Bread and Wine, Symbols of A Covenant
By Jack Kelley
And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the Most High God. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the Most High God, possessor of heaven and earth. (Genesis 14:18-19)
Theologians speak of the “Principle of First Mention” as an aid to interpretation. Simply put, this principle holds that the first time some important idea is mentioned in the Bible, you’ll often find a special measure of insight in the passage surrounding it. This insight can help in interpreting other passages where the idea appears.
For example, the first time blood appears is in Genesis 4:10 after Cain had murdered Abel. There we get the first hint that man’s life is in his blood. Later, in Leviticus 17:11, the Lord makes it obvious. For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. This is why nothing in the world can rescue us from the death due us for our sins except the blood of Jesus. A life for a life. As Peter put it, Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. (1 Peter 3:18)
The first time that bread and wine are mentioned together occurs in the passage I referenced at the top of this article. I’ve quoted it from the King James Version because my usual reference, the NIV, translates the Hebrew El Elyown as God Most High, reversing the order of the words and claiming in a foot note that it’s the name of the chief Canaanite deity. This would make Melchizedek a pagan priest. But in Psalm 110, which Jesus said was given to David through the Holy Spirit (Matt 22:43-44) Jesus Himself is made a priest in the order of Melchizedek. So I don’t buy the NIV position there.
If the Principle of First Mention holds true, we should find some special insight into the Communion (Lord’s Supper, Last Supper) from the context of this passage. Let’s look at the names first. Translated into English, the name Melchizedek means King of Righteousness, and Salem, the city he ruled, is a Greek form of the Hebrew word shalom, meaning peace. Since King David’s time Salem has been known to us as Jerusalem.
There are several opinions as to the identity of Melchizedek. Some contend that it was a title, not a name, and that the person was Shem, a son of Noah’s, who actually outlived Abraham. In the Book of Hebrews, the author hints at Melchizedek’s immortality, saying he had no beginning and has no end (Hebr. 7:1-3). This has led to speculation that Melchizedek was really our Lord Jesus making one of His periodic Old Testament appearances.
Regardless, Melchizedek was a Very Important Person of the day. So in the first mention of bread and wine, we have the King of Righteousness, Priest of the Most High God and King of the City of Peace, offering it to Abram, with whom God was creating a covenant that would bless all mankind.
Because of this event, bread and wine became the traditional covenant meal, shared as part of the complex ceremony that established a covenant relationship.
Jesus used covenant language when He instituted the communion ordinance using bread to symbolize His body and wine for His blood. He was fulfilling the prophecy from Jeremiah 31:31-34 of a New Covenant, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Bread and wine would be the ceremonial meal for this covenant as well.
But Wait There’s More
Another event featuring bread and wine together takes place in Genesis 40, the story of the cupbearer and the baker. It too is rich with symbolism.
Both these men were imprisoned with Joseph in Egypt, both had troubling dreams on the same night, and both came to Joseph for the interpretation. In the cupbearer’s dream three branches of a vine miraculously produced grapes that he squeezed into wine that flowed directly into Pharaoh’s cup. The baker’s dream featured three baskets of bread stacked on his head. Try as he might, he couldn’t prevent the birds flying around from attacking and eating up the bread before he could deliver it to Pharaoh.
Joseph said the cupbearer’s three vines and the baker’s three baskets both meant that in three days the dreams would come to pass. Pouring the wine from the grapes into Pharaoh’s cup meant that the cupbearer would be pardoned and restored to Pharaoh’s presence. But the birds eating the bread from his baskets meant that the baker would be executed, nailed to a tree. (In those days, being hung from a tree meant either being nailed to it or impaled upon it.) Both dreams came true three days later.
When our Lord Jesus went to the cross, His shed blood purchased our pardon and restored us to the presence of God. But in the process His body was nailed to a tree and He was executed. Three days later He was restored to life.
Instituting the ordinance of Communion on the night before He died, He said that the wine in the cup he raised represented His blood that purchased our pardon, and the bread stood for His body nailed to the cross.
And Still More
The cup He held was the third cup of the Passover, the Cup of Redemption. It represented the third of four promises God had made to Moses when He called him. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. (Exodus 6:6) The next morning He would stretch out His arms to be nailed to the cross and with a mighty act of judgment would redeem us from the bondage of sin with His own blood.
The flat bread he divided among the group was pierced and striped, just as He would be the following day. He was pierced for our transgressions … by His stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5) In preparing the dough the baker perforates it to prevent rising. While baking, it gets stripes from the metal rack it’s placed on in the oven. Before they took him to be crucified, where His hands and feet would be pierced with the nails that held Him on the cross (Psalm 22:16), the Romans had Jesus flogged leaving ugly cuts and stripes on His back. (Isaiah 50:6)
Back To The Cross, Forward To The Crown
Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Cor. 11:26) When we partake of the communion bread and wine we’re asked to look both directions along the time line. We look back to the cross and remember what was done for us there. The bread represents His body that was given for us. The cup is the new covenant of his blood, shed for the remission of sins.
But because the body was given and the blood was shed, we can also look forward to the crown we’ll receive on the day when we’ll all be together with Him in the Kingdom. Kings and Priests, as Melchizedek was, and immortal too, ruling and reigning with our Lord. Not because we’ve done anything for Him, but because He’s done everything for us. Selah.