Discerning the Body

One of the most important texts for understanding the nature and use of the Lord’s Supper is in 1 Corinthians 11. There, Paul sharply criticizes the Corinthian church for administering the Lord’s Supper in a way that divided the body along economic lines. The rich would partake first, and they treated the Lord’s Supper as a great feast, with wine and lots of food. The poor would arrive later and eat the leftovers if there were any.

One chapter earlier, when Paul was warning the Corinthians against participating in pagan festivals, he pointed to the Lord’s Supper as a teaching tool regarding the nature of the Christian fellowship. He said, “The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” That verse is where we get the term “Communion” as another name for the sacrament. It means a communal participation, a joint fellowship both with God and with our fellow believers. We as an earthly fellowship jointly partake of the life of Christ and the bread of communion symbolizes that. This is why we never take the Supper as individuals, and why the practice of the Corinthians was so offensive. It is a symbol of the unity of the body.

So Paul tells them to examine themselves, “discerning the body.” He says that this will enable them to partake of the supper “worthily” or “in a worthy manner”. That does not mean that we need to be somehow worthy of fellowship with Christ; of course, we can never be worthy of that. But it means that we recognize what the supper is, and what it says about the nature of the church and its fellowship with Christ.

“Discerning the body” means that we recognize that we are part of the people of God, who are the body of Christ. We as a fellowship together partake of the grace of Christ, and grow by His life. God is working His will out in history for the salvation of His people through the church. Our relationship with Christ is never purely individual. We come into fellowship with Christ by becoming truly part of His body, by being engrafted into the vine.

To participate in the Lord’s Supper in a worthy fashion, then, we are called to contemplate what it means to be part of Christ’s body. We must believe the gospel of salvation in the blood of Christ, and be committed to the love of the brethren as a result. We must be committed to forgiving each other, bearing with each other, and using our gifts and talents for the good of each other. We must look out not only for our own interests, but those of one another as well. This is what it means to discern the body and to partake of the supper in a worthy manner.

“Baptism Now Saves Us”

New Testament Baptism draws from a number of Old Testament sources for its significance. We know that it cannot be entirely new to the New Testament; for one thing, John’s baptism was immediately connected to the coming of the Messiah by the Jews.

The Old Testament prescribes cleansing water rituals for a variety of situations. They were performed when someone became ritually unclean (see Numbers 19) or when priests began their service in the temple (Leviticus 8) involving symbolic baths or washings, including sprinkling of water. In Mark 7:4 these kinds of washings, superstitiously performed constantly by the Jews and even applied to vessels and furniture, are referred to by the Greek word for “baptism”. The water rituals signified being “sanctified,” or set apart, made holy for the service of God.

These sprinklings of water also call to our mind the sprinkling of blood in the ceremonial law, because both the ceremony and the meaning behind it are similar. Blood from sacrifices was sprinkled on the altar, on the Ark of the Covenant and on the people as a symbolic covering of sin. In Hebrews 9, the writer describes these ceremonies of the old law as “shadows,” pointing us forward to the reality found in Christ. He says the copies, or symbols, of heavenly realities are sanctified or made holy in this way, but that the reality is in Christ’s blood. Then, after making this point in Hebrews 10, he calls on us to have boldness in the New Covenant, recognizing that we are now “sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” The reference to baptism is clear.

Baptism is also connected thematically to circumcision in Colossians 2- the circumcision made without hands, which we have in Christ, is said to come to us through baptism. Circumcision in the Old Testament points us to the need to cut off our pride and put our trust in God, a truth that finds its ultimate expression in the sacrifice of Christ, who was cut off for the sins of His people. Just as circumcision united a person to Israel, so baptism unites a person to the church, the body of Christ.

In both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we see a great deal of Old Testament symbolism simplified and divorced from its more carnal and temporary elements and presented to us purely and spiritually. Baptism sweeps up all these ancient themes- forgiveness, sanctification, consecration. We baptize a person when God brings him within the sphere of the visible church, either by confession of faith or by birth. By that baptism God visibly and outwardly unites him to the church and places the promises of the gospel visibly on him, calling him to faith in that gospel. Our baptism is a reminder to us throughout our lives of the gracious salvation which God’s people are promised through the death of Christ, that just as water washes us from dirt, so we are washed from sin by the blood of Christ and the power of the Spirit.

These are the three that bear witness on earth- the Spirit, the water and the blood, all united in the sacrament of baptism. By that reminder, God works grace in the hearts of His people throughout their lives, and therefore the Apostle Peter says that we are “saved by baptism” (1 Peter 3:21)- not that the ceremony by itself can save us, but that united with the election of God and the power of the Spirit, baptism becomes a powerful means by which God brings His people home finally to Himself, to serve Him as priests and kings forever.

The Gloria Patri

The Gloria Patri is an ancient hymn that has been sung in all parts of the church since its earliest days.

