Can We Lose Our Salvation?

It has come to my attention that my recent sermons from 1 Corinthians have raised some questions about whether or not a Christian can lose his or her salvation. This is a fantastic question, and the fact that this question is being asked shows me that you are paying attention, which is encouraging to me. But perhaps I should have been clearer than I was.

My position on this issue is that of the historic, Reformed view of perseverance of the saints. Here’s an excerpt from my sermon on 1 Corinthians 9:1-27:

In verses 24-25, Paul writes, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.” Paul is not suggesting that the Christian life is a competition and that only one Christian will receive the price in the end, the point of his analogy is that because each Christian has a “prize” that awaits him at the end of his life, he should exert himself and run with focus and vigor in order to obtain it! This is what Paul had in mind when he said in verse 23, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” Paul never took it for granted that he would obtain the salvation stored up for him in the gospel, he knew that he had to persevere to the end in order to receive it. Passages of Scripture such as Mark 4:16-17, Hebrews 6:5-6, and 2 Peter 2:20-22 teach us that it is possible for a professing Christian who checks all the boxes and evidences all outward appearances of faith could nevertheless fall away from Christ. This is why perseverance is necessary. The doctrine of perseverance of the saints states that all those who are truly in Christ will be kept by Christ and be saved in the end. This is a true doctrine, and we find it in passages like John 6:37-44. However, this does not mean that you will be saved regardless of whether you persevere or not, rather, it means that those who are saved will surely persevere till the end. So your assurance of salvation is inextricably tied to your perseverance in the faith. The more you persevere, the more you will be assured, and the more you are assured in God’s grace, the more you will persevere in faith and good works. There is a prize waiting for us in the end, eternal life, eternal joy, eternal, perfect communion with God, and we must “exercise self-control” and persevere in order to attain it!

Perseverance of the Saints vs. Eternal Security

“Perseverance of the Saints” is a carefully-articulated, historic, Biblical doctrine, while “eternal security” is a less careful articulation of the same doctrine that is prone to misunderstanding. It often gets thrown around as “once saved, always saved,” which unhelpfully gives nominal Christians who are not true Christians false assurance of salvation. A true Christian cannot lose his salvation, because Christ will preserve him to the end. But this does not mean that a Christian is saved regardless of his perseverance. Rather, it means that every true Christian, by God’s preserving grace, perseveres to the end. From God’s omniscient, eternal perspective, all believers have eternal security, from our finite, limited perspective, there is need for perseverance.

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The Lord’s Supper: How Should We Do It? (4 of 4)

Now we come to the final post in my series on the Lord’s Supper. Having learned about the theological background and spiritual meaning of the Lord’s Supper, we must ask the practical question of how we should observe it in the context of corporate worship.

Should We Observe It As A Meal?
In the early church, people partook in communion in the context of a full meal. They gathered in a home of one of their wealthier members, since their house was bigger and could accommodate more people, and believers brought foods, funds, and prayers to share with each other at the Lord’s Supper. Of course, they had the bread and wine, but they also consumed other foods in conjunction with them. 1 Corinthians 11:20-21 tells us that, in this situation, instead of sharing their sumptuous fare with the rest of the church, the wealthier members were sometimes “go[ing] ahead with [their] own meal[s],” the food that they brought, which were presumably better in both quantity and quality.

This abuse was so bad that the result was, “One goes hungry, another gets drunk.” The poorer members of the church have so little to eat at the Lord’s Supper that they go hungry, while the wealthier members of the church have so much to eat and drink that they get drunk! Paul’s concern here is not so much with drinking too much alcohol, although that’s a problem too, but his concern is with their selfish surfeit! Drunkenness is a picture of over-consumption.

You can hear Paul’s indignation in 1 Corinthians 11:22, “What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this?No, I willnot.” If you’re going to eat your fill of gourmet foods and fine wine, do it in your own house! This is not your own, private meal! This is the Lord’s Supper! Why must you profane the Lord’s Supper by “humiliat[ing] those who have nothing?”

Here, Paul acknowledges that we each “have houses to eat and drink in.” The ultimate purpose of the Lord’s Supper is not to fill our bellies, but to fill our souls, so it is not necessary to have the Lord’s Supper in the context of a meal. When our church used to meet in my home for worship, we did observe the Lord’s Supper in the context of a full meal. However, this became less feasible as we grew in size, and we had to move our services into a larger location outside the home. In our urban context, I believe it is a faithful application of Scripture’s teaching to observe the Lord’s Supper in a smaller scale, rather than in the context of a full meal.

How Frequently Should We Observe it?
In spite of the fact that Passover was the background of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus chose the bread rather than the lamb as the sign that would facilitate people’s remembrance of Him in the ages to come. And because Christ chose the bread, which was part of the people’s regular diet, rather than the lamb, which was a special meal eaten at the annual Passover, the church observed the Lord’s Supper not only on an annual basis, but whenever they gathered together for worship and broke bread together. That’s why Acts 2:42 describes the early church as regularly gathering for “the breaking of bread,” and that’s why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:26, “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” The expression “as often” implies a frequent practice. This is why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper whenever we gather for worship on Sundays.

