Lecture 38: The Lord's Supper
Course: 52 Major Stories of the Bible
Lecture: The Lord's Supper
Background of the Passover
Almost 4,000 years ago, God made a promise to Abraham that he would give him land and descendants. Generations later, God sent those descendants to Egypt in the days of Joseph to save them from the famine. Four hundred years later, Abraham’s descendants had become slaves of Pharaoh. Once again God sends Moses through whom he saves his people. He sends nine horrible plagues on the nation of Egypt and Pharaoh’s heart still remains hard. He refuses to release the children of Israel. And so God sends the tenth and the most horrible of all plagues. See Pharaoh has been killing God’s firstborn, the Israelites, so God will now kill the firstborn in every Egyptian family. He knows this will break Pharaoh’s hard heart and that he will release the children of Israel. So God tells Moses to tell the people to get ready. We read about this in Exodus 12 starting at verse 3, “The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers' houses, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight. Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD's Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt." Note that the Passover was a family affair. This was not a festival to be held as isolated individuals, but they were to celebrate it as family or as families. Also notice all the symbolism going on. They are to eat bitter herbs because their time in Egypt has been bitter. They are to eat unleavened bread, bread that has not had a chance to rise. They are to be dressed, ready to go. All symbolic of the fact God will save quickly. But also notice, when you read this whole chapter, that this was not a one-time event. God tells them this is to be a yearly ceremony to help them remember His great act of salvation. In fact, it is so much a family time that it is supposed to become a teaching tool for children. Reading verse 26, “And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’” In other words, when you are celebrating the Passover and your children say, “What does all this mean?” you shall say, "‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” So this is the preparation for the coming of the tenth plague. It does come in all its horror and the angel of death passes over the houses of God’s children. And God saves his people by bringing them out of Egypt; an event that came to be known as the Exodus (the mass going out).
This becomes the example of God’s greatest act of salvation in all history: the saving of his people from Egypt. The children of Israel head off to Mt. Sinai where they enter into a covenant; they enter into a relationship with their God; they make an agreement with God. And on God’s part, he says, “I will be your God.” In other words, in this covenant, in this relationship that they are establishing, God commits to doing certain things to being their God. On the people’s part, they commit to being his people, to doing certain things so that they can live in relationship with God and so that they can live in community with one another. This relationship and this community are primarily defined by the Ten Commandments (God’s law written on tablets of stone) that they get on Mt. Sinai. Eight centuries or so pass and the Passover celebration has been repeated hundreds of times. Then in the days of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, God makes two more amazing promises. In Jeremiah 31, starting at verse 31, God says through Jeremiah, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, [sometime in the future] declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” God, through Jeremiah, promises to establish a new covenant and hence the covenant with Moses becomes the old covenant. The new covenant has the same goals as the old: I will be their God, they will be my people; God living in the presence of his people. That has always been His intention. But what is different about the new covenant is that the law is no longer external, it is not going to be something written out there, but it is going to be written on their hearts. It is going to be internalized. For God’s part, he commits to forgiving sins. For the people’s part, our part, the commitment is to know the Lord. In other words, the forgiveness that God gives opens the door to a new kind of relationship in which we can know God. Now, how is God going to do that? How is God going to establish the new covenant? God promises that he will establish this new relationship by the use of God’s Spirit.
In Ezekiel 36, God has been talking about forgiveness, and starting at verse 26 God makes this promise, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you [or as the NIV probably better translates it, “move you”] to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” For God’s part, as he establishes this new covenant, He is going to do it by giving us his Spirit who will move us to follow his decrees. And on our part, we allow the Holy Spirit to, in fact, move us. By the strength and the power that the Holy Spirit gives us we walk in God’s statutes. Statutes are nothing more than guidelines for how we live in a relationship with God and in community with one another. God’s part and our part.
Jesus Reinterprets the Passover
The Last Supper
Six more centuries pass from the time of Jeremiah and Ezekiel and we arrive at Jesus’ last night that he had with his disciples before he died. He is having a meal with them, but not just any meal; he is, in fact, celebrating the Passover of Exodus 12. But in the process of celebrating the Passover, Jesus starts to reinterpret what the Passover refers to. It is as if Jesus says, “I know that we’re celebrating the Exodus. I know that we’re celebrating God’s greatest past act of salvation. But God is about to do something infinitely greater than the Exodus.” So Jesus starts to reinterpret the Passover. Instead of pointing backwards to Egypt, He says it now points forward to the cross. And as He does this reinterpretation of the Passover, we start to understand more clearly how God is going to do his part in the new covenant. We understand that we are sinners and we are separated by our sin from our holy God. And the penalty of separation is death. But on the cross Jesus, the very Lamb of God, is going to die and in his death pay the penalty for your sins and mine. And it is Jesus’ death that is going to make the new covenant possible, as Jeremiah said. And it is through Jesus’ death that He is going to make it possible for God’s Spirit to come, as Ezekiel was pointing out.
