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The Celebration of the Lord's Table

What is the Lord's Table all about? What do the elements represent, and how are we to approach this celebration of remembrance?

Think for a moment. What would you choose to symbolically represent who you are and what you intend to accomplish as a person? Would it be something written—a segment or representation of your work? Would it be your children? Your obituary? It would be difficult to find a way to significantly sum up our lives. I propose that's why the communion service and the elements of it are so striking and profound.

The items chosen by Jesus perfectly typify and symbolize Him, linking the Jewish people with their past (i.e., the Passover) and all believers everywhere to their future in eternity. What a moving experience it is! It's the most stirring of all worship experiences because it brings to mind the most significant events of all human history. The Son of man came, lived, died, rose again and ascended to the right hand of God the Father.

The Terms

What is the proper name for this activity?

In most Protestant churches, the word ordinance is preferred to the word sacrament in describing this event. Sacrament conveys that the "right" administrates grace to us. Ordinance implies it is something the Lord ordained, but the reception of grace depends on the attitude of our heart.

We receive no grace from this ordinance. We receive grace because of a repentant heart and Christ's provision represented in it. The life is not in the symbols, as significant and beautiful as they are. The life is in our relationship with Jesus. The Lord's Table is a reminder and encourager of that relationship.

Punishment, however, for misuse of the ordinance is severe. In the Roman Catholic church there are seven recognized sacraments: baptism, confirmation, mass, confession, orders, marriage and extreme unction. The Protestant church recognizes only two ordinances: the Lord's Supper and Water Baptism.

The Scripture we will look at here is 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, the first record of the Lord's Table, possibly written before the gospels. It contains instructions from the lips of the Lord Himself—v. 23.

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval. When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don't you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took 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, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

27 Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world. So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment. And when I come I will give further directions.


The Correction of the Celebration

vv. 17-22 (see outline by this title).

The Celebration of the Lord's Table

—vv. 23-34. There are four significant things to note about it in this passage.

First, at the Lord's Supper, believers

Commemorate—"in remembrance. . ."

This is stated twice in the text—vv. 24-25. Why emphasize this? It's so easy to forget, so here is a means to jog our memory.

"Lest Israel forget and become wayward, they needed a certain prodding." The Worship of God, Ralph Martin.

It's also helpful to see this call to remembrance against the backdrop of the Passover—Ex. 12:14; 13:9. God wanted them to relive the time they were delivered from Egypt and its oppression, each time they celebrated Passover.

This is what the Lord had in mind with His Table. We are being prodded so we won't forget. In Hebrew the word "remembrance" suggests not the memory of an absent figure, but of the presence and life of that person. Notice it is not "Do this in memory of my death." It is more than that! This is not a nostalgic look back at the good old days, through an old family album of past events. It is "in remembrance of me"—everything Jesus is, and everything He has done for us.

Remembrance brings past events freshly to our mind and experience so we can continue to believe God for the benefits of these events. How often during the week do you think about the fact that everything you have and do is because of what Christ accomplished on the cross?

Second, at the Lord's Supper we

Contemplate, i.e., examine and recognize

—vv. 26-31. The problem with these people was that they were eating/drinking in an unworthy manner, and the admonition to them was, "A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself." This sponsors a number of questions:

  1. What do the key words mean?

    "Examine" means to prove by test, literally to qualify ourselves. It conveys the idea of rigorous self-examination. (Concerning what? Remember vv. 17-22 is the context.)

    "Recognize" is to distinguish; to make distinction; recognize as distinct. (What? The Body of theLord/the Church—10:17)

  2. Why are the Corinthians to examine themselves? (See whole chapter.) So they can do what the Table is for—to "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes"—v. 26. So they can "recognize" the Lord's Church/Body. (Not as in 11:21-22,27; but as in 10:17.) The goal is recognition of our unity/diversity and our responsibility to care for each other—everyone.


  3. What are some of the implications of not "recognizing the Body?" We sin against the Lord—v. 27. We bring judgment on ourselves—v. 29b. (For example, we may see sickness and death in the church—our body—v. 30.)


  4. What does it mean to examine and recognize specifically? It means our examination is to take the form of recognizing/discerning the Body. We are to examine/discern our attitude toward the Lord, His Supper, and especially our love and care for others at the Table. We should ask ourselves:
    • What is my attitude toward the Lord's Table? (Indifferent? Careless? Unrepentant?)
    • What is my attitude toward the Body? Christ? The church?
    • How am I treating others?
    • Does my behavior betray the gospel I am to proclaim?

      Gordon Fee: "The Lord's Table is not just any meal; it is the meal, in which at a common table with one loaf and a common cup they proclaimed that through the death of Christ they were one body, the body of Christ; and therefore they are not just any group of sociologically diverse people who could keep those differences intact at this table. Here they must "discern/recognize as distinct" the one body of Christ, of which they are all parts and in which they are all gifts to one another. To fail to discern the body in this way, by abusing those of lesser sociological status, is to incur God's judgment." Eerdmans, p. 564.

