The best way to get into the meaning of the Lord’s Supper is to look at it through three lenses. Each of the three lenses allows us to look in three distinct directions—the past, present, and future. Only by looking in all three directions can we properly capture the meaning of the Eucharist.
Looking through the Past Lens
This “looking back” lens begins by remembering that Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper at the Jewish Passover. This was very intentional by Jesus. The Passover meal was the annual commemoration of the Jews celebrating and remembering God’s dramatic intervention in saving the children of Israel out of the bondage of Egyptian slavery. The Jews would partake of a meal that remembered and reenacted what God did that first Passover night when the blood of the lamb spared them from the judgment of death. In the same way, when we take the Lord’s Supper, we look back on our redemption from spiritual bondage. Jesus Christ inaugurated a new Passover. The second way the Lord’s Supper points us backward is, of course, in the actual death of Jesus Christ on the cross. When we take the Lord’s Supper, we look back on Jesus’ death on the cross, as well as His resurrection, ascension, and enthronement at the right hand of God the Father. This is the reminder of Jesus’ victory over sin and death. The third way we look to the past is that the Lord’s Supper is meant to remind us of our own baptism into new life. In other words, the story of redemption from the early Jewish Passover that prefigured the coming of Jesus into the world and Jesus’ work on the cross are not events disconnected from our lives.
Through baptism and participation in the Lord’s Supper, we are brought into this great redemptive story. We become part of it. We are not just remembering past acts of salvation, but our own salvation and participation in God’s unfolding plan to reconcile all things to Himself. God has delivered you from bondage and brought you into His adoptive family. This is the amazing truth of this past lens.
Looking through the Present Lens
When we come forward to take the Lord’s Supper, we believe that it is more than just a memorial or memory of past events of redemption. It is here that Christians begin to disagree about the meaning of the sacrament. Some Christians only look through the lens of the past. But, through the present lens we discover that Christ actually meets us at the table and is spiritually present with us to convey His grace and forgiveness. This is actually not so much tied to anything that happens to the elements of bread and cup as it is to the very presence of Christ as the host of this sacred meal of fellowship. This is where the phrase “Lord’s Table” or “Lord’s Supper” is important. The table spread does not belong to any denomination or any group of Christians. We are not the host; Jesus Christ is the host. We cannot absolve people of their sins; only He can. The real presence of Jesus in the sacraments is taken from Jesus’ own words, “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” He does not say, “This represents my body.” The presence of Jesus is also understood from Paul’s use of the word Communion, which we noted earlier in the chapter.
The Lord’s Supper is more than receiving forgiveness (as wonderful as that is). It is also communion with Christ Himself, who is mystically present with us. The presence of Christ at the table is what led John Wesley to practice what is known as “open” Communion, meaning anyone can come forward to receive. If the Lord’s Supper only remembers past acts of redemption, then, of course, only baptized believers in full fellowship of the church should come forward to receive. But if Christ Himself is present, then He invites all to Himself. Someone could, Wesley reasoned, get out of their pew to come forward as an unbeliever and actually meet and receive the good news of the gospel in the very presence of Jesus Himself.
This is where we really begin to see the power of the Lord’s Supper as a converting sacrament. It has the power to convert people to the faith. Some people best hear the gospel through words, such as through a sermon, while others hear the gospel through the tangible, physical touch of the bread and wine. Charles Wesley captured this powerfully when he wrote, “Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast, let every soul be Jesus’ guest. Ye need not one be left behind, for God hath bid all humankind.”
The Lord’s Supper is also present for those of us who are baptized believers. The elements declare afresh our forgiveness and our solidarity with Christ through this covenant established through His shed blood. Through the Lord’s Supper the power of the death and resurrection of Christ is communicated afresh to us and we are reconciled to God and to one another.
The Lord’s Supper is also present with us as we go out into the world. The sacrament transforms us as we go forth to give our lives to a world in need. The words of Christ “This is my body, given for you” become our own words to the world as we say, through acts of service and love, “This is my body, given for you.” We become sacramentally present to the world in the here and now as the transformed people of God.
Looking through the Lens of the Future
The Lord’s Supper also is a pointer to future realities. We have already seen how the Lord’s Supper is another way the church proclaims the gospel. The sacraments are very different than preaching. Preaching is the Word that goes forth and strikes the ears of the world and the believing community. The Lord’s Supper visibly demonstrates the gospel and is not just an ear witness but an eye witness of the mystery of the gospel. It is not just something we say; it is something we do. But, it also compels us to look forward to a day when this broken world will be healed. The Lord’s Supper is a regular reminder to ourselves and to the world that the kingdom has not yet fully come. We do not live in a perfect world, but a fallen world. Our world is full of sin and fallenness, and we eagerly await the visible, bodily return of Christ. Paul himself testifies about this when he says in reference to the Lord’s Supper, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26).
The Lord’s Supper is a proclamation of His death until His bodily return. Every time we share in the Lord’s Supper, we do not only look back and remember our past redemption, nor do we only receive Christ’s forgiveness and grace as He walks with us right now, today. It is also a testimony to future realities. By faith we look forward to the culmination of this great story of redemption when Christ returns and fully consummates His kingdom. One of the high points of the Communion liturgy is when we say as a congregation: Christ has died (past), Christ is risen (present), and Christ will come again (future). We look to that day when Christ will fully consummate His kingdom. We currently live in the tension between the already and the not yet. The rule and reign of God has already broken into our lives and into the world, but it is clearly not yet consummated. Someday, all the enemies of Christ will be put under His feet and the kingdom of God will be fully realized.
The Scriptures teach that the culmination of the ages and the consummation of the kingdom will be accompanied by a great banquet, a feast with all of God’s people through the ages, including Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matt. 8:11; Rev. 19:9). This banquet will also include the thief on the cross and all of us sinners who, by grace, have received the good news of the kingdom. It is known as the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9). This is the great moment at the climax of the ages when all the realities of the new creation will be fully revealed. There will be new heavens and a new earth. All will be restored. The biggest transformation will be the absence of sin and the full manifestation of the eternal presence of Christ.
The elements of the Lord’s Supper are actually connected to this larger feast at the end of time. You should see the elements of the Lord’s Supper (bread and wine) as the hors d’oeuvres in anticipation of the larger feast to come. In fact, the early church often connected the Lord’s Supper with a larger love feast to demonstrate in a more obvious way that the church is headed to that future day when we will enjoy a beautiful celebrative banquet together.
Did you enjoy this entry? One of our latest resources, Seeking Jesus: Finding Life in the Means of Grace by Timothy Tennent, reminds us that the purpose of the means of grace is to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ. We pray because, in praying, we become more like Jesus. We worship and we do works of mercy because Jesus modeled this consistently and perfectly. Seeking Jesus through the means of grace helps us fulﬁll our vocation to become the image of God in our world—not by self-striving but by allowing Christ to be formed in us.
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