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Insight #236 — Why Do We Drink the Cup? (in-depth study)

January 24, 2014.

Every Sunday throughout the world, there are gatherings both large and small where participants eat a tiny piece of bread and take a sip from a cup. What is going on? Actually, there is more going on than many Christians realize. Let’s examine.

A Living Memorial

Probably the best known reason for coming to the Lord’s Table is to remember Jesus’ death. Jesus himself said: “this do in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24-25). We are creatures of forgetfulness. Whether it is someone’s name, or where I left the keys, or why I walked into the next room, we often forget. Or maybe it was a promise to live together for better or for worse until death. Or maybe life is so hectic that we too often forget — even if just for a time — what Jesus did for us.

Tombstones, statues, plaques, and monuments of assorted sizes and shapes are memorials of those who have left their mark in this world. But just as Jesus is alive, so the memorial to him is alive. We do not take pilgrimage to a monument somewhere in Palestine. Rather, we enact a memorial 52 times a year.

The Lord’s Supper is a time to remember. To remember the love for us which caused the Father to send His Son into the world. To remember Jesus’ love in giving himself as a sacrifice for our sins. To remember that we cannot save ourselves; that it is only through the love, grace, and mercy of God that we can be his children. To remember the infamies that the Creator suffered at the hands of his creatures. To remember his agony on the cross. To remember to once again thank Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins. The Lord’s Table is not the only time to remember these things — absolutely not — but it is a special sacred time at the beginning of every week to be vividly reminded yet once again.

A Proclamation

Not only do we individually remember the Lord’s death at the Lord’s Table; but, by partaking in the assembly, we are announcing his death to others. “For as often as you eat this bread, and drink this cup, you do show the Lord’s death…” (1 Cor. 11:26). The word near the end of that quote is variously translated “show,” “proclaim,” “announce.” We are reminding others of Jesus’ death. We are telling each other. We are showing children growing up in the church how important Jesus’ death is. We are announcing to visitors present in the assembly that Jesus died for our sins, that his death is central to why we are there. If children or visitors have no understanding of why we eat a little bread and take a sip from a cup, it becomes an opportunity to explain this central item of our faith. We ourselves individually remember and we collectively announce it to others.

He’s Coming Back

But verse 26 did not stop where I stopped quoting it. It says: “you do show the Lord’s death till he come.” The bread that we break and the cup that we drink do not only look into the past. This memorial feast is not for the purpose of bemoaning the loss of a dear friend. It is rather a triumphal remembrance. Jesus is coming a second time! His death was not in vain. Indeed, the fact that He is coming again assumes other truths. It assumes his resurrection. It assumes that He lives! That is why we partake of the Lord’s Supper on the Lord’s Day. The first day of the week, which the world commonly calls Sunday, but which we call the Lord’s Day, is the day when Jesus came forth from the tomb. Thus, every Sunday we remember both his death and resurrection, as we look forward to his coming again. He is now in heaven as our Great High Priest, our only Mediator. Believers will continue to remember Jesus’ death in this special way every week until He returns to take us to be with him.

The Body of Christ and the Body of Christ

No, that is not a misprint. Perhaps one of the most overlooked significances of the breaking of the bread is that which is referred to by Paul in 1 Cor. 10:16-17: “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 being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.” The NT speaks of the body of Christ in two senses: 1) his physical body which hung on the cross, and 2) us, “the church, which is his body” (Eph 1:22-23). Paul in 1 Cor. 10 is connecting the one-body-the-church to the bread that we partake of. Read it again. It really struck me the first time I came across the idea of how pertinent this concept was for the Corinthian brethren. They had all kinds of “body problems.” At the Lord’s Table, they were called upon to examine their attitudes and actions toward their fellow Christians, because they were all a part of Jesus’ body, just as we also are.

Personal Inventory

Speaking of examining ourselves, the more familiar text is what Paul said in the next chapter of 1 Corinthians: “Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Cor. 11:27-29). It’s serious business to come to the Lord’s Table. People can damn themselves by partaking. Who is worthy? Nobody! But the text does not say we must be worthy to partake. Twice the adverb “unworthily” is used. That does not speak of our own essential worth; it speaks of the manner, the attitude, with which we approach the Table. “Worthily” means “in a worthy manner.” The verses quoted indicate two aspects of coming to the Table in a worthy manner: 1) the way we examine ourselves, and 2) the way we “discern” the Lord’s body: our evaluation of and our esteem for the body of our Lord.

“Let a man examine himself.” Certainly this is not the only time for us to examine ourselves. But it is a weekly-Christ-ordained special time of self examination. New Year’s resolutions are the folly of man. We all joke about people breaking those resolutions. Sure, they are broken. Why? I submit it is because, for the most part, the time to keep the resolution is far too long — a whole year. What did you do last year? What are you gong to do in the new year? No! It makes much more sense to evaluate last week, and decide what you need to do differently this new week.

