Recovering the Priority of the Local Church
Topic: Grace Pulpit
Recovering the Priority of the Local Church
May 24, 2015
We’re going through a little series that we’re calling Support Your Local Church. Usually in the pulpit here, we go verse by verse through a passage of Scripture, but we’re breaking from our normal regular study of the Gospel of Luke to address a vital topic—the topic of local church membership, local church involvement. This is our third week in the series. We’ve already seen from Scripture the purpose of the local church—that was our first message. We also saw last week the role of the baptism ordinance, the entry point into the local church. Today, we’re going to talk about communion—the Lord’s Supper. It’s set out before us today. We’re going to celebrate that later together. Both baptism and communion are ordinances of our Lord. They’re rituals that he has commanded us to practice together as a church. It’s to be a regular part of the life of the local church. If baptism is the ordinance that provides entrance to the local church, well, communion is the ordinance that preserves that membership. It preserves that fellowship. It maintains it. It protects it, even.
So with that in mind, turn in your Bibles to 1 Corinthians chapter 11. Just by way of introduction, there is probably no better passage in the New Testament to illustrate the purpose and the function of the Lord’s Supper than this one. So we’re going to start in 1 Corinthians—make a few observations there. Then we’ll take a closer look at how Christ instituted the ordinance of communion on the night he was betrayed. Are you there in 1 Corinthians 11? Look at verse 17. I’m going to read a few verses there starting in verse 17.
*But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for the must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another get drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. *
The internal problems of the Corinthian Church are manifold. If you’re familiar at all with 1 Corinthians, you can see that Paul addresses issue after issue after issue. It’s just a letter of confrontation for a sinful, disobedient church. But all the problems that Paul dealt with inside the Corinthian church stemmed from the root of self-centeredness and pride. All the errors that he addressed in this first letter to the Corinthians come down to those two sins. In fact, whenever you see a church that’s unhealthy—you walk into it and see division and backbiting and all that—you know without even knowing the church, without even knowing the people, you know you can trace those problems back to the sins of self-centeredness and pride.
The problem in this church was not just about the negative impact those sins had on the church members themselves, even though they were significant. It wasn’t even primarily about the church’s terrible testimony to the watching world. Well, that was significant. The main problem was how those sins were an offense to the risen Lord Jesus Christ—that was the problem. Their internal sins showed up most clearly in the way they practiced this fellowship ordinance—partaking of the Lord’s Table. “When you come together,” Paul charged, “it is not for the better but for the worse.” And Paul’s first piece of evidence you can see there in verses 17 and 18, they were not really together. They were divided. They were fractured. They were split up into divisions and factions. It was a massive problem because it destroyed the picture that is represented by the Lord’s Table, which is the corporate unity of local church fellowship.
In the previous chapter—you can flip over there if you’d like to—First Corinthians 10:16—Paul teaches them about the significance of the Lord’s Table regarding this issue of fellowship. He says in that verse, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” That word translated “participation” is that familiar, but all too often misunderstood word “koinonia.” It could be translated as “participation,” or “sharing,” or “fellowship,” or even “close intimate relationship.” That’s why the Lord’s Supper is called a “communion.” Our coming together pictures the reality of the union that we share in the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Fellowship—I always heard this growing up—there was a fellowship hall in the little Baptist church I went to. You went downstairs and it was a tile floor because they were tired of cleaning up punch stains out of the carpet. So it was a tile floor, and there were punch and stale cookies and that kind of thing. And you went down there and talked about anything you wanted to and that was “fellowship.” That’s not biblical fellowship. That’s talking over punch and cookies and coffee. That’s okay. That’s great. It’s wonderful to do that. We’re going to go have food May 31 and June 28—write those down. That’s great, but fellowship is a communing with the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s deeply spiritual and is significant. It is what gives us the life in the body. This is about fellowship—participating in the body and blood of Christ, sharing in his death for our sins. We’re communing with him. And since we’re all communing with him together, we are communing with one another as well.
The next verse in 1 Corinthians 10:17: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Communion is about the fellowship with the church. It’s about fellowship with Christ, fellowship with the saints. Whatever causes division in that fellowship—like pride, like self-centeredness—is completely out of line. Those sins are the very incursion of Satan attempting to destroy and divide the fellowship.
