I gotta have my orange juice.

Jesu, Juva

The Lost Supper

with 3 comments

I recently read, and greatly appreciated, Matthew Colvin‘s book The Lost Supper. Colvin builds his understanding of the Lord’s supper on a thesis earlier offered by Robert Eisler and David Daube. He summarizes the puzzle he is seeking to unlock with an opening quote from Daube:

“Jesus could not at the same time have introduced both the general idea of eating a cake of unleavened bread as the Messiah and the specific identification of that cake with himself. That is just not how rites come into being.” This is an important difference between [Daube’s] view and most Christian understandings of the eucharist and Last Supper: many Christians have a view of the effect of Jesus’ words of institution that actually renders them incomprehensible to the disciples in the Upper Room. (Colvin, 37)

Colvin and Daube are not arguing that we must backdate the modern Seder into the first century. But they are arguing—compellingly—that the first century Passover must have had Messianic echoes that reverberate today in both the Eucharist and the Seder. Colvin summarizes his conclusion as follows:

Thus, as we also found in the case of the words over the bread, we discover that Jesus’ words about the wine are more concerned with using the Passover to speak to his disciples about his own impending death and its significance within Israel’s story than they were about explaining the metaphysical relation of the bread and wine to his body and blood. His words over the bread identify himself as Israel’s Messiah; his words over the cup are a way of indicating that he will offer himself as a sacrifice, a new Passover lamb to accomplish a new Exodus; and that this will bring about the coming Kingdom of God. Messiah, new Exodus, and coming Kingdom: this is a deeply Jewish set of meanings for these rituals, full of the themes that were on every mind and heart at Passover. Jesus in the Last Supper is doing what we should expect for a Jewish Messiah’s last meal with his disciples; he is doing exactly what Jews have always done with the food and drink of the Passover: make them tell the story of God and Israel—past, present, and future—and by ritual participation inscribe themselves in that story, in those events. (Colvin, 92)

This idea that a ritual is a removal from time, a participation in both the past and future, is key to Colvin’s understanding. He quotes Alastair Roberts:

Much as in the case of a Passover meal, a memorial of a past deliverance anticipates future salvation and each repetition re-establishes us within musical cycles of memory and hope. It repeatedly stabilizes us by restoring us to Christ’s decisive, once-for-all, action in the past, and destabilizes us by exposing us to the fecundity of the future that this action opened. It ties together founding action with the anticipation of final judgment. (Colvin, 82, quoting Alastair Roberts, A Musical Case for Typological Realism)

Colvin rejects mere real presence in favor of robust participation:

Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples on Passover, far from culminating in a sacramental “real presence,” begins with presence and moves from presence to something higher. The disciples have Jesus “present”—sitting in front of their eyes—but they still do not understand who he is or how they are to relate to him. . . .

In [Luke’s] narrative, the presence of Christ is not effected by the eating of the bread (still less by “consecration” of it); indeed, the resurrected Jesus appeared and was bodily present to his disciples on the road to Emmaus only in order to bring about the disciples’ participation in his new life, which is the life of the renewed Israel, the climax and fulfillment of Israel’s story. The goal is participation, not “presence.” (Colvin, 97-98)

Colvin’s project is very similar to that of Leithart with baptism: he understands the spiritual activity of the Lord’s supper to run along thoroughly corporate, social, and physical lines. It is a bodily activity as well as a mental one:

According to the Westminster Larger Catechism’s formulations, it is a positively daunting feat of reverence and emotions, requiring 14 different mental acts beforehand, another 13 during the Supper, and another 7 if they judge themselves to have partaken successfully, or 5 if unsuccessfully! Astonishingly, the Westminster Divines do not actually state that those “that receive the sacrament” must eat and drink the bread and wine. Every action specified in Q. 174 (as well as those in Q. 171 and 175) is something Christians do with their minds. By contrast, all of the commands of Jesus concerning the Supper—”take, eat, drink, do this”—are things that Christians do with their bodies. (Colvin, 100)

