p.ost

(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

The Lord’s Supper in narrative-historical perspective

There are two main debates that the church has engaged in over the Lord’s Supper, one having to do with theory, the other with practice. First, what is the relation between the physical elements of the “meal” and the person of Jesus? Is Jesus really present in the substance of the bread and the wine? Or are they merely symbolic representations of his sacrificial death for the sins of humanity? Or something in between? Secondly, should the Lord’s Supper be celebrated ritualistically, as a profound sacramental mystery, or pragmatically, as a common fellowship meal? Or something in between?

The two questions are closely linked. If we believe that the bread and wine have been changed into the actual body and blood of Jesus, then we will handle them with great reverence and ceremony. If they are the symbolic means of commemorating a past event in the context of an ordinary meal, then the celebration can be much more informal. Or something in between.

Such questions are essentially theological in character. Although the different positions adopted will be fiercely defended from scripture, the Lord’s Supper is treated by all traditions, from the highest to the lowest, as a self-contained, standalone performance of theological meaning. The passages in the Gospels and Paul in which the Supper is supposedly instituted are taken out of their narrative context and re-situated in liturgies and patterns of church life.

In fact, in Mark and Matthew there is no institution of a repeated celebration, merely a description of the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples before his arrest (Mk. 14:22-25; Matt. 26:26-29). It is Luke and Paul who contribute the idea that Jesus’ followers were to celebrate the meal repeatedly “in remembrance of” Jesus (Lk. 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24-25).

Jacopo Bassano, Last Supper (1542)

What I want to consider here, then, is the significance that the meal had for the disciples of Jesus and the early Pauline churches as part of the story—or better stories—of eschatological transformation in which they were engaged. How do the narrative horizons of the New Testament shape and constrain its meaning? And if the horizons of the modern church are different, does it still make sense to celebrate the Lord’s Supper today?

Jesus’ death for the sins of his people

In the Synoptic Gospels it is not the salvation of humanity that is at issue in the meal, it is the salvation of Israel. The prominent association with the Passover, whether or not this was actually a Passover meal, makes it in some respect a re-enactment of the liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The exodus was not a universal existential event; it was a particular historical event.

The wine is interpreted as the “blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:27-28). The language evokes: i) the ratification of the Mosaic covenant (Ex. 24:8); ii) the pouring out of blood in the sin offerings (eg. Lev. 4:7); iii) the death of the suffering servant who “poured out his soul to death and… bore the sin of many” (Is. 53:12); and the atoning deaths of Jewish martyrs (1 Macc. 6:44; 2 Macc. 7:33, 37-38; 4 Macc. 1:11; 17:21-22; 18:3-4; T. Mos. 9:6-10:1; Ps.-Philo, Bib. Ant. 18:5).

The meal interprets Jesus’ death, therefore, within the frame of Israel’s story, as a death for the sins of Israel. It harks back to the promise of the angel to Joseph that “he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Jesus is not here the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29; cf. 1 Jn. 2:2).

The kingdom of the Father

Jesus will not drink wine again until he drinks it “new” with his disciples “in my Father’s kingdom” (26:29). The expectation of the Father’s kingdom and an eschatological feast has already been established in the Gospel narrative.

The Lord’s Prayer, for example, asks that the kingdom of the Father in heaven will come as a matter of urgency—that YHWH will intervene in the immediate historical context of first century Israel to judge his people and ensure that his “great name”, which Israel has profaned and discredited, will be hallowed among the nations (Matt. 6:9-10; cf. Ezek. 36:23 LXX).

Only those who do the will of Jesus’ Father in heaven will “enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 7:21). Entry into the kingdom will happen when destruction comes upon the many, when those who prophesy falsely to Israel are “cut down and thrown into the fire”, like trees that do not bear good fruit, when many will be excluded because they have not done the will of Father, when rain and floods wash away the house that was built on the sand (Matt. 7:13-27).

At the end of the age the Son of Man will come to Israel as king and will send out his angels to gather up “all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace”. But the righteous “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt. 13:40-43). The allusion is to Daniel 12:3: “And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” The righteous are those Jews who remain loyal to YHWH and to the covenant when Israel comes under intense pressure from Antiochus Epiphanes to adopt the religion and customs of the Greeks. They will suffer, and many will lose their lives; but they will be vindicated on the day when God delivers his people from the extreme political-religious crisis.

