The disregard and demeaning of baptism and the Lord’s Supper in some Christian circles is deeply concerning, to say the least. To emphasize the place of a personal relationship with Christ, we have discounted the place of the corporate identity of believers and the elements that hold us together in that identity.
In many churches today, creeds, confessions, and worship liturgies are disregarded as formalities. The same attitude has transferred to how we see baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We have come to believe that the worship of God must be spontaneous, overtly emotional, and loud for it to be genuine spirit-worked worship (and anything formal is not “spiritual”). We have lost sight of the means of grace that God has given us, labeling them as expendable formalities.
In last week’s article, we saw the importance of baptism as ordained by Christ and practiced by the universal church. Baptism is not only a sign and seal of God’s promises and the regeneration Christ accomplishes in us; it is also a symbol of our participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. Moreso, it is the sign of entrance into the new covenant community, the boundary between those within the covenant and those outside of it.
What about the Lord’s Supper? Is it that important? Is it a formality or a means of grace that God has appointed for us in the new covenant, without which our churches have no reason to exist?
The Lord’s Supper as a command
Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper during the last supper he had with the twelve (Mathew 26:26-30). While they were partaking in the Passover meal, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them as his body. He also took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them to drink as his blood – the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins.
In Luke’s account, we see Jesus instituting this supper as a continuous duty of his covenant people: “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Paul, recounting what he received from the Lord, repeated Jesus’ command that his covenant people partake of the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of him (1 Corinthians 11:23-25).
That Paul does not envisage a point in history where the Supper becomes unimportant is clear from verse 26: “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” The Lord’s Supper exists in between two events – the Lord’s death and his second coming. The Lord’s Supper proclaims one (the death) in anticipation of the other (the second coming).
Therefore we expect that if there is a terminus to the Lord’s Supper, it will coincide with the second coming of Christ (and not a minute before that). But the second coming is not a terminus of the Lord’s Supper; it is its consummation: “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” (Revelation 19:9). The Lord’s Supper will be consummated when people from east and west sit with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in that ultimate feast (Mathew 8:11).
We have established that Christ commands his church to partake of the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of him – as a proclamation of his death and an anticipation of his second coming. Therefore, a church that discards or trivializes Christ’s command is in sin.
But understanding the importance of the Lord’s Supper will heighten our perception of its importance and encourage us to take it more seriously.
The Lord’s Supper as a fellowship meal
In the Mediterranean world, sitting at the same table with someone to have a meal was a sign of fellowship. In the NT, the Pharisees harangued Jesus for eating with sinners and tax collectors (Mark 2:13-17). Eating with someone at the same table was a social act symbolizing friendship, unity, and fellowship.
So when God invited Moses and Israel’s elders to a meal at the top of the mountain (Exodus 24:11), it was a sign of fellowship. God had accepted the people and called them to himself; through the meal, he symbolized his acceptance of and fellowship with them.
When Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to his disciples and ate and drank with them (Acts 10:41). This eating and drinking – fellowship – was integral to their position as witnesses and proclaimers of his resurrection.
So when Paul called the Lord’s Supper the Lord’s table (1 Corinthians 10:21), he is evoking the language of fellowship and communion. In the Lord’s Supper, we are invited to the Lord’s table, a symbol of friendship, unity, and fellowship. Just like those who eat the sacrifices of idols become partakers of those idols, when we eat and drink at the Lord’s table, we become participants with Christ. He is with us, and we are with him (1 Corinthians 10:18-22).
Acts describe the Lord’s Supper as the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42, 20:7, see Luke 22:19). The breaking of bread is also used to describe the regular meal that the disciples had (Acts 2:46, see Luke 24:30). Commentators believe that when the disciples come together to have their common meals, they also partook of the Lord’s table after the meal (see Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, F.F. Bruce, and A.T. Robertson’s commentary on Acts 2:42).
Luke used the same language for the common meals and the Lord’s Supper to emphasize that the Lord’s Supper is a fellowship meal that God invites us to, where he is present with us in friendship, unity, and fellowship through his Holy Spirit.
The Lord’s Supper as a covenant meal
Because eating a meal at the same table connotes friendship, unity, and fellowship, it became an important way to ratify a covenant or renew the promises of a covenant.
After some back and forth, Jacob and Laban finally made peace. They made a covenant (Genesis 31:44), and both parties participated in a meal as a means of ratifying the covenant (verse 54).