Should We Use Leavened or Unleavened Bread?
The fact that the early church observed the Lord’s Supper frequently in the context of corporate worship, and not merely in the context of the Passover, also explains why the early church did not feel compelled to use unleavened bread, as in the Passover. Notably, accounts of the Last Supper use the generic word for “bread” (artos) rather than the technical word for “unleavened bread” (azuma) (Matt. 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19). Although the bread they broke at the Last Supper was most likely unleavened bread, the Lord did not specifically prescribe unleavened bread in the observance of the Lord’s Supper.

Furthermore, the Catholic custom of using unleavened wafers is of medieval origin, and Orthodox churches have preserved the earlier custom of using leavened bread (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of Development of Doctrine, vol. 2; pp. 177-178). This is why our church uses leavened bread in the Lord’s Supper.

What about 1 Corinthians 5:6-7, which says, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed”? The word “leaven” used here does not refer to “yeast,” which was rare in the ancient world. “Leaven” is a fermented dough from an old batch that is set aside and combined with a new batch in order to produce fermentation in the new bread. Since yeast was not readily available, this was the way in which people baked bread without yeast. All you need is a first batch of bread that is fermented, then you can save a little bit of it to use for your next batch, and a little bit from that for your next batch, and so on.

The danger of this baking method, of course, is that with each subsequent bread, the chance for dangerous bacteria to grow increases. And this health concern of using old leaven for a prolonged period of time may have been one of the reasons why God commanded Israelites in Exodus 12:14-20 to purge their homes of all leaven during the annual Feast of Unleavened Bread. Paul is using this as an illustration to argue that the Corinthian church should purge the leaven (i.e. unrepentant sinners) from among them, lest the whole batch be contaminated. He is not arguing that Christians use unleavened bread in the Lord’s Supper. Moreover, since the bread we use is leavened with yeast, and not with leaven, it does not violate this imagery of the purity of the church either.

Should We Use Wine or Grape Juice?
In the absence of refrigeration and hermetic sealing, drinking alcohol was inescapable. Grape juice in the ancient world quickly fermented and became wine. This was a natural process, rather than an artificial process like nowadays where people use distillation to increase the alcohol content. In fact, people in this culture did the opposite, rather than distilling it to remove water and increase the proportional alcoholic content, they watered the wine down with two to three parts water to one part wine.

Moreover, ethanol and the acidity of wine often served to inhibit bacterial growth, so wine was considered a safer beverage than even water. This is why Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:23, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.”

We, however, live in an era of refrigeration and pasteurization, so that wine is not the only fruit of the vine available to us. When Thomas Bramwell Welch first invented grape juice, some people called it “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine.” While drinking wine is not sinful in and of itself, 1 Corinthians 8:10-13 teaches us not to let indifferent matters of food and drink be an occasion to lead our Christian brothers and sisters into sin. Given that many people in our culture struggle with alcoholism, our church has chosen to use grape juice, instead of wine, in order to accommodate them. We believe that our use of grape juice is a faithful contextualization of the wine used in the Lord’s Supper.

Conclusion
I have written at length about very practical, but small, details regarding the Lord’s Supper. Let me close with Calvin’s general exhortation:

“In regard to the external form of the ordinance, whether or not believers are to take into their hands and divide among themselves, or each is to eat what is given to him: whether they are to return the cup to the deacon or hand it to their neighbour; whether the bread is to be leavened or unleavened, and the wine to be red or white, is of no consequence. These things are indifferent, and left free to the Church.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.43.)

  1. The Lord’s Supper: Was It a Passover Meal? (1 of 4)
  2. The Lord’s Supper: What Does It All Mean? (2 of 4)
  3. The Lord’s Supper: What Actually Happens? (3 of 4)
  4. The Lord’s Supper: How Should We Do It? (4 of 4)

The Lord’s Supper: What Actually Happens? (3 of 4)

What actually happens at the Lord’s Supper? What practical benefits does it have for us?

John 6:51-58
51 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.” 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “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. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”

Cannibalism and drinking blood were strictly forbidden (Leviticus 17:10-11) by the Old Testament, so Jesus’s statement, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” must have caused a violent, visceral reaction against it.

But Jesus isn’t speaking literally here. Verse 54 says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” But recall John 6:40, which says, “everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Note the close parallel. The end result is the same: eternal life and resurrection at the last day, but the way we get there in verse 54 is by “feed[ing] on [Jesus’s] flesh and drink[ing] [his] blood” and in verse 40 is by “look[ing] on the Son and believ[ing] in Him.” Those are conceptual parallels. Feeding on Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood are metaphors for looking on the Son and believing in Him. That’s why Augustine, a fourth century theologian wrote, “Believe, and you have eaten.”

Well, then, does this passage have anything to do with the Lord’s Supper at all? Since John is writing to 1st century believers, after several decades of regular observance of the Lord’s Supper, the language of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus would no doubt evoke the Sacramental rite. John also seems intentionally to use language reminiscent of the rite. For example, earlier in John 6:11 when Jesus performed the miracle of multiplying the five loaves of bread, the miracle which led to this discourse, it says that Jesus “[gave] thanks” before distributing the bread to the people. The Greek for “giving thanks” is eucharistēsas, which is the word from which we get the English word “Eucharist,” a common name that Christians gave to the Lord’s Supper. This discourse also takes place during the Passover, which is the time when Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper with His disciples before His death on the cross.

