate that once there was writing there. If you write on a slate and rub it out, some marks are often left. The ancients used a wax tablet. Take one of our common slates and fill it with wax even with the frame, and you will have an ancient wax tablet. A sharp-pointed instrument made the marks in the wax, and when they wished to blot it out, they turned the flat end of the stylus and rubbed it over, and there was an absolute erasure of every mark that had been made. That is the figure, then, used by Peter for the forgiveness of sins—indicating that when God forgives sins, they are not only thrown away, as in the expression remission, but they are blotted out—the last trace of them being gone, and gone for ever.
From morn to eve they struggled—Life and Death,
At first it seemed to me that they in mirth
Contended, and as foes of equal worth,
So firm their feet, so undisturbed their breath.
But when the sharp red sun cut through its sheath
Of western clouds, I saw the brown arm’s girth
Tighten and bear that radiant form to earth,
And suddenly both fell upon the heath.
And then the wonder came; for when I fled
To where those great antagonists down fell,
I could not find the body that I sought,
And when and where it went I could not tell;
One only form was left of those who fought,
The long dark form of Death—and it was dead.1 [Note: Cosmo Monkhouse.]
2. But, it may be asked, how does our Lord’s life of “obedience even unto death” avail for us? It was His own life, and how is it linked on to our lives? What is the nexus between it and them? View it as the sacrifice which ratified the New Covenant. It is the covenant that links our lives to His. Remember what the sacrifice at Mount Sinai signified. The victim was presented in the name of the people; and the offering of its life at the altar was symbolic of the surrender of their lives to God. And even so Jesus is our Representative. He is the second Head of humanity, and as, by the operation of those mysterious laws which link the generations, the entail of Adam’s sin is the heritage of his children, so in like manner the righteousness of Jesus touches us too. He lived His life and died His death in our name and on our behalf; and, that we may enter into the covenant and appropriate its benefits, we have only to acknowledge Him as our Representative and say Amen to all that He did and all that He was. We have only to approach the throne of mercy in our sinfulness and weakness and point to that holy life laid, in perfect devotion to the Father’s will, on the altar of Calvary, making it our offering and presenting it before God as the life which we fain would live and by His grace shall live. And thus we lay our sins on Jesus, the spotless lamb of God, and, making His sacrifice our formula at once of confession and of consecration, win by it acceptance and peace.
In all nations beyond the limits of Israel, the sacrifices of living victims spoke not only of surrender and dependence, but likewise of the consciousness of demerit and evil on the part of the offerers, and were at once a confession of sin, a prayer for pardon, and a propitiation of an offended God. And the sacrifices in Israel were intended and adapted not only to meet the deep-felt want of human nature, common to them as to all other tribes, but also were intended and adapted to point onwards to Him in whose death a real want of mankind was met, in whose death a real sacrifice was offered, in whose death an angry God was not indeed propitiated, but in whose death the loving Father of our souls Himself provided the Lamb for the offering, without which, for reasons deeper than we can wholly fathom, it was impossible that sin should be remitted.
Let me mention here a circumstance in the last days of the distinguished Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst, who, at an extreme age, but in full possession of all his rare mental powers, was brought to the knowledge of the Saviour. He said, “I never used to be able to understand what these good people meant when they spoke so much of the blood, the blood. But I understand it now; it’s just Substitution!” Ay, that is it, in one word, Substitution—“my blood shed for many for the remission of sins,”—Christ’s blood instead of ours,—Christ’s death for our eternal death,—Christ “made a curse, that we might be redeemed from the curse of the law.” Once in conversation, my beloved friend, Dr. Duncan, expressed it thus in his terse way, “A religion of blood is God’s appointed religion for a sinner, for the wages of sin is death.”1 [Note: C. J. Brown, The Word of Life, 94.]
3. Theology has long laboured to explain the death of Christ on the theory that God, not man, was the problem: God’s anger rather than man’s cleaving to his sin. God was thought of as caring supremely for His outraged law, as indeed being bound by His law, as though law were a Divine Being with independent rights and a claim to compensation, as though a father could love a rule more than his own child. The difficulty lies in what we have made of ourselves. God’s task is not to overcome His own resentment and say “I forgive,” but to forgive so as to heal us of our self-inflicted wounds, to inspire us to forgive ourselves, to trust and hope for ourselves by trusting and hoping in His eternal love and patience. His forgiveness is not a word, or an act, but a self-communication. God Himself is the Atonement. “He is the propitiation for our sins.” We may have done badly, shamefully. Good men may condemn us, suspect and distrust us, justly, for we condemn and distrust ourselves. But One believes in us and for us, hopes for us. God in Christ stands by the soul forsaken of all others. We “were redeemed, not with corruptible things, with silver or gold, … but with precious blood … even the blood of Christ.”
No one that has ever read Tennyson’s Guinevere can have forgotten the great forgiveness scene with which it closes. The guilty wife lies prostrate at her husband’s feet, and grovels with her face against the floor. “Lo! I forgive thee as Eternal God forgives,” said Arthur. “Do thou for thine own soul the rest.” Ah! but one who forgives like God should do and say something more. A husband mediating God’s forgiveness should show himself able to trust a wife that can no longer trust herself, love one that loathes herself, hope for one that can only despair for herself. So the atoning love of God takes hold of Arthur, and he pours the ointment of love on the golden hair that lies so low, and he pours hope like oil into the dark soul and lights the promise of future days:
“Hereafter in that world where all are pure
We two may meet before high God, and thou
Wilt spring to me, and claim me thine, and know
I am thine husband.”
