Hebrews Study #9: “The Lord’s Table – Supper or Sacrifice?” – Part 1
How the Lord’s Supper Morphed into Another Sacrifice of Blood
By Richard Allen – April 17, 2023
I’d like to start out this week’s Blog building a solid foundation. Let’s look at one gospel account of the Lord’s Table, or Last Supper. Here’s how this event is recorded in the Gospel of Luke:
“And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He said, ‘Take this and share it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes.’ And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me’ ” (Luke 22:17-20).
Let me point out that when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper with His disciples, HE WAS STILL ALIVE! It seems silly to have to point this out, or explain that partaking of the bread and the wine was only meant as symbols of receiving Jesus’ atoning death BY FAITH. Faith, and not a physical act like eating or digesting, is the clear modus operandi of salvation in the New Testament. On prior occasions before the Last Supper, Jesus told His followers about the spiritual nature of eating His body and drinking His blood. In John’s gospel, Jesus exhorted His disciples:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever” (John 6:47-58).
We’ll divert from the actual Book of Hebrews for a few weeks to gain clarity on the Lord’s Supper. While the Truths of this Last Supper are clearly connected to Jesus’ lengthy teaching in John chapter 6 above, it’s also obvious that Jesus was “NOT” teaching His disciples that they needed to partake of a physical meal. Just looking at the context of John 6, Jesus made it clear that the “eating and drinking” He was speaking about was partaking of His body and blood by spiritual means, again, by Faith. He gives us the key to His discourse on “eating the bread that comes down from heaven” right at the start when he emphatically says: “Truly, Truly I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life” (John 6:47). We need to remember that Jesus’ instruction was in response to the “so-called disciples” who had followed Him across the Sea of Capernaum after He fed the 5,000. Jesus warned these disciples: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (John 6:26-27). How ironic that after seeing the miracle of feeding 5,000 men, women and children with a few fish and loaves, these same disciples asked Jesus: “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’” (John 6:30-31). So it makes no sense, after rebuking them for seeking Him just so they could fill their bellies, that Jesus would then offer them heavenly bread to cater to the fleshly appetites of their bellies.
We need to make certain that we read the scriptures like Children of God and not as superstitious pagans. God clearly forbad His children from “cannibalism” and “eating blood.” Eating blood was even forbidden by the early Church at the First Church Council recorded in Acts 15. During this first century council, Jewish Church leaders decreed that Gentiles, who were coming to Christ by faith, did not have to obey the law, including Jewish dietary restrictions. Yet they enjoined the Gentiles FROM EATING BLOOD (Acts 15:29). As mentioned above, Faith Alone unites us to Jesus Christ, giving us eternal life. For those confused souls today who somehow believe that our digestive systems are involved in our salvation, please understand, by receiving food through our mouths is not how to partake of the Real Bread of Life! Jesus told us that what goes into our bellies is “expelled into the latrine” (i.e. Greek word in Matthew 16:17). Just like Baptism, the other ordinance of the Church, partaking in the Lord’s table is spiritual and symbolic, not fleshly and physical. Regarding Baptism, the Apostle Peter tells believers this very thing in 1 Peter 3:21 when he says:
“Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (1 Peter 3:21-22).
Peter’s admonition on Baptism is identical to what we learn about the Lord’s Table. Both ordinances symbolize two natural functions, that is, washing and eating. And scripture tells us that neither of these “outward functions” are for the purpose of “cleansing” or “digestion.” No, they are symbolic of REAL and SPIRITUAL FUNCTIONS that unite us to Christ and to One Another in the Church. That’s why we call The Lord’s Table, “Communion.” So, we need to ask: “Where did the church go so wrong regarding the Lord’s Supper?” How did it become a Sacrifice? Again, reading some of the Church Fathers, I can honestly agree, there are confusing Scripture passages. Some have given rise to the mysticism surrounding the Lord’s Table. So, let’s take a fresh look at two confusing passages from the same book, First Corinthians. The Apostle Paul’s instructions to the Church at Corinth regarding the Lord’s Table, have caused interpretive problems for the Church for almost two millennia. In several passages from Chapters 10 and 11, Paul provides both instruction and a rebuke on “how to participate in the Lord’s Supper.” In 1 Corinthians chapter 10:14-21, Paul’s instruction to this church occurs in the middle of a larger warning on Idolatry and how believers are to be separate from the pagans in Corinth, that started in Chapter 8. He concludes this section by warning the Corinthians that they can’t drink the cup or eat from the Table of the Lord and also partake in the cup or table of demons:
“Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrificesparticipants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. 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” (1 Corinthians 10:14-21).
As we think of the verses above from 1 Corinthians 10 and Jesus’ own words from John 6, it appears that Paul says there is something very important about “eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ,” as well as “participating in both the blood and the body of Christ.” It’s easy to see how many of our Mainline Churches have developed an “almost mystical” approach to Communion. Let me freely confess, there is something very, very special about “how we take part in the Lord’s Supper.” And it’s not in a metaphysical or magical ritual that many suppose. The special nature of the Lord’s Supper is spiritual and is to be received “by Faith.” As the more common term, Communion describes, the Lord’s table is about more than the physical act of eating bread and wine with our mouths and certainly not our digestive systems, it’s about partaking of Christ and being part of His Body, the Church!
Our passages above about participation or being participants in the bread and cup, uses the same word, Koinonia, or “Fellowship!” This Greek word is used elsewhere in the New Testament to focus on the “Fellowship” and “Communing” with other Believers in the Body of Christ. Notice that Paul exhorts the Corinthians about participation (fellowship) in the cup of blessing (i.e. the blood) and the bread we break (i.e. the body),” explaining to them: “Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:17). As we’ll see when we get to 1 Corinthians Chapter 11, the Lord’s Table is NOT just about Remembrance of Christ’s death, but also about our understanding that “as members of HIS BODY and members of ONE ANOTHER,” we share this Communion Supper together. We must see the larger context of Paul’s warnings on how to live in a pagan culture where Christians, because of economic necessity, bought meat from the Market that often had first been used in sacrifice to pagan idols.
The superstitious pagans in Corinth thought that the physical meat offered to idols was big magic. So, in 1 Corinthians Chapter 8, Paul dealt at length with “not offending a weaker brother’s conscience” who might still think there was “big magic” in idols and the meat offered to them. To Paul, the real danger was that “by eating meat sacrificed to idols,” a callous brother might destroy this weaker brother, or wound his conscience (1 Corinthians 8:8-13). Yet Paul honestly dismisses such superstitions here by asking: “Is food offered to idols anything? Or is an idol anything?” (1 Corinthians 10:20). While in that same verse Paul does warn them that the sacrifices they offer are offered to demons and not to God, he later acknowledges that the meat is still meat. So, if they are invited to dinner by an unbeliever, “eat whatever is set before you with no questions” (1 Corinthians 10:25). But he admonishes them “do not eat” if a weaker brother or sister is involved (1 Corinthians 10:20). SO, HOW WE TREAT ONE ANOTHER IN THE BODY OF CHRIST IS THE REAL ISSUE TO PAUL:
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience, I do not mean your conscience, but his (1 Corinthians 10:23-29).
Let me close by pointing out that Paul, a mature believer, did not share in the superstitions of the pagans at Corinth. Again, he had one real concern, it was that these Corinthians would: SHOW LOVE TO ONE ANOTHER IN THE BODY OF CHRIST! In “Hebrews Study #10 -Supper or Sacrifice - Part 2” we’ll take a look at the other problematic passage in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, and hopefully you will see how this all ties together.
Soli Deo Gloria!