The Lord’s Supper–5 Nodes of Meaning

Posted: June 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the two ordinances that Jesus has given to the church.  Since He left us with two, and only two, it seems important to me that we have a right understanding of what they are and what they mean.  I have spent a good deal of time and mental energy studying the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper over the last few months and would like to share some thoughts from a chapter that Jonathan Pennington has written in “The Lord’s Supper:  Remembering and Proclaiming Christ Until He Comes” (all page numbers that follow are from this book).

First, a quick statement about the two ordinances is in order.  Baptism is the public profession of repentance from sin and faith in Jesus.  It is the way that we publicly identify ourselves with Jesus and His church.  Every person that repents and believes is to follow Christ in baptism.  This is done one time at the beginning of the Christian life and is not repeated.  The Lord’s Supper is a visible proclamation that a group of believers are continuing to trust in Jesus for their salvation as well as displaying a hopeful expectation of His return.  The Lord’s Supper is to be practiced continually throughout the Christian life as a sign of continual faith and trust in Jesus.

Both of these ordinances should be studied, meditated upon, and embraced by the Christian church.  It would seem that few have considered the depth of the significance of either.  It may be that the Lord’s Supper has received less concern than Baptism.  So here I hope to offer some thoughts from Dr. Pennington that help us plumb the depths of this great ordinance.

Dr. Pennington notes five “nodes of meaning.”  He gets the term node from the area of computer science.  A node “is a placeholder for some information or a block of memory that contains both stored data and references to other nodes.  A chain of linked nodes, then, creates a large data structure of interwoven ideas” (pg. 45).  Thus, as we pick up on one idea or meaning of the Lord’ Supper, we quickly find that it overlaps with other intended meanings and ideas.  The five nodes that Dr. Pennington draws out are what follows along with my thoughts in italics.

1.      An Enacted Parable of Jesus’ Impending Sacrificial Deathhere it would seem that Pennington reminds us that the Lord’s Supper was a way in which Jesus was continuing to teach His disciples.  He employs parables numerous times throughout His ministry.  Here, the parable is in the form of drama.  He teaches His disciples that on earth He will give His body and blood so that those who feed upon Him (trust, believe, etc.) will find that their sins are forgiven.  His death is coming and this drama will help His disciples interpret what they are about to see while helping later disciples (i.e. us) interpret what has already happened.

2.      The Fulfillment of the Passover and the New ExodusJesus moves with great intentionality.  He brings everything to a climax during the Passover feast.  While Israel is celebrating their deliverance from Egyptian bondage by the hand of God, Jesus is instituting a meal that would be meant to celebrate their deliverance from bondage to sin by the Son of God through His death and resurrection.  Here, those who follow the Son of God in faith are led out of captivity and into a land of rest.

3.      Inauguration of the New CovenantJewish men and women familiar with the OT would have been looking forward to the New Covenant promised in places like Jeremiah 31:31-34.  And since covenants were typically ratified with blood, Jesus declares that it is the blood that He is about to spill that will ratify the New Covenant.  The Lord’s Supper reminds us that the Old Covenant shadows have passed and the promise of the New Covenant has been ushered in and secured through Jesus.

4.      Community/Identity Formationwhen we look at the theology of the Lords Supper we cannot miss the fact that this is a church ordinance.  It is to be practiced among the gathered community (the church) and not in an isolated environment.  It reminds us that Jesus died to redeem a people, not simply individuals.  And those who have turned from sin and believed in Jesus now find their identity in Him and in this new community.  The gathered church now represents the people of God.

5.      Appetizer of the Eschatological BanquetWhen Jesus brings all of history to its appointed end and establishes His heavenly kingdom upon a new earth, we will sit at the table with Him and enjoy a meal.  The Lord’s Supper is a meal that both reminds us of the death of Jesus and of the reality that He rose again.  Because He lives and has promised to return, we long for that day when we eat at the great marriage supper of the Lamb who was slain.

These five nodes of meaning do not exhaust the depths of meaning when it comes to the Lord’s Supper.  Each node can be, and was by Dr. Pennington, discussed at length.  There are other nodes that could no doubt be added.  One could speak of the bread, which represents the flesh of Jesus, as pointing towards the incarnation.  We could talk about the need for self-evaluation that accompanies this ordinance and how it is meant to call us to continually confess our sins and trust in Jesus.  There are many other ideas that could be added to the above list.  These five should simply cause us to appreciate the Lord’s Supper to a greater degree while challenging us to study this ordinance even more.

I pray that as Christians continue to practice the Lord’s Supper, that we will do so with as full of an understanding of the ordinance as we can have.  It is a time of introspection, fellowship, remembrance, and celebration.  We come to the table repenting of our sins, in unity with one another, reflecting on what Christ has done, and celebrating the life we have in Him and the hope of His return.

Till then, we do this in remembrance of Him.

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