Are you grappling with a difficult verse in the Bible? And are you looking for a short, easy-to-read answer that really makes sense without explaining away the verse? Visit this page for a daily excerpt from IVP's Hard Saying series.

Today's Study

Mark 14:22-24: This Is My Body and Blood?

The words of institution, spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper, were not intended by him to be hard sayings; but they may be included among his hard sayings if regard is had to the disputes and divisions to which their interpretation has given rise.

Mark's version of the words, quoted above, is not the earliest record of them in the New Testament. Paul reproduces them in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, written in A.D. 55. He reminds his converts in Corinth that he "delivered" this record to them by word of mouth (presumably when he came to their city to preach the gospel in A.D. 50) and says that he himself "received" it "from the Lord" even earlier (presumably soon after his conversion); he had received it, that is to say, through a (no doubt short) chain of transmission that went back to Jesus himself and derived its authority from him. There are differences in wording between Paul's version and Mark's, perhaps reflecting variations in usage among the churches of the first Christian generation, but we are not concerned here with those differences; it is more important to consider the meaning of what the two versions have in common.

The Last Supper was most probably a Passover meal. It may be that Jesus and his disciples kept the Passover (on this occasion, if not on others) a day earlier than the official date of the feast fixed by the temple authorities in Jerusalem. At the Passover meal, which commemorated the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt many centuries before, there was unleavened bread and red wine on the table, as well as food of other kinds. In the explanatory narrative which preceded the meal, the bread was said to be "the bread of affliction which our fathers ate when they left Egypt" (see Deut 16:3). A literal-minded person might say that the bread on the table was not the bread which the exodus generation ate: that bread was no longer available. But to the faith of the eaters it was the same bread: they were encouraged to identify themselves with the exodus generation, for "in each generation," the prescription ran, "it is a duty to regard oneself as though one had oneself been brought up out of Egypt."

At the outset of the meal the head of the family, having broken bread, gave thanks for it in time-honored language: "Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who bringest forth bread from the earth." But at the Last Supper Jesus, as head of his "family," having given thanks for the bread, added words which gave the bread a new significance: "Take it," he said to the disciples, "this is my body." The Pauline version continues, ". . . which is for you; do this as my memorial." The Passover meal was a memorial of the great deliverance at the time of the exodus; now a new memorial was being instituted in view of a new and greater deliverance about to be accomplished. And if any literal-minded person were to say, "But the bread which he took from the table could not be his body; the disciples could see his living body there before their eyes," once again the answer would be that it is to the faith of the eaters that the bread is the Lord's body; it is by faith that, in the eating of the memorial bread, they participate in his life.

At the end of the meal, when the closing blessing or "grace after meat" had been said, a cup of wine was shared by the family. This cup, called the "cup of blessing," was the third of four cups which stood on the table. When Jesus had said the blessing and given this cup to his companions, without drinking from it himself, he said to them, "This is my covenant blood, which is poured out for many." (The Pauline version says, "This is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you; do this as my memorial, every time you drink it.")

When Moses, at the foot of Mount Sinai, read the law of God to the Israelites who had come out of Egypt and they had undertaken to keep it, the blood of sacrificed animals was sprinkled partly on the altar (representing the presence of God) and partly on the people, and Moses spoke of it as "the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words" (Ex 24:8). To the disciples, who had the passover and exodus narratives vividly in their minds at that time, Jesus' words must have meant that a new covenant was about to be instituted in place of that into which their ancestors were brought in Moses' day--to be instituted, moreover, by Jesus' death for his people. If, then, when they take the memorial bread they participate by faith in the life of him who died and rose again, so when they take the cup they declare and appropriate by faith their "interest in the Savior's blood." In doing so, they enter by experience into the meaning of his words of institution and know that through him they are members of God's covenant community.

Matthew (Mt 26:26-29) reproduces Mark's version of the words, his main amplification of them being the explanatory phrase "for the forgiveness of sins" after "poured out for many." In Luke 22:17-20 we find (according to the information in the margin or footnotes) both a longer and a shorter version; the longer version has close affinities with Paul's.

Luke's account is specially important because he is the only Evangelist who reports Jesus as saying, "Do this in remembrance of me" (Lk 22:19). In his account these words are added to those spoken over the bread (in Paul's account they are attached both to the bread and to the cup). From Mark's account (and Matthew's) it might not have been gathered that this was anything other than a once-for-all eating and drinking; Luke makes it plain that the eating and drinking were meant to be repeated.

According to all three Synoptic Evangelists Jesus said, while giving his disciples the cup, "I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God"--or words to the same effect (Mk 14:25 RSV; see Mt 26:29; Lk 22:18). He would fast until the kingdom of God was established; then the heavenly banquet would begin. But when he rose from the dead, he made himself known to his disciples "in the breaking of the bread" (Lk 24:35 RSV); Peter in the house of Cornelius tells how he and his companions "ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead" (Acts 10:41). This suggests that the kingdom of which he spoke at the Last Supper has now come in some sense (it has "come with power," in the language of Mk 9:1): it has been inaugurated, even if its consummation lies in the future. Until that consummation his people continue to "do this"--to take the bread and wine--as his memorial, and as they do so, they consciously realize his presence with them.

Do you want to discover the riches of Scripture and draw closer to God? The Daily Quiet Time Bible Study was designed for your personal time of worship and study. Check every day for a new study, and join the millions who have used this resource.