Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Looking Back and Looking Forward with Thanksgiving (1 Cor 11:23-26)

Audio available here


Today marks the beginning of the liturgical season of Advent. Christians all over the world have for centuries observed this season of the four Sundays prior to Christmas as a time of reflection, introspection, anticipation, and celebration. The word Advent means “coming,” and as anyone familiar with New Testament teachings is aware, there are two senses in which we can speak of Christ coming: there was His first advent which we commemorate at Christmas, and there is a second advent for which we are still waiting. Each of these aspects of the “coming of Christ” were emphasized during Advent by Christians in different times and places historically. As Christianity spread into Northern and Western Europe, Advent traditions focused on waiting and preparing oneself for the Lord Jesus Christ to return. Meanwhile in Rome, Advent was a joyful and festive celebration of the birth of Christ in His first Advent. Over a period of centuries, these two streams of tradition began to blend, and Advent became a season that marked both the end of the Christian year, with its theme of waiting for the return of the Lord, as well as the beginning of the new Christian year, with its theme of celebrating the coming of Christ in His incarnation.

So, Advent is a season that looks in two directions at one time. It looks back in remembrance of what Christ has done, and it looks forward to what Christ is going to do. The righteous people of God in the Old Testament era were waiting for a Savior to come. In Christ, we believe that He has come into the world. But, like those Old Testament saints, we are also awaiting with great expectation His second coming. And the Lord’s Supper is the observance that Jesus has given to His church to help us look in both directions.

While the Lord’s Supper has been called by various names throughout Church History, one of the earliest names for it was the Eucharist. Around 100 AD, a document called the Didache was published to aid the teaching the basics of Christian faith and practice in the church, and in this document, the Lord’s Supper is referred to as the Eucharist. They obviously drew this term from the Lord’s Supper passages in the New Testament which use this Greek word to describe how Jesus “gave thanks” for the bread and the cup as He blessed them and gave them to the disciples to share. The word Eucharist has to do with the thankfulness we express to God for the good gift of His grace. Therefore, since we have just celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday in America, and because we stand at the threshold of the Advent season, it is most fitting for us to mark this day with the observance of the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. For in the Lord’s Supper, we look back at Christ’s first coming, and we look forward to His second coming, and we do so with thanksgiving for His grace that has saved us.

Paul sets forth his instruction on the Lord’s Supper in this passage, and he reminds the Corinthians that partaking of the Lord’s Supper is about looking back and looking forward at the same time. As we read and apply these words in our own day, we are admonished to do the same thing, which is what Advent is really all about.

I. In the Lord’s Supper, we look back with thanksgiving (vv23-25)

Haven’t you always heard that hindsight is 20/20? Certainly we can look back on things that have happened and see them with far more clarity than we could see them before they occurred or even as they were transpiring. This fact of human nature has informed the practices of the people of God since the earliest days of biblical history. The Passover meal, for instance, was a call for Israel to look back on what God had done for them, lest they forget about His nature and His work. As the Israelites observed Passover, they remembered God’s deliverance of His people from bondage in Egypt during the Exodus. It was at a Passover meal with His disciples on the night before His death when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. He had come to be the fulfillment of that which was foreshadowed in the Exodus: God’s deliverance of His people from bondage to sin. And it is with this new understanding that Jesus commands His followers to continue observing the Lord’s Supper until He returns.

Though Jesus spoke with His disciples often about His real mission and purpose, how He would suffer, die, and rise again to break the shackles of sin, they were slow to understand. On one occasion, Peter even rebuked the Lord for saying such things. Shortly after the Passover meal, Peter even took up a sword to fight against those who came to deliver Jesus over to death. Was He even paying attention during the Passover? Or did he think that he could accomplish something Jesus could not? Or did he simply forget what Jesus had said so many times, even up to the hours prior to His arrest in the garden?

Twice in these verses we are admonished to remember. The Lord’s Supper was instituted as a meal of remembrance to remind us of the mission of Jesus to deliver us from sin. Because of our sinful nature, like Peter, we will be inclined to forget or to adopt what we think are “better plans” for Christ and His Kingdom. But as we take the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper, we are called to remember why He came during His first Advent and what He did to accomplish our deliverance from sin.

