The Lord's Table and the Lord's Supper
The expression “[the] Lord’s table” is one of those phrases, which although found just once in the NT, generates considerable confusion in the minds of many of God’s people. That single reference is in 1 Cor. 10: 21 and is followed in 1 Cor 11: 20 by another phrase––“[the] Lord’s supper”. Now the Lord’s supper is generally claimed to be understood by believers, but I am bold to suggest that unless the meaning and force of the Lord’s table is understood and acted upon, then the Lord’s supper will be little more than a ritualistic sacrament––perhaps that is all you think it is anyway!
To some, the Lord’s table is the physical table on which the elements of the Lord’s supper are placed. Perhaps the fact that the constituent parts of the Lord’s supper, namely the cup and the bread, are mentioned in the same chapter as the Lord’s table gives rise to this mistaken belief. However, a simple comparison of verses 16 and 21 of chapter 10 will show that this cannot be so. In verse 16 we have the cup and the bread, but in verse 21 we have the Lord’s cup and the Lord’s table. This shows that the Lord’s cup is the cup which we bless and the Lord’s table is the bread which we break (v16). The Lord’s table thus refers to the bread (or loaf), not to the table on which the elements are placed. So what then is the meaning of the Lord’s table as represented by the loaf?
To understand the meaning of the Lord’s table the first thing to grasp is that although we have the Lord’s supper in chapter 11 we do not have the Lord’s supper in chapter 10. Now while it is clearly essential for the saints to come together to partake of the Lord’s supper (see 1 Cor. 11: 17, 20) there is no such thought whatsoever in regard to the Lord’s table. Indeed the idea of saints coming together is entirely absent from chapter 10! Some may argue that you have the bread and the cup in chapter 10 just as you do in chapter 11, but this is not quite true. In chapter 10 the cup is introduced before the loaf, clearly showing that while the elements of the Lord’s supper are to be used to establish the truth that the apostle has in mind, the actual occasion of the Lord’s supper is not before him. In 1 Cor. 11: 26, the apostle says “For as often as ye shall eat this bread, and drink the cup,” showing that there it is the actual partaking of the meal that is in view. There are no such words in chapter 10. Instead we read “The cup of blessing which we bless … The bread which we break” (v16), showing that it is not the actual act of eating and drinking that is before the apostle, but the saints as marked out and identified as those that do such a thing. It refers to those who do it, not to the occasion when they do it.
What then is the truth in the mind of the apostle in chapter 10 for which he employs the elements of the Lord’s supper while not describing the actual occasion itself? What is involved in these expressions the Lord’s cup and Lord’s table? As already shown the cup is the Lord’s cup and the loaf is the Lord’s table. Now in connection with the cup Paul asks “is it not [the] communion of the blood of the Christ?” (v16), and similarly in relation to the bread “is it not [the] communion of the body of the Christ?” The word in Greek for communion is exactly the same word as fellowship. Hence the Lord’s cup and the Lord’s table are expressive of fellowship. They speak of the exclusive fellowship of saints.
Fellowship simply means participation in what we have in common and is peculiar to this earth and to the present time. There will be no such thing as fellowship in heaven in the sense in which the word is used in Scripture. Fellowship always presupposes that which is contrary and adverse. There will be nothing like that in heaven––all will have the same mind. Yet it is not so here at the present time. Men speak of the fellowship of engineers or the fellowship of musicians. They speak in this way because all are not engineers or musicians. Similarly not all here are Christians and so there is such a thing as the fellowship of the blood and the body of the Christ––those who are identified with His death. Furthermore, fellowship exists apart from any coming together, although of course it is only enjoyed when we do so. It is independent of gathering. We are not just at the Lord’s table on the Lord’s day; we are in fellowship seven days a week––it is a continuous matter. By way of example, Mephibosheth was said to “eat continually at the king’s table” (2 Sam. 9: 13). Clearly, this does not mean that he was always eating, but that he was continually in the fellowship of those whose privilege it was to eat there. In 1 Cor. 10 we have fellowship but no coming together. Take the example of musicians. Musicians enjoy coming together, but when they are apart they are still musicians. A musician is still a musician when he is not playing in an orchestra with other musicians. In the same way we are always at the Lord’s table, not just on the Lord’s day. However, one under discipline, such as the man put out at Corinth, is no longer in fellowship, and hence could no longer be said to be at the Lord’s table (although, as indicated elsewhere, he was a genuine believer).
