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The Transcendent Nature of the Lord's Supper

If you know me, you know that studying the Lord’s Supper has been and continues to be a passion of mine. Recently I was thinking about how the Lord’s Supper transcends culture. How so? Let me explain by starting with the book of Acts.

Acts 2:42 says the early church was devoted to the Apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayers. As any good book on hermeneutics will teach, to correctly interpret a passage of Scripture, we must go back to the town of the original audience and then cross the bridge of time and culture into today’s world to end with the faithful application of the text.[1] As the church was beginning, the first followers of the ascended Jesus regularly gathered, and Luke tells us what was most important to their gatherings: The apostles would teach, there would be the commonality or fellowship of being part of Jesus’ economy, the gathered believers would pray, and there would be breaking of bread.

Most commentators understand the phrase “breaking of bread” to refer to the Lord’s Supper.[2] For example, Kenneth Gangel states, “The believers joined in breaking bread—Luke’s term for what Paul calls ‘the Lord’s Supper.’”[3]I. Howard Marshall agrees, “It has been claimed that the thought is simply of a fellowship meal . . .but it is much more likely that Luke is simply using an early Palestinian name for the Lord's Supper in the proper sense.”[4]

Of the four core commitments of the early church, the Lord’s Supper has the fewest cultural limitations. Or, to state it positively, of the early church’s four core commitments, the Lord’s Supper most easily transcends culture. Consider the apostles' doctrine and prayer. If it were possible to go back in time and visit those early gatherings, most likely anyone reading this paper would not understand much of what the Apostles were teaching or what the church was praying about. The effect of Babel’s curse of differing language would make it very difficult, if not impossible, to understand the Apostles’ teaching and the prayers of the gathered. The reality of Babel’s curse is present in the same chapter of Acts when the gift of speaking in tongues made its inaugural appearance. Differing languages severely limits who can understand teaching and prayer.

Similarly, fellowship would be limited since common ways of living are often hard to comprehend and understand. The mandate to love neighbor equally applies to every culture at all times and places. Yet, how that love for neighbor is manifested is often surprisingly different. For example, several years ago, my wife and I were on a very long adoption journey to adopt two boys from the African country of Liberia. While God chose not to allow us to adopt those two boys, the training we received was invaluable. The training taught the difference in culture and how parenting children who began their lives in one culture but are suddenly transported to a new culture could be disorienting to the children and disappointing to the adoptive parents. One specific lesson is particularly relevant to how fellowship changes from culture to culture. We were warned that the children from Liberia would most likely lie to us. These children would lie not because of an inherent disregard for morals (other than what is common to humanity due to sinful nature). The children would lie because, in their culture, disappointing authority or a loved one is a greater foul than lying. The children are, in reality, attempting to show love and respect by saving someone from disappointment through stretching the truth. The culture of America is the opposite. It is far better to disappoint someone than to lie to them. Fellowship, or a common way of living, is so different from culture to culture that the learning curve is steep, and it can take a long time to fully understand how people relate to one another.

Of the four core commitments of the early church, the Lord’s Supper most easily transcends culture. The limitations of differing language are minimized because, as Brian Vickers states, “when believers take up the cup, they drink as the people of God in a new relationship with Him, sealed by the blood of Christ.”[5] one does not have to speak the same language as other people when eating and drinking together. And when one raises a glass at any gathering, people know that a sign of solidarity is symbolized, regardless of the culture.

I have had the privilege of ministering in several countries. Multiple trips to India and Haiti gave particular insight into how the Lord’s Supper most easily transcends culture. During every journey, I attended numerous church services, and since I do not speak Creole, French, or Hindi, I was in the dark for most of the church service. There was an occasional flair of familiarity if the church happened to sing an American song transported to India or Haiti. Still, for the most part, the singing, preaching, prayers, and fellowship time made little sense to me. Yet, when it was time to take a piece of bread and a cup of wine, I knew exactly what was being communicated. I felt embedded into the worship service only when eating and drinking with his fellow believers. No limitation of language or difference in fellowship styles could limit the commonality of the bread and cup.

Why is the transcendent nature of the Lord’s Supper important?

It is important because we see what a gift the Table is to the Church in all contexts and culture. Perhaps your church has people attending whose first language is not English. How much of the sermon are they understanding? What about the songs? But if you observe the Table each week, they have a gospel symbol and a means of sanctifying grace to nourish them while gathered together with other believers.

The Lord’s Supper truly is a wonderful gift to the church in any culture and context.

------------------------------- [1] J. Scott Duvall, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005), 19–25.

[2]Some of these commentators include F. F. Bruce, John Polhill, R. C. H. Lenski, and Marvin Vincent.

[3]Kenneth O. Gangel, Acts, Holman New Testament Commentary, vol. 5 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 31.

[4] I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction and Commentary, 1st American ed, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1980), 83.

[5] Brian J. Vickers, “The Lord’s Supper: Celebrating the Past and Future in the Present,” in The Lord’s Supper: Remembering and Proclaiming Christ until He Comes, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Matthew R. Crawford (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2010), 325.

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Had a discussion with my pastor son who was considering weekly observance of the Lord's table. I don't necessarily think we are wrong for a monthly observance, but you make a good case for weekly observance. My concern is that it become routine, but that same concern can be voiced for church attendance, prayer, etc. As always, I appreciate your thoughtful ministry. Blessings! (Oh, and my son did transition to weekly observance.) : )

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