’Come!’ The word of invitation,
Bade me hasten to the fearsome throne.
‘Now!’ The sword of condemnation,
Close above my wretched head hangs down.
‘Reason seek,’ said the Lord my God,
Justice strikes fast at the crimson blot.
‘Christ has full-borne the judgment rod.’
‘His blood washes clean the deepest spot.’
From scarlet shades to whitest hue;
My sins transformed by the dazzling Son.
His glaring gaze made all anew;
The snow melts away with my all ruin.
The people of God gather in His name on the first day of the week. We do so, not because of mere convenience or out of vain tradition, but because it is right to do so. But this practice has not been without its critics.
Some object to the very idea of a change in the day because the fourth commandment is one of the Ten Commandments, and its seems that the Ten Commandments have to be inviolable. They were written by the finger of God on tablets of stone, after all. But we may not object in principle to changes within the Ten Commandments (provided they are changes by God). First, remember the Ten Commandments are summary law (Ex. 34:28). They summarize all of God’s covenant with Israel. This means that the Ten Commandments summarize both creation law and redemptive law—remember that in the new covenant some obedience looks the same, and some looks different. In addition, the sabbath command is a positive ordinance, meaning the visible appearance of obedience can vary while the heart of the commandment remains.
As a summary of both kinds of law (creation and redemptive), we should expect changes. Further, this particular commandment changes in its form in the short time between Exodus and Deuteronomy. We can also see that a clear change is made elsewhere in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:12; Eph. 6:3). So the idea of change in form should not be excluded at the outset.
But on what basis do we say there has been a transfer of the day from the seventh to the first? Christians have observed the first day of the week as holy since the first century. Why? We should begin with the basis of the transfer, which is the Lord’s resurrection from dead on the first day of the week (Mk. 16:9; Jn. 20:1). He then made a point of appearing to the disciples on the following Sunday (Jn. 20:26). He was establishing a pattern for them to follow, which was reinforced again by the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, also on a Sunday. The disciples were not as spiritually slow as they had been during the Lord’s earthly ministry, having now been enlightened and empowered by the Holy Spirit. They led the Church in establishing worship on the first day of the week. They met together to break bread in the Lord’s Supper on the Lord’s Day (Acts 20:7), also gathering for the preaching of the Word. Paul required the Corinthians to take a collection on the first day of the week so that they would not have to scramble to get the money together when he arrived (1 Cor. 16:2). The apostle John received the vision that we call Revelation on a day which he called the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10).
The author of Hebrews puts everything in theological perspective when he says this: “For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his” (Heb. 4:10). The passage is admittedly vague because of the use of many pronouns, but we can still understand the point through examining the context. Just as God accomplished the work of creation and then rested from His labors, so the Son of God accomplished the work of redemption (recreation) and then rested from His labors. In the Old Covenant, the pattern was work followed by rest; in the New Covenant, the rest is on the first day, and is followed by work.
An alternative understanding of the passage, which is that a sinner repents of the work of trying to save himself, in a comparable way to God’s resting after creating the world, is too much of an exegetical (not to mention theological) stretch. It depends upon a maladroit metaphor—God’s work of creation being compared to a life of self-righteous striving, and His satisfied rest compared to a repentant rejection of what had gone before. In the first sabbath, God said it was good. In repentance, a sinner says it was pretty bad.
Now we are in a position to understand Paul’s teaching to the effect that every day is alike (Rom. 14:5), and his point is that sabbath observance is part of the old Jewish calendar of sabbaths, new moons, and annual festivals (Col. 2:16-17). We have already seen that for the apostle John, every day was not alike, because he was in the Spirit on a special day, called the Lord’s Day. When we remember this we can reconsider the context of Paul’s teaching in Romans, which was his opposition to a continuation of particular levitical observances. His statement was not an absolute, requiring us to say that no day is special. This would bring him into collision with John. But if he is simply opposing the Jewish ceremonials, there is no conflict with John at all. It was John, remember, who saw the water of the Jewish ceremonial cleansing turned into the wine of the gospel.
The same is true of the passage in Colossians. The triad of sabbaths, new moons, and festivals is a common one in the Old Testament, referring to the sacrificial calendar. We must not forget that the Jews had more sabbaths than just the weekly sabbath. These sacrificial sabbaths (plural) are fulfilled in the coming sacrifice of Christ.