In v17, the apostle gives the reason why the cup and the loaf represent the fellowship of Christ’s death: “Because we, [being] many, are one loaf, one body; for we all partake of that one loaf” (my emphasis). As individuals we are many, but as those who break bread we are one, and that oneness of fellowship is expressed in the one loaf. Hence in v21 the apostle speaks of partaking of the Lord’s table––partaking in fellowship. Furthermore, it follows that if we partake together then we have a bond of association and are responsible to one another. If men are partners in a business, those men are bound together by the articles of that partnership, and what one does may compromise all the others. Again if a musician behaved badly, then he would bring disgrace on the whole orchestra. Similarly, if a Christian in Corinth went and ate in an idol’s temple, he compromised the whole company.
Perhaps the key verse in this section of Scripture is v18 where the apostle exhorts the Corinthians “See Israel according to flesh: are not they who eat the sacrifices in communion with the altar?” If persons get the gain of the sacrifice and death of Christ (typified by the altar)––and they do if they are believers––then they also have the responsibility of the fellowship or communion. (This communion being seen, with Israel, in the eating of the sacrifices, and with us, in eating the Lord’s supper.) The believer must be separate from all that occasioned Christ’s death: “who gave himself for our sins, so that he should deliver us out of the present evil world” (Gal. 1: 4). Israel, in type, failed in this––they committed fornication. They went to the sacrifices of the gods of Moab and ate and bowed down to them (Num. 25: 1, 2), which is what Paul refers to in 1 Cor. 10: 8. Indeed Paul begins 1 Cor. 10 by referring to Israel in the wilderness. Five times in the first four verses he uses the word all: all were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized, all ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink. Then we read in verse 5 that God was not pleased with most of them, for they were strewed in the desert, that is, they never got into the land. We then read in verse 6 that these things happened as types of us and this is repeated again in verse 11 with the addition that they have been written for our admonition. Sadly these verses are typical of many today who claim to be under the authority of Christ as Lord. They have been baptized and they have the parallel to the manna (the spiritual food) and the water (the spiritual drink), that is the bread and the cup of the Lord’s supper as a sacrament, but like Israel, they never get into what answers to the land. They never enter into divine purpose in regard to the enjoyment of Christian privilege. They perish in the wilderness. It is not that they will not reach heaven (Canaan is not typical of heaven), if true believers, but that there is no entrance into spiritual privileges now. Israel is a type of us and Paul lists five identifying features of their failure: lust (v6), idolatry (v7), fornication (v8), temptation (v9) and murmuring (v10). The Israelites fell in the wilderness because morally they never left Egypt and thus never accepted the conditions of the wilderness. It is striking how the apostle recounts this history in Heb. 11: While he says of Israel “By faith they passed through the Red sea …” (v29), in regard to leaving Egypt and celebrating the Passover he limits faith to Moses saying “By faith he left Egypt … ” (v27) and “By faith he celebrated the passover … ” (v28). This world should be a wilderness to the Christian, a scene where there is nothing for him and where the death of Christ has set him apart from everything around and has bound him together with others who belong to Christ.
Consider the incident of Ex. 32 which Paul refers to in 1 Cor. 10: 7. Moses had gone up the mount (figure of Christ gone into heaven at the present time), and the people said “we do not know what is become of him!” (Ex. 32: 1) Aaron made the golden calf, built an altar to it, offered up sacrifices to it and then proclaimed “To–morrow is a feast to Jehovah!” (Ex. 32: 5). Israel offered up the sacrifices and then sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. Yet when Paul refers to their idolatry in 1Cor. 10: 7 he does not refer to the golden calf at all, but to the fact that they “sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play”. In doing so he gives the moral essence of the situation. Idolatry is not just bowing down to images of gold but enjoying myself with others in the scene from which the Lord is absent. It is ignoring the responsibility that the death of Christ places upon me while I am left here in this scene. It is to disregard the fact that Christian fellowship is the fellowship of the death of Christ. This, along with the five other moral failures of Israel, already mentioned, destroys fellowship.
Thus in 1 Cor. 10: 16 Paul brings forth the elements of the Lord’s supper which speak of the death of Christ to show that Christian fellowship is an exclusive fellowship. His death is not only the means of my eternal blessing, but it also puts a responsibility on my shoulders as to my conduct here while He is absent. Thus if I rightly apprehend the force of the death of Christ it will separate me from everything which made His death necessary. For Christians to enjoy themselves with the selfsame world that has crucified Christ is awful––yet it is where many are! “Adulteresses, know ye not that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:4). This is the bearing of these verses in Corinthians, and they can be summed up in one word––separation. Yet the faithful saint is not alone in this scene. There are others too who love the Lord and can have nothing to do with the world that crucified their Saviour. This brings in the concept of fellowship.