So this passage isn’t primarily about the Lord’s Supper, but it does have secondary implications about the Lord’s Supper.

Since the primary meaning of eating the bread of life is to believe in the Son, we must always remember that, without faith, the Lord’s Supper does nothing for us. As we say in Trinity’s Communion liturgy, “we receive [the bread and wind] by faith, which is the hand and mouth of our souls.” The Lord’s Supper is not a magical rite that autonomously conveys God’s grace to us. The grace we receive in the Lord’s Supper is contingent on our faith.

Transubstantiation Is An Error
This is why the Catholic doctrine of “transubstantiation” is an error. The doctrine asserts that at the Lord’s Supper, the bread and wine are transubstantiated, or transformed, into the physical flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. Though the surface appearance, the accidents, of the bread and wine remains unchanged, the substance of the bread and wine, they argue, is changed to the actual, physical flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. But as we have seen, this is a misinterpretation of the passage.

Memorialism Is An Error
It does not follow from this, however, that the Lord’s Supper is merely a memorial, that there is nothing spiritual happening in our eating and drinking. This is the mistaken assumption of many Evangelicals. Sure, we’re not eating and drinking the physical body and blood of Jesus, but we are partaking in the spiritual body and blood of Jesus.

Notice the verb used in verse 54. Before, Jesus merely spoke of “eating His body,” but in verse 54, Jesus speaks of “feed[ing] on [His] flesh.” The word “feed” here is a translation of a Greek word that means to “munch on,” or “chew,” and the word “flesh,” similarly, shifts the focus from the more abstract concept of “body” to the concrete concept of “flesh.” As Theologian Lesslie Newbigin writes in his book The Light Has Come: An Exposition of the Fourth Gospel (pp. 84-85), these words intentionally draw attention to the physical dimension of our spiritual consumption at the Lord’s Supper.

If the preaching during our Sunday worship is the proclamation of Christ, then communion during our Sunday worship is the participation in Christ. The sermon is the preached Word, the Lord’s Supper is the pictured Word. In the sermon, we hear the gospel, in the Supper, we see, smell, touch, and taste the gospel. At the Lord’s Supper, we enter into, partake in, commune with, the reality that we just heard proclaimed. What kind of participation is it?

(1) First, it is our participation in union with Christ,
(2) Second, it is our participation in the fellowship of the Triune God, and
(3) Third, it is our participation in the body of Christ, the Church.

When we eat and drink, the food enters our system and it becomes a part of us. It gets digested and provides energy for our body. Similarly, when we spiritually eat and drink Christ, He enters our system and we grow in our union with Him. So verse 56 says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” And through union with Christ, we enter into the fellowship of the church, which is the body of Christ. We grow into our unity with one another. And likewise, through union with Christ, we enter into the fellowship among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Symbol and Substance
The Lord’s Supper is not a hollow ritual, an empty reenactment. That’s why Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, “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? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”

Similarly, he warns in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29, “Whoever … 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.” This kind of dire warning makes no sense if the Lord’s Supper is all symbol and no substance.

The New Birth and Spiritual Sustenance
You can think about it this way. When we are born, we have life. Now, this life is irreversible and permanent. But it does not follow from this, that we don’t need any more sustenance. We must continue to eat and drink in order to grow and mature in the life that we have. We already have life, but we continue to eat and drink to sustain life. Similarly, when we are born again by faith, we are united, once and for all, with Jesus Christ and possess eternal life. The Lord’s Supper, then, is, like eating and drinking, a way by which we sustain spiritual life. It is a means of grace that God has given to the church by which we grow and mature in our union with Christ.

We should, therefore, seek this spiritual food, as regularly and eagerly we seek physical food. We need it until that day when our union with Christ and our fellowship with the Triune God are consummated.

  1. The Lord’s Supper: Was It a Passover Meal? (1 of 4)
  2. The Lord’s Supper: What Does It All Mean? (2 of 4)
  3. The Lord’s Supper: What Actually Happens? (3 of 4)
  4. The Lord’s Supper: How Should We Do It? (4 of 4)

The Lord’s Supper: What Does It Mean? (2 of 4)

The meaning of the Lord’s Supper is abundantly clear with the bread and wine representing the body and blood of Christ, but there is more than meets the eye in the rich tapestry of biblical theology woven in and around the sacrament. One can use the various names given to the Lord’s Supper to recall its rich meaning.

“Lord’s Supper”: New Covenant
Paul speaks of “the Lord’s Table” (1 Cor. 10:21) or “the Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor. 11:20), highlighting Christ’s presiding lordship over the table and the incongruity of partaking simultaneously in the Lord’s table and the sacrifices offered to idols (1 Cor. 10:1-22). This nature of the Lord’s Supper reminds us of our New Covenant in the blood of Christ. Jesus refers to the wine of the sacrament as “my blood of the covenant” (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24). Luke’s recollection is even more explicit, where Jesus says that it is the “the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20; cf. 1 Cor. 11:25). The author of Hebrews directly connects Christ’s atoning death to Moses’s sprinkling of the Israelites with “the blood of the covenant” (Heb. 9:19-21; cf. Exod. 24:6-8).