  5. What will be the results of examination/recognition/judgment?
    • We can participate—v. 28. Many people think that if they don't come out well in the examination, they have no choice but to not participate. But that's not it at all. If we have judgment coming, it will happen even if we don't partake of the Lord's Table. The point of the examination is so we can right our attitudes and repent of our sin so we can participate. It's preventive judgment (Heb. 12:5) designed to keep us ready and pure before God! It prevents condemnation with the world.
    • We won't come under judgment—v. 31. B—but if we fail at our personal judgment, God will discipline us. We can see the explanation of this discipline in verse 32.

Third, at the Lord's Supper we


In various traditions there are differences of opinion as to what Jesus meant by what He said in verses 24-25.

24… 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." 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me…"

There are three major views.

Roman Catholic view: the doctrine is calledtransubstantiation. The words of Jesus are taken literally: "This is my body... this is my blood..." The belief is that the priest's blessing transforms the elements into the actual blood and flesh of Christ. It looks and tastes like bread and wine, but the substance (that which we take into ourselves) is the actual flesh and blood of the Lord. I don't think that's what Jesus meant, but many do.

John MacArthur has written, "When Jesus said, 'This is my Body. . .This cup is the New Testament in my blood,' He was saying that the bread and wine of the Passover meal represented His body and blood. The wine was not literally His blood; His blood was still in His veins when He said that and the bread was not His body; His body was still present before all when He said that. Jesus often used figurative language. When He said, 'I am the door' (John 10:9). . .He wasn't literally a door."

Ray Stedman adds, "I think it is very clear, as you look at the story of the Upper Room, that Christ meant the symbols to be seen in a symbolic sense. If it were literal, then there were two bodies of Christ present in the Upper Room, one in which He lived and by which He held the bread, and the Bread itself. But clearly, our Lord meant this as a symbol."

Lutheran view: what is taught is called consubstantiation. The idea is that the physical presence of the body and blood accompanies—comes with—the elements. The body and blood are in, with, under the elements. The physical presence of Christ is actually there when I partake.

Traditional Protestant view (the view I accept): Jesus was speaking figuratively. "This is my body...this is my blood" is a figurative-literal statement in the Bible. In the statement, "this is my Body…" the Greek verb estin ("to be") is frequently used to mean "represents." We believe the elements are not the medium by which the physical blood and body of Christ are conveyed, but a symbol of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross in the breaking of His body and the shedding of His blood. They cause us to remember Christ's work on the cross. They bring the "pastness" of the events into the present where the saving benefits are newly appreciated and experienced. The partaking brings the effects of the events freshly to our experience so we can participate in them by faith.

Ralph Martin wrote, "The bread and the cup function as signs, pointing behind themselves to Him whose body and blood they represent… The presence of Christ is most real at the table, as the elements thereupon direct our gaze not to themselves, but to the one who came in flesh and blood to be offered for the life of the world."

The Lord's Supper also brings a fresh and visual reminder to us of the awesome presence of Christ! He is here as much as the elements are—Matt. 28:20b. He is here to confirm that He died and arose. His presence is symbolized through the cup and bread in a real and undeniable way.

At the Lord's Table, we Commemorate, Contemplate, and Participate. But that's not all. There is one more thing to note. Fourth, at the Table we


—v. 26. "We proclaim the Lord's death..."

Why proclaim His death? Most of us would give our lives for the world's spiritual well-being. Many have given their lives willingly for causes, wars, and devotion to principles. What's so great about what He did? The reason is that Christ was not only a man, but God at the same time. Think of it!

It is a noble and unbelievable thing for God to lower Himself and die. A crass viewpoint could say that His death could bring Him tremendous benefits. A suspicious viewpoint could say if He died, He could solicit a following, those who would proclaim Him as the Messiah. Why proclaim His death?

No death has equaled or will ever equal His, because He took our place. We were destined to die—Rom. 6:23; 3:23. We had no hope, no way to be reconciled to God in order to avoid our guaranteed doom. We deserved to die, but He took our place!

What was accomplished on the cross? What did Jesus do?

  • He became the once and for all sacrifice—Heb. 10:11-14.
  • He took up all our infirmities—Is. 53:4.
  • He was pierced for our transgressions—Is. 53:5.
  • He tasted death for everyone—Heb. 2:9.
  • He was our ransom—Heb. 9:15.
  • He suffered the agony of separation from the Father.
  • He bought us (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
  • He has washed us—6:11.

That's why we proclaim it! That's one of the strong reasons for having the Supper. That's why abuse of the Table is so tragic. It makes the proclamation unclear.

Notice we are to proclaim the Lord's death "until He comes. . ." This means we have a destiny—He's coming. We are pilgrim people. We are to celebrate His coming! We rejoice together in all He has done. There is a touch of joy! We anticipate the banquet!