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).
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.