December 4, 2013

Understanding the Lord’s Supper

Bible translations come in two basic forms. One is word-for-word and as literal as possible in transcribing the ancient texts into English. The other is called dynamic because it attempts to get the core truths and put them into readable English. Proponents of the former prefer Bibles like the King James Version, New American Standard, and English Standard. The dynamic versions vary but the most common is the New International Version.

While support for one or the other can become quite heated, we need to remember that English is not the only language aim for translators. People who do this task in other lands might need to translate terms like propitiation and redemption into a language that has no words for those terms or even a concept for what they mean. Because of the language, they must translate in a dynamic way that is also creative and relevant.

I’ve noticed that there are two application styles also. Some prefer a literal obedience and imitation of the text. Others do their best to understand what it would have meant to the original readers, then try to dig from that text some timeless principles before they apply it to their own lives. I prefer this latter way of interpretation and application, yet prefer using a literal translation to get to that. To me, the dynamic Bibles have already done some interpretation, and while most of it is accurate, some of those timeless principles literally get lost in the translation.

This morning’s devotional takes me to a passage about the first communion, sometimes called the Lord’s Supper. It took place in an upper room just prior to the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus.

And when the hour came, he reclined at 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 it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he 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 of God comes.” 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.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:14–20)

The person who wrote this devotional says that Jesus knew how this supper ought to be observed for it was the model for all others, so the right way of coming to this communion is to assemble around a table and to sit or recline while eating bread and drinking wine together in remembrance of our Lord.

There is nothing wrong with doing it this way, yet I think that interpretation puts limits on the celebration of communion. It could also miss the point, which is that we do this to remember Jesus and what He has done for us as the ultimate Passover Lamb of God.

Consider the size of a church. It would be relatively easy for a group of ten or even fifty people to reline around a table. My church has 400-500 each Sunday. Reclining around one table creates a huge problem in logistics.

Consider also the people who participate. In many cases (particularly in North America), there are folks in the congregation who cannot drink wine because they have been delivered from alcohol addictions. For many of them, the fruit of the vine has to be grape juice.

The reclining was cultural and so was the use of wine, partly because pure water wasn’t easy to find. Good exegesis realizes that many parts of the Bible describe cultural elements. Sometimes they describe our situation too, but not always. A church that meets in a straw-roofed shelter with a dirt floor would likely not put its members into a reclining position. A church that has no access to wine must select another drink as a reminder.

The timeless principle is that we gather together as believers and remember Jesus in communion (the word in the text is Passover) using the symbols of bread and wine. This is not an event for unbelievers, nor is it a sacrament that will give anyone salvation. It is to remind us what Jesus did for us.

Actually, the Passover for the Jews was a reminder of their deliverance from bondage in Egypt. It was tied to the night they killed a lamb and put the blood over and on their doors. Then, when the angel of death visited that land, they were passed over because of the blood. Without it, the firstborn in each home was slain.

This too has a timeless principle in that Jesus came to deliver sinners from our bondage to sin. When His blood has marked our lives through faith, then we are passed over for eternal death. This is to be remembered and celebrated often, until Jesus returns. After that, we will eat with Him at a different meal, the marriage supper of the Lamb.

Thinking about these things ought to have an effect on me also. While it is only implied in the text, the Holy Spirit takes these words and says, “This is what Jesus did for you. Therefore respond in grateful praise and by living according to that new heart that He has given you.” Translators would not add that in, but the Holy Spirit is free to make sure that I understand what is said and know what God wants me to do about it.

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