How Is Christ Present in the Supper?
New Testament writers stress that Christ is present at the Supper he has appointed for his people. This is a running characteristic of covenant meals—the presence of God with his people for their blessing. Any understanding of the Supper that reduces it to a bare memorial or a mere exercise of intellectual recollection of the meaning of the cross is inadequate. Of course, the Supper is an ordinance of remembrance, and recipients must turn their minds to the cross as they approach the Table. But when they come to the Table, they expect to meet their Savior.
How then is Christ present to them? Throughout the centuries, many in the church have identified Christ’s presence with the elements of bread and wine. That is, Christ is thought to be corporally or physically present in, with, or under the bread and wine. But these views suffer from grave problems. To name just one, to identify the humanity of Christ with the bread and wine destroys the very character of the Supper as a covenant sign. By definition, a covenant sign points beyond itself to certain spiritual realities. The bread and wine must not be physically identified with Jesus Christ, since Christ appointed the bread and wine to point toward him as the Savior of his people. We may observe, furthermore, that it is not the bread and wine of themselves that point to Jesus Christ. It is the bread given and received and the cup distributed and received that point to Jesus Christ.1
Christ is present in the Supper, but he is present to his people in the Supper in the way that he is present to his people on any other occasion, by the ministry of the Holy Spirit working by and with the Word of God, to the faith of the believer. We may affirm, then, that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ not physically or superstitiously but spiritually for God’s people, as we approach the Table and feed upon Christ by faith. At this covenant meal, we truly dine with our covenant Head.
Who May Come to the Supper?
It seems obvious that believers may come to the Lord’s Supper. But because of the warnings that Paul issues in 1 Corinthians 11:27–34, we need a more nuanced understanding of who may come. We may make three further observations.
First, the Supper is available to those believers who have demonstrated the capacity to examine themselves and to discern the body and blood of Christ. They must understand the gospel. They must have an awareness and sense of their own sin. They must be trusting in Christ for their salvation and endeavoring to walk in obedience before him. They must be carrying out their pledged obligations of fellowship and unity with the local church, the body of Christ.
To be sure, every individual must decide for himself if he meets these qualifications. But because the Supper is a covenant meal, entrusted to the covenant community and administered by Christ’s ministers, it is left to the elders to admit or exclude individuals from this Table. In many churches, once a person makes a believable declaration of faith in Jesus Christ, the elders gladly admit that person to the Lord’s Table. Ultimately, however, as Paul reminds us, responsibility lies with the individual for communing properly (1 Cor. 11:27).
The Supper reminds us that our Savior is committed to bringing us to [the] banquet—he died for us on the cross to bring us near to him.
Second, there are occasions when even professing Christians should be barred from the Table by the elders. Paul envisions such a situation in 1 Corinthians 5. He tells the church “not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one” (5:11). Paul has in mind a person who is a professing Christian and is known for a lifestyle of sin. He forbids the church from eating with such a person. Whatever else the prohibition of eating with such a person may mean, Paul certainly has in mind the Lord’s Supper. It is incongruous for an impenitent sinner to approach a Table representing the death of Christ for sin. It is wrong for one who knowingly and willingly gives himself to a particular sin to seek to commune in this ordinance with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul is not necessarily saying that this person is unsaved. The offender may well be a Christian. His exclusion from the Table is not designed to punish him. It is designed to chasten him and to recover him to full communion with Christ and his people. How is that the case? By being excluded from the “cup of blessing,” wayward individuals should be reminded of the curse to which they are subject for sin, apart from the grace of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16). They should see that unless they repent and turn from their sin to Jesus Christ, they will perish eternally, under the covenant curse of Christ. This realization should prompt them to repentance and faith and, upon restoration, to return to the Table.
It is also necessary to exclude offenders from the Table for another reason. When professing Christians have a reputation for particular sins, they threaten the holiness and integrity of the church (1 Cor. 5:7). In the eyes of onlookers, at least, they blur the line between the church and the world, between the covenant community and the realm of curse. For the purity and reputation of the church, they should be prevented from approaching the Table and partaking of the bread and wine.