The meal Moses and Israel’s elders had with God followed the confirmation and ratification of the Sinaitic covenant (Exodus 24:3-11).
One of the offerings in Israel’s sacrificial system was the fellowship or peace offering (Leviticus 3:1-17, 7:11-38). God, the priest, and the worshipper all share a meal. It was a symbol of friendship, unity, and fellowship between the worshipper and God. When God renewed his covenant with Israel, they had this fellowship meal (Deuteronomy 27:1-8, Joshua 8:30-35). They also had it at other important events in their history (1 Samuel 11:15, 2 Samuel 24:25, 1 Chronicles 16:6).
When Christ also inaugurated the new covenant in his blood, he participated in a meal with his disciples – the last supper – and instituted it as the Lord’s Supper.
Just as Israel had fellowship offerings during covenant renewals, when we gather at the table, God is renewing his covenant with us and guaranteeing his covenant promises to us anew.
The Lord’s Supper and the exodus
In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul was using the history of Israel to admonish the Corinthians. He described their passage through the Red Sea as baptism (10:1-3) and then the manna and water from the rock as spiritual food and drink. What follows (especially verses 14-22) makes it evident that Paul had the Lord’s Supper in mind.
In essence, Israel’s experience during the exodus (passing through the Red Sea, eating manna and drinking water from the rock) is a type of the believer’s experience (baptism and the Lord’s Supper). The Exodus is a type of Christ’s deliverance of believers from sin and death.
Before the exodus, God established the Passover in advance as a celebration and remembrance of the event (Exodus 12). In the first Passover, the Israelites were to kill lambs and put some of the blood on their doorposts so that God could pass them over when he moves in judgment against Egypt (verse 6-7, 13). They were also to eat meat with bitter herbs and unleavened bread (verse 8).
If Paul describes our salvation from sin as the new exodus, it only makes sense that the Passover meal was a type of the Lord’s Supper. No wonder it was on the occasion of the Passover that Jesus established the Lord’s Supper (Mathew 26:7).
Israel killed lambs to celebrate their exodus, but in the new covenant, Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). He was slain once for all for the remission of sins (Hebrews 10:1-7).
Therefore, the manna they ate, the water from the rock they drank, and the Passover meal they had to celebrate the exodus were pointing toward the Lord’s Supper, the celebration of the new exodus.
This is why Paul said that in the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim the Lord’s death – the sacrifice that guaranteed our exodus – and why Jesus said we should do it in his remembrance (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
So when we come to the table, we are celebrating, remembering, and proclaiming the death of Jesus that delivered us from our slavery to sin, flesh, Satan, and death.
The Lord’s Supper and Eschatology
When we come to the table, we not only proclaim Christ’s death, we also cast our minds on his coming (1 Corinthians 11:26).
What’s the relationship between Christ’s death and his coming in the Supper?
It is this: the coming of Jesus Christ will be the consummation of everything the Lord’s Supper is. John looked forward to the wedding supper of the Lamb, where every believer will eat and drink with Christ (Revelation 19:9). As that unnamed man said, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God (Luke 14:15). Jesus looked forward to the time when many from the east and the west will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Mathew 8:11).
When Isaiah described the salvific work that God would do among the peoples, he used the language of a feast: “On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines” (Isaiah 25:7).
As we come to the table, we look with anticipation at the consummation of all things when we will enter into our inheritance as adopted children (Romans 8:22-25, 1 John 3:1-3) and enjoy that eternal fellowship in the presence of our triune God.
The Lord’s Supper and the body
In verse 17 of 1 Corinthians 10, Paul showed that the Lord’s Supper should foster Christian unity. Remember that he wrote this letter to a divided church (1 Corinthians 1). And one of the things he believes will foster greater unity is for the church to remember that we all partake of one loaf when we come to the table.
The argument here is similar to the one in chapter 1 and Ephesians 4. In the former, the fact that we are all baptized in one name – Christ’s – should foster unity and put an end to party spirit (I belong to Paul, Apollos, and Cephas – 1 Corinthians 1:13-17). In the latter, the fact that we have one faith, one baptism, one hope, one Lord, one God, and belong to one body should help us keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:4-6).
Similarly, our participation in one loaf in the Supper confirms that we are one body and motivates us into deeper unity. Though we are many, when we come to that table, partaking of that one loaf, all our differences give way for our mutual union with Christ. At that table, all that matters is that Christ is present with us, and we are all united in him.