You can go back to 1 Corinthians 11. In verses 20 to 22, Paul rebukes Corinthian self-centeredness. He says, “When you come together, it’s not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.” That is to say, “You may be eating and drinking, but it has nothing to do with communion.” Oh, they were calling it “The Lord’s Table,” but what they were doing was anything but. So to correct these abuses and to confront the underlying attitudes, Paul pointed the Corinthians back to what her received directly from the Lord. After the risen Lord confronted Paul—remember on the Damascus Road when he called and commissioned him—the Lord personally taught and tutored Paul to get him ready for apostleship. Teaching Paul the significance of the communion ordinance was part of the curriculum. Since this fellowship ordinance was so significant to our Lord, we’d better pay close attention, shouldn’t we?
Notice what Christ told Paul starting in verse 23.
*For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, be broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. *
That’s the pattern we’re to follow. That’s how we practice this vital ordinance to proclaim the fellowship of the local church. The Lord’s Table is the ordinance that proclaims and preserves and protects that fellowship. It’s a fellowship that’s very important to the Lord Jesus Christ. Notice how the fundamental attitudes pictured in this communion ordinance rebuke Corinthians’ sins. In verse 24, Jesus said, “This is my body.” The one body points to the unity of the fellowship. The unity that the Corinthians were dividing by their pride and their arrogance. Jesus said, “This is my body which is for you.” That indicates his selfless sacrifice in giving his body for the church confronted Corinthian self-indulgence, Corinthian individualism. In light of his selflessness, would we dare approach the fellowship of the church, represented by this table, with a self-centered, what’s-in-it-for-me attitude? It’s completely out of place. Listen, beloved, it’s absolutely imperative that we heed these biblical warnings, and we approach his table with the utmost care. Look at verse 29.
*Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so seat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. *
Listen, there’s more to proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes by observing communion than merely digesting elements into our bodies. This table is not about stirring sentimental feelings of sympathy for what the Lord suffered, what he endured on the cross. The Lord’s Table is about the fellowship—proclaiming it, protecting it, and remaining committed to it. This table is a matter of our attitudes. It’s a matter of our wills. It’s a matter of our affections. Let me show you why.
Let’s go back to Luke 22. We’re going to return to the night of Christ’s betrayal and see what Christ had in mind when he instituted this ordinance. Why is this ordinance significant to him? Luke 22 records what happened the night Jesus was betrayed. It says in verse 1, “Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover.” Luke records the conspiracy of Judas and the Jewish leaders to deliver Jesus over to death in those next verses—3 to 6—and that’s very significant. We’ll come back to that. But notice in verse 7, “Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lam had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepared the Passover for us, that we may eat it.’” So Jesus sent Peter and John to prepare for the last Passover he would celebrate before going to the cross, which was near. And the Lord, knowing what the Father had sovereignly planned, what he designed, what he intended—the Lord intended to turn that final Passover into the first Communion, which would become the pattern for the fellowship ordinance of the local church.
As you know, Passover, the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, commemorated the Exodus, the time when God delivered his people Israel out of Egypt, when he delivered Israel from the Egyptians. It commemorated God redeeming Israel, purchasing his people for his own possession. That redemption, as you remember, required the shedding of blood. It required the sacrifice of a bunch of innocent lambs who had done no wrong, but they atoned for the peoples’ sin. That’s what Passover commemorated—the covering over of the blood. You remember the death angel came to Egypt one night, visiting every Egyptian home and killing every Egyptian firstborn—horrendous when you think about that. The angel of death would have killed every firstborn Israelite child, too, had it not been for the gracious salvation of God revealing a way of escape. God told Moses Israel could escape that judgment by sacrificing a lamb—one per household. They were to paint the doorposts of their homes with blood as a sign to that death angel so that home was covered by the blood of the lamb. When the angel saw the blood, he passed over that home, sparing the life of the firstborn. Thus, Passover.
God made a distinction that night when he sent the angel. But it wasn’t between good Israelites and bad Egyptians. In God’s eyes, all of them were bad. All of them were idolators. All of them had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. What was the distinction then? The distinction, then, was between those who were covered by the blood and those who were not. The difference was the blood of the lamb. Isn’t it the same today?
That’s the significance of what the Apostles were about to celebrate and observe with their Lord Jesus Christ that night. Peter and John had made the preparations in verse 9 to 13. And then Jesus joined his disciples that night to celebrate. As they were looking back, Christ was looking forward. His last Passover would become their first communion. Very soon he would shed his own blood, covering their sins as their Pascal Lamb, purchasing them as a people for his own possession. Look at verse 14.
