On God, His Word, His Church, and His World
On God, His Word, His Church, and His World
The Lord's Supper In Its Future Orientation
You can download this Grace Thought as an article here.
You can listen to the sermon that (of which this is a loose transcription) here.
February 4, 2017
I’m indebted, in what follows, to works of Peter Leithart, Alexander Schmemann, and Michael Horton.
The Lord’s Supper point us to the past (Christ’s sacrifice for us), to the present (our union with Christ and His people), and also to the future.
Jesus said, on the night before His death, when He instituted the Lord’s Supper with elements from the Passover meal: “I will not eat it [bread] until it is fulfilled in KoG. [...] I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until KoG comes” (Luke 22:16, 18). The Lord’s Supper gives us a future orientation. We are to anticipate Christ’s return because the Lord’s Supper is a sign that He will return. As one liturgical form of the United Reformed Churches (of North America) states: “Finally, the remembrance of our Lord’s death revives in us the hope of his return. Since he commanded us to do this until he comes, the Lord assures us that he will come again to take us to himself. As we commune with him now under the veil of these earthly elements, we are assured that we shall behold him face to face and rejoice in the glory of his appearing.”
I want to pick up on this theme of anticipation and build on it. There are at least three major aspects of the future orientation found in the Lord’s Supper.
(1) The Lord’s Supper is an appetizer of the great and final feast of Christ and His people. It is the first part of the meal that awaits the main course.
When considering the Lord’s Supper, it is always important to consider its OT parallel, the Passover. After all, the Lord’s Supper is simply the Passover transformed by the saving work of Christ. The Passover had a similar future orientation as the Lord’s Supper. Sure, the Passover looked back to what YHWH had accomplished by slaughtering the Egypt’s firstborns and celebrated their deliverance from slavery by YHWH’s mighty hand. But the Passover had a future orientation, too. It looked forward to the final act of redemption, the coming of the final Passover Lamb who would take away the sins of His people.
So it is with us. The Lord’s work of expiation and propitiation was accomplished on the cross. Yet, is there anything left for Christ to do? Yes. He still has to return to His people, transform them completely, and take them to Himself to live with Him forever in the new creation, the new heavens and earth where righteousness dwells. The Lord’s Supper points forward to this final feast of new creation (Rev 19:6-9).
Actually, when you begin to look at Scripture through the motif of “eating” and “feasting” you begin to see how much Scripture talks about feasting and eating. It is not just the Passover that has a future orientation. All of the feasting of the OT points to the reality that is encapsulated in miniature form in the Lord’s Supper which is the reality beyond the Lord’s Supper: the great and final feast that is the new creation.
Look at a few OT examples. Genesis 2 tells us that man had a God-given hunger only God could supply. He did it by giving man the whole world from which to eat: You may surely eat of every tree of the garden. The history of the world begins with hunger and points to the end of the world, which is a God-given feast. This feast is, of course, hindered by the entrance of man’s sin into the world. Yet, God doesn’t nullify His original plan. God seeks fellowship and feasting with His people and re-institutes the way back to Him through the tabernacle and the feasts of Israel’s liturgical calendar. The tabernacle of God had a table in the holy place (Exodus 25:23-30) for bread, signifying God’s table fellowship with His people. What is contained in the Ark of the Covenant in the most Holy Place? The Ten Commandments, the rod of Aaron that blossomed, but also a jar of manna (Exodus 16:33). Interestingly enough, there were no chairs or place to recline in the tabernacle (as Jesus reclines with His disciples) since the work of Priests and High Priest was never complete. The feast was always being prepared and never quite enjoyed. Canaan was to be a holy place, an enlarged tabernacle where the twelve tribes would dwell with God. How is Canaan repeatedly described? As the “land that flows with milk and honey,” a place of bountiful feasting (Exodus 3:8). In fact, the whole world is to enjoy the feast of God and His people. This ever expanding feast will encompass all the nations by the time of Israel’s latter prophets:
6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
7 And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
8 He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 25:6-9)
These examples of feasting in the OT point to the great feast on the last day.
But what about the NT and the coming of Christ? We find the motif of “feasting” intensified. Jesus Christ brings the kingship of God in His very person and ministry. The kingdom of God is in the midst of Israel because God the Son has drawn near. And in His ministry, the Son enacts the signs of the kingship of God, that is, what will the world be like when God is fully enthroned and all is restored to its rightful place. What are the signs of the kingship of God? Jesus heals the sick, cleanses lepers, forgives sinners, raises the dead, calms the seas, rebukes demons, and... eats with sinners! Jesus Christ’s very eating is a sign that the kingdom of God has drawn near. It seems that wherever you turn in the Gospel accounts, especially Luke, Jesus Christ is eating. This would make sense, given the charge that Jesus was a drunkard and glutton (Luke 7:34). The charge, although untrue, had some plausibility because Jesus did, in fact, eat and drink. This was no more motif. This was actual feasting.
