Like baptism, the Lord's Supper is a sacrament. A sacrament is not primarily something that we do to express our testimony. Regrettably, that's what many believers think. But the Bible teaches that a sacrament is primarily a visible, tangible affirmation to us from God himself. God appends the sacrament to his Word in order to reinforce his gospel message. It's a sign that symbolizes the gospel, that makes the Word "visible." It's a seal that assures believers that God himself stands behind his promises. It's a means of grace through which God actually delivers Jesus Christ and his benefits to his elect by his Holy Spirit and through faith. What does God call to our attention by the Lord's Supper?
First, by the Lord's Supper, God emphasizes that Christ's death is pivotal to salvation. In the Upper Room, Jesus instituted a new ordinance to be a recurring element in public worship. He told his followers to do this again and again "in remembrance of me."
Jesus said, "This is my body, which is given for you." He wasn't referring to his body right there alive with them. Rather, the bread pictured his body as it would soon be given for them in death. He said, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood." The wine didn't stand for the blood coursing through his veins as he spoke. It stood for his blood as it would soon be poured out for them in his death. Each element pointed to his sacrificial death. First and foremost, the Lord's Supper depicts Christ crucified.
Apart from Christ's atoning death, there is no salvation whatsoever. If Christ's substitutionary atonement isn't at the heart of your faith, then yours is different from the one that Jesus proclaimed. Do you see yourself as a guilty sinner? Do you know that you are utterly devoid of hope, except for the redeeming work of Jesus Christ?
Second, by the Lord's Supper, Jesus underscores why he died. Regarding the "cup," Jesus spoke not just of his "blood," but also of "the new covenant." He said that his "blood of the covenant" would be "poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matt. 26:28). What does that mean?
Immediately after the Fall, God established his covenant of grace with Adam. When God brought Abraham into his covenant, he promised to bless his offspring and to make them a blessing to all the families of the earth. At Mount Sinai, God further unfolded his covenant with Abraham's offspring. He bound himself to be their God, and bound them to be his people. They ratified his covenant by the blood of sacrifice: "And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, 'Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words' " (Ex. 24:8).
Unhappily, through the centuries, God's people were repeatedly unfaithful to the covenant. Still, in sheer grace, God persisted in keeping his covenant. Bit by bit, step by step, he led his people to look beyond the present, to look for a future fulfillment. Then he made an amazing promise through Jeremiah: "Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more" (Jer. 31:31-34).
In the Upper Room, Jesus said, in effect, "God is finally bringing about the promised new covenant. He is finally providing the promised forgiveness of sins. And I am God's appointed sacrifice that will seal this covenant and secure this forgiveness." Our Lord Jesus died to rescue sinners like you and me. Our Savior submitted to the accursed cross in order to bring us into this new covenant friendship with God. Do you see Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, by whom alone you can come to the Father?
Third, by the Lord's Supper, God stresses how Christ applies his death to sinners. Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, explained its meaning, and gave it to his disciples. Then they took and ate. Jesus blessed the cup, explained its meaning, and gave it to them. Again, they took and drank. It's not enough to see the bread broken and the wine poured. You have to take and eat; you have to take and drink. Do you get the point? Salvation isn't yours just because you know about Christ's death and resurrection. You must also personally receive the benefits of his death and resurrection. And the way you do that is through faith in Jesus Christ.
The Lord's Supper is the outward sign of the inner reality that Jesus proclaimed after he fed the five thousand"Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.... I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.... Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink" (John 6:47-55).
Both in his preaching and in the Lord's Supper, Jesus insists that he graciously gave himself for sinners and that now you must personally receive the benefits of his saving work. You need to know the facts of Jesus' death and resurrection, but it's not enough just to know. You need to assent to their truths, but it's not enough just to assent. It's not even enough for you to be able to wax eloquent about the theological ramifications of penal substitutionary atonement. The Holy Spirit must graciously apply Jesus Christ to you, so that you personally receive and experience the benefits of his death and resurrection. And one instrument that the Spirit graciously uses to deliver these benefits to you is the Lord's Supper. And the "mouth" by which you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood is faith (and even faith is not of yourself, it is a gift of God's sovereign grace).
Every time you see the Lord's Supper administered, God vividly summons you personally to receive and rest on Christ alone, to feed upon Christ in your heart by faith, to abide in him. At the same time, every time you rightly observe the Lord's Supperwith the mouth of faiththe Lord generously delivers himself and his blessings to you. "No new revelation is given; no other Christ is made known. But, as Robert Bruce (1554-1631) well said, while we do not get a different or a better Christ in the Supper from the Christ we get in the Word, we may well get the same Christ better as the Spirit ministers by the testimony of the physical emblems being joined to the Word" (Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, p. 204). "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?" (1 Cor. 10:16-17).
The author is the pastor of Christ Covenant OPC in Indianapolis, Ind. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2005.