*When the hour came, he reclined at the table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”
Now, here is the first point I want you to see about the significance of communion—and the points are there written in your bulletin in an outline—Communion is an Intimate Fellowship. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we participate in intimate fellowship with Christ and his people. That’s what we noted earlier from 1 Corinthians 10:16 and 17—the Lord’s Table is about fellowshipping. It’s about “koinonia” with the risen Lord. Ingesting those elements pictures just how close and intimate that fellowship actually is. It’s internal. In fact the Passover meal, like many other sacrifices of Israel, pictured the fellowship between the worshiper and God. Do you understand that? That’s what a meal does, right? Food brings people together. The table brings people together. It sits them down at the same table. It facilitates the building of relationships, maintaining relationships, strengthening relationships. It’s the same thing with Passover. It’s the same thing with the Lord’s Table.
And that’s why Paul, again in 1 Corinthians 10, warns the Corinthians about participating in food sacrificed to idols while celebrating communion. He said it was a fellowship principle. In 1 Corinthians 10:18 he said:
*Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? […] What pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. 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.*
So this is a fellowship. And notice the intimacy the Lord desired in sharing this meal with his disciples. Look at verse 15. He said, “I earnestly desire to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” That’s an intense Hebrew expression there. You can get a sense of the emphasis if you translate it literally. He is literally saying, “I have desired with desire.” He’s expressing deep longing to be with these men, a hungering for fellowship with them. And that’s because these guys were close. They’re family to him. The Passover meal was typically celebrated as a family event, together, gathering together, eating together as households. That’s why there was one lamb per household. For this Passover, the Apostles aren’t eating with their families, their households, at least their physical relations. They’re eating this Passover with a new family—the household of faith.
Let me ask you, is this household more important to you than any other? More important than your own family? If the fellowship of believers is more precious to you than any other human relationship, you know what? It changes the way you spend your time, your money, your energy, your resources, doesn’t it? You invest in what matters to you. For Jesus, intimate fellowship with his people is more important that all relations. Matthew 12:46 and following:
*While he was still speaking to the people, behold his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!”*
That’s why this fellowship meal was so important to him. He longed for the intimacy with his disciples, which he would not experience again in the flesh until, as it says in verse 15, “It is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Perhaps you haven’t thought about communion this way before. Now that you see the way the Lord looks at this ordinance, you should align your thinking with his, shouldn’t we? Communion is an intimate fellowship.
Let’s keep moving. You can’t see it in the text of Luke’s Gospel alone, but by comparing the accounts in Matthew, Mark and John, we know there are quite a few things going on between verses 16 and 17. Some of the most significant events are recorded in John’s Gospel. So turn over to John 13. We’ll come back to Luke 22. But I want you to turn to John 13 because we need to learn more about what the Lord thinks of communion, by considering what happened in that upper room on the night he was betrayed. And this leads us to our second point in the outline you see in your bulletin—Communion is a Pure Fellowship. John 13 through 16 are chapters known as the “Upper Room Discourse,” when Jesus prepared his disciples for his departure. He was going to leave them soon, and he wanted them to be ready. He knew this was going to be hard. Everything that was recorded in those four chapters happened at that last supper—that first communion. They really shed light on the significance of the communion ordinance, and that’s exactly what we’re proclaiming by partaking of these elements.
We learn in John 13:1 to 20 that the evening started off with a foot-washing. You understand how walking around—if you’ve traveled at all—gone to India or some other countries around the world—walking around on dirt streets with the sanitation system mixing in with the foot traffic wearing sandals. That made cleaning your feet a pretty routine necessity. You would want to do that often, especially when you came to sit down to eat. You didn’t like the smells mixing with your food. It’s just a normal part of life. So when they sat down to eat, it was odd, really, that none of the disciples took up the slave’s role of washing one another’s feet. They didn’t even wash their own feet. It turns out it was according to plan because Jesus intended to teach them something. He donned a towel. He grabbed a basin of water, and he washed all the disciples’ feet. Note this—he washed all of their feet, including the feet of his betrayer, Judas Iscariot.
