IS THE LORD’S SUPPER “MORE THAN AN MEMORIAL”?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 3:55pm
My friend, former student, and fellow Kingdom-worker Tom Lawson has written a very provocative article on the Lord’s Supper: “More Than a Memorial,” in the 1/29/12 issue of Christian Standard (pp. 6-8). He challenges the view that the Supper is “merely symbolic” and that the bread and juice are just “emblems” of the body and blood of Christ.
Instead, Brother Lawson suggests that eating the loaf and drinking the cup are a real partaking of the actual body and blood of Jesus. He is very careful to repudiate the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation, but seems to be quite comfortable with what is usually called the “real presence” of the literal body and blood of Christ in the Supper.
His argument seems to be threefold. First, he says the language of “remembrance” (as in Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24-25) when used of the Supper is much stronger than a mere reminder or memorial. Second, he says we should take more seriously the language of 1 Cor. 10:16-17, that the Communion is a participation or sharing in Christ’s body and blood. Third, he says the warnings (in 1 Cor. 11:27-30) of physical sickness and even death for abusing the Lord’s Supper show that there is “something wonderful and potentially dangerous within the physical bread that is eaten and the physical wine that is drunk.”
While I have the highest respect for Brother Lawson as a scholar, teacher, and Christian worker, I believe he has fallen off the theological cliff in this essay. What follows are my reasons for drawing this conclusion.
I. “In Remembrance of Me.” Lawson says that “to remember” often means more than just mentally recalling something. In Scripture it often involved “active involvement.” This is true, but as an argument it cannot bear the weight he wants it to bear. We agree, for example, that when the Israelites were commanded to “remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exod. 20:8), they were to observe this special day by doing something specific. But exactly how were they commanded to observe it? Exactly what were they supposed to do to keep it holy? Two things are specified: to rest from labor (Exod. 20:9-11; Deut. 5:13-14) and to REMEMBER how the Lord redeemed them from Egyptian slavery (Deut. 5:15). The former was symbolically related to the latter. Thus they “remembered the sabbath day” by doing something symbolic to remind them of how they were saved.
There is absolutely no reason to read anything more than this into the language with which Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper: “Do this in remembrance of Me.” I .e., we should celebrate this meal to remind ourselves (and others) of how we were saved by Christ’s redemptive work, and thus delivered from bondage to sin and the law.
No relevant Greek words carry more meaning than this. The word for “remembrance” is anamnēsis, which means “a reminder, a remembrance” (see Heb. 10:3). A similar noun with the same meaning is hupomnēsis, “a reminder.” The verb form of the former is anamimnēskō, which is defined as “to remind,” or in the passive form “to remember.”
II. Participating in the Body and Blood of Christ. Brother Lawson’s main argument leans heavily on the language of “participation” in 1 Corinthians 10, though he gives almost no actual discussion of it. The key verses are 10:16-17: “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.”
The key words here are koinōnia (“sharing”) in v. 16, and metechō (“partake”) in v. 17. The former is a noun that refers to a close relationship with someone or something. It can mean “communion, fellowship, participation, sharing.” A similar noun used here in ch. 10 is koinōnos (vv. 18, 20), which means “a sharer, a partner, a companion.” It can mean someone who shares in something along with you, or simply someone who shares in or partakes of something. Another word from the same family (not used in ch. 10) is koinōneō, which is the verb form related to the two nouns used here. It means “to share, to have a share (in something), to participate (in something).”
The word metechō (used in vv. 21, 30) has basically the same meaning, i.e., “to share, to have a share in, to participate in, to partake of.” It is used here mainly in the sense of ingesting food and drink. (See v. 21, where it is paralleled with “to drink”; see also v. 31.)
The only verse we need to focus on here is v. 16, which speaks of the bread and the cup as a koinōnia (sharing, participation) in the body and blood of Christ. (The bread and the body in v. 17 most likely are the church, the body of Christ in a figurative sense, in which we participate or with which we identify.)
It should be noted here that what Paul says about the church is paralleled with similar comments about two other groups, i.e., Jews and pagans (see v. 32). These are also described as “participating” in something by means of what they eat (vv. 18-21).
What we should be looking for here is the main point of this whole discussion in chapter 10. What is Paul trying to accomplish in this chapter? What is the point around which all else revolves? It is NOT the Lord’s Supper. The key idea rather is in v. 14, “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.” Everything else, including references to the Lord’s Supper, flow from this concern.
In driving home his exhortation to “flee from idolatry,” Paul lays down a basic principle in v. 21: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.” We should remember that Corinth was a blatantly pagan town, filled with “many gods and many lords” (1 Cor. 8:5), though they are just idols that have no actual reality (8:4). Many Corinthian Christians were converted from idolatry (6:9), and the temptation to revert thereto or dabble therein would always be strong. Thus Paul’s exhortation (10:14), and his ultimatum in 10:21—you have to choose one or the other! You cannot be both a Christian and an idolater.