This is why Paul was livid about the disunity at the Lord’s Supper in Corinth (11:18-22). He went on to tell them that those who partake of the Supper in an unworthy manner – not discerning the body of Christ – eat and drink judgment on themselves.
Those who come to the table without discerning that this is the body and blood of Jesus by which he unites us into his body – the Church – are drinking judgments on themselves.
What was Paul’s solution? “When you gather to eat, you should all eat together” (11:33). The Lord’s Supper should foster deeper unity (since we are partaking of the one loaf) and not tear down the church in deeper disunity.
So the Lord’s Supper should strengthen and intensify the unity of the body of Christ. Anytime we come to that table, we must have regard to the one loaf that constitutes us as the one body.
Delighting in the Supper
The Lord’s Supper is not about us; it is about Christ and the grace he imparts to us. When we come, we are coming to friendship, unity, and fellowship with Christ, who is present with us at the table through his Spirit.
And when we come, he is renewing his covenant with us, reaffirming and upholding his covenant promises so that our faith in him can be strengthened.
At that table, we come to remember and proclaim his death while celebrating the redemption from slavery that his death accomplished for us. When we come, God is giving us greater assurance that indeed we have been redeemed and set free by the blood of the lamb. And that assurance well up in joyful praise and thanksgiving.
Every Lord’s Supper is also a guarantee from God that he is coming to consummate our redemption when all the believers across all ages partake of the Lamb’s marriage supper in the presence of the triune God. When we come, our hearts are set on the ultimate supper, and our hopes are strengthened.
Finally, when we come to the table, there is a heightening of our unity as the body of Christ. As we behold the body of Christ broken for us and the blood of Christ poured out for us, we recognize our mutual union in Christ and the things that divide us give way.
The Lord’s Supper is about God and the work of grace he does for and in us. It’s not about our perfection or imperfection, but about us discerning the body and the blood and by faith receiving all the grace that God gives us in that meal – strengthened faith, deepened hope, heightened unity, among others.
The table of the Lord is a place every believer should love to go to very often. We are not going there to be burdened but to receive grace. Do you want to receive grace less often or more often? Why then do you stay away from the table? Why do you demean and ignore it? Why do you disobey the Lord and trivialize his table?
While some outrightly demean and ignore the Supper, many acknowledge it as Christ’s command but place it in the backseat. Some of them go to the table once in three months or once a year. But if the table of the Lord is a place where we receive grace, should we not want to go there more often?
Then there are those who, out of fear of judgments (1 Corinthians 11:27-34), avoid the table of the Lord and miss out on the grace God supplies through it. They are afraid that there is sin in them, and they are unworthy of the table. The people Paul warned in this chapter are those who regarded the Lord’s Supper as a common meal (“is it not just bread and wine,” they said) and failed to see that the bread is the body of Christ and the wine is the blood of Christ – they profaned what is holy by treating it as common. These are the people that need to examine themselves. Paul was not saying a sin or weakness disqualifies from the table.
When we have sin and weaknesses, where else should we want to go than where we can receive grace, remember Christ’s death, and renew our covenant with God? The more we see that the Lord’s Supper is about God and the grace he bestows, the more we would want to come as often as possible.
As Michael Horton puts it, “the problem with the pietistic version of the Lord’s Supper, therefore, is that in its obsession with the individual’s inner piety, it loses much of the import of the feast as a sacred meal that actually binds us to Christ and to each other. Instead of viewing it first as God’s saving action towards us and then as our fellowship with each other in Christ, we come to see it as just another opportunity to be threatened with the law. Instead of celebrating the foretaste of the marriage supper of the Lamb on Mount Zion, we are still trembling at the foot of Mount Sinai. It is no wonder, then, that there is a diminished interest in frequent communion” (Introducing Covenant Theology, 160).
So stop running away from the table, come in faith and receive Christ and his grace.
My God, And Is Thy Table Spread,
And Doth Thy Cup With Love Overflow?
Thither Be All Thy Children Led,
And Let Them Thy Sweetness Know.
Hail, Sacred Feast, Which Jesus Makes,
Rich Banquet Of His Flesh And Blood!
Thrice Happy He Who Here Partakes
That Sacred Stream, That Heavenly Food.
Why Are Its Bounties All In Vain
Before Unwilling Hearts Displayed?
Was Not For Them The Victim Slain?
Are They Forbid The Children’s Bread?
O Let Thy Table Honoured Be,
And Furnished Well With Joyful Guests;
And May Each Soul Salvation See
That Here Its Sacred Pledges Tastes.