With incredible simplicity, Jesus used two symbols to illustrate to His disciples what was about to happen to Him. The events that they were about to witness were not to be viewed as a tragic accident, but rather as the fulfillment of His divine mission. He took a piece of bread and gave thanks to His Father, and then He said, “This is My body.” You and I don’t get the full picture of this dramatic visualization for two reasons. First, when we think of bread, we usually think of a big loaf of bread like we would buy in the supermarket or bake in our ovens. Second, when we take the Lord’s Supper, we use these little wafers that are manufactured and packaged for use in church observances, which are not much like what Jesus held up for His disciples to see. The unleavened bread of the Passover, also called Matzo, was a flat piece of bread, similar in substance to a cracker. That bread was cooked until it was crisp, and some pieces got burned in the cooking, so that the color was uneven. Much of it would be sort of off-white, while other pieces were black from the burning. And to keep the bread from rising, it was punctured with straight lines of perforations. So when Jesus held this bread up and said, “This is My body,” the bread that the disciples saw appeared to be bruised, pierced, and striped. This is a picture of what Isaiah 53 said would happen to the Messiah when He came: He was pierced through for our transgressions, and as the King James Version translates the Hebrew, “He was bruised for our iniquities” and “with His stripes we are healed.” And then He broke the bread and gave it to the disciples to eat. So this bread was actually a visible demonstration of what was about to happen to Jesus. He would be beaten, scourged, nailed to the cross, and His body broken apart. But He told them, “It is for you.” It is as if Jesus is saying to His disciples, “Whenever you see this bread, bruised, striped with punctures, and broken to pieces, you are to remember what you are about to witness happening to My body; and you are to remember that I was beaten, whipped, pierced with nails and broken apart for you and for your salvation.”

And then Jesus took the cup “in the same way.” That is, He gave thanks for the cup which He held, and He said to them, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood.” Now, anyone who wants to use this passage to defend the Christian’s use of alcohol is guilty of a tragic case of missing the point. First, does it not cheapen the intense gravity of what is going on here to make that even a trivial point of personal application? Second, while we are certain that wine was in that cup, it is of interest that neither of the Greek words for wine is used in any passage concerning the Lord’s Supper. The word gleukos, which only occurs once in the New Testament, seems to refer to fermented wine, but the word oinos, which is far more common, is used to describe both fermented and unfermented wine. But neither word is used in Eucharistic texts. We find the word “cup” as we do here, and “fruit of the vine,” as in the Gospels. The presence or absence of alcoholic beverages at this meal is an issue of complete biblical silence. Third, if the use of unleavened bread was important to symbolize the sinless body of Jesus, how then would the use of leavened, or fermented, wine be an appropriate symbol of His sinless blood? It would seem that a Christian who wants to defend his or her use of alcohol would have a difficult time using this text to do so.

The importance of the symbol was both its color and its historical significance. In its deep red color, the juice of a crushed red grape was a visual analogy of the blood of Jesus that was going to be shed as He suffered and died on the cross. But this was no ordinary cup; it was a particular cup that had a particular significance. Typically during a Passover meal, there were four cups offered at various points in the meal. The first cup was the cup of consecration which they drank at the beginning of the meal, indicating that God had consecrated Israel as His people. The second was the cup of affliction, indicating the plagues that were poured out on Egypt. The third cup was the cup of redemption reminding the people of the deliverance from their bondage. The fourth cup was called, “the cup of praise,” and was shared to indicate that the Passover meal was completed. So, which cup did Jesus offer His disciples as a symbol of His blood? It was the third cup, the cup of redemption. This was the cup which would be offered immediately following the eating of the food of the Passover. As Jesus took this cup and gave thanks, He did not say, “This is the blood of the Lamb which was slain in Egypt.” He rather pointed to the events that were about to unfold and said, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood.

Just as every covenant was sealed with the shedding of blood, so this covenant would be as well. This covenant was sealed with very blood of its Maker. By the shedding of His blood on the cross, He became the substitute who died in our place and bore the wrath that our sins deserve so that we might be forgiven, declared righteous in Him, and reconciled to God. By this blood we are bound to God in the new covenant of Christ. This is the price of our redemption, His blood, depicted in this cup. And each time we drink it, we are called to remember what He did for us in this sacrifice that seals our covenant with Him.

