“Communion: The Visible Gospel”
1 Corinthians 11.23-34
Acts 2:37–47 (ESV)
37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. 42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
The reason that I begin with this account of the early church in Acts is to lay the groundwork for understanding the nature of the Christian church. I continue to see how much work that we need to do in order to recapture what Christian community is meant to resemble. We have come to a point in Christianity, where we view Church as a place and the service merely as a weekly event. On the contrary, we need to remember that those who have repented of sin and trusted in Jesus Christ have transferred citizenship. We have been relocated from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.
In western society, many of us have been brought up in a rugged individualism that has affected our understanding of Christianity as well. We think that our spirituality is an individual pursuit, that we make our individual decision to follow Jesus and, having done so, will continue to individually choose how we go about our Christian walk.
However… When we look more closely at the biblical text, and we begin to understand that our choosing Christ was actually only because of God’s initial calling on us, it causes us to reconsider. And then we see that does not call individuals, he calls out a people – his church. And when God calls your name, he doesn’t expect you to walk around aimlessly while you try to figure out how you are going to live your life on your own. God calls us to find our place within his family. You have gained access to the Kingdom of God! You now have transferred allegiances.
If it helps, you can even visual it. You once belonged to the kingdom of God’s enemy. But you have left that fortress or city because the Great King has called you to his eternal Kingdom. And as you enter the walls of this new city, you have become part of this grand family. You see people of all different shapes and sizes, ethnicities and social classes. God has promised to call people from all over his creation. And he has done so that testimony of him might be spread to all peoples and that he would be glorified. And you are a piece of this grand scheme. If you have trusted Christ, God has called you from eternity past to be included in his kingdom.
To continue the visual… Upon entering the city, you are given new garments. You shed your old tattered garments and put on the new ones. You are now clothed with Jesus Christ. You are then given a manual and are told that everything you need to know about the King and how to live in his kingdom are included here. And you are expected to study it and live it. Why? Because to conform to it will bring the greatest unity to the kingdom and its greatest effectiveness to the purposes of this community. And yet it includes a blessing to the one who does so. Consider how ridiculous it would be to enter the gates of this city, and to think that you could come in and make up your own rules. And everybody else thought this way as well. What would this place look like? Right, not so good…
This is where we find ourselves this morning. We come together as inhabitants of this kingdom and we strive to know more about our King and the way that he desires us to live for him. We haven’t come to church, but as the Church. (We understand, of course, that not all here have trusted Jesus Christ. And yet we consider it our privilege to declare the gospel in this setting as it has effects on both believers and unbelievers.)
I wanted to establish this at the outset because it is crucial for what we are after in this mini-series on life in the Church. The topics I have selected are critical and fundamental for us as inhabitants in the Kingdom of God. The Bible has a number of expectations. And yet if we fail on those which are clearly foundational for us, we will be aimless in our pursuit.
Last Sunday we looked at Baptism. I indicated that I believe baptism to be the first act of obedience on the part of the believer in Jesus Christ. As you enter this new city, or kingdom, the first expectation is that he or she will publicly declare their new allegiance. As one who has come from the kingdom of the enemy, he will declare “I have died to self and now live for Jesus Christ as symbolized in my baptism to his death, burial, and resurrection on my behalf.” The kingdom has gathered and rejoices that another has been delivered from the kingdom of darkness and now lives within the Kingdom of God. As I mentioned, this act will also hold the one being baptized accountable and will serve as an encouragement to the body of believers.
I hope that I have stated this clearly. It’s not that the pastor gets brownie points for the number of baptisms he performs. Rather, it is my desire that we are faithful to carry out the commands of the Lord Jesus. If we do not individually carry out these expectations, they have ramifications for us corporately.
Though Scripture does not lay out bulleted list of steps, I am beginning to see a chronology emerge. If baptism is the initial act of obedience, Communion will be the second and a continuing ordinance for the believer. In other words, baptism is the initial act of identifying with Christ. Communion is a sign of continuing in fellowship with Christ. Keep this in mind as we begin to investigate Communion.
I’ve entitled the message today “Communion: The Visible Gospel”. I’ve included a working definition in the bulletin this morning. And it indicates that “Communion is one of the two ordinances that Jesus commanded his church to observe. This is an ordinance to be observed repeatedly throughout our Christians lives as a sign of continuing in fellowship with Christ.”
Let’s begin with the first point which is Communion and Covenants. Where do we find the origins of Communion? Is it merely an invention of Paul or Jesus in the New Testament? Or do we find that it is rooted deeper within God’s story?
