Minutes With Messiah Logo

Four Cups

by Tim O'Hearn

Wherefore say unto the children of Israel, I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you out of their bondage, and I will redeem you with a stretched out arm, and with great judgments: And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. (Ex 6:6-7)

During the Passover (Pesach) Seder (April 12 in 2006) participants drink four cups of wine. This practice is based on the scripture above. Four promises; four cups. There are various practices related specifically to the four cups. For instance, wine is used when possible, to symbolize the freedom being celebrated by Pesach. A certain amount per cup is usually specified. In some traditions children are not given the cups until they are old enough to listen to and understand the Passover story. The leader pours out drops of wine from one of the cups at the mention of each of the plagues. A fifth cup is poured for Elijah, either at the beginning or toward the end of the evening. However, each cup holds a significance that outweighs all of these other considerations.

I Will Bring You Out

The first of God’s four promises is that he will bring his people out from under their burdens. At this point he is not necessarily promising to bring them out of Egypt. That is the next promise. Even before saving them from slavery, though, he promises to bring them out. What is the significance of this promise?

God has never promised to do things our way. Most people who are enslaved would ask God to remove them from slavery. When possible he may do just that. But that doesn’t mean he has to. It may be that God needs you to remain a slave. It may be that, as was the case after the American Civil War, freeing all the slaves would put them in an economic hardship. Slavery was an evil, but unemployment and starvation were also evils that resulted from mass emancipation.

In this promise, God says that even if he were to leave Israel in slavery, he would still bring them out from under their burdens. Even if they had to remain as slaves of Egypt, they would still be under God’s protection. Their burdens would be lessened.

Centuries later a student of the great Rabbi Gamaliel, one Rabbi Shaul, understood just this promise. “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. Art thou called being a slave? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather. For he that is called in the Lord, being a slave, is the Lord's freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Messiah's slave.” (1 Cor 7:20-22) It doesn’t matter if God keeps you in human slavery. He will free you from your burden, if not your slavery.

This is a great promise, for there is one burden that everyone bears. There is one burden that must be removed regardless of a person’s social, economic, or physical status. Whether slave or free, male or female, everyone carries the guilt of sin. God doesn’t offer all of us a “small fortune.” He may not even offer freedom from sickness or pain. He does offer freedom from sin.

Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. (Rom 5:12, 18-19)

I Will Save You

Now is when God promises to save Israel from bondage. The difference is significant. A burro (donkey to those outside the Southwestern United States or Spanish speaking countries) may be relieved of his burden at the end of a trip. What does he then have to look forward to? Another burden on the return trip. In contrast, what God is promising here is like putting the burro out to pasture for the rest of his life. He is relieved not only of his burden, but from the responsibility of ever bearing burdens.

That is not to say that Israel was allowed to retire to the desert and watch movies all day. They still had responsibilities. The difference was that these responsibilities were laid upon them by their freedom rather than their bondage. They still had to work to live, but they didn’t have to live to work. They still had to surrender to the Master of the Universe, but they were freed from the taskmasters of the world.

In this, too, Israel is a picture for all of us. Slavery, in a sense, is a fact of life. The difference is that servitude to God is not slavery in the same sense as other bondage. God does not treat his people as slaves, but as if they were free. Our only choice is who our master will be.

Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness. I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness. (Rom 6:16-19)

God would rather treat us as family, even though we have no choice but to be slaves. “Therefore thou art no more a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Messiah.” (Gal 4:6-7) Through our faith in God’s Messiah we have received adoption as children of God. That does not absolve us from responsibility. Rather it changes our responsibility, and our attitude.

I Will Redeem You

Luke indicates that the cup Jesus used for what became the Lord’s Supper was at least the second cup. (Lk 22:17-20) Moreover, he specifies that it was the “cup after supper.” This cup of redemption is the first cup after the meal and the eating of the afikomen, a piece of unleavened bread previously separated from the rest as a sort of “dessert.” Based on Luke’s description of the events of that last supper, this would most likely be the one Jesus used to institute the Lord’s Supper. There are a couple of reasons that this would be appropriate.

This cup is called the cup of redemption. God promised to redeem Israel “with a stretched out arm, and with great judgments.” When redeeming (buying back) an object we might be familiar with great judgements. Whether it is a judgement of a pawnbroker or of a court, we can understand that somebody has to set the value of that being redeemed. But what about an outstretched arm? One possibility is that God is saying that he redeems his own without holding back. Rather than hesitantly offering the price, he holds it at the end of a fully extended arm. He did not hold back even the blood of his only-begotten son.

But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come…Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. (Heb 9:11-12)

The more common meaning of an outstretched arm implies power. Although the second cup is known as the cup of the plagues, it is that power that preceded the redemption. It was the power of the last of those plagues that broke the resistance of the Pharaoh. And it is the power of resurrection that confirms our redemption.

I Will Take You

One of the complaints of the Israelites in the wilderness was, “Did you bring us out here to die?” What good is a God who can free his people from slavery, but then forgets them? That was the error of Reconstruction America. Slaves were freed, but then there were no jobs, no help, no comfort, and no franchise. Fortunately, our God is not like that. When he freed his people he promised to take them to him as a nation. This he did three months later at Sinai.

For about ten years after Jesus died, the church consisted only of the descendants of those God took as his people at Sinai. Then Peter went to one outside that fellowship and opened the door to the Gentiles. That same Peter quotes Haggai, showing that he now takes anyone who follows him as his people.

But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy. (1 Pet 2:9-10)

That Rabbi Shaul, mentioned earlier, wrote to a body of God’s people in Corinth. In doing so, he made reference to Pesach on more than one occasion. Once he wrote about the Messiah being our Pesach lamb (1 Cor 5:7-8). At another time he made reference to the Seder.

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread. (1 Cor 10:16-17)

Paul uses this phrase “cup of blessing,” which commonly referred to the first of the four cups. Thereby he equates the Lord’s Supper to the entire Pesach Seder. All four of the cups, all four of the promises, are to all who believe. We have more than just redemption; we have the other cups as well.