The Prisoner that Delivers Prisoners

joseph

In Genesis 42:16-19 it reads:

Send one of your number to get your brother; the rest of you will be kept in prison, so that your words may be tested to see if you are telling the truth. If you are not, then as surely as Pharaoh lives, you are spies!” And he put them all in custody for three days. On the third day, Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God: If you are honest men, let one of your brothers stay here in prison, while the rest of you go and take grain back for your starving households (NIV).”

There is a lot happening here. Joseph has been elevated to the second highest position in Egypt. He holds the power of life and death over his brothers, who are seen by Egypt as foreigners and potential spies.  But, Joseph has come to this crossroads after a) being confined to a pit by these same brothers, b) sold into bondage by them as well, and c) being held in Pharaoh’s prisons on false charges.

Some commentators believe that Joseph’s imprisoning of his brothers was revenge, while others seem to think it was to “teach them a lesson.”  What ever his initial intent, most commentators agree that, he show’s himself a man of God, by not abusing his powers, and by showing mercy.  Notice he reverses his original demand (sentence) of one being free to return to Jacob – to only one remaining.  There is an added act of compassion here as well.  Jacob, and the households of Israel – including Joseph’s full brother Benjamin are suffering famine.  Joseph saves political face in the eyes of the Egyptians by holding one “spy” while the claims of the others are being verified –  and also provide sufficient manpower by the release of the 9 others to take the much needed grain to Canaan. Despite the past wrongs meted out on him, he has not lost the love for his family.

Joseph was a man who knew captivity, whether at the hands of his family, through slavery, or by the law.  He offers freedom – from jail, from hunger, and from vengeance.  He was a model of what Jesus would come to be – “a man of sorrows” who in his own trials sets others free.

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Ethiopian Eunuch

The eunuch raises some key questions:  Which Candice was his mistress?  What was his nationality?   Was he a Jew?  Was he a convert to Judaism?  Was he a Proselyte at the Door? Was he a Greek Speaker?  Why does it matter?

Many people have argued that in Acts 10, Cornelius became the first Gentile Christian. There is compelling evidence, however, that the eunuch holds that distinction.

Acts 8:26-40 (ESV) reads:

“26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. 27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.”30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
    and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
    so he opens not his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
    Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

34 And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. 36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?”38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.”

With that read, let’s look at our questions. Who did he serve? Based on our timeline, it seems that Kandace Amanitore (1 BC-AD 50) seems the best fit.  If the Eunuch was serving her, then his route via the Gaza Road is the ideal meeting place for a man returning from Jerusalem en route  to her palace at Gebel Barkal in what is now Sudan.

His nationality seems to me to be Kushite.  My reasoning is thus: If he were a Jew, then he would have not questioned the intent of Isaiah’s passage.  It would at least been clear, that the author was not speaking of himself.  As to being a convert to Judaism – here his physical state as a eunuch would preclude him from worship in the Temple and most likely in the synagogue as well –  “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:1 NIV)”. This leaves the “Proselyte at the Door” as the most likely scenario.  He may have gone to worship in Jerusalem, but would have found his ability to do so publicly, very limited.  This would have led (we can speculate) for him to seek God on his own.  Thus the reading of Isaiah.

It is this copy of Isaiah that answers our next question for us.  He like Philip (see Acts 6:1-5) was a Greek speaker.  The wording of the passage (Isaiah 53:7-8) is in the form found in the Septuagint. This does not in itself “prove” he was not a Hebrew speaker, but it does show he was a Greek speaker.

So we have a Greek speaking, servant of the Ethiopian queen making his way home from Jerusalem where he worshiped (or attempted to worship) the God of Israel.  He is trying to make sense of the prophet, and God leads Philip (a Greek speaking, Jewish Christian) to him with the answers.

What new doors does this open for us?

First, a man excluded from Jewish assembly is led to baptism.  Here, if Gentile (which seems likely) he overcomes a previous exclusion. But more definitely, as a eunuch, he is now included among God’s people.  The spiritual children of Abraham.

Here more of Isaiah is fulfilled!  “Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain,
“I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever (Isaiah 56.3-5).”

