Sunday, February 17, 2019

A Symbol of a Symbol

Conscious he would soon be passing from this scene as we all do, Jacob blessed his son Judah.

That blessing is poetic, prophetic and open to interpretation on multiple levels, the most significant of which is that he is speaking in some measure of Jesus Christ, who was descended from Judah. One of the things Jacob says of Judah’s offspring is this: “He has washed his garments in wine, and his vesture in the blood of grapes.”

This is the first time any of the Bible’s writers associate wine with blood, though in this instance probably neither word is to be taken literally.

Wine and Blood

We have been discussing the relationship of the symbolic acts of the Christian faith to the spiritual reality they depict for us, beginning with baptism and moving on to the sharing of bread in the Lord’s Supper. The other symbolic act in the Lord’s Supper is the taking of the cup, the sharing of communal wine; hence the connection with blood.

When they are getting a tad too hyperbolic for my taste, sports reporters still occasionally speak of “letting the claret flow”. It’s a well-worn boxing euphemism for bloodying an opponent’s nose or opening up one of those nasty cuts around the eyes with a stray elbow. They didn’t invent the expression, of course. Associating wine with blood is so natural it has been used as a literary device for centuries. The vivid color of red wine makes any lengthy explanation beside the point.

The prophet Isaiah expands on Jacob’s reference to Christ by asking, “Why is your apparel red, and your garments like his who treads in the winepress?” His response is this:
“I have trodden the winepress alone … I trampled down the peoples in my anger; I made them drunk in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.”
The apostle John picks up Isaiah’s symbology and uses it to describe what he calls “the great winepress of the wrath of God”, from which blood flows as high as a horse’s bridle for something like 184 miles. Thus, the use of wine to symbolize blood in scripture goes all the way from Genesis to Revelation.

A Symbol of a Symbol

If we’re paying attention, we’ll recognize that we actually have here a symbol of a symbol, just as in the bread we share at the Lord’s Supper.

Recall that bread symbolizes the Lord’s literal, earthly body given on our behalf. But the bread also calls to mind the spiritual body of Christ, as Paul points out when he equates humiliating believers who have nothing with failing to “discern the body” in the Lord’s Supper. So there are three levels: the symbol, which is literal bread; then the literal body of the Lord; then his figurative body, of which we are members.

Likewise, wine symbolizes blood, but as we know, blood stands as a symbol of life. As God told Israel:
The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.”
So, again, three levels: literal wine, figurative wine (blood), then figurative blood (life).

An Act Initiated

In connection with the Lord’s supper, then, the symbology behind the use of wine was not unfamiliar to the disciples, and it is not difficult for us to grasp. Here are the relevant historical passages in the probable order they were written:
  • Paul: “In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘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.”
  • Mark: “And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’ ”
  • Matthew: “And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’ ”
  • Luke: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
Luke’s account is the simplest. Mark adds that the blood is “poured out for many”, and Matthew adds the purpose, “for the forgiveness of sins”. Paul reveals that it is an act of remembrance and proclamation.

Here we have a clearly commanded ordinance: “Do this.” If we were ever inclined to think its ongoing practice was intended only for Jesus’ original twelve disciples, 1 Corinthians clears that up for us.

That is the symbol.

The Gospel of John and Blood

As to the reality it depicts, we should not overlook John.

Though he has given us four precious chapters in the upper room during that last Passover celebration, the beloved apostle makes no mention of wine, cup or blood at all … at least not in that context. If this seems like a glaring omission, bear in mind that his gospel was written ten years after Paul’s comprehensive teaching on the Lord’s Supper to the Corinthians, and at least four years after Luke’s gospel, the last of the synoptics. It is possible his focus was primarily on setting out the things the other gospel writers had not covered in detail rather than the things they had.

Still, despite saying nothing about the ordinance, John’s gospel reveals a great deal about its significance:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”
Here the Lord is not speaking about ordinances or observance of the Lord’s Supper at all, but rather about personally apprehending the value of his death by faith.

An Ongoing State of Belief

This is not something that merely happens around a table on a Sunday morning weekly, monthly or annually. It is an ongoing state of saving belief. William MacDonald puts this very well:
“[I]t can definitely be shown that to eat His flesh and to drink His blood means to believe on Him. In verse 47 we read that ‘He who believes in Me has everlasting life.’ In verse 54, we learn that whoever eats His flesh and drinks His blood has eternal life. Now things equal to the same thing are equal to each other. To eat His flesh and to drink His blood is to believe on Him.”
We who have true and lasting relationships with Jesus Christ have entrusted our lives and future to him. Our life is his life. Our sustenance comes from him. We have food and drink that the world knows nothing about.

In one sense this is an event, in that all relationships begin somewhere. Belief too begins at a particular time in a particular place, though not every believer is equally conscious of the precise moment. In another sense, “drinking the blood” of the Lord Jesus is an ongoing state of being.

It is this living relationship that gives eternal life, not the commission of some symbolic act. No one who approaches God on the basis of law or works and, like Cain, presents to him the things he has done in his own strength, has truly “drunk the blood” of the Lord Jesus in this sense. He has no idea what that means.

The Meaning of the Act

Like the taking of bread, sipping wine from a common cup passed hand to hand is merely a gesture. An unbeliever can slip in among the people of God and participate in it with ease, provided he is willing to conceal his unbelief. In his case, the act is utterly meaningless, except perhaps that it carries with it the potential for divine judgment.

The table of the Lord, then, is for those who believe. A symbol is without purpose if it does not point to a greater reality, and this reality is fellowship with Christ through faith.

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