Have you noticed that symbols are becoming more and more prevalent these days? For example, in vehicles where they used to have words, they now have pictures. On streets signs, CD players and all over symbols represent ideas. Let me see if you can identify some of the ideas represented by symbols.
Such symbols can have a variety of purposes. Some of them can tell us what has happened. A cross on the side of the road is a silent symbol of a tragedy that occurred in that location. Some symbols tell us what we should do now. If you are standing on the sidewalk of a busy street waiting to cross, when you see this symbol, it tells you something you can do right now, you can walk across the street. One year when we were traveling, we had been driving most of the day and we were looking for a place to spend the night. It was already dark and we hadn’t found a place. When we saw this sign, we were very happy for what was coming up. Some symbols tell us about something that is coming up.
Jesus knew the power of symbols and left us with one symbol that actually does all three of these things. As we partake of the Lord’s Supper, eating the bread and drinking the cup, we partake of a symbol that reminds us of a past event – the cross of Christ; it tells us what we should do now – walk in Christ; and it lets us know about what is coming – the place where we will live for eternity.
In each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) Jesus told his disciples to observe this supper together. In Acts 2:42, we find that the early church did do what Jesus had taught them to do. In I Corinthians 11:17-34, Paul taught church in Corinth the meaning of the supper. We will look at a number of these passages and some others to think about the meaning of the Lord’s supper.
When Jesus gathered with his disciples for this meal, the disciples were not thinking of it as a last meal together. They were gathering for a very important Jewish festival. They were gathering to observe the Passover. As they met together, they killed a lamb and ate it together with bitter herbs and with unleavened bread. This meal was to be observed every year to remind the people of Israel about when God miraculously delivered them out of slavery in Egypt. At that time, God had told them to kill a lamb and put the blood on the doorposts as a sign that they believed God. In all of Egypt, the firstborn of every person and animal was killed, except in those houses where the blood was on the doorpost. Consequently, Pharaoh let Israel leave Egypt and they were delivered from slavery. In Exodus 12:14 God had told them to “commemorate for the generations to come.”
So as they gathered to eat this meal, they thought it would be a normal Passover meal as they remembered God’s past deliverance, but in the middle of the supper, Jesus suddenly did something very strange. He indicated to them that in essence a new meal of remembrance was being instituted. No more were they to remember how a lamb had been killed so they could live, they were being told that Jesus was the lamb who was killed so that they themselves could be saved from death. No more was the bread that was broken a remembrance of the haste with which their people had left Egypt, suddenly the broken bread took on a new meaning. It was to remind them that Jesus body was going to be broken so that their sins could be forgiven. No more was the blessing of the cup a simple blessing that was part of the meal, now the cup became a central image of the shed blood of Christ, which was poured out so that he could atone for their sins.
Jesus instructed the observance of this new supper as a remembrance of what had happened. As we partake of the Lord’s supper, we remember the past event of His death on the cross.
In this supper, we have the opportunity to remember Christ’s suffering. In Luke 22:15 Jesus spoke about the fact that he would suffer. In verse 19 he talked about his “body given for you.” In verse 20, he spoke about “my blood poured out for you.” That is what makes it a solemn remembrance. Sometimes I have debated whether this is to be a solemn occasion or a time of joy and certainly there are elements of both, but at least part of what happens is a deep reflection on the great cost of suffering which Jesus bore.
At this time, we also remember that this suffering was on our behalf. Notice in Luke 22:19 that he says, “my body given for you.” Then in verse 20 when he talks about the symbolism of the cup representing his blood he says that it was “poured out for you.” We were the ones who deserved to die and yet, Jesus died in our place. He died so that we could live. So as we partake of the bread and the cup, we have an opportunity to remember that Jesus died for us. Perhaps one way to think about this is to think of yourself as carrying the cross, being about to be nailed on it, fully deserving what is being done and then Jesus stepping in and lying down on the cross just as the nails are about to be pounded in.
At this supper, we also remember that by dying in our place, Jesus established a new relationship for us with God. We read in Luke 22:20, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” I remember in 1982 when our Canadian government signed the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I remember that every Canadian got a copy of the charter. It was a significant document for how life happens in this country. We still live under that charter. I also remember in December 1992 when Canada, USA and Mexico signed the NAFTA agreement. It is the treaty which governs trade in our three countries and we live under that agreement.
When Jesus died on the cross, he established a new covenant which is the universal treaty under which all people live. We live by that agreement. It is God’s agreement now for all of mankind.
