Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Where Did We Ever Get the Notion That the Lord's Supper is a Funeral Procession? (Part 2)

Yesterday, I mentioned that there would be only two additional articles in this series. As is usually the case when estimating these kinds of things before I have a chance to flesh them out, that estimate now seems a bit optimistic; the series will be longer than three parts, though I can’t say how much longer.

Yesterday we compared the mood of the Lord’s Supper as found in the NT church to that of the observance of the Lord’s Supper in modern evangelical churches. We saw that the latter is characterized by solemn introspection while the former is characterized by second-coming “gladness.” It remains to be seen just why there is a difference in these respective moods, and just what accounts for that difference. One primary reason for the difference in moods is the difference in the focus of the Supper in the ancient church and the modern church.

In Matt 8:11 Jesus says: “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” Luke records a similar saying: “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29). Jesus here is referring to a feast that will occur at the end of the age. This feast, properly called the “Messianic Banquet,” is found throughout Jesus’ teachings (cf. Matt 22:1-14; 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 14:16-24; 22:16, 18, 29-30). The Jews were intensely aware of this feast, and Jesus’ mention of it in these texts presupposes a general anticipation by the Jews; with the exception, of course, that they themselves would be excluded and the Gentiles would occupy their seats. Of interest here is its inclusion in the Last Supper texts. It is significant that wherever the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper are found in the Gospels, they are never without reference to this messianic feast.

As Jesus institutes the Supper, he says: “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God. . . . Take this [cup] and divide it among you. For I tell you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:15-18). Both Matthew (26:29) and Mark (14:25) include this saying in their accounts, but only with reference to the “drinking”; Luke alone applies it to the “eating.” Yet all three writers link the Last Supper to a future (eschatological) prospect. What does Jesus mean by the saying, “I will not eat/drink it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God” (or, “until the kingdom of God comes”)? At the very least, the inclusion of “until” (heôs hou) indicates that Jesus intends to partake of a meal again someday. It may be assumed with reasonable certainty that Jesus has in mind the Messianic Banquet already mentioned in Luke 14:16-24. Jesus mentions this meal again, at least in Luke’s account, immediately after his words of institution; to his disciples Jesus says, “I grant you that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom” (22:30). Not insignificantly, the setting of this promise to “eat and drink” in the kingdom is while they are still at the table.

But then the question becomes, Why does Jesus include reference to the Messianic Banquet in a context which deals with the institution of the Lord’s Supper? What relationship does the Lord’s Supper have with the Messianic Banquet? In Jesus’ own words, this eschatological meal (the Messianic Banquet) is the “fulfillment” of the meal he is instituting as the Lord’s Supper. This means, conversely, that the Lord’s Supper is a prefigure of the Messianic Banquet. So then, the Lord’s Supper that is being instituted by Jesus has an eschatological element; it is an anticipation and foretaste of the Messianic Banquet to come. As D. A. Carson notes, “Just as the first Passover looks forward not only to deliverance but to settlement in the land, so also the Lord’s Supper looks forward to deliverance and life in the consummated kingdom” (Carson, Matthew, 539). This notion becomes even clearer when we note that the same terminology is used for both the Lord’s Supper and the Messianic Banquet; both are called the “Supper” (deipnon, 1 Cor 11:20; Rev 19:9), and the “Table” (trapezês, 1 Cor 10:21; Luke 22:30).

This concept, however, was not conceived in a vacuum. Old Testament references to this banquet, although somewhat sparse, are nevertheless there. Included here is Isa 25:6, which gives us a picture of the Messianic Banquet: “On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines.” There seems to be little question that this is a reference to the eschatological meal. Even v. 8 intimates that this would be the meal to consummate all meals: “he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces.”

The New Testament is replete with allusions to an eschatological feast. In addition to the ones already mentioned at the beginning of this article, we might mention a few others. Luke 12:35-38 speaks of the parousia parabolically as a wedding banquet (the parable of the master/servant), as does Matt 25:1-13 (the parable of the ten virgins). Luke 15:22-32 recounts how the Father will celebrate by holding a feast when his prodigal son returns. Jesus gives us a preview of this provision in the feeding of the crowds (Matt 14:15-21; 15:32-38 and parallels). He demonstrates his messiahship here (as in the Messianic Banquet) by virtue of providing an abundance of food. Indeed, the very first sign which Jesus performs is replete with eschatological and messianic significance (John 2:1-11). The wedding banquet setting, the miracle surrounding the wine, and Jesus’ statement that his “hour” to supply an abundance of wine had not yet come.

There is also a possible allusion to the Banquet in the Lord’s Prayer; namely, in the phrase “Give us this day our daily bread” in Matt 6:11. The phrase translated “daily bread” is arton epiousion, a phrase which likely carries the meaning, “bread for the coming day.” Whether what is meant is the chronological next day or the eschatological messianic day is unclear. But is the prayer itself is eschatological (“may your kingdom come”), the eschatological meaning fits nicely. At least Jerome (Comm. in Ezek. VI), Peter Chrysologus (Sermon 68, 70, 71, 72), and John of Damascus (The Orthodox Faith, Book 4, 13) read it this way. On this view, the Lord’s Prayer must be seen as a petition to God to bring about the consummation.

Continued in tomorrow's blog