It’s beautiful and fitting that the first explicit mention of the new covenant in the New Testament comes from the mouth of Jesus. And he mentions it at the most fitting moment. After sharing his final Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus takes a chalice of wine and says to them, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20).
There is a world of meaning packed into those words that would change the world.
Great Pivotal Moment
Reclining around the table that evening, the disciples were observing from front-row seats a pivotal moment of redemptive history. The great Passover “Lamb of God,” who had come to “take away the sins of the world” (John 1:29), was inaugurating a new-covenant Passover meal of remembrance to go along with his inauguration of the long-awaited new covenant foretold by the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31–34). The author of Hebrews quotes it in full:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah,
not like the covenant that I made with their fathers
on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.
For they did not continue in my covenant,
and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
and each one his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,”
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more. (Hebrews 8:8–12)
It’s unclear how much the disciples grasped at the time. But when Jesus said the cup represented “the new covenant in [his] blood,” he meant he was far more than a Passover lamb whose blood would momentarily shield God’s covenant people from a momentary judgment.
He meant that he had “appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). He meant that through his shed blood, he would completely achieve what centuries of the shed “blood of bulls and goats” could never achieve (Hebrews 10:4). He meant that his sacrificial death would make it possible for God to “be merciful toward [the] iniquities” of all his covenant people, for all time, and “remember their sins no more.”
Why the Old Covenant Became Obsolete
By all accounts, Christianity is now one of the world’s great religions, distinct from Judaism. But to Christianity’s Founder and the first generation or two of his followers, what we call “Christianity” was Judaism. It was Judaism with its great messianic hope fulfilled and without the old covenant’s caste of priests performing its required continual animal sacrifices. It was (and is) new-covenant Judaism.
The book of Hebrews provides the most in-depth explanation of why the old covenant had to be replaced by the new covenant. “If that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second” (Hebrews 8:7). So, what was faulty with the first? A full, careful study of the book of Hebrews is required to get the whole picture. But I’ll cover two major reasons.
Deficient Power to Defeat Sin
The first we see in Jeremiah’s prophecy: “They [the people of Israel] did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord” (Hebrews 8:9). That is, God “finds fault with them” (Hebrews 8:8), not the covenant itself. The history of Israel, from the time of the exodus from Egypt till the appearance of Christ, chronicles a continual breaking of the covenant that God had made with them at Sinai. This covenant inscripturated in the Law of Moses proved impossible for the people to keep because of their pervasive, inescapable problem: human sinfulness. As Paul explains,
The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. . . . [But] it was sin [rebelling against God’s holy law], producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. (Romans 7:12–13)
“The first covenant had the power to expose sin, but not the power to free people from it.”
In other words, the first covenant had the power to expose sin, but not the power to free people from it. And this produced in even the most conscientious, rigorous observers of the law the cry, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).
Deficient Blood to Atone for Sin
A second reason the old covenant was not final and complete was because its sacrifices, continually offered every year, could never make perfect those who drew near. “Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered?” the author of Hebrews reasons. “But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:1–4).
The old covenant made it clear that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). But as the old-covenant law lacked the power to free humans from sin, the old-covenant shedding of animal blood lacked the power to fully atone for human sin. All that these sacrifices effectually did was remind sinners of their “wretched,” inescapable sinful state — and point them forward to a coming, final, effective, once-for-all sacrifice.
Promise of the New Covenant
What we see foreshadowed in Jeremiah’s prophecy is the gospel the Messiah would bring: God’s intention to address these two major problems “once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).
Under the new covenant, God promised his people that he would “put [his] laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10). This was a pointer to a superior law, “the law of the [Holy] Spirit of life” (Romans 8:1) who had the power set them free from their enslavement to their fallen sin nature, their “body of death.” It was a pointer to regeneration, where God’s covenant people would be “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of [the Messiah] from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). God’s people would receive a new nature inclined to keep God’s righteous law, now written on their new hearts and transforming their renewed minds (Romans 12:2).
And under the new covenant, God would “be merciful toward [his covenant people’s] iniquities, and [he would] remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12). This was a pointer to a superior sacrifice whose shed blood had the power to atone for all their sins. It was a pointer to “a single offering [by which God would perfect] for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). And if God no longer remembers his covenant people’s sin, they are no longer in the “wretched” sinful state for which they need reminding.
Do This in Remembrance of Me
This is the world of meaning in those few words Jesus spoke to his disciples as he held the cup. But this time, I’ll quote from the apostle Paul applying Jesus’s words:
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:25–26)
“The Lord’s Supper is a remembrance of the once-for-all new-covenant sacrifice Jesus made for us.”
The new-covenant Passover meal we call the “Lord’s Supper” is not, as some believe, a re-shedding of Jesus’s blood for the forgiveness of our sins. Nor is it primarily a reminder of our sinful state. It is a remembrance of the once-for-all new-covenant sacrifice Jesus made for us. When we partake of this little meal, we hear God the Father say, “Because my Son has shed his blood for the forgiveness of your sins, I will remember your sins no more.”
And more than that, we hear God the Father say, “I will be your God, and you shall be my beloved child. And you shall know me” (Hebrews 8:10–11). For that, after all, is the heart of the new covenant. “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).