There is another Christ-centred aspect to the Supper (see also ET, May 2014), which we sometimes do not pay sufficient attention to.
It is that the wine symbolises the blood of the new covenant (Matthew 26:28; Luke 22:20), a covenant sealed by the blood of Christ.
There is a clear reference here to Exodus 24:8: ‘And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words’.
Hebrews 9:15-20 expounds this more fully. On Mount Sinai, Moses read the law to the people. They promised to obey God’s Word; sacrifices were made, and the blood of the animals was sprinkled on the book and the people.
All covenants were sealed by blood. Jesus Christ has shed his blood to secure for the believer the benefits of the new covenant. Not only this, even disobedience to a secular covenant was punished — people who swore a covenant together walked together between the parts of an animal that had been sacrificed, as if to say, ‘If we do not keep our word let the curse of the covenant fall upon us, as it has fallen upon this animal’.
In his death, our dear Saviour also bore the curse of a covenant-breaker, to free us from the wrath to come. On Sinai, the 70 elders ‘beheld God, and ate and drank’ (Exodus 24:11). It is possible that they ate of the peace offerings that Moses made.
So, partaking of the bread and wine symbolises our participation in the covenant. It defines us as people of God and separates us from the world, who are ‘strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God’ (Ephesians 2:12).
Not only do we say that, by grace, we are God’s people, but as with Israel of old, we have an opportunity to declare, ‘All that the Lord has spoken, we will do, and we will be obedient’ (Exodus 24:7).
In the Lord’s Supper, there is an opportunity to renew our vows of repentance and faith, to renew the covenant, even as the blood of the covenant is ‘sprinkled’ through the preaching of the Word, public prayer and our own meditation on Scripture and private prayer.
Luke records that Christ said, ‘This cup that is poured out [AV, “shed”] for you is the new covenant in my blood’ (Luke 22:20). Christ shed his blood for his people, and only his people have a right to commemorate that act.
When we renew our vows, we remember our failings, backslidings, sins of omission and commission, but we also remember that blood has been shed to take away our sin; Christ is the propitiation for our sins (1 John 2:2).
There is no basis, when we feel guilty of a fault, for excluding ourselves from the privilege of participating in the Lord’s Supper. The author has known church members who have done this.
It seems mostly to happen when a person has had a disagreement with another church member, and springs not just from a sense of unworthiness, but a total misunderstanding of what communion means.
It is far easier to absent oneself from the Lord’s Table a couple of times, than to put right a wrong committed. Unilateral non-participation in the Supper, to right a wrong, is salvation by works. The biblical injunction is to put the wrong right, confessing to God and man, and obtaining pardon.
Jesus Christ shed his blood for us, and we should humbly rejoice in that fact and work it out in a practical way in our relationship to others. So we reaffirm in the communion service that we are sinners and that Christ shed his blood for us. We are saved by grace, not works.
This is interwoven with another aspect of the Supper, that not only are we members of Christ, but also members of his body, the church. Not only is there a God-ward emphasis, but there is a ‘fellow believer-ward’ emphasis.
‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’ (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).
So we affirm our union with the local church and also the universal church. God has placed us in a family, in a local church, and we have a duty to maintain the unity of the body of Christ.
Much more could (and perhaps should) be written about corporate sanctification. The church family is where we can learn to express that compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance and forgiveness that Paul writes about (Colossians 3:12-17). If we do not do this, participation in the Lord’s Supper becomes a farce and we are guilty of not discerning the true nature of the body of Christ.
We have not dealt with such matters as whether we should use unleavened bread or a whole loaf, a common cup or individual cups. All these and many other details must be decided by the local church.
In Argentina, where it is normal to use alcoholic wine, a strong case could be made for using non-alcoholic grape juice when there are converted alcoholics in the congregation. Also Scripture is silent on the frequency of taking the supper, though in the early church it seemed to have been a regular (perhaps weekly) occurrence.
There is a danger of familiarity breeding contempt, but the issue here is surely our heart-love for the Saviour. We are often cold in our emotions. One reason for celebrating the Supper more frequently would be to warm our hearts.
But to do this we must give due time to this part of our worship, perhaps considering making it a meeting apart, where only church members will be present. We are so used to announcing, ‘At the end of the service, we will be celebrating the Lord’s Supper’, and the congregation knows that this means an extra 15 minutes added to the service.
Some churches incorporate it into their normal worship and this means that almost invariably some unbelievers will be present. This can cause problems if they do not understand why they cannot participate — a particular problem in a Roman Catholic country where participation in the mass is a mechanical means of receiving grace.
But it can also happen in Britain, where many people feel they would have a right to participate in the Lord’s Supper, by virtue of their baptism in the Anglican Church.
Some argue that there is no problem with unbelievers being present, claiming that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a visual aid for preaching the gospel. Nevertheless, biblical evidence seems to point in another direction, as the practice of the early church seems to have been to keep the Lord’s Supper as a private meeting, where, apparently, only believers would be present — ‘And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes’ (Acts 2:46).
The public times of worship and preaching were held in one of the outer courts of the Temple, but the ‘breaking of bread’ (a term referring to the Lord’s Supper) was held in private, in members’ homes. Later on, this exclusiveness caused people to accuse Christians of deviant practices in their meetings.
We have considered the need to rethink how we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, because of modern manifestations of the Corinthian error. Scripture indicates that it is a worship service, so reverence and order must be observed. When participating in the communion, we look back to the death of Christ and forward to the second coming of Jesus. By faith we nourish our souls on him.
It also has a covenant meaning. Over and above all other activities in the local church, our participation in the Supper declares our membership of the covenant. It identifies us as God’s people, that we are ‘a people holy to the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 7:6).
It is also an opportunity for individual and corporate covenant renewal, as God’s people of old often renewed their covenant with Jehovah (Joshua 24:1-27).
Therefore, we need to dedicate time to celebrating the Lord’s Supper, not only for corporate worship in singing, reading Scripture, prayer and the preaching of the Word, but also for private meditation on the Word of God.
A time of reverent silence can give each believer an opportunity to marvel at God’s grace, seek pardon for his sins and renew his covenant promises.
This cannot be done adequately in the time allotted after a normal worship service. Biblically, it seems to be justified to have a meeting to which only the members of the body of Christ are invited (including visitors from other congregations, though not necessarily barring non-members from attending), which is dedicated entirely to worshipping our God by participating in the Lord’s Supper.
The author was sent as missionary to Argentina by Welwyn Evangelical Church, and is now retired and still working there.