On the night before he died, in the upper room with his disciples, the Lord Jesus ordained a special meal for the church in order to remember the significance of his sacrificial death for sin and to look ahead to his one-day coming again (1 Cor 11:23-25). But there was another purpose. It was also meant to be a celebration of the present. It is not just looking back and looking ahead. Christ meant the Lord’s Table to be a regular relishing in our spiritual union with him now and in our unity with each other as his body (1 Cor 10:16-17). This is often missed or misunderstood. But an even more basic question concerning the Lord’s Table is this – is Christ actually present? The answer to this is of no small consequence. Ironically, for an ordinance meant to be both unifying and life-giving for the church, inadequate answers have resulted in division and death. So, let’s consider this carefully. Is Christ actually present with us at the Lord’s Table or not? This article will make the case that he is – Christ is present with us at the Table by his Spirit.
Before making the case for the real spiritual presence of Christ at the Lord’s Table, it is useful to briefly survey how this question has been answered previously in the history of the church. Four views are worth noting. The first is called transubstantiation, which is the Roman Catholic view. This view claims that the physical elements of bread and wine ‘change substance’ into the actual physical body and blood of Jesus, which is then re-sacrificed as a perpetual propitiation for sin. The second view is called consubstantiation, held by the Lutheran church. This view rightfully rejects the unbiblical idea that Christ is offered as a repeated propitiatory sacrifice (Heb 9:24-26), and also denies that the bread and wine mystically change into Christ’s flesh and blood. However, Luther continued to hold to a belief that Christ’s humanity (body and blood) nevertheless was somehow still present ‘with’ the elements of bread and wine.
A third view, known as the memorial view, was espoused by another reformer named Zwingli. He rightfully rejected the mystical notion that Christ is present in any bodily way at the Table. Rather, the Lord’s Table is merely a memorial – a remembrance of Christ’s atoning death for sin. Finally, a fourth view was articulated by Calvin, also known as the ‘spiritual presence’ view. Calvin agreed with Zwingli for the most part – the Lord’s Table is a memorial to Christ’s death –but he argued that Zwingli failed to adequately acknowledge Christ’s real spiritual presence at the Table. Calvin insisted that Christ himself is present at the Lord’s Table – not in his humanity, which remains in heaven until he comes again – but he is present by means of the Holy Spirit.
The remainder of this article will make the case that while the Lord’s Table is primarily a memorial to Christ’s death, it is also a celebration of our present communion with Christ who is spiritually present with us at the Table by his Spirit, which has implications not to be ignored.
Consider the significance of Christ’s words: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20; cf. 1 Cor 11:25). Because of Christ’s shed blood, we are presently enjoying the blessings of the new covenant, which we celebrate at the Lord’s Table. And basic to the new covenant is the reality that God is present with his people:
“For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” 2 Cor 6:16
Here Paul draws from Old Testament texts that promised the coming new covenant, including Jeremiah 31:33 and Ezekiel 11:20, to show that the church, as a participant in the new covenant, is God’s special dwelling place, his temple. This would have been familiar to the Corinthians, since Paul previously taught that the church is God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in her (1 Cor 3:16). At this point, you might be asking, “Isn’t this talking about the Holy Spirit,” and “What does this have to do with presence of Christ?” And the answer to that is to see how Christ speaks about the coming of the Holy Spirit in John’s account of Jesus’ upper room discourse.
In John’s account of Jesus in the upper room on the night before the cross, he omits speaking directly about the Lord’s Table or the new covenant. Yet Christ gives an extended discourse on the coming of the Holy Spirit, who would come after Jesus ascended to the Father. It is likely that John, who wrote after Matthew, Mark and Luke, was filling in the theology that complemented the Lord’s Table and the new covenant that the other gospel writers introduced. Indeed, the new covenant is all about the coming of the Holy Spirit and his ministry (2 Cor 3). But when Jesus teaches about the coming Holy Spirit in John 14, he repeatedly indicates that this will be the means by which he himself will be present with his disciples:
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” John 14:18
“In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” John 14:20
“…And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” John 14:21
The context for all of these verses is the coming of the Holy Spirit. Through the coming of the Spirit, Christ says that he himself will come, have communion with, and manifest himself to his disciples and, by extension, to the church which will be born out of this reality. So, although Christ ascended to the Father, he is spiritually present with the church through the coming and abiding presence of the Spirit. But perhaps now you may be asking, “Isn’t this just the same thing as the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in all believers?” or “Isn’t Christ always with us everywhere; therefore, what’s different about the Lord’s Table?” And to answer that, we need to understand that even while the Lord is indeed always with us (Matt 28:20), nevertheless he is present with us in particular ways at particular times.
