Whole Counsel Theology

Monday, December 26, 2005

The Lord's Supper

At a recent worship service, our church took the Lord's Supper, also known as Communion in some traditions. My family (mother, step-dad, and brother) were in town and we went to the service together.

When the time came for the Lord's Supper to be taken, I noticed that Mark (my brother) let the cup pass as well as the tray of the wafers, without taking any of the elements. I later asked him about it, and I expected a response having something to do with Catholic teaching (he has joined the Catholic church, but that is not my point here). What I heard from him instead surprised me.

He mentioned that the entire process seemed very disrespectful, that the ceremony, which should have been one of reflection and worship was very poorly handled. He said that it seemed rushed, and that instead of taking the bread and juice/wine, he spent time in prayer because he was angered by it, and was asking forgiveness for feeling that way.

That response surprised me; here I was, expecting some comment about transubstantiation or something. I was wrong, and pleasantly surprised.

I had not stopped to think about how it was handled, though I should have. I was thinking about the cross of Christ and His shedding of blood, but when I began to go over exactly what was said and how much Scripture was NOT used in our observance, I found that I agreed with my brother. This in and of itself was pretty amazing. :)

So, what does the Bible have to say about the Lord's Supper, and what SHOULD our attitude be relating to it? I can think of two distinct passages; the first is Luke 22:19-20. There are other accounts in the other Gospels which essentially say the same thing; I have chosen the Luke passage to address. The other distinct passage is Paul's writing about it over in 1 Corinthians 11:23-31. I'll deal with each in turn, and oh yes, in this blog, I'll always be quoting from the Holman Christian Standard Bible version of Scripture unless I note otherwise, and probably pasting the text from E-Sword (see the link on the right).

Luke 22:19 And He took bread, gave thanks, broke it, gave it to them, and said, "This is My body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me."
Luke 22:20 In the same way He also took the cup after supper and said, "This cup is the new covenant established by My blood; it is shed for you.
OK, here we have the verses that established the practice of taking the Lord's Supper, also called an ordinance (an ordinance is a special event that Jesus established to be continued by the church; baptism would be another ordinance). This is not the only place where it is recorded; John mentions it in chapter 13 of his Gospel, Matthew in chapter 26 of his, and Mark in chapter 14 of his Gospel. It's a rare thing when all four Gospel writers address the same thing (often 2 or three will address a particular event, but not often do all four write about that event); this is definitely a powerful, meaningful event that captured the attention of them all. It is worthy of our study, so that when we are working to be obedient to this practice, we do it properly.

With that in mind, I'd like to speak about the issue of transubstantiation a little. If you hit the link above for it, you'll find its definition. The basics of it are that, according to the doctrine, the bread and wine/juice literally become Christ's flesh and blood when people partake of them, after they are consecrated as part of a ceremony.

How do some churches (such as the Roman Catholic Church) get a belief such as this? A lot of it comes from Jesus's words above, and in a few other passages (such as John 6). The problem with that is that it ignores the issue of the metaphor that Jesus is using. After all, Jesus says "This is My body," doesn't He? Therefore, it must be that this REALLY IS His body...right?

Well, the answer is no. Part of the reason can be found in John's Gospel. Let's grab some of that here. Remember, we must consult the whole counsel of God when dealing with matters like this:

John 13:26 Jesus replied, "He's the one I give the piece of bread to after I have dipped it." When He had dipped the bread, He gave it to Judas, Simon Iscariot's son.
John 13:27 After Judas ate the piece of bread, Satan entered him.
Therefore Jesus told him, "What you're doing, do quickly."

Here we have the betrayal of Judas, the time when Satan entered him and when he went off to do his evil work (which God ordained would happen, but that theological discussion is for a later post). Also, here is where we have the doctrine of transubstantiation begin to break down. The belief of that doctrine is that, when the bread and wine are consecrated (blessed), then they become the body and blood of Christ. However, Judas was at the table when Jesus initiated the ceremony, so the blessing, so to speak, would have already been said (see the next couple of verses in Luke's account to show that this is true). In John's brief account, it says that Jesus dipped a piece of bread (not His flesh) and Judas at the piece of bread (again, not Jesus's literal flesh). This lends to the statement of the ceremony being symbolic rather than literal; Jesus is speaking in metaphor, symbolic, language. He was well known for this in parables of course.

The issue in John 6 is a little different. It is there that Jesus says, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life in yourselves." (verse 53). This is often interpreted to mean that, in the Lord's Supper (communion, Eucharist), we in fact ARE doing this very thing. However, does this interpretation fit the context of this immediate passage?