Too many Christians have allowed various controversies surrounding the fourth commandment to distract and tangle them up. This is largely due to the fact that there is very little gospel in their version of this “gospel ordinance.”
The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing; It is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the Lord has made; We will rejoice and be glad in it. Save now, I pray, O Lord; O Lord, I pray, send now prosperity. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! We have blessed you from the house of the Lord. (Ps. 118:22-26)
This is one of the most frequently quoted passage of the Old Testament in the New. The disciples of the Lord learned the messianic application from the Lord Himself (Mt. 21:9; 21:42; Mk. 11:9; 12:10-11; Lk. 13:35; 19:38; 20:17; Jn. 12:13). Of course, all the Old Testament speaks of Christ, but this portion of this psalm seems to shout about Him. The disciples learned their lesson well (Acts 4:11; 1 Pet. 2:7). But which day is spoken of here? It is the day the Lord has made.
The cornerstone was laid on the day of Christ’s resurrection. The stone had been rejected three days and nights prior, but now Christ has been declared to be the Son of God with power, by the Spirit of Holiness, by His resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:4). This day, the day of His resurrection, is the day the Lord has made, and it is the day on which we should rejoice in the gospel.
As we have seen, Christ rose from the dead on the first day; He appeared again on the eighth day, the next Sunday; He sent His Spirit on Pentecost Sunday; He established apostles who met with the Church on the first day. Taking all Scripture together, when we say this is the day the Lord has made, which day are we talking about?
There remains therefor a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered into His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His (Heb. 4:9-10)
Two key words are important here. The first is sabbatismos, or sabbath rest, and the second is the word for “remains.” If Joshua had given the people rest, then there would be no need to speak of another day (Heb. 4:8).
God created the heavens and the earth in six days, and on the seventh He rested. God recreated the heavens and the earth in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and when His work was completed, Christ rested again just as God had rest at the initial creation. Ant this is the resurrection rest that we are to enter into by faith.
This helps us as we seek to get the gospel right. All the various forms of what we might call “cranky sabbatarianism” are simply ways of breaking the sabbath, and consequently are ways of misrepresenting the gospel. Cranky sabbatarianism preaches a false gospel. But we must remember that if we say nothing about resurrection and rest, we are acting as if there is no gospel.
We are called to a clear declaration of the gospel. As we seek to grow in grace, these are some aspects of the gospel message we are privileged to preach in how we live our lives, and particularly how we live out the gospel in sabbath resting.
It is a time for holy convocation. “Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work on it; it is the sabbath of the Lord in all your dwellings” (Lev. 23:3). The gospel gathers the saints of God.
The sabbath sets sweet rest before us. “Six days you shall do your work, and on the seventh day you shall rest, that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female servant and the stranger may be refreshed” (Ex. 23:12). The gospel relieves. Far from bringing burdens, the Lord’s yoke is easy, and the burden is light.
Another important part of this practice is redemptive remembering. Even in the Old Testament, the people of God were to remember by this means, not just their creation, but also their salvation. “And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). The gospel saves, and the right kind of sabbath keeping is a declaration of this salvation.
We are creatures; although we are redeemed, we still live in the world God made. “Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (Gen. 2:3). The gospel, and because we reject a gnostic understanding of our salvation, we realize that it restores us physically as well as spiritually. The physical rest given by sabbath-keeping is a gospel blessing.
And then we come to feasting—this is especially to be remembered: The Lord’s Day is not a day of fasting. This gospel is to be heard in a spirit of joy, gladness, and feasting. On the day of resurrection commemoration, how did our fathers in the faith act? “These are spots in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving only themselves” (Jude 12). The gospel gladdens, and the weekly commemoration of that central event of the gospel should do the same thing. Take care to adorn gospel through a bright countenance. One way to brighten it is to curl up in the nearest sun-puddle on Sunday afternoon.
Our local assembly has undertaken a study concerning the vexed question of the Lord’s Day. I write these next few articles for their benefit. Hopefully others will profit from them as well.