Paul concludes his argument of the section in verses 21 and 22, which while specific to the Corinthians, does not preclude the general argument. It was a moral (not a physical) impossibility for the Corinthians to drink the Lord’s cup and the cup of demons, to partake of the Lord’s table and the table of demons. For us, it is also a moral impossibility to be in the fellowship of the blood and body of the Christ and yet be identified with anything that occasioned His death. This is a point the apostle returns to in the second epistle (2 Cor. 6: 14–18) where he asks “for what participation [is there] between righteousness and lawlessness? or what fellowship of light with darkness? and what consent of Christ with Beliar, or what part for a believer along with an unbeliever? and what agreement of God’s temple with idols?” If we ignore the responsibility of the fellowship which is expressed by the Lord’s cup and the Lord’s table, then we will never experience the reality of the Lord’s supper and of what flows from it. We will be like “the most” in Israel of 1 Cor. 10: 5!
Having dealt in 1 Cor. 10 with the matter of the responsibility attached to fellowship (as indicated in the phrase “the Lord’s table”), by showing that it is the fellowship of the death of Christ, the apostle goes on in 1 Cor. 11 to speak of the Lord’s supper. There is thus a moral order. Likewise, unless we accept the responsibilities of fellowship represented by the Lord’s table, we will never enter into the privileges of the Lord’s supper and what may subsequently follow. We will be like the Corinthians. We will take the elements, partake of the ordinance, and go no further.
The Corinthians were compromising fellowship, and because their state was so bad, what they did could not be described as the Lord’s supper. Hence the apostle’s criticism: “When ye come therefore together into one place, it is not to eat [the] Lord’s supper” (1 Cor. 11: 20). What he should have been able to say was ‘When ye come together into one place it is to eat the Lord’s supper’! Thus they should have come together with that object before them––and, I might add, gone on to that which it leads to, for the Lord’s supper is really the introduction to the functioning of the Assembly. It is not exactly an end in itself, as many make it when they leave it to almost the last thing in the meeting. However, unless the concept of what constitutes the functioning of the Assembly is known and unless the force of the remembrance of the Lord’s supper is appreciated, then what has just been said will be far from clear.
The first time that the Lord Jesus spoke of the Assembly, He spoke of it as “my assembly” (Matt. 16: 18). The Assembly is His. Now in the House of Commons of the British Parliament there are more than 600 members or MPs. Suppose that 30 of them were to assemble together in an hotel––would that constitute a sitting of Parliament? No, you say––but why? Is it because there are so few of them? No. Is it because they are not meeting at the Palace of Westminster? Again, no. It is because of the absence of a single person. All 600 of them could be in the right place but the House would still not be in session unless the mace was in place and the Speaker (or the Deputy Speaker) was in the chair. It is the presence of the Speaker that determines whether or not an assembly of MPs constitutes a sitting of the House. Now then, who must be present for the Assembly to function as the Assembly? Obviously the Lord Himself. If the Lord is not there it is just a meeting and not the Assembly. For the Assembly to function, He must be there. However, He is absent and in heaven. This then raises the question of how He comes and of how He can become present.
Now He has promised to come to those who feel His absence. In John 14: 3 He says to his disciples “I am coming again and shall receive you to myself”, in John 14: 18 He promises “I will not leave you orphans, I am coming to you”, and again in John 14: 28 “I go away and I am coming to you”. Now each of these comings are in the present tense giving them the sense of a continual present character. However, the first is made into a single future event by the use of the word “again”; there is no such modification in the other two quotations. In the first He has promised to come for us; in the second and third His promise is of coming to us. While we wait for Him to come for us, there is the present prospect of Him coming to us. This is personal––it is Christ Himself. It is not the Holy Spirit (although the appreciation of His presence on our side requires the Holy Spirit). Just as it is Christ who will soon come for us, it is Christ who has promised to come to us. Further, if you examine this section of Scripture carefully, you will find there is that which is individual and there is also that which is collective. What is individual (and abstract) is indicated by the use of the word “he” (vs 21–24); what is collective is indicated by the use of the word “you” (vs 15–20, 25–29) which is plural. Thus when He says “I am coming to you”, it is to saints collectively as a company. How does that coming take place? I think that it is by means of the Lord’s supper.
