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1 Corinthians 11:23-28
“For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you; that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it…” (1 Corinthians 11:23-24). And so, with these old and often repeated words Paul begins his instruction pertaining to the receiving of the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper.
It was the evening before His crucifixion, “the night in which He was betrayed,” that the Lord arranged to borrow an upper room on Mount Zion to host His disciples for the Jewish Seder meal at which He instituted a new supper to be done “in remembrance of Me.” We call this memorial meal the “Lord’s Supper.” And, rightly so. It is His and not ours. He does the inviting. Whenever we partake in this act of remembrance we are invited guests, as were the disciples in the upper room that fateful evening.
Why have we Christians been gathering in churches, in homes, in catacombs, in hidden basements, in prison cells and a myriad of other places down through the centuries to observe this meal? We do so in order that we might grant His request to “do this in remembrance of Me” (1 Corinthians 11:24). In the language of the New Testament the word here means to call back into our memories a vivid experience from the past and meditate upon it. The Greek text denotes indefinite repetition, that is, to do it again and again and again.
Our family has a large family photo album which virtually tells the story of each of our lives from birth until now. If you were to sit on our sofa and thumb through it, it would, most likely, not mean much to you. You would see my old home place on Crenshaw Street in Fort Worth. It is a little two bedroom, one bath, frame home with a white picket fence and a mimosa tree out in front. You would then quickly turn the page having seen it. But, when I see it, memories abound of experiences in that old house. When I look at that picture it reminds me of a scar I still carry on my leg where I fell on that fence trying to climb over it one day. My dad had told me a thousand times to stay off it, but I thought I knew best.
Susie’s and my first home is in that family picture album. That tiny little three-room house behind another house would mean nothing to you. But when I look at it, it brings up memories of joy and happiness of those first few months of marriage. Just looking at it reminds me of how ice would build up on the inside of our windows at night since the entire place was heated with only one small portable electric floor heater which would be moved from room to room. Warm and wonderful are fond family memories.
In the same way in which my family photo album brings to mind so many memories of bygone days, so do the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper table for members of God’s family. It may not mean much to those who have not been born into His family; but for those of us who have, it stirs in our hearts thankful memories of His sacrifice for us. This is one of the reasons that the Lord’s Supper is only for those who have, by faith, been born again into the family of God.
Paul says that by partaking of this supper we “proclaim the Lord’s death” (1 Corinthians 11:26). He uses the Greek word, καταγγελλω, here which means that we are preaching a sermon, proclaiming a message, when we come to the Lord’s Table. You say, “I could never preach a sermon.” But you do, each time you take of the cup and the bread. You are retelling the story of the cross and His vicarious death for us. The Lord’s Supper and baptism are sermons we all preach about the substitutionary, vicarious death of the Lord Jesus Christ. After all, the best of all the sermons are the ones preached by our lives and not simply our lips.
So as we come to the Lord’s Supper we are preaching a sermon. Our sermon has four points. There is a word of explanation, a word of exaltation, a word of expectation and a word of examination.
A Word of Explanation
“For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you; that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread…” (1 Corinthians 11:23)
Initially, there is a word of explanation about that “which has been delivered” to us. The Lord’s Supper is an ordinance of Christ given to His church. An ordinance is a ceremony the Lord Jesus commanded His church to observe in this dispensation of grace which tells the story of the gospel in a symbolic or metaphorical form. There are two such ordinances of the church. One is baptism. In this act of obedience following our conversion experience the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord is beautifully pictured in our baptism by immersion. While this act does nothing to save us or wash away our sins, it is one of the first steps of obedience for every believer. The other ordinance given us by our Lord is the Lord’s Supper. While there is no saving grace in the digesting of the elements, it does show forth a beautiful picture of our Lord’s broken body in the unleavened bread and His shed blood in the cup.
The Lord’s Supper is not a ritual that is to be repeatedly observed in such a fashion that it loses its significance. Our Roman Catholic friends believe in what is termed transubstantiation. This belief holds to the fact that quite literally and actually the elements of the bread and the cup become the body and blood of the Lord. However, on that night when it was instituted, He said, “This is my body… ,” and the reality was they still enjoyed his actual physical presence in his real body at that moment. Our Lutheran friends hold to a belief called consubstantiation. This teaches that while the elements are still in fact bread and the fruit of the vine some mystical transformation ensues as they are taken into our bodies.
We, who are called Baptists, believe that the elements are symbolic. That is, that the bread and the cup are simply “pictures” of His broken body and shed blood. Scriptural interpretation comes in many forms. Sometimes Jesus spoke in parables, stories that told eternal truths. Who of us could ever forget the parable of the Prodigal Son? On other occasions Jesus spoke with simile. For example, the Bible speaks of the Spirit descending “like a dove” at His baptism. He also spoke in hyperbole, exaggerated expressions to drive home simple truths. Once, He said if our eye was offending us to “pluck it out.” That is an obvious hyperbole, especially when interpreted in light of all other scripture. And, often our Lord spoke metaphorically. He said in the Sermon on the Mount that His followers were to be “the salt of the earth.” He did not mean that we were literally to be salt but that we were to season life with His goodness and preserve our culture from decay. And thus, in the same manner, the elements of the Lord’s Supper are metaphorical expressions of His body and blood.
