The Lord’s Table and the Lord’s Supper
These two phrases are often used interchangeably in assembly circles. This begs the question, are they both referring to the same thing? Do we gather on a Sunday at the Lord’s Table to observe the Lord’s Supper or is there a distinction? Context
A proper interpretation of any Scripture must start with context. This includes the broader context of the book along with a narrower context of the particular passage. 1 Corinthians easily divides into two main parts. In chapters 1-6, Paul deals with problems in the assembly reported to him by the household of Chloe (1:11). In chapters 7-16, Paul answers questions submitted to him from the saints (7:1). In this second section Paul first deals with a question about marriage (ch. 7), then about food offered to idols and Christian liberty (ch. 8-10), then he goes on to deal with order in the assembly (ch.11-14), the resurrection (ch. 15) and finally offerings (ch. 16). This outline shows that the teaching on the Lord’s Table (ch.10) and the Lord’s Supper (ch. 11) are in different contexts.
A careful reading of the two passages, (10:14-22, and 11:17-32), reveal a number of distinctions between the Table and the Supper. The following list (some inferred and others explicit) may help to highlight the differences:
Theme is Fellowship Remembrance
Timing Always As often as
Set By the Lord For the Lord
Order Cup first Bread first
Purpose Communion Proclamation
Bread Church Christ
Warning Idols Unworthy
Condition Cannot Must not
Once the context is established, the next step is to examine the passage with care. This involves defining words, determining the paragraph breaks, and following the flow of thought. When applying these steps to these two passages, it becomes clear that two different concepts are in view.
The Lord’s Table presents fellowship (communion), as the theme. The Lord’s Supper emphasizes remembrance not mentioning fellowship at all. The bread at the Lord’s Table speaks of the unity of the body of Christ whereas the loaf at the Supper speaks of the body of Christ given for us.
The order is different with the cup first at the Table and second at the Supper. The basis for the unity depicted in the bread at the Table is the shed blood of the Lord Jesus. The emblems at the Lord’s Supper conform to the order at its institution in the upper room.
The Lord’s Table includes an impossibility that is beyond what we as humans can enforce. One cannot partake of the Lord’s Table and the table of demons. Only the Lord knows all that takes place in a week and He knows if a person is out of fellowship with Him due to sin in their life. Fellowship at the Lord’s Table is His jurisdiction.
The Lord’s Supper comes with a warning to individuals to self-examination so as not to eat in an unworthy manner. Paul adds these words to the warning, “For if we would judge ourselves we would not be judged.” The implication is that as individuals we should examine our lives and if there is unconfessed sin we must make things right and then partake of the emblems. There is no indication that the individual is to be barred from participation.
The final step in serious Bible study is to do an exegesis of the passage leading to the interpretation. That is, what did the author have in mind and how did the recipients understand the message. This is vital to sound theology. After establishing the meaning we can move to application, which is, how does the teaching apply today and how should it affect my life or the local assembly. Much damage occurs when application super-cedes interpretation.
This process has taken place and likely still does where the teaching on the Lord’s Table is applied to the Lord’s Supper. The absolute prohibition in chapter 10, “cannot partake” refers to the fellowship of a believer with His Lord. When this is applied to the Lord’s Supper it destroys the picture of the bread at the Lord’s Table, the unity of the body of Christ. The other result of an improper view is that men usurp the authority of the Lord Jesus who alone knows the activities and direction taken during the week.
The Lord’s Table is where we as believers can sit everyday of the week to enjoy feeding on Him. We forfeit this privilege and blessing when we are out of fellowship with Him. The Lord’s Supper is where we gather corporately with a view to sharing what we glean at the Lord’s Table during the week. Poverty of thought and expression on a Sunday is an indication of spiritual malnutrition from missing time at the Lord’s Table.
The exposition and then application of chapter 11 is that individuals have a responsibility for self-examination and the responsibility to make things right. Participation at the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, that is irreverently or with unconfessed sin, can lead to judgment or discipline, as was the case in Corinth. Though the passage is about a corporate gathering, the directives are to individuals with regard to their behavior as part of a local assembly.
In light of these distinctions, it is not proper to refer to the physical table spread on a Sunday as the Lord’s Table. Instead, we gather to remember the Lord and to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Hopefully as we do, we have already enjoyed time at the Table during the week in communion with Him. Gary McBride