Many of us are familiar of the words from Paul in 1 Corinthians 11. In fact, it is probably the longest section of Scripture that speaks to Communion. And we will get to this text shortly. But, let’s back it up a step from there and look into the Gospels. Turn in your Bibles to Mark 14. It is the time of the end of Jesus’ life here on earth. Jesus knows that he will be betrayed into the hands of his enemies and crucified. He realizes that this will be the last opportunity to teach the disciples. Read along picking up the text in Mark 14:12–16 12 And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” 13 And he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, 14 and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15 And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us.” 16 And the disciples set out and went to the city and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.”
So Jesus and the disciples are preparing to celebrate the Passover. What is the Passover? The account of the Passover is found in Exodus 12. And if you remember, the Israelites at this time in their history were enslaved to the Egyptians. They had begun to wonder if God would be faithful to his promise of making them a great nation. They were merely slaves serving a foreign king and nation. But the time came when God would deliver his people from their bondage. He would use Moses as their leader and spokesman to demand that Pharaoh release them so that they could worship their God.
As you may know, Pharaoh was not so accommodating. In fact, he was quite stubborn. Thus, God of Israel would pour down judgments on the nation. These were known as the plagues. It seemed that periodically in the midst of these plagues, Pharaoh would reconsider and let the Israelites go. However, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he changed his mind. It wasn’t until the last plague that things changed.
The Lord told Moses that the Israelites were to take a lamb without blemish for each household. The nation was to come together and kill their lambs, taking some of the blood and putting it on the doorposts of their houses. They were likewise to eat the meat of the lamb that night and prepare themselves for their deliverance. The Lord passed through Egypt and killed the firstborn in each household that did not have blood sprinkled on the doorpost. The following day, the Egyptians let the Israelites go.
God said in Exodus 12:14 14 “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.” God instituted this celebration so that his people would continually recall his faithfulness to redeem them. God provided their salvation from bondage.
Fast forward perhaps 1500 years. God’s people continue to celebrate Passover and recall this historic event in their history. And on the night he would be betrayed, Jesus celebrates the Passover with his disciples. Now look back at Mark 14 beginning in verse 22. Mark 14:22–25, “22 And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” 23 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. 24 And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. 25 Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” In his gospel, Luke says that “this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
Now did you notice what Jesus does here? Jesus tells his disciples by his words and prophetic symbolism, that the original meaning of the Passover has now been transcended. Jesus is the ultimate Passover Lamb. He is the Redeemer of his people. In the time of the exodus of Egypt, their deliverance was primarily physical. With the sacrifice of the perfect Lamb, spiritual deliverance has come! Paul even says in 1 Corinthians 5.7 that Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. And Jesus now introduces the new covenant that was prophesied by Jeremiah.
Jeremiah 31:31–34 31 “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, 32 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. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, 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. 34 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.” Jesus declares that this time has come. His sacrifice will be the last and perfect sacrifice where God can say that he will remember their sin no more.
Let’s look now at the second point, which is Communion’s Purpose. Turn in your Bibles to 1 Corinthians 11. Let’s begin by looking at verses 23 and following. READ. Paul to the church in Corinth says that what he tells them he had received from the Lord himself. And then he refers back to the Last Supper with the disciples. Paul reiterates what the Gospel writers had also recorded. (However, it is likely that this letter was written before the Gospels). And he repeats the commands of the Lord for believers.
I would suggest that primary purpose for communion is (as I stated earlier) that it is an ordinance that is to be observed throughout our Christian lives to signify our continuing in fellowship with Christ. Baptism was the initial sign, communion the continuance. Paul says in verse 26 “for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”. He hasn’t come yet.
I think that Communion also benefits the unity of believers. Not only do we declare our continuing relationship to Jesus, but also our unity with one another. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10.17 that “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread”. It is the Gospel that unites us. And as we continue to observe this ordinance of the Lord, we also reaffirm our commitment with one another to proclaim Jesus. And so we can conclude that Communion is beneficial for both our vertical relationship with God and our horizontal relationship with other believers.
Communion brings spiritual nourishment for the Christian. It is not coincidental that God has included food and drink (physical realities) to communicate spiritual benefit. Wouldn’t we all agree that when we come to celebrate Communion and reflect on the death of our Lord on our behalf, that there is a tremendous blessing that comes to us as weary pilgrims. We come united as believers and are reminded of the grace that has saved us, the joy that comes knowing that our sins are forever forgiven, and the thanksgiving that should overflow from our lives as a result. It is a continual reminder that we are great sinners who know a great Savior! (from the words of John Newton). And there is also great blessing that comes from our obedience to the command of the Lord to observe this ordinance for his church.
I would also suggest that Communion has a purifying affect on the church. We will look in more detail how this is attained. But I will mention here that when we observe communion, we are called to self-examination to search out our sin and also it causes us to examine our relationships to others in the church family.
