Monday, August 03, 2009

What Is the Communion of the Lord's Table?

When we are done practicing the Lord's Table, like Jesus and the Apostles, we sing a hymn and go out. We sing, "Blessed Be the Tie that Binds." I love that song. In the second half of the first verse, you read this:

The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like that to that above.

I've sung that line now a few hundred times. Have I meant it when I sang it? What is the fellowship of kindred minds like we would find in heaven? It does remind me of what Jesus prayed to the Father in John 17:17-22:

17 Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. 18 As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth. 20 Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; 21 That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. 22 And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one:

The way I've heard the unity for which Jesus prayed here described by evangelicals is only a spiritual unity. Now why do they interpret it that way? Here goes.

John 17

Part One. Whatever Jesus prays for will be answered. Jesus is going to get what He prays for. If not, then all the promises for answered prayer are worthless. It's obvious that Jesus will pray in the will of the Father, and since He does so here, then this prayer for unity must be answered.

Part Two. As we look around the world at saved people, there is with complete certainty not that unity. There is division among evangelicals everywhere, constant disagreement and constant fighting. So if we're talking about a real, tangible kind of unity, then Jesus' prayer wasn't answered. And that can't be. By the way, do you see how here in part two that these evangelicals (and fundamentalists) bring experience into their interpretation. They don't interpret this based upon what scripture says alone. That wouldn't be sufficient (or would it?).

Part Three. Since Jesus always has His prayers answered, then this unity must be a spiritual unity. It is one kind of unity that Jesus is praying for, and that is spiritual unity among all believers. All believers have a kind of unity, a spiritual unity. This is what Jesus prayed for, a spiritual unity, and of course it was answered. This unity is a positional unity. It isn't practical. All believers have a standing in Christ and their unity is there. It is a kind of unity and it is the same kind of unity that the Father and Son have, a spiritual kind.

Does it seem obvious to you from John 17 that Jesus is talking just about the spiritual unity alone? It doesn't to me. And I can't say that I really even understand what this spiritual unity is. It seems like a kind of hypothetical unity, an ideal unity, that we are all still striving for in the real world. We have it already, but we won't really experience it until heaven. It's hardly practical at all. I can't even understand why it is that Jesus would be praying for that. If it is only spiritual, He would be in essence praying for the salvation of these people. But if he is praying for unity, then it seems it would be something that would make a difference on earth.

Well, is that spiritual unity the kind of unity that the Father and Son had? Because that's the kind of unity Jesus was praying for. Look at the words which precede the prayer for unity. He gives a description of the unity that He's praying for in the words previous to the unity request. How was Jesus one with the Father? He was one through the truth. Jesus was sanctified through the truth, and He wants believers to be sanctified through the truth too. And we know that His Word is truth. So the unity is a unity around the truth of God's Word. The oneness between those that the Father gave the Son comes from sanctification of the Word of God.

If it's true that unity comes from sanctification by the Word of God, then the unity is based upon the same teaching of scripture and the same practice of scripture. We don't see that unity between all professing believers today, but that doesn't change the meaning of John 17. So did Jesus' prayer not get answered? It did. But we should look at the passage to see where this unity is.

The men that the Father gave Jesus were the men to whom Jesus gave the Words that the Father had given Him and received them (John 17:7-8). Those who receive His Words, are baptized, and added to the church in Acts 2:41. The church is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15). God gave Israel the Old Testament to keep (Romans 3:1-2). The church became His depository for truth in the New Testament (1 Thessalonians 2:13; Ephesians 3:9-10; Revelation 1-3). The church keeps His Words.

Where we find the unity for which Jesus prayed is in the church.
Repeatedly in Acts we read that the church was of "one accord" (homothumadon), that is, having the same mind (Acts 1:14; 2:1, 46; 4:24; 8:6; 12:20). The church is the only institution that could have this unity of doctrine and practice, because Jesus gave it the means by which it could keep the purity that is the unity of belief and practice. He gave the church the office of the pastor, church discipline, and the Lord's Table as a means of keeping this unity.

1 Corinthians 10:16-17

So that brings us to our original question. Is the communion of the Lord's Table something that is hypothetical, in idea form, or only spiritual? Or is it a real unity? When we take of the same bread, are we to be expecting unity in the church? Or are we fooling ourselves?

The communion that we should expect is seen in the nature of the elements. Consider 1 Corinthians 10:16-17:

16 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? 17 For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.

The body of which Paul speaks is the assembly of believers, like the one that Christ formed around Himself in the gospels. We know this from 1 Corinthians 12:27, where in speaking to the church at Corinth, Paul writes:

Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.

If "the body of Christ" were all believers, Paul wouldn't have said, "ye are the body of Christ," referring to the Corinthian church and excluding himself. This defines the concept of "the body of Christ" in scripture. It refers to an assembly of believers. And the analogy only works on a local level. The believers are in one location and they work together.

In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul is speaking axiomatically. He too took of the Lord's Table, so he didn't exclude himself in 1 Corinthians 10:16. He was a part of the church at Antioch, operating under its authority. Paul says that when we, the church, come to the table, we are one bread, which is why we all partake of the same bread, the same element, one bread. We are all eating pieces off the same source of bread. This pictures the communion that we have. We're the same.

