A Closer Look at the Lord’s Supper
Text: 1 Corinthians 11:17-33
I. What is an Ordinance?
II. What is the Origin of the Lord’s Supper?
III. What does it Mean to Partake in a Worthy Manner?
Good morning church. Given that we have been working our way through Acts for the past 6-months, I thought it would be good to take a little pause before we transition to the life and ministry of the apostle Paul.
And given that today is the day that we typically celebrate the ordinance (the sacrament) of the Lord’s Table together, I thought it would be a great time for us to press a little deeper into its meaning and true spiritual significance. Because, the truth of the matter is, it is very possible for us to continue observing rituals long after we have forgotten their true meaning OR even worse coopted them for our own purposes… And the record of the NT clearly demonstrates that this can happen faster than we could ever imagine. What I mean by this, is that our passage in 1 Corinthians this morning is NOT addressed to a church that is 50 or 100 years old; but a church that is roughly 3 years old!
Notice what does Paul tell us about this church? Its gatherings were “not for the better BUT the worse” (17) for at least three reasons in these verses:
- The congregation was racked with division because of their constant need to be recognized and seen as spiritually important (18–19).
- A significant part of the congregation was defaming the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper because the “so called” spiritual and wealthy people were using it as an opportunity to throw a lavish party for themselves while blatantly excluding their fellow church members from the best of their shared meal (20–22; 33–34)
- And as a result of this, a number of people in the congregation had provoked God to intervene and exercise active discipline against them (in both illness and death, 30–32) because they were eating The Lord’s Supper in an “unworthy manner” (27).
Now, at this point, some of you might be wondering, “does pastor Mark think we are in the same position as the church in Corinth? My simple and honest answer to that question is emphatically “no”! My goal this morning is not to address acute failures in our church. Rather, my goal is threefold:
- To reinvigorate your understanding of this ordinance so that you might experience more meaning and grace as you participate in it.
- To help you better disciple you children or grandchildren in the reason that we take time every month to share in this meal together.
- To help you experience even greater security and hope and joy and satisfaction in Jesus Christ as you partake in the Lord’s Supper every month.
And to accomplish this, we will be addressing three basic questions this morning:
- What is an ordinance?
- What is the origin of the Lord’s Supper?
- What does it mean to partake in a worthy manner?
After this, we will conclude by taking the Lord’s Supper together.
What is an Ordinance?
A Typical Definition
So, to the first question: “What is an ordinance” anyway? The typical Protestant definition is something like this: An ordinance is a holy ceremony or symbol instituted by God to signify, seal, and exhibit to believers the benefits of Christ’s mediation, to strengthen their faith, to oblige them to obedience, to cherish their love and communion one with another. And to distinguish them from those who are without.
And if you are wondering if there is any difference between an ordinance and a sacrament, the basic answer is no. It’s just that many denominations use ordinance to avoid confusion or conflation with Roman Catholic beliefs.
Let’s take a minute to unpack this definition before we turn to our text.
Unpacking the Definition.
ONE: An ordinance is an institution set forth clearly by God himself (NOT an invention of man). This means the meaning and purpose of an ordinance are anchored forever in the objective truth of God’s Word AND that our faithful observance is a direct act of obedience toward God.
Matthew 28:18–20 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
1 Corinthians 11:23–26For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
This is the most basic reason we believe that every believer should be baptized AND this is why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper on a regular basis as a church— Jesus commanded us to do it!
TWO: The second thing that we see in this definition is that God has established and purposed his ordinances for a particular group of people—those who have come to faith in Jesus Christ.
On the one hand, the ordinances serve as a means of ever deepening communion within the gathered church, in that they help us know who our brothers and sisters in Christ are. Paul points us to this very truth in 1 Corinthians 11, in that, he repeats the phrase “when you come together” 5x in 18 verses.
And on the other hand, the ordinances are designed by God to distinguish between those who believe and those who do not. Now, I know this sounds rather arrogant and exclusive and unloving in our day and age. Yet the true purpose of this exclusivity is not bigoted discrimination but loving Gospel clarity. After all it was Jesus who said:
John 14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
In light of this, we can see that ordinances are not the means by which a person becomes a Christian. But are external signs that a person is actively trusting in Jesus for his or her forgiveness and eternal acceptance before God.