The eschatological feast

A central image for the inclusion of those who will enter the kingdom of God is the banquet, which is why Jesus makes a point of eating with “tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 9:10; cf. 11:19). Jesus tells a centurion that “many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness” (Matt. 8:11–12). He likens the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast for the son of a king. The invited guests—the “sons of the kingdom”—choose not to come, so the king sends his troops to destroy their city, while servants scour the streets to find people, “both good and bad”, to attend the feast (Matt. 22:1-14).

So the meal at which Jesus will drink wine “new” with his followers in his Father’s kingdom will take place at the time when God judges unrighteous Israel and vindicates the few who had chosen the narrow and difficult path leading to life. It has to be understood in relation to the foreseen war against Rome.

Paul does not mention a future feast, but his account also has an eschatological dimension: “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). He then goes on to warn the Corinthians that if they eat the bread or drink the cup in an unworthy manner, they will be “guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” (11:27). As a consequence, they are “judged by the Lord”—he has in mind the fact that many of them are “weak and ill, and some have died”. This suggests, I think, that when he says that they “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”, he means that their behaviour must remain consistent with the fact of the Lord’s death right through to the parousia. In other words, they cannot be complacent.

Beyond the horizon of the New Testament

My argument generally is that Jesus and Paul have different eschatological horizons. For Jesus the kingdom of the Father comes when Israel is judged and his disciples and followers are vindicated for their faith in him and for their resolute proclamation of the prophetic word. Perhaps Matthew pushes the horizon further back, but not to such a degree that the primary focus on the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple is lost. For Paul, on the other hand, the horizon is the judgment of the pagan world, when Jesus will be publicly confessed as Lord by the nations.

Under either scenario, however, the Lord’s Supper was a key means by which the early churches—first in Jerusalem and Judea, then in the wider world—identified themselves with Jesus in his suffering for the sake of the radically new future that was soon to emerge. Baptism served a similar purpose: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). These are eschatological sacraments.

So as we have it in the New Testament, the Lord’s Supper belongs explicitly and significantly to the period between Jesus’ death and the eventual vindication, in the ancient world, of those who put their faith in him. For us that is all now in the past. So should we still celebrate the Lord’s Supper?

I think the answer is yes. Just as the Jews celebrated their deliverance from Egypt in the Passover meal, so the people of God today celebrates the moment of its deliverance from the power that sin had over its life and mission. At much greater historical distance and under very different eschatological conditions, we still remember that Jesus died for the sins of his people and for the sake of a radically transformed future for his people. History has moved on—nations in the West no longer confess Jesus as Lord—but we are who we are because of the narrative told in the New Testament.

I regard it as an error of narrative context to say now that we do this “until he comes”, but we will keep telling this story through to our own eschatological horizon, which is the final renewal or remaking of God’s creation. It is not some regional idolatrous imperial power that now determines the nature and scope of the missional challenge. It is the much bigger and, arguably, far more powerful, resilient, aggressive and expansionist culture of modern secular humanism that calls into question the whole raison-d’être of the church in the West. We are confronted by a very different type of socio-ecological hubris.

It is in this increasingly global and, indeed, cosmic context—NASA has just crashed its Messenger probe into the planet Mercury—that we must continue to affirm the righteousness or rightness of the creator God. But we can do this at all only because in the first century AD Jesus died for the sins of his people.

Comments

Thanks for the article, Andrew!

I like how the Lord’s Supper pulls in meaning from both past and future, even in the original instance. It is almost specifically designed for a people in transition with completed stories behind them and a new story yet to come.

The Lord’s Supper reminds me of Moses’ exodus, Jesus’ exodus, and Jesus receiving his kingdom. It experientially reveals and renews my commitment to be the people of God in the world at this moment, and it looks forward to the resurrection fellowship of the new heavens and new earth.

Another interesting article, Andrew. As ever, I agree with a narrative historical reading of the Lord’s supper, but disagree about the limitations you place on it and on your interpretation of Israel’s history.

The striking feature of the Lord’s supper is that Jesus frames the Exodus story as finding its fulfilment not in a national vindication, but in himself as its climax and conclusion. It is to do with forgiveness of sins, which is both personal and a corporate way of saying that Israel’s stalled restoration could now proceed, but that it did so not down the path of national vindication.

In fact, Israel was not be restored nationally, but the many OT prophecies about ingathering of the Gentiles at a time of ‘restoration’ could now, and did, proceed. Forgiveness of sins was to be the trigger which would release restoration, demonstrated also by the signs which accompanied Jesus’s ministry. Acts, however, shows that the key feature of this restoration was the inclusion of the Gentile world. Eventually, the restored people of God were neither Jew nor Gentile, but one new people of God. National Israel was judged, along with the symbols of her national arrogance and rebellion - Jerusalem and temple in particular.

