Table Rules

When the Corinthian believers came together it was not for the better but for the worse. It is sadly, and maybe too often, the case that Christians offer worship to God that He despises. Scripture reveals a variety of despicable practices and Paul mentions two of them related to the Lord’s supper in 1 Corinthians 11. The church broke two table rules.

First, when the Corinthians came together as a church there were divisions. Paul could not commend them because they despised the church by despising one another. Especially when we come to the communion table, we must receive all those whom the Head of the table receives.

Second, when the Corinthians came to the table, they failed to examine themselves. “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (verse 29). “Discerning the body” is key, but what is the “body”? The “body” could be one’s own body, but what would the point of that be? The body could be Christ’s body, mentioned in verse 27, but why not also mention His blood?

The “body” could also be the church body. In fact, note the conclusion to the chapter in verses 33-34. “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.” In other words, we eat and drink judgment when we fail to follow the table rules. That means we must receive one another. The two rules go together: examine yourself as concerns your connection to the body.

Each part can (and should) celebrate what he or she has in Christ. But part of what you have in Christ is one another. Part of what you have is the whole body. So enjoy the other members. That makes it better when we come together.

Say the Same Thing

Usually we use the word “confess” when we speak about admitting our sin. John the Baptist called men to confess their sins (Matthew 3:6). The apostle John wrote that if we confess our sins then Christ forgives us (1 John 1:9). You have probably heard before that the Greek word behind our English translation is ὁμολογέω, a saying (logeo) of the same thing (homo). William Tyndale translated it as “acknowledge” rather than “confess” because the Roman Catholic church turned confession into a sacrament. But we Protestants understand that when we confess we don’t tell our sins to a priest. Instead, we same the same thing as God about the nature of our sin, namely, that sin is sin and we’ve done it.

In the New Testament the word “confess” also has a different subject than sin. For example, John the Baptist “confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ'” (John 1:22). The apostle John described the fearful parents of the man born blind because the “Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be the Christ he was to be put out of the synagogue” (John 9:22).

Our salvation depends on our confession of faith: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Some day, “every tongue (will) confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:11).

This type of confession has a different subject but the same action. We say the same thing as God about whatever He says, including the nature of His Son. As we mature in Christ, we will be more specific in our confession about our sin and more specific about our confession of the Savior. Peter commanded it: “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

How is your confession? Are you more frequent, more specific, and more eager for both types? If not, now is as good a time as any to confess.

Training and Tasting

At least two things keep church discipline from being as understandable and appreciated as it could be. First, too often church discipline is driven by a motivation to punish the disobedient rather than train for obedience. The purpose for disciplining our kids should not be to prove that we are bigger, stronger, or better able to define their sin. We don’t discipline with pain as the end. We discipline to direct them back to the joy of fellowship that comes in obedience. Likewise the motivation for church discipline should be to bring the sinner back into fellowship through repentance and restoration.

A second thing that keeps church discipline from being understood and appreciated is that our communion is not a feast. When an unrepentant sinner is disciplined, what is the only thing that he is prohibited from? We do not prohibit him from attending services, though he usually won’t be interested. We do not stop him from hearing the Word preached. We do not keep him from any interaction with believers, though the nature of those interactions changes. What changes is that he is no longer welcome to have this supper of the Lord, to share the fellowship. That’s why it can also be called excommunication, ex-communion-ed.

A weekly, joyful, harmonious, celebrating time around the Lord’s Table should create quite a taste. The unrepentant should have something to miss. For that to happen, we ought not to miss our opportunity. Eating and drinking by faith is sweet today and strengthening for tomorrow. This meal both satisfies us and fits us for wanting it again. The pull of joyful communion with God through Christ and with each other in Christ should be worth repenting so that we can keep coming.

May God make our communion something that we want so badly that we’ll repent from whatever sin threatens it.

