Real Presence

The practice of the Lord’s Supper demands thoughtful observance. Without a careful scriptural study of what we are doing we are vulnerable to many errors — whether superstition on the one hand, or ignorant controversies on the other.

Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world (1 Cor. 11:27-32).

How often should we observe the Supper? Scripture does not explicitly require the Supper to be observed at any set interval. No command is given in this regard, and the examples in Scripture vary. When Jesus instituted the Supper, He said as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup in the context of an annual meal. At the same time, the early Christians in Jerusalem observed the Supper on a daily basis (Acts 2:42,46). From this we can see that frequency of observance is something which may be determined by each church as circumstances warrant. At the same time, the covenant renewal nature of the weekly worship service indicates that weekly observance can be taken as something of a norm.

The Bible teaches that the elements to be used in this observance are bread and wine. When Christ instituted the meal during the Passover, all the bread was unleavened, but the first observance of the Lord’s Supper after the Lord ascended was at the time of Pentecost, when having unleavened bread in that way was impossible. In my view, the best image of the potency of the gospel would be to use leavened bread — the kingdom is like leaven. The drink used by the Jews at the Passover was wine, not grape juice. And the modern idea that the Greek word oinos, elsewhere in Scripture, refers to unfermented grape juice is simply untenable.

The minister and elders of the church are responsible for the proper administration of the ordinance. Some have thought this means only ministers can dispense the elements, but this lends itself to a superstitious approach to the Table. The responsibility of the elders is governmental, not priestly or sacerdotal. But this does mean that individuals should not charge off on their own — the elders remain responsible to maintain for the saints a scriptural observance of the Lord’s Supper.

Who partakes? Those who partake of the meal should be baptized Christians, gathered for worship. All who are bread should get bread. They should be baptized because entrance precedes fellowship and communion. You need to come through the door of a house before you sit at the table in the house.

Three basic understandings of the Lord’s Supper have developed in the Church since the institution of the Supper. The first two have to be rejected, but for different reasons. The first distorts the meaning of the Supper, and the second expresses that meaning, but does so inadequately. The third position is the teaching of Scripture. The first is the sacerdotal view. In this understanding, the minister handling the Lord’s Supper serves as a priest. Because of this the Supper has automatic potency. To use the Roman Catholic phrase for this, it imparts grace ex opere operato. The second is the “mere memorial” view. With this approach, the commemoration of the Lord’s Supper simply provides an occasion for believers to think about Christ’s death, and the remembrance supplies the same blessing that any thoughtful meditation would. The third view is the covenantal view. One of the features of God’s covenant is attendant blessings and curses. As we consider the teaching of Scripture, we should clearly see that God connects both to His covenant meal with us. The Lord’s Supper, approached in godly faith, is a clear means of blessing and grace on the one hand, and chastizement on the other. First, the blessing — “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, through many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread (1 Cor. 10:16-17). But there is also the covenantal cursing that is possible. “For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.”

This is covenant reality because the Lord Himself is present with us in the meal. Because we are Protestants, we deny that He is locally present in the bread and wine, but because we are Reformed Protestants, we do affirm that the Lord is really present with us in the meal. We must affirm this because we deny the doctrine of “real absence.” But His presence with us is spiritual and covenant, not material, and we feed on His presence by faith. So with God’s blessing and cursing in mind, we must come to the Table with joyful solemnity. We must discern the Lord’s body in one another. We must judge ourselves. We must submit to God’s judgments, thankful we will not be judged with the world. We must seek God’s blessing on us in the body.

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