In our study of the doctrine of the church, or ecclesiology, we have come to narrow our focus upon the practices that occur when believers gather in the name of Christ, usually referred to as worship. A specific area of worship towards which we have drawn our attention is the observance of the Lord’s Supper. This particular practice, because of its universality, but also because of its widespread differences, is a particularly good litmus test for the evidence of Scriptural authority, not only in matters of faith, but in practice as believer’s gather together.
In this particular series we have been looking at the key text often recited during observances of the Lord’s Supper, namely 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. In the first post, we outlined the passage as follows:
- A Statement of the Problem (11:17-22)
- An Appeal to Christ’s Institution of the Lord’s Supper (11:23-26)
- Rebuke (11:27-32)
- Exhortation (11:33-34)
In that post, we noted that the Apostle Paul was addressing a particular error in the practice of observing the Lord’s Supper that the young church (ekklesia) at Corinth had fallen into. Recall that the context for his rebuke was a meal, a common meal, perhaps the agape or love feasts that had become a frequent occasion in the early Christian gatherings (see Jude 1:12). However, these meals had become opportunities for gluttony and excess for the haves and further deprivation for the have nots. Rather than having all things in common and sharing a meal, or waiting on everyone to arrive, some of the believers in Corinth were seeing these love feasts as an opportunity to indulge.
In the second post we noted the context of the inception of the Lord’s Supper by indicating that it occurred on the night that Jesus was betrayed, which coincided with their own observance of Passover. Additionally, we saw that Jesus commanded that this observance take place, as often as you do this and that this practice was to continue until His return.
In this post, we will begin with an examination of the institution of the Lord’s Supper by returning to the night that it began, and continue the focus of it coinciding with Passover. In doing so, let’s return to the Gospels, particularly Luke’s account, where we read the following
7 Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8 So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.” 9 They said to him, “Where will you have us prepare it?” 10 He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him into the house that he enters 11 and tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 12 And he will show you a large upper room furnished; prepare it there.” 13 And they went and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.
14 And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. 15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”17 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. 18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. 21 But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. 22 For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” 23 And they began to question one another, which of them it could be who was going to do this.
Above we have the full context for the institution of the Lord’s Supper according to Luke’s account (please read and compare the other Synoptic gospel accounts). Harmonizing what we read and concluded from 1 Corinthians with our passage here, we indeed find that on the night he was betrayed was also the night of Passover. There is some debate as to whether this occurred on our current Wednesday night, which using the Jewish day/night schedule would have been their Thursday (14 Nissan), the official day of Passover, or whether this occurred on our current Thursday night, but that discussion for another day.
That aside, we find that Jesus instructed His disciples to make preparations for Passover; prophesied about the location of Passover; desired to eat the Passover, which was a reference to the meal they were about to share; prophesied yet again of His own suffering, which He linked with the Passover; then declares that He will one day participate in the Passover again, when He comes into His kingdom; and finally, we see a reference to the particular components of the Passover, which the mention of the cup, after, they had eaten supper, and the bread, unleavened as per the instructions in Exodus 12, each providing for us the elements in which they observed the Lord’s Supper as an actual Passover meal.
That said, it is the last statement of our Lord’s regarding Passover that is significant because it speaks to the perpetuity of Passover. Not only does He state His desire to celebrate Passover with His disciples, in which He associates His own body and blood with the elements of the bread and fruit of the vine in one of the cups, but He indicates that there will be another day to come when He will partake of Passover again, “I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” The ‘it’ in this verse refers to Passover (it is the nearest antecedent).
As a noteworthy point here, Jesus doesn’t even refer to this meal as “The Lord’s Supper” but as Passover, the annual Jewish feast of remembrance of the rapid Israelite exodus from Egypt, specifically marked by the Spirit passing over the houses of the firstborn who had placed the shed blood of a lamb on their doorposts. Passover was to be observed annually when the Israelite’s reached the Promised Land. It’s institution can be found in Exodus 12:1-28; 43-51. In addition to serving as a reminder of God’s redemption and salvation, it served as evidence of a present participation in the covenant with the Lord. One final point is that the Passover was clearly anticipatory, or that it looked forward to the death of Christ and the passing over, by the wrath of God, of those who have been covered by His shed blood (propitiation). These past, present, and future elements of Passover is not to the neglect of the typological aspects, which sees Christ as the Greater Passover Lamb (John 1 and 1 Cor. 5) and the culmination of the Old Testament priesthood, sacrifices, and covenant practices (see Hebrews).
Following the order of the Passover, our Lord proceeds into the meal and assigns New Covenant symbolism to the elements of the supper as seen with the reference to the cup filled with the fruit of the vine, and also to the unleavened bread, representing his blood and body respectively. As a side note, do any of the Gospel accounts refer to the substance in the cup as wine? Or do they all correspondingly refer to it as the fruit of the vine? The Greek word for wine, oinos, was available and widely used throughout the Gospels, but not here. Though historically a cause for debate and a call-to-arms, it’s an unnecessary point of contention and one that is not focused on the central issue at hand.
The significance of this institution of the Lord’s Supper occurring on Passover is not trivial. Our Lord takes all of the history, meaning, symbolism, even typology of the Old Covenant, which reaches its zenith with the Passover celebration, and brings it to the threshold of the New Covenant. In this sense, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a touchstone of continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants. Has that point been brought out during modern observances of the Lord’s Supper? Hardly, if ever, because we completely ignore that this occurred on Passover and disconnect the New Covenant meal from the Old Covenant meal. The practical ramifications of this are that it makes us as best, modern Dispensationalists and at worst, guilty of a Marcionite view of the Lord’s Supper (one that disregards the Old in favor of the New), not to mention the danger of falling into the same category error as the first century Corinthians, that of failing to correctly observe the meal and assign it the historical significance that it demands. We will re-examine this again in a subsequent post.
Returning to our questions raised from earlier, how would first century believers have observed the Lord’s Supper and interpreted the phrase, as often (1 Cor. 11:25)? Would they have maintained the association with Passover, or would they have deviated from the established pattern and done what seemed good and expedient to them? Regardless of the answer, it’s clear that a deviation of the practice had taken place by the time the Apostle penned the letter to Corinth, a sobering reminder of the danger of slipping away or losing sight of Scripture’s authority.