Peter couldn’t stand the thought of his Lord stooping down to perform the slave’s duty on his feet, so he tells the Lord—I love that—he tells the Lord in verse 8, “You shall never wash my feet.” Isn’t it interesting when we give the Lord commands? Odd. Jesus is so gracious. He answers Peter, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” In other words, “This is a matter of our fellowship, Peter.” Peter said in verse 9, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head.” That is so Peter, isn’t it? What he lacked in understanding he made up for in enthusiasm, didn’t he? Jesus is still patient to teach Peter and the others. He continues the lesson in verse 10, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean.” The true disciples—this foot-washing is a picture of our need to confess our sins. We need to keep our consciences clean and clear before God by regularly confessing our sins, coming often to Jesus to wash our feet.
The Apostle John wrote in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to,” or you might translate that, “Faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” That is to say, if we confess our sins—that is to acknowledge our sins before God, to admit that we’ve committed them, to identify our sins as the sins that they are—that’s what confess means, by the way. “Homologeo,” which is “homo”—“same”—and “logeo,” which is “to say” or “to speak.” So it’s to “say the same thing as,” when you are saying the same thing about your sin, you are saying the same thing that God says about your sin. You’re coming into agreement with God about what you have done, what it is. So you are saying the same things about your sin that God says about your sin—if you will do that, God will forgive you.
Notice why—because of his character. God is faithful. That is, he is always consistent. He is never changing. Not only that, but he’s just or he is righteous, meaning he doesn’t let sin go. He doesn’t wink at your sin. He doesn’t just ignore it. No, he fully punished it when he put Christ to death on the cross. All of his wrath was poured out on Christ—none of it left for you. So in view of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and in light of your fellowship, God will restore us by confession, through confession. He’ll restore us back into fellowship with him. He will forgive. The sin you’ve confessed—that sin that interrupted your fellowship with God and broke it as far as you were concerned because there is guilt on your conscience—you feel the shame. You want to hide, just like Adam and Eve when they transgressed the law and they were found out in the garden. They immediately hid from one another and then from God in silly ways. They tried to cover their own sin. They tried to cover it up themselves. They tried to deflect. They tried to counter accuse. They tried to blame—shift blame around. They didn’t deal with sin directly, did they? It’s the same thing we do, isn’t it?
No, if we come clean, if we come and confess to God, that sin that interrupted our fellowship can be wiped away. He’ll forgive it. Not only that, but the sin that you’re unaware of, noted there as “all unrighteousness”—that sin—he’ll cleanse you of that, too. So you come confessing the sins you know about, he will forgive those. And the sin that you don’t know about, that you’re unaware of, he’ll cleanse that too. He is so gracious. Listen, that is why confessing sin is so vital for maintaining fellowship. That’s what we face whenever we come—we do it here monthly—whenever we come to celebrate the Lord’s Table. We remember what happened that night, how the Lord washed his disciples’ dirty feet. He stooped down before them, taking the role of the lowest slave to wash the filth and the muck from their feet.
Boy, when you think about that, what a terrible position we put our Lord in when we sin against him, right? No wonder Peter didn’t want to see him kneeling before him, washing his feet. It seems like such an inappropriate place for the Lord to be, such an unfitting role. But if we fail to confess our sins, if we fail to come to him so he’ll wash our dirty feet, remember what Jesus told Peter: “If I do not wash you [Peter], you have no share with me.” “You have no fellowship with me.” Jesus had bathed them already, having cleansed them by the washing of the water with the Word, but since they dirtied their feet—they had broken fellowship with him—Jesus was so gracious to restore them to fellowship by cleansing their feet. He leads us to confess, and then he forgives us when we do. It’s all of grace. The fellowship of Christ and his church is for those who cleanse their consciences through confession. We proclaim a pure fellowship. Confessing our sins is vital to preserving this fellowship.
There is another lesson the disciples are going to learn here. We proclaim an Intimate Fellowship and a Pure Fellowship. Point three—Communion is a Humble Fellowship. That’s the other lesson Jesus wanted his dispels to learn from his act of washing their feet. They needed to learn humility, to take a low position with one another, to take the role of a slave. Look at verse 13.