In Corinth we have an extreme example of the Lord’s supper degenerating into individuals taking their own supper (1 Cor. 11: 21, 22). The Lord’s supper is a collective matter. Of course I come as an individual but what I do there is as part of a company and is thus collective. Take the example of musicians forming an orchestra. The orchestra is like the Assembly come together because as the orchestra cannot function as an orchestra without the conductor, so also for the Assembly to function as the Assembly it needs the Chief Musician, the Lord Himself, to be present. In correcting the disorder at Corinth Paul firstly reminds them who instituted the Lord’s supper and when it was instituted. It was the Lord who instituted it, and He instituted it in the night in which He was delivered up. He set it on because it is His supper and His Assembly. (Some saints speak of ‘The Supper’, making everything of the occasion, however unconsciously, and forgetting the One whose occasion it is.) As to why it is called the Lord’s supper, the reason for this is not because of the time of day when we eat it but because of when He instituted it. A supper is an evening meal. It was instituted in the night in which He was delivered up and morally it is still the night in which He was delivered up. Hence in v26 Paul goes on to say that in partaking of it “ye announce the death of the Lord, until he come”––until the day dawns at His return. Who then is it announced to? Some have thought that the doors of the room must be open so that all can see it. I rather think that it is to the angelic hosts––just as a woman should have her head covered for prayer or prophesy “on account of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:10). For “angels desire to look into” (1 Pet. 1: 12) the things that have now been revealed in the present age, since it is through the Assembly that the all–various wisdom of God is made known to the principalities and authorities in the heavenlies (see Eph. 3: 10).
It was the custom in OT times to break bread for the dead. Thus in Jer. 16: 7 we read “Nor shall they break [bread] for them in mourning, to comfort them for the dead; neither shall they give them the cup of consolations to drink for their father or for their mother”. However, while as Christians we should feel the loss of the Lord, our remembrance is not of the dead, but of One who though once dead is alive for ever more ( see Rev. 1: 18).
There are several words in the NT used for remembrance but the one employed in connection with the Lord’s supper is used just four times: three times of the Lord’s supper and once in Hebrews. The word means ‘a calling to mind, a causing to remember’. In other words it has an active sense about it––it does something. The use in Heb. 10: 3 gives us its meaning. There, Paul is speaking of the annual sacrifices on the Day of Atonement which did not take away sins and thus left the worshippers with a conscience of them (because although the sins were covered, they were still there). For in such sacrifices he says “[there is] a calling to mind of sins yearly”. Sacrifices on that day had the effect of bringing up to remembrance, bringing into presence, the sins that were still there. In a similar way the taking of the bread and the cup bring the Lord into mind. An illustration may help. A man was travelling in Australia and one day looking into his trunk found something that he needed at that very moment but which he had not put there. Before leaving England, unbeknown to him, his wife had placed it the trunk. The discovery of it immediately called his wife to mind––she became present to his mind. Likewise, if we rightly take the Lord’s supper, then He becomes present to our minds. This is what I understand it means for Him to be in the midst––He becomes the collective centre of attention. In John 20 He came into the midst of the company in a physical manner. He does not do that now, for He is still in heaven as man––but he comes into the presence of our minds, a presence that is just as real. We remember Him in this way. We do not exactly remember His death (although many believers do speak of remembering the Lord’s death). Rather the emblems that speak of that death cause us in partaking of them to remember Him. We call to mind a person, not an event. Again it is His death (not His dying, or how He died, nor His sufferings) as represented by the emblems, that is the means of calling Him to mind.
When the Lord set up His supper, He set it up so that all His people, from His absence to His return, could intelligently partake of it. None of us alive now can remember Napoleon, simply because although we know of him, we never knew him. You can only remember a person whom you have known. Hence only those who know the Lord can remember Him. No unbeliever can do this. He may take the elements of the Lord’s supper as a sacrament, as an ordinance, but can do no more. Further, not only can you only remember a person whom you have known but only as you have known him. A son can remember a father, but not when that father was a boy––for he never knew him then. The twelve disciples could literally remember the Lord on earth, for they knew Him then. Paul could not do so, and neither can we. I judge that it is for this reason that while it was those who knew the Lord on earth who were used to record the institution of the Lord’s supper, it was Paul who was used to give the teaching of it, being in a similar position to us. We cannot remember His life––our first link with the Lord is in His death. Hence it is His death, expressed by the elements of His supper and not His life or His sufferings, or His dying that call Him to mind. This is clearly set out in the two distinct emblems: the bread and the cup being separate speak of His death. Thus Paul says in 2 Cor. 5: 16 “So that we henceforth know no one according to flesh; but if even we have known Christ according to flesh, yet now we know [him thus] no longer”. Israel could know Him on earth––our knowledge of the Lord and our links with Him begin with His death, and His death is the great expression of His love. Hence as an individual, Paul could say “the Son of God, who has loved me and given himself for me” (Gal. 2: 20). Again, collectively we have “Christ also loved the assembly, and has delivered himself up for it” (Eph. 5: 25). Thus in the Lord’s supper we have that “which [is] for you” (1 Cor. 11: 24).
