LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The Baptist Faith and Message speaks of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as ordinances. As we consider Article 7 on the Lord’s Supper, we do well to begin by asking what is an ordinance? Why do Christians celebrate and perform these — and only these — two ceremonies?
An ordinance is an act: 1. commanded by the Lord Jesus in the Gospels and given by him for his followers to practice (Matthew 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:7-23); 2. passed on as a tradition by Jesus’ authorized agents, the apostles, in the letters to the churches (1 Corinthians 10:14-22; 11:17-34); and 3. practiced by the early church in the history of the church recorded in Acts (2:42, 46; 20:7, 11). Thus only baptism and the Lord’s Supper can be considered ordinances of the Christian church.
Ordinances are symbolic acts that set forth primary facts of the Christian faith and are obligatory for all who believe in Jesus Christ. Baptism dramatically pictures our entering into covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ by faith, and the Lord’s Supper portrays our continuing in this relationship.
Various designations have been used for the Lord’s Supper by different churches due to the fact that the act is referred to in a variety of ways in the New Testament. These designations include: 1. breaking of bread (Acts 2:42; 20:7; 1 Cor 10:16); 2. communion (1 Cor 10:16); 3. Eucharist (from the Greek word for giving thanks, cf. Matt 26:27; Mark 14:23; Luke 22:17, 19; 1 Cor 11:24); 4. the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:20); and 5. the Lord’s table (1 Cor 10:20).
The accounts in the Gospels show that the Christian ceremony of the Lord’s Supper has its roots in the Jewish Passover festival. This festival was a ceremony observed by the Jewish people to remind them of the Exodus — that awesome event when the Lord rescued them from 400 years of degradation and slavery in Egypt.
Through great miracles and displays of power, Yahweh brought them out of Egypt, rescued them from the cruel oppression of Pharaoh and brought them into a beautiful land they could call their own. Although by definition the Exodus was a non-repeatable event, its significance was preserved for future generations of Israelites by the institution of the ceremony of the Feast of Passover (Exodus 12:24-27), celebrated every year at the Spring Equinox.
Just before Jesus was betrayed and handed over to the rulers to be crucified, he celebrated this “freedom meal” with his 12 disciples. As he did so, he turned the symbolism of the meal in a new direction.
He used the Passover festival to act out in symbolic drama the meaning of his coming death at the hands of the Jewish and Roman rulers. The unleavened bread and the wine were no longer symbols of deliverance from slavery in Egypt, but pictured him as the Passover Lamb sacrificed so that his people might be delivered from slavery to sin and death. As the leader of a new exodus, he instituted a new ceremony to commemorate it.
The explanation given by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (11:17-34) helps us to understand the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. His explanation of the Lord’s Supper reveals six major themes.
1. Saving Sacrifice (This is my body):
On the night Jesus was arrested and betrayed by one of his close followers to the Jewish and Roman authorities, he broke bread. And as he was doing so, he said, “This is my body which is being given for you.”
In the Jewish Passover feast, bread was eaten that was made without yeast. It had been made in haste because they were leaving Egypt in a hurry. In addition, a lamb was slaughtered to avert the angel of death.
The symbolism is now turned in a different direction. The bread represents the death of Jesus for his people. The Apostle Peter says, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Pet 3:18). God was justly outraged by our moral rebellion against him. We were under the sentence of death.
Christ died in our place. He was the Passover Lamb who was sacrificed to avert the messenger of death so that we might have life. This is the tradition handed down by Paul in the words, “This is my body which is for you.”
2. Covenant (This is my blood):
God had made a covenant with his people at Mount Sinai when he brought them out of Egypt. A relationship of love, loyalty and trust had been established. He would be their God, and they would be his people.
This covenant relationship, initiated by sacrifice, had been broken by the people. They had not been faithful to the agreement; they had not followed God’s standards for the relationship.
The death of Jesus initiates a new covenant by a better sacrifice — one that does not need to be repeated. The New Covenant is a better agreement because now not only God, but also his people will be able to keep the agreement.
The cup represents the fact that Jesus died to pay the penalty due unto us for our sins and that through trust in him and in his death for us, we are forgiven and completely pardoned. It speaks of a covenant relationship with God in which he says, “I will be your God, and you shall be my people.”
