Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Lord's Supper: What It Is and What It Is Not (1 Cor 11:17-34)

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1 Corinthians 11:17-34
The Lord’s Supper – What it Is, and What it Isn’t

What is a healthy church? Since at least the time of the Reformation, if not before, it has been widely accepted that there are two consistent hallmarks of a healthy church: the right preaching of the Word and the right practice of the ordinances. When we speak of ordinances, we are talking about those things that the Lord Jesus Christ instituted for His Church and commanded the continuance of in the church. Baptists have traditionally understood there to be two ordinances found in Scripture: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And a church’s health is based in part on how they understand and carry out those ordinances, along side of the preaching of the Word. Now, that is not to say that these two things alone make a healthy church, but where these two are lacking, a church cannot be healthy, no matter how many other things they get right. And, where these two things are practiced, it seems inevitable that a church will be equipped to move in a healthy direction in other things as well. So, periodically, it is important to devote our preaching of the Word to the practice of ordinances so that we are reminded afresh of the biblical meaning and manner of them. In our text today, we have read the closest thing we have to a biblical instruction manual on how to observe the Lord’s Supper. And from this text, we are able to draw out some important truths and reminders about what it is and what it isn’t.

I. What It Isn’t (vv17-22)

Paul tells us in v17 that he is not able to praise the Corinthian church about their practice of the Lord’s Supper because they come together “not for the better but for the worse.” In verse 20 he says that they really aren’t observing the Lord’s Supper, no matter how many little wafers they eat or how much grape juice they drink. The reason he makes this statement is because in their coming together they are abusing the meaning of the Lord’s Supper and practicing it in an unholy, unhealthy way. There are two specific ways they do this. As we see them, we come to understand what the Lord’s Supper is not:

            A. It is not a practice for a divided church (vv18-19)

Notice he says in verse 18, “when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it.” In Chapter 1, Paul barely gets the introduction out of the way before he says,

Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe's people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, "I am of Paul," and "I of Apollos," and "I of Cephas," and "I of Christ." Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

Someone has brought him a report that the people have divided up against one another under the banner of each one’s favorite preacher. Some liked Paul, while others preferred Apollos, and then there were those who more fond of Peter (Cephas), while some tried to be super-spiritual and say that they didn’t like any of those guys – they were followers of Jesus only. Note that he responds there to the situation by saying, “Has Christ been divided?” And of course, the answer is no. So, then why is His body divided? Are we not all followers of Jesus? Are we not united by the Gospel? He says, “I wasn’t crucified for you, and you weren’t baptized into my name.” Paul is protesting the use of his name and his personality and ministry as a basis for division, as if to say, “Look, if you are a Christian, then what binds you together with other Christians is not your opinion about a preacher or an issue. It is your faith in Jesus Christ, who was crucified for you and into whose name you were baptized.”

Let me relate what Paul was saying about the Corinthians to us, though God forbid that we should ever be divided in this kind of way. It happens out west, though. It would be like some saying, “I am of Pastor Russ,” and others saying, “I am of Dr. Jack,” and some saying, “Not me, I’m a Henry Newton guy myself,” while others may say, “No, for me it is Dr. Early.” And people would then go splitting up into these different camps. But it doesn’t have to be about a leader. The same could happen with an issue. You could have the pro-missions group, and the anti-missions group; or the pro-pipe-organ group and the anti-pipe-organ group. Or you could have the pro-magnolia tree group and the anti-magnolia tree group. Any time, for any reason, that the church is breaking up into battle camps, and drawing lines between the members, you have a divided church. And a divided church cannot practice the Lord’s Supper. Because a divided church has lost sight of what the Lord’s Supper is all about; they’ve actually lost sight of what the gospel, the church, and the Person of Jesus Christ is all about. You see, folks, it really doesn’t matter what you think of the pastor, or what your opinion is about the budget, or the building, or the ministries of the church. None of those things binds us together as a people of God. We are bound together, in spite of any and all differences by our faith in Jesus Christ. So if there is division, it means we have lost sight of Him. And if we lose sight of Him, we cannot rightly observe the Lord’s Supper. It is not for a divided church. It is for a church that is united in Him.

            B. It is not a practice for an individualistic church (vv21-22) 

As you read verses 21-22, you might get confused. Paul says that one is hungry and another is drunk. One is hungry because all the food was gone before they got there; and another is drunk because he drank all the wine. Now you might be wondering how many little crackers can one person stand to eat; and how many thimbles full of wine would it take for someone to get drunk. But that’s not what Paul is talking about. In that day, the Lord’s Supper was observed, not in the context of a worship service like this one, but in the setting of what we might associate with a potluck meal. They called it the agape meal. It was a time of sharing, where everyone brought what they could afford to bring to share with others, and so all God’s people could enjoy a common meal. That’s what we do with the potluck meal still today. My pastor used to talk about his dad, and said he was like a magician. He could take a loaf of white bread and a pack of cheap bologna and turn it into a four course meal. He did that by taking it to the church pot-luck.

