‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:26).
The idea of having memorials for the dead is to keep their memories alive. In USA where I live, Arlington National Cemetery, the Vietnam Memorial, Valley Forge and Mount Rushmore are all powerful national reminders that the dead matter. Who they were and what they did matters to us who follow after.
The death that gave us life
This is all the more true of those intangible ‘memorials’ that lie within our hearts, namely the memorials of departed loved ones and friends. Sorrow for their passing is mingled with joy for what they meant to us. Over a century ago, the Scottish writer Henry Belfrage linked this to the Lord’s Supper when he observed: ‘A departed friend has claims on our remembrance, in proportion to the excellencies of his character and to the services he has done us. Such a friend is often present to our thoughts; but when the day returns on which he bestowed upon us some signal marks of his affection … the heart impels us at such seasons to go to his grave and weep there; and we bless his memory with encomiums of gratitude and love. And shall we be thus to earthly friends, and forget our best Friend?’
In the Lord’s Supper, the apostle Paul tells us, we ‘proclaim the Lord’s death till he comes’; that is, as long as the world lasts, and in prospect of Jesus’ return, we proclaim the death that gave us life. We proclaim the Saviour who, having conquered sin and death, rose from the grave to give everlasting life to all who believe in him.
What does it mean to proclaim Christ’s death in this way? We may best answer this by dividing the question. First, what does the Lord’s Supper teach us about Christ’s death? Secondly, what does it mean to proclaim Christ’s death at the Lord’s Table?
What does the Lord’s Supper teach us about Christ’s death?
The Lord’s Supper shows us that dying for sinners was the great work that Jesus came to do. Neither his birth nor his earthly ministry would have come to anything had he not submitted to death on the cross. His going seals the import of his coming. Important as is his incarnation is, it is Jesus’ atoning death that actually secures redemption for lost people. Bethlehem is the opening shot, but Calvary is the decisive battle. This is why the Lord’s Supper is to be observed regularly by the church. Here, as nowhere else in the life of God’s people, the gospel cordial is distilled to its finest essence.
A necessary death
It is possible to profess to love the ‘babe in the manger’, or to appreciate the great teacher of the ‘sermon on the mount’, and yet express doubt, or even revulsion, at the concept of redemption through the shedding of Christ’s blood. But we set aside the Christian gospel and the Lord himself, if we reject the necessity of his death as a sacrifice for sin and a condition for salvation.
A sacrificial death
The Lord’s Supper shows us Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. The symbols of bread and wine visibly represent Christ’s self-giving as the sole and sufficient sacrifice for sin. Whatever the Jewish leadership and Pilate thought they were doing as they crucified the Lord, God was in fact laying the sins of sinners on his only-begotten Son. Jesus, for his part, was willingly bearing the righteous wrath of God against sin, as the substitute for all who would believe in him. In this way, Jesus both propitiates God’s offended holiness and expiates the guilt of the elect, so removing condemnation and securing our pardon, justification and newness of life.
A covenantal death
The Lord’s Supper also shows Christ to be our covenant-head. Jesus dies as the representative of his people. ‘For as in Adam all died, even so in Christ shall all be made alive’ (1 Corinthians 15:22). Jesus died and rose from the dead as the ‘Mediator of a better covenant’ (Hebrews 8:6). Therefore, all who are united to him by faith will be forgiven and cleansed, and raised incorruptible (1 Corinthians 15:52-53). ‘In this ordinance therefore,’ says Charles Hodge, ‘Christ is set forth as a sacrifice which at once makes expiation for sin and ratifies the covenant of grace.’
What does it mean for us to proclaim Christ’s death at the Lord’s Table?
The great question with all statements of biblical truth is how they ought to interface with our experience. It is one thing to understand in a formal sense what the Lord’s Supper teaches about Jesus’ death. It is something else again to proclaim that truth with the conviction of a heart warmed by his free grace and moved to gratitude by his sacrifice for unworthy sinners. We therefore need to be clear as to what it means in Christian experience to proclaim his death, and what movement of the soul should accompany every observance of the sacrament.
Grieving over sin
Firstly, we must surely grieve over our sin; not just sins in particular, but sin itself as an underlying feature of our lives. Christ is the believers’ Lord, but Christians still stumble in many things (James 3:2). We constantly need a sense of our sin, a discernment of our failings and a spirit of repentance. We need that ‘godly sorrow’ that ‘produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted’, as opposed to the ‘sorrow of the world’ that ‘produces death’ (2 Corinthians 7:10ff).
‘We best remember Christ crucified,’ says Thomas Manton, ‘when we are crucified with him (Galatians. 2:20). “I am crucified with Christ” when the sensual inclination is mortified, and the heart deadened to the pleasures of sin, which are but for a season.’ This is not morbidity or negativism, but a straightforward and serious application of Jesus’ death to my life. Dying with Christ means that I will show my love for him by keeping his commandments, with intelligence and godly enthusiasm.
Rejoicing in deliverance
Just as surely, we must rejoice in Christ. If sorrow focuses on sin, faith focuses on the Saviour who gives us new life. We will rejoice, must rejoice, and can only rejoice when, as Hodge puts it, ‘We believe that his death is available for our deliverance.’
The Lord’s Supper is truly a feast and not a fast. The ‘bridegroom’ is with us in a special and personal way (cf. Mark 2:19). Tears of repentance speedily give way to tears of joy. ‘We also rejoice in God,’ says Paul, ‘through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation’. (Romans 5:11). Where in this world can there be greater joy for those whom Christ has saved, than at the Lord’s Table?
Externally, we proclaim the Lord’s death when, in taking communion, we declare publicly the grace of our Saviour Jesus. A faith that lies hidden in the heart is instantly suspect. Faith without works is dead – that is, it is not saving faith at all because it is false faith (James 2:17). In complete contrast to this, a heart for God cannot but burst out into visible praise to the Lord who saves his people.
We are not ashamed before others of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul was able to preach ‘Christ crucified’ because all inhibition had been swept away by his own experience of the gospel as ‘the power of God to salvation for every one who believes’. He had come to Christ in faith. He had truly believed. Therefore he was free to declare this same salvation to others. The fact that many who say they are Christians utter hardly a cheep about the Saviour they profess, suggests a deeper problem than timidity.
Proclaiming Christ’s death to the world
In the Lord’s Supper Christians do not only testify to one another, but also before the world. The world may not be physically present to observe this testimony. But it is a mistake to imagine that what churches do is hidden from public notice. The fact that the Lord’s Supper, this vivid picture of the heart of the gospel, is observed at publicly stated times, is itself a declaration. It says to the world, whether watching or ignoring, that Christ is the only Saviour.
Of course, this testimony is only valid if we also live, day by day, as the disciples of Jesus Christ. Christendom has reduced the meaning of ‘Christian’ to anyone who calls himself one, and has turned the Lord’s Supper into a perfunctory ritual. Communion is ‘taken’ and God’s favour assumed, even if no actual discipleship follows in daily life!
Showing obedience and devotion
The Lord’s Supper, however, as a lively means of grace, calls the communicants to lives of continuing obedience and devotion. ‘As often’ as you eat the bread and drink the cup, believers are impelled, and empowered, to testify with heart and life to the Lord who has bought them with the price of his own blood. As we contemplate the cost of the cross we surely see, emblazoned across its stark cruelty, the magnitude of God’s mercy, love and grace. The believing soul must be impressed with the deepest conviction that we are debtors to the mercy of God in Christ. And this will call forth the unreserved response of the Psalmist: ‘What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord now in the presence of His people’ (Psalm 116:12-14).