*You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.*
The disciples, let me tell you, desperately needed to learn this lesson. No sooner had Jesus washed their feet and told them to do the same, they were arguing over which one of them was greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Unbelievable, but so like us. Prideful dissension and petty bickering poisoned their fellowship—attitudes that were so out of place in plain view of the Lord’s immediate object lesson. That was the same inappropriate attitude that existed in the Corinthian church, too. Pride and self-centeredness. In light of Christ washing his disciples’ feet, in light of the cleansing he provided by selflessly going to the cross to forgive us of all of our sins, isn’t our pride absolutely shameful? Our pride is an utter disgrace, particularly when we come together when we celebrate the Lord’s Table. For those of us who struggle with pride—and which of us doesn’t?—we need to repent of that sin immediately. We need to mortify it daily, killing it with extreme prejudice because it is so unfitting and inappropriate in the church, particularly at the Lord’s Table. Communion is to be a humble fellowship before the Lord with his saints.
So communion is marked by intimacy with the Lord, purity of conscience, humility before God, before others. There is something else I want you to notice there in John 13. As Jesus was teaching Peter about the necessity of washing his feet, something wasn’t quite right with the fellowship. And that something was a someone—and he didn’t belong. Look at verse 10 again.
*Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that is why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”*
There is a fourth point here about the kind of fellowship we are proclaiming in communion. We’re proclaiming an Intimate fellowship, a Pure Fellowship, a Humble Fellowship, and the fourth point—Communion is an Exclusive Fellowship. As we noted earlier, Judas had arranged with the Jewish leaders to betray Jesus and hand him over to death. You know we saw that mentioned in Luke 22:3-6, but up to this point, Judas was still in the company of the disciples. He’s still there. That was a problem. As Paul pointed out in 2 Corinthians 6:14-15, in a series of rhetorical questions, “What partnership has righteousness with lawlessness?” Implied answer—none. “Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” None. “What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?” None and none again. Judas shared no partnership, no fellowship, no accord and no portion with Christ and the rest of the Apostles. He didn’t belong there. And beloved, unbelievers don’t belong at the Lord’s Table either. This is an exclusive fellowship between Christ and his church. Only Christians may participate in the Lord’s Table.
So in John 13:21-30, Jesus purged the fellowship. He identified and exposed that false disciple, and then his words, his handing of the morsel to Judas, drove Judas Iscariot from their midst. Don’t forget, Jesus had demonstrated love to all of them, washing all their feet. Judas had been among them. Jesus washed his feet, too. Judas was completely calloused to the significance of what the Lord was doing. Why? His heart was not there. His heart was not with them. He couldn’t learn anything. He was unteachable, unsubmissive to the Lord. So when it came to partaking of that last Passover, when it came to instituting this first communion, Jesus discriminated. Jesus excluded. The Lord’s Table is a fellowship for Jesus and his disciples—for them exclusively. So Jesus sent Judas away and he spent that evening with his true disciples.
And that’s what the final step in church discipline does for us, beloved. It purifies and it protects the church. The last step in church discipline, after you’ve followed the three previous steps in Matthew 18 of trying to restore someone who is sinning—restore him, restore him—if he completely hardens his heart and refuses to repent, we need to excommunicate. We need to send him away. It’s sad. But that is what that final step in church discipline does for us. It purifies and it protects the fellowship, so we also proclaim an exclusive fellowship. This communion table is for members only.
Well, with Judas gone, Jesus could proceed with the rest of what he had planned for that evening. Go ahead and turn back to Luke 22. We’re going to see the conclusion of the Passover meal, the institution of the Lord’s Supper. That brings us to another point in our outline, which is really the most fundamental point of all of these—maybe it’s out of order, I don’t know. But it’s fundamental because without this point, none of the others would matter at all. In observing communion, we proclaim an Intimate Fellowship, a Pure Fellowship, a Humble Fellowship, an Exclusive Fellowship and fifth point—Communion is a Redeemed Fellowship. We are purchased. We are redeemed. We are owned by God. Without redemption, all the other points would be moot, wouldn’t they? It wouldn’t matter. Without redemption, there is no intimacy with Christ, no purity of conscience, no humility and certainly no exclusivity, no separated people. So let’s consider this—how the Lord’s Table proclaims the redemption of the Lord’s saints.
Let’s look at verses 17 and 18 in Luke 22. “And Jesus took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, ‘Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom comes.’” You can see down in verse 20, Luke mentions another cup and it says, “And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’” Is this the same cup mentioned twice? Is there more than one cup? Which one is the communion cup if there are multiple cups? There are actually four cups that were part of the Passover celebration. The Jews celebrated Passover using Exodus 6:6-8 as an outline summarizing God’s covenant promises to Israel. It’s Exodus 6:6-8. You don’t need to turn there, but along with reading that text, the Jews drank four cups of wine to signify the four blessings that are contained in the promises there in Exodus 6:6 through 8. So four cups.