These symbols were difficult for the disciples to understand at that moment, as evidenced by what they did in the hours to follow. First they tried to fight, then they all fled. But we look on these things with hindsight. We look back in remembrance at the breaking of His body and the shedding of His blood. This was the purpose of His coming in the first Advent. He came to bear our sins to the cross that we might be saved. And as we look back on what He did for us there, we look back with thanksgiving.

II. In the Lord’s Supper, we look forward with thanksgiving (vv23-25)

If the cup which Jesus used to symbolize His shed blood was the third cup of the Passover, the cup of redemption, then what about the fourth cup, the cup of praise? Interestingly, in Mark 14:25, we read that after Jesus shared this cup with His disciples, He said, “Truly I say to you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the Kingdom of God.” He foregoes the fourth and final cup, essentially leaving the Passover meal unfinished. And we see Him upholding His vow to never again drink from the fruit of the vine when, on the cross, He was offered wine mixed with myrrh as an anesthetic, but He refused it. It was not yet time for the drinking of the final cup.

The redemption of humanity from sin would not be fully accomplished until He was dead. And it was there as He died that Jesus uttered His final word: Tetelestai, a Greek word translated in our Bibles, “It is Finished!” And then, John tells us in his Gospel, Jesus bowed His head and gave up His spirit. Now the redemption that seals us in the new covenant has been fully completed. But still we wait. We wait throughout all these centuries and generations for the day when He returns and consummates the covenant in establishing His perfect and righteous Kingdom on the Earth. We wait through days and months and years of trials and suffering in this fallen world, having His Spirit within us as a pledge of His promise. And we know that in His own time, according to His own perfect purpose, the day is coming when He will return and gather His covenant people to Himself. And when John was given the glorious vision of eternity in the book of Revelation, he tells us that the consummation of this covenant and the Kingdom of Christ will be celebrated at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. And then and there, when all the elect of God have been gathered into the fold, and the wrongs have all been righted, and the Lord has executed His perfect judgment and those things which we now behold by faith become sight, the fourth and final cup of the covenant meal will be enjoyed together anew with the Lord Jesus in His everlasting Kingdom. Then and there, we will drink together with the Lord the cup of praise.

But until then, we gather together regularly and partake of these tokens, these symbolic elements: the bread that represents His broken body; and the cup of redemption representing His shed blood for our sins. And Paul says, “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.” We are proclaiming with these simple symbols that God has done a miraculous work in the past in Christ to reconcile us to Himself; but we are also announcing that Christ is coming again. We take the small symbols of this meal on faith that the grander feast is yet to come.

The second Advent is still future. And while we wait, we remember what He has done, and we remember what He has promised, and we give thanks. These symbols of the bread and the cup are reminders for us. As we partake of them, we do so with self-examination, knowing that the Lord is coming again in judgment. This is Paul’s point in verses 27-32. We examine ourselves, and as we discover sin in our lives, ruptured relationships in our fellowship, things that are displeasing to the Lord, we repent of them on the basis of what He accomplished for us in the first Advent, and in anticipation of the day when we stand face-to-face before Him at the second Advent.

And so today, with the Thanksgiving holiday fresh in our memory, we give thanks to God for the greatest blessing of all … the salvation that is ours in Jesus Christ because of His sinless life, His substitutionary death and His glorious resurrection. And we begin our preparations for the Christmas holiday by reflecting on His coming into the world, in which God took upon Himself a human body with human blood pulsing through His veins in the person of Jesus Christ. And we also prepare ourselves for His return by examining our relationship with Him and with others.

In this moment of prayerful preparation, let us consider these things, and receive the bread and the cup with thanksgiving, with remembrance of what Christ has done, and with a renewed commitment to walk with Him by faith until He returns. If you have never trusted Christ as Lord and Savior, we would welcome you to turn to Him by faith today. He lived the life you and I cannot live, a life of sinless perfection; and He died the death that you and I deserve to die, bearing God’s wrath for our sins; and He conquered our sins and their penalty in His resurrection. Let your sin rest on Him, and His righteousness will rest on you in exchange. We’d love to pray with you as you receive Him as Lord and Savior today.

Others perhaps have another need, a sin that needs confessing to the Lord, or a commitment that needs to be made to restore a broken relationship, or rededication of faith to Christ on the basis of what He has done and what He has promised. How is the Lord leading you to respond to what He has said and done, as we look back, and look forward, with thanksgiving?

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