(Delivered Communion Sunday, February 5, 2006 at Bethany Bible Church. All Scripture quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from the New King James Version.)
One of the most important things we do together as a church is remember our Lord's sacrifice for us through the communion meal. It, along with baptism, is one of the two ordinances our Lord gave to His church.
The communion meal is something that we should make sure we celebrate regularly; and that we enjoy it together with reverence and understanding. And so, I feel led every once in a while to devote a morning's message to the significance of this important observance. I hope that, by doing so, we grow to understand and appreciate it better; and enter into our participation in it with genuine reverence, worship and thanksgiving.
The communion meal is an act in which believers remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the cross, express our thanks to Him for that sacrifice, and reaffirm our wholehearted trust in it as the basis of our salvation. For that reason, it's an act that is uniquely meant for believers. It's not something that someone who refuses to place their faith in Jesus, or who secretly holds on to sin in their lives out of a rebellious attitude of heart, should do. To do that would be to mock the cross.
But I also believe that, if a man or woman has never placed their faith in Jesus Christ, and yet finally comes this morning to the Lord's table for the first time with an understanding of what Jesus has done for us on the cross - that is, if they pick up that piece of bread, which is a symbol of His body broken on the cross for us, and picks up that cup of the juice of the grape, which is a symbol of His blood shed for our sins; and receives those symbols for the first time as a way of saying, "I now at last understand and believe; and I now place my trust willingly and solely on the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as the payment for my sins for my salvation" - then that person has become a believer and is saved!
That has happened in our church family. I pray that it may happen again and again. And so, I always feel that it is time well spent whenever we reflect on the importance of the communion meal. To help us do that today, I ask that you turn in your Bibles to the first few verses of Paul's New Testament letter to the Galatians.
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This morning's passage is the introduction to Paul's letter. And I would like to tell you a little of why I am drawn to it as a communion passage. You see; this isn't like other introductions to other letters by Paul. The words that we're studying this morning were written when the apostle was very angry and distressed over the Galatian believers. He wrote them in order to defend the doctrine of the sufficiency of the cross.
The Galatian believers had done something terrible. They had wandered from a pure and simple faith in the cross of Jesus Christ, and were now trying to earn God's favor by conforming to the rules and regulations of the Old Testament law. False teachers had crept into the church and were discrediting Paul's apostleship. They were, in essence, telling the believers that the cross of Jesus was insufficient to make them righteous before God. And as a result of this false teaching, the members of the Galatian church were placing their trust in the external rituals and ceremonies of Judaism - things such as the observance of Jewish feasts and sabbaths, or the Jewish ritual of circumcision - as a way of making themselves "righteous" before God.
Paul was upset - not only because they were now questioning his authority as an apostle to teach them the true gospel of Christ; but more - because they were denying the sufficiency of the cross! They had been set free by Christ; but now, they were placing themselves under bondage to the ceremonies and rituals of the law - things which could never save them, or bring them into any greater favor with God than they had through faith in Christ alone!
Look with me at how he begins. Paul gets right into it when he writes,
Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead), and all the brethren who are with me,
To the churches of Galatian: (Galatians 1:1-2).
Right off the bat, he asserts his authority as an apostle. He is Paul, "an apostle"! And he explains that his apostolic authority didn't originate from man; nor was it passed on to him or confirmed unto him by mere men. It came directly from the highest possible authority - the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. That's one of the first things he does; and he spends the next two chapters defending his authority as an apostle.
Now, it wasn't that Paul wanted to make sure that everyone respected his authority as an end in and of itself. Rather, he wanted to make sure that the Galatians understood that what he was telling them about the sufficiency of the cross was the very truth from God! Look at what he says just a few verses later - still at the very beginning of his letter;
I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed (Gal. 1:6-10).
Strong words, aren't they? But then, Paul was very motivated. He loved the Galatians; and he wasn't going to stand by and watch them wander from simple faith in the all-sufficient sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross!
And it was the sufficiency of the cross that he expresses powerfully in the introduction to his letter. He does something unusual in this introduction. He begins with type of greeting that he uses in almost all of his other letters; but only here - in this very important letter - does he takes the time to expand on the significance of that greeting. These words he uses to explain that greeting are very wonderful and very important. They summarize the gospel of Jesus Christ that Paul preached.
He says, in verses 3-5:
Grace to you and pease from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen (vv. 3-5).