The hymn starts with the phrase, “Glory be to the Father” which in Latin is Gloria patri, the name of the hymn. The opening phrase echoes many similar praises in the Scriptures in different places, as in Galatians 1:4-5, for example: “…according to the will of our God and Father,
5 to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” or in Romans 16:27, “…to God, alone wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” We start the service, after receiving the Divine invitation to worship (in the Salutation, “Grace be unto you, and peace…”), with this song, because all our worship must be grounded first and foremost in the eternal glory of God. One simply cannot understand the least aspect of our existence rightly without recognizing the primacy of God’s glory (meaning splendor, greatness, worthiness, honor). The whole cosmos was created as a demonstration of His glory, and it is the great joy of our existence that we are the pinnacle of that creation, specifically created to be after His likeness and in His image. So we begin worship by ascribing glory to God. Worship fundamentally is prostration, the recognition of a superior by an inferior. It reminds us at the very beginning of our service that we are here to honor and worship God, to acknowledge Him as great, good and powerful, and not to call attention to ourselves or pursue our own goals. The rest of the service should follow suit.

The hymn emphasizes the equality of the Persons of the Trinity (as in Matthew 28:19, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”) We do not worship God as a generic abstraction, but as a Trinity equal in essence but distinct as persons. Truly worshiping God means worshiping Him as He is, for falsehoods about God bring Him no glory. The hymn then teaches us that the glory of the Triune God has always been the reason for all things, from the very beginning (“as it was in the beginning”). He will be glorified by all that He has made, for this is why He made it, and He never fails at His purposes. That glory “is now” the driving purpose of the universe; even though it may be obscured in the minds of many, every single event that occurs accomplishes that glory. “For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever, amen.” (Romans 11:36) “And ever shall be;” there will never come a time in all of the billions of years of future history when God’s glory will stop being the reason for all that exists. The last phrase, “world without end” is essentially a poetic way of saying “from age to age” or “forever and ever” as we frequently read in the New Testament, as in Revelation 5:13- “And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard saying: “Blessing and honor and glory and power be to Him who sits on the throne, And to the Lamb, forever and ever!” The cosmos will never end, and the cosmos’ entire existence will highlight the Triune God’s glory for all eternity.

At the beginning of our worship, we are called to see that our worship is not something separate from the rest of our lives. True worship gives us the right perspective to understand our lives, and indeed the existence of all creation. “Glory be to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, forever and ever, amen.”

Incarnation and Worship

8:1 Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens,
2 a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man. (Heb 8:1-2 NKJ)

The incarnation of Christ fundamentally changed the nature of godly worship. Before Christ came, God’s worship was taken up with types and shadows. These were elements and ceremonies of worship that pointed to Christ in an indirect way. In the sacrificial death of animals for sin, the worshiper was shown what the weight of his sin was; the attentive worshiper realized that what was done to the animal was what deserved to be done to him for his sin. The blood of animals could not remove sin in any real way, and every believing Jew knew that. But God is a benevolent God, and when He shows us our need for something, implied in that is always a promise that He will provide that need. So they knew that even though all of the specifics of remission of sins were not completely clear, yet the Old Testament ritual plainly demonstrated their need for salvation and a promise that One would come, the Anointed One, who would be a real sacrifice for sin and not just a symbol.

Jesus was the incarnation, the fleshly embodiment, of not just the second person of the Trinity, but of all God’s promises to His people. He was the physical expression of God’s love. Before Christ came, God’s holiness and grace was expressed in many physical representations. Israel had a holy mountain and holy days and a holy temple and holy tribes and even holy pans, utensils, clothes, candlesticks and the like. But God sent something superior to all of that, a holy Man. We are joined to that holy Man by faith, by believing in Him, and then we become His holy People.

There is therefore no need for elaborate ritual and ceremony. There is no need for symbolic holy things. We do not need complex types and shadows to indirectly point us to the reality; we can look right at the reality. This is what Jesus was telling us when He said that the hour is coming when we will worship God in spirit and truth; it won’t matter whether we’re on one mountain or another, in the right holy place or the wrong one. Illuminated by the Spirit of God we can meditate directly on the promise of Christ and the truth of what He has accomplished for us.

Though we have Christ presented plainly to us, yet we have not yet entered into eternity; the consummation of the age to come is still to be anticipated. We have yet the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper that teach us the reality of being freed from the filth of sin and nourishment by the death of Christ. But the much greater simplicity and spirituality of New Testament worship is a testimony to us of just how much closer we are to the full experience of our salvation than God’s people ever have been.

Sometimes people long for a more ceremonial worship. People sometimes hunger for the more symbolic and mystical worship that the Jews experienced under Moses. But this is to go backward, to leave the university to go back to kindergarten, to trade in mature learning for childish fingerpainting and colored blocks. Instead we have the privilege of seeing more clearly than ever before the fullness of God’s salvation. We now can understand and perceive the true tabernacle which Christ erected in the heavens, and not the copy that Moses made in the wilderness. God’s people should appreciate this greater richness, and joyfully worship Him in spirit and truth.