By Simon Jooste
Under the New Covenant signed in Christ’s blood, God’s institution of the slaughtered paschal Lamb and festive meal at Passover (Num. 9:1-3; cf. Exodus 12:11-27) has now been replaced with Christ’s establishment of the ongoing sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 26:26-29; cf. 1 Cor. 11:23-26).
The Passover was instituted by God to ratify his saving covenant with the Hebrews. God’s Word of salvation was legally guaranteed with the slaughtering of the sacrificial lamb and its shed blood sprinkled on the doorposts of the faithful. The eating of the meal that followed was inseparable from the atoning blood that had been shed. It celebrated and signed God’s promise of redemption (Exodus 12). Subsequent to the first great Exodus, the sacrifices performed by the high priest, the blood that gushed over the ceremonial altar, were more than an illustration to remind the faithful of freedom from Egyptian bondage. When the high priest mediated before God on behalf of the Israelites by placing his hands on the animal substitute and slitting its throat, the sins of those that possessed faith where in that moment truly expiated (cf. Lev. 1:4); God “passed over” his people in judgment. And when the Passover meal was subsequently celebrated as part of the covenant ratification ceremony, saving grace was imparted. The sign of a bloody sacrifice and the Exodus of God’s salvation became mysteriously one through the workings of the Spirit. Like with the Passover meal and in keeping with Ancient Near Eastern treaties, the signing ceremony of God’s covenant with Moses on Mt. Sinai coincided with the celebratory meal that followed (Ex. 24:9-11; Horton 2011:799).
The sacrament of the Passover lamb was, however, for a time only. It looked toward to fulfilment in the atoning death of Messiah.
Jesus the Bread of Life
This Messiah, Jesus Christ, has in the fullness of time come as the final high priest of God to “make propitiation for the sins of people” (Heb. 2:17). After his feeding of the five thousand, reminiscent of God’s sustenance of his people during their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness (John 6:32), Jesus turns to the crowds and proclaims himself to be the bread that has come down from heaven; the bread of life (vv33-5). He then goes on to make a number of staggering claims that shed light on the nature of the Lord’s Supper. For one, he refers to his very own fleshly body – “this bread” – as the vivifying source of eternal life (v51). He follows these words in response to a dispute among the Jews with: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you… This is the bread that came down from heaven, not as the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever” (vv53, 58).
The Last Supper
Until the night before his betrayal into the hands of Pontius Pilate by his own people and throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus prepared his disciples for the significance of the Last Supper. He went without food for forty days and nights, testifying to the fact that man does not live by bread along, but by the Word of God (Matt. 4:1-11); he dines with tax collectors and sinners (Matt. 11:19); his body is transfigured into heavenly raiment (17:1-13); and he compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast (22:1-14). On the night before his death, Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples as both an act of remembering the first Exodus and as the enactment of the Second Exodus in his very person and work. That evening, Christ sealed his fate by assuming the curses of the covenant. During that meal Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper: the bread given as his body and the wine as the blood of the covenant (of grace). Christ closes the words of institution by prophesying the heavenly feast he would secure at the cross and is yet to come. This was Christ’s last will and testament – the New Covenant – to obtain glory for his people (26:17-29). Unlike the covenant at Sinai that required obedience to inherit the land, the New Covenant bestows a unilateral gift. Believers are simply the beneficiaries of the new Jerusalem (Heb. 12; Rev. 22).
Eating in Acts
Early in the book of Acts, Luke gives his readers insight into the life of the early church. In chapter 2 and following Peter’s Pentecost sermon, we are told that believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (verse 42). While contested, it is nevertheless the historic Reformed understanding that what is being referred to here are the elements found in a called worship service, including the Lord’s Supper: “the breaking of bread”. In other words, Luke is describing what would happen every Lord’s Day when the church gathered for corporate worship.
Baptised to eat in Corinth
Beyond the aforementioned windows from the Gospels and Acts, the Apostle Paul helps further round out our understanding of the nature of the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament. Perhaps most enlightening is the apostle’s treatment of the subject in 1 Corinthians 10. In verses 1-13, Paul sets the stage by taking his audience back to the forty-year sojourn of God’s people under the leadership Moses. Like the Apostle John records in John 6, Paul recalls the first great Exodus, which he describes as “our fathers” being “baptized [circumcised] into Moses in the cloud and in the sea”; and furthermore – with Passover and Supper overtones – that “all ate the same spiritual for, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 1:1-4). However, these heavenly gifts did not keep the Hebrews from rebellion. They had ended up in the desert for a forty-year wilderness sojourn for idolatry and they continued in this vein (1:5-13). Noteworthy in Paul’s description of their evil is, again, a reference to their eating and drinking from Exodus 32:6: “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” Thereafter, Paul lists out their sins; suggesting that table manners and evil are intertwined (1 Cor. 1:6-11).