Every covenant-making ceremony involved a visual demonstration of the curse of the covenant should it be violated, and because Christ bore this curse of the covenant once and for all with His death, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1-4). As the first instance of “poured-out” blood re-established the covenant between God and His people, pouring our of Christ’s blood establishes the covenant between God and His people once and for all. We belong to our covenant Lord, Jesus Christ, and to no other, and each time we participate in the Lord’s Supper we rehearse our exclusive allegiance to God.

“Breaking of Bread”: Passover and Exodus
The New Testament frequently refers to the rite as “the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42; 20:7), and this terminology recalls the Passover and the Exodus. Even those who do not believe that the Last Supper was a Passover meal must admit that it occurred during the week-long celebration of the Passover, and that Paul refers to Christ as “our Passover lamb, [who] has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). The broken body and poured-out blood represented by the bread and wine are a visual, tactile, olfactory, and savorous parable of Jesus’s death, and as surely as the bread and wine sustain and nurture physical life, the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper nurture and sustain spiritual life.

In all four Gospels, the Last Supper is preceded by Mary’s anointing of Jesus in preparation for his burial, and punctuated with expectation of Jesus’s impending betrayal and death (Matt. 26:1-29; Mark 14:1-31; Luke 22:1-23; John 6:22-71; 12:1-18; 13:1-30). Christ is our Passover Lamb on whose account God “passes over” our sins (1 Cor. 5:6-8; Rom. 3:21-26), and who redeems us from slavery to sin and death (Rom. 8:1-17; Gal. 5:1).

Furthermore, all four Gospels draw textual connections between the Last Supper and Jesus’s miraculous feeding of the multitude in the wilderness, and Matthew, Mark, and John pair the account of Jesus’s feeding of the multitude with the water-crossing episode, thus making the Exodus tie even more explicit (Matt. 14:13-33; Mark 6:30-52; Luke 9:10-17; John 6). Unlike Moses’s bread from heaven that provided temporal nourishment for the Israelites in the wilderness, Jesus is the “Bread of Life” that imparts eternal life (John 6). Thus the Lord’s Supper represents the Second Passover and Exodus.

It is important to note, however, we are not sacrificing Christ all over again at the Lord’s Supper. Christ was sacrificed to secure our eternal redemption “once for all” (Heb. 9:12; cf. Rom. 9:28). It demeans Christ’s once for all sacrifice on the Cross to call the Lord’s Supper a “sacrifice.”

“Eucharist”: Marriage Supper of the Lamb
The Lord’s Supper, however, is a sacrifice in another sense. It is “a sacrifice of praise to God,” as Hebrews puts it in 13:15-16. This is related to the word “Eucharist,” which comes from the Greek word meaning to “give thanks,” a language that all four Gospels closely relate to the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 15:36; 26:26-27; Mark 8:6; 14:22-23; Luke 22:17-19; John 6:11, 23; cf. Acts 27:35; 1 For. 11:23-24).

We give thanks for the meal before us, the body and blood of Christ given for us, but also for meal that is coming, because it “proclaim[s] the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26) and is joined to Christ’s promise, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:54). Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include Jesus’s statement, “I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29; cf. Mark 14:25; Luke 22:15-18).

The meal points to the Kingdom of God that is already inaugurated, but which will later be consummated. Christ’s death and resurrection anticipate the day when God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). It points to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, where we shall be the bride of Christ—all those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7:14; 19:7-8). So we give thanks for the meal before us, which guarantees the meal that is to come (cf. Matt. 8:11-12; Luke 13:28-30; 22:28-30).

“Holy Communion”: Family Formation
The Jewish Passover meal was traditionally a family affair, with the head of the household presiding over it. Jesus breaks this paradigm by calling out His disciples from their families and communing with them instead. In doing so, He radically redefines “family,” “for whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:50).

This is the meaning behind Paul’s teaching that the Lord’s Supper is a “participation” or “communion.” In partaking in the Lord’s Supper, we commune with the body and blood of Christ, we are united with Him, and through Him with the rest of His body, the church. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:16-17). In the Lord’s Supper, we acknowledge our new kinship in the family of God, united not by the blood of our fathers, but by the blood of Jesus Christ.

Because it depicts and dispenses the promise of the eternal gospel (Rev. 14:6) itself, the Lord’s Supper is inexhaustible in its spiritual value and theological meaning, and hardly the monotonous ritual void of power and meaning it is too often made out to be.

  1. The Lord’s Supper: Was It a Passover Meal? (1 of 4)
  2. The Lord’s Supper: What Does It All Mean? (2 of 4)
  3. The Lord’s Supper: What Actually Happens? (3 of 4)
  4. The Lord’s Supper: How Should We Do It? (4 of 4)

Suffering Witnesses

The sermon I preached at King of Grace Church (Haverhill, MA) on April 10th, 2016.

“We are to be Christ’s suffering witnesses, because Christ is our suffering Savior.”