The Lord’s Supper is a time of self-judging and confession of sin. Surely it is not the only time. We should be doing that all the time. But we have been given a special weekly time, set aside from our busy lives, to make sure we do not fail to take an inventory of just where we are with the Lord. And, we have this promise in 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

The New Testament

In Matthew’s account of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus said, “This is my blood of the new testament” (26:28). In two other accounts, Jesus said: “This cup is the new testament in my blood” (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor.11:25). Notice the difference? Stated either way, the cup involves both Jesus’ blood and his new testament. It is “my blood of the new testament” or “the new testament in my blood.” It is Jesus’ death, his blood, that made possible the new testament or covenant. If someone asked us if we have the New Testament with us, we would hold up a book. We all usually identify the “New Testament” with 27 books, even though the Scriptures themselves never say just that. But here we see that Jesus identifies the new covenant-testament with the cup of the Lord’s Supper. That adds a whole new dimension to the Lord’s Supper. In partaking, we are participating in the New Covenant, the New Testament. We are identifying ourselves as being participants of the New Covenant and all that that entails.

Fellowship With the Body and Blood of Jesus

I used the words “participants” and “participating.” Depending on your version, another form of these words is found in 1 Cor. 10:16: “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?” The word found twice in this verse is variously translated “communion,” “participation,” “sharing,” and “fellowship.” We don’t “take communion.” Rather, when we partake of the bread and the cup, we are having communion with the body and blood of Jesus. Some churches sometimes have optional physical “fellowship meals.” The Lord’s Supper is the divine mandated spiritual fellowship meal. At the Lord’s Table we are sharing in and participating in the body and blood of Jesus. What a sacred time! What a blessed fellowship! Don’t take communion; commune. The bread and cup are the way the Christian continues to keep in contact with the blood of Christ. We are doing more than eating a small piece of bread and taking a sip from a cup. While doing this small physical act, we are spiritually participating in, sharing in the body and blood of Jesus.

Eat His Flesh; Drink His Blood

With this thought in mind, let us consider what Jesus taught as recorded in John 6:53-56: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoso eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, has eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, dwells in me, and I in him.” What did Jesus mean?

From verse 32 to verse 49 of that chapter, Jesus was talking about being the Bread of Life that came down out of heaven. Bread, of course, is to be eaten. The two specific applications that He makes to this in these verses is that the people need to “come” to him and “believe” in him (6:35, etc.). Matt. 16:5-12 and 1 Cor. 5:8 are two other texts which use the figure of bread in a spiritual sense, albeit with different applications.

In John 6, in verses 50 and 51, Jesus for the first time uses the words “eat” and “flesh.” Also, in the preceding verses He had mentioned more than once that He had come out of heaven. He repeats that in verse 51, but adds an additional concept: “and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Notice the future tense: “The bread which I will give is my flesh.” The Jews had already been very upset that He spoke of eating his flesh. Now, rather than clarify what He was saying, Jesus made it more complicated: “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (6:53). He repeats the idea of eating his flesh and drinking his blood three more times in verses 54-56.

Looking at the entire chapter, it is easy to see in the earlier verses of John 6, as well as in the two other texts mentioned, that we have the concept of bread being spiritual food, whether good food or contaminated food. The “bread” is what we take in, what we digest. Even in modern times we speak of “food for thought.” So, we come to Jesus, believe in Jesus, take in what Jesus teaches, and feast our souls on Jesus. In the famous “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4), we again have the implication of spiritual bread for the soul. Real soul food.

That’s eating bread. But drinking blood? In John 6, Jesus gives no explanation of what He means by drinking his blood. Where else in Scripture is drinking blood spoken of in a spiritual sense? Only on one occasion, that we all know well: “This is my body… this is my blood.” Can there be any clearer Scriptural commentary on the latter part of John 6 than this? Of course it is not magic. Of course it is meaningless without a proper heart. Of course, it is not something to just do once a week and live as we please the rest of the week. We eat his body — spiritually. We drink his blood — spiritually. There is no magic or miracle here. The fruit of the vine has no inherent power. We can’t just come any old way and be blessed. As we enact a small physical act, in our mind, heart, and spirit, we are to spiritually commune, to participate in, to have fellowship with the body and blood of Jesus. And Jesus said: “Whoso eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, has eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54).

In Short

The Lord’s Supper is a living memorial of our crucified Savior, announcing his death until He returns. It is a time for personal reflection, both in regard to our relationship to the body of Jesus that was crucified as well as the body of Jesus on earth today. It is a special time of connection to the new covenant and to the blood of the covenant. It is a time of renewing our commitment to the Lord and staying connected to him. It is by no means the only time to have our minds set on these things; but it is a Christ ordained once-a-week time to gather with the saints to collectively commune with Jesus.

Where will you be next Sunday morning?

A related Insight #323