Comparing Kills

Comparing kills. One sure way to kill joy and stir up envy, jealousy, and bitterness is to compare yourself with another, your lot with your neighbors’. God did not make us equal in all ways, nor does He give gifts to His people to the same degree. When we look over the fence, compare piles, and complain that ours is smaller or stinkier, our first mistake is the pride that expects more.

There is, however, another kind of comparing that kills our pride. God commands us to look at this and respond in humility. In Colossians 3:13 Paul writes about how the chosen ones, the holy and beloved of God, should treat one another. We are to put on compassion, kindness, and other Christlike clothes. Then we are to be “bearing with one another, and if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other.” The sentence isn’t finished yet, but this command goes far enough. It goes so far, actually, that there must be qualifications coming.

We could call the next phrase a qualification, but the qualification removes limits more than it confines. The apostle makes an inspired comparison: “forgiving each other as (“just as” NAS) the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” “As” (καθὼς) is the killer comparative conjunction. Jesus provides more than an example of forgiveness, He sets the standard. If He forgives, we must forgive.

Jesus told a parable in Matthew 18 to the same effect. Peter asked a numerical question and Jesus gave a qualitative answer. Peter asked how many times he needed to forgive and Jesus described a man who started to choke a man who owed him 100 denarii (about three months worth of pay) when he had just been forgiven 10,000 talents (about 200,000 years worth of pay). Mercy should be shown just as mercy was received.

This is one reason why our corporate confession of sin is so important to our corporate life. If we are not struck by the contrast between His holiness and our sinfulness, then we will not be ready to treat one another with mercy and forgiveness by comparison. Such behavior should kill the weeds of pride, self-righteousness, and unrealistic expectations and grow the peaceful fruit of unity in the soil of humility.

Defining Gifts

I told the following story for our school assembly last Thursday afternoon.

Once upon time there was a boy named Ben Levite. Ben’s father, Jamin, was a scribe by trade. He worked long before computers or typewriters when every book was written by hand, including God’s Law. Ben’s dad enjoyed his job and took his job seriously because he didn’t want to make any mistakes with Scripture.

Ben loved that his dad had such a uncommon and privileged career. Most of Ben’s friends had dads who farmed or shepherded. Some of his friends’ fathers were soldiers in the King’s army, others worked at the palace cooking or in construction. A few of Ben’s cousins had dads who were priests. But Ben took pride in telling others what his dad did.

Copying the law was hard labor. Guiding an ox to plow a straight line in rocky soil takes one kind of strength and determination, but constant focus on jots (dots, small letters such as the Greek iota) and tittles (serifs or an small accent marks) takes all of another kind of muscle and backbone. Scribes worked six days a week and many hours each day. When possible they worked near windows but most of the time they toiled with only the light from candles or oil lamps.

Sometimes the manuscripts they worked from were ragged or faded. Other times the manuscripts were in fine condition but the previous scribes’ penmanship looked like a Kindergarten phonogram test. The work was also very difficult because writing supplies were limited. Papyrus (a sort of paper made out of plants) was not always available and papyrus (a thin material made out of animal skin) was very expensive. Because of these things, most writers used all the space possible and left very little margin. In Ben’s dad’s day the scribes used no punctuation; they didn’t even use spaces between words so that they could save room for more letters. All the sentences ran together making it easy to skip a letter, or words, or accidentally add extra ones.

The work also involved copying from scroll to scroll. Books with spines and numbered pages hadn’t been invented yet. So letter by letter, line by line, scribes paid close attention as they carefully, repetitively dipped pen in ink and stroked out a new copy.

Ben appreciated his dad’s diligence. Going to synagogue services each Sabbath he knew that the priest read from his dad’s handiwork. Most nights at dinner Jamin would tell the family stories from the section of Scripture he had transcribed that day. Ben heard the stories of Joseph in jail due to Potiphar’s lying wife, of Moses leading the people through the Red Sea out of Egypt, of David and Goliath, and of Daniel and the lions’ den. Many dads told their kids about the Passover, but few had read it for themselves in the ancient scrolls.