Third, there are times when professing Christians, because of doubts, a strong sense of sin, weak faith, or a host of other reasons, may hesitate to come to the Table. Certainly Christians in these situations should seek trusted Christian counsel and not struggle on their own. One of the things that they should realize is that Christ appointed the Table not for the deserving but for the undeserving.2 The Table is for sinners who know that they are sinners, who have put their trust in Christ and sincerely desire to serve him, and who are recognized members of the family of God. The Table is not a reward for good behavior. It is a helping hand for believers struggling with doubts, unbelief, and other sins. Exiling oneself from the Table may be the very worst thing spiritually for a struggling Christian. The Table is designed to provide, by the Spirit working through and with the Word, the very thing the struggling individual desperately needs—strengthened faith.
How Is the Lord’s Supper Like and Unlike Baptism?
Finally, we may ask how the Lord’s Supper compares with the other covenant sign that Christ has appointed for the new covenant community, baptism. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are alike in a number of ways. Christ has instituted both. Each is an ordinance unique to the new covenant. Each is to be observed only within the new covenant community. Each serves to point the recipient to Christ and the benefits of his salvation. Each is to be observed until Christ returns at the end of the age.
But baptism and the Lord’s Supper differ in important ways as well, even beyond the obvious difference that baptism is to be administered with water, and the Lord’s Supper with bread and wine. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper have different old covenant analogs. The sign and seal of circumcision corresponds to baptism (Col. 2:11–12); the sign and seal of Passover corresponds to the Lord’s Supper. Moreover, baptism and the Lord’s Supper have different signification. While each points to Christ, each does so distinctly. Baptism points particularly to our union with Christ, especially in his death and resurrection (see Rom. 6:1–23; Gal. 3:27). The Lord’s Supper points particularly to the cross of Christ, the redemptive and sacrificial death of Christ for sinners.
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Baptism is the covenant sign of initiation. In this respect, it is for all members of the covenant community. Baptism is administered when someone formally enters the membership of the church.3 For this reason, baptism is administered only one time. The Lord’s Supper is the covenant sign of nourishment. The Lord’s Supper is administered only to members of the covenant community who demonstrate the qualifications to commune with Christ by faith in the Supper. It is not administered to covenant children until and unless they meet these qualifications. Because the Supper is designed to strengthen and nourish believers in grace, it is administered frequently in the church.
The ongoing and repeated administration of the Supper in the church reminds us of an important dimension of the Lord’s Supper. As wonderful as the Lord’s Supper is for believers, it is not the final meal that Christ has prepared for us. That meal is the messianic banquet, the great wedding feast that Christ has prepared for his eschatological bride, the church. On that day, we will be freed from sin and woe; our bodies will be glorified, raised, and conformed to Christ’s resurrection body; we will be gathered with all the elect of God; and, best of all, we will be forever in the presence of our Savior. There he will feed us in abundance with the very best of fare—himself. In the Supper, we do not have that banquet. We have tastes or appetizers of that banquet. But we should not be ungrateful. The Supper reminds us that our Savior is committed to bringing us to that banquet—he died for us on the cross to bring us near to him. And this Savior is willing, time after time, to meet with us and feed us from his Table the food that we need—the grace and benefits that are found in him alone. And the more of Christ we have in the Supper, the more we will long to be with him. And as we taste of Christ in his covenant meal again and again, we will find ourselves saying with Paul, Maranatha—“Our Lord, come!” (1 Cor. 16:22).
- The Roman Catholic and the old Lutheran exegesis do not err because of the close connection they established between bread and body, wine and blood, but in that they made the symbol itself into the reality whereas they should have realized that the connection between the symbol and its intended reality is to be sought in the action of giving, on the one hand, and in that of eating and drinking, on the other” (Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, trans. H. de Jongste [Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1962], 435).
- When Paul says that we should not partake “in an unworthy manner” (1 Cor. 11:27), he is not saying that we need to be worthy people before we may take the Lord’s Supper. He is speaking, rather, of the way in which Christians are or are not to approach the Table.
- Paedobaptists understand the Scripture also to teach that the child of at least one believer is, by birthright, a member of the church and, therefore, entitled to baptism.
This article is adapted from The Lord’s Supper as the Sign and Meal of the New Covenant by Guy Prentiss Waters.
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