The Lord's Table

1 Corinthians 10:14-22

Michael Hardt

At times it is good to have a fresh look at an old theme. This article is not intended to be controversial but to state, as briefly as possible, what we believe to be the train of thought, the thrust of the argument, in this passage that speaks of the Lord's table.

The context, as always, is important. As a start, let us remind ourselves that the First Epistle to the Corinthians deals with the practical issues faced by the church on earth. An analogy can be found in the book of Numbers (showing God's (earthly) people on their way through the wilderness). We do not equate Israel with the church (as many do). The two are entirely distinct from each other. However, some of Israel 's experiences provide illustrations and instruction for the church today.

Chapter 10 is a case in point: the first 13 verses take several incidents from Israel 's national history and draw lessons from them for today. The key message which is reiterated with the help of these examples is this: 'Enjoyment of outward privileges is no guarantee of God's approval.' To see this, have a look at the cases in the following table:

 

Outward privilege

But no approval

Reason

'under the cloud' (v.1)

'passed through the sea' (v.1)

'baptised unto Moses' (v.2)

'ate the same spiritual food' (v.3)

'drank the same spiritual drink' (v.4)

'yet God was not pleased with the most of them, for they were strewed in the desert' (v.5)

lust (v.6)

idolatry (v.7)

fornication (v.8)

tempted God (v.9)

murmured (v.10)

 

 

The list of privileges is impressive (column 1), but they did not bring with them God's approval: He was 'not pleased' with most of the people. The reason (column 3) was that, while being 'partakers' (we will come back to this word later) of outward privileges, their moral state did not please God, and they acted in ways He could not approve.

All of this is relevant for us today: verse 11 states that these things happened to them as types for us, and for our admonition (see also v.6). Against this background, verses 12 and 13 are comforting: although failure is a possibility, defeat is not a necessity. This introduction (v.1-13) prepares the way for the apostle's teaching regarding the Lord's table (v. 14-22). This link is underlined by the word 'wherefore' in verse 14.

The opening statement: ,Wherefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry' seems a harsh introduction to the subject of the table. But, as so often in this epistle, a grave problem gives occasion for positive teaching. The Corinthians had felt free to associate with idolatry, and the apostle uses the truth of the table to show how wrong this was. Let us look at this argument in detail and try, with the Lord's help, to see the train of thought, the relationship between idolatry on the one hand, and the altar, table and emblems on the other.

A first point to note is that Paul speaks of four outward activities: blessing the cup, breaking the bread, eating of the Jewish sacrifices and sacrificing to idols. He then shows that, each time, this outward activity expresses, and implies, communion with a deeper principle: communion with the blood of Christ (v.16), body of Christ (v.16), altar of Israel (v.18), Lord's table (v.21), and table of demons (v.21), respectively. This is summarised in the following tabulation:

 

Outward activity

Communion implied with

Blessing the cup

the blood of Christ

Breaking the bread

the body of Christ

Eating of the (Jewish) sacrifices

the altar of Israel

Sacrificing to idols

demons

 

In this way the apostle shows outward association with heathen idolatrous ceremonies implies communion with demons - a conclusion which, no doubt, came as a surprise to the Corinthians. They would have argued along the following lines: 'we are not involved in idolatry because we visit the temple precincts only to eat some meat; we are convinced that idols are nothing and do not believe in them.' Paul anticipates this objection by stating that he knew very well that an idol was nothing (v.20); he had taught this himself earlier (8:3). However, unbelievers believed in idols so what they were doing was idolatry. If the Corinthians became outwardly involved with it they would be guilty of inward communion with the principle behind it: the worship of demons.

The thrust of the apostle's teaching is that the Corinthians should have realised the principle that outward association implies inward communion because it had applied already during the time of the law (v.18). He reinforces this by using two different Greek words for communion': one 'metecho' meaning outward association and normally translated 'partaking', and the other 'koinonia' expressing close inner communion and normally translated 'communion'. In each of the above four cases in the preceding table, the apostle uses the word 'koinonia' showing the outward activity implies close inner communion (vs.16, 18 and 20). [1]

In concluding, the apostle states that the two fellowships implied are incompatible. 'Ye cannot drink the Lord's cup, and the cup of demons: ye cannot partake of the Lord's table, and of the table of demons' (v.21). Here he uses the weaker word 'metecho' for even the outward association is forbidden because it would imply inner communion (koinonia) with two opposing principles.

Many other comments could be made, and have been made, on this passage. For the sake of brevity we confine ourselves to two questions that arise:

•  Does the teaching on the Lord's table have to do with what we do during the supper or with what we do during the whole week?

•  How can a Christian today live and 'partake' of the Lord's table in a way that pleases the Lord?

As to the first question , the answer is 'both'. Clearly, the text speaks of the emblems (vs.16, 17and 21). Therefore, the Lord's table cannot be separated from them, but the teaching is not concerned with the way or manner in which we partake (this is dealt with in chapter 11) but the truth expressed [2] in this action, namely:

•  that we have communion with the blood of Christ and the (physical) body of Christ (v.16), and

•  that we are members of the body of Christ (the church).

In other words: we express communion with Christ and with those who are members of His body.

Therefore, because of the truth implied and expressed when we take the emblems (during the supper of course) there are implications for everything we do during the rest of the week. In the immediate Corinthian context which gave occasion to these instructions, this meant: 'if you take the emblems on the Lord's day, you cannot associate with idolatry during the rest of the week.' The same principle applies today: 'if we take the emblems on the Lord's day, we cannot associate with that which dishonours Christ during the rest of the week.'

For the avoidance of doubt (as lawyers say), in no way does any of the above imply that the Lord's table is the physical table on which the emblems are placed. In the scriptures, a table stands for fellowship (or communion), and the fellowship we express by taking the emblems precludes participation in any fellowship that dishonours the Lord.

The second question is a pertinent - and a difficult - one for every believer today. Given the fragmentation in the Christian profession, where should he go.? The answer is not in a 'label', nor in a street address for a particular group of Christians. But if he or she is looking for a place to partake of the emblems in a way that is consistent with the Lord's table, they should look out for the following features:

•  Recognition of the unity of the body of Christ: we partake of the bread because we are members of that one body, not members of any organisation or denomination whatsoever (v.18).

•  Recognition of the Lord's authority (it is His table!), and therefore of the scriptures (v.21).

•  Separation from evil associations, no external 'partaking' of that which dishonours the Lord (v.21).

May the Lord help us to be more conscious of what we express when we partake of the emblems, and to honour Him by living in a way that is consistent with the fellowship of His table.

 

 

[1] The New Translation uses the word 'communion' to translate 'koinonia' in all four cases whereas the King James uses it in verse 16 only and ,partakers' and ,fellowship' in verses 18 and 20 respectively.

[2] The next chapter speaks of two further aspects of the breaking of the bread: it is a memorial ( 11:25 ) and those who break bread announce the death of the Lord (to intelligent creation) ( 11:26 ).

 

Appeared in Truth & Testimony 2006

 

 

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