Why does Paul use the imagery of eating and drinking in v. 21? In the ancient world, and still today to a great extent, eating and drinking together—table fellowship—was and is an expression of a close relationship. E.g., in OT times, eating a meal together was a way of sealing a covenant (Exod. 24:9-11). Thus Paul is saying here: you cannot be in a relationship with Jesus and a relationship with demons (the real so-called “gods” behind idols—v. 20) at the same time.
Now, Christians already have a literal fellowship meal—“the table of the Lord” and “the cup of the Lord,” and various circles of idol worship may have had something similar. But that is not really the point in v. 21. The cup and the table here simply represent the reality of close identification with a particular group or circle of fellowship.
The main idea is this: if you are a Christian, you have made your commitment to Jesus Christ; you are in “table fellowship” with him and his people. You cannot maintain this close relationship with the Lord and at the same time be on familiar terms with demons through idolatry.
This raises the question again (see 8:1-13) of whether it is permissible for Christians to eat meat taken from animals offered as sacrifices to idols then later sold in the marketplace as food. We must exercise real caution here, says Paul (vv. 19-20). Though idols as such are nothings, idol worship is exploited by demons; and sincere sacrifices offered to idols are actually offered to demons. Can Christians still eat meat from such sacrifices? Yes, if we have clear knowledge of the realities involved (see chapter 8, and 10:25-27). The rule of expediency applies, however. If our eating may lead a weaker brother to violate his conscience, we should abstain (v. 28).
But totally apart from the problem of eating idol-sacrificed meat, v. 21 still applies. I.e., any Christian who is seriously dabbling in idolatry in any manner is drinking the cup of demons and partaking of the table of demons. Stop it!
Here’s the deal: Do we not, as Christians, take the Lord’s Supper regularly? And (v. 16) is not that cup a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break at the Lord’s Supper a sharing in the body of Christ? Thus, when we are participating in the Supper, are we not identifying ourselves with the body of Christ (the church)? Are we not declaring that we share in the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice of his own body and blood? Are we not having table fellowship with the very Savior who died for us? How can we do that and hobnob with demons at the same time?
Notice how Paul works the Israelites into this discussion in v. 18: “Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar?” I.e., when Jews under the Old Covenant brought animals for certain sacrifices, they (and the priests) actually ate parts of the carcasses afterwards. By doing so they were “sharers” (koinōnos) in the OT altar of sacrifice. I.e., they were identifying themselves as Yahweh’s people. They were claiming for themselves the benefits of being a part of the chosen people of God.
But the Jews were not immune to idolatry (10:7). They mixed their burnt offerings to Yahweh with worship of the golden calf (Exod. 32:1-10). This did not work out well for them (1 Cor. 10:8-9). Thus the Jews are an example for us of the danger of violating the principle in v. 21: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”
Verse 16 thus teaches us that when we partake of the bread and the cup during the Lord’s Supper, we are identifying ourselves with the Savior who gave his body and blood for our sins. We do not do this simply by ingesting the bread and juice as such, as if there is some spiritual or mystical reality in those physical elements that literally contacts our bodies and/or spirits. We do it instead by the whole event of participating in the ceremony, which says for all to see, “I am one with Christ, and he is one with me.”
III. Eating and Drinking Judgment upon Ourselves. Brother Lawson’s third point is the most puzzling, as he suggests a kind of physical connection between the (somehow enhanced) physical bread and wine and the illnesses and death that have come upon those who have abused the Supper. Granting that the weaknesses, sicknesses, and death in 1 Cor. 11:30 are somehow caused by misuse of the Supper, to assume that this supports or even requires a physical connection between these maladies and the bread and wine is totally unwarranted.
Whatever the nature of the “presence” of the body and blood of Jesus in the bread and juice, any punishment applied as a result of misuse of the Supper would be applied directly by God. Whether the Supper is a “mere memorial” or a metaphysical mystery, the mechanics of the punishment would be the same.
I conclude by saying that I have no qualms whatsoever about using terms such as “symbolic,” “emblematic,” and “memorial” when referring to the Lord’s Supper. In this regard the Supper is no different from baptism. The NT uses the language of death and resurrection for baptism, but that is clearly symbolic. The physical act of baptism and the physical material used in baptism (i.e., water) in no way kill and make alive; they are without question “an outward sign (symbol) of an inward grace.” Where most of Protestant Christendom goes wrong is in the TIMING of the symbol. Following Zwingli, most Protestants say the sign follows the reality it represents, whereas Scripture says the sign and the reality are simultaneous (Col. 2:12).
Thus, just as the physical aspects of baptism are symbolic of spiritual realities, so also in the Lord’s Supper the physical aspects—bread, juice, cup, eating, drinking—are symbolic of the actual realities involved.