1 Peter 3:8-22

8 Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9 Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. 10 For

“Whoever desires to love life
and see good days,
let him keep his tongue from evil
and his lips from speaking deceit;
11 let him turn away from evil and do good;
let him seek peace and pursue it.
12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

The Lord’s Supper: Was It a Passover Meal? (1 of 4)

At Trinity Cambridge Church, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, because we believe that it is an indispensable aspect of the church’s ministry. The more I learn about it, the more I realize how deficient my understanding of it was. Perhaps others are in the same boat. The series will include four posts:

  1. The Lord’s Supper: Was It a Passover Meal? (1 of 4)
  2. The Lord’s Supper: What Does It All Mean? (2 of 4)
  3. The Lord’s Supper: What Actually Happens? (3 of 4)
  4. The Lord’s Supper: How Should We Do It? (4 of 4)

Not a Foregone Conclusion
The Lord’s Supper has historically been understood as a Passover meal, due to its depiction as such in the Synoptic Gospels. Matthew writes that “on the first day of Unleavened Bread,” the disciples asked Jesus, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the Passover” (Matt. 26:17-18)? Mark and Luke include similar accounts in their Gospels (Mark 14:12-16; Luke 22:7-13), leaving little doubt that the ensuing Lord’s Supper was a Passover meal.

But recently, scholars have begun to challenge the connection primarily on the basis of Johannine chronology. For example, Scot McKnight (Jesus and His Death), Robert Letham (The Lord’s Supper), and Jonathan Klawans (“Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder?”) all argue that the Lord’s Supper was not the Passover meal, but an ordinary Jewish meal imbued with spiritual significance, one day before the Passover. This is a significant debate, because it not only affects modern-day practice (e.g. Christian-Jewish interfaith Seder/Last Supper), but also our doctrine of Scripture (e.g. does John’s account contradict the Synoptic Gospels?).

Their arguments can be classified broadly as exegetical and historical.

Exegetical Arguments against the Passover View
John 18:28 records that the Jews who led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters for trial “did not enter the [Gentile] governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.” Since, the Passover meal had not been eaten yet at the time of Jesus’s trial, the argument goes, the Last Supper could not have been a Passover Meal.

John further dates the crucifixion to the “day of Preparation of the Passover” (John 19:14), that is, on the day before Passover (i.e. Thursday), which would mean that the Last Supper took place on the Wednesday night of Passion Week, full day before the official Passover meal.

John 13:1 seems to corroborate this, since, Jesus is said to have washed the feet of his disciples and had the Last Supper, “before the Feast of the Passover.” Since the Last Supper took place before the Passover, it clearly cannot be a Passover meal.

Robert Letham argues that the Lord’s Supper is connected not to the Old Testament Passover, but to the covenant meal eaten by Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel on Mount Sinai (Exod. 24:1-11). In this view, Moses’s sprinkling of the blood of the burnt offerings on the altar and on the people is what Jesus has in mind, when he says, “This is my blood of the new covenant.” (The Lord’s Supper, p. 5).

Historical Arguments against the Passover View
Moreover, if Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper during a Passover meal, which is an annual event, it is curious why the early church celebrated it on a daily or weekly basis (Acts 2:46-47).

And if the Last Supper was indeed during Passover, as the Synoptic Gospels indicate, then why is there no mention of the lamb, the main dish laden with pertinent symbolism? They seem to be eating only the bread and wine.

These are strong arguments, but the arguments for the Last Supper’s connection to the Passover are even stronger.

The Chronology of the Synoptic Gospels
First, the Synoptic Gospels are unequivocal in their testimony that the Last Supper took place “on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrifice the Passover lamb,” and the disciples are explicitly told “to go and prepare the Passover” (Mark 14:12-16; cf. Matt. 26:17-19; Luke 22:7-13; Josephus, Ant. 16.6.2 §§163–64).

Johannine Chronology Can Be Reconciled
Second, it is possible to explain the seeming aberrations in John’s Gospel. John notes that Jesus was crucified on the “day of Preparation of the Passover” (John 19:14), this needs not be interpreted as a day of Preparation for the Passover, but the day of preparation for the Sabbath on the week of the Passover. The fact that the “day of Preparation” (paraskeuh/) is used throughout all four of the Gospels to refer to the day of preparation for the Sabbath lends credence to this interpretation (Matt. 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54).

Even in John, the Jews ask Pilate to break the legs of those who were crucified in order to hasten their death, “since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day)” (John 19:31; cf. Deut. 21:22-23). The “day of Preparation of the Passover,” then, refers to the “day of Preparation (for the Sabbath) of the Passover week.” The crucifixion, then, falls on a Friday, which fits the chronology of the Synoptic Gospels.

John 18:28 poses no greater difficulty. The Jews who led Jesus to Pilate for trial “did not enter the [Gentile] governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.” The “Passover” here does not refer to the Passover meal, but to the Passover feast, which lasted seven days. The Jews, then, are saying that they would like to continue to partake in the feast.

A quick word study on “Passover” (pa¿sca) confirms this. Matthew and Mark use the word “Passover” exclusively to refer to the day the Passover meal is eaten or to the actual meal itself (Matt. 26:2, 17, 18-19; Mark 14:1, 12, 14, 16), and they prefer the designation “Unleavened Bread” (a‡zumoß), when referring to the entire feast.

Luke uses the term more interchangeably, referring to the “Feast of the Passover” (thØv e˚orthØv touv pa¿sca) (Luke 2:41), and even explaining that “the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover” (Luke 22:1), thus proving that the word “Passover” can be used synecdochically to represent the entire feast. But even Luke generally uses the word “Passover” to refer to the meal (Luke 22:7, 8, 11, 13, 15), and when he wants to use the word “Passover” to refer to the Feast, he always clarifies it by pairing it with the word for “feast” (e˚orth) (Luke 2:41; 22:1).