So, let’s look next at the third point, Cautions and Criteria. It seems as though the church in Corinth had forgotten what Communion was about. They had taken a sacred ordinance and turned it into a selfish act. Paul says in verses 17 and 18, “17 But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you.”
If what I suggested earlier is true (that communion encourages unity in the church), then the Corinthians were missing the target. In fact, Paul says in verse 20 that they might think they are observing the Lord’s supper, but in reality it’s not at all what’s going on. It is likely that the early church celebrated Communion over a meal. I believe we saw a glimpse of this from the Acts 2 passage I began with – where it said that they gathered and broke bread with one another daily.
The Corinthians, however, had turned it into nothing more than a party. Their selfishness rears its ugly head when the text suggests that those who were well to do would arrive early and gorge themselves on food and drink. Paul says in verse 21 that one goes hungry and another gets drunk. And then he adds these scathing words in verse 22, “22 What! Do you not have houses 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 commend you in this? No, I will not.”
John MacArthur helps us with the cultural situation when he adds, “The well-to-do were supposed to bring food to the fellowship meal and share it with the poor, but the rich would arrive early and eat all their food in their own exclusive groups before the poor arrived. The latter group then went home hungry. Such an abuse of Christian love and unity made participating in the Lord’s Table a mockery.” We see this played out in verses 33-34 when Paul commands them to wait for one another. Their divisive and selfish hearts produced on a superficial ceremony.
The first caution addresses selfishness. And the second is disunity in the church. I believe that we find this in verse 27. I already alluded to the selflessness and unity of the church in Jerusalem from Acts 2. I also quoted from 1 Corinthians 10 referring to the one bread, one body concept of Communion. I think that one of the ways that we eat the bread and drink the cup in an unworthy manner is when we do not consider our relationships to one another in the body. Verse 29 says that whoever does so without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. God is glorified in our unity. And when we go through the motions of communion without ensuring our unity, it brings judgment on us. I think of the verses that we memorized recently. Matthew 5.23-24, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” It is crucial that we ensure that we are reconciled with one another in the church family. I would encourage you. Let’s all follow through on this. Don’t wait until ten minutes before we serve Communion. Deal with any issues the week leading up to Sunday. I find it interesting that Paul includes a direct link to their judgment here. He says “that is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”
So these are some of the cautions in observing the Lord’s Supper. What are the criteria? Who can participate in Communion? First, I hope it is fairly obvious that the first requirement is that a person has repented of sin and trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ for their salvation. Remember, I suggested that communion is the ordinance of continuing in fellowship with Jesus.
Second, it is pretty clear that communion is for those who can do honest assessment of their life and their relationship with one another. Verse 28 commands us to examine ourselves. And I think that this includes both of these areas. It is a time when we can plumb the depths of our evil hearts and do business with God. And because we constantly rub shoulders with other evil hearts in the church, there is likely that there will be strained relationships that need to be reconciled. And as we are diligent in this, God will be glorified. He will be glorified because this does not come naturally. And it will encourage others and will declare the gospel to those who don’t know him.
Lastly, I am going to suggest that I believe that communion is for baptized believers. The Bible does not say this explicitly. But I think at the very least it is implicit from many of the passages we have looked at this week and last. I attempted to convince you last week of the inseparable nature and close connection between belief and baptism. The constant exhortation and practice was repentance and baptism. They were often used in the same sentences.
I’ve already had conversations with some who are participating in communion and have yet to be baptized. So, if what I said is true, that baptism is the first act of obedience on the part of the Christian, why would we neglect it?
Wayne Grudem adds this thought: “…many Protestants would argue from the meaning of baptism and the meaning of the Lord’s Supper that, ordinarily, only those who have been baptized should participate in the Lord’s Supper. This is because baptism is so clearly a symbol of beginning the Christian life, while the Lord’s Supper is clearly a symbol of continuing the Christian life. Therefore if someone is taking the Lord’s Supper and thereby giving public proclamation that he or she is continuing in the Christian life, then that person should be asked, “Wouldn’t it be good to be baptized now and thereby give a symbol that you are beginning the Christian life?” I think that this is a fair point.
Moving forward as a church, we will continue to encourage new believers to follow through on this first act of obedience and follow the natural chronology of the expectations of the Lord Jesus for his church. It’s his kingdom. He makes the rules.
So, I really want to challenge you to consider some of these primary issues in the life of the church. I hope that you will assess your relationship to Jesus and his expectations of us. We will continue to press some of these issues as we look at church membership next week.
Like I mentioned at the outset, these issues are not merely individual issues. They have ramifications for the life of the church corporately. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to aske me or one of the other elders. We love Jesus’ church and want to see it more unified and healthy and effective to increase the Kingdom. Let’s pray.