Communion as Covenant Renewal

“And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.  And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood

                                                                                                                                                      — Jesus

All around the world, churches come together to take part of the Lord’s Table. But just what does it mean when we take part in this celebration? And while we know it is to remember the Lord’s death and resurrection, why do we do it?

I believe that by thinking canonically, or by thinking through how the Old Covenant relates to the New Covenant, the Scripture provides clarity as to why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

The first thing to consider in answering this question is the practice of the early church, which provides a helpful picture for us. In 1 Corinthians, Paul etches an image of how first century believers followed the Lord’s instruction concerning communion:

“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread,  and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (11:23-26)

Paul highlights at least three things. First, taking communion is about remembering Jesus. Second, by drinking from the communion cup, we signify that we partake of the New Covenant. Third, we proclaim Jesus’ death until his return. I want to affirm these things, but I want to complement these ideas by thinking canonically.

When speaking of baptism, we typically relate that to circumcision in the Old Testament. Baptism is the sign of the New Covenant, like circumcision is the sign of the Old Covenant. No huge problem there, though some may disagree with the details.

Some may disagree here, however, because I suggest that communion corresponds to covenant renewal in the Old Covenant. No, this is not the only way to describe the Lord’s Table, but I think it is one beneficial way to describe as it it relates to our Christian practice. But before that, I should probably give you some rationale as to why I am making this suggestion.

First, the Bible sets forth a pattern of typology. One example of this is Israel’s Exodus. Both Isaiah and Hosea pick up on this motif and apply to future salvation events. Hosea does so famously in 11:1, where he quotes Exodus 4:22, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” Matthew applies this to Jesus in Matthew 2:15. Other examples are the Passover, the idea of Messiah, and Temple. I think we are warranted to see typological connections in the Bible; at the very least we can assume that God works in similar ways in both covenants.

Second, Jesus clearly says that we are to remember him, and that the new covenant is poured out in his blood. Hence, the whole celebration remembers Jesus, and specifically his inauguration of the new covenant. Speaking of covenants, the term “remember” is a highly covenantal word (e.g., Deut 5:15; 7:18; 8:2, 18; 9:7, 27; 15:15; 16:3, 12; 24:9, 18, 22; 25:17; 32:7). In Ezekiel, Israel did not remember their youth (16:43), but there is a time when God will remember his covenant with them: “yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish for you an everlasting covenant” (16:60). Careful readers of the OT are probably familiar with the whole forget-remember formula in Scripture, and how it often relates to Israel’s covenantal relationship with Yahweh.

In any case, Jesus wants us to remember him, and uniquely his inauguration of the new covenant through his death. Call it what you will, but that seems very similar to the OT’s idea of covenant renewal.

Third, the basic context of 1 Corinthians lends itself to this connection. For example, one wonders why believers should test their faith before eating and drinking from the elements (11:27-32)?

These are three basic reasons, and I am sure there are more one could marshal, that allow for the connection between communion and covenant renewal. I freely admit that there a number of other ways to talk about communion, and this is only one way—and there may be better ways.  However, I think this is a helpful way to think about communion as it relates to our practice of it, as I said above.

I believe that solemnly remembering (renewing our commitment?) to the Lord Jesus, and especially his work to bring out the new covenant adds a level of sobriety to the Lord’s Table. We are remembering the basic and foundational core to our relationship with God: the covenant. By remembering Jesus and his covenant with us, we consider the profound implications that covenant has over our life—with its bestowal of the Spirit, forgiveness of sins, and our attendant response of faith.

Maybe I won’t convince anyone, but I hope that I have at least shown you that covenant renewal is one way to talk about communion.

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