Covenantal Partaking

Having suggested that observance of the Lord’s Supper should be weekly, perhaps more should be urged in favor of this than simply the argument that it seems to be in line with covenant renewal.

“Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea . . .” (1 Cor. 10:1-11:1-34).

Why weekly? The simplest reply to this question is why not? The apostle assumes that when the Corinthians came together in one place, it was supposed to be so that they would partake of the Lord’s Supper (11:20). The early Christians in Acts met together and the breaking of bread was an important part of their gathering (Acts 2:42; 20:7). In this, it is very important for us to recognize that not only will our theology drive what we do, but what we do will also drive our theology. When missing, the Lord’s Supper makes a very loud theological statement. In modern evangelical circles, we have heard that statement for so long that we no longer hear it, really. It is kind of like living next to the railroad tracks.

The history of eucharistic theology is long, and is filled with tangles, sordid betrayals, theological brilliance, but, above all, food for God’s people. Most of what we have gained in our understanding is commonplace among evangelical believers, but there are still some important gaps we must fill.

The Lord is certainly present with us in the Supper, but how? The best way to account for the biblical teaching on this is to describe His presence with us as a covenantal presence. An important part of the debate has been over what is called the “real presence” of the Lord in the bread and wine. Roman Catholicism (and Lutheranism) maintains that this real presence is a physical one. In some ways this terminology is not really helpful, because no one believes in an unreal presence, or in a real absence. It would be better to describe this position as holding to the local presence of the Lord in the bread and wine.

Most modern evangelicals deny any kind of local presence at all, and say that the meal is simply an aid to the memory. Historic Protestants like John Calvin have said that there is a real presence of Christ in the observance of the Lord’s Supper for those who approach it in faith. But note the difference between saying that the Lord is present in the observance and saying that He is present in the bread and wine. The Westminster Confession is very helpful here (WCF 29.5). There is a sacramental union between the bread and wine and Christ crucified when they are “duly set apart to the uses ordained by Christ.” Christ is covenantally present in the participles of faithfully eating and drinking.

Much of the difficulty is caused by a troublesome divide in the modern understanding of “physical” and “spiritual,” which we do not usually take in a scriptural way. If someone were to say that Christ is spiritually present, we would tend to take this as an ethereal ghostly presence. We should rather seek to understand the covenantal presence of Christ — and this presence is objective, whether or not the participant has faith.

The Supper is a covenantal meal, and this truth relates to the next point, which is the biblical denial that covenants are occasions for automatic blessings. Covenants always bring with them blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. This is why Paul could say that their observance of the Supper could do more harm than good (11:17). This is why he could mention the possibility of eating and drinking damnation (v. 29). Because they abused the cup of blessing, many Corithians were sick and had died (v. 30). What kind of blessing is that? It is a covenantal blessing. This paralleled what had happened to the Jews in the wilderness (10:6-9), which was set out for us as our example in coming to the Supper. The Corinthians had started to put on airs — “we have spiritual bread, we have spiritual drink.” Paul’s response is that the Jews in the wilderness ate spiritual food and drank spiritual drink . . . and yet their bodies were scattered over the wilderness. This is because manna was a covenantal blessing. This is because water from the rock of Christ was a covenantal blessing.

This is food for the faithful: only two kinds of covenant members can physically eat what is set before them. The first group is made up of those who come in faith, seeking the food which God promises. The other group is faithless, and assumes that blessings from such food are automatic, or that faithless observance cannot really do much damage. For these others, the wholesome food acts upon their unwholesome souls as judgment.

But the faithful should be aware of deceptive appearances. Even the faithful should expect our weekly observance of the Supper to have the effect of “flushing out sin.” This may create the appearance that you are falling apart spiritually, but this is probably not the case. God is bringing sin out into the open to deal with it.

The world is covenantal. As we learn to partake of the Lord’s table rightly, we learn that antithesis is the basic lesson. The choice is not between the Lord’s covenantal table and the world’s non-covenantal table, but rather a choice between two tables, both of them covenantal. Levitical worship was covenantal in this way (10:18). Pagan worship was covenantal in this same way (10:21). Everything is covenantal in this way. Partaking of Christ is not dependent upon the power of a priest to work a miracle. Every human being partakes because the world was structured covenantally. The skeleton of the world is the covenant. This means that there are only two tables available, and partaking from them is always covenantal.

This is how we must order our world. Learning how to eat and drink to the glory of God while at MacDonalds (11:31) is not something you learn how to do there. These are lessons to be learned at the Lord’s Table, and then they spread out to the other areas of your life. The Lord’s Table is also important for ordering our marriages. It is always possible that 11:1-16 is an example of Paul getting off track, but I do not believe that is the case here. His teaching of marriage and order in worship is part of his discussion of the covenantal presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Supper, and that discussion is on either side of his discussion of marriage. The two realities are analogous and inter-related.

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