This passage is discussed in the gospels but it is also discussed in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 11, he gives instructions to the church in how they should celebrate this new Passover. First Corinthians 11, starting at verse 23, Paul writes, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread [again, this is the Passover bread] and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Jesus is saying that the Passover bread now points forward to Jesus’ body, broken on the cross in death. When you and I celebrate this new Passover, this reinterpreted Passover, sometimes we use unleavened bread because they help us focus back to Exodus 12 and the historical precedence to the Passover. But sometimes we use a loaf of bread that requires you to tear a piece off. Sometimes we use crackers that break when you eat them. All of these are intended to help us remember that this bread points to Christ’s broken body on the cross, no longer to Exodus 12. It points to his death on the cross. The Passover cup now points to Jesus’ blood, his blood spilled on the cross in death for the forgiveness of sins. When he says this cup is the new covenant, He is saying is that his death now makes that new covenant, that new relationship with God, possible. “Do it now in remembrance of me.” This, by the way, is one of the reasons why some churches celebrate the new Passover, Communion, only once a year; because Passover itself was a yearly festival. It is quite an amazing sequence to go through when it is only celebrated once a year because these churches build up to it. There are Thursday, Friday and Saturday night meetings. In the olden days you actually would get a ticket and only if you had gone to all three and had fully prepared yourself and understood the serious and the significance of what Christ did on the cross, could you take Communion on Sunday morning.
In fact, there has been quite a few controversies surrounding Communion in the history of the church. This marvelous festival of rejoicing has so often been the occasion for dissent and divided churches and divided denominations. One of those controversies is around the phrase “This is my body.” As we read in Matthew 26 Jesus also said, “This is my blood.” The meaning of that phrase has divided churches. The Roman Catholic church developed a doctrine of transubstantiation, that the substance crosses over and the bread and the wine become the physical body and blood of Jesus. This is why the Roman Catholic liturgy has the priest put the wafer on your tongue and they do not pass the cup. They just hold it up lest the physical body and blood of Christ be spilled. But to that, unfortunately, they have added many other things.
When the Reformation came along, Luther part way rebelled against the Catholic doctrine and developed what we call “consubstantiation.” Luther taught that the body and the blood of Christ is physically present but in with and under the elements. So the bread stays bread and the wine stays wine, yet the physical body is present in with and under. John Calvin, who was followed by almost all evangelical churches, broke completely from Roman Catholic teaching and taught the spiritual presence of Christ in Communion. And he taught that the bread and the wine points to the death of Christ; that it represents the death of Christ. I must say I have a hard time accepting any other as a possibility. Jesus is sitting there with eleven kosher Jews who have never tasted blood and hands them bread and hands them a cup with wine and says, “This is my body. This is my blood.” I cannot conceive that they would have understood it any other way or he would have intended it any other way. I am strong on the symbolic representation interpretation of this phrase, although, even for me there are some limitations on this. I have some friends who took care of a church as part of their job while in school. Part of their responsibilities was getting Communion ready, so on Saturday night she would take a loaf of white bread and cut off the crust and cut it into cubes and that would be the Communion. One Sunday that I was over there for dinner just chatting with them, they told me about this and then she said, “You know if there is any Communion bread left over, I just put it outside and let it dry and I use it for croutons.” It kind of made it a little difficult for me to finish the salad I was eating; although, theologically I could not falter on her decision. Well, certainly the phrase, “This is my body. This is my blood,” has caused controversy. There is also controversy on what to call this “new Passover.” Sometimes we call it the Lord’s Supper because that is what it is. It was the Lord’s last supper with his disciples. Some traditions call it the Eucharist, a word that means “thanks,” because Jesus gave thanks before he broke the bread.
Certainly the new Passover is a time in which we can give thanks for what Christ has done on the cross. Sometimes we call it Communion because as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians it is a time in which you and I commune with each other as well as we commune with God. There is no name given for this in Scripture and each one of these points out a central and a significant truth in what is going on. There is also controversy on how to celebrate Communion. People like to do it differently. My greatest concern as we celebrate Communion throughout the years is that it does not become a meaningless ritual. That is head and shoulders above everything else. That is why we do things differently almost every Communion, because if you do something three times the same way it becomes something of an enviable law. That seems to be all it takes. And so we try to have variety because we are trying to understand that it is not so much the act, but it is what it represents that is significant. This is my personal opinion, but I do not like the American traditional method of Communion. I do not like how we pass the plates up and down the aisle. Now, the method is not mandated. There is not a right and a wrong, and I understand that. But my frustration with the traditional way of serving Communion is that it treats us as isolated individuals when Communion is a family affair. We sit there in our rows and the plate comes and we eat and we drink and we pass it on. This is a time to teach our children. How often during Communion do we say, “Shhh!” to someone making noise, when the whole historical precedent of this event is that it is something that we use to teach our children about the marvelous and wonderful act of God saving us through Christ’s death on the cross. We should be talking the time for teaching and learning. If we were to be fully Biblical, we should have a meal. Then we would be sitting around the table afterwards so close to each other that we could lean back on the other person like John did to Jesus and ask questions. We at least should be gathered in groups, it seems to me, and this is how the early church did it. The early church never did what we tend to do. They had the agape feast, the love feast. And at the end of the feast they served Communion. My hope for us is that some day we can break free from human traditions and take Communion as a family, even to the point of having families serve families. There may not have been a lot of controversy about how to serve Communion. Maybe that will stir it up a little. You know what, there is no controversy about among evangelicals. None at all. That Jesus is the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world and with this bread and with this cup we celebrate his victory and our victory over sin and over death. Over that there is no controversy and that we can preach.