Every word of this remarkable greeting contains precious truth for us today. And we will be looking carefully at each word, so that we can come to the Lord's table this morning as we should.
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What would it be like if we turned to one another this morning, and asked each other, "Tell me what you think is important about the Lord's supper? What do you think we ought to know about it? What do you think we should be reminded of in it? And what do you think we should be thankful for as we partake of it?" If we were to do that, my guess is that we might gain some interesting insights from one another. But it might be that we really wouldn't know the answers in any authoritative way. It might be that we wouldn't really know what it was all about after all; and that all we were doing was pooling our ignorance together.
But then, what if we were to ask the Lord Jesus? Now, there's someone who knows! What if He were to come along side of us; and we were to ask Him, "Lord, we're going to celebrate your meal today. What would You want us to know about its significance? What would you want us to remember in it? What would you want us to be thankful for as we partook of it?" Who better than He to tell us what is important to remember? Who better than He to let us know what we ought to give thanks to Him for in it?
Well; the fact is that He IS with us this morning. His presence is mediated to us in the Person of His Holy Spirit. And He DOES tell us what He wants us to know - in these divinely inspired words of Paul's. Paul said, in verses 11-12; "But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ."
So then; what would the Lord want us to know as we come to His supper this morning? What does He want us to remember in it; and what does He want us to give thanks to Him for as we participate in it? Let's look together at Paul's words and find out.
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The first thing we see that the Lord would want us to remember is . . .
1. WHAT WE HAVE BEEN GIVEN (v. 3).
Paul writes, "Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ." This is, as you might know, a very typical greeting in Paul's letters. But as I've pointed out already; this is a very unusual introduction to a very unusual letter. And since He expands on this greeting in the next few words in a way that he doesn't do in any other of his letters, we had better pay special attention to it.
"Grace" (charis) is a word that basically refers to "a gift". Implied in the idea of a gift is that it is free - that it isn't something that is earned or deserved or worked for; but is something that is given freely as an act of favor and love whether it is deserved or not. And isn't it wonderful that, in a letter to a group of confused believers who are trying to earn God's favor by their works, Paul's first official words to them are, "Grace to you"? That's what the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about - God's gracious gift of His favor, free of charge, given to those who trust in the cross of Christ. And that's what we have been freely given in Him - God's grace!
And notice the second word. It follows as a consequence of the first. It is "peace". The peace that is being spoken of here is not an inner, subjective sense of tranquility. Rather, it's a kind of "peace" that comes as a result of "grace". It's "peace" in the sense of an end to the hostility that exists between the sinner and God.
Because of what Jesus has done on the cross for us - taking all of the guilt of our sins on Himself and dying in our place - God, as an act of His grace, is able to declare us "righteous" in His sight. He graciously gives us the standing before Him of "not guilty"; and places all the righteousness of His own Son to our account. That's what His "grace" has accomplished for us. And as a result, we have "peace" with Him. There now exists no enmity between Himself and us. There's nothing we need to do before Him to 'make up for all our past sins' in order to be in His favor. We are totally forgiven before Him, and He no longer holds our sins against us. As Paul has written in Romans 5:1-2; "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand . . ."
Can you see how important such a greeting would be to a group of believers who were trying to earn God's favor through works of the law? The works of the law will never give anyone peace with God. All that the law will do is bring condemnation upon the person who places themselves under it; because, "by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified" (Gal. 2:17). But through Christ, God offers righteousness as a gift of "grace". And "grace" leads to "peace" - peace first with God, then peace within ourselves, and then peace with each other.
What a wonderful thing it is that Paul greets us with "grace" and "peace". This is what we have in Christ - and have in the full even now! We can be assured of it, and can rest our eternity on it confidently; because it comes to us from the highest possible source - "from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ." We don't have to earn it or work for it. We only have to receive it and thank our Father and His Son for it.
I believe Jesus would have us know this as we come to His table today. When we receive the bread and the cup this morning, let's thank Him for "grace", and for the "peace" with God that flows from it.
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A second thing I believe the Lord would have us remember is . . .
2. WHAT HE DID TO GIVE IT TO US (v. 4a).
Paul speaks of the Lord Jesus Christ; saying that it is He "who gave Himself for our sins . . ." It would be a terrible thing to "hurry" to the Lord's table - where we thank Him for this wonderful gift of "grace" and "peace" - and not remember what it cost Him to purchase it for us.
