Posted by: chuckbumgardner | December 10, 2007

Marshall on the Lord’s Supper

In his book Last Supper and Lord’s Supper (Eerdmans, 1980), I. Howard Marshall seeks to explicate the NT basis of the practice of the Lord’s Table.  At the end of several chapters worth of exegetical work, cultural investigation, and interaction with related studies, he presents a list of summary conclusions regarding the observance of the Lord’s Supper in the church today.  Because one’s denominational background is of interest in such discussions, it may be worthwhile to mention that Marshall hails from a Methodist background (15).

1. In line with what appears to have been the practice of the early church in the NT the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated frequently in the church, and there is good reason for doing so on each Lord’s Day.

2. The NT links the exposition of the Scriptures and apostolic teaching with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper; the Supper ought always to be an occasion for the preaching of the Word.

3. The NT says nothing about who should conduct or celebrate the sacrament, and there is no evidence whatever that anything corresponding to our modern ‘ordination’ was essential.  The celebration of the sacrament today should not be confined to those ordained to the ministry by the laying on of hands but should be open to any believer authorised by the church to do so.

4. The NT says nothing about any particular conditions for participation in the sacrament beyond a willingness to come to Christ in faith and with love for other believers.  The Lord’s Supper today should be open to all who wish to feed on Christ and profess faith in him.  This implies that unbaptised believers may take part, although it would be normal for such persons to undergo baptism without delay.  It also means that there should be no barriers of age; what matters is faith and an understanding of what is happening appropriate to the age of the participant.

5. The NT welcomes sinners to the Lord’s Table but also warns against unworthy participation in a spirit of frivolity or lovelessness.  The church today in maintaining an ‘open table’ should also remind participants of the solemn implications of the sacrament.

6. The Lord’s Supper in the NT is a meal.  The appropriate setting for the sacrament is a table, and the appropriate posture in our western culture is sitting.  To describe the central piece of furniture as an altar is completely unjustified in terms of the NT understanding of the meal.

7. The NT envisages the use of one loaf and a common cup.  It would be good to maintain this symbolism today.  Where a common cup is not practicable, the communicants may partake simultaneously.  The practice whereby each person breaks a piece off a common loaf or is handed a piece broken by the celebrant or his neighbour would helpfully symbolise the breaking of the bread and the unity of the church.

8. The NT does not indicate that the bread and the cup were ‘consecrated’ in any way for the sacrament.  Neither the practice of offering the elements to God nor that of offering a prayer of epiclesis for the Spirit to bless the elements has any foundation in Scripture.

9. In the NT the essential elements in the Breaking of Bread were thanksgiving and distribution of the bread and the cup in turn to the accompaniment of the interpretative sayings.  In the church today we are heirs of a rich collection of prayers and other liturgical forms which elaborate on these essentially simple acts.  The church today should beware lest it loses the simplicity and directness of the NT pattern.  If, on the other hand, it is regrettable that some branches of the church fail to make use of the help and inspiration that can be drawn from the treasury of liturgy and hymnody, it is also, on the other hand, regrettable if adherence to a fixed and elaborate form of service is made the norm in other branches of the church.

10. The NT celebration of the Lord’s Supper included, at least on some occasions, an expression of the unity and love of believers.  The inclusion of some symbol of unity appropriate to our culture, such as shaking hands, and of some expression of concern for the needy, such as the giving of money for charitable purposes, is desirable today.

11) The NT itself recognises the difficulties that arose when the Lord’s Supper was part of a common church meal.  Nevertheless, the linking of the Supper with a meal may offer a form of fellowship that could contribute to the edification of the church today.

12) The NT links together past, present and future in the significance of the Lord’s Supper; it looks back to the death of Jesus for our salvation, it rejoices in the gift of present salvation and fellowship with the risen Lord, and it looks forward to his coming and the inauguration of the heavenly banquet.  The church today needs to ask whether it does justice to all these elements and thus celebrates the Supper with real thanksgiving and fulness of joy.

I. Howard Marshall, Last Supper and Lord’s Supper (Eerdmans, 1980), 155-57.


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