Saturday, September 18, 2010

The κοινωνία of the Table of the Lord

"14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 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? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 18 Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? 19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. 21 You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?"

(I Corinthians 10:14-22)

I have had occasion over the past several months to think about the meaning and purpose of the Lord's table,(also called the Lord's Supper). As I wrestled with the questions and issues surrounding the Lord's table, I sensed that there are some clues in this I Corinthians 10 passage that can guide us to a fuller understanding of the meaning of our participation as Christian believers in the Lord's Supper.

The key operating word the Apostle Paul uses in this passage is the noun κοινωνία (koinonia) which in the above quote from the ESV is twice translated participation in verse 16, and participants in verse 18 and 20. Other nuances of the meaning of Koinonia include the idea of communion, association, partnership, and fellowship.

Paul's immediate purpose in this passage is to address the issue of eating meat offered to idols. In the development of his argument, our participation (koinonia) in the Lord's Supper is set in a contrasting parallel with eating food offered to idols. He uses the example of Israel to make that comparison. "Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants (koinonoi) in the altar?"

The Apostle is referring to those occasions where a sacrifice was to be brought to the appointed place of worship and the worshiper as well as the priest would eat of the animal that was sacrificed (Leviticus 7:11-34, Deuteronomy 12:11-28). "The altar furnishes the table at which Jehovah's guests enjoy their covenant fellowship in the gifts of His salvation." (EGT,"First Epistle to the Corinthians", G.G. Findlay)

Paul then brings the application to the issue in hand with the words, "I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants (koinonous) with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons."

The assumption of Paul's discourse is that in religious observance, pagan or Jewish, there is a sacrifice made, and there is a participation or sharing in the sacrifice by the worshipers involving the eating of a portion of the sacrifice.

"Greek literature uses the word "table" also of pagan altars. The thought behind that was that the offerer pictured himself as sitting at a table with the idols during the sacrificial meal. A view different from this is one which conceived of the idols partaking of the flesh which was offered. The Corinthians were familiar with such views, which makes Paul's argument a very strong one."

(NIC, "Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians", F.W. Grosheide)

Those ideas very familiar to the first century Corinthians are hardly familiar at all to those of us living in a 21st century Western secular culture where the idea of religious animal sacrifice is something that we view as archaic, or even barbaric. When was the last time you watched the sacrifice of an animal on an altar? It is that cultural disconnect that perhaps keeps many Western Evangelical Christians from understanding and appreciating the full meaning and place of the Lord's Supper in Christian worship.

In the New Covenant, the concept of participation in eating the sacrifice becomes problematic since Jesus Christ Himself is our sacrifice. With the sacramental view of the cup and bread, the problem is resolved because the sacramental view sees the bread and cup as either literally Christ's blood and body, or, in some fashion, mystically Christ's blood and body.

It is not my point here to debate the issues surrounding a sacramental view of the Lord's Supper. What I want to do is dig deeper into what participation (koinonia) in the sacrifice means for how we understand the context of the Lord's Table in the worship services of the Christian church.

In pagan or Jewish worship, when the participant sits down to partake of the sacrifice, the sacrifice has already been made. The animal to be sacrificed has been slain. The blood has been smeared on the altar. The portions of the sacrifice that are to be burned on the altar have already been burned. Whatever priestly absolution was included in the rite has already been announced. The deity has been appeased. The deity's attitude toward the worshiper is now one of peace and acceptance. The worshiper can now, as the deity's guest, safely eat at the deity's table and partake of the deity's food.

It is this understanding that sets the context for what Paul says in the next chapter of 1 Corinthians regarding the Lord's Supper.

"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.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world." (I Corinthians 11:23-32)

The issue in this passage is "discerning the body" which in the immediate context is "the body and blood of the Lord".


When we as Christian believers partake of the Lord's Supper by eating the bread and drinking from the cup, emblems of the body and blood of Christ our sacrifice, that sacrifice has already been made, and that "once for all" (Hebrews 7:27). The blood has been spilled. The body has been broken. The high priestly absolution has already been announced. God's wrath has been appeased. God's attitude toward the Christian worshiper is now one of peace and acceptance (Romans 5:1-2). The Christian worshiper can now, as the Lord's guest, safely eat at the Lord's table and partake of the Lord's food in the emblems of that sacrifice. And in doing so we "proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes."

And not only is there koinonia with the Lord at the Lord's table, there is also koinonia with all of the other guests gathered at the table. That's the point of Paul's words in chapter 10, "we who are many are one body...".

The Lord's table is not just a bare memorial rite, but when rightly understood, an evangelical gospel proclamation. That is why the use of the Word of God is a vital part of the Lord's Supper. It is the Word of God that provides the context and informs the worshiper's mind as to the meaning of the observance so the result is that "discerning the body" vital to the partaking of the ordinance. It is in connection with that Word that the Lord's Supper becomes a means of grace to the believer.

Nor is the Lord's table a place for grieving and mourning. Yes, we grieve and mourn that our sin was the occasion of the sacrificial death of Christ, but we also rejoice in the forgiveness of sins and the restored fellowship (koinonia) we have with God. That is the meaning of our participation at the table. Can you imagine feasting at a table with Jesus Christ and mourning and grieving? May it not be! Such a feast is a time of joy and gladness.

I have seen the Lord's Supper observed in a number of ways over the years I've been a Christian. In some cases the observance has had the air of a perfunctory rite to be hurried through at some point in the regular worship service. In another church, the Lord's table was never allowed to disrupt the pattern of the regular worship service (which was already an hour and a half long), but was added on at the end as another, almost separate service, when your mental and spiritual energy, and even your physical energy was already mostly exhausted.

It is when the Lord's table is woven into and made an integral part of the full service, and has a prominent focal point in the service, that I have found it most meaningful and spiritually refreshing. Not the sermon meditation dominating over the Lord's Supper, nor the Lord's Supper dominating over the meditation on the Word, but both equally together interwoven as one. Then I most fully find the Lord's Supper being the Gospel proclamation and the means of grace to my soul it was intended to be.

EGT - The Expositer's Greek Testament
NIC - The New International Commentary on the New Testament

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