The Puritan John Owen once remarked that through various controversies the sabbath itself had been given very little rest. We should pray that this will not be the case in our treatment of it. No question but that sabbatarianism has a bad name. Just say the word sabbatarian, and images of purse-lipped Pharisees rise before the mind’s eye. In part this has occurred through the effective slander of popular fiction, but it must also be admitted that numerous purported friends of the sabbath have done their favorite day few favors over the years. Too often questions about the forth commandment deteriorate into whether or not we can ride bicycles in the park on the Lord’s Day, rather than asking the question positively—what are we called to do?
Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee. Six days thou shalt labour, and do all thy work:
But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou.
And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.
The heart of the command is to keep the day holy through rest. Six days were given for labor, and the seventh is set aside for rest. We learn more about the nature and boundaries of the commandment elsewhere in Scripture, but we must take care not to rush to these other places before noting what the commandment itself expressly requires. We keep the day holy through ceasing from our own vocational business and resting from our labors in the presence of the Lord. The fourth commandment requires that we abstain from our normal labor and work. This is defined by what we do in our vocation six days out of seven. The requirement is that we rest before the Lord. The definition of work comes from the pattern of our lives, not from physics.
Once we have settled this, we ask what the possible relations of work to the Lord’s Day is. What kind of works are lawful on the sabbath? First, one type of work is mandatory on the sabbath—the work of worship. In Leviticus 23:3, we see that part of the sabbath observance was a weekly convocation and feast. This shows us the development of synagogue worship in the Old Testament was not an arbitrary action on the part of the Jews. They were being obedient to His requirement to assemble on the sabbath, and when the jews had settled throughout the land, it was not practical to assemble at the Temple weekly. This is why local places of meeting developed. We have a reference to such meeting houses fairly early, quite apart from the Temple. “They said in their hearts, Let us destroy them altogether: they have burned up all the synagogues of God in the land” (Psalm 74:8).
In many ways, we can see how the synagogue was a precursors for the church. The Temple was in Jerusalem, but weekly worship was in the local synagogue. The Temple is now finds its full expression in Christ and the Jerusalem above, the mother of us all, but worship on the local level is still necessary. So we still have these meeting houses, these churches. As we gather in these places to worship on the sabbath, pious work is necessary. But the Lord tells us that while such works of piety can profane the sabbath, those who do so are guiltless (Mt. 12:5-7). “And immediately on the sabbath He entered the synagogue and taught” (Mk. 1:21).
We are also taught in Scripture that works of necessity and mercy are permitted on the Lord’s Day. The disciples harvested grain in order to eat on the sabbath (Mk. 2:23-28). When the Jews attacked Christ because his disciples plucked grain on the sabbath—they were doing what “was not lawful” (Mt. 12:2)—Jesus does not dispute with them by maintaining that it really was lawful. He was much to shrewd for that. Rather He told the story of David and the shewbread, which was, on one level unlawful for David to do. At the same time, it was necessary and hence justified. This means that it was lawful when all of God’s law was considered. [ Incidentally, David was operating under something of a temporary Nazarite vow which effectively would have given him the authority to act as a priest during this time. It was quite lawfully, under that temporary dispensation, for him to handle the shewbread. But the Pharisees would really need to know their Bible for that bit…]
With regard to mercy, our Lord was not reluctant to heal on the sabbath (Mk. 3:2-5). “Therefore,” Jesus said, “it is lawful to do good on the sabbath (Mt. 12:12). From this we may gather that works of necessity (e.g., food preparation) and mercy (e.g., visiting the sick and hosting guests) are fully lawful.
Consequently, putting this together, we see there are four aspects to proper observance of the Lord’s Day: rest, worship, maintenance, and mercy. Some sabbatarians, unfortunately, leave out the first component, that of rest. They believe that the entire day should be taken up with works of piety, necessity, and mercy, making the taking of a nap, for example, unlawful. Not only is this erroneous, but it is an error that overthrows a central point of the commandment. In essence, this declares a restful obedience to be sabbath-breaking. But man was not made for the sabbath—the sabbath was made for man. (Mk. 2:27-28). God does not command us to work one way for six days and work hard another way on the seventh. The Lord’s Day is a day of rest. But, lest, we forget the meaning of our rest, we worship the Lord so that the Word might accompany the sabbath ordinance in the same way the Word should accompany the sacraments. The day of rest without the Word would soon become something else entirely—a day of thankless recreation.
