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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Debate: New Testament Insights

Earlier this week, I began a discussion concerning the primacy of certain practices in Christian worship services (which can be read here). Specifically, this debate is over the importance of the Word vs. the Table. In attempt to hold the two in a reciprocal relationship, there are some thoughts I would like to share based on biblical, historical, and theological research. Today we look at some insights the New Testament gives us to the practice of Word and Table, specifically drawing upon some of the themes provided in yesterday’s insights from the Old Testament.
There are also many references in the New Testament to the established covenant itself. Specifically, this is seen in the way several of the New Testament writers apply the covenant theme “I will be their God and they shall be My people” to the church (see Heb 11:16; 1 Pet 2:10; Rev 21:3). The New Testament church viewed itself as the new Israel and true heir of God's covenant promises (see Gal 6:16). Like Israel assembled at Mount Sinai, this church understood its role as a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and God's own people (see 1 Pet. 2:9; cf. Ex 19:5-6).
The most obvious reference to covenant in the New Testament is in Jesus’ gathering with His disciples to celebrate the Passover. The parallel between Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper in Matthew 26:27-28 to the covenant ceremony at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 24 is not unintentional.
Exodus 24 describes the gathering of the Israelites at Mt. Sinai after being delivered from slavery in Egypt. Chapters 20-23 describe the covenant God establishes with Israel, as was earlier shown. In Exodus 24:8, the covenant is ratified as Moses takes the blood of young bulls and sprinkles it on the people saying, “Behold, the blood of the covenant, which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” Finally, in Exodus 24:9-11, following this covenantal ceremony, seventy elders ascend the mountain with Moses to eat and drink before God.
Turning to Matthew 26, we see Jesus gathered with his disciples celebrating the Passover meal. This meal was a ceremony done in remembrance of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, the very basis for the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. Specifically, the Passover meal remembered the night where the blood of a spotless lamb marked who would live and who would die as the tenth plague passed over the houses of the Israelites and struck down the firstborn of Egypt (see Ex 11-12). David Peterson writes: “According to Jewish tradition, the blood of the lambs sacrificed at the time of the exodus had redemptive power and made God’s covenant with Abraham operative. When families or groups of friends gathered in Jerusalem to eat the Passover meal, they were reminded in a very personal way of the whole basis of their relationship with God and their existence as a people. Additionally, the Passover had become an occasion for Israelites to express confidence in a future redemption by God, associated with the coming of the Messiah.”[1]
In this setting, Jesus takes a cup and says, “…this is My blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (see Mt 26:8). Just as Moses sprinkled the blood of bulls upon the people of Israel in order to ratify the Sinai covenant, Jesus distributed His own blood to ratify a new covenant. Sinai established a covenant between God and Israel. The cup of Christ’s blood established a new covenant between God and all who would share in it. Alasdair Heron suggests Jesus “is not merely a sign of the covenant, or a means by which it will be made, but rather is himself the bond of alliance between God and the people, the pledge of God’s faithfulness.”[2]
Jesus' selection of the Passover, therefore, clothes the institution of the Lord's Supper with Israel's history. In fact, as Jesus distributes His own body and blood, God's redemptive purpose in Israel achieves its fulfillment and goal. Peterson explains: “The Lord’s Supper…is not itself to be regarded as the fulfillment of the Passover. In some respects, the Lord’s Supper functions as a Christian substitute for the Passover, focusing on Jesus’ death, rather than the exodus from Egypt, as the means by which God’s people are saved and brought to share in the blessings of the inheritance promised to them.”[3]
In Jesus Christ, we see God fulfilling His obligation to the covenant established with Abram in Genesis 15:17-18. God arranged to take the penalty of breaking covenant upon Himself. As Sandra Richter states: “In this new covenant, God has served as both Suzerain and sacrifice.”[4] Hebrews 9:13-15 echoes this thought: “The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance - now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.”
Earlier, we observed how the establishment of covenant had bearing upon the worship of Israel. In the same way, Jesus’ institution of this new covenant in the Lord’s Supper established a worship practice that would carry on in the New Testament church. Bringing together both past remembrance and future expectancy, the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:26, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.” Paul also reminds worshipers of the participatory element of the Lord’s Supper in I Corinthians 10:16: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”
            Regarding worship in the gathered community, the book of Acts shows us the standard practice was that of both Word and Table. Oscar Cullmann faces this issue: “The missionary preaching of the Apostles, which naturally did not take place within the framework of the Lord’s Supper, has nothing to do with the worship service of the community. It is not therefore permissible to introduce Acts 5:21 as evidence for a ‘service of the Word’ within the community… Indeed, there was the so-called service of the Word but it existed as missionary preaching for the conversion of the heathen, not for the ‘edification’ of the community.”[5]
            The book of Acts in fact shows us that Word and Table were often held in relationship to one another within the gathered community. Acts 2:42 says that the first Christians continued to gather, dedicating themselves to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayers. In Acts 20 we hear the account of Paul’s preaching a sermon on the Lord’s day at the gathering for the breaking of bread. At the end of the account, it states, “at the close the bread was broken.” Cullmann goes as far to state this evidence leads to prove the following: “The Lord’s Supper is thus the basis and goal of every gathering.”[6]
            Of course, there are many other insights the New Testament gives us to the practice of Word and Table. (See some of the comments on recent blog posts regarding the road to Emmaus in Luke and John 6.) This has already been a lengthy post, but further reflection and comments are always welcome!

[1] David Peterson, Engaging With God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 120.
[2] Alasdair I. C. Heron, Table and Tradition: Toward an Ecumenical Understanding of the Eucharist (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1993), 13.
[3] Peterson, 121.
[4] Sanrda L. Richter, The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008),89.
[5] Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1953), 28-29.
[6] Ibid, 29. 

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