First, notice that our Lord "gave Himself". It wasn't simply that He gave "something of" Himself; although it's wonderful that He does give us something of Himself. He let's us know in the Scriptures that He has even given us the glory which the Father had given Him (John 17:22). That the Lord would give us anything would be glorious enough. And that He would give us anything of Himself - even His own glory - is unspeakably gracious! But here, we're told something that we absolutely must remember when we come to His table. We're told that He gave His very self! This is an expression of the depth of His sacrifice for us - that He was willing to give Himself for us.
Paul tells us,
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that when while were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).
How can we ever approach His table, and not remember there that "gave Himself"?
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And second, notice that our Lord gave Himself "for our sins". It's not that He simply "gave Himself" as an example of sacrificial love - although He is that. Rather, it's that He gave Himself "for" our sins. He gave Himself to death; and the death He died was on our behalf for the guilt of our sins before His Father.
Here's one of the greatest expressions you find in the Bible of the meaning of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus for us. He died "for our sins". The Second Person of the triune Godhead - in a point of time - voluntarily left His heavenly glory and became a man; voluntarily walked upon this world and lived among men; voluntarily did what we cannot do - that is, He lived a righteous life before God for us; voluntarily took the guilt of mankind's sin upon Himself; and voluntarily died - and died on, of all things, the despised cross - for our sins. And in doing this "for our sins", He made it possible for the holy and just demands of His Father to be satisfied; and, at the same time, to make it possible for His holy and just Father to shower us with His own grace and peace.
As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:21, "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." This is what it means that Jesus "gave Himself for our sins". How unspeakably important it is that we remember this and thank Him for it as we come to His table!
And before I depart from this, let me just point out to you that Paul says that He gave Himself for "our" sins. Underscore that word "our"! He didn't simply give Himself for "sins"; but Paul makes sure we understand that it was for "our" sins that He gave Himself. He makes the impact of His sacrifice for us very personal. We will never fully appreciate what Jesus has done on the cross, unless - as a vital part of the story - we include your own selves as hopeless and needy sinners. And we will never appreciate the Lord's supper unless we can personally say that it commemorates something that was done for "our" sins.
In fact, you cannot even call Him your Savior, unless you can personally say that He gave Himself for your sins. As we remember Him in the communion meal, and as we take the bread and the cup - the symbols of His body and blood - I hope that we will partake of them as a remembrance of His body and blood given for "our" sins.
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A third thing that I believe the Lord would want us to remember about His sacrifice, as we celebrate it in His supper, is . . .
3. WHY IT WAS DONE FOR US (v. 4b).
We have a wonderful reason to give thanks when we remember that it was "that He might deliver us from this present evil age . . ."
The word "deliver" (exaireġ) means "to raise out" or "take out"; and suggest the idea of "rescuing" someone from something. And that's what the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is - the message of a great "rescue operation" . . . a rescue operation in which we are the ones being rescued!
Let me share with you a story that, I think, helps illustrate this. I was talking with a young man once about the gospel; and he was very resistant toward it. He wouldn't come to Christ, he told me, if it meant he had to stop sleeping with his girlfriend.
"And besides," he said, "I don't believe God is going to send me to hell just because I sleep with my girlfriend!" And it wasn't an easy thing to tell him; but I had to tell him the truth. I told him, "I'm afraid you don't understand your situation. It's not that God is threatening to send you to hell because you sleep with your girlfriend. Here's your real situation: You are already on your way to hell; and God is graciously offering to rescue you."
I have to tell you: this young man didn't accept that. But even so, it really is the truth about our situation apart from God's grace through Jesus Christ. We're already doomed apart from Him; and He is offering to rescue us.
Christianity, as John Stott has put it, is a "rescue religion"1. The "good news" is not that God has come to pat us all on the heads, and do something nice to reward us all for being such good little boys and girls. Rather, it's that He has done something to rescue us from eternal doom! Jesus gave Himself for our sins, "that He might deliver us . . ."
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And notice what it is that He gave Himself to deliver us "from" - "from this present evil age".
The word "age" (aiġn) refers, not so much to a period of time, as to an order of things. Bible teaches us that there are two great "ages"; the present age, and the age to come (Matthew 12:32; Ephesians 1:21). The present age began when Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden, and will end when Jesus returns. But the age to come has its beginning point in the death of Jesus on the cross, but will be fully realized when Jesus comes and begins His reign upon the earth. The age to come will endure throughout eternity.