But here’s what was happening in Corinth. Some would get there early. As the best foods came in, they would eat it all, and they would drink all the wine. By the time the late arrivers came in (and every church has them), the food was all gone and people were drunk! You might say, “Serves them right! That will teach them to get there on time.” But Paul says, “NO!” What this is teaching us is that we don’t love our brothers and sisters. Can we not deny our gluttonous appetites for a half-hour in deference to our spiritual family and just wait for them? In verse 33 he says this: “Wait for one another!” Undoubtedly someone would say, “Well, no, you see, I have this medical condition and I have to eat at a certain time, so I can’t wait.” Paul says to that one in verse 34, “If you’re hungry, eat at home before you come so that your selfish interests do not bring judgment on the whole church. You see, even dogs know how to salivate when Pavlov rings the bell. You who are in Christ are being transformed from your natural state into something supernatural. Can you not do better than a dog or a mere pagan? Can you not wait for a brother to arrive? Can you not moderate your appetite so that all can be served? If you can’t, you need to take care of that before you come, because the Lord’s Supper is for a people who love one another, care for one another, serve one another, share life with one another, and wait for one another. We are not merely a mob of individuals. We are one body in Christ Jesus. And the Lord’s Supper is not for an individualistic church.

So, if there is a church full of strive and selfishness, they might eat little wafers and drink little cups of grape juice, but they aren’t partaking of the Lord’s Supper. 

II. What it is (vv23-32)

Down through Church History, and still today, there are a lot of mixed up notions about the meaning and the manner of the Lord’s Supper. Its caused church splits, denominational schisms, and even, in at least one case, a major war (seriously, you can Google “Causes of the Hussite Wars” and part of it was over the meaning and manner of communion). But the meaning and manner of the Lord’s Supper is spelled out clearly here in this passage, and the conflicts and controversies that have erupted over the centuries have boiled down to either a disbelief in the truthfulness, sufficiency, or authority of Scripture. But if we let God’s Word have the final say, we will understand these things. Paul says in verse 23 that this is what he has received “from the Lord” and delivered to us.

            A. The Meaning of the Lord’s Supper (vv23-26)

We notice right away that this practice finds its immediate origin in the Last Supper that the Lord Jesus shared with His disciples. It was “in the night in which He was betrayed.” But that was no ordinary supper. It was the Passover meal. The Passover commemorated the deliverance of Israel from their bondage in Egypt, but on the night in which He was betrayed, Jesus radically redefined Passover. No longer would it be about the blood of the lamb that was put over the doors of the Israelites to save them from the plague of death. Henceforth, it would be about the blood of the ultimate sacrifice, the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, which saves us from the oppressive tyranny of sin, death, hell, and Satan. It was not the sacrifice of an animal that would save humanity from destruction, but the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Himself.

Thus, He took bread and said, “This is My body.” Jesus says in John 6 that He is the Bread of Life. It is significant that He was born in Bethlehem, the meaning of which in Hebrew is “the House of Bread.” It was in that place that God took on a body – He became flesh. John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” [Jn 1:1,14]. The writer of Hebrews points us back to this reality, reflecting on Psalm 40, as he writes, “when He comes into the world, He says, "SACRIFICE AND OFFERING YOU HAVE NOT DESIRED, BUT A BODY YOU HAVE PREPARED FOR ME.” [Heb 10:5].

God took on a body. And He lived among us. And He died. That precious body was put to death. Nails were driven through the hands that reached out to touch and heal us; a spike through the feet that walked our dirt and sod. The head which looked at us in love and spoke to us the words of life was crowned with thorns. And all that He did in this body, and all that He endured in it, was all for us. So, as we partake of the bread in the Lord’s Supper, we are called to remember this. “Do this in remembrance of Me,” He says. Remember the body of the baby, virgin-born in Bethlehem’s stable; remember the body of the teacher, the healer, the friend of sinners; remember the body of the Lord, crucified, dead, buried. All for us.  