The first cup was called the “Kiddush,” which is really the Cup of Sanctification. “Kiddush” is the word for “holiness,” “sanctification,” “being set apart.” God said in Exodus 6:6, “I will bring you out of Egypt.” So he made a distinction between Israel and Egypt. That first cup signifies the separation of God’s people, the sanctification of God’s people, separating them from unbelievers. That is the first cup in Luke 22:17. “And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves.” So by separating Judas from his disciples, Jesus had set them apart. He made a distinction among them. Jesus had sanctified them as his people. First cup.
The second cup is called the Cup of Plagues, or the Cup of Deliverance. Also in Exodus 6:6, God said, “I will deliver you from slavery.” That cup signifies the deliverance from slavery involving the plagues. It was tremendous judgment on Egypt. That cup is not mentioned in any of the accounts we see of the Lord’s Supper here. But notice in Luke 22:19, it says, “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” I don’t want to make too much of a possible connection that’s not explicit in Scripture, as if Jesus meant to replace the second Cup of Plagues in Passover with the breaking of bread. But the breaking of bread did signify his broken body—the ultimate plague on him. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to see a connection here. Jesus did in fact become a reproach. Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” 2 Corinthians 5: 21 says, God made his son, “The one who knew no sin, to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” In a certain sense, you could say, Jesus endured the Cup of Plagues for us in his own body, on the cross, so that we might drink the cup of his deliverance.
The third cup shared in the Passover is called the Cup of Redemption or the Cup of Blessing. That is the one there mentioned in verse 20. “And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Exodus 6:6 says, “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.” God had spared Israel from the worst of those great acts of judgment in Egypt—that death of the firstborn. He covered them by the blood of an innocent lamb. You know in the same way, Jesus redeems his people saying he will save them from God’s great act of judgment. His full and final wrath, casting them into hell—he’ll save them from that. God covered us with the blood of the lamb, the sacrifice of his son, Jesus Christ, because of the cross.
There is one final cup, the fourth cup, called the Cup of Hallel. “Hallel,” means “praise.” So it’s the Cup of Praise. They drank this cup in view of the promises pointing ahead to Israel’s restoration as a people. Exodus 6:7 says, “I will take you to be my people. I will be your God and you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” It’s interesting that in none of the accounts did Jesus drink that cup. Jesus postponed partaking of the fourth cup until the promise was completely fulfilled. Luke 22:18, “For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Israel’s national restoration is still future. Because they rejected their Messiah, everything—all the promises, the restoration for them—is future.
So this whole Passover meal pointed forward to the sacrifice of Christ. Communion points backward to the sacrifice of Christ. It’s in communion that we celebrate Christ’s redemption. And we also observe, figuratively speaking, the Cup of Sanctification, the Cup of Deliverance, the Cup of Redemption and the Cup of Praise. Our Communion proclaims a redeemed fellowship, which is purchased by the blood of the Lamb of God.
One more point for this morning. In our participation at the Lord’s Table, we proclaim the Intimacy, Purity, Humility, Exclusivity, and Redemption of our fellowship with Christ. The last point—point six—Communion is a Learning Fellowship. It’s about discipleship. It’s about learning. Jesus spent the rest of that evening with his disciples late into the night teaching them. Jesus was the consummate teacher, the consummate preacher. He gave himself to his people—that is the great act of love he showed for them continually by teaching, teaching, teaching. Think about that. He’s got his betrayal coming just hours away—his death coming just hours after that. Do you think there was a lot on his mind? But what was his singular thought? Teach them. Prepare them. Teach those disciples. Prepare them for his death, burial, resurrection, his ascension and departure into heaven when they’ll be alone, so to speak and yet, not alone. He’d send the Holy Spirit. He wanted to comfort them (John 14).
John 14 through 16 records some of that for us. You can see the intimate fellowship that Jesus shared in that upper room, revealing, unpacking God’s truth, teaching them to understand it. His teaching was one of his most significant marks of love for his disciples. And the evening ended with Jesus’ high priestly prayer as he prayed for all his disciples and for all believers—present and future—in John 17. He ended that prayer. They sang a hymn together and departed the Upper Room, crossed the Kidron Valley, entered Gethsemane. Jesus spent some more time in private prayer. Then he waited for Judas to come and betray him.