And while she grovell’d at his feet,
She felt the King’s breath wander o’er her neck,
And in the darkness o’er her fallen head,
Perceived the waving of his hands that blest.
Does not the human truth of that come to you? Do you not see that beyond the wrong done to Arthur was the wrong done to herself? The task of forgiveness was not to slake the king’s wrath, but to redeem the queen’s soul and cure her of being the thing she had made of herself.1 [Note: J. M. Gibbon.]
4. The blood speaks of a life infused. “The blood is the life,” says the physiology of the Hebrews. The blood is the life, and when men drink of that cup they symbolize the fact that Christ’s own life and spirit are imparted to them that love Him. “Except ye eat the flesh, and drink the blood of the Son of man, ye have no life in you.” The very heart of Christ’s gift to us is the gift of His own very life to be the life of our lives. In deep, mystical reality He Himself passes into our being, and the “law of the spirit of life makes us free from the law of sin and death,” so that we may say, “He that is joined to the Lord is one spirit,” and the humble believing soul may rejoice in this; “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” This is, in one aspect, the very deepest meaning of this Communion rite. As physicians sometimes tried to restore life to an almost dead man by the transfusion into his shrunken veins of the fresh warm blood from a young and healthy subject, so into our fevered life, into our corrupted blood, there is poured the full tide of the pure and perfect life of Jesus Christ Himself, and we live, not by our own power, or for our own will, or in obedience to our own caprices, but by Him and in Him, and with Him and for Him. This is the heart of Christianity—the possession within us of the life, the immortal life, of Him who died for us.
Whatever life had anywhere been found and lost, whatever life had never been found, was given to man in Christ. It may be that this or that portion of the vast inheritance of life has never as yet been claimed, or has been but doubtfully claimed, because faith in Him has been too petty or wilful in its scope as well as too feeble in its energy. But in Christ life was given in its fulness nevertheless, and in that due subordination which alone secures that nothing be lost. This is the one character of the Gospel which takes precedence of all others; its many partial messages are unfoldings of its primary message of life. Salvation according to Scripture is nothing less than the preservation, restoration, or exaltation of life: while nothing that partakes or can partake of life is excluded from its scope; and as is the measure, grade, and perfection of life, such is the measure, grade, and perfection of salvation.1 [Note: F. J. A. Hort, The Way, The Truth, The Life, 100.]
5. “Shed for many.” The terms of the covenant are comprehensive. The cup commemorates the supreme moment when the barrier between God and man was swept away, and the access to communion with God was opened by “a new and living way.” It bids all men remember that the Divine life and love are free for all who will receive them. Whosoever will may come and enter into the covenant of God in Christ. None are excluded save those who exclude themselves. Here is our comfort. Salvation does not rest on our goodness of character or on our worthiness of conduct, but on the covenant relationship in Christ. Such an immense debt will prevent us from taking liberties with our life, and will continually inspire in us a devotion to serve as our talents allow and our opportunities permit.
Jesus died to bring in the Kingdom of God. That is one thing we can be sure of. Now, what was this Kingdom of God as conceived by Him? Subjectively considered, it was the reign of God in men’s hearts, and to establish it thus involved the bringing of men to God, so that His Spirit should possess their hearts and they be made the true children and heirs of God. The Cross was meant to be effectual for this. Its aim was ethical, and nothing short of that which would lead to an ethical Salvation would be the bringing in of the Kingdom of God. But the Kingdom had also an objective aspect. As such, it was the Kingdom of God’s Grace; it was something that should come from God as His great gift to men; it was the drawing nigh of God to the sinful, and as yet unrepentant, world, with the proclamation of Forgiveness, nay, with the assurance of it as the foundation of a solemn Covenant made with men; and it was only through the coming of the Kingdom in this objective way that it could come effectually, or, in its power, subjectively. Christ therefore intended that His Cross should bring to men the assurance of the Divine Forgiveness.… The Divine Forgiveness or Remission of Sins that comes to men through the Cross is not the Forgiveness of individual sinners on their Repentance (which was always open to men), but the Forgiveness of God going forth to the whole sinful world, in order to lead men to Repentance and to make them members of God’s Kingdom. It comes as the proclamation of a Divine amnesty to men, but it is of no avail unless it is accepted by them so as to make them loyal members of the Kingdom, and followers of that Righteousness which alone can give final entrance into it.1 [Note: W. L. Walker, The Cross and The Kingdom, 241.]
The Blood of the Covenant
Barry (A.), The Atonement of Christ, 59.
Brown (C. J.), The Word of Life, 86.
Hammond (J.), The Forgiveness of Sins, 91.
Hoare (J. G.), The Foundation Stone of Christian Faith, 199.
Horton (R. F.), The Teaching of Jesus, 109.
Ives (E. J.), The Pledges of His Love, 91.
Kuegele (F.), Country Sermons, New Ser., i. 109.
McGarvey (J. W.), Sermons, 56.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions: St. Matthew xviii.–xxviii., 243.
Moody (D. L.), Sermons, Addresses, and Prayers, 156.
Salmon (G.), The Reign of Law, 37.
Smith (D.), The Feast of the Covenant, 41.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xxxiii. (1887), No. 1971.
Stewart (E. A.), The City Pulpit, iv. 25.
Vaughan (C. J.), Liturgy and Worship of the Church of England, 225.
Wheeler (W. C.), Sermons and Addresses, 138.
Church Times, July 2, 1909 (F. G. Irving).