It is a new covenant. The old covenant established in Exodus 24 was a covenant by which animal sacrifices and keeping laws was the way in which people could come to God. Now we live under a new agreement, a superior covenant. Hebrews 8:6 says, “But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises.” The New International Version, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House) 1984. Today, we have the privilege of living in a relationship to God through faith in Jesus and by the indwelling Holy Spirit. How blessed we are to live under this new agreement with God. As we partake of the bread and the cup, we remember this new covenant. As we remember, we ought to give thanks.
But the Lord’s supper is more than just a mental activity of remembering what happened in the past, it is also a symbol that tells us something that we need to do right now.
A. Remembrance of the body of Christ
In I Corinthians 11:28, we are told, “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.” The New International Version, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House) 1984. This is not just a general examination, but in this passage has a very specific purpose. It seems that when the Corinthians were observing the Lord’s supper, they were doing more than just having a symbolic meal. They were getting together for a pot luck. But they were not being very nice about it. The people who were well to do were bringing a banquet and eating it together in one corner. Some poor people came with very little food and went home hungry. Some people brought enough wine to make themselves drunk and they were getting drunk. In other words, they were not treating each other like brothers and sisters. The examination Paul speaks about was for the purpose of “recognizing the body of the Lord” as it says in verse 29. When it talks about the body of the Lord, it is not talking about the physical body of the Jesus, but about the church, which the Bible also refers to as the body of Christ. Recognizing the body of the Lord means remembering that we are one body in Christ. Christ died on the cross in order to create a new body. We are that body when we become Christians. There is no such thing as being a Christian in isolation. As soon as we are Christians we belong to all other of God’s people. We belong to each other and are responsible for each other.
Examining ourselves then means that it is not appropriate to take communion if we have something against our brother or sister. If that happens, we should certainly make sure that we deal with it and reconcile before we come to the Lord’s table.
So when we partake of the bread and the cup, we should certainly be doing something now and that is thinking about our relationship to others who are our brothers and sisters. We need to be contemplating our current relationship to those who belong to the body of Christ. That is one important part of our walk now and communion is a time to reevaluate our relationship to one another and make sure that we are in a good relationship with all other believers in Christ.
B. Remembrance as recommitment
But there is something else we need to do now as we partake of communion. In I Corinthians 10:16, 17, Paul engages in an argument which is designed to encourage them not to participate in meals which honour idols. He has previously argued that there is no problem with eating meat sacrificed to idols because idols are nothing and eating that meat will not defile them, unless their consciences can’t handle it. At the same time, he now goes on to argue, that eating at a meal which is designed to honour an idol, even though there is nothing wrong with the meat, participation in such a meal is wrong because participation in such a meal is participation with demons. In verse 21 he says, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too.” Earlier in verse 16 he has said, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” The New International Version, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House) 1984. The argument invites them, in the context of communion to remember their allegiance to Christ.
The argument which he uses alerts us to another thing that we need to do now as we partake of the Lord’s supper and that is to examine our lives to see if we are walking in obedience to Christ. As we partake, we remember that Jesus died for us and that as Christians we are in close fellowship with Him, and are, in fact, identified with Him. We need to look at whether our life is in line with the fact that we have partaken of Christ. We need to ask ourselves, “Am I living in a right relationship with Christ right now?” How is your walk with Christ now?
The third thing that this symbol does is alert us to what is coming.
If we look at Luke 22, we see this emphasis very strongly. In verse 16 Jesus says, “I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” Then in verse 18, “I will not drink again until the kingdom of God comes.” When Paul gives instructions in I Corinthians 11, he says, “you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” So we see that there is definitely an element of reminder that based on his death and resurrection, he is coming again. Communion reminds us about where we are going to camp for eternity.
Although much in the observance of the Lord’s supper calls for solemn remembrance and serious reflection, this element is cause for rejoicing. The past we remember and the present we live all point to a future we anticipate.
As we think of the Lord’s supper and recognize that Jesus is coming again, we also recognize that when he does, we will not be observing the Lord’s supper. Rather, we will participate in the marriage supper of the Lamb. What a meal that will be! Perhaps it is appropriate that this meal is just a symbolic meal. It is like an appetizer which makes us hungry for the real banquet. And so as we think about what is coming, we rejoice and celebrate because of our hope.
As I observe the Lord’s Supper, I always try to make sure that I don’t just go through the motions. It is possible to do that, but it is up to us to make sure that it does not happen. The key to meaning is to let the symbols speak and to think. So I invite you to think of what has happened in the past. If it helps, visualize a cross and Jesus on that cross. Think about all that Christ did. As you remember that, reflect on your life now and your relationship to Christ and to the body of Christ. If it helps, think about a walk symbol to remind you that you need to walk in a close relationship with Christ and his people. Finally, as you partake of the supper, consider with joy the hope of his return. If it helps, let the picture of a tent remind you that because of what Jesus did, we will camp with Him for all eternity.