Thus, for Colvin, failure to discern the body is not a cerebral but rather a thoroughly public and corporate and social matter, consistent with much of the rest of 1 Corinthians:

The form this condemnation took is also the same as in the Exodus: supernaturally inflicted death. “Because of this [failure to draw the boundaries of the people of God properly], many among you are weak and sick and some are asleep [i.e. dead].” (11:30) If we are looking for a mechanism by which the eucharist operates, I submit that we have found it here: the communal meal, as an acted sharing in the salvific sacrificial death of the Messiah, marks the people of God as the ones who are to be spared God’s deadly judgment, leaving those outside the Christian community exposed to that wrath. It is inflicted by God’s own power.

This modus operandi should look familiar to us. In Exodus 11:4-7, YHWH announces that the Passover will work the same way. . . . The discrimen, the means by which this difference [between the Egyptians and Israel] is marked, is the ritual meal itself. (Colvin, 128)

The supper therefore naturally functions as a memorial to God rather than a mere reminder to ourselves:

Was Israel also commanded to remember? To be sure, and all the rituals of Passover to this day are aimed at inscribing the Exodus indelibly in the consciousness of every Jewish child. Yet in Egypt, it was not the Israelites’ consciousness, but the Lord’s response to his own commanded memorial (zeker) that effected salvation for the Israelites and destruction for their enemies. In Paul’s understanding, the eucharist operates not by the followers of Jesus thinking about it, but because it marks them as the people defined by Jesus’ sacrificial death, which God remembers and honors and to which he responds with action in history. (Colvin, 133)

All of this is simply a function of how meals work:

Paul’s arguments by analogy with pagan sacrifices (1 Cor. 10:20) and with Jewish sacrifices in the Temple (1 Cor. 10:19) are only possible if the eucharist works the way other meals work. What is special about it is not the way it connects its participants to a person, but the person to whom it connects them. (Colvin, 137)

Thus, the supper is a participation-communion-koinonia, side by side with all of God’s people, both in the past events of the crucifixion and resurrection, but also in our future resurrection and glorification. But this is only a specific instance of what happens throughout the entire service of covenant renewal worship. On the Lord’s day, together with all the Lord’s people, we really are caught up out of time and into the heavens. The bread and wine that we consume are heavenly–spiritual bread and wine; not just a foretaste of the coming feast, but an actual distribution of it. And all this is precisely what it means to worship in Spirit (John 4, Revelation 1).

Colvin closes with helpful practical thoughts on the Lord’s supper today. I largely agree with him, although I think that treating the supper as a feast should not lead us to make much of a common cup. He does not take up a critique of the pious notion of withdrawing oneself temporarily from the supper as a kind of contrition, but I think his principles warrant against that powerfully.

I’ve argued previously for real presence along several lines, but I take greatly to heart Colvin’s charge to think in terms of participation-communion-koiononia rather than mere presence.

However, my friend Randy also cautions that we have a sure hope even if bread and wine are taken away from us:

But he answered, “It is written,
“‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4 ESV)

Incidentally, as part of his argument, Colvin also makes a fascinating point about the Lord’s prayer. He argues that the entire prayer has an eschatological bent, including the petition for bread:

[This word] is thus “the coming bread,” the eschatological bread. . . . Thus, the force of the word is to make the petition a request for “the bread of tomorrow” or the eschatological bread. (Colvin, 57-58)

Written by Scott Moonen

January 19, 2021 at 11:14 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] mentioned recently that the meaning of worshipping in Spirit is to do so as the body of Jesus—the church—in his presence. I cited Revelation 1 as an example, but we see this expression in association with […]

  2. […] I think he perceives this in part because worship is warfare and in part because worship takes place in the heavens, in the future. […]

  3. […] Noah. Participation in the church and participation in Jesus and participation in his salvation are inextricably linked. It’s especially interesting that in Noah’s case the animal kingdom participates in the […]


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