Ben’s family threw him a party for his 13th birthday. Many family traveled from out of town and all his neighbors came. When the evening was almost over Ben’s dad brought out one final present. Ben quickly untied the string and unwrapped the cloth covering. He could hardly believe what he held in his hands: his very own copy of “Solomon’s Book of Wisdom” (what we know as Proverbs). Ben’s dad had been saving since Ben was born to buy extra scraps of parchment and stayed a little longer at work a couple evenings each week to copy this special edition as a gift. He gave Ben something even he didn’t have himself.

Jamin gave his son a treasure. He also gave his son something transformative. Jamin knew that the word makes a young man wise. The word protects a man’s steps. The word strengthens a man’s hands. The word rejoices a man’s heart. The word lights a man’s path. Ben had been given a gift that would change his life. The whole community would know about this present. They would also see the effects of the book in his life.

Solomon described a similar gift in the first chapter of Proverbs:

Hear, my son, your father’s instruction,
and forsake not your mother’s teaching,
for they are a graceful garland for your head
and pendants for your neck.
(Proverbs 1:8–9, ESV)

The “garland” and “pendant” (or necklace) were symbols of health and prosperity. They were treasures worn, gifts from parents that adorned their kids. Solomon says listening to instruction and obeying teaching make a son look good. They are visible signs that your parents sacrificed to get you something expensive.

In our day, we do not need to handwrite copies of God’s Word to give to our kids. Buying Bibles is easy for us, and many of you will have multiple translations on your phones. Maybe some day your watches will shine holograms of the text in 3-D images. But all your parents and teachers are working hard to give you a great present just like Ben.

Ben’s copy of Proverbs was a costly gift. Your education at ECS is also, paid for with dollars, time, energy, and sacrifices. Your parents are working diligently, and most of the time with happy hearts, to give you something great, something more precious and more apparent then jewelry. We hope that one day you will graduate and that your worship of God will be obvious to the world. We are not copying literal pages of the Bible but we are copying Latin worksheets, science sound-offs, and teaching models for you to have. We are learning songs with you, singing Psalms with you, and stitching raggants onto sweaters for you.

All of this is to make you look good. We want you to listen (hear instruction) and obey (forsake not teaching) your parents (and the teachers your parents partner with). Then your life will be decorated with the gifts of wisdom and God’s blessing.

This Table Is Reserved

God is full of grace. From His fulness He overflows in good things to the undeserving. He gives many good, undeserved things to those who hate Him. Jesus said that His Father makes His sun rise on the evil and sends rain on the unjust. We call this common grace. Do you have food? Do you have sight? Do you have kids? These are all blessings that believers and unbelievers can know.

Christians know another sort of grace, a special grace, a grace not given to everyone. We call it particular grace. God gives it particularly to His elect, those for whom His Son died. Particular grace is exceptional, exclusive, reserved for His people alone.

Does this make us special? Yes. Does this mean we deserved grace? No, not in a million years, no. If grace were earned it wouldn’t be grace.

Consider what the Lord revealed through Jeremiah.

Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.” (Jeremiah 9:23–24, ESV)

We don’t honor God by claiming that we deserve His blessings. We also don’t honor God by claiming that we don’t have special, particular blessings that others don’t. It is all about boasting. Everyone boasts. Many boast in self. Some boast that they prohibit boasting, which is a backward way of self-boasting. And those who know particular grace boast in Christ.

This meal of communing is a meal of particular grace. Bread is for men, but the body of Christ is for believers only. Wine is for celebration, but the cup of Christ’s blood belongs only to the people who celebrate a bloody sacrifice on the cross.

Every week we boast in something exclusive. The Lord’s Table is reserved for particular people who received particular grace. If you don’t know Christ, you are invited to Christ but not to this meal. If you do know Christ, this meal invites you to everything in Christ.