THREE: God has given us the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper to remind the Church of what Jesus has accomplished for us in the cross AND all the benefits that we have received in him. In other words, the ordinances are a gift from God, purposefully designed to rescue us from our apathy, our sin, and our despair by reminding us over and over and over and over again of the finished work of Jesus Christ and our glorious new identity and power and hope and security in him.
FINALLY: This definition points us to the truth that God has not given us his ordinances to merely look in the rear-view mirror at his past grace BUT as an active means of receiving his continuing and expanding and empowering and maturing grace in our lives today.
So now that we have a better idea of “what” an ordinance is and “why” God has given them to us. Let’s turn to 1 Corinthians 11 so that we can see how the origin of this ordinance can help us grasp the broader significance of the bread and the cup.
What is the Origin of The Lord’s Supper? (1 Corinthians 11:23–26)
The OT Ordinance that Stands Behind the Lord’s Supper
Now, even though Paul rightly anchors the origin of the Lord’s Supper on “the night when Jesus was betrayed” (23), the gospels make it abundantly clear that an OT ordinance stands behind and informs the NT ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. What was happening on the night that Jesus was betrayed? Jesus was celebrating one of the highest and holiest feasts in Israel— the Passover, a holy ordinance instituted by God himself to commemorate the night that he rescued his people from slavery in Egypt.
Exodus 12:14 This day shall be for you a Memorial Day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.
God’s Purposes in the Passover
In light of this, we might be tempted to think that Passover is merely the Jewish equivalent of the 4th of July. But Passover was more than a celebration of freedom; it was a constant reminder that it was God himself who rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. And this truth was to be faithfully proclaimed year after year so every generation would come to know the covenant faithfulness of their never-failing God.
Exodus 12:25–27 And when you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. 26 And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ 27 you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed their heads and worshiped.
Notice, what is the goal? It’s not merely to celebrate independence OR to pass on history. Its purpose is to cultivate faith and trust in God among Israel’s children by constantly reminding them of God’s power and love and faithfulness toward them so that they might trust in him and love him with all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deuteronomy).
Yet, as we look at God’s requirements in the sacrifice and subsequent meal of the Passover, we are able see that the purpose of Passover is more than remembrance. The Passover was designed to point Israel to their desperate need for forgiveness AND the continuing grace and presence of God in their midst.
First in regards to the Sacrifice: The father of the home was required to select a one-year-old male lamb without blemish from the flock four days before the feast (Exodus 12:27 and 34:25). And then on the day of the feast, he had to slaughter it at twilight, and brush the blood on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the house (Exod. 12:3ff.). Almost all of us know this story. Right?
And what was God’s purpose in this bloody ritual? The blood of a substitute sacrifice served as an atonement for the sin of the household. When the Angel of the Lord came that night, he would see the blood on the doorframes of the house, put aside his wrath, and pass over the doorway in peace instead of entering in judgement.
This is important because it points us to the truth that —even among God’s chosen people— the only way to be saved from God’s wrath was to believe and obey what God told them to do. And in this, God was revealing the spiritual truth that his own people deserved to die for their sin just as much as the Egyptians. So, at its heart, Passover was a celebration of God’s saving grace AND a sacrifice that reminded God’s people of their constant need for continuing grace and forgiveness.
Second as we turn from the Passover sacrifice to the Passover meal what do we see? The Passover at its heart was a meal that celebrated Israel’s real, active, present communion with God and with one another as his covenant community. The very thing that prevented the people of Israel from enjoying a relationship with God —their sin— was removed through the death of a substitute. And as a result, God’s people were able to eat at peace in his presence. A picture that becomes even more clear when God established his covenant with Israel at Mt. Sinai.
Exodus 24:9–11 Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. 11 And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.
This is one of the most wonderful images of forgiveness and acceptance and access to God in the entire OT. And it doesn’t occur at a bloody altar BUT a communal meal that was made possible through the death of a substitute! God’s people were eating in God’s very presence and actively experiencing the awe and comfort and joy of his full acceptance.
The NEW Celebration of a New Sacrifice, Deliverance, and Meal
So, as we turn back to the NT what do we see? Just as Passover and the old covenant were inextricably united by a sacrifice, a supernatural deliverance, and a meal, so also the Lord’s Supper and the new covenant are bound together by a sacrifice, a supernatural deliverance, and a meal.