So it’s fair to say that the judgment on the temple and Jerusalem, and on national Israel, in the 1st century was a feature of the kingdom. What else could it be? But it’s not fair to say that this was a unique feature of the kingdom which frames the Lord’s supper. That would be to ignore the whole trajectory of the Israel story, from Exodus to Cross, which was the “mystery” (ie not obvious) which had been brought to light. The “mystery” is the bringing of “all things” together under “one head”, Christ - Ephesians 1:9; that “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body” - Epheisans 3:3,6. The same is repeated in Colossians 1:26 and 17, with the added explanation: “Christ in you, the hope of glory”.

This is where the Exodus story and its conclusion in the Lord’s supper lands, though taking in everything you mention along the way. It’s clear that the kingdom is everything demonstrated by the Spirit then, now and throughout history - with a greater emphasis on renewal than judgment. The Lord’s supper therefore locates us as part of this story, which far from signifying mainly 1st century events, is a continuum from Jesus through Paul to the present day.

Moreover, as we celebrate the story, we encounter Jesus in the celebration of the Lord’s supper. It’s this encounter which is of significance. The theological explanations are simply attempts to described what is happening ‘after the event’, and are singularly inadequate in their attempts to do so. Nevertheless, the Lord’s supper declares that we are part of this story, and it is current, just as relevant now as it was when it was first celebrated.

An alternative narrative historical explanation.

Peter, thanks.

Where does the phrase “national vindication” come from? It’s not one I used. I mentioned the vindication of the persecuted righteous “on the day when God delivers his people from the extreme political-religious crisis”—that was in relation to Antiochus Epiphanes. But that’s not a matter of “national vindication”, and it has to do with the coming of the kingdom, not with the Lord’s Supper. I also said that the “few” who have walked the narrow road leading to life will be vindicated at the eschatological banquet, but the Lord’s Supper is not the eschatological banquet. So I don’t see the point of your objection that “Jesus frames the Exodus story as finding its fulfilment not in a national vindication”. I never said that the Lord’s Supper had anything to do with national vindication.

Also, taken on its own terms, the Lord’s Supper in the Gospels does not have in view the inclusion of Gentiles. It is interpreted within the limiting frame of Israel’s story, from the Exodus through to the Maccabean martyrs. Only Jews made the journey from Egypt, only Jews benefited from the sacrificial system, only Jews faced the punishment of exile in Babylon, only Jews were tortured and killed by Antiochus for not eating pork. Gentiles have nothing to do with it.

The so-called ingathering of the nations in the prophets, which I’ve argued before is overstated, comes after the exile, after judgment on Israel. Jesus’ death precedes judgment on Israel. So even if Matthew 10:11-12 refers to the nations sharing in the eschatological banquet, it happens at the parousia. Not Jesus, nor the evangelists, nor Paul attempts to retroject that back development into the Lord’s Supper. It would make neither narrative nor theological sense.

It’s one thing to read the last supper as part of a narrative that led to the inclusion of Gentiles. It is another to read the inclusion of Gentiles back into the last supper. That’s just poor hermeneutics.

I don’t see the point of your objection that “Jesus frames the Exodus story as finding its fulfilment not in a national vindication”. I never said that the Lord’s Supper had anything to do with national vindication.

I think it’s a highly important point. Israel is judged in fulfilment of Jesus’s prophecy about Jerusalem in Luke 21, which you describe as his coming at the end of the age to Israel as king. I think it needs to then to be said that even faithful Israel is not restored as Israel (which might have been inferred from the prophets), but as part of a people which has no national identity (very much not inferred from the prophets). You are trying to say that Jesus was part of a story which did not look beyond the immediate local concerns of Israel and her national history, as per your 2nd paragraph. But the Lord’s supper is part of a story in which Israel was finished in its national form. The whole story of the NT, or Acts if you want a direct connection with the gospels, bears that out.

The so-called ingathering of the nations in the prophets, which I’ve argued before is overstated, comes after the exile, after judgment on Israel.

Yes, but when was that ingathering? According to Paul, the ingathering of the Gentiles followed the death of Jesus, and did not come at any time before - Romans 11:25. Paul’s calling (Acts 13:47) reflects that reality - which he bases on one of the OT prophets who predicted the ingathering - Isaiah 49:6b.

Also, taken on its own terms, the Lord’s Supper in the Gospels does not have in view the inclusion of Gentiles.