John, however, is an anomaly. He significantly never uses the term, “Unleavened Bread,” and consequently uses the word “Passover” interchangeably to refer to the meal, day, and the feast (John 2:13, 23; 6:4; 11:55; 12:1; 13:1). He sometimes pairs it with the word “feast” (John 2:23; 6:4; 13:1) to make the meaning clear, but most of the time he uses the word by itself (John 2:13; 11:55; 12:1; 18:28, 39; 19:14). In John 6:4, he states, “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand,” demonstrating that “Passover” can again be used synecdochically to refer to the entire feast. With this usage in John established, it is not difficult to accept the suggestion that “the Passover” in John 18:28 refers to the entire feast and not to the Passover meal, in which case they were probably concerned with eating the feast-offering that was brought on Friday morning (cf. Num. 28:18-19).

Finally, John 13:1 does not prove that the Last Supper took place “before the Feast of the Passover.” The statement applies to the foot-washing, which immediately follows the statement, and not to the Last Supper. What about the part of the passage that says that Jesus “rose from supper” (John 13:4) to wash the disciples’ feet? Jews typically ate two meals during the day, one around 10 or 11 in the morning, and another in the late afternoon. On special occasions (like the Passover meal), the late afternoon meals lasted into the night, and therefore onto the next day (in Jewish understanding the day begins at sundown) (Matt. 26:20; Mark 14:17; John 13:30; cf. 1 Cor. 11:23) (Thomas Schreiner, The Lord’s Supper, p. 20). This means that supper began on Thursday, but lasted into Friday, when Passover officially began. Hence, Jesus could have risen from supper to wash his disciples’ feet before the official commencement of Passover.

It is specious to claim that the Lord’s Supper’s primary Old Testament connection is the covenant meal on Mount Sinai (Exod. 24:1-11), when the Lord’s Supper ostensibly takes place in the context of the Feast of the Passover and not during the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot or Pentecost), which celebrates the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

The Lord’s Supper Was a Passover Meal
Scot McKnight insists that if it the Lord’s Supper was a Passover meal, it would have made more theological sense for Jesus to say, “this lamb is my body” as opposed to “this bread is my body,” but this argument overlooks three important facts: (1) the bread, which is readily broken, lends itself quite well to representing the broken body of Christ. (2) In fact, Jesus’s use of bread, rather than lamb, in the institution of the Lord’s Supper may explain the early church’s rationale in celebrating the Lord’s Supper more frequently. (3) There is a very good theological explanation for why the Gospels do not mention the paschal lamb, because the focus is on Jesus, who is the ultimate Paschal Lamb about to be sacrificed.

Moreover, regardless of whether or not the Lord’s Supper was a Passover meal, both the Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel agree that Christ fulfills the typology of the Passover lamb. “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7), and this is what we remember and celebrate in the Lord’s Supper.

This is the first of a four-part series on the Lord’s Supper. Stay tuned next week for my second post, The Lord’s Supper: What Does It All Mean?

Suffering of the Son of God

The sermon I preached at Hope Fellowship Church (Cambridge, MA) on March 6th, 2016.

“Amidst our suffering, we can entrust ourselves to the strengthening, sovereign, and sin-bearing God.”

Luke 22:39-53

39 And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. 40 And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” 41 And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, 42 saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” 43 And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. 44 And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. 45 And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, 46 and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
47 While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him, 48 but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” 49 And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? 53 When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.”

Why I’m Not Worried About Donald Trump

Super Tuesday

Tomorrow is Super Tuesday, and as an unenrolled (i.e. independent) registered voter in Massachusetts, I intend to vote in the Republican primary. This year, in particular, my public duty feels invested with particular urgency, as I, like many others in the U.S., feel threatened by Donald Trump’s political ascendancy.

Donald Trump

Not only do many of his policies strike me as unconstitutional and unfeasible, he seems to say and do unconscionable things. Since, “out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45), we are rightly alarmed by the outrageous things he says. Even though he claims to be a Christian, his brash and boastful leadership style is hardly reminiscent of Christ, who taught, “let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:26).

Kingdom of God

Though many Christians have disavowed him, I have been baffled by some believers who support him, and I think this exchange between Jesus and his disciples sheds light on the whole situation:

In Acts 1:6, the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” As Jews who are marginalized under Roman subjugation, they are looking for political vindication and empowerment, but Jesus speaks of a different power, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).

Tweet: “Jesus does not promise to make us #winners, but #witnesses to his life, death, and resurrection.” @shawnswoo http://ctt.ec/DlnQd+

Jesus does not promise a kingdom of political power, but a kingdom of spiritual power. Jesus does not promise to make us #winners, but #witnesses to his life, death, and resurrection. Jesus does not promise to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, but to make his name great among the nations.

Sovereignty of God

So regardless of the outcome of Super Tuesday, or even of the general election in November, I remind myself that I don’t have to worry about Trump, or anyone for that matter. Instead, I say, “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings” (Dan. 2:20-21). God is, and will remain, sovereign.

Ultimately, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). We need no other Savior.

Tweet: “Jesus does not promise to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, but to make his name great among the nations.” @shawnswoo http://ctt.ec/V17bK+

Eternal Dangers of Surfing (the Web)

The Daily Struggle

Every generation has faced its own set of distractions, but the rise of the internet has made everyday distractions more pervasive and persistent than they have ever been.