So what is this sameness? 1 Corinthians 11, which deals with the Lord's Table, can clue us in.

1 Corinthians 11

In 1 Corinthians 11:28, we read the required preparation for the Lord's Table from those in the body.

But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.

What is a man to examine himself for? He is to see if he has transgressed God's Word in any way. That is "discerning the Lord's body." Jesus was perfect. He was sanctified by the truth in every way. We can't live like He did, but we can make sure that we're not covering up any of the ways that we aren't living what God told us to live, and confess that. That's the purpose of the examination, to make sure things are settled between us and God. When we confess, that returns us to practical fellowship with God. We're then ready to partake.

The next few verses beginning in v. 29 put some teeth to the command in v. 28.

29 For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. 30 For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. 31 For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.

When someone examines himself before eating the bread and drinking the cup, he searches for any way that he is transgressing God's Word. He judges himself, so that he won't be chastened of the Lord in a physical way.

Every church is looking for complete unity at the Lord's Table---one spirit and one mind---represented by the one bread. This is how we have communion with one another---in doctrine and practice. It isn't a hypothetical unity that is nothing more than lipservice. It isn't the unity of the family reunion, where everyone agrees to get along by talking about nothing more than the weather. It is real unity. It is the unity of one Spirit, one body, and one faith.

There isn't one example in the New Testament of a church that had more than one doctrine and practice. Someone might argue that they didn't believe differently then because false doctrine hadn't developed much by that time, but things have changed a lot since then. But Scripture is clear, so plain that even a child can understand (2 Timothy 3:15). There is only one Holy Spirit. The communion of the church is one doctrine and practice, the same kind of fellowship that Jesus has with the Father. The fellowship is that of walking in the light together even as He is in the light (1 John 1:6-7). That is the communion of the Lord's Table.


Thomas Ross said...

Dear Pastor Brandenburg,

I entirely agree that the Lord’s Supper requires unity in the church. That is an important point, and too often it is overlooked. I have some questions if we are going to say that in John 17 Christ is praying for the church rather than for all believers. (Perhaps this was not really your declaration, and I misunderstood your point).

Doesn’t John 17:8 specifically say that John 17 is a prayer for those who believe on Him, not for church members only?

For I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came out from thee, and they have believed that thou didst send me.

Didn’t they FIRST receive His words by being converted, and THEN receive baptism in Acts 2? If so, does Acts in any way change what would be the natural view of John 17, that all believers are being prayed for?

Since in Acts 15 there was disunity in the church at Jerusalem, if Christ’s prayer is answered for sure, can His prayer be that all or any particular church will always have unity? And if there were people in the church at Corinth who denied the resurrection, wasn’t there (sinfully) an example of people with severe doctrinal divisions within one church? Was there unity in the church where Diotrephes needed to cast people out? Was Christ’s prayer answered if His prayer in John 17 was for the church, rather than for the elect?

Doesn’t every member of the kingdom of God, all who are born again, have a unity in their submission to Christ as king, renewed nature, love for the brethren, etc.? Isn’t this a very real unity? This is what J. C. Ryle, in his book Holiness, wrote about the unity in love among all true believers:

Loving Other Christians

Fourth, John wrote: “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren” (1Jo 3:14).

A man who is born again has a special love for all true disciples of Christ. Like his Father in heaven, he loves all men with a great general love, but he has a special love for those who share his faith in Christ. Like his Lord and Saviour, he loves the worst of sinners and could weep over them; but he has a peculiar love for those who are believers. He is never so much at home as when he is in their company.

He feels they are all members of the same family. They are his fellow soldiers, fighting against the same enemy. They are his fellow travelers, journeying along the same road. He understands them, and they understand him. They may be very different from himself in many ways—in rank, in station and in wealth. But that does not matter. They are his Father’s sons and daughters and he cannot help loving them. What would the apostle say about you? Are you born again?

Wouldn’t we agree that this unity exists, and that it is very real? Why can’t John 17 be about this?

Kent Brandenburg said...


Thanks for your comment. I'm convinced that Jesus was praying for believers. Believers will be baptized and join the church. That is how they unify, by becoming one body, one loaf.

The church is more than a physical institution, but a spiritual one. Praying for those who believe on Him is synonymous with the church. We get similar type of teaching all over. Those whom he will save are those who will continue. Are we saved through continuing? No. But those who He will save will continue. Well, those who believe become part of a church. You don't have an example of a saved person not joining the church.

Not only does he want unity for those who believe, but for those who receive His Word, for those Who are with Him on the earth, and for those who will believe on Him. Where do they get that unity?

Granted individual churches do not have perpetual unity, but they do have unity. They have been given what they need for unity. The unity of the NT is seen through the NT as being in the church. I believe Ryle's explanation falls short.

We're talking about a unity like the Father has with the Son, which includes sanctification by the truth of God's Word. This is not a merely spiritual unity, but a practical unity. That is found only in the church.