The old covenant people of God observed Passover year after year—until Jesus took the cup and said, “This…is the new covenant in My blood.” Continuing his sermon series in the gospel of Luke, in this sermon R.C. Sproul considers the institution of the Lord’s Supper and the atonement of Christ.
We will continue our study with the gospel according to Saint Luke. I will be reading from Luke 22:7–23. I would ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.” They said to him, “Where will you have us prepare it?” He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him into the house that he enters and tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished; prepare it there.” And they went and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.
And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” And they began to question one another, which of them it could be who was going to do this.
We have heard the reading of the institution of the Lord’s Supper as recorded in the various Gospels. This is from the supervision of the Holy Spirit, so that these words ring with the very truth of God, and I pray that you will receive them as such and be seated. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, how grateful we are for the church You have given to us. It is Your church, made up of Your people, for whose sins You have given a perfect and complete atonement. We thank You for the covenant that was new the evening that the church was born. We thank You that our Lord had a passion for celebrating that event, and we thank You in His name. Amen.
Two Holy Feasts Linked
Jesus was stirred up. The Scriptures tell us that His spirit was moved deeply within Himself as He began to feel more intensely, moment by moment, the weight the Father had placed upon Him to sacrifice Himself for His people. He knew on this evening in which He celebrated the Passover with His disciples that it was the last time He would celebrate that feast on earth. He could see through the darkness and knew what was awaiting Him on the morrow.
Jesus understood the link between two very important festival occasions established by God in the Old Testament, roughly six months apart. The most holy feast was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Probably the second most holy was the celebration of the Passover.
In Old Testament days, those two feasts were divided by six months, but on this occasion, Jesus understood that the celebration of Passover and the Day of Atonement would be separated by less than twenty-four hours. Thursday night was Passover; Friday afternoon was the Day of Atonement. There is a reason why these events were so closely linked.
The Greatest Old Testament Act of Redemption
Let us look back to the book of Exodus, where we read this historical account in Exodus 12:7–13:
Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.
You get the picture: this is the historic institution of the Passover. There had been a battle of powers between the most powerful superpower in this world, the Pharaoh of Egypt, and the most powerful Being in the universe, the Lord God omnipotent. As these titans clashed on earth and in heaven, there was plague after plague. Each time, Pharaoh would surrender, only to change his mind and remain opposed to God and His providence, until they reached the last plague. God said to Pharaoh: “On this night, I will send the avenger, My avenger, the angel of death, and I will appoint him to slay your firstborn. Every last one of them will I destroy.”
Then God made provisions to protect His people. He told Moses: “Command the people to sacrifice a lamb. Take the blood of that lamb and mark it on the doorposts and lintels of your homes. Do not fail to mark every home in which your children dwell. When I send the angel of death and judgment, wherever he sees the mark of the lamb, he will pass over that place, and no harm will befall My people.”
Then God commanded the people to be ready and told them what they should eat and what they should drink. The should eat bitter herbs to remind them of the time they spent in slavery in Egypt. They should drink wine to celebrate the moment. They should dress with their cloaks bound together by a belt, that they would have their legs free to move in haste. They should wear their sandals because, when it the time comes to move out of slavery and into the promised land, they must be able to move quickly. Then He said, “I will take you home.”
The people believed it, at least for a moment, until they got between Migdol and the sea and found they were pursued by the mighty chariots of Egypt. Egypt’s chariots were behind them, and the roaring sea was in front of them. Moses’ hands were raised as he prayed, and God created a huge wind to come in and divide the waters, drying a passageway for the people of Israel to walk across on dry land. As the people began to walk and the chariots of Egypt began to pursue them, the Lord reversed the wind and drowned the chariots of Egypt, while the people of God who had experienced the Passover of the angel of death survived.
This was the greatest act of redemption in all the Old Testament. So, God said: “Don’t ever forget this day. Every year, at the appointed time, you must gather and celebrate the Passover of the Lord. When the son says to the father, ‘Why, father, do we do this?’ the patriarch of the home will remind the people what the Lord has done to save them.” For hundreds of years, without fail, every Jewish person was involved in celebrating that memorial event of Passover.