Three Time Frames of Communion
Paul concludes verse 26 our discussion of 1 Corinthians 11. There is a very important phrase in verse 26, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” I will never forget one of my classes in college where the professor talked about the three time frames of Communion. I had never seen it before. That we are in Communion proclaiming by our words (that is the now, in the present) when we say, “This is the body of Christ. This is the blood of Christ" and we are proclaiming in our actions as we eat and as we drink. We are proclaiming for all to hear that Jesus died for my sin and for yours. In the present time frame of Communion, it is pure evangelism. We are proclaiming the Lord’s death.
In Communion we look back to the past, to Jesus’ death on the cross. As we proclaim the Lord’s death we understand that salvation is only through Jesus because only Jesus did something about our sin. Confucius did not die on the cross. Buddha did not die on the cross. I did not die on the cross. Salvation is only through Jesus because Jesus did something about our sin. As I said earlier, it is our sin that separates us from our Holy God and we should die as a penalty of that sin, but God in his mercy allows a substitute. And then God in his mercy gave himself as that substitute. And there is salvation in no other name. So when you and I take Communion we are proclaiming that it was the Lord who died and no one else for sins.
Then the third time frame is that we are proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes. In Communion we are looking to the future and saying, “I am not a citizen of this earth, this clod of dirt on which I stand is not home." "My citizenship is in heaven,” as Paul tells the Philippians. “My inheritance is waiting for me in heaven,” as 1 Peter says. “And I live my life on earth with my head up. I live my life not falling in love with creation but living in love with its creator and with my creator. And I live out my life waiting to go home. I live my life out waiting for Jesus to come and take me home. That is the future aspect of Communion. When my daughter died, Rachel, one of the things I covenanted with myself is that Communion would never be the same. Because Communion for me is a very personal reminder that this is not home and my daughter is waiting for me. And as I get older, other dear loved ones will be waiting for me as well. What a pathetic life to live thinking that this is our home. What a pathetic way to live. When we have so much more waiting for us in heaven. We are proclaiming in the present the Lord’s death in the past until he comes and gets us and takes us home. That is what this is all about.
Communion is Picture of the Christian Life
Let me close with this. It occurred to me this week that the practice of Communion is a powerful picture of the Christian life. I want to add this because I have been hitting pretty hard the whole issue of discipleship, and I want to make sure that everything stays in balance in your mind. Communion is a powerful picture of the Christian life. God desires to be in a covenantal relationship, a personal relationship. He wants you and me to be his people as he is our God. So on God’s part he commits to doing certain things. He committed to saving me by dying on the cross. I do not save myself. When I celebrate Communion I am not celebrating the fact that I worked really hard to earn favor with God. I am celebrating the fact that God paid the penalty for my sin. I am celebrating the fact that by his grace and his mercy he gives us forgiveness. Nothing in my hand I bring. Salvation is all of God. That is his part. But he did not even stop there, because God the Holy Spirit does his part, too. In Ezekiel we were promised to be given a new heart. Promised that God would put his Spirit within me and his Spirit would empower me. His Spirit would strengthen you so that you and I can walk by the Spirit, guided by the Spirit, strengthened by the Spirit with the Spirit giving us desires and then the ability to accomplish those desires.
This is a celebration empowered by the Spirit of daily confessing that I cannot do it on my own. I am incapable of living my life in a way that pleases God. But it is a celebration that as I was given a new heart and as I was strengthened by God’s Spirit, that it is he who directs and it is he who enables me and you to walk by the Spirit so we do not gratify the desires of the flesh. That is God’s part. Our part is to receive, which is what is going on in Communion. We are accepting that God has done his part. We are accepting the Spirit’s enabling and we proclaim, by what we say in Communion and by the very act of taking Communion, we are proclaiming that my desire, empowered by the Spirit, is to live within the relationship, to live within the community that God has established through Christ’s death on the cross. It is a marvelous picture of the Christian life, of God doing his part of saving me. I did not help. It is a picture of God empowering me, I desperately need it. But on my part, I respond to the enabling and the gifts that God has given me, and together living lives that are pleasing to him and someday getting to go home. For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes.
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).
- What are some specific ways in which we can use the Lord’s Supper as a time to teach our children (and ourselves) of God’s faithfulness and salvation?
- In practical terms, what does it look like for God’s Spirit to have written God’s law on our hearts?
- How often do you think we should celebrate Passover? Don’t answer from tradition but from an theological understanding of the event.
- How can we conduct Communion such that it does not become a meaningless ritual? How can we encourage one another to look through the bread and cup to the body and blood of Christ?
- How does communion help you look to the past, present, and future, practically speaking?
- It is easy to over-emphasize one aspect of the gospel over another. The picture in Communion helps us balance God’s work and our participation. What does that look like in everyday terms for you?