When we observe the Lord’s Day rightly, we adorn it with our actions, and we make it lovely. When we make it lovely, there will be those who ask us (honestly) for our reasons for this observance. They are not accustomed to sabbath observance, and so they gave some questions. But if we have been pursuing a cranky sabbatarianism, then the questions are likely to be quite hostile. This reveals that many of the sabbath’s worst enemies have been those who have observed it without actually understanding it.
For those who have questions, the answers are available. When the apostle Paul is discussing the law, he says that love is the summary of the law (Rom. 13:10). He lists a number of the commandments by name, but goes on to include “whatever other commandment there may be.” Love does not harm to his neighbor, and therefore love keeps the sabbath. Modern Americans have very little idea how we are wearing one another down, tearing one another apart, through our 24/7 lifestyle. The more I have reflected on this, the more convinced I am that a truly human and Christian culture is simply impossible unless we learn to keep the sabbath as a people. Paul tells us that we do not love if don’t keep the day holy. Of course, as part of the first table of the law, this commandment is primarily directed toward God, but, at the same time, we remember that the sabbath was made for man. We love one another though righteous sabbath keeping. Love is the fulfillment of the law.
This is in keeping with a basic assumption we should have about the New Testament. We should not require that every law or precept in the Old Testament be relegislated in the New in order to have binding authority. Too many Christians today think that the requirements of the Old Testament are not binding unless the New Testament says that they are. Rather we should assume that the Word of God given in the Old Testament is authoritative unless the New Testament says that it does not remain in force. If you as a parent tell your child to clean there room, then the command will still be in force by the time they have walked down the hall—you have no need to say it again every five minutes. Thus, on this basis, we continue to do many things, but we do not sacrifice animals. The same is true about keeping the sabbath holy. This commandment remains in force (albeit modified by the New Testament), because the New Testament does not negate observance of the day.
In churches which have a commitment to the sabbath, or in church which are moving toward such a commitment, it is important to remember that the sabbath has too often been wounded in the house of its friends. As a minister sets himself to preach on the fourth commandment, he must take great care to avoid encouraging the wrong kind of question from the people. Of course, at some point, certain behaviors will be excluded by a right view of the Lord’s Day. But everything depends on how they are excluded. The carnal mind naturally gravitates to a list of rules—don’t do that, and don’t do the other. After his first sermon on the topic of the Lord’s Day, the minister will likely be asked by a concerned mom if it is alright for teenage boy to shoot hoops in the driveway on Sunday afternoon. Of course the question must be answered sometime, but it is being approached from the wrong end.
The day should be filled with rest, worship, things necessary, and things virtuous. In the time left over, the time should be filled with activities that are consistent with the first four, and which the person wants to do having been disciplined and instructed by the first four. If your sermons on the sabbath provoke questions as to whether or not it is lawful to leave the refrigerator plugged in on the Lord’s Day, then perhaps you should back up and punt again. The day is a day of godly celebration, rest, and feasting. Sabbath keeping is the best wine, not tepid water. Observed in the right way, children should grow up longing for the Lord’s Day to come. This is the day which the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
*Next we will attempt an answer as to why we regard the first day of the week as the proper Christian sabbath
Almighty and most glorious Lord, we come before Thee seeking Thy glory. We know that in ancient times Thy glory would fill the Temple, and that Thou wouldst shroud Thyself in a great cloud so that Thy people would not be utterly consumed.
We know also that in the new covenant Thy glory has not been diminished, and that Thou hast told us as Christians to serve Thee with reverence and fear precisely because Thou dost remain a consuming fire.
When we ask, like Moses, to see Thy glory, we know that the request cannot be granted in this life. We know that no one can look upon Thee and live; and yet, we also know that we cannot live unless we look upon Thee. We beseech Thee, O God of glory, to resolve this paradox for us in Thy mercy.
We are asking that as a congregation we would begin to grasp the ungraspable. Show us, by Thy grace, something of Thy glory—the length, the breadth, and height, and weight of it, the heat of its unapproachable light.
Father, we are told to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Grant us mercy so that there is more to this than just the bare words.
In the strong name of Jesus we pray. Amen.
One of the centerpieces of the new covenant is the forgiveness of sins. If you are a sinner, then you qualify, you may come. But you may only come on the terms set by the Master, our Lord Jesus Christ.
