I can’t remember not going to church. My youthful experiences ranged from Pentecostal to Baptist to non-denominational. But regardless of the setting, one thing that stands out in hindsight was how rarely we took the Lord’s Supper.
I don’t know all the reasons for this omission (though I have some guesses). But having been a member of a church for 13 years that practices almost weekly communion, it’s hard to imagine going back. It’s also hard for me to imagine that those churches wouldn’t have partaken more often with a more biblical understanding of how the Lord uses signs and seals to bless us.
For those who hear this and think What’s the big deal? Guy Prentiss Waters’s new book The Lord’s Supper as a Sign and Meal of the New Covenant can be part of a healthy corrective. As he puts it, “One reason I have written this book is to help Christians recover the importance of the Lord’s Supper in the Christian life” (14). The prose is crisp, the subheadings clear, and the chapters concise.
Most Christians know that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper just hours before his death—but they struggle to understand the relevance of this foundational Christian practice to their daily lives. This book seeks to help Christians recover the importance of the Lord’s Supper for their daily lives by exploring its three purposes: an expression of communion with Jesus Christ, a demonstration of unity with other Christians, and a demarcation between the church and the world. Exploring how God uses similar “covenant signs” throughout the Bible to point to and confirm his promises, this new book in the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series helps readers more fully experience the blessings of the gospel available in the Lord’s Supper.
What This Book Is
As the title of the series suggests, this book is an exercise in biblical theology—a discipline that typically traces its theme through the Bible’s storyline from Genesis to Revelation. Given that people from Genesis to Malachi didn’t even practice the Lord’s Supper, you might wonder where Waters manages to find fodder for the first 84 pages.
If so, I invite you to take up and read. Waters—professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)—wants us to see that in order to understand what the Lord’s Supper is, we have to understand the role of covenant signs and meals throughout salvation history. That’s why the book is almost three-fourths done before it deals directly with the Lord’s Supper.
When we sit down at the Lord’s Table, we’re participating in a dress rehearsal.
The meaning lies in the full title, The Lord’s Supper as a Sign and Meal of the New Covenant, which contains all the book’s basic elements: a discussion of covenant basics, covenant signs, and covenant meals. All these lay the foundation for our understanding of the Lord’s Supper.
1. Covenant Basics
Before we can understand how the Supper functions as a covenant sign and meal, we must first know what a covenant is. This chapter provides a helpful three-part definition of covenant as (1) a “sovereign administration of promises with corresponding obligations,” that (2) solemnly ratifies a pre-existing, elective relationship (3) and deals with “life and death issues” (21–31).
For my money, it also provides a persuasive case for a “covenant of works” with Adam, followed by the several biblical covenants that emerge from one underlying “covenant of grace.” And though Waters is a Presbyterian, there is really nothing here that the Baptist Tom Schreiner didn’t substantially affirm in his previous volume in this series.
2. Covenant Signs
Waters next lays the foundation for the Supper as a covenant sign by describing how God gave a sign for each previous covenant: the tree of life for the Adamic, the rainbow for the Noahic, circumcision for the Abrahamic, Passover for the Mosaic (I was a bit surprised he didn’t mention the Sabbath in this regard; Ezekiel 20:12), as well as baptism for the new covenant.
Personal faith actually suffers when God’s appointed means of grace are ignored.
These signs were designed to strengthen the faith of covenant members by appealing to their five senses. For example, every time Noah saw a rainbow, and every time we take the bread in our mouths, God was (and is) tangibly reminding them (and us) of his promises.
Of course, having the covenant sign doesn’t guarantee that we’ll inherit the blessings of the covenant (Rom. 2:28–29). But God didn’t give them for nothing, and used properly they should nourish our faith. This is why it’s so sad when churches—perhaps in response to an overly ritualistic view that downplays personal faith—neglect these visible signs. Personal faith actually suffers when God’s appointed means of grace are ignored.
3. Covenant Meals
Another commonality between Passover and the Lord’s Supper is that they’re both “covenant meals.” Indeed, the title phrase “sign and meal” is meant to catch our attention by playing on the more familiar sacramental language of “sign and seal.”
This is my favorite chapter, because it highlights how communion with the triune God—the primary purpose of our existence—is so often symbolized by eating, drinking, and feasting. The Bible begins and ends with the tree of life (59). Israel’s communal life is punctuated by feasts (60–66). Isaiah describes the kingdom of God as a banquet of rich food prepared by God himself (Isa. 25:6–9). All of this reaches its fulfillment when we eat and drink Christ himself through faith (John 6:34–35, 50–51), in order to finally sit down to eat and drink with Christ by sight at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Luke 22:16; Rev. 19:9).
So the Lord’s Supper not only looks back to Passover and the redemption accomplished there; it also looks forward to the eternal feast where our redemption will be consummated. When we sit down at the Lord’s Table, we’re participating in a dress rehearsal. The words of institution remind us that we do this “until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). “The best is yet to come. We have been treated to an appetizer in this life. The fullness of the meal awaits when the Savior returns” (84).
Lord’s Supper and the Church
Having laid this deep foundation, the final two chapters survey the relevant data from the Gospels and Epistles, particularly the Last Supper and 1 Corinthians 11, before turning to some practical conclusions for the church.
The Lord’s Supper is seen to be both vertical (communion with God) and horizontal (communion with one another). A memorial, but not a “bare memorial” (93). A boundary marker between the church from the world, but one which also serves as a “standing evangelistic invitation to unbelievers—not to come to the Table, but to come to Jesus Christ in faith” (96). In eating this bread and drinking this cup, we are, after all, “proclaiming the Lord’s death” (1 Cor. 11:26). (And personally, I can’t help but wonder why we wouldn’t want to do that every week—or at least pretty often.)
In the final chapter, Waters tackles three practical questions facing the church. How is Christ present in the Supper? Who should come to Lord’s Table? And how is the Lord’s Supper different from baptism?
When we come to Christ in the Supper, we aren’t fundamentally doing something for him. He is, rather, doing something for us. He’s supplying needy souls with the grace of the gospel.
Waters’s answers reflect a Reformed Protestant viewpoint, and comments reflecting his paedobaptist beliefs are mostly confined to footnotes (117). Transubstantiation is rejected—because Christ is in heaven (as Thomas Cranmer noted, the words “until he comes” imply his physical absence). But his spiritual presence is heartily affirmed (104, 112). Indeed, “This is a running characteristic of covenant meals—the presence of God with his people for their blessing” (112).
This is why churches need the Lord’s Supper. Not simply because we need to be reminded of the gospel—although God knows this is true (Heb. 2:1–4; 2 Tim. 2:8)—but because God promises to meet us there with blessing. As Waters explains,
When we come to Christ in the Supper, we aren’t fundamentally doing something for him. He is, rather, doing something for us. He’s supplying needy souls with the grace of the gospel. He’s furnishing what we need from the resources of his sacrificial death on the cross. He’s pledging to bring each of his children home to the messianic banquet where we shall enjoy in full what we now enjoy in part—life and blessing from, with, and in our Savior. (95)
I invite you to consider Waters’s case. As for me, I’ve lived the Christian life both ways—both with and without a regular Lord’s Supper—and I’ve tasted and seen that the Lord’s way is better.