From the Text to the Table
When I moved to Savannah, GA in 2009 to plant New Covenant Presbyterian Church, I commited to planting a church that--along with a number of other important priorities--would observe weekly communion. It wasn't because I believed that the Scriptures command the weekly observation of the Supper. Rather, it was because I believe that the Supper is one of the foremost means of grace that Christ has given us to spiritually strengthen the members of His church who partake of His flesh and blood by faith. However, having observed weekly communion for over 6 years now, I have found that there is another benefit that we glean from the regular observation of the Supper--namely, it aids the minister in staying on top of bringing the Gospel to bear from the text to the Table. This is the only way to keep the Supper from becoming formalistic or ritualistic. Additionally, having to tie the Gospel from the text to the Table keeps the sacrament in its proper place. The sacrament is subservient to the Word of God precisely because it must be be explained and accompanied by the Word of God. Week by week, ministers must face the challenge of trying to tie in the truth of Christ's suffering for our sin, from the main point(s) of the text preached to the Supper, so as to show the centrality of the Gospel in the sign--even as they must tie Christ's sufferings for sinners into the passage from which they have preached.
In one of the sermons that he famously preached in the chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary, Geerhardus Vos helpfully explained how the Supper and the Preaching of the Word ought to have the same Gospel focus, and that both ought to work together for the building up of the saints. He explained:
In order to assure yourselves whether or not you are [keeping Christ crucified central], whether your preaching meets this requirement or not, a good test to apply is the frequent comparison of the purport of your sermon with the purport of the sacrament. The word and the sacrament as means of grace belong together: they are but two sides of the same divinely instituted instrumentality. While addressing themselves to different organs of perception, they are intended to bear the one identical message of the grace of God—to interpret and mutually enforce one another. If in the individual spiritual life of a Christian, the Lord’s Supper comes as something for which he is unprepared, something which requires a spiritual state of mind which he feels he cannot bring to it, something from which he shrinks because he realizes that it is so sadly unrelated to the usual tone and temper of his religious experience—then we would not hesitate to say that there is something wrong in the relation of that Christian to his God and his Savior. And yet I think we shall be all willing to confess that such has been frequently the case with ourselves. Is it not likely that a similar experience may be in store for us not as common believers but as preachers of the gospel? Let us therefore be careful to key our preaching to such a note that when we stand as ministrants behind the table of our Lord to distribute the bread of life, our congregation shall feel that what we are doing then is but the sum and culmination of what we have been doing every Sabbath from the pulpit.1
In order to keep the "purport" of the sermon one and the same with the "purport" of the sacrament, ministers must have a good grasp on the mechanics of the Gospel--as well as on redemptive-history and biblical-theology. I usually do two meditations from the passage, one at the distribution of the bread and another at the distribution of the wine--which makes it all the more challenging to bring in fresh biblical-theological mediations. I have found verses to certain hymns to be particularly useful in helping accomplish this task--as well as in helping to stir the hearts and minds of God's people during the administration of the Supper. For instance, I love the sacramental language we find in "Guide Me, O, Thou, Great Jehovah," "Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts," "Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder" and--the only Charles Spurgeon hymn to make its way into the Trinity Hymnal--"Amidst Us Our Beloved Stands." There are so many rich hymns from which to draw Gospel-focused and biblical-theological meditations from the Supper.
There are times, however, when I find it particularly difficult to tie in the Gospel from the text to the Table. This past Lord's Day was one such time for me. I preached the Sarai/Abram/Hagar narrative from Genesis 16. I had struggled all week regarding how to tie the text into the Lord's Supper meditation. Then, as I prayed during the distribution of the bread, it happened. The Lord graciously gave me the two meditations for which I had been seeking. Both of these meditations came--as they often do--by way of contrast with two points that I had preached in the text.
At the distribution of the bread, I explained how God had told Hagar that the son she would have with Abram would be "a wild (lit. wild donkey) man; His hand shall be against every man, And every man’s hand against him. And he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren" (Gen. 16:12). I contrasted this son of Abram with the promised Son. I said, "Abram's son with Hagar was said to be "a wild donkey man" who would be against everyone and who would stand beside everyone in hostility and alienation. But Abram would have another Son who would be "a peaceful Lamb" who would lay down His life for those who were, by nature, against Him--and He would reconcile them to God and one another so that they would dwell together in peace with Him."
The second biblical-theological meditation from the text that I brought to the Table came at the distribution of the cup. It had to do with Abram and Sarai's foolishness. I said, "Abram and Sarai acted in great sinfulness and foolishness (all sin is foolishness) and, the question we have to ask is, 'How would God remedy that foolishness?' The Son of Abraham would come and would walk by faith in the promises of God passed down to Him (Gal. 3:16). He would not stumble in sinful foolishness along the way. He would not seek to fulfill the promises in His own strength when tempted by the devil in the wilderness. He would obey all the way to the cross and then He would take Abram's foolishness, Sarai's foolishness and all of our foolishness on Himself when he would shed His blood as He was wounded for our transgressions."
Tying the Gospel in from the text to the Table is often one of the most challenging--and yet, rewarding--tasks that a minister faces. While there are many ways that the Gospel can be brought to bear on the sacramental meditations at the institution of the Table, the surest way to do so is in prayerful reliance on the Lord to grant such fitting meditations, to know the mechanics of the Gospel, to incorporate lyrics from the great hymns of church history and to learn to think in terms of redemptive-history and the organic unity of the Scripture as it centers on the Person and saving work of Christ. May God grant all of His ministers the grace to labor to do so for the soul-strengthening of His people.
J.W. Alexander Remember Him
Thomas Watson The Lord's Supper
Joachim Jeremias The Eucharistic Words of Jesus
Sinclair Ferguson "Westminster Standards:: Ch. 27-29 - Sacraments, Baptism, Lord's Supper"
Terry Johnson "The Reformed Administration of the Lord's Supper" (MP3 audio) from the Twin Lakes Fellowship (I do not agree with Terry on the irregularity of practice, as I am a proponent of weekly communion, but this is an outstanding lecture on the Supper, nevertheless).
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