In fact, on that very Passover night what did Jesus do? He transferred the previous imagery (typology) of Passover to himself. I am going to be the ultimate sacrifice and final Passover lamb. I am going to forever satisfy the wrath of God against those who believe through my substitutionary death on the cross. The reality of my real body as your substitute signified in the bread AND the shedding of my blood as signified in the cup. One sacrifice, forever atoning for sin and securing a right relationship with God for those who embrace me in faith as their only hope of a right relationship with God.
And what is the result of this sacrifice? Whereas Passover served as a constant reminder that Israel’s sins were not yet paid for, because the sacrifices in them were repeated year after year (Heb. 10:1–4). The Lord’s Supper reminds us that Jesus’ once-and-for-all payment for sins has been fully accomplished. And that as a result of our humble, dependent faith in him:
- we have been forever saved from the penalty of our sin
- we have been forever delivered from the enslaving power of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
- we have full acceptance before God as his New Covenant people
- we have full and rightful access to every benefit of our new life in Christ.
- and as we share in these elements, they serve to remind us:
- that Jesus is in our very presence (not at the far edge of the universe)
- that just as we need to eat food every day to sustain our physical life; he is the one we constantly need to sustain our spiritual life by the power of his Spirit.
What Does it Mean to Partake in a Worthy Manner? (1 Corinthians 11:27–29)
The Historical Problem in Corinth
In these verses we see, the historical problem in Corinth was that the most “spiritual” and wealthy people in the church were hosting lavish meals for themselves and excluding their less fortunate brothers and sisters in Christ from the table. The rich ate their fill (some even getting drunk) while the poor were forced to simply watch and go hungry.
And what does Paul want them to see? He wants them to see that they have utterly failed to discern what the bread and cup represent— the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Don’t miss this, the very things that the Corinthians were supposed to recognize in in the symbols of bread and the cup —the foundation of their salvation, the source of their unity with one another, and their singular source of spiritual sustenance were a gift from Christ and Christ alone. On account of this, the very disposition with which they were to partake in the elements (humble, repentance, faith, and joy) had been either lost OR somehow perverted into an opportunity for outright discrimination and self-exaltation in the local church.
This is why some of the worst offenders had fallen ill or died.
The Fundamental Problem
To put it in the most basic spiritual terms, their fundamental problem was that they were not celebrating the Lord’s Supper in a spirit of repentance and faith. This is why Paul commands them (and us) to examine ourselves before we partake in the bread and the cup.
Yet, we need to be clear, Paul not telling us we need to be sinless OR not actively battling against patterns of indwelling sin to partake in the Lord’s Table. No! If that was the case none of us would be allowed to the table!
He is telling us we need to come honestly to the table: refusing to coddle patterns of sin by bringing them in repentance and confession for forgiveness, fully believing that the blood of Jesus is more than enough to cleans our every sin and empower us to live a life that pleases him.
See on one hand the bread is just bread and the cup is just a cup. And in any other circumstance that is what they are and always will be. BUT everything changes when bread and juice/wine are set aside for the Lord’s Supper. And it’s not that they become the literal body and blood of Jesus. NO. It is as we gather together as a church in repentance and faith to celebrate and meditate on the deep Biblical truths that this little wafer of bread and cup of juice represent:
- the sacrificial death of Jesus,
- our supernatural deliverance from sin, death, and Satan,
- and all of the benefits that we receive through our fellowship with him,
This is how we take the Lords Supper in a worthy manner. And as we do this, we can be assured that we will receive real grace, real spiritual nourishment, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
- Grace to increasingly hate and repent of long-standing patterns of sin.
- Grace to stand for Christ when we would rather be silent.
- Grace to actively pursue obedience and holiness with joy.
- Grace to be unity builders and peacemakers in our church, loving our brothers and sisters in Christ like Christ loves us.
- Grace to set aside our rights and privileges to lift the lowly.
- Grace to increasingly see and love and savor Jesus Christ as our greatest treasure
 Adapted from, The Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 162.
 “In the biblical and ecclesiastical use, a “sacrament” is a sign or symbol of a Christian mystery: of the mystery of regeneration in the case of baptism, of the mystery of vicarious atonement in the case of the Lord’s Supper. These two sacraments exhibit and certify, by sensible emblems, to the believing recipient these two mysterious facts in redemption;” (William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed. [Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishers, 2003], 810).
 ““The significance of these meals was that God met with his people and, on the basis of the sacrifice made and accepted, united himself with his people in joy;” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003], 541–42).