When we consider Christ’s teaching, as Peter Leithart has pointed out, the form that the consummated kingdom of God most often takes is the form of a feast. The kingdom of God is given to Christ who in turn gives it to the disciples, a kingdom of eating and drinking (Luke 22:28-30). The kingdom of God is like a great banquet thrown by a man whose guests proffered excuses and were thus excluded only to have the undesirables of the highways and byways take their place. The kingdom of God is a universal, trans-Israel feast where many from beyond Israel will recline with the patriarchs (Matt 8:5-13). The kingdom of God is like a wedding feast where the bridegroom has arrived (John 3:29). In such a state, the joy of a wedding is appropriate but the austerity and sorrow of a funeral is not (Mark 2:19-20). And of course, the kingdom of God is like the recovery of that prodigal son who returns home: as those in the margins are included (tax collectors, sinners, Gentiles) in the Father’s house, the older son (Jews) is to rejoice and make merry. All are to partake of the celebration (Luke 15:11-32).
What’s the point of this brief survey? We must ask, why all these references to eating and drinking and feasting? Simply put, it is because all the feasts God gives His people, especially the Lord’s Supper, are pointers to the great eschatological feast of Revelation 19, the marriage supper of the Lamb (which, of course, is not a coincidence but connects us back to the passover Lamb). And the marriage supper of the Lamb is the universal feast of God’s worship, communion with God and His people, re-creation, rest, joy, and love. It is what God made mankind for. It’s where all of history is headed.
It is within this grand context that the Lord’s Supper is given by Christ to His people. It is an appetizer, the hors d’oeuvres served prior to main meal. Or, as Jeff Myers has put it, the popcorn that makes us hungry for the main meal. It is important to note that the appetizer is not main meal, but a guarantee that main course will come. We commune with God through these earthly elements as a guarantee that Christ will return. As Genderen and Velema point out, the Lord’s Supper reaches into future, brings that future to us. All that’s true then and there in that great and final eternal feast is true now in miniature— the grateful joy we have because of Christ’s salvation, the peace with God, the love of God to us. The cup that will be raised in the eschatological feast will not be the cup of wrath but the cup of blessing. Christ will be with us forever and that presence is experienced now in the Lord’s Supper.
(2) In the Lord’s Supper, Christ assures us of His consummated conquest. We are given a guarantee that Christ will reign and put all of His enemies under His feet.
The Lord’s Supper proclaims Christ’s death (1 Cor 11:26), but it’s a death that secures the victory of Christ and His people and the defeat of Christ’s enemies. We usually don’t think of the death of Christ in this way. We most often connect Christ’s victory with the resurrection of Christ, not His death. Yet, Paul does not hesitate to link death and victory: God forgave our sins “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” The death of Christ is the death of death, Satan, the power of sin, our record of debt, and the powers of this age. Victory is found in Christ’s death not just in His resurrection.
This brings to light an important principle. Feasting is connected to the victory God gives His people and defeat of God’s enemies. It’s helpful to see that principle with a few examples from the OT. Abram summons the trained men of his household and leads them to defeat the kings of the valley who had taken captive the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, including Lot, Abram’s nephew (Gen 14:1-16). What happens after the deliverance of Lot? Melchizedek, the king of Salem, brings out to Abram bread and wine to eat and drink (14:18). After victory over God’s enemies, there is feasting by God’s people. Esther 9 records the institution of Purim. What did God’s people celebrate in Purim? That God had delivered the Jewish race from extermination at the hand of Haman, but also that the “Pur” that Haman had cast (that is, the lots) had been returned upon his head. The Jews can celebrate only when Haman is hung. The Jews were to celebrate their salvation and the defeat of God’s enemies with “a day for gladness and feasting, as a holiday, and as a day on which they send gifts of food to one another and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:16, 22). After victory over God’s enemies, there is feasting by God’s people. Of course, what is the Passover but this principle in bold relief? The Israelites can enjoy the Passover only because they believe God is conquering the tyrants who had held them in oppression for centuries. The Passover is the celebration that God is slaughtering Egypt’s firstborns and thereby beginning their deliverance.
In summary, when the enemy has been defeated, the people of G enjoy peace and rest. Thus, they eat/drink.
Yet, in the OT, peace is never absolute. The enemy always lurks behind the scene. One time of victory and peace gives way to a time of future conflict and that, in turn, issues forth in victory and peace. Peace is always threatened, never settled. Peace and threats are correlatives. Do we not see this in even in the NT? Our days and lives are threatened by enemies inside and outside of us, by our sin, Satan, and the world. We do not have absolutely settled peace that is not threatened. Vigilance and sobriety are called for because the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking who he can devour.
That is why the Lord’s Supper is feasting in faith. Each feast, whether big or small, God has with His people assures us of that final feast. Which is to say, each victory of God’s people brings us closer to final victory. The death of Christ secured for us that final victory feast which can only happen if X conquers all His enemy. This is precisely what we see in Revelation. The Hallelujah chorus of the saints in Revelation 19:1-5 is motivated because of God’s judgment upon the harlot, Babylon the great, who was drunk with the blood of the saints and martyrs. When God’s enemies are defeated, G’s people celebrate!
