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What Does the Lord's Supper Mean?

Posted in Discipleship, Gospel, Grace, Life in the Church, Worship

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This Sunday we will celebrate the Lord's Supper. It is an act that some of us have done hundreds of times. Such seemingly routine acts can lose their richness and power if we forget what exactly they mean—just like a wedding anniversary can be just another task on my calendar if I forget that it means this amazing person actually said, "Yes!" to spending the rest of her life with me.

The Lord's Supper in its most basic description is the corporate eating of bread and wine (juice for us, still the fruit of the grape) by the church to remember the death of Jesus on the cross. In a gesture of profound wisdom and condescension, our sovereign Lord chose this simple act, which even the poorest of our world can afford, to remember that the Son of God died for us. Here is the two-verse description in Luke's gospel:

And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me." And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood." Luke 22:19-20

The simplicity of this passage might lure us into thinking we are not dealing with something of immense depth and significance. The truth is, the Lord's Supper has layers of meaning that extend from one end of our Bible to the other. We cannot explore every facet of it, but here is a brief list of aspects of the Lord's Supper that can help us plumb at least some of its depth (for the full-length version of this discussion, go here):

The Lord's Supper connects us to the Passover lamb of the Old Testament (1 Cor. 5:7; Mark 14:12ff.; Luke 22:7ff.; Ex. 12). Jesus redefines the Passover as he leads the disciples through this meal, but it is significant that he chooses this particular rite to be continued in this new manner. In the lamb slaughtered to save the Israelites from death (Ex. 12:7-13) we find a vivid picture of “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

The Lord's Supper highlights Jesus inaugurating the new covenant for us through his death (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; Jer. 31:31-34). As blood was sprinkled to inaugurate the old covenant (Ex. 24:8), so blood is shed to inaugurate the new covenant, only this time it was the blood of God's own Son. The new covenant means a true knowledge of God and true forgiveness of sin.

The Lord's Supper reminds us that Jesus is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 (Matt. 26:28; Isa. 53:11-12). Jesus saying that his blood is offered "for many" connects us to the "many…accounted righteous" in Isaiah 53:11 through laying on him "the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:6).

The Lord's Supper confirms that the people of God are to remain gospel-centered (1 Cor. 2:2; 2 Tim. 3:8; 1 Cor. 11:26). The Lord's Supper is to be practiced until Christ returns, and thus the people of God are never to lose sight of the cross in their lives and corporate worship.

The Lord's Supper is an emphatic statement that our sins have been forgiven (Matt. 26:28; Eph. 1:7; Heb. 9:22). Implied in our discussion above is the sense that when we celebrate the Lord's Supper we have a profound and powerful demonstration that our sins have been forgiven. This would make songs of joy entirely appropriate after we partake of the elements.

We are to bring both sobriety and celebration to the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:26). There is a dual emphasis in this ceremony, for it highlights both the reality of our sin which required the death of Christ, and the certainty of our forgiveness and sonship which was purchased eternally by that same death.

The Lord's Supper is to be a corporate event (1 Cor. 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34). It would appear from 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 that we are to practice this rite when the church "comes together," and presumably this means the entire church. This is partly because the Lord's Supper symbolizes not just our salvation in Christ, but also the unity that we possess as "the body of Christ."

We are to eat the Lord's Supper in a worthy manner (1 Cor. 11:27ff.). The key element to bring to the Table is faith. We are never to eat and drink without an active faith that once again rests in the sacrifice of Christ and once again recalls his merciful grace poured out for us. Whether this faith feels conviction over sin or deeper joy in Christ's forgiveness or more determination to be unified with our Christian brothers and sisters will depend on our situation. Faith can express itself in any number of ways that mark our eating and drinking as "worthy."

We are actually "participating" in Christ's death when we eat and drink, not simply "remembering" (1 Cor. 10:16-22). When we "remember" Christ's death through eating and drinking there is a sense in which we are participating once again in that death. This does not mean that Christ is being re-sacrificed or that I am being re-converted, both of which are once for all time events. It means that I am actively entering into the benefits of his cross again.

The Lord's Supper is a sacramental sign that is a "seal" of the forgiveness I have received in Christ and the sacrifice that he made on my behalf (Rom. 4:11; Matt. 26:26-28). The Table of the Lord is a proclamation that God has adopted me as his own and poured out his forgiveness and mercy over me, and that I have a share in the benefits of the redemptive work of Christ.


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