The Eucharist: Sacrifice of Praise

“Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.”
(Heb. 13:15)  

As a teen, my first serious study Bible was The Student Bible (NIV) from Zondervan, the popular Evangelical publisher. On the whole, its notes were quite good. In Catholic hindsight, however, its attempts to illuminate some passages were problematic. Even at age fourteen, its treatment of the final chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews struck me as such. Its note for Hebrews 13:5 read, “Even here, [the author of Hebrews] makes one last reference to sacrifice. Now, we have only a ‘sacrifice of praise’ to offer, because Christ accomplished all that was needed.”

They were of course correct that the Lord Jesus’s sacrifice did all that was necessary to bring salvation to the human race; and yet, as we Catholics know, Christians are still called to offer sacrifice—a sacrifice that goes beyond verbal praise. Ironically, Hebrews teaches this in the very next verse! “And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Heb. 13:16). Even more troubling to me, though, was the way the writer of the study note completely misunderstood “sacrifice of praise” and its relation to the sacrifice of the Eucharist. Allow me to explain.

Older Protestant commentaries understood Hebrews 13:5 as a reference to the todah, or thank offering, prescribed in Leviticus 7:12-15 (examples here). The todah was the offering a person made after having been saved from death. The offerer brought an animal—a symbol of the life that God had restored to him— to the Temple, along with unleavened bread. A portion of the animal and bread was offered by the priests on the Temple’s altar, with another portion set aside for a festal meal that the worshiper celebrated with family and friends. The meal began with the blessing of bread and wine. At its high point, the host lifted a cup of wine—the “cup of salvation” (Ps. 116:13)—and verbally proclaimed how God had saved him from death. In this way the todah was a true “sacrifice of praise.” In fact, the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT used throughout the Epistle to the Hebrews, referred to the todah by that exact term! [1]

The todah had steadily grown in importance since the time of King David. Psalms such as Psalms 22, 40, 69, and 105 were composed for its celebration. The ancient rabbis went so far as to claim that, “In the coming (messianic) age all sacrifices will cease, but the thank offering will never cease; all (religious) songs will cease, but the songs of thanks will never cease.” [2]

We would do well to remember that Jesus had a todah psalm on his lips as he hung dying upon the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1). That psalm began in lamentation but ended in praise, as the sufferer looked ahead to God’s saving intervention and his celebration of the todah, “From Thee comes my praise in the great congregation;/ my vows I will pay before those who fear Him./ The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;/ those who seek Him shall praise the Lord!” (Ps. 22:25–26).

The todah psalms were fulfilled superabundantly in Christ, whom the Father saved not just from the threat of death, but from Sheol itself (Ps. 16:10–11). And the Eucharist (Greek for “thanksgiving”) that Jesus instituted at Passover, the night before he died, is the todah (“thanksgiving”) feast he celebrates with his family, the Church. The Lord celebrated it with the disciples at Emmaus just hours after his Resurrection (Lk. 24:27–35), and he has been celebrating it with his Church ever since! The Eucharistic liturgy is where the cup of salvation is held aloft and Christ’s mystical body proclaims, “When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the death of the Lord” – the death that saves us – “until he comes again” (1 Cor. 11:26). This is what the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews made reference to when he told his readers to offer God a “sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.

Look at those words within the larger context of the Epistle to the Hebrews. The epistle was addressed to Jewish Christians who had been ostracized from the synagogue and excluded from the sacrificial worship of the Temple. There were under incredible pressure to renounce their faith in Christ and be reconciled with their loved ones in the worship of the Temple. The author encourages them, “We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat….Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name” (Heb. 13:9–15). We Christian do eat from an altar—the altar of the Cross—when we receive Christ in the Eucharist; and we join him in giving thanks and praise to the Father for having saved him—and through him, us—from the curse of death.

The author of Hebrews reminds his readers several times that, as the prophesied Messiah, Christ is “high priest in the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4). Melchizedek was a priest almost eighteen hundred years earlier, in the time of Abraham. He offered a thanksgiving sacrifice of bread and wine on Abraham’s behalf, after the latter’s defeat of a vastly superior force (Gen. 14:18-20).  Jesus, now risen and ascended, unites the Church to the eternal offering he makes of himself to the Father under the signs of bread and wine. This is the most obvious way that Jesus functions as a priest in the order of Melchizedek—the way that the author of Hebrews apparently considered too basic to need explanation!

Christ’s Eucharist is meant to work its way through our entire lives. Our good works flow from the grace we receive – manifestations of the superabundant love of Christ crucified (Heb. 13:16). The communion sacrifices of the Old Covenant represented Christ, but the communion sacrifice of the New is Christ. Under the New Covenant the bread and wine are converted into the sacrificial victim, so that Christians can join themselves, bodily and spiritually, to Christ’s offering to the Father. So let us continually offer God this supreme sacrifice of praise, and with renewed enthusiasm in this most holy time of year!

Sacrifice of Praise

This article is adapted from The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Seven Core Beliefs of Catholics.

Editor’s note: Information shared in this article was adapted from Shane Kapler’s book, The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Seven Core Beliefs of Catholics (Angelico Press, 2016). Learn more about this book and Mr. Kapler’s work at his website, ExplainingChristianity.com.

image: Adoremus in æternum by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP / FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Notes

[1]“[King Hezekiah said], ‘bring near and offer sacrifices of praise in the house of the Lord.’ And this congregation brought sacrifices and thank offerings into the house of the Lord” (2 Chron. 20:31); Lancelot C. L. Brenton, The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English (London: Samuel Bagster & Sons Ltd., 1851).

[2] Pesiqta Rav Kahana, quoted in Gese, Essays on Biblical Theology, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1981), 133.

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  • Cooky642

    Thank you, Shane, for expanding my knowledge of–and therefore my appreciation for–the “Jewish background” of Scripture. I’ve been aware for many years of the tremendous debt we owe to our elder brethern (the Jews), and how much of our Catholic practice derived from them. With this article, you’ve added to that store of bits-and-pieces. I love the Eucharist, and now I have another reason to love it even more! Thank you.

  • Shane Kapler

    You are most welcome! As I research, I am constantly amazed at the way the New Covenant lay hidden in the Old. God bless you.
    – Shane

  • Thank you,I love the Eucharist, and now I have another reason to love it even more! Thank you.

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