Listen, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim the intimacy, the purity, the humility, the exclusivity of our fellowship. Communion is about proclaiming Christ’s redemption of his church. And communion is about renewing our commitment to follow Jesus Christ as his disciples, as life-long learners who will learn to observe every word he has taught us. Just quickly, as we draw this to a close, how do we apply all of this to our fellowship? How should that night—the night Jesus was betrayed and everything he did—how should that inform and instruct how we observe the Lord’s Table together?
Just quickly, go back to 1 Corinthians chapter 11. Let’s see how Paul helped the Corinthian church understand the implication of the Lord’s Table in their fellowship. When we participate in the Lord’s Table together, we come together to practice a ritual of corporate fellowship. We’re coming together to proclaim, preserve and protect that fellowship. That means participation in the Lord’s Table calls for right attitudes and appropriate actions in the church.
First, we come with an attitude of self-examination. Look at verses 27-30.
*Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.*
God had judged the Corinthian church. He let them suffer physically using sickness and even death to awaken his people to their spiritual sickness, to their pride and self-centeredness in their hearts. Those attitudes of pride and self-centeredness that lead to divisions and self-indulgent behavior—they were poisoning and killing the fellowship. Precious people for whom Christ died were being marginalized here. They were being humiliated. The sins of some were damaging the unity of the many. There were some who really needed to examine themselves to see if they were truly in the faith. Others needed to examine themselves for pride and selfishness. It’s a serious thing to come to the Lord’s Table in an unworthy manner, to destroy a fellowship that is so important to him. Self-examination is absolutely critical to make sure we are to approach the communion table in a way that pleases the Lord.
Second, not just self-examination, we come committed to self-adjudication. And by that, I mean we need to follow through with what the Lord commanded in Matthew 18 in regard to the process of church discipline. Notice verses 31 to 32. “But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.” Several passages help us to understand how to practice what we would call restorative church discipline. You can see 1 Corinthians 5:1 to 13, 1 Timothy 5:20, Titus 3:10 and 11—all of those are based on Jesus’ clear outline for confrontation, which is there in Matthew 18:15 to 17. I’m not going to unpack it now, but in Matthew 18, Jesus outlines clearly four steps the church can take when attempting to restore a sinning brother back into the fellowship. Number one, confront him privately. Number two, confront him with two or three others. Number three, confront publicly and number four, remove the offender from fellowship through formal excommunication if he doesn’t repent.
So as a church body, we need to have the temerity, we need to have the boldness, we need to have a base attitude of fear of the Lord to purge the false professor from the fellowship. We’re committed to a pure fellowship, and we need to protect the Lord’s Table. That’s not our will—that’s the Lord’s will. That is his desire for the church.
So Paul tells us to apply what we’ve learned about the Lord’s Table from Luke 22 through self-examination, through self-adjudication, and third, we come to the Lord’s Table practicing self-discipline. That means we need to restrain ourselves by giving preference to others. Look at verses 33 and 34. “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another—if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things, I will give directions when I come.” I can summarize that point best—we need to be practicing self-discipline in our lives so when we come to the Lord’s Table, we are disciplined people. We restrain ourselves. And I can summarize this best by pointing to what Paul said in another place. In Philippians 2:1 to 5 he said:
*So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.*
To do that requires a humble attitude that is willing to set personal preferences aside, restrain and discipline the self and consider others more important. Self-examination, self-adjudication, self-discipline—those are the actions and attitudes that preserve and protect our fellowship. And they ensure that when we come together to celebrate communion, we proclaim exactly what’s meant to proclaim—our fellowship with Jesus Christ and with one another. Bow with me for a moment of prayer.
Heavenly Father, we just want to thank you for the clarity of your Word. It’s really the clarity about what the Lord Jesus Christ thinks about the Communion Table. We never want to offend him who has done everything for us. We want to celebrate this table today with a sincere heart of faith, with a conscience that is cleansed from sin through confession by coming to partake of every grace you have given us. We love you, Father. We love you Lord Jesus Christ. We thank you, Holy Spirit, for leading us, teaching, guiding us into all truth. And we pray even now, that you would bless our time here around your table.