And [David] said, “Is there not still someone of the house of Saul, that I may show the kindness of God to him?” Ziba said to the king, “There is still a son of Jonathan; he is crippled in his feet.” The king said to him, “Where is he?” And Ziba said to the king, “He is in the house of Machir the son of Ammiel, at Lo-debar.” Then King David sent and brought him from the house of Machir the son of Ammiel, at Lo-debar. And Mephibosheth the son of Jonathan, son of Saul, came to David and fell on his face and paid homage. And David said, “Mephibosheth!” And he answered, “Behold, I am your servant.” And David said to him, “Do not fear, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan, and I will restore to you all the land of Saul your father, and you shall eat at my table always.” And he paid homage and said, “What is your servant, that you should show regard for a dead dog such as I?” Then the king called Ziba, Saul’s servant, and said to him, “All that belonged to Saul and to all his house I have given to your master’s grandson. And you and your sons and your servants shall till the land for him and shall bring in the produce, that your master’s grandson may have bread to eat. But Mephibosheth your master’s grandson shall always eat at my table.” . . . So Mephibosheth ate at David’s table, like one of the king’s sons. — 2 Samuel 9:3-11
Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine David saying to Mephibosheth: “You must eat at my table in a worthy manner.” Does David mean that:
- Mephibosheth should approach David at every meal, confessing “What is your servant, that you should show regard for a dead dog such as I?” Or that
- Mephibosheth should eat each meal with joy and congenial fellowship befitting the king’s sons.
We know that Mephibosheth never forgot he was undeserving of David’s favor, and continued to approach David with appropriate humility, respect and love (2 Samuel 19:24-30). But this is not incompatible with Mephibosheth’s living in the good of David’s favor. This is a meal, after all: my answer is #2. David made Mephibosheth his son and would have expected him to behave as a son.
We are as undeserving of God’s favor as Mephibosheth and the prodigal son. And yet in Jesus we do receive God’s favor; we been made not merely servants, but beloved sons and fellow heirs. Both David and the prodigal father are types of our Father in heaven, who by his grace now names us not sinners but saints. This shapes even our fear of the Lord: we fear the Lord not as impostors hanging by a thread, but as sons who have a responsibility to be loyal. He has made it fitting for us to approach his table as sons: he has given us the proper attire (Matthew 22:1-13) and has made his feasts a time of joy and not sorrow (Nehemiah 8:9-12).
Obviously I have 1 Corinthians 11 in mind in this thought experiment. There, Paul commands us (1) not to eat of the Lord’s supper unworthily, (2) to examine ourselves, and (3) to discern the body. It is common to read Paul as saying that (1) our sin — whether in general or only unconfessed — is what makes us unworthy for the supper; (2) therefore we examine ourselves and confess sin, (3) discerning that Jesus’s own body and blood offered on the cross are our only hope. Is this what Paul is saying? This is roughly the interpretation that Calvin, the Westminster catechisms, and others take. But it is to say the opposite of what I concluded in my thought experiment above, and to make the Lord’s supper into something different from a family meal.
Certainly we should not approach the table with unconfessed sin, or lacking appreciation for God’s great mercy to us. But there is a better way of understanding Paul’s warnings. Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul is concerned for unity in the church. Beginning in chapter 10, he names the church as the body of Christ, and he continues without interruption to emphasize the unity, interconnectedness and interdependency of the body through chapter 12. In this context, his overwhelming concern for their practice of the Lord’s supper (chapters 10-11) is that it must reflect their unity and love as the body of Christ. Reading Paul’s warnings in light of all this, it becomes clear that (1) to eat unworthily is actually to eat without consideration of one another; (2) we therefore examine ourselves to ensure we are including, loving, preferring one another; and (3) we do this because we discern that we are Christ’s body, and Christ’s body is not divided. Considering this, and considering Mephibosheth and the prodigal son, we should not eat the Lord’s supper reservedly, but joyfully, as fellow sons and daughters.
Wayne Grudem concludes this as well. In Systematic Theology, he writes:
In the context of 1 Corinthians 11 Paul is rebuking the Corinthians for their selfish and inconsiderate conduct when they come together as a church: “When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk” (1 Cor. 11:20-21). This helps us understand what Paul means when he talks about those who eat and drink “without discerning the body” (1 Cor. 11:29). The problem at Corinth was not a failure to understand that the bread and cup represented the body and blood of the Lord — they certainly knew that. The problem rather was their selfish, inconsiderate conduct toward each other while they were at the Lord’s table. They were not understanding or “discerning” the true nature of the church as one body. This interpretation of “without discerning the body” is supported by Paul’s mention of the church as the body of Christ just a bit earlier, in 1 Corinthians 10:17: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of one bread.” So the phrase “not discerning the body” means “not understanding the unity and interdependence of people in the church, which is the body of Christ.” It means not taking thought for our brothers and sisters when we come to the Lord’s Supper, at which we ought to reflect his character.
What does it mean, then, to eat or drink “in an unworthy manner” (1 Cor. 11:27)? We might at first think the words apply rather narrowly and pertain only to the way we conduct ourselves when we actually eat and drink the bread and wine. But when Paul explains that unworthy participation involves “not discerning the body,” he indicates that we are to take thought for all of our relationships within the body of Christ: are we acting in ways that vividly portray not the unity of the one bread and one body, but disunity? Are we conducting ourselves in ways that proclaim not the self-giving sacrifice of our Lord, but enmity and selfishness? In a broad sense, then, “Let a man examine himself” means that we ought to ask whether our relationships in the body of Christ are in fact reflecting the character of the Lord whom we meet there and whom we represent. (997)
Grudem goes on to cite Matthew 5:23-24 as an example of making relationships right before coming to worship.
God could have chosen for this sacrament to take any form. It is highly instructive that he chose for it to take the form of a meal, with all the rich imagery that carries. He intends for us to enjoy it in fellowship with him and one another.