While reading a textbook or writing a blog post, you come across something that you would like to learn about, so you look it up on Wikipedia. One interesting article leads to the next, until you’re three articles removed, reading about something that is marginally interesting and vaguely related to your original inquiry.

You decide to refocus, but notice a new email in your Gmail tab and resolve to get back to work after checking it. The email is an inconsequential advertisement, and you jump to Facebook for a brief look to see if anything interesting has come up. A YouTube video that your high school friend recently posted catches your eye and you click on it, which leads to another video, and so on. Then, you realize that it’s been long enough that you may have a new email or a Facebook update to feast your wandering mind and darting eyes upon…

Psychology of Idle Surfing

Why do we scroll through an endless stream of Instagram pictures, Facebook posts, and Tweets? Expanding on Leon Festinger’s social comparison theory, psychologists Myungsuh Lim and Yoon Yang have conducted a research that asserts that people use social media to engage in “upward” (those who seem to have more exciting pastimes, more attractive significant others or families, more followers and likes, and/or more engaging quips) and “downward” (those who seem to have less exciting pastimes, less attractive significant others or families, less followers and likes, and/or less engaging posts) comparison. We, then, assimilate this data and use it to evaluate ourselves and our own social standing. Of course, some of us turn to social media for other, good reasons, but nevertheless we may engage in this social comparison process subconsciously.

For some of us, it may be all-too-frequent visits to ESPN, Wikipedia, or the Huffington Post, indulging our curiosities and reading articles and opinions that range from ponderous to frivolous, but mostly in the middling category of interesting but insignificant. In one way or another, these stimuli activate neurons in our brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter which, among other things, rewards certain tasks with a feeling of pleasure. So we keep coming back for more.

Theology of Idle Surfing

In 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12, Apostle Paul admonishes those who “walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.” The word play between “busy at work” (ἐργαζομένους) and “busybodies” (περιεργαζομένους) makes explicit the connection between neglecting one’s own affairs and meddling in others’ affairs. 1 Timothy 5:13 similarly teaches that “idlers” are prone to become “gossips and busybodies.”

When surfing idly on the internet, we neglect our God-given vocation to meddle in the affairs of others; we lose our vertical mooring and drift horizontally in the waves of others, tossed to and fro by every whim and trend.

Tweet: “When surfing idly on the internet, we neglect our God-given vocation to meddle in the affairs of others.” @shawnswoo http://bit.ly/217j8Lb

Getting Off the Surfboard

So how do we stop mindlessly surfing the web? It is certainly helpful to install extensions like StayFocusd or LeechBlock on your web browser, programs like SelfControl on your computer, and apps like Weblock on your smartphone to block out distractions, but it is even more important to address the false beliefs that underlie our distractions.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

Do we have an appropriately high view of our God-given vocation? Do we live with the awareness that our every waking moment affects eternity? Ultimately, our love for God must constrain us. An all-consuming desire to “do all [things] to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31) is the only thing that can restrain our idle surfing.

What is God calling you to do at this present moment? Stop scrolling through your Twitter feed and work on the project that you’ve been assigned at your job! Stop staring agape at every food post on Instagram, prepare yourself a meal and invite a good friend to join you! Stop replaying that highlight reel on ESPN and go exercise! Stop sleepily scrolling through Your Facebook newsfeed in bed, go to sleep! Stop perking up to check every notification on your smartphone over dinner, be attentive to your wife, husband, or child! Stop reading this blog post even, go pore over the Word of God!

The way to stop being idle is to start applying ourselves to God’s work. We stop being a busybody by being busy at work. Remember that an idle surf is an idol’s turf. Tread with care and intention on the internet.

Tweet: “An idle surf is an idol’s turf. Tread with care and intention on the internet.” @shawnswoo http://bit.ly/217j8Lb

A Theology of Sports

Most of my friends know that, I’m an ardent Patriots fan. However, I was happy that Peyton Maning won his second Super Bowl before his retirement. I respect Peyton Manning because he is a consummate sportsman, and I believe those two things are related. Let me use him as an example to illustrate my theology of sports.

In his book, Manning, he writes (pp. 362-364):

Like my dad, I make it a point when I speak to groups to talk about priorities, and when it’s schoolkids, I rank those priorities as: faith, family, and education, then football. For me generally it had always been the big four: faith, family, friends, and football. And I tell all of them that as important as football is to me, it can never be higher than fourth. …

I committed my life to Christ [when I was thirteen], and that faith has been most important to me ever since. Some players get more vocal about it—the Reggie Whites, for example—and some point to Heaven after scoring a touchdown and praise God after games. I have no problem with that. But I don’t do it, and don’t think it makes me any less a Christian. I just want my actions to speak louder, and I don’t want to be more of a target for criticism than I already am. Somebody sees you drinking a beer, which I do, and they think, “Hmmmm, Peyton says he’s this, that, or the other, and there he is drinking alcohol. What’s that all about?” Christians drink beer. So do non-Christians. Christians also make mistakes, just as non-Christians do. My faith doesn’t make me perfect, it just makes me forgiven, and provides me the assurance I looked for half my life ago. …

How do I justify football in the context of “love your enemy?” I say to kids, well, football is most definitely a “collision sport,” and I can’t deny it jars your teeth and at the extreme can break your bones. But I’ve never seen it as a “violent game,” there are rules to prevent that, and I know I don’t have to hate anybody on the other side to play as hard as I can within the rules. I think you’d have to get inside my head to appreciate it, but I do love football. And, yes, I’d play it for nothing if that was the only way, even now when I’m no longer a child. I find no contradiction in football and my faith.