What was the outcome?  I will leave you with the reflections of Eusebius (263-339 AD) on the this point: “But as the preaching of the Saviour’s Gospel was daily advancing, a certain providence led from the land of the Ethiopians an officer of the queen of that country, for Ethiopia even to the present day is ruled, according to ancestral custom, by a woman. He, first among the Gentiles, received of the mysteries of the divine word from Philip in consequence of a revelation, and having become the first-fruits of believers throughout the world, he is said to have been the first on returning to his country to proclaim the knowledge of the God of the universe and the life-giving sojourn of our Saviour among men; so that through him in truth the prophecy obtained its fulfillment, which declares that ‘Ethiopia stretcheth out her hand unto God'(Psalm 68:31) [Church History, II. i, 13].”

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Became Afraid

John 19 records the events of Jesus’ trial  before Pilate:  “6 As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!” But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.” 7 The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” 8 When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, 9 and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” 12 From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

While some commentators view the governor’s fear to be linked to the possibility of riot or tumult. There argument stems from linking John’s account with that of Matthew 27:23-24 –  “. . .But the mob roared even louder, “Crucify him!” Pilate saw that he wasn’t getting anywhere and that a riot was developing.” While such political fears may be part of the issue, it ignores the thrust of John’s point.  Pilate became afraid at the idea that Jesus was the Son of God.  As a Roman knight, he would be educated enough to have a firm appreciation of his own religion and legends.  Hercules and others were said to be sons of gods, and Pilate didn’t want to fall foul of the divine.

Such a view is supported by Benson’s commentary: “For it is very well known, that the religion which the governor professed directed him to acknowledge the existence of demi-gods and heroes, or men descended from the gods. Nay, the heathen believed that their gods themselves sometimes appeared on earth, in the form of men . . . (Benson).”

Cyril of Alexandria mirrors this:  “The malicious design of the Jews had a result they little expected. They wanted to build up an indictment against Christ by saying that he had ventured to sin against the person of God himself. But the weighty character of the accusation itself increased Pilate’s caution, and he was more alarmed and more careful concerning Christ than before. He became more particular in his questions: what Jesus was and where he came from. I think he believed that, though Jesus was a man, he might also be the Son of God. This idea and belief of his was not derived from holy Scripture but the mistaken notions of the Greeks. Greek fables call many men demi-gods and sons of gods. The Romans, too, who in such matters were still more superstitious, gave the name of god to the more distinguished of their own monarchs, and set up altars to them, and allotted them shrines and put them on pedestals. Therefore Pilate was more earnest and anxious than before in his inquiry of who Christ was and where he came from (Commentary on the Gospel of John, XII).”

Here is a challenge for us today.  We face a world skeptical of the vary name of God.  Oh, “powers, forces, and the supernatural” all seem well and good, but the idea of God is seen as a fable.  Yet on Mars’ Hill, Paul started with these”supernatural” notions to lead his audience to God.  It is for us (as I have written before) to meet people where they are.  To build on the starting points they possess. Even a Roman governor, who was known to ignore Jewish and Samaritan cultural scruples and beliefs was influenced by having his own beliefs being pricked.

Remember, everyone believes something. If we live our beliefs and demonstrate that they are true in our lives; and if we appeal to and sympathetically challenge the beliefs of others, we can stir hearts and consciences.

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Pilgrimage Revisited

The topic of pilgrimage is a complex one, and one close to my heart. My life’s journey has thus far been a pilgrimage, a searching after a connection with God.  I have for almost all my life been an active Christian and I have “journeyed through” the Catholic, Anabaptist, Restoration and Pentecostal traditions.  In the end, I am a Christian – denominational tags meaning little to me.

This journey has also taken me through “actual” pilgrimages.  A pilgrimage is a journey of spiritual or religious significance, usually to a site associated with figures or events of faith in the past.  It is not a holiday (British usage) or vacation, as it is not meant for leisure or recreation, but for contemplation and spiritual revival.  There is an old English word – Stowe – that can be associated with this.  It means “meeting place” or “special place,” and pilgrimage sites are often both of these.

The Sikh religious leader – Nanak – was against ritual pilgrimage.  He had observed people making obligatory ritual pilgrimages and saw that they often were “ticking the boxes,” as we would say, so lost any spiritual benefit.  Here I can agree with him.  I have been to sites of religious significance, and seen the tourists, the ritualists, and the true pilgrims – there does seem a difference in the reactions and what is gained by the experience.