When we come to worship the Lord, we know that we are to put away sin, confess it, leave it behind us. We can often think that we have done this because we have done it “in general.” But make sure this morning as you pray, sing, hear, and respond, that you have put away all resentment and bitterness. No one in the world has wronged you as much as you have wronged the Lord—and yet you are welcome here this morning, in His presence. Is there anyone whom you would not welcome to your side here because of your pride, resentment, and bitterness?
If we were to pray the Lord’s Prayer here this morning, could you pray all of it? Could you ask that your debts would be forgiven just as you have forgiven your debtors? I want to say this as gently and as firmly as possible, but if you cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer from the heart, then you need to find another religion. Our Lord prohibits bitterness, and we are here to worship and serve Him, not our own selfish hearts.
The Lord of the Sanctuary has told us that His house should be a place of prayer. If prayer is the priority then great care should be taken in how it is offered to God. Those who pray in the public worship service have a grave responsibility. Depending on the circumstances, the minister will pray, or the elders, or the members of the congregation. But in all circumstances, it is important that the prayer fall within scriptural boundaries. And sometimes, those boundaries can be surprising.
For example, the Bible requires that public prayer be kept as brief as possible, given the duties and needs we have in prayer. At first glance this seems counterintuitive, but it only seems this way because our carnal flesh is very religious. The Bible says that God is in heaven, and that we are on the earth, and so therefore our words should be few (Eccl. 5:2). When Jesus taught us to pray, He gave us a prayer that was the very model of sanctified brevity (Mt. 6:9-13). Not only so, but He also went back and commented on this aspect of prayer, chastising those who think that God is somehow interested in word count. They actually think, He said, that they will be heard because of their lengthy prayers. Within the church, we should be constantly on guard against the temptation to do a little showboating in public prayer. This is all tantamount to loitering at the Throne. Prayer offered up with one eye on the heavens and the other on the cheap seats is definitely not what we want.
This does not mean that public prayer should be offered for fifteen seconds. Our duties in public prayer are assigned to us, and if we faitfhully discharge those duties it will take some time. The point being made here is merely that length is not to be valued as an end in itself. Given the time taken by the fixed nature of the prayers that must be offered up, our goal should be brevity, not length.
But brevity can be of two kinds. Someone can be brief because they have nothing to say, but there is a profound brevity. Many Christians assume that because they have a problem with the first kind of brevity in their personal prayers, that therefore it is necessary to make the prayers at church as long as possible. But this is a false assumption. Length is thought to be the opposite of ignorant brevity, but the problem is the ignorance.
Profound brevity requires preparation, and training. This is an easy point for the garrulous to miss. If someone has been around in Christian circles for a while, and they know the jargon, it is very easy for them to go on in prayer for quite a while without really saying anything. Learning to pray through scripture is one way to achieve a profound brevity.
In discussing the need for preparation and training, this raises the importance of learning how to write out prayers for public worship beforehand. This is likely to excite some prejudice, and so a few preliminary qualifiers are necessary. This is not written against extemporaneous prayer at all, but it does assume that biblical extemporaneous prayer is far more difficult than chatty people are likely to think.
When Jesus comments on the need for brevity in prayer, He tells us not to be like the Gentiles with their “vain repetition.” The word battalogeo, refers to pious yammering. When we start talking about writing prayers down, this makes many evangelicals think of set prayers (as in the Book of Common Prayer), and they start getting more than a little nervous. The fear is that we are inching closer to this sin of vain repetition, and that if we keep this up soon we will be mumbling our way through prayers that we have not ever thought about.
The irony here is that this is the reverse of our actual temptations. If an anecdotal illustration may be permitted, I grew up in evangelical circles and knew the public prayer ropes. I could pray readily in public settings, particularly in church, and did so in accordance with the accepted canons for many years. When I finally began to write my prayers out before the service, I noticed something funny. I had stopped repeating myself. I found myself praying in new territory. In short, the previous situation had allowed me to pray predictable prayers that I had not really thought about. Composing prayers beforehand, sitting down and actually thinking through what I was going to say, brought in a whole new world of possibilities in prayer. Too many people, when they pray extemporaneously, pray in the same way that they comb their hair. It is a habitual action that requires no real thought. This goes there.