Ah, but do I “pray for victory?” No, except as a generic thing. I pray to keep both teams injury free, and personally, that I use whatever talent I have to the best of my ability. But I don’t think God really cares about who wins football games, except as winning might influence the character of some person or group. Besides. If the Colts were playing the Cowboys and I prayed for the Colts and Troy Aikman prayed for the Cowboys, wouldn’t that make it a standoff?

Why He Plays

First, Peyton confesses his childlike love for football, admitting that he’d “play it for nothing if that was the only way, even now when [he’s] no longer a child.” In other words, he doesn’t play football for the sake of something else, e.g. money, fame, or even a platform with which he could praise God and point people to him; he plays for the joy of football in and of itself. For him, football has intrinsic, and not merely instrumental, value.

This is in contrast to many Christians who defend sports saying that it’s a great way to promote health through exercise, as well as cultivate self-control, discipline, respect for authorities, teamwork, etc. Yes, sports is useful for those things, but it is also good in and of itself.

That’s because our recreation is rooted in God’s good creation. Man is created in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:27), and that means he is to rule over creation as God’s representative. This is seen in the order of creation. In the first three days of creation, God creates kingdoms: light and darkness (Gen. 1:3-5), sky (Gen. 1:6-8), and the land and seas (Gen. 1:9-13), respectively. Then, during the next three days, he creates kings to occupy the corresponding kingdoms: sun, moon and the stars (Gen. 1:14-19), the birds and fish (Gen. 1:20-23), and land creatures (Gen. 1:24-25), respectively.

At the end of it all, as the pinnacle of his creation, God creates man as his royal representative (Gen. 1:26-28). And as such, man is blessed and commanded by God to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28). As God creates man in his “likeness,” man begets man in his “likeness” (Gen. 5:1-3). As God “rules,” so man is commanded to “rule” and “subdue” the earth (Gen. 1:28; cf. 2 Chr. 28:10; Neh. 5:5; Jer. 34:11, 16).

This divinely-instituted human subjection of nature is “culture,” which H. Richard Niebuhr defines as “the artificial, secondary environment which man superimposes on the natural.” Rocks are nature; walls are culture. River is nature; canal is culture. Noise is nature; music is culture. And man is charged with the royal responsibility of creating culture from God-given nature.

This, likewise, applies to the nature of man. If running is nature, racing is culture. If play is nature, sport is culture. Sports, therefore, is a fulfillment of the cultural mandate and has intrinsic value. It glorifies the Creator when we enjoy his good creation.

Creation is not utilitarian. God created not only trees that are “good for food,” but also those that are “pleasant to the sight” (Gen. 2:9) for our enjoyment. One fruit tree would have sufficed to satisfy our hunger, but God gave us hundreds to delight our senses (Gen. 2:15-16). Everyone could have been given an equal, basic athletic ability necessary for survival, but God created some men like Eric Liddell, the Olympic gold medalist who claimed, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure” (Chariots of Fire). He created men like Peyton Manning, who can throw a football 80 yards down the field with greater accuracy than I can manage within 10 yards. Manning uses his extraordinary talent to play the game for the sheer enjoyment of it, and there is something profoundly right and good about that.

How He Plays

Of course, not all human culture is good in and of itself. The gladiatorial games were also a sport, but certainly not a good one. As Jeremy Treat writes in his helpful article, “More Than A Game,” sports can go wrong in two ways. It can be “[twisted] into a bad thing (sin as immorality) or … [made into] an ultimate thing (sin as idolatry).”

In a sinful world, sports can degenerate into an arena for violence, cheating (performance-enhancing drugs, spygate, deflategate, etc.), greed, selfishness, and vanity. Manning appears to be aware of this, and reasons that there are “rules to prevent [violence]” in football. He steers clear of twisting football into an immoral sport, recognizing that he “[doesn]’t have to hate anybody on the other side to play as hard as [he] can within the rules.”

Sports can also become an idol when it is received, not as God’s good gift, but as his replacement or rival. So athletes as well as fans can find their identity and meaning in sports rather than in God. In the current “malaise of immanence,” as philosopher Charles Taylor describes our secular age, sports offers a religious experience—a glimpse of “transcendence.”

So Harold Abrahams, the foil to Eric Liddell in the movie Chariots of Fire, describes his reason for running, “I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my whole existence. But will I?” The answer, of course, is that he will not. Though he wins the race, he loses his soul, because he has turned a good thing into an ultimate thing. He has replaced the Creator with the creature, the Giver with the gift.

Manning well understands this when he writes that football can never be higher than his fourth priority, after faith, family, and friends. He lives by this when he refuses to pray for victory, but rather prays “to keep both teams injury free,” and admits, “I don’t think God really cares about who wins football games.”

Peyton Manning was a superb quarterback, but he was an even better sportsman, and the latter is unquestionably the greater accomplishment. Even in the way we watch and play our sports, let us be constrained by our love for God.