The Lord’s Supper, Then and Now
Recently I received a copy of a book called The Lord’s Supper, edited by Thomas Schreiner and Matthew Crawford and written by and for Baptists. The essayists in this book address themselves to the question of the meal our Savior commanded us to observe – and to the reawakening of the church and of Christians to their responsibility to take seriously the practices of the earliest believers. I especially feel that the final essay is of great importance. In his chapter entitled “The Lord’s Supper in the Context of the Local Church,” Ray van Neste of Union University discusses ways in which Baptist churches can improve their observance of the Lord’s Supper. Among other things, he suggests that the Supper should be celebrated joyfully, that it should be a weekly observance (rather than quarterly or monthly), that its administration should not be left only to certain ordained individuals, and that the practice of using one loaf maintains an important symbolism of Scripture.
This is indeed timely advice. A biblical observance of the Lord’s Supper is both a great privilege and a pressing need today. To be a Christian in the early church was to be a regular participant in a common meal focusing on the absent yet soon to be returning Savior. What a contrast between the early church and the church of our day, which tends to be so traditional, so lacking in simplicity, so “us-centered.” Far too many of us view the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament to be observed infrequently in a funereal atmosphere. Be sure of this: the church today cannot rid itself of its anthropocentrism until it recaptures something of the Christocentricity of the Lord’s Supper. There is immense ignorance today of what the Lord’s Supper truly entails – ignorance which is all the more difficult to overcome because the Scriptures have taken a back seat to convention.
I. Howard Marshall, Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the University of Aberdeen, writing in 1980, summarizes the biblical teaching about the Lord’s Supper. Among his conclusions are the following:
1. The Supper should be celebrated frequently, if possible each Lord’s Day.
2. There is no New Testament evidence that would require “ordination” to administer the elements.
3. Since the Lord’s Supper is a meal, the appropriate setting for it is a table, not an altar.
4. The New Testament envisages the use of one loaf and a common cup.
Is it too much to hope that our churches today might return to this biblical model? How can we start to overcome our lethargy? We can only do this, as I have said, when we return to a commitment to obedience. Wherever the church honestly faces its task to be scriptural in all its dealings, believers will discover new ways and means of restoring modern practices to their ancient models. Acts 20:7 underscores this point. Here Luke speaks of a meeting of the church in which the focal point was not a sermon but a common meal. This was apparently the common practice of the early church whenever they gathered on “the Lord’s Day.” Today we gather for “worship” and occasionally tack on the Lord’s Supper almost as an addendum. I imagine this would have appeared very strange to New Testament eyes! The early church knew nothing of worship services or worship centers or worship teams or worship folders. Nor were the earliest gatherings of Christians “top heavy,” leaving the ministry to a handful of selected professionals. Theirs was a one-class society – all saints, all priests, all members of the Christian brotherhood with Christ as their only Head. This is why, I surmise, the Lord’s Supper was so important to them. The Supper offers us an occasion to focus on our Great High Priest, the church’s only Senior Pastor (see 1 Pet. 5:4). Moreover, it seems that the Lord’s Supper was a full meal in New Testament times. Indeed, if we ask ourselves what the word “supper” means, we find that the Greek word used is deipnon, which generally refers to the chief meal of the day. Such is its meaning consistently in the pages of the New Testament. Would it be too radical to suggest that the way in which the Lord’s Supper was observed in the early church – as a full meal – could also be replicated today?
The Lord’s Supper is the Cinderella at the Christian Ball. Nobody has perceived this better than Steve Atkerson in an essay titled The Lord’s Supper - Rehearsal Dinner For The Wedding Banquet of The Lamb, which is not as well known as it should be. I find it very persuasive. Steve nicely summarizes all I have said in this brief essay:
In summary, the Lord’s Supper is the primary purpose for which the church is to gather each Lord’s Day. Eaten as a full meal, the Supper typifies the wedding supper of the Lamb and is thus forward looking. It is to be partaken of as a feast, in a joyful, wedding atmosphere rather than in a somber, funeral atmosphere. A major benefit of the Supper as a banquet is the fellowship and encouragement each member experiences. Within the context of this full meal, there is to be one cup and one loaf from which all partake. One whole loaf is to be used, not only to symbolize the unity of a body of believers, but also because God will use it to create unity within a body of believers.
This is the heart and center of the matter – the exaltation of Jesus Christ as Savior and Head of the Body. It sounds so simple; but when we are honest with ourselves it is surprising how we have failed to give Christ the “preeminence in all things” (Col. 1:18). I know of no reason why we should not follow the Scriptures in these matters except for inertia and fear – fear that it might be too radical, fear that our sacred traditions might get trampled upon. But such fears are absolutely groundless.
Ray van Neste is correct when he conclude his excellent chapter with these words (p. 390):
We need this celebration. Our God thinks so, or He would not have commanded it. We need to return to thinking deeply, carefully, and pastorally about how to reinvigorate our practice of this wonderful ordinance for the good of the church and the glory of God.
So ends this superb book on the Lord’s Supper. May it inspire us to greater obedience!
February 9, 2011
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.