Most forms of extemporaneous prayer may paddle about in new, little circles, but always stays close to the shore. Thoughtful prayer, prepared beforehand, launches out into the deep. Consider this: “Heavenly Father, we thank Thee that we can gather here today for worship…” Without preparation, I found myself praying some version of this over and over again. But the fact was invisible to me because it was never identical, never verbatim, to the previous prayers. I did not have memorized prayers, and did not play them note for note. But I was always improvising on the same basic melody. What broke this pattern up was the freedom brought by writing prayers down beforehand.
Many bad habits have grown up around our impromptu attempts to pad our prayers. As public prayer becomes more important in a congregation, and less given to rambling, these bad habits should be carefully rooted out.
When the people of God are praying to God, the one offering up the prayers on their behalf should not start (or continue) preaching to the people. If a pastor did not get His last point of the sermon in, he must not try to shoehorn it into his closing prayer. The one praying should never forget who is being addressed. When the prayer suffers a directional drift, the result is that the congregation is addressed in substance with a thin veneer of vocative references to God. “And dear Lord, Thou dost know that the Greek verb in verse seventeen is a present, active indicative…”
Nor should prayer be filled up with pious substitutions for um. One of our favorite substitutes is “just.” “Lord, we just want to thank Thee, for being our Lord, and we just come unto Thee today to just…” And the same could be said for the name of God. His name is to be hallowed, and not used as a filler or a stop-gap.
Also to be avoided would be attempts at wit, sarcasm, or humor. In a public setting, it would be rare indeed for such an attempt to be anything other than an appeal to a human audience. But God is our audience. If the one praying thinks that He would think it funny, then there is not problem with offering it up to the God who is a consuming fire.
Prayer can also get far too detailed. It is one thing to pray that someone in the congregation would be heal for their sicknesses. It is another thing to work through their latest lab reports, and responses to various medications. On a related matter, the prayer requests can also be too distant for the congregation to be able to say amen. This is the problem caused by a prayer request from someone in the congregation whose cousin in Chicago has a neighbor whose cat was hit by a car.
Sadly, this last problem area has to be addressed somehow. The subject matter should be decent. More than one congregation has been mortified to have to add their corporate amen to a plea for the healing of someone’s hemorrhoids. While we perhaps have not gone as far as the Philistines and made gold replicas of them to set up in the foyer, we do talk about personals things in public worship far more than we should. Another appalling practice in this regard might be classified as gynecological prayer requests during a childbirth. “Susan is now at eight centimeters, and we should all pray…” While we should all be concerned, in a general way, about the state of Susan’s cervix, that’s no reason to bring it up in the public prayers at church.
Almighty God and Father of the Eternal Word, Thou didst bring all things into being by virtue of divine Speech. But even Thy most holy words were clear and concise. Teach us to speak even as Thou hast spoken. Make us mindful of our limitations. Remind us that fools are known for their much speaking. Make us truly wise. Let our words be few. Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.
The Master of the feast has extended a gracious invitation to His table. He has dressed us in the garments of praise in place of the spirit of heaviness. He has taken away the ashes of past failures and bedecked us with the beauty of future glory. He has brought us into His banqueting house and His banner over us is love. He has also chosen the menu.
The elements of the Supper are bread and wine. We must always remember that He has invited us to His Supper, and we are to study to determine how He has set the table. At the same time, we are also to study what manners are appropriate whenever we sit down at His table. How does He want us to treat His other guests?
We must remember the context of Passover. Christ instituted the observance of the Lord’s Supper on the 14th of Nisan, at the annual Passover festival of the Jews. In the course of that meal, Christ set apart some of its elements for the establishment of a new meal, the meal of the New Covenant. Christians were to take these elements and remember Him, proclaiming His death, until the Second Coming. At the same time, it is a memorial in the Old Testament sense, in which God is remembering His people for the sake of His Son. For instance, when God placed the bow in the clouds at the institution of the Noahic Covenant it was to serve as a memorial. But it wasn’t primarily Noah who was doing the remembering.
The bread used was the middle loaf of three, and was called the aphiqomon. This bread, because it was at the Passover, happened to be unleavened. Christ took it, and broke it, and gave to it a new significance. “This is my body.”