Again, I will have to say no. The reason is that at the beginning of John 6 we have the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus satisfied their physical appetites (verses 10-11). The people enjoyed this, and followed Jesus to the next place He went (25-27). Notice what Jesus does in verse 27: "Don't work for the food that perishes but for the food that lasts for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal of approval on Him." The people came to him wanting more food; Jesus identified that in verse 26. He then points them to spiritual food that He will give. He then says in verse 35 that He is the bread of life, and as we saw in verse 53, he says that unless we feed on Him (He is the bread of life, remember?) then we don't have life in ourselves. In order to understand this, we simply look at the whole chapter. Jesus wasn't talking about literally eating His flesh here, though those who couldn't believe it wouldn't accept the real meaning and were offended. He was speaking metaphorically, in spiritual terms. He was drawing them AWAY from their thinking about physical food (they were stuck in it at the beginning of the chapter) and pointing them to Himself and having eternal life in Him. The reference is not even one to the Lord's Supper at all, but to the life that He gives, if we feast on Him (spiritually speaking). All of this is in the context of believing in Jesus, the feasting on Him. It is not a physical partaking; it is a spiritual one.

There are some grammatical issues here too, such as the present tense of the verb being used versus the aorist tense, but that's beyond our study for now. I'll address them if asked, or you can read Drawn by the Father by James White to get a wonderful picture of the point of this entire passage.

So then, The Lord's Supper is a symbolic representation of what Jesus has done for His people on the Cross. This symbol, however, is not to be taken lightly.

My favorite comparison is that of marriage and a wedding ring. I am married whether or not I wear my ring of course, but the ring I wear is an important symbol. My wife would NOT be happy were I to throw this ring I wear into a lake or smash it with a sledge hammer. The ring is a symbol of my love and commitment for my wife, but it is not a MERE symbol. It is an IMPORTANT symbol.

This is the same with the symbol of the Lord's Supper. It is a very important symbol! What does Jesus say we are supposed to do when we celebrate this ordinance? "Do this in remembrance of Me," are Jesus's words from Luke. We must remember JESUS as we do this. What about Jesus are we to remember?
  • We must remember His sinless life, to be sure, for His righteousness is imputed to us. Arguably, this is implied, but it is not blatantly stated.
  • Most of all, however, we must remember his death on the cross, his broken body and shed blood, without which no one would be saved.

Paul's words in 1 Corinthians are geared toward this second point specifically:

1 Cor 11:23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: on the night when He was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread,
1 Cor 11:24 gave thanks, broke it, and said, "This is My body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of Me."
1 Cor 11:25 In the same way He also took the cup, after supper, and said, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me."
1 Cor 11:26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.
1 Cor 11:27 Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy way will be guilty of sin against the body and blood of the Lord.
1 Cor 11:28 So a man should examine himself; in this way he should eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
1 Cor 11:29 For whoever eats and drinks without recognizing the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.
1 Cor 11:30 This is why many are sick and ill among you, and many have fallen asleep.
1 Cor 11:31 If we were properly evaluating ourselves, we would not be judged,

This seriousness of the Lord's Supper cannot be ignored! The context of this passage is the Corinthians' horrid actions when they got togther; they were making a mockery of the Lord's Supper. They wouldn't eat at home, and some would gorge themselves and get drunk while others would go hungry. This is where Paul picks up his writing.

When we take the Lord's Supper, we proclaim the Lord's death until He comes. This sacrifice on the cross is the thing in which we are to do all of our boasting ( Galatians 6:14). The cross is central to everything we do as Christians, because on it Jesus did something we could NEVER do ourselves, because of our lost, dead status in sin. Jesus glorified the Father greatly, and provided the sacrifice for sins that both turned away God's wrath (propitiation) and wiped out the sins (expiation) of God's chosen people. We cannot do such things; we are powerless, but Jesus did this on the cross for all who would believe, once and for all! In this, in JESUS and His work, we truly boast!

Yet, what do we see the Corinthians doing here? The Lord's Supper is to "proclaim the Lord's death until He comes." (verse 26) The Corinthians were treating this remembrance with contempt and mockery! In this way, they were "guilty of the of sin against the body and blood of the Lord." (verse 27) What was the result of this? Many of them got sick, and many "have fallen asleep." This does NOT mean they dropped into some sort of instant sleep; it is a euphemism for them having DIED.

The solution Paul gives is self examination. We need to make sure we are "properly evaluating ourselves" lest we eat and drink judgment on ourselves. (verse 29)

How often is such strong attention given to remebrances of the Lord's Supper in our worship today? How often are these beautiful passages not even read? How often do WE dare to treat the cross of Christ with contempt when we fail to focus on Him and the work He did, glorifying Him in Christ-honoring worship in this ceremony? Do we examine ourselves, make sure we have confessed sin to Him and others, and thank Him for this wonderful salvation He purchased for us, when we are absolutely unworthy of it?

When we assemble and take the Lord's Supper, it should always be in an attitutude of worship and reverence along with celebration. We must always examine ourselves to avoid treating the Cross of Christ with contempt. Failing to do so has had, and can have grave consequences.

To God Alone be the Glory.


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