I have been to Auschwitz and seen the curious, the tourists, and historically mindful, but found it far more spiritually moving to see the reaction of those finding their roots, their losses, and feeling their humanity.  I have been to Jerusalem, and trod the paths of Jesus and the prophets.  This was spiritually moving to me, but incidental mistakes in my navigation took me to places which came to have greater significance.  I came upon the Via Dolorosa unintentionally, but found that pathway overpowering in my own soul.  I have sat and watched worshipers in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and seen simple faith. Jerusalem was and is a stowe place for me, and it is the one pilgrim badge I wear (despite being a “low churchman”).

I find wonder in spiritual places.  Ancient cathedrals are not just wonderful pieces of architecture, but to me acts of faith.  I often, when visiting such places, thank God for the expressions of faith which the buildings and their art are monuments of.  I try to catch a feel of the millions of prayers that devout hearts have uttered in the place, and humbly add my own to the collection heard not by the stones, but by the creator of the stones themselves.

We humans strive to find something to fill the voids within us.  We all have them.  Some try to fill them with the temporal – money, food, alcohol, even fame – but in the end the need is spiritual. Finding the divine is the only long term fulfillment.

I hope you can find your stowe place today.

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Bethesda

In John chapter 5 it reads:

“1 After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda,  having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had. Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked.”

This was not Jesus’ only occasion of healing a paralytic (see Mark 2:1-12), but it is the place that is interesting Bethesda (House of Mercy) as that is exactly what Jesus showed. Personally I also find that the link between healing and Bethesda is kept alive by the fact (intentional or not) that one of America’s main Naval hospitals and National Institutes of Health are in a town of that name.

Jesus’ ability to show mercy is not just limited to physical healing, however.  He came to show the ultimate act of mercy: ” . . . While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).”

Lord, let today be a Bethesda day, as I am always in need of your mercy.

Friends, how about you?

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The Feast of Stephen

Today is in England “Boxing Day,” and in the USA “After X’mas Sales Day,” but for much of Europe it is marked as Saint Stephen’s Day or the Feast of Stephen.

Stephen was one of the Greek speaking believers of the early Jerusalem church which was chosen as a “deacon” or minister of service, by the church and installed by the Apostles (Acts 6: 2-6).  He was said to be “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit (verse 5)” and  “a man full of God’s grace and power, [who] performed great wonders and signs among the people (verse 8, NIV).” He was also to become the first Christian martyr.

In Acts 7, Stephen is brought before the Jewish ruling council, and makes a magnificent presentation of the Gospel.  As he speaks the council members become more and more hostile to him and the Word.  He then concludes:

“51b You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it. 54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

On hearing this:

“57b they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.”

We today in the Western world seldom face such trials. Yes, we have brethren elsewhere who do, and we should pray for them daily.  But we face a more subtle opposition, one of indifference and unbelief.  Are we prepared to be bold, to follow the example of Stephen on the day set aside by many to remember him?

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What More Can Be Said ?

It happened some 2000 years ago, it was written a half century or so later, and it was quoted famously in 1965:

“8And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
10And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
12And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.” (Luke -KJV).

“…That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”(Mendelson)

What could I possibly add to that?

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Feast of Dedication

Today begins the eight-day festival of Hanukkah.  It is also known as the Feast of Dedication, and remembers the cleansing and re-dedication of the Temple during the Inter-Testamental Period.

It was during this festival that Jesus shared publicly His identity. John 10 reads:

“22 And it was the feast of the dedication at Jerusalem: 23 it was winter; and Jesus was walking in the temple in Solomon’s porch. 24 The Jews therefore came round about him, and said unto him, How long dost thou hold us in suspense? If thou art the Christ, tell us plainly. 25 Jesus answered them, I told you, and ye believe not: the works that I do in my Father’s name, these bear witness of me. 26 But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: 28 and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who hath given them unto me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”

The Tabernacle and Temple were bridges between God and man.  It was here that the gap between heaven and earth was spanned.  God’s presence was felt – on Earth!

This was clear in  Leviticus 9:  23-24 at the dedication of the Tabernacle:  “. . . When they [Moses and Aaron] came out, they blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell face down.”

Similarly when Solomon’s Temple is completed, and the Ark installed, I Kings 8 states: When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord.  And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple (verses 10-11 NIV).”   

In Ezra, the Temple is dedicated for a second time following the Babylonian destruction. Here there was no outward manifestation of God’s presence, but it is accompanied by a quiet promise in Haggai 2: 6-7: “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty (NIV).”  Glory would be in that place.