3. Commemoration (Do this in remembrance of me):
Some Christians believe that when the minister or priest pronounces the words, “This is my body” and “This is my blood,” the bread actually becomes the literal body of Christ, and the wine actually becomes the literal blood of Christ. This teaching, known as transubstantiation, is a misunderstanding of the text for four reasons:
a. The words “this is my body” and “this is my blood” are to be understood figuratively. When King David says, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” he is using a figure of speech, a metaphor. He does not mean that he is literally an animal or a sheep and that the Lord is a sheepherder. He means that his relationship to the Lord is like that between a sheep and the shepherd. If Jesus had meant that the wine becomes his blood, why didn’t he use the word “become”? This is exactly what we have in John 2 when Jesus and his mother were at the wedding in Cana, and the text says that the water became wine.
b. Second, the Lord’s Supper has its origins in the Jewish Passover. This feast was a memorial — a reminder of the Exodus by the use of symbols.
c. Third, the festivals in the pagan religions at this time were also symbolic. It would have required a clear explanation if the Lord’s Supper was to be taken literally.
d. Fourth, Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” He said this carefully. He said it twice. We eat bread and drink wine as a reminder, not as the literal or real thing.
This clearly disproves erroneous thinking. The Lord’s Supper is not a new offering of Christ’s sacrifice. It is a remembering of the one sacrifice for sin, done once for all.
Furthermore, there is no idea presented that by a physical participation of the bread and the wine a person receives saving grace from God. We receive saving grace by faith, by putting our trust in Jesus Christ. John wrote his gospel that we might believe, and that by believing we might have life (John 20:31).
4. Participation (Community):
Paul says that the Lord’s Supper is teaching given by Christ and handed on to you (v. 23 plural). The commands “to eat” and “to drink” are in the plural (v. 26). So, this instruction is given to a community, a community of believers, those who are the followers of Jesus.
The covenant binding us to God through the death of Jesus creates a community. By participating in the communal meal, we are bound not only to the Lord Jesus, but also to one another. We have fellowship with Christ in a deep and mysterious way (1 Cor 10:14-21).
5. Expectation (Future hope):
Paul commands the Corinthians to continue this ceremony until the Lord Jesus comes. The celebration is one of hope — certain hope. Jesus Christ will return to this earth bodily and physically.
When he returns, he will judge the earth. He will reward the righteous and punish the wicked. Wrongs will be set right. We will no longer need this reminder then.
6. Proclamation (Evangelism):
Finally, Paul says that by performing this ceremony, we proclaim the death of the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s Supper dramatizes in symbolic fashion the central facts of the Christian faith and announces these facts to all who observe. In a very simple way, those who do not belong to Jesus can see and understand through these simple actions that the Lord Jesus gave his life for us.
Since the Lord’s Supper is an expression of continuing in the faith, it follows logically that only baptized believers should participate. By eating the bread and drinking the cup, we are identifying with Jesus Christ as Lord. We are saying that when he died, he died for my sins. When he poured out his blood, it was the sacrificial death that initiated a new covenant — a new relationship between us and the Creator God.
We must recognize or distinguish the body of the Lord. By participating in this celebration, we enjoy deep fellowship with the Lord Jesus. Paul says that just as those who participate in pagan religious festivals are actually participating with demonic spirits, so those who belong to Jesus and who participate are actually involved in deep spiritual participation with Jesus Christ.
We must examine and judge ourselves. The ceremony is a way of saying, “I am continuing in my relationship with Jesus Christ.” If our behavior is contrary to our confession, we are lying.
If we don’t examine our lives, acknowledge our sins and turn from them, we will be disciplined by the Lord. But, we should not abstain from the Supper. We must examine ourselves and then participate (v. 28).
Gentry is an associate professor of Old Testament interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
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Full text of Article 7: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.
The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming.
Matthew 3:13-17; 26:26-30; 28:19-20; Mark 1:9-11; 14:22-26; Luke 3:21-22; 22:19-20; John 3:23; Acts 2:41-42; 8:35-39; 16:30-33; 20:7; Romans 6:3-5; 1 Corinthians 10:16,21; 11:23-29; Colossians 2:12.
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