Jesus has a table spread, where the saints of God are fed. He invites His chosen people, come and dine!
The Church of Jesus Christ has long insisted that God ministers to His people through the ordinary means of Word and sacrament. It seems that many modern evangelicals want to shy away from a word like sacrament. For them it sounds too priestly; the concern is that using a word like that will lead inexorably to Rome. This fear is altogether unfounded. If evangelicals are concerned about crossing the Tiber then they are going to have to drop the oars and paddle in reverse. They are already on the far side of the river.
I say this because the error of Rome can easily be stated as honoring tradition above Scripture. It seems to me that this is exactly what the modern evangelical does when he seeks to commune with God while rejecting the divinely instituted means of Word and sacrament. In this respect evangelicals are much closer to Rome than they are to Geneva—or Jerusalem for that matter.
Here is the reality. In a sacrament we have a covenantal union between the sign and the thing signified. The Roman Catholic position destroys the possibility of having a real sacrament by collapsing the sign with the thing signified and declaring them to be altogether synonymous. The modern evangelical destroys the definition of a sacrament by divorcing the sign from the thing signified. They want a separation rather than a distinction. But what God has joined together let not man put asunder.
The biblical position is that there is a real covenantal union between the sign and the thing signified. This union is the work of the Holy Spirit, who with divine authority, says that water is united to the cleansing while distinct from it, and that bread and wine are united with the body and blood of the Lord Jesus—which body, of course, we are.
My present concern is with the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Most evangelical Christians eat the covenant meal once or twice a year and expect to grow strong and healthy. They hope to live on the strength of that nourishment from Easter to Christmas—if they even think that they are being nourished at all. It doesn’t seem to dawn on folks that they come to the Lord’s table for the same reason that they come to any other table. We go to the table to eat and to drink. We eat and drink that we might be nourished and strengthened.
Setting the Table
A good place to begin is with the Scriptural names for the sacrament. We have already referred to it as the Lord’s Supper, which is the phrase Paul uses for it in 1 Corinthians 11:20, “Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper.”
He also calls it a cup of blessing: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). Paul here is using a figure of speech known as a synecdoche, where a part can be applied to the whole. Obviously, Paul does not want to limit the blessing to the cup, excluding the bread. Consequently, we understand that the entire meal is a blessing. It is also a thanksgiving. When Paul recounts the words of institution, he says, “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed to bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it said, Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:23-24). The Lord’s Supper is a celebration, a feast. We are to remember the Lord, and part of what we are to remember is that He gave thanks for His sacrifice. The Greek word for thanksgiving is where we get the word Eucharist.
The Supper is also called the Table of the Lord—“You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord’s Table and the table of demons” (1 Cor. 10:21). Notice that we have two tables, and worshippers partake of each one in the same way—covenantally. In other words, it is not when we come to the Lord’s Table that a covenantal “miracle” happens. We are always living in a covenantal relationship. The only choice we have is between sitting at the Lord’s Table in covenantal obedience or sitting elsewhere in covenantal idolatry. We do not have the option of sitting down at a noncovenantal table. They don’t exist. People talk a lot about “having a relationship with Jesus.” Well, everyone does have a relationship with Jesus. They are either believing or unbelieving; obedient or disobedient. The Table of the Lord is at the center of believing covenantal living.
Another common name is Communion. “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16) The word for communion here is koinonia, which refers to our fellowship in Christ, and consequently with one another. In the book of Acts, it is called the breaking of bread. “Now on the first day of the week, when disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached to them…”(Acts 20:7). And lastly, the Lord’s Supper may be called the Cup of the New Covenant. “In the same manner He also took the cup after the supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. This do, as often as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you do proclaim the Lord’s death till he comes” (1 Cor. 11:25-26).
So what does all of this mean, taking it together? Consider what we are doing. We do not own the Supper; the Supper is the Lord’s Supper—He is the host. When we approach it properly, we receive a blessing that we do not otherwise receive. This cup is a cup of blessing, which distinguishes it from all other cups. If our Lord, facing death, was able to give thanks, how much more should we come together in order to celebrate this Supper eucharistically. We are to look around the sanctuary as we discern the Lord’s body, His chosen people—this is communion. We signify our loyalty by partaking of the Lord’s Table. This is our covenant oath. We break bread, just as the Father broke the body of His Son. And we remember the heart of the New Covenant, which is the remission of sins through His blood.
Eating to Live or Living to Eat?
In the Table of the Lord we have a glorious opportunity to grow in faith, as the Word fuels the sacrament and the sacraments enriches the Word. Since Paul tells us that the meal is a means of blessing it is clearly right to speak of it as a means of grace.