The present Feast of Dedication marks the fourth (if you count the Tabernacle) such rebuilding of the bridge. When the Maccabees defeated the Seleucid Greeks and cleansed the Temple.  The lamp stand was lit but only had sufficient oil for one day.  This light which symbolises God’s presence burned for eight; enough time to prepare an on going supply. God in each dedication made Himself known either in word or deed.

Then we come to Mark’s Gospel verses 25f: “. . . the works that I do in my Father’s name, these bear witness of me. 26 But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: 28 and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who hath given them unto me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”  

In short, “I am the Messiah.  I am Emmanuel.  And I am here in the Temple, showing the presence of God in both words and deeds, and this time, the Temple is in My flesh, and it will not be snatched again.”

On this Feast of Dedication let us take joy that the bridge to God is now forever open to us.

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Seasonal Musings

Today I have been taking a more seasonal musing, as the classic radio station has been taken over by almost entirely carols.  It is part of the season, that people who never in the rest of the year give a single thought to things spiritual, in the Christmas season, turn to carols.

I am not saying this is a bad thing, as any acknowledgement of God’s presence in this world is good, and it is the place where contact with God becomes possible.  It is more of a call on us who profess a faith in God to pick up the challenge.

In Acts 17, Paul used the opportunity of people’s limited understanding of the divine, as a starting place to show them a clearer vision and way to God:

“22 So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. 23 For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; 25 nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; 26 and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation,27 that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ 29 Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. 30 Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, 31 because He has fixed a day in which He will judge [c]the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

Are we up to the challenge?  Can we take the world from Jingle Bells to Away in a Manger, to at last have them truly understand and appreciate “Joy to the world! The Lord is come!”?

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Elijah’s Cup

In Luke 22 it records Jesus’ last Passover meal with his disciples:

“14 And when the hour was come, he sat down, and the apostles with him. 15 And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer: 16 for I say unto you, I shall not eat it, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God. 17 And he received a cup, and when he had given thanks, he said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves: 18 for I say unto you, I shall not drink from henceforth of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come. 19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave to them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. 20 And the cup in like manner after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood, even that which is poured out for you.”

During the Passover meal there is a ritual in which 4 cups of wine are drank – each with a symbolic meaning; a fifth cup is poured and ushers in the Age of Messiah. This is often called the Elijah Cup, poured in anticipation of the prophet’s return bringing in that age. While the ceremony has changed over the centuries, certain elements date to the Second Temple era as attested to in the Mishnah Pesahim which mentions variations in the ceremony between the Schools of Shammai and Hillel.

That several cups were drank in Jesus day is clear in Luke’s account as wine is consumed before the bread and after. Of these various cups a Jewish source relates that:

“the four cups [are] the “Four Expressions of Redemption” in G‑d‘s promise to Moses (Exodus 6:2-8): “I will take you out,” “I will deliver you,” “I will redeem you,” and “I will acquire you.” These are not merely four synonyms, for each represents a distinct stage and level of Redemption. “I will take you out” refers to physical exit from the land of Egypt. “I will deliver you from their bondage” means delivery from servitude and “I will redeem you” is the Divine guarantee that we remain a free people. “I will acquire you as My nation” to be your G‑d’s chosen at Mount Sinai — the goal of the Exodus. (The Silent Cup: What is Elijah’s Cup All About? Israel Rubin). He continues: ” In addition to these four expressions, the Torah also uses a fifth expression of Redemption . . . [one that is poured but not yet consumed].” Rubin’s  article turns to awaiting redemption (a future hope within Jewish thought).

In the Gospels, this final redemption is explained to the gathered disciples,as being fulfilled there and then:

“19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave to them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. 20 And the cup in like manner after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood, even that which is poured out for you.”

While it is a point of speculation, it is interesting that the text says that Jesus took the cup, “When the supper was ended.”  Could this have been the Elijah Cup?  Was He saying symbolically, that the age of Messiah has come?

Jewish commentators would might argue that the Mishnah notes that during Passover:

“After they poured for him the third cup, he blesses over his food [Grace after the meal]. The fourth [cup of wine], he completes over it the Hallel, (Mishnah Pesahim, chapter 10).”

This would suggest that Jesus might have been using the third cup.  But the Gospel indicates the supper was ended, not just the eating, so the possibility of the 5th as yet un-drunken cup was indeed used, as the ceremony was finished. Jesus uses it as He gives a new covenant in His blood.

What a powerful way to say the Time of Messiah is now, not in some distant future.

Some food (and drink) for thought.

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