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Participating in Christ

by on September 20, 2012

1 Cor 10:16-18 (ESV) “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?”

I have been turning over the phrase “participating in the body/blood of Christ” over the past few weeks. It’s one of those phrases in Scripture that instantly appeals to me, but I struggled to grasp the real sense of what Paul was meaning. The word “participation” is translated in many versions as “communion”. It’s the greek word ‘koinonia’, which is often translated as fellowship too. Having fellowship or communion with God and Christ I can understand well enough, but participation in His body or blood seemed to need a little unpacking to satisfy myself that I understood what Paul was getting at. What follows is my suggestion of what I think it means after a fair bit of wrestling with it, but I wouldn’t be dogmatic about it. As with all our posts, we really welcome comments and discussion on these things.

In v.16 Paul speaks of all “partaking in one bread”, which is indicative of the fellowship we all have together in the Breaking of Bread as we all share in a joint activity of remembrance, and that is a precious thought, but I feel the ‘participation’ in the body and blood of the Lord is something else; something more.

Paul parallels the Breaking of Bread with the Israelite sacrifices in verse 17, and here I think we begin to get a little closer: “Those who eat the sacrifices are participants in the altar”, he tells us. In the Peace Offering under the Law of the old covenant a portion was given to God by burning it fully on the altar, a portion was given to the priest and a portion was eaten by the offerer. There is a wonderful fellowship between the three parties seen here, as both God and the offerer, along with the priest who is mediating, all share in the goodness of the sacrifice together. In other sacrifices the priests were able to eat a portion, and God received the rest. The Burnt offering was the only sacrifice of which no-one ate, but was burned in its entirety and given wholly to God. It is worth noting that Paul says that those who eat the sacrifices were participants in the altar itself. The altar was where the sacrifice was laid, and its purpose was not merely practical (in burning the animal or, in the case of the peace offering, flour/oil admixture offered) but the altar sanctified the offering (Ex 29:37, Matt 23:19) and so it was the altar that allowed the fellowship between Man and God within the tabernacle. The bronze altar used by Israel in the Tabernacle and, later, in Solomon’s Temple is representative of Christ and His sanctifying work on the cross, just as the sacrifices offered on it also speak of his sacrificial death for all sin. At this point it’s worth me recommending “The Parable of the Tabernacle” (also on Kindle), an excellent book that examines the Tabernacle and its furniture, bringing out all manner of excellent pictures of Christ that were so richly written into the Old Testament by God.

That thought of participation in the body and blood of Jesus brings us naturally to John 6: 51-58.

“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.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 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. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 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. 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.” (John 6:51-58)

The image Jesus was painting for His followers of eating and drinking His body and blood was so difficult for them to process that many of them walked away from Him. It’s still a difficult image for us today but we have the benefit of hindsight to help us understand what the Lord truly meant by it. The fact Jesus pointedly states that unless you eat His flesh and drink His blood you have no life in you makes it very clear that this is a once-only eating & drinking for salvation, and so it points us to the Cross and the giving up of His body and the spilling of His blood. At salvation we place our faith in the efficacy of the sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus, and in doing so we are taking within us the truth of His broken body and shed blood, accepting that they are the only means of redemption for us. We consume the goodness of His perfect offering for sin. It is the medicine for our sinful condition.  Charles Spurgeon comments helpfully on the instruction of Christ in John 6 and links it with the instruction of God in Exodus 29:33, “They shall eat those things with which atonement was made at their ordination and consecration”…

“The act of eating is a very common but a very expressive method of setting forth participation, for it is entirely personal. Nobody can eat for you, or drink for you. It is personally for yourself that you partake of bread, and the bread goes into yourself, to build up yourself, to be assimilated by yourself into yourself so as to become part of yourself. And, dear Friend, the Lord Jesus Christ must thus be received into your heart and soul by yourself, for yourself…” (read the full sermon here)

And as Jesus Himself says in verse 57 “As the living Father has sent Me and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on Me, he also shall live because of Me”. We are feeding upon life itself when we feed upon Christ, and “as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son also to have life in Himself” (John 5:26),  and to have “authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given Him” (John 17:2).

Of course, it’s only right in the midst of considering how we can participate in the flesh and blood of Christ that we take a moment to wonder in awe that He first took part in our flesh and blood so that we could partake in His. Heb 2:14, 15 tells us: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery”. He took on our human attributes and qualities, with all our frailties and limitations (yet without sin, Heb 4:15), so that we can partake in the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4); He partook in our struggles so that we could partake in His victory; He “became like His brothers in every respect” (Heb 2:17) so that we could become like Him, “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18)… What a saviour we have!