And we're told that Jesus gave Himself for our sins in order to deliver us from "this present evil age". We, of course, still live in this age; but we are "delivered" from the consequences of its evil condition.
Would you like to have something wonderful to give thanks for as you come to the Lord's table today? Then just consider what it is that we have been delivered from by Christ! First, we have been delivered from the curse that this present evil age is under. When Adam sinned, he brought the whole world under a curse. God told him,
Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return" (Gen. 3:17-19).
This world has been subjected to futility ever since the fall of Adam. But we have been delivered from this cursed condition in Christ. Now we have hope, "because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Romans 8:20-21).
Second, we have been delivered from the influences of this evil age. When Jesus prayed for His disciples, He affirmed, ". . . [T]hey are not of the world, just as I am not of the world" (John 17:14; see also verse 16). He doesn't pray to take us out of the world; but that we would be kept "from the evil one" (v. 15). Now, we are to live in such a way as to "not be conformed to this world" (Romans 12:2).
Third, we are delivered from the doom that this evil age is destined for. The apostle John spoke of the evil influences of this age when he wrote, "For all that is in the world - the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life - is not of the Father but is of the world" (1 John 2:16). And then he adds, "And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever" (v. 17). This "present evil age" is slated for destruction (1 Corinthians 7:31; 2 Peter 3:7-11); but we are not slated for destruction with it!
And fourthly, we are delivered from the wrath of God that is to come upon this evil age. We are told that, when Jesus is "revealed from heaven with His mighty angels", he will be "in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8). But we have reason to rejoice, because "God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thessalonians 5:9).
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; we should have as much gratitude as a drowning man would have toward those in a passing ship that rescued him. In fact, we should have infinitely more gratitude than that! Jesus has given Himself for our sins in order to deliver us from this present evil age - along with all that this age is destined for! How grateful we should be! The Lord would have us remember this when we come to His table!
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When we think of all that has been done for us, as we come to His table, the Lord would also have us remember . . .
4. WHO WANTED IT TO BE DONE FOR US (v. 4c).
Paul tells us that all of this was done for us "according to the will of our God and Father".
First of all, I would just like to point out to you that it is a wonderful result of God's "grace" and "peace" toward us that we can now call Him "Father" at all! To call Him our "Father" is to recognize that, in Christ, He has adopted us as His own sons and daughters. And as our "Father", He loves us eternally; and is tender and kind toward us in our weaknesses and failings; and disciplines us and trains us to be more like Himself; and provides for us and meets our needs; and delights in us and loves to hear from us when we pray; and promises that we will live in His home forever; and has given to us a share in the inheritance of His own Son Jesus!
What's more, we should never forget how wonderful great a Father He is. He is not only our Father, but He is "our God and Father"! The One who it is our privilege to call Father also sits upon the throne of heaven and is the Almighty Sovereign over all the universe! When He loves us, He loves us infinitely! When He shows concern for us, He knows us perfectly! When He meets our needs, He meets them powerfully!
And it is by His will that all of this was done for us! Paul tells us that it was according to the will of our God and Father that Jesus gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, and make it possible for and infinite supply of "grace" and "peace" to be poured out upon us.
I have heard some people express our salvation as if it were a matter of Jesus standing between us poor sinners and His angry and offended Father - as if our salvation was our Redeemer's idea; and that He makes His appeal to the Father not to destroy us. But this is a very unworthy picture of our Father. The real truth of the matter is that our salvation - from beginning to end - was the plan of our Father; and He Himself loves us!
Our precious Savior, Jesus, has done the work necessary to accomplish our salvation; and He did so willingly and out of love for us. But He would want us to know that our salvation was the plan of the Father; and that the Father Himself loves us as His own! This is something else that He would want us to remember as we come to His table today.
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Finally, I believe the Lord would want us to know, as we remember all these things this morning . . .
5. WHAT OUR RESPONSE SHOULD BE (v. 5).
Paul says it very simply. He tells us that all of this was done to us according to the will of our God and Father, "to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen."
All that the Father has done for us through His Son is to resound - as Paul tells us elsewhere - "to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved" (Ephesians 1:6; see also vv. 12 and 14). It was so that, "in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of HIs grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus". And so, our response should - in a word - be "worship"! We should thank Him; and rejoice in Him; and give Him the honor and the glory and the praise! We should sing to Him now what we