Yes, of course, that’s what you have said. But it doesn’t make sense. The story itself, if we haven’t already seen it, goes on to demonstrate that inclusion of the Gentiles was part of God’s determinate plan. The Exodus story which was brought to its climax in Jesus, as interpreted in the last supper, did not have in view a meaning limited to Israel. Jesus is part of that larger story of Gentile inclusion. Once you try to say that Jesus came to participate in anything less than this, you end up with the unbelievable notion that the Gentiles only came to believe in Israel’s God because they saw what He had done for Israel, (notably atonement of sins), but not for them. Not only is that unbelievable as an explanation of why the Gentiles believed in Jesus for themselves, but it has never been offered as an explanation of the worldwide spread of the faith, nor even preached as the faith, before you suggested it. The whole Christian project would then be found to be based on a fraud, a misunderstanding of who Jesus came to save from their sins, and should be judged as such.

The Lord’s supper is also the introduction of the new covenant (Matthew 26:28, variously described as “new covenant”). The beneficiaries of the new covenant were Israel initially and in part, but then overwhelmingly the Gentiles. It’s clear that Paul saw this as the whole purpose of Israel’s vocation, based on the covenant with Abraham. That nothing is said about the Gentiles at the Lord’s supper when Jesus celebrated it with the disciples is largely irrelevant. The message of the Lord’s supper within the ongoing story, and in the significance of Jesus within that ongoing story, speaks louder than words.

It’s one thing to read the last supper as part of a narrative that led to the inclusion of Gentiles. It is another to read the inclusion of Gentiles back into the last supper. That’s just poor hermeneutics.

That’s a well crafted conclusion, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The Lord’s supper reads both backwards and forwards. Backwards, it included a story which predates Israel, in the story of Abraham to which the Exodus story is directly connected in Genesis 15, and from Abraham back to the origins of the entire story in Genesis 1 & 2. Forwards, it introduces the new covenant which included Gentiles on entirely the same terms as Israel, although now the terms Jew and Gentile were of cultural significance only, and irrelevant as grounds of qualification for covenant inclusion.

Exegesis has to make sense. If in the end it doesn’t, or it only makes sense in its own enclosed textual world and not the world outside of the text, that strongly suggests poor hermeneutics.

I think it needs to then to be said that even faithful Israel is not restored as Israel (which might have been inferred from the prophets), but as part of a people which has no national identity (very much not inferred from the prophets). You are trying to say that Jesus was part of a story which did not look beyond the immediate local concerns of Israel and her national history, as per your 2nd paragraph. But the Lord’s supper is part of a story in which Israel was finished in its national form.

I still think you are missing my point. All I’m saying is that the meal needs to be interpreted as part of Israel’s story and not as the institution of a free-standing liturgical celebration. If it can be shown that Jesus thought that God’s people would not be restored as national Israel, that’s fine, that’s part of the story. But just out of curiosity, how would you show that from the Synoptic Gospels?

Once you try to say that Jesus came to participate in anything less than this, you end up with the unbelievable notion that the Gentiles only came to believe in Israel’s God because they saw what He had done for Israel, (notably atonement of sins), but not for them.

Again, it’s a fine statement, but where is the exegetical evidence for it? Where is the evidence that Jesus foresaw such a massively significant development? Why do none of the stories that he told about kingdom include the explicit inclusion of non-Jews in the new covenant, in the community of those who would proclaim the future kingdom of God? You can’t point to the sheep and goats judgment, because that’s something that happens at the parousia.

The Lord’s supper reads both backwards and forwards.

No, you are reading the Lord’s supper both backwards and forwards. You are asking it to do something that is not actually inherent in the text. There is no reference to Abraham, though obviously the exodus event presupposes the promise to Abraham. And neither in the prophets nor in the Gospels does the “new covenant” theme include the idea that Gentiles will be incorporate into Israel.

Exegesis has to make sense. If in the end it doesn’t, or it only makes sense in its own enclosed textual world and not the world outside of the text, that strongly suggests poor hermeneutics.

No, I strongly disagree. We can only do exegesis in light of the world presupposed by the text, not of the world that presupposes the text. If subsequent interpreters misunderstood the text for whatever reason—as best we can tell—then we have a responsibility to say so.

The “Theological Interpretation of Scripture” proponents certainly prefer to find coherence and uniformity of theological meaning in the Bible. But I’m going to stick to a narrative-historical approach which resists the temptation to read extraneous and anachronistic meanings back into texts. I see no problem in accounting for the later theology of the church on that basis.