Eating as participation in the body and blood of Christ
In verse 14 of 1 Corinthians 10, Paul uses the previous thirteen verses to motivate his imperative: “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry”. And then he gives means by which such evil can be avoided, through another kind of dining experience. Here the apostle recounts the institution of the Lord’s Supper and gives further insight into its sacramental nature. From a superficial reading of the Christ’s Last Supper with the disciples, one might conclude that observing this holy meal is nothing more than a remembrance: an empty sign and merely represents something in the past. For sure, the Supper does have a memory aspect: “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:24). Yet, memory should not be understood in the Western (Greek) sense of “recollection”, but in the Jewish sense of participating here and now in both historic events and future events (Horton 2011:799). The Apostle Paul’s rendering of the Supper captures this nuance richly. In it, he has in mind Christ’s command to eat the Son’s body and blood in order to have life (John 6). He must have in mind Christ’s words of institution: “do this in remembrance of me” and “this is my body” (Matt. 26). This formative revelation and Paul’s argumentation so far in 1 Corinthians 10 – drawing in OT sacramental truths – help to shed light on the idea that the cup consecrated and the bread broken are a “participation” in the blood and the body of Christ (10:16).
In other words, the Lord’s Supper doesn’t only symbolize union with Jesus, but also effects something wonderful when the sacrament is partaken. For those that are “sensible” or endowed with the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit enables sharing in the body and blood of Christ that nourishes and strengthens faith, just as bread and wine feed our temporal bodies. And yet God’s gift of his Son in the Supper is more than spiritual sustenance. It also symbolizes and strengthens the unity of Christ’s church (1:17). Christians who share in one Lord and one baptism through faith in Christ (cf. Eph. 4:1-7) are also strengthened with and in that reality in the Supper.
Participating in the table of demons
Paul brings to a close his section on eating and drinking and idolatry by returning the theme of idolatry in 1 Corinthians 10:18-22. Paul’s reasoning again is sacramental, but now in the negative sense. He begins by drawing the reader’s attention back to Israel and her idolatry described earlier in chapter 10. And then draws a parallel with the behaviour of the Corinthians, which has included eating food sacrificed to idols in a cultic setting. According to the apostle, to eat sacrifices offered to a foreign god in the worship ritual for another god is to “participate” – the same word used to describe the believer’s spiritual sharing in the Supper – in the life of “demons” (vv18-20; cf. 1 Cor. 8). In other words, sacramental eating can go both ways. One can eat bread and wine and “participate” in the things that these elements signify: the life-giving body and blood of Christ, or one can eat food sacrificed to idols and “participate” in what that food represents: the table of demons; and thereby provoke the Lord to jealousy (vv21-22). If paganism uses physical means to invite demonic life, how much more water, bread and wine consecrated by the Word and Spirit.
It seems fair to argue that the themes set forth around the Lord’s Supper so far in this essay – God’s churchly means of saving his people; God’s weak and dependent creatures; the nature of the Supper as a sacrament – all strongly suggest that this ordinance be celebrated as frequently as possible. This claim turns out to be confirmed by the actual practice of the apostolic church. For example, the habit of the early church is described as a devotion to “the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). This pattern has been interpreted as the basic elements of a worship service, namely preaching, sacraments and prayer. Notice that the observance of the Supper goes hand-in-hand with the proclamation of the Word.
Another example describing the practice of Lord’s Supper observation in the New Testament is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Despite the apostle’s negative appraisal of their behaviour at the Table, he assumes that when these believers come together, they partake of the Supper (1 Cor. 11:20). And this “coming together” is on the first day of the week (16:20), which is the New Testament Sabbath (cf. Rev. 1:10).
In short, the New Testament witness supports the argument that whenever the Word is preached, the Lord’s Supper is to be observed; that is, at the weekly called worship service.
Rev. Dr Simon Jooste is the pastor of Reformed Church Southern Suburbs.