The Establishment of a New Covenant
From the time that He was a child, Jesus would go to Jerusalem, to the feast, and celebrate the ancient Passover ritual and memorial; first with His family, then later with His disciples. As His spirit groaned within Him, He gave instructions to His disciples: “Find the place. I will tell you how to find it, but we must find a room where we can prepare the Passover. I want to celebrate the Passover one last time with you because I won’t do it again until I enter the kingdom.”
So, the disciples found the place and prepared all the elements for the Passover. Jesus reclined at the table with His disciples to celebrate the Passover. They went through the various stages: the prayers, the wine, the singing of the Hallel. Then, Jesus radically changed the liturgy.
For centuries, the liturgy had been exactly the same, until our Lord, who alone had the authority on heaven and earth, dared to change it and announced the establishing of a new covenant. He said: “This is the new covenant now, which is in My blood. This new covenant in My blood is by the shedding of My blood for the remission of your sins. Tonight, we are eating and drinking the ultimate Passover.”
I believe that was the birthday of the Christian church in the upper room when Jesus initiated and instituted a new covenant. But the new covenant would still have to be ratified, because covenants in antiquity had to be ratified in blood. This was the reason for the conjunction of Passover and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The next afternoon, the new covenant that Jesus instituted in the upper room was ratified by His blood.
The Day of Atonement
The other memorial feast, the one held to be the most sacred among the Jews, was the annual celebration of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The priesthood and the people made elaborate preparations. Animals were killed in preparation for this event.
The high priest alone was able to enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant, the throne of God that contained Aaron’s rod and the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. The priest would place his hand on the scapegoat, symbolically transfer the sins of the people onto the goat, and send the goat into the outer wilderness, the place of darkness, the place of the curse for the remission of sins.
The idea is that atonement was made in satisfaction of the holiness of God in the Holy of Holies, while the removal of the people’s sin came by virtue of imputing it to the back of the goat sent into the outer darkness. It was not by accident that Jesus was killed outside the city of Jerusalem in a gentile place, in the place of darkness, a place foreign to the holy presence of God, as Jesus was our scapegoat.
Here is the irony: Yom Kippur was celebrated every year for centuries, but in all Jewish history, there was only one Day of Atonement. Not a single Day of Atonement celebrated in the Old Testament was actually a Day of Atonement. No atonement was made because the author of Hebrews tells us that the blood of bulls and goats cannot atone for our sins. In that drama of Israel was a symbol that pointed to a later, full, and perfect reality when the sins of God’s people would be satisfied once and for all. That Day of Atonement happened the day after Passover, when once for all, the Lamb without blemish was sacrificed on the cross.
So, Jesus changed the liturgy and established a new covenant in His blood, and He said, “As often as you eat of this bread and drink of this wine, you will show forth My death until I come.”
Christ Alone Can Atone
The atonement was prepared by centuries of ritual undertaken through animals whose blood was not worthy to atone for sins, but the people obeyed the symbol. The symbol pointed not to a myth but to the full incorporation of the reality to come. So, it is Christ in the upper room who was defined by sacred Scripture as the Paschal Lamb, where the Scriptures say, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” When the angel of death comes, he will see the mark of the blood of the Lamb on the souls of His people.
Ultimate Passover was followed by ultimate atonement so those who believe, who have put their trust in Christ and Christ alone, will not have to atone for their own sins. I remind you, dear friends, that the day you die there will be a reckoning; there will be a judgment. You will either atone for your own sins, or you will receive the atonement Christ made for your sins. The atonement you seek to make for yourself will be worthless. It will not be worth as much as the blood of bulls or goats. It will be futile. It will be useless. As soon as he sees you, the angel of death will slay you. But for those who put their trust in Christ, His atonement will cover you today, tomorrow, and forever.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.