So there is certainly a one-time eating and drinking of the body and blood of Christ in our first acceptance of His sacrificial death at Calvary, but that was not what Paul was referring to back in our main text in 1 Cor 10. He was discussing the “cup of blessing” and “the bread we break”, which is the weekly Breaking of Bread service we hold in obedience to His command to do it in remembrance of Him. The once-for-all sacrifice of Christ is the original breaking of His body and pouring out of His blood and when we first partake of Him in our trusting to that sacrifice for salvation the blessing of that moment is eternal. I would suggest to you though, from 1 Cor 10:16-18 that in God’s grace He invites us to return each week to the altar, which is Christ Himself, and to enjoy, through the breaking of a loaf of bread and the drinking of poured-out wine, the participation in the body and blood of our saviour. The offering itself is done once and for all time, but we can partake again in fresh sustenance from it, tasting again the goodness of the provision of God. Connected with that precious communion in the bread and wine is our opportunity to offer up our spiritual sacrifices to God in our thanksgivings and praise (1 Pet 2:5; Heb 13:15). Of course, we no longer have any need to offer sin offerings, guilt offerings, or burnt offerings; the death of Christ was the perfect completion of all they represented and it never needs to be offered again (Heb 10:11, 12). The sacrifices we offer on a Lord’s Day morning are something equivalent to the peace-offering under the old covenant, which was offered as a thanksgiving for salvation experienced (or at times in hopeful expectation of it). It was the peace-offering alone that allowed the offerer to enjoy a portion of it in fellowship with the priest and with God and, certainly, that is a fine picture of our experience in the Remembrance. We enjoy a portion of our offering (Christ and our appreciation of Him), with the mediating priest (Christ, our Great High Priest Heb 2:17) and in doing so participate in the altar (Christ Heb 13:10), who sanctifies our offering and allows us to have fellowship with Almighty God.

We need this experience each week. We should be hungry for it because it is a fellowship with God and with His Son, the Lord Jesus, and with each other that nothing else can provide for us. It is irreplaceable by any other service, it cannot be imitated or recreated by any other means. God has provided this for us as a regular diet of the goodness that comes from feeding upon Christ. It will sustain and strengthen us, it will delight us with the sheer taste of the joy we have in Him. That is reason enough – even before considering that it affords us that highest privilege of entering into the very presence of God in the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary – to be sure that we never do without it, because what else in my life could ever supercede this?

Nothing in this earthly life can… but by His grace, another life awaits.

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2 Comments
  1. Jen permalink

    I haven’t seen anything in the scriptures that you have linked with remembering Christ and a closed communion table. Why do some churches feel that a membership is required to ‘prove’ you believe in God? It doesn’t seem right to withhold this beautiful privilege.

    • Hi Jen. I wouldn’t look on church membership as trying to ‘prove‘ anything. The greek word for ‘church’ means ‘called-out ones’. so the very word denotes a delineation or separation from society as a whole, and the idea of church membership ties in with that – it makes it clear that you have been ‘called-out’, and your commitment to that calling. but, I like the thought of being separated to something, rather than from others. It parallels with the thought of being consecrated – set apart from other things, for the purpose of serving God. Those looking for the privilege described above should delight to be separated to/for it.

      The first time we see direct evidence for this kind of ‘calling-out’ is at Pentecost – Acts 2. The order is set out there, where people heard and received the Word that was spoken by Peter. Then they were baptised and added to the church (we see believers being added to an already gathered company elsewhere too, for example, Acts 5). Following addition, they took part in the activities of the church in Jerusalem – devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship with one another (and with God), to the breaking of bread (the remembrance), and to the prayers. Those are the clear activities of the church, and all the letters that follow in the new testament seem to follow that pattern / are in that context – most of them are written to saints gathered together as called-out ones in whatever city a local church has been established/planted in. Again, ‘saint’ means ‘holy one’ or ‘separated one’ (separated for the purpose of serving God).

      The structure of the churches themselves is also seen from the letters and historical narratives of the new testament – local churches were in districts, and overseers (and sent ones, like Paul) had responsibility for ensuring that each district knew what was to be done (for example, Acts 15). So, we have Paul stressing in his letters that the teaching be the same in all the churches and the like – an expression of the oneness that the Lord Jesus was praying for so fervently in John 17. We know (from old and new testaments) that God is a God of order, and the order is there (believing, then baptised, then part of a local church and its activities – the remembrance being a part of that -, set within the context of inter-communicating churches). It is (or should be) a wonderful picture of oneness for God, in service to Him.

      Those are just a few thoughts that I hope are helpful?

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