Eating at the Lord's Table
As part of an insatiable curiosity
to understand the Bible's message in the cultural "language" that it was originally given, I've been looking at our celebration of
communion, and what was the original cultural message behind it. The ideas
behind this practice are found from Genesis to Revelation, and can give
us a great new appreciation for our celebration of the Lord's Supper.
Eastern cultures throughout Asia
and Africa, from the distant past up to the present, have understood that
sharing a meal together was a sign of true fellowship. For thousands of
years, they have shared a ceremonial meal together as a symbol of peace
and mutual acceptance after making a covenant. Covenants, in the eastern
mind, are not just business agreements, they are the making of a new relationship
between two parties. Often they involve reconciliation after a grievance
has been committed. After making a covenant to not take vengeance
on each other, the parties sit down to a ceremonial meal. As they eat
together, they celebrate their reconciliation with each other, and after
that meal, neither party may bring up the grievance ever again.
fascinating example of this is the account of the sulha, or reconciliation
meal, between Ilan Zamir, an Israeli Christian, and an Arab family. (Sulha
is the Arabic word for "table".) Zamir had killed the family's
deaf 13 year-old son in a car accident and wanted to seek forgiveness
from the family. He was warned against it, because the cultural traditions
would have allowed the family to kill him as vengeance
for their son's death. But an Arab pastor helped him arrange a sulha,
a covenant of reconciliation. The ceremony involved Zamir apologizing
and offering gifts, and the family refusing the gifts, and finally,
their sitting down together for a ceremonial meal. When the father took
the first drink of the coffee at the meal, it was a demonstration of his
forgiveness. The family then said to him, "Know, O my brother,
that you are in place of this son who has died. You have a family and
a home somewhere else, but know that here is your second home." What
a picture of reconciliation! (The full story can be found at this link.)
The Covenantal Meal In the
We see this ancient tradition in many covenantal ceremonies in the Old
Testament. Remember the story of Jacob in which he flees from his father-in-law, Laban,
with his wives. Laban pursues him, and in their meeting they enact a covenant
between each other that that neither will harm the other as they
part ways. After they made the covenant, it says:
Then Jacob offered a sacrifice on the
mountain, and called his kinsmen to the meal; and they ate the meal
and spent the night on the mountain. Early in the morning Laban arose,
and kissed his sons and his daughters and blessed them. Then Laban departed
and returned to his place. (Gen. 31:54 - 55)
We also see the meal as part
of one of the most important covenants in the Old Testament - that between
God and the people of Israel on Mt. Sinai. After enacting this covenant
on Mt. Sinai, there is a scene that we can hardly appreciate:
Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and
the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under
his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the
sky itself. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of
the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank. (Ex. 24:9-11)
To an eastern person, the implications
of this scene would have been profound. God had made a covenant of peace
with this nation, and before anything had been done to break it, they
had perfect fellowship with God -- they could eat and drink in his presence.
Because of the covenantal bond made through the blood of the sacrifices,
God had accepted them into his presence. Not only could they be there,
but they even could eat a meal, demonstrating their peaceful relationship
with him. This was the beginning of God's answer to the break in fellowship
that occurred in the garden of Eden, when humanity was cast out of God's
presence because of sin.
Throughout the Old Testament,
this ceremony of eating and drinking in God's presence is reenacted through
the fellowship offering, literally, a shalom offering. A family would
bring an animal to sacrifice to the tabernacle or temple, and the meat
would be eaten by the family and the priest, with the best portions burned
as an offering to the Lord. They saw this as true covenantal communion
with God - that they could sit down at a meal with him. It was as if
he was truly present at the table with them as they ate. In Deuteronomy
14:22-26, God even tells them to save up a tenth of their money each year and
bring it to the temple to have a great fellowship meal with him. They
could buy anything they wanted, but they had to invite him to the party!
You may spend the money for whatever
your heart desires: for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or
whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence
of the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. (Deut 14:26)
We also see this fellowship meal
in the great celebrations that occur at important redemptive events in
the history of Israel. At the exodus from Egypt they celebrated the Passover,
and they still eat this meal to celebrate his faithfulness to them.
They celebrated Passover or a great fellowship offering after they entered
the promised land (Josh. 5:10), when they renewed the covenant on Mt.
Ebal (Josh. 8:31), when Solomon built the temple (1 Kings 8:33), and later
when Hezekiah rededicated it (2 Chron 30:21). The meal was a way to renew
their covenant with God and rededicate themselves to fulfilling their
part of the covenant.
The Meal in the New Testament
This picture of eating a meal together as a sign of reconciliation and
peace also runs through the New Testament. In Jesus' parable about the
prodigal son, when the son comes home, his father arranges a feast to
celebrate that he is now a part of the family again. The meal is a celebration
of the renewed harmonious relationship between the son and his family.
Also, after Jesus' resurrection, we read the odd story of Jesus cooking
fish and serving breakfast to the disciples (John 21:9-19). The topic
of conversation was a break in their relationship. Jesus says to Peter, "Do you love me?" three times, reminding him of his earlier
denials at Jesus' trial, and then Jesus reinstates him as his disciple.
The meal is a demonstration of the reconciliation going on between Jesus
We even hear this idea of a meal of reconciliation in the familiar words
of Revelation 3:20:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock;
if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and
will dine with him, and he with Me.
Now we know why it says that
Jesus would come in and dine with us - to show us his acceptance of us,
and to celebrate the relationship that we have together! It also explains
why the predominant picture of heaven is that of a wedding feast - the
celebration of the covenantal union of the Lamb and his people. There,
we will always have this unbroken fellowship with him.
Communion as Covenantal Meal
all of this imagery in scripture, we can have a great new picture of what
Jesus intended when, at the Last Supper, he broke the bread, and then
held up the wine and said, "This is the blood of the new covenant
- do this in remembrance of me." Jesus chooses the fellowship meal
that had been used many times to celebrate God's redemption of his people,
the Passover meal. But now, through the blood of Christ's sacrifice, he
is saying that we can enter into the new covenant of forgiveness and
have a new, unbroken relationship with him. Like the Arab father,
God puts aside all grievances he has with us, and tells us that we are
now members of his family! This ceremony assures us of God's redemption,
that we are acceptable in his sight.
We are also reminded that salvation is not just a future event
- not just being saved from our sins when we die. Salvation is our
coming into fellowship with God, like the prodigal returning to his family.
This supper shows that we can enter into God's presence and have
communion with him even in this life, as the seventy elders did on Mt.
Sinai. The beauty of the celebration of the Lord's Supper lies both in
the present enjoyment of fellowship with the Lord, as well as the
anticipation of unending fellowship with him at the banquet in heaven.
Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All rights reserved. This article is copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.
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