The Lord’s Supper (Communion) commemorates the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross – the singular act upon which the redemptive plan of God rests. So, in these lessons I will give a brief history of the principle of substitutionary death, starting with the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament and how they relate to the principles in the New Testament (spiritual death and the blood of Christ), a look at the actual events of the cross, the significance of the Passover observance and its relation to the Lord’s Supper and ending with Jesus’ first observance of Communion with His disciples the night before He made that sacrifice of Himself and the symbolism He revealed in the only ritual authorized in the New Covenant.
Prior to the cross and the writing of the Scriptures, God commanded certain specific rituals as expressions of worship (always a picture of submission) and training aids to teach truth. Among these were certain animal sacrifices designed to teach salvation and repentance. Beginning with the first presentation of the Gospel (Genesis 3:21), continuing through the family offerings (Genesis 4:4, 8:20, 22:1-14), and then on to the Levitical offerings (Leviticus, chapters 1-5) and, finally, the special Holy Day offerings (Leviticus 23), the shedding of animal blood illustrated the future salvation work of the Savior. These sacrifices all pictured the exact same salvation principle: substitutionary death - someone who was acceptable to God would have to die in place of sinful man. The innocent would die in place of the guilty. The sinless Son of God would take the judgment due to sinful man upon Himself (see 2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Peter 2:24, 3:18).
The innocent animal’s blood was a perfect representation of a life given on behalf of others, because the animal’s life was in its blood. The reference found in Leviticus 17:10-14, in which we find the statement "the life of the flesh is in the blood", in context, refers to animal flesh only! The seat of man’s physical life is his soul resident in his body (Genesis 2:7). Man’s physical death occurs when his soul leaves his body. But his soul is created in the image of God and is eternal. Animals die when their physical function is destroyed (in this case, a severe loss of blood). Ritual animal sacrifices required the total sacrifice of the animal. They died and their bodies were burned and reduced to ashes.
An animal’s blood being pumped out of its carotid arteries was a loud, violent, graphic illustration of a death struggle (an appropriate depiction of the cross). The blood of sacrificial animals was a perfect visual aid. No one could see the actual future judgment that the Savior would endure, but the animal’s blood could be collected and carried through the various detailed rituals that pictured this future judgment. Accompanied by the priest’s explanation, these rituals were clear representations of the real event that would occur in the future. However, the blood of animals was only a picture of the reality that was to come. Neither blood nor physical death was ever the means of salvation.
The death struggle of a strong, healthy animal tore away all the sweetness and silly sentimentality people are prone to have, and forced them to focus on the uncompromising standards of an Almighty God. The sights, sounds and smells along with the priest’s explanations of these rituals were a repeated, detailed and unpleasant reminder of God’s future judgment of their sin. And even at that, the animal’s violent suffering gave the Jews only a partial glimpse of the terrible judgment Jesus Christ would have to bear, when as our substitute, He would go to the cross to pay the price that Divine justice would demand.
So, what payment did God’s justice demand for the sins of mankind? To understand what the payment must be, we must first understand the penalty for sin that God had established. And that penalty was given even before the first sin had ever been committed. It’s found in Genesis 2:17. "But of the tree that holds the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat of it, because the day that you eat of it you will surely die."
The Hebrew verb muth, means, "to die" and is actually doubled in this verse. It should be literally translated "dying, you will die". This is an idiom or word picture for spiritual death (separation from God in time). When Adam disobeyed God and ate the fruit from this tree, he did not immediately die a physical death. In fact, he probably lived somewhere around 900 years after committing this original sin (Genesis 5:5). But he lost his relationship with God and that is spiritual death. Physical death became the eventual result of sin, but it was never the penalty for sin.
In order to purchase our salvation Christ had to suffer spiritual death as our substitute. The price had to be the same as the penalty. Most professing Christians today wrongly conclude that Christ bought their salvation with His physical death on the cross. The phrase "blood of Christ" is found several times in the New Testament (compare 1 Peter 1:19; 1 John 1:7), along with several other similar references, such as: "His blood" (Romans 3:25; Ephesians 1:7), "My blood" (John 6:54-56), "blood of the covenant" (Hebrews 10:29) and "shed blood" (Mark 14:24). In every instance, each reference to the blood of Christ is a synonym for the saving work of Christ on the cross, His spiritual death, the fullest expression of God’s grace (Ephesians 2:13). They fail to make the distinction and therefore fail to recognize with any degree of appreciation what Christ actually had to do.
Considering everything the Bible says about salvation in both the Old Testament and the New Testament an analogy (comparison) is formed. In other words, you see the distinct similarities between what is illustrated in the Old Testament rituals as compared to what is found in the actual events recorded in the New Testament. But let us be perfectly clear on this point, the animal sacrifices only represented the shadow image side of the analogy, while the events on the cross are the reality of those shadows. “The Law is merely a shadow image of the good things to come, not fully expressing the realities of those things.” (Hebrews 10:1a).
When the New Testament mentions the "blood of Christ", the purpose is to relate the events of the cross to the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament. However, in the OT, the blood was literal and the judgment was symbolic; but on the cross, the blood was symbolic, while the judgment was literal. The animal on the altar represented Christ on the cross. The animal’s throat was cut so it would shed its blood and die physically. The physical death of the animal illustrated the spiritual death of Christ (compare Ephesians 2:13; Hebrews 9:14; 1 Peter 1:19 and 1 John 1:7 where this analogy is in view). It is this spiritual death that provides our salvation.
The fact is and the Scripture record clearly shows that Christ died twice on the cross. In Colossians 2:12, the Greek noun nekros is plural and is used as the object of the preposition ek. The last phrase of that verse should be translated "God raised Him out from the deaths." In Isaiah 53:9, it’s the same thing. The Hebrew meweth is plural and should be translated "deaths". Christ experienced spiritual death as the payment for our sins, and then He experienced physical death to demonstrate His power over physical death through His resurrection.
Now let’s look at the Gospel record. The Lord was on the cross for approximately 6 hours, from about 9 o’clock in the morning to 3 o’clock in the afternoon. However, at 12 o’clock noon the earth came under total darkness and remained in darkness for the next 3 hours (Matthew 27:45). During this time, we know that Jesus Christ was being judged for our sin because He kept screaming this same thing over and over again, “My God (the Father), My God (the Holy Spirit), why have you abandoned Me?" (Matthew 27:46) In this verse the verb is in the imperfect tense indicating that the action described by the verb was continuous and repeated through the time described.
At this point the other two members of the Godhead, with whom Christ previously enjoyed eternal and unbroken fellowship, had both broken that relationship with Him. The Holy Spirit had withdrawn His sustaining ministry while the Father judged our sins in Him. It was our sins that separated Christ from the other two members of the Trinity; this was His spiritual death!
Jesus’ physical death is an essential part of the Gospel when the resurrection is emphasized (I Corinthians 15:1-4). Through His physical death and subsequent resurrection, He became the first fruits of those raised from the dead, the guarantee of a future resurrection for all believers (I Corinthians 15:20-22). Jesus Christ died physically as an act of His own will and choosing (John 10:17-18). No one took His life from Him. When His work on earth was finished, the Father’s plan called for Him to depart. And so when that time came, Jesus dismissed His own soul and spirit. In Luke 23:46 Jesus quotes a portion of Psalms 31:5. "And then Jesus cried out with a strong voice, Father, into your hands I entrust My spirit. And when He had said this, He let out His breath." He simply exhaled and was gone.