In my previous two Lord’s Supper posts and comments to readers’ posts, I tried to telegraph a few items to set up this post:
1. I don’t care to articulate a doctrine of the Lord’s Supper on the basis of what is NOT said in the text, no matter how sensible it is. Biblical theology derives from the text, not our imagination or our traditions. For example, we might imagine some spiritual benefit from partaking of the Lord’s Supper, but without such connections being stated in the text, these connections are pure speculation. We shouldn’t do theology by speculation (or, at least we should tell people when our teaching is speculation-based, as opposed to the text).
2. John 6 doesn’t really belong in the discussion of the Lord’s Supper, no matter how often that connection has been made. The reason is simple and straightforward: John 6 is not an account of the Last Supper, the event upon which the Lord’s Supper is based. Jesus is making important points about how he is superior to the manna of the OT, and how belief in him is what brings salvation. Our minds might imagine connections, but these connections do not derive from the text.
Now it’s time to move to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians about the Lord’s Supper. To a great extent, this is the heart of the matter. I think you’ll be surprised at some things you’ll see.
1 Corinthians 8-10 is recognized by all NT scholars as being a large chunk of material covering basically one subject: the matter of how to handle matters of dispute among Christians, especially where there doesn’t seem to be a clear textual basis (from the OT – they didn’t have a NT yet) for settling the dispute. The issue Paul focuses on is whether it was okay for believers to eat meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8). This issue takes Paul into all sorts of issues: foreign gods, idolatry, sacrifice, and how to deal with disagreements. Paul addressed the same broad issue in Romans 14; you can look at that later since we’re sticking to Corinthians here.
Here is 1 Cor 8:
1 Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. 4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth-as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”- 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. 7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
In a nutshell, Paul says “who cares” about the meat sacrificed to idols – we’re no closer to God if we eat or abstain (v. 8), so eating is not of itself wrong. The real issue is how the eater treats the non-eater and vice versa. The eater should avoid eating so as to not prompt the abstainer to defile their conscience. The abstainer shouldn’t look down on the eater as though he’s doing something wrong. As for Paul, he’d choose to abstain for the long run for the sake of a brother.
Why bring this up, and what does it have to do with the Lord’s Supper?
Right after Paul makes his self-sacrificial comments in ch 8 (sacrificing his liberty in the eating issue for other believers), he launches into a defense of his apostleship, noting again that he had every right to throw his weight around as an apostle, but absolutely refusing to do so out of love for his fellow believers. In so doing, he makes this comment, which relates to the communion subject in some respect:
13 Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? 14 In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.
Pauls’ point is in the last part of v. 14 – he’s arguing that he had every right to be supported financially (his living) just as the OT priests were, but he didn’t insist on that right. The priests who offered sacrifice got their food from those sacrifices (you can read Leviticus for that).
When Paul gets to chapter 10 he returns to the eating meat issue in chapter 10 and makes this statement, seemingly at odds with what he’s just said about eating meat sacrificed to idols being permissible in chapter 8. Here is 1 Cor. 10:14-22:
14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation (koinōnia) in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation (koinōnia) in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 18 Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants (koinōnos) in the altar? 19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants (koinōnos) with demons. 21 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. 22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? 23 “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. 25 Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 26 For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”
Notice that Paul is well aware that his words here might seem inconsistent with what he said in chapter 8–he brings up that potential objection in v. 19. So how is he consistent, and what is the applicable point to the Lord’s Supper–which Paul turns to in the next chapter, 1 Cor. 11?
What Paul is concerned with is FELLOWSHIP or “participation” with God vs. demons (“flee from idolatry”; v. 14). He argues, based on the OT sacrificial system where the priests ate part of the sacrifice as their “payment” for their service, that when one participates in the sacrifice–in the ritual–solidarity with the object of that sacrifice occurs or is established. The OT priests were in fellowship with God when they partook of the sacrifice (since God “received” the sacrifice as well–it was a “sweet-smelling savour” in the language of Leviticus). The OT sacrifice where the priests could eat of the sacrifice was essentially a communal meal between them and God. Paul says that the same is true when pagans sacrifice their sacrifices–there is solidarity established. Consequently, he wanted believers in Jesus to avoid any connection to the actual ritual–but he adds that they could eat the meat that was later sold in the marketplace. Why? Because the buyer and eater was not connected to the ritual. There would therefore be no fellowship with demons and no confusion created as to whether or not the eaters were in fellowship with the demons to whom the pagans offered sacrifice.
As far as the Lord’s Supper goes, it is a communal meal. We do not re-offer Christ, since his sacrifice was “once for all” (Heb 7:27). However, we commune with God, who received the sacrifice of Christ as propitiation, and with one another, as we all eat of the same bread that symbolized the broken body, and the wine that symbolizes the shed blood. The Lord’s Supper is our fellowship with God and with each other. We don’t “get grace” just as the OT priests, when they ate, did not “get forgiveness” by the eating. The forgiveness was accomplished through their obedience of faith when the sacrifice was offered. The priests did NOT eat of the OT sin offering when that offering was a blood sacrifice–they could eat from other offerings, but not that one. Their eating did not involve forgiveness for sin. Neither does ours.
So what do we “get” from the Lord’s Supper? We get what the OT priests got, by Paul’s analogy: we have solidarity with God, which ought to cause us to grow in gratitude and thanksgiving that our sins have been forgiven on the basis of the death of the sin offering (again, a separate offering from the one the priests ate of–and a distinct event from the bread and wine now being consumed in the Lord’s Supper).
This is why Paul, in the very next chapter, gives the ONLY command in the NT associated with the purpose of the Lord’s Supper: “Do this in REMEMBRANCE of me.” Short, sweet, and to the point. I’ll share some thoughts on that and 1 Cor. 11 tomorrow night in the final post on this topic.
One last thought: Notice that Paul does NOT appeal to the manna by analogy, as in John 6. Though we might want Paul to be looking back on John 6 and elaborating on it, he doesn’t, which should tell us something. If he saw John 6 as the prelude to his own comments, he could have struck some connection. And, while some would argue that the gospel of John wasn’t written yet, Paul knew the apostolic traditions (and his OT!) and could have thus made the connection under inspiration. Yet a connection isn’t made.