The bread of the Lord’s Supper replaces the Bread of the Presence, and in it Christians have a sign of God’s invisible presence within the visible signs of bread (and wine).
When instituting the Lord’s Supper, Jesus cited Exodus 24–25. In these chapters, Moses and the elders feasted with God in heaven, made the covenant with blood, saw the heavenly tabernacle and then replicated it on earth (which includes the bread as eternal covenant offered as a memorial), the wine flagons, the menorah, and other elements within the tabernacle.
The bread, in particular, played a key role in Israel’s religion. Every Sabbath priests used to offer the twelve loaves of the bread of the presence before enjoying the meal with the bread. The bread of presence literally translates as “bread of face” (lechem panaim).
“Bread of face” probably refers to YHWH’s presence. So the loaves represent the visible presence of the invisible God, with the light of the tree (menorah) shining upon the twelve loaves that represent Israel (cf. Num 6:25).
Let me outline how this works step-by-step and then conclude by asserting how this Old Testament background leads to a keener understanding of Christ’s Spiritual or real presence at the Lord’s Supper. And as a general rule, my argument follows Brant Pitre’s book Jesus and the Last Supper.
The Gospel Institution Texts
Consider first Jesus’ institution of the Supper in Gospels. Matthew and Mark similarly record the institution of the Supper, and I will cite only Matthew here for that reason:
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 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. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matt 26:26-29)
Jesus speaks of “my blood of the covenant” which is “poured out.” When Moses makes the covenant with Israel in Exodus 24, he pours out blood and claims that this is “the blood of the covenant” (Exod 24:8).
Jesus also makes speaks of the blood of the covenant with the twelve apostles while God made the covenant with the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus had chosen twelve apostles to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. Referring to the twelve apostles, Jesus thus speaks about the “Father’s kingdom” when the twelve tribes of Israel would be restored.
Lastly, in the Old Testament kingdom and covenant go hand in hand (Ezekiel 34:23–25). This provides a somewhat important background since Christ himself represents God’s kingdom, his rule. More relevant here is Leviticus 24 which identifies the weekly Bread of Presence offering as a eternal covenant (Lev 24:8).
Luke adds, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Priests offered the sacrifice of incense, associated with the bread of the presence, as a sacrifice of remembrance (e.g., Lev 2:2; Pitre, 128). And when Leviticus 24 specifies how the twelve loves of Presence are to be offered, it notes: “And you shall put pure frankincense [i.e., incense] on each pile, that it may go with the bread as a memorial portion as a food offering to the LORD” (Lev 24:7).
Priests would also eat the bread afterwards during a sacred meal similar to the Passover meal that Jesus and his disciples had.
So both the bread offering of the Presence and the Lord’s Supper function as memorials—the incense represents the prayers of Israel ascending to heaven (Rev 5:8).
The Mosaic Covenant
After God gives the law at Sinai, he makes a covenant with Israel: “And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Exod 25:8).
Then Moses and 73 others ascended the mountain and entered into a heavenly place: “they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank” (Exod 24:10-11).
After the covenant of blood, Israel’s leaders ascended the mount and “saw” and “beheld God,” while the ground transformed into a heavenly road. During their vision of God, they enjoyed a banquet with him—they “ate and drank.” Afterwards, Moses alone entered into the Most Holy place in which God’s glory appeared (v. 15-16).
During his time in Heaven, Moses received instruction for all the elements of the tabernacle. God commanded, “see that you make them after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain” (Exod 25:40).
The Bread of Presence
After seeing God’s heavenly tabernacle and receiving instructions to replicate it on earth, God informed Moses of what he was to tell Israel.
Part of the heavenly instruction included: “And you shall make its plates and dishes for incense, and its flagons and bowls with which to pour drink offerings; you shall make them of pure gold. And you shall set the bread of the Presence on the table before me regularly” (Exod 25:29-30).
The flagons and bowls may have held wine for libation offerings (Pitre, 123). The bread of the presence represented a key weekly sacrifice that functioned as a memorial and an eternal covenant (Lev 25:5-9).
After the weekly sacrifice, the priests ate the twelve loaves in a sacred meal. The priests likely drank from the wine-filled flagons that also lay in the holy place.
Tying the Threads Together
Given the linguistic and conceptual connections, Jesus likely saw himself as a new Moses.
He uses the key mosaic phrase “the blood of the covenant” but applies it to himself “my blood of the covenant.” He makes the covenant with twelve apostles that represent Israel as Moses did with the twelve tribes of Israel.
The phrase “pour out for you” evokes Moses pouring the blood of the covenant out as well as the various offerings associated with the covenant. He drinks bread and wine which follow from the covenant that God made through Moses.
The Bread of Presence, associated with the Mosaic covenant, also relates closely to the Last Supper. Consider this chart that I have slightly modified from Pitre (132):
|Bread of the Presence
|The Last Supper
|1. Twelve Cakes for Twelve Tribes
|1. Twelve Disciples for Twelve Tribes
|2. Bread and Wine of God’s Presence
|2. Bread and Wine of Jesus’ Presence
|3. Sign of “Everlasting Covenant” (diatheke)
|3. Sign of New “Covenant” (diatheke)
|4. As a “Remembrance” (anamnesis)
|4. Do this in “Remembrance” (anamnesis)
|5. Offered by High Priest and eaten by Priests (Exodus 24–25, Leviticus 24)
|5. Offered by Jesus and eaten by the Twelve (Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; 1 Corinthians 11
The Mosaic and Bread of Presence connections to Jesus and the Last Supper seem clear. So what does this mean for the Lord’s Supper?
The Spiritual Presence at the Lord’s Supper
The Bread of Presence, of God’s face, visibly showed the invisible God. I suggest that the light of the menorah shining on the bread represents God’s light, which then may explain the logic of how the bread represents God’s presence within the symbolic matrix of the tabernacle.
Mixed with incense, the weekly offering went up to God as the prayers of the saints. The place of the sacrifice was the tabernacle or temple in which God dwelled. The temple itself as so many have shown (e.g., Beale) represents the cosmos with God’s presence in the deepest section of it.
The temple’s purpose and the sacrifice of the bread bridged the gap between Israel and God, to bring their prayers to his ears, and then to enjoy a meal with him as the priests representatively did.
The Lord’s Supper does this now we who are a kingdom priests enjoy a meal with God. We eat the bread and drink the wine of the new covenant. And through this memorial, we enter into God’s presence.
As Pitre notes, this backdrop may explain how Paul can simply affirm the the bread and wine personally commune with Christ (Pitre 146; 1 Cor 10:16). If that bread of presence communicated God’s presence in the Old Covenant, then the bread of the New Covenant personally communicates Christ’s presence in the New Covenant.
The bread of Presence has its source in the heavenly pattern (Exod 25:40), which we see illustrated in Exodus 24 when Moses and 73 others feast with God and behold him on a heavenly path. This is at least suggestive for how the Lord’s Supper by the Spirit may bring us into God’s presence, into the heavenly places.
Dogmatic theologians may have specific ways to articulate this relationship. But we can say that the Lord’s Supper is the new Bread of Presence offering. And in it, we behold the face of God as Moses and the elders did on Mount Sinai.