When a believer comes to the Table and partakes in a worthy manner he is blessed by God in the coming. This is a blessing the communicant would not have received if he had not partaken. Paul says that there is a blessing associated with this cup but in the next chapter Paul makes it very clear that the abuse of the Supper brings down God’s covenantal judgment (1 Cor. 11:27-32). Christians in sin are warned about faulty participation in the Supper; those who disregard the warning are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. They are told that their observance does more harm than good. Such promises and threatenings enable us to see that this is not just one more empty religious ceremony.
But the blessing of this sacrament has historically been distorted in two ways. One is the error of the sacerdotalist, who magnifies what happens to the bread and wine to the point of idolatrous superstition. The other is the error of the memorialist, who reacts to the idolatry, and minimizes or denies the reality of the blessing—carving some pretty neat idols of his own.
The former teaching is that the sacraments perform their function ex opere operato, that is, they work blindly and mechanically, quite apart from faith and obedience on the part of the recipient. So some believers, when they have seen this sort of idolatry, have reacted in the opposite direction by saying that the Supper is nothing more than “a mere memorial.” Now it is important for Christians to reject all forms of priestcraft, but we must do so without being reactionary. We can’t be like a semi-ambulatory drunken man who can’t decide which ditch he likes to fall into the most. Biblical rejection of false teaching is not the same thing as blind reaction to false teaching. An idolater will say that the observance of the Supper is everything. A reactionary will say that the observance of the Supper is nothing. But it actually is something. In order to maintain his position, the reactionary must do just as much violence to the biblical data as does the idolater.
The teaching of Paul cannot be reconciled with either extreme. There is a true blessing here, and it is the result of covenantal identification. This is a blessing that is poured out on the believer by a sovereign God in a providential response to the believer’s obedient faith. The blessing does not come through the elements, like water through a garden hose. But it does come on account of a worthy and faithful use of those elements. It might be helpful to recall the old definitions of our fathers; formal causes and instrumental causes.
In the Old Testament, the Levites who ate at the altar were partakers of the altar (1 Cor. 10:18). When they ate the sacrifices, they were consequently covenantally identified with the God of Israel. In order to make this happen, God did not magically transform the meat. Nevertheless, the Levites were blessed when they faithfully kept the sacrificial ordinances God had commanded them to keep. So there is no magic in the Supper. The elements are not, in themselves, automatic channels of blessing. No mystical substance flows to the believer through the elements. I often tell my people that we reject the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation as it pertains to the elements—they are not transformed. But we do believe in a transubstantiation of sorts—we are transformed.
This is the hard pill that modern evangelicals (even with all of their baptismal water) can’t seem to choke down. The Supper is considered as nothing more than a mere memorial. Now this is partially correct: it is a memorial, but of what? What is it that we gather at the Table to remember? The obvious response appears to be that we gather to remember the Lord’s death. And here it is here that the rampant sentimentalism about the Lord’s death has obscured the ver point of the memorial. It is very common for Christians to think of His death as an act of love for individual sinners, and nothing more. It is almost never seen as a covenantal act, establishing a covenantal people.
But how did Christ think of His death? “After the same manner also He took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood: this do ye, as often as ye drink it, in remembrance of me” (I Cor. 11:25). When Christ laid down His life, He did so in order to establish the New Covenant with His people. So those who gather to remember His death, but who neglect the covenantal aspect of it, are forgetting the main point that they are gathering to remember. Participation in the Supper is an act of covenantal allegiance. It is an act of covenant renewal. (On a side not, we are not the only ones who are remembering the covenant. Like the bow in the clouds, God looks at the bread and wine and remembers His covenant with His chosen people as well.)
Look Who’s Coming to Dinner!
This understanding helps us with another problem that has been perplexing to many believers. and that is the question go the “real presence” of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Because of a long-standing love affair with Hellenistic categories, the debate has usually centered on whether the Lord’s presence is “spiritual” or “physical” or “spiritually physical” or “physically spiritual.” But these are not scriptural categories. The only alternative to Christ being present is Christ being absent. This certainly is not the case. There is a real presence of Christ in the supper, but His presence is covenantal. The importance of this would be hard to overstate. A lot of trees have been felled and ink spilt in the discussion of Christ’s statement that the bread was His body. Comparatively little has been said about His statement that the cup was the new covenant. Thus we will make little sense of the Supper until we learn to think in covenantal categories. The Table seems a good place to begin.
More to follow…