Growing up in a Baptist church, I recall walking into the room and seeing the table prepared before the pulpit once every three months. Like clockwork, it would appear and in my unconverted little selfish mind, I was reminded of how the service would be longer on that particular day.
When I was first called to serve as pastor of my home church, that practice had not changed from when I was a young boy, but my heart had certainly changed. We moved the observance of the Lord’s Table to once per month based on pragmatic convictions. For instance, if you had the flu on the week where we observed communion as a church family, that would cause you to go six months between observances. We felt that was problematic and for that main reason, we adjusted our schedule accordingly.
Through the years, as a young and maturing pastor (always reforming) I would form new convictions. This time, they were more text grounded rather than pragmatic and logically driven. For that reason, we changed our schedule again—this time moving to a weekly observance of the Lord’s Table.
The Pattern of the Early Church
When we study the Bible, we must consistently evaluate the difference between the indicative and imperative. To say it another way, we must discern between the descriptive and the prescriptive. Sometimes we find information about how a specific church or individual engaged in gospel ministry which is to be distinguished from a command for how we must engage in ministry in order to obey God.
For that reason, I will simply say that I in no way intend to argue that another church who chooses to worship at the Lord’s Table less frequently than weekly communion is guilty of sin. That is certainly not the case. However, I believe that based upon the pattern of the early church, we should have more frequent observances of the Lord’s Table than less frequent.
Early on, in Acts 2:42, we find the church gathering together (assembling) after Peter’s famous sermon at Pentecost. The church grew dramatically through one powerful move of God in one powerful sermon. As the church gathered, we find the basic building blocks of a worship service put on display. One of the things we see clearly is the “breaking of bread” among the gathered church. In fact, it’s mentioned twice in this paragraph. The first reference is referring to the Lord’s Table while the second reference is to Christian fellowship. This can be substantiated by the context of the paragraph.
Additionally, we see other glimpses of the church’s weekly gathering that seems to indicate the observance of Christian communion at the Lord’s Table. For instance, in Acts 20:7, we find the following words:
On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.
We know what happened next. During the long sermon, a young man fell out of the window and was killed. Paul approached the boy and he was miraculously raised from the dead and his life restored. You might argue that this text should not be used to substantiate weekly communion or very long sermons. On one level, you are indeed correct to make that observation. However, this text is one additional link in the chain that points to the fact that the early church seemed to be observing the Lord’s Table weekly.
Therefore, when Jesus commanded his disciples to observe the Lord’s Table, he gave the command saying, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). The reality is, Jesus didn’t mandate that the church gather daily to observe the Lord’s Supper. It was framed by language that seems to indicate consistency and frequency as opposed to random observances. For that reason, we believe that the church gathering weekly and observing the Lord’s Table weekly is most consistent with the pattern of the New Testament.
The Purity of the Church
One of the arguments against weekly observances of the Lord’s Table is that the more frequent the church observes the Lord’s Table the less special it becomes. I recall once using that same argument for monthly observances. However, if we apply that same logic to any of the elements of a worship service, we could find ourselves in a serious dilemma. For instance, what if we apply that logic to preaching. If we have a sermon every week, it makes it less special. Therefore, we should move the preaching of the sermon to once per month. Would that be appropriate? The answer is obvious.
Perhaps one of the strongest reasons for weekly observance of the Lord’s Table is based on the simple fact that in each fencing of the table by the pastor, there is an opportunity for self-examination, repentance, and restoration among the church family. Each time we draw near to the Lord’s Table for worship, we admit our failure, our sin, our shame, and our complete and utter dependence upon Christ. If we go to bed every Saturday with the knowledge that the table will be prepared for the Lord’s Supper on Sunday morning, it makes it far more difficult to continue on with division, bitterness, personal sin, rebellion, and animosity among the church. Sin hidden away in the heart is deadly. Division in the church is deadly too.
In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul commands the church to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). The word, “maintain” is the Greek term, “τηρέω” which means, “To retain in custody, keep watch over, guard. It can be defined as, causing a state, condition, or activity to continue.” One of the best ways to undergo routine maintenance among the church is through self-examination and repentance on a weekly basis. This prevents the church from allowing sin to fester and grow which causes division and fracture of the body. In short, weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper allows us to come together in unity through Christ and fellowship in an intimate manner through the worship of Jesus Christ. This purifies the body weekly. The basis for us forgiving others and being forgiven by others is rooted in the forgiveness that we have all received from God through Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:32).
The Proclamation of the Gospel
One of the great tragedies of modern evangelical preaching is the lack of Christ centered gospel proclamation. Often pastors fall into one of two popular ditches on either side of the road. They fall into the one ditch of pragmatism that causes the sermon to be man-centered in order to draw a crowd. This takes the focus away from Christ and his gospel. The other ditch that ensnares many pastors is the temptation to be so focused on the background, context, grammar, and historical lens that the gospel is minimized or bypassed altogether.
Christian preachers must never preach a single sermon that would not cause them to be thrown out of a Jewish synagogue. The weekly culmination of the worship service at the Lord’s Table connects the sermon to the Lord’s Table and mandates that the gospel will be presented every single week. Keep in mind, the preaching of the gospel is for the church’s sanctification, not just the church’s justification. We need the gospel every single week in order to grow in our faith and in the knowledge of God.
Finally, the church must focus on proclaiming the gospel with an evangelistic appeal to unbelievers. That means, first and foremost an appropriate eye must be placed upon unconverted children in the room who need to be evangelized every week. What better way could a church properly engage children with the gospel than at the Lord’s Table? A proper fencing of the table will enable the pastor to look at the children and point them to their hope in Jesus Christ.
This same opportunity for children is likewise profitable for guests and unbelievers who may be in attendance on any given Sunday. The simple yet profound truth of the gospel well presented in the worship service at the Lord’s Table is a far better opportunity to evangelize unbelievers than many gimmicks and programs designed to engage unbelievers with the gospel. The unbelieving skeptic doesn’t feel as if they are being tricked or approached with a religious scheme. Instead, they sit there observing and listening to the worship of the church. It’s through the power of the gospel preached at the Lord’s Table and applied by the Holy Spirit that unbelievers can be called out of darkness into the marvelous light of Christ.
In his commentary on Matthew (chapter 26), J.C. Ryle observes the following:
The benefits it confers are spiritual, not physical: its effects must be looked for in our inner being. It was intended to remind us, by the visible, tangible emblems of bread and wine, that the offering of Christ’s body and blood for us on the cross is the only atonement for sin, and the life of a believer’s soul; it was meant to help our poor weak faith to closer fellowship with our crucified Saviour, and to assist us in spiritually feeding on Christ’s body and blood. It is an ordinance for redeemed sinners, and not for unfallen angels. By receiving it we publicly declare our sense of guilt, and our need of a Saviour—our trust in Jesus, and our love to him, our desire to live upon him, and our hope to live with him. Using it in this spirit, we shall find our repentance deepened, our faith increased, our hope brightened, our love enlarged, our besetting sins weakened and our graces strengthened. It will draw us nearer to Christ.1J. C. Ryle, Matthew, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 258.
|J. C. Ryle, Matthew, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 258.