The wine of the supper additionally points to this principle. Peter Leithart points out that the original passover did not include wine. The addition of four cups of wine was probably an inter-testamental development. Wine was never to be drunk if front of YHWH because it was a drink of rest. There was no final rest in the OT. But in the NT, with Christ’s accomplished work on the cross and the guarantee of final rest that His work brings, God’s people share in a preview of that rest now. It’s like putting your slippers on after a day of work in the office. The work is done, you can relax now. That’s what God tells us in the supper. “Drink wine and rest, my son, my daughter: do not be afraid, I have overcome the world.”
What we eat and drink in Lord’s Supper is nothing but the complete, consummated victory of Christ. We are celebrating Christ’s present conquest that guarantees Christ’s final conquest, when all enemies will be finally put under His feet.
(3) In the Lord’s Supper, Christ assists us in our calling of making Christian culture.
Although Christ’s work of propitiation is done, He continues His work as our great, High Priest. Christ presently is interceding for us and has sent His Spirit to indwell us and to equip us. For what purpose? To use our creativity and ingenuity to make culture that pleases God.
Again, think of the Passover. God required Israel to eat a lamb roasted by fire (Exodus 12:8-9) but to do so in a way that the preparation did not break any of the lamb’s bones. (12:46). To celebrate the passover, a fire was needed. It had to be sustained it long enough for a lamb to be roasted. A lamb had to be born healthily and live for one year without blemish. In that year, the lamb had to be nourished and fed and fattened. To celebrate the Passover, in other words, human creativity was needed.
That’s exactly what we see in the Lord’s Supper. What did Christ choose as the two elements of the Lord’s Supper? Bread and wine, elements that are not found in nature as is. There is no bread tree, no wine orchard. Bread and wine are a result of man’s creativity and of his exercise of dominion over creation. Peter Leithart, following Leon Kass, points out what is needed to make bread. Men must apply themselves to inquiry, discovery, and work. The ground must be plowed, seed must be sowed and regularly watered. Once the wheat sprouts from the seed, it must be harvested at the right time (which requires observation and accumulated knowledge regarding climate and harvesting patterns), and then stored, ground by a miller, purchased by a customer, kneaded, and then baked. If we are to celebrate the Lord’s Supper until Christ returns and when Christ returns (after all, Christ promised He will eat of His meal again in the new creation, Luke 22:16, 18), then all of these and related cultural activities are needed. The same is true of wine.
What does the Lord’s Supper, then, tell us of this world and our cultural engagements as Christian for God’s glory? First, the world of the final feast is this world transformed. Christ did not choose angelic food, but a universal food, found in every culture, as part of the sacrament of kingdom of God. Christ does not separate us from this world but brings us back into His world, and bestows on us His power and ingenuity.
Second, Christ gives us His power to bring the whole world under His dominion and for His glory. If we take the bread and wine as representative of culture-making, we can say that there is a right way to bake bread and make wine, and many wrongs ways. In other words, there’s a right way to create culture, and many wrongs way to create culture. The right way is under God and for God.
Third, do not show up to new creation empty-handed. Do not leave your bread and wine at home. Do not leave your Christian culture behind. It follows you into new creation. What is “the fine linen, bright and pure” given to Christ’s bride to clothe herself with? “for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev 19:8). Our works follow us into new creation (Rev 14:13).
The Church needs to learn how to do this right. We are given the whole world to feast upon, to enjoy the cultivation and production of all manner of cultural artifact and activity, under God and for God. Politics, music, fiction, architecture, mechanics, IT, parenting, edu, philosophy, finance— all to glory of G. We do shy away from bread and wine just because unbelievers use bread for their gluttony and wine for their drunkenness. Similarly, we do not shrink back from culture just because unbelievers use it to distort truth and create lies and rebel against God. We engage culture and seek its transformation under Christ. That is to say, we seek Christian culture.
The relationship between Christ, His Church, and the world is like that of a husband, wife, and their children in their home. Christ has worked and provided for His bride what she could never accomplish on her own: salvation and the forgiveness of sins. Christ’s work frees His bride now to work in their home, which is this world and to beautify it (as a wife beautifies her home), to catechize the nations (as a mother instructs her children), to bring order to a chaotic world (as a wife and mother does), subduing all to the glory of G.
When we eat the Lord’s Supper, we are eating Christian culture: things man has developed that are transformed by Christ and given new purpose in the Kingdom of God, to be used for the glory of G.
Christ has worked on the cross. As we eat and drink Christ by faith in the Lord’s Supper, Christ aids us in our work: “For we are his workmanship, created in X Jesus for good works, which G prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10).
As Alexander Schmemann says, we are given this whole world by God and receive from His hand with thanksgiving. We seek His dominion in this world with thanksgiving. And on the last day, we will give this world back to God with thanksgiving. When we do, we will face the One who gave Himself, and continues to give and give and give to us, the One who has has transformed us, and will transform this world so we can feast and fellowship together, as a husband and bride forever.