And then He took a cup filled with the fruit of the vine, and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Critics and scoffers criticize the Christian faith as a slaughterhouse religion because of the crimson flow of blood that streams through the pages of the Bible from the beginning to the end. But the critic and the scoffer do not comprehend that to remove this blood from the faith is to remove any and all reason to even consider the Christian faith. From the slaughter of the first sacrifice in Genesis 3, which provided a covering for Adam and Eve, a principle was established that without the shedding of blood, there could be no forgiveness of sin. The blood of each lamb, each goat, each bull at the Tabernacle and Temple of the Old Testament pointed the people to a God who took sin seriously, but was willing to forgive the one who approached Him in His prescribed way. But never was it to be understood that the blood of those animals was sufficient in and of itself to cleanse sin. It was symbolic. It was pointing them to a day which was to come when the chosen one of God – the Messiah – would take their sins upon Himself and shed His own blood for the remission of sins. This is what Isaiah foresaw in the 53rd Chapter of the book that bears his name. And 700 years after he wrote about the suffering redeemer, Jesus came. The blood that He shed on Calvary’s cross is the atonement for all the sins of the past that had been covered with the blood of bulls and goats and lambs. And it was the payment in full for the sins of all those who would come to trust in Him as Lord and Savior.

And this blood was the seal of the New Covenant which God had promised through the prophet Jeremiah. This covenant binds us to God by faith through a personal and intimate relationship. And Jesus said as He passed the cup to his disciples that the cup was a symbol of His blood sealing the new covenant for us. Our sins are forgiven by this blood and we are bound to God through it. We therefore look back in remembrance as we partake of the Lord’s Supper – we remember His body and His blood.

We worship a Savior who died, but yet who is not dead. We worship a risen Savior who has promised us that He is coming again, and we are looking forward to that day. And each time we gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper we are proclaiming this multidirectional reality to the world. 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 that He died in the past for us, and that He is coming again in the future. That’s why we gather, that’s why we continue in the faith, why we continue to serve Him, why we continue to remind ourselves of what He has done for us. We derive confidence that, just as He fulfilled every promise of the past leading up to the cross, so He will fulfill every promise for the future, including that He will come again and take us to be with Him forever.

So, this is the meaning of the Lord’s Supper – we are remembering through these symbolic elements of the bread and the cup what Christ has done for us, saving us through His incarnation, death, and resurrection; and that He is coming again for us in fulfillment of the promise of His covenant. Now, Paul goes on from this to discuss …

B. The manner of the Lord’s Supper

By “the manner” of it, we mean the way we should partake of it. He is not addressing whether or not we should all come forward or be served at our seats, whether or not we should use fermented or unfermented wine, whether you should dip the bread in the cup and receive them both at the same time, or any other of the practical issues that have divided Christians over the centuries. There seems to be some measure of congregational freedom in developing some of these practices, but regardless of those logistical specifics, there are some essentials that cannot be compromised on our manner of receiving the Lord’s Supper.

We are told that there is an unworthy manner by which one may come to the table, and if we do not guard against this, it could mean severe consequences. Now, I want to be sure to point out that this does not say anything about unworthy people. We are all unworthy of what God has done for us in Christ. We are saved by grace, and the very word “grace” means that we do not deserve it. But even unworthy people can approach in a worthy manner. The “unworthy manner” is approaching the Lord without examining one’s own life. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” That may be the case, but Paul says here that the unexamined life is not worth bringing to the Lord’s Table.

If we have sin in our life that we have been unwilling to deal with before God, then we come in an unworthy way. If we have put the things of God far from our minds and have not paused to freshly consider the salvation that Jesus accomplished for us, then we come in an unworthy manner. And this examination needs to extend beyond the individual dimension to the corporate. The Christian life is to be lived in community with brothers and sisters in the family of God. Have we neglected this spiritual family? Have we severed ties with believers over unimportant matters? If we have broken relationships that we have been unwilling to take responsibility in, or unwilling to take the initiative in restoring the relationship, then we come in an unworthy way.

And if any of these things are true in our lives, then we have the opportunity for repentance and restoration with God and with one another. But if we neglect that opportunity, then our hearts become harder and we drift farther and farther away from the place of spiritual health. Paul says it is for this reason that many in the church are weak and sick. Our spiritual well-being has an influence on our physical condition. And a number, he says, sleep. This does not mean that they fell asleep during the sermon; it means that they died! The deaths of a number of believers, Paul says, has been hastened by hard-heartedness. It leads to spiritual and physical weakness, and it leads to illness, and if it goes on unchecked, can lead to death.  And so the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper gives us opportunity to regularly examine ourselves to see what areas of our lives we need to address in order that our hearts may not grow hard and these severe consequences may be remedied by repentance, reconciliation and restoration.  

So, as we conclude the message and prepare for the meal, let us be reminded: this is not a practice for a divided or individualistic church. It is a family meal, for those who have committed themselves to loving the Lord and loving their brother and sister by the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all who have trusted in Jesus Christ. We are remembering what He has done for us through His life, death, and resurrection, and longing with great expectancy His return. And as we remember and anticipate these things, we have to look within ourselves. Are you a follower of Jesus? Have you dealt with your sins by bringing them before the Lord in confession and repentance? The promise of God is that if we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us of all unrighteousness. Have we restored broken fellowship that may have separated us from other believers? If not, then at this time why not commit to do that, and see it through?


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