One of the most misunderstood and confusing portions of this text is in Paul’s statement that, “Whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27). Some who read these words inserted in this beautiful and instructive passage feel they are unworthy to come to the Lord’s Table. If the receiving of these elements depended upon our own worthiness, who of us could approach the table? The adverb used here in verse 27 means of “unequal weight.” The word picture is of a scale tipping down on one side with one side heavier than the other. On either side of that scale are our heart and our conduct, our faith and our works. This is not a question of worth or worthiness. After all, Paul called himself “less than the least of all the saints” in the Ephesian letter and in his last epistle to Timothy he referred to himself as “the chief of sinners.” This verse speaks of an attempt by the unconverted, the unrepentant and the unreconciled to come to the Lord’s Table. It involves a cavalier approach.
There is a word of explanation. The Lord’s Supper is a picture of the broken body and shed blood of our Lord in our behalf. There is no saving grace in the actual partaking of it but it is a “sermon” each of us preaches about His atoning sacrifice for our sins and a remembrance of Him.
A Word of Exaltation
“And when He had given thanks He broke it….” (1 Corinthians 11:24)
The second point in the sermon we preach at the Lord’s Table is a word of exaltation. How we exalt Him today for His broken body and shed blood that made a way out of no way for us. Note, when He “had given thanks He broke it.” He broke it. How prophetic. The cross was no accident. He willingly, voluntarily, laid down His life. In John 10:18 we hear Him proclaim, “No one takes it (my life) from Me for I lay it down Myself.”
The Lord’s Supper is a time of thanksgiving. The very word “Eucharist” comes from this Greek expression in verse 24 of giving thanks. We are a thankful people. In the busyness of our lives we are so prone to be forgetful. We tend to forget names and promises and even the purpose of our Lord’s coming. And so He brings us to His table and says, “This do in remembrance of Me” (1 Corinthians 11:25).
He died…for me! The Lord Jesus gave Himself for me… and you. He didn’t die in a white starched shirt with an expensive tie on some gold cross on a mahogany communion table in a high-steeple, stained-glass church. But out there where people were shouting and cursing and sweating. It was there that “He who knew no sin became sin for me that I might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
We do not partake of the Lord’s Supper to remind Him; but to remember Him. In remembering His death for us we exalt Him and give Him praise and thanks. We are a thankful people.
A Word of Expectation
“…you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26)
The Lord’s Supper experience is not simply an acknowledgment of His physical absence but a promise of His physical return. There was a word that was constantly escaping the lips of those first generational believers. “Maranatha!” The Lord is coming. They greeted each other with that word. They comforted one another with that word. They shouted it to one another in the final moments of martyrdom. They lived with the hope of His soon coming. When we partake of this memorial supper, we join them in proclaiming the Lord’s vicarious death “until He comes” again.
When He comes again, we will never again take the Lord’s Supper in the way we do today. It is only given to the church in this dispensation of grace. Why? There will be no need for it. We will have Him who the Supper pictures.
When I travel, I have had a habit of taking my wife’s picture along with me. I like to place it by the phone on the nightstand of the hotel room as a reminder of how much I love and miss her. But, I don’t do that when I get home. I have her actual presence which is so much more meaningful than a picture.
One golden daybreak our Lord is coming back to take us home. Now, while we are separated from His visible presence we put His picture out at the Lord’s Supper table. But there is coming a day when He will seat us at His table and what a day that will be! But until then, we eat of the bread and drink of the cup to “proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.” There is not simply a word of explanation, a word of exaltation and a word of expectation. Finally, there is a word of examination.
A Word of Examination
“But let a man examine himself and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” (1 Corinthians 11:28)
The Lord’s Table should be a time of self-examination. The Greek word here translated, “examine,” is δοκιμαζω. It literally is saying, “Let a man put himself on trial. Let a man search his own heart; shining a light into its hidden recesses to see if there is any wicked thing revealed.” Here is the necessary factor of confession of sin.
Note the admonition to examine ourselves before we “eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” Here, we search our hearts for sins of the tongue; things we might have said which shouldn’t have been voiced. Here, we search our hearts for sins of action; things we may have done that should not have been acted out. Here, we search our hearts for sins of thought; things we have harbored in our minds. Our mind is like a hotel. The manager of the hotel cannot keep someone from entering the lobby but he can keep him from getting a room. It is not a sin for something to pass through our minds. The problem comes when we give it a room. Here, we also search our hearts for sins of omission, things we should have done that were left undone. Once this search is complete we “confess our sins” knowing that “He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Thus, at the Lord’s Supper table we look backward with a word of explanation. We look upward with a word of exaltation. We look forward with a word of expectation. And, we look inward with a word of examination.
Interestingly, there are usually six words written on every communion table in the world—“This do in remembrance of me.” In the first century world when this admonition was given there were no cameras, no videos, no mobile phones with built-in cameras. No one ever took a picture of Jesus. Some seem to think that in daVinci’s famous depiction of the Lord’s Supper that some photographer said, “Okay, everyone please get on one side of the table for the picture.” No. Jesus simply said, “This do in remembrance of Me…eat this bread and drink this cup.”
Leonardo daVinci was commissioned by the Duke of Milan to paint the famous masterpiece we now know as the Last Supper. He labored over it for several years giving precise attention to every minute detail including that of the disciples’ faces. He painted the table, the grouping, the chalice and finally the face of our Lord. When the work was completed, he showed it to a close confidant. He was awestruck by this marvelous work and said, “Oh, what a beautiful chalice. I cannot take my eyes off it.” daVinci immediately took his brush and painted through the chalice so that nothing would ever take precedence over the face of Christ. And so it should be for us when we come to the Lord’s Table. His presence with us should reign supreme.
The Lord’s Supper is our own photo album, as it were, where we can come and remember what He has done for us. For me it calls to memory that cold January morning when as a seventeen-year-old young man “old things passed away and all became new” when I put my trust in Him. As often as we eat of the bread and drink of the cup “we do show the Lord’s death until He comes.” Maranatha!