Hence the Lord’s supper convenes the Assembly as such and is the means by which the Lord comes to His people and takes His place “in [the] midst of [the] assembly” (Heb. 2: 12). What then should subsequently follow? To where in the NT should we turn for direction? As Paul speaks of the Lord’s supper in 1 Cor 11, should we peruse the following chapters (12–14) where he deals with “spiritual manifestations”? As the Corinthians were taking the emblems but not the Lord’s supper (1 Cor. 11: 20), it seems hardly wise to assume that what the apostle deals with in a corrective manner in chapters 12–14 is indicative of what should take place subsequent to taking the Lord’s supper, when Christ may come into the midst. Indeed, Paul had said earlier (1 Cor. 2: 6) that “we speak wisdom among the perfect” clearly intimating that the saints at Corinth were not perfect or full–grown, but immature. “And I, brethren, have not been able to speak to you as to spiritual, but as to fleshly; as to babes in Christ” (1 Cor. 3: 1). Yet, this does not mean that all that is dealt with in chapters 12–14 should be excluded. The simple fact is that as regards the detail of what should take place subsequent to the Lord’s supper, there is nothing laid down anywhere in the NT and I judge that the reason for this is that it is a spiritual occasion. However, that is not to say that there is not that which is given obliquely which we ought to consider in this matter. The one vital point is that once Christ is there as the Assembly’s head, all should come under His sovereign dictation. It is so very easy, and devoid of all spiritual exercise, to drop into a formal order of things, and insist on them, when there is no direct authority for such from the Scriptures.
Let us look then at just one these Scriptures that has a bearing on this matter in an indirect way, and then leave the reader to search out others for himself. The Scripture is Heb. 2: 11, 12 and hence any reference to the Lord’s supper must be indirect as the Lord’s supper is not mentioned at all in Hebrews.
In Heb. 2: 11 the apostle says of the Lord that He is not ashamed to call us brethren and the reason that he gives for this is that “he that sanctifies and those sanctified [are] all of one”. To corroborate this statement that we are the Lord’s brethren he gives three quotations from the OT, the first being from Psalm 22 where the Lord says “I will declare thy name unto my brethren”(v22). However, the apostle does not end the quotation there but goes on to say “in [the] midst of [the] assembly will I sing thy praises (Heb. 2: 11). Although Christ is God, He is also man, and is viewed here as such––a man singing praises to God. When does this take place? I would say it takes place following the partaking of the Lord’s supper. Returning to v11: “he that sanctifies and those sanctified [are] all of one”. All of one––of one what? It does not directly say, yet the context would indicate of one Father because immediately the apostle says “for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren”. We are viewed thus as sons with Christ but with a vital distinction of paramount importance: He is “the only–begotten Son” (John 1: 18); we are sons by adoption (see Rom. 8: 15; Gal. 4: 5). Hence in resurrection the Lord never said ‘I ascend to our Father and to our God’ but “I ascend to my Father and your Father, and [to] my God and your God” (John 20: 17). Thus Christ, even as man, must always have the first place as well as the central place (“in [the] midst”). It is as having that place he sings God’s praises, or hymns God with singing. He is the Chief Musician. Now it says that Christ sings to God. It does not exactly say that we sing to God––that is not how it is put. People often say that it is the Lord that leads the singing. This is not said in Scripture and weakens the force of the true meaning here. It mars the unity of Christ and the saints in the service to God in the Assembly. There are not many voices, but one, and that one voice is His.
Heb. 2: 11 then is an example of a Scripture which helps us to understand one feature of the functioning of the Assembly. As already indicated, there are other Scriptures bearing on this great matter. The reader can search out these for himself.
Summing up: In a world that is marked by hostility to Christ while He is absent and rejected from this scene, there is such a thing as fellowship as represented by the Lord’s table. This carries with it responsibility because it is the fellowship of His death. Yet along with that responsibility is the privilege of the Lord’s supper and of the Lord coming to us and taking His place in the midst of the Assembly. May the reader know something of these things for himself.