During the course of the Passover, there were four cups of wine. The third cup was called the “cup of blessing.” This is the cup Paul refers to as being the cup from which Christians would drink until the end of the world. Now this cup was a cup of wine—fermented grape juice. The practice of the Jews was to mix water with their wine, usually at a ratio of two to one, so the cup was one of diluted wine. The common practice among evangelicals of substituting grape juice for wine, simply for the sake of keeping some pietistic tradition alive, is scripturally unwarranted, and more than a little impudent.
The questions concerning the bread are not quite as simple. Contrary to popular opinion, leaven does not always represent sin in biblical imagery. The basic idea behind leaven is neither a representation of sin or righteousness, but rather that of growth. That growth may be good or ill, depending on what kind of leaven it is. The imagery of leaven shows that basic religious commitments have consequences over time. Leaven shows us the dominion of a faith. The only question is which faith.
“Another parable He put forth to them saying: The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than all the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches. Another parable He spoke to them: The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid three measures of meal till it was all leavened.” (Mt. 13:31-33)
The unleavened bread at passover was a representation of the break with the leaven of Egypt. Consequently, the unleavened bread was called the bread of affliction. “You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days you shall eat unleavened bread with it, that is, the bread of affliction (for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste), that you may remember the day in which you came out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life” (Deut. 16:3). The meal was also eaten with bitter herbs to remind the people of the horrible time they had had in Egypt, and to help them look forward to the time of time of the Messiah. They were not to take any of the leaven of Egypt with them as a “starter.” That would have simply built them another Egypt. We may say, on the basis of this passage in Deuteronomy, that the missing leaven from the Passover was to show the affliction of Egypt and the haste in which Israel left.
Consequently, many have an assumption that leaven in the Bible always represents sin. Certainly it sometimes represents sin: “Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:6-8). Here leaven represents, as it did in the Old Testament, the principle of sin working through the entire loaf. But as we saw above, leaven is also symbolic of the Kingdom of God (Mt. 13:33), working its way through the world. Thus leaven can represent sin, the leaven of Egypt, as it works at corrupting something good, or it can represent God’s leaven as it works at establishing righteousness throughout the world. This is found in the Old Testament as well.
When Israel came into the promised land, they were to begin serving the true God. One of their offerings was the peace offering, a picture of the coming reconciliation which the Messiah would accomplish. “Besides the cakes, as his offering he shall offer leavened bread with the sacrifice of thanksgiving of his peace offering” (Lev. 7:11-13). This leaven is a picture of thanksgiving, just as a lack of leaven is a picture of affliction under sin and hastening away from sin. Of course it is better to be in haste while fleeing from sin than at rest and leisure in sin. But the point of bringing the people of Israel into the promised land was to liberate them from sin and give them rest. This meant they were to offer back up to God offerings which had the leaven of Israel in it, a thanksgiving leaven, and not the leaven of Egypt.
We see the same truth at the offering of the first-fruits at Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks—also gloriously fulfilled in the coming of the Messiah. “Even unto the morrow after the seventh sabbath shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall offer a new meat offering unto the Lord. Ye shall bring out of your habitations two wave loaves of two tenth deals: they shall be of fine flour; they shall be baken with leaven; they are the first fruits unto the Lord” (Lev. 23:16-17).
Interestingly, the first recorded instance of Christians celebrating the Lord’s Supper after it’s institution was at this festival, at the time of Pentecost (Acts 2:46). At Passover, no leaven could be present. But at Pentecost, the presence of leaven was required. In other words, the first celebration of the Lord’s Supper was not held in the bitterness of Passover but in the liberty and joy of Pentecost.
Our celebration of the Supper must therefore be unleavened in the sense that we reject all wickedness, malice, and sin. Our celebration of the Supper must be leavened in the sense that we proclaim a gospel which will transform the entire world. Both are true, and both are legitimate statements to make at the Supper. But which kind of physical bread should we use? This question should be answered based upon which of these two truths have the preeminence at the Table. First, The Christian Church should stay away from worldliness. Second, Jesus died to save the world.
While both statements are true, the table is a place that proclaims the victory of Christ over sin and His ongoing conquest of this world. This is the tenor of the New Testament. This is the tenor of the New Covenant. We are not living in Egypt. We are living in the true Promised Land; a world being restored to its original order. Leavened bread represents a potent gospel; a gospel that rises and fills.