Why Bread and Wine?

Enjoying the Meal Above All Meals

On the night he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus wanted to give his people a sign of his covenant love. As God had once assured Noah with a rainbow, and lifted Abraham’s eyes to the stars, and sanctified the Sabbath for Israel, so now Jesus wanted to give his disciples, and us, some tangible token of his promises, some visible seal of his faithfulness. And so, he broke a loaf of bread, and he poured a cup of wine.

Bread and wine, loaf and cup: in these two ordinary elements, our crucified, risen, and reigning Lord declares to us his victories. He tells us who we are. And he gives us a taste of his coming kingdom, when once again he will preside over a supper, this time with no coming sorrow.

And yet, if we are going to receive Christ’s covenant love in this meal, and not just bread and wine — or crackers and juice, as the case may be — we need the meaning of the elements clear in our minds. As John Calvin writes, “Assuredly this is the chiefest thing in all sacraments, that the word of God may appear engraven there, and that the clear voice may sound.”

What word, then, has Jesus engraved upon the bread and the cup? What voice sounds forth from the Supper?

Bread and Wine

When Jesus took up the bread and the cup of the Last Supper, he was handling objects thick with associations from Israel’s past. Bread and wine appear regularly, together and apart, throughout the Old Testament and Jesus’s own ministry. Here was bread long baked, and wine well aged.

At the most basic level, bread and wine sustained the life of God’s people (Genesis 27:28; Leviticus 26:26). Both were staples of Israel’s diet — bread because of the simplicity and reliability of grain, and wine because water could be so scarce in the ancient Near East.

For that reason, bread and wine were also valuable gifts of friendship and hospitality, first from God to man (Psalm 104:15), and then from man to his neighbor (Genesis 14:18; Ruth 2:14).

In similar fashion, bread and wine reflected the blessings and curses of God’s covenant with Israel. When the nation walked closely with their God, then they ate bread and drank wine in abundance (Deuteronomy 7:13); when they strayed after other gods, famine struck their fields and vineyards (Hosea 2:9).

Finally, bread and wine could serve as symbols of Israel’s eschatological hope, when God would swallow death and spread a feast for all peoples (Isaiah 25:6–8; 55:1–2). “Behold, the days are coming,” God says through Amos,

When the plowman shall overtake the reaper
     and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
     and all the hills shall flow with it. (Amos 9:13; see also Jeremiah 31:12)

“Life sustainer, gift giver, covenant maker, eschaton bringer, Jesus is Israel’s God made flesh.”

More associations could be mentioned, but these suffice to give some sense of the broad background to Jesus’s own uses of bread and wine. It is no accident that, in his ministry, Jesus multiplies both (John 2:1–11; 6:1–14), likens himself to both (John 6:35; 15:1), consecrates both to serve as his church’s covenant meal (Luke 22:14–20), and promises both in the age to come (Luke 22:18; Revelation 2:17). Life sustainer, gift giver, covenant maker, eschaton bringer, Jesus is Israel’s God made flesh.

And yet, we can get more specific. When Jesus took the bread and the cup, he took up not only the broad tapestry of Old Testament history and revelation, but also a few particular threads, now amplified and fulfilled in him.

Bread of the Passover

Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper on a day already charged with tremendous significance: the Passover (Luke 22:11). For centuries, the families of Israel had gathered on Passover to eat the meat of a slaughtered lamb, along with bitter herbs and unleavened bread, and to relive the night when the sacrificial blood shielded them from God’s wrath (Exodus 12:7–13, 42). God had swept his arm through Pharaoh’s land, judging his enemies and rescuing his people through a marvelous exodus deliverance. Annually, then, Israel was to remember that though they once were slaves, they now were God’s redeemed.

Yet on this Passover, as Jesus gathers with his disciples in the upper room, he looks not to the past, but to the present; he directs their gaze not upon the lamb, but upon himself. Taking up the unleavened bread, he gives thanks, breaks it, and says, “This is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 22:19).

By mapping his Supper onto the Passover, Jesus does something remarkable: he gives his disciples familiar categories for understanding his covenant meal, even as he expands those categories far beyond their hopes. Like the Passover meal, the Lord’s Supper recalls a past deliverance from slavery and declares those who eat to be God’s redeemed people. Unlike the Passover, however, the lamb of the Supper is the Lord himself, whose blood protects us not only for a night, but for eternity (Hebrews 9:12). The death he dies is once for all — unrepeated and unrepeatable (Hebrews 9:26). And the exodus redemption he accomplishes rescues us not from Pharaoh, but from sin and death and hell (Colossians 1:13–14).

Whenever God’s people eat the bread, then, we say with Paul, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7), and we celebrate a festival of God’s favor that will never, ever end (1 Corinthians 5:8).

Cup of the Covenant

The cup of the Lord’s Supper, like the bread, has resonances with the Passover meal, but it also takes us to another scene shortly after. After Israel left Egypt, passed through the Red Sea, and heard God’s law at Sinai, Moses sprinkled them with sacrificial blood (Exodus 24:8). They were now God’s people by covenant, and God himself was their God (Exodus 6:7).

Jesus, recalling this covenant moment, passes the blood-red wine to his disciples and says, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Here again, Jesus explains the Lord’s Supper with familiar categories — and here again, he wondrously expands them. For his blood and covenant are far, far better.

In the cup, we receive not the blood of goats and calves, “which can never take away sins” (Hebrews 10:11), but “the precious blood of Christ” himself (1 Peter 1:19). Jesus’s blood not only purifies the flesh but cleanses the conscience (Hebrews 9:14), not only covers sin for a time but forgives it forever (Ephesians 1:7; 1 John 1:7). His blood “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24), for it pleads not for vengeance, but for mercy. With his blood, Jesus secured the eternal for his people: an “eternal redemption” yielding an “eternal inheritance” bound within an “eternal covenant” (Hebrews 9:12, 16; 13:20).

Or, as Jesus puts it, alluding to Jeremiah, his blood purchases a “new covenant” (Luke 22:20; Jeremiah 31:31) — and, indeed, a “better” one, “since it is enacted on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). Under the new covenant, God writes his law not on stone but on hearts, he is known by both greatest and least, and he pledges a covenantal forgetfulness as glorious as it is divine: “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:33–34).

“Jesus, our most worthy Lord, snatched the cup of judgment from our lips and exchanged it with his own cup of favor.”

And all because Jesus, our most worthy Lord, snatched the cup of judgment from our lips and exchanged it with his own cup of favor. On the cross, he drank “from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath,” the dreadful “cup of staggering” (Isaiah 51:17, 22), so that, in our hands, it might become “the cup of blessing” (1 Corinthians 10:16). And oh how it overflows (Psalm 23:5).

Our Portion and Cup

Bread and wine, loaf and cup: they could not look more ordinary, but they could not contain more glory. Small enough to fit in the palm, they are big enough to hold the world. We eat and drink them in a moment, but this moment wraps both past and future in its grasp (1 Corinthians 11:26).

And what word do we find engraved on these elements? What voice sounds forth from this Supper? In summary, this: in Jesus Christ, our Bread of Life and true Grapevine, God has shielded us from his wrath, delivered us from sin and Satan, and bound us to himself in a covenant that can never be broken.

Take, then, and eat. Take and drink. And taste the covenant love of Christ.