Cracks in the Sidewalk

Sin separates. Sin divides what should be united. We know that sin isolates men from the holy God. Sin drives a wedge between friends. The good news declares that Christ reconciles. He unites all things together.

These are the grand canyons of separation, but there are also more subtle splits that sin cracks in the sidewalk. Sin makes enemies out of friends. It also fences off arguments from each other that should be back to back fighting as partners.

For example, sin severs a man’s confession from his conduct. It breaks up what should be joined together. Sin even defends itself by justifying the superiority of one or the other. All works based religions count behavior more important than belief (though that itself is a belief). Many professing believers of the gospel act as if behavior doesn’t matter. But how do we know what we believe? James wrote, “Show me your faith apart from your works (you can’t), and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18, ESV).

For a more specific example, when we confess our sin as a church, we invite believers to kneel. The symbol/ritual of kneeling can’t make anyone humble by itself. It actually can be worse than a worthless formality, it can make someone guilty of hypocrisy. Others are truly humble in heart and yet physically incapable of kneeling. So why bother? What good does that do?

Idolators kneel. Hypocrites kneel. Ignorant men kneel. And humble men kneel. The external ritual can be separated from the truth in at least four ways: 1) by kneeling to the wrong god, 2) by kneeling to show off, 3) by kneeling for who knows why, and 4) by not kneeling at all. But just because there are many ways to divide the symbol from the substance doesn’t mean every emblem is empty.

We are continuing to ask God to make us like Christ, to unite us inside and out. We are continuing to learn what heart pleases God and the appropriate liturgy that matches the heart. We are continuing to confess our sins that separate what should be united.

One Table, Two Bodies

The Lord’s Supper is a meal that acknowledges two bodies and the communion between them.

Our King gave His body, actual flesh and actual blood, to defeat the serpent, to deliver sinners, and to do away with our sorrows. Jesus came from heaven and won the battle of sacrifice in enemy territory. He accomplished His purpose on the cross, rose from the grave three days later, and now the Spirit calls men into the kingdom of the Son of God’s love.

We who believe not only partake of His body, we are His body. Two unions take place: believers with Christ and believers with other believers. Christ is the Head and He joins all us parts together, the church.

Communion is a celebration of His body by His body. Every Christian is invited to an embassy meeting and meal each Sunday in worship. We gather to honor the King, to encourage our fellow citizens, to attend His word.

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:20–21, ESV)

By His power He incorporates us into His body, by His power we will all individually be transformed into His glorious body. Here we are at a table for two, His body represented on the table and a representative body that comes to the table.

The Tone of His Table

What flavor should season the meal of communion? Because we know that God is a consuming fire, because our salvation from sin required the sacrifice of His only Son’s blood, because there are still enemies to be subdued as His kingdom comes, what should be our mood? The tone at the Table should be consistent with the tone during the rest of our worship.

That means that this meal should be flavored by awe. It should blow us away that we gain from His reward. “Died He for me, who caused His pain? For me, who Him to death pursued? Amazing love! How can it be, that Thou, my God, shoulds’t die for me?” (And Can It Be That I Should Gain?) He humbles us but doesn’t hammer us. We should be full of awe, not anxiety.

The meal should be flavored by faith. We are receiving the kingdom (Hebrews 12:28), expecting that He who did not spare His own Son will also with Him give us all things. We may not be certain when, but we are certain that.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

The meal should also be flavored by gratitude. I’ve mentioned before that full gratitude empties us. That is, selfishness and thankfulness cannot coexist. Gratitude corrects our vision and pulls us up to remember what is ours in Christ. God doesn’t force us to eat the bitter because He wants us to suffer. His Son already suffered so that we could enjoy the serious sweetness of salvation. “Tis mercy all, immense and free, For O my God, it found out me!” “And so with thankfulness and faith we rise To respond and to remember” (Behold the Lamb (The Communion Hymn)).