In Matthew 18, Christ prescribes a process to be followed for occasions of church discipline. Any church that has been faithful enough to follow through with these instructions knows how hard this is to do. In truth, it requires the Lord’s own strength. And so, Jesus gave a promise:
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Matt 18:20
When the church gathers together for the purpose of church discipline, Christ promises his own particular presence will be there with us in a spiritual way, empowering us for the strength that is needed to carry out the process of purifying the church. Paul taught exactly the same thing to the Corinthians – when they assembled together as a church for the purpose of discipline, then the power of the Lord Jesus would be with them spiritually in a particular way that was needed to purge the evil from their midst (1 Cor 5:4, 13). The Lord is spiritually present in particular ways at particular times in the life of the church – present in ways that he is not present at other times. And if Christ is present in a particular way when the church is gathered to cleanse out the leaven (1 Cor 5:7) in the context of church discipline, would he not also be present in a particular way when we are gathered together to celebrate our unity as one loaf of bread (1 Cor 10:17)?
In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul describes an underappreciated meaning of the Lord’s Table:
“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? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” 1 Cor 10:16-17.
Participation speaks of fellowship and communion. This is where the term ‘communion service’ comes from. The Lord’s Table is meant to be a celebration of present communion and fellowship with the Lord Jesus. And this speaks of more than simply a positional reality, just as spiritual baptism into Christ is about much more than just positional participation in Christ’s atonement. This communion is spiritual-life-sustaining, even as baptism into Christ is spiritual-life-giving (Rom 6:3-5).
Understanding Christ is spiritually present with his church in particular ways at particular times, the spiritual presence of Christ befits the very meaning of the Lord’s Table – as a celebration of our present spiritual-life-sustaining communion with Christ by his Spirit. And further, we celebrate our unity with one another as the body of Christ by his Spirit (1 Cor 12:13). Yet what unity could the body celebrate without her head? No, we do not celebrate a decapitated unity at the Table – the Lord Jesus Christ himself is spiritually present with us at the head of the Table!
The spiritual presence of Christ with us at the Lord’s Table has implications we dare not ignore. First, this adds a seriousness and solemnity to the occasion. In particular, there is a heightened gravity to bringing unrepentant sin to the Table. Perfectly consistent with the church discipline passages in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, which show Christ is spiritually present with power when the church gathers to deal with sin in its midst, Paul ends his Lord’s Table teaching to the Corinthians with a warning about coming to the Table in an unworthy manner (1 Cor 11:27-32). In fact, divine discipline is explicitly mentioned as a consequence for failure to discern the body, which is to say failing to discern the implications of Christ’s sacrifice of his body for sin by coming to the Table with unrepentant sin. The significance and weightiness of Paul’s admonition for self-examination and repentance of sin before taking the elements makes perfect sense in light of the real spiritual presence of the Lord Jesus Christ at the Table.
Finally, because Christ is spiritually present with his church in a special way at the Lord’s Table, there is a spiritual benefit that is only available to the believer by actually being present when the church is gathered together for the occasion. Although not categorically different from how the church is built up, encouraged, and edified by gathering together for corporate worship in general (1 Cor 12:7; 14:12; Eph 4:11-13, 15-16; Heb 10:24-25), nevertheless it stands to reason that the special spiritual presence of Christ at the Lord’s Table would be edifying and sanctifying in ways that are specific and unique to the occasion of the Lord’s Table. Even as the Lord works to sanctify by his Spirit through one portion of Scripture that is different to how he may manifest to a believer in another passage, there is something special about the Lord’s Table, and therefore to neglect the ordinance to whatever degree is to forfeit spiritual blessing and nourishment.
Is Christ present with us at the Lord’s Table? He is indeed! He is present with us by his Spirit. Although he ascended to the Father, and remains there in his humanity, Christ is present with us through the Holy Spirit whom he sent. This is the basis for the new covenant spiritual blessings that we presently enjoy. The spiritual presence of Christ with his church manifests in special ways that befit specific occasions. At times, he is powerfully present to purify the church of sin. At the Lord’s Table, he is present in a communing way for the church’s spiritual nourishment and being built up in the unity of the faith. And this has implications we dare not take lightly. Because the Lord is with us, we must come reverently and with repentance of sin to the Table. And we must not be neglectful, since there is real spiritual nourishment the Lord gives through communion by his Spirit as we partake together of the elements and his Word at the Table.