Sign of the Promise
From Genesis to Revelation, there is a succession of covenants. There are basically two covenants in the Bible: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. God made the covenant of works in the garden with Adam and, in Adam, with all his ordinary descendants. This covenant was conditioned upon Adam’s obedience. When our representative Adam disobeyed God, he plunged himself and all of us into sin and misery. The way to eschatological or eternal life by our obedience was forever closed off.
Soon after Adam’s fall into sin, God introduced a second covenant into history, the covenant of grace. This covenant was conditioned upon the obedience of the second and last Adam, Jesus Christ. He pledged to obey where we failed to obey. Part of his obedience involved bearing the penalty due to us for our sin. On the basis of his obedience, those who trust in him are brought from covenant curse to covenant blessing. God instituted this covenant in history in Genesis 3:15. By a series of covenantal administrations, progressively revealed in redemptive history, God expanded and extended the gospel promises that the covenant of grace administers to sinners.1Whatever differences there are among these administrations (and there are differences), underlying those differences is a fundamental unity—the salvation of sinners in and by the work of Jesus Christ.
As a help to the faith of his people, God has appointed signs within his covenants with human beings. These signs are a standing feature of the various administrations of the covenant of grace. Having the sign is no guarantee or assurance of salvation. Nor does having the sign mean that one has faith. But it is a great blessing to have the sign insofar as it directs us to the promise signified and confirms to us the truth of God’s promise.
The Tree of Life
The Bible begins and ends with the tree of life. The tree of life first functioned as a covenantal sign or pledge in the covenant of works. It represents to new covenant believers the consummation of our salvation. Significantly, the tree of life is something that people eat or consume. Throughout redemptive history, God has appointed covenant meals for his people. While these meals are necessarily physical and tangible, they point beyond themselves to the spiritual realities that God pledges to his people in covenant with him. Specifically, they point to the greatest blessing of all—God himself in communion with his people. The Prophets, in particular, direct the people of God to a great banquet or feast in which God abundantly provides for all the spiritual needs of his people. The New Testament tells us that Christ has come to do just that. What the Law and the Prophets pointed to and anticipated in these feasts, Christ in his life, death, and resurrection has accomplished. God’s new covenant people have begun to enjoy life and blessing in Christ, but the fullness of these awaits his return at the end of the age.
As we await that fullness, we enjoy the new covenant meal that Christ has set for us, the Lord’s Supper. The Supper is both sign and meal. It displaces the old covenant Passover feast. What Passover anticipated, the Lord’s Supper declares as accomplished. The realities to which Passover looked forward are the realities to which the Lord’s Supper looks back.
The Supper invites us to remember the Lord Jesus Christ, on whose body we feed and whose blood we drink, through faith in him. The Lord’s Supper represents to the senses of God’s people the death of Christ for sinners. It reinforces one of the most basic lessons of Jesus’s teaching, that salvation is by the grace of God alone for the undeserving. In the Supper, Christ invites his needy people to come to him to be filled with spiritual nourishment. This happens when, in this meal, God’s people commune with their living Savior by faith, in the power of the Spirit, who works by and with the Word of Christ. For these reasons, the Supper is not fundamentally something we do for Christ. It represents, in the first instance, what Christ has done for us.
Whenever You Do This
The ongoing repetition of the Lord’s Supper in the life of the church and our continuing need for the grace that Christ supplies to faith in the Supper underscores another basic message of this meal. The Lord’s Supper not only points us back to Christ’s first appearing but also points us forward to Christ’s second appearing, his glorious return at the end of the age. When Christ returns, he will gather his people and bring them to the eschatological banquet that he has prepared for them. The Lord’s Supper anticipates that glorious feast. In this way, the new covenant meal stirs our hope for Christ’s return.
The Lord’s Supper carries with it important social or horizontal dimensions. The Supper is a powerful display of the unity of God’s people and their identity as the family of God and the covenant community. The Supper, in this fashion, distinguishes the church from the world. It confirms to God’s people their commitment to the exclusive claims of the lordship of Christ and calls them to separate from ungodly participation in the world around them. For these reasons, worldly disunity and other ungodly behavior palpably affect the church’s experience of the Lord’s Supper. Paul, in particular, points to a necessary subjective preparation for the Lord’s Supper—we must examine ourselves and discern the body and blood of Christ. In a severe mercy, God is prepared to chasten his people who profane and otherwise misuse the Supper. Those who persist in so doing will find nothing but curse waiting for them. As a covenant sign, the Supper is, in Christ’s hands, an occasion of blessing and curse. Paul instructs and urges the church to ensure that it is an occasion of blessing.
- These administrations are the Adamic (after the fall), Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and new covenants. Each is a covenantal administration of the one covenant of grace.
This article is adapted from The Lord’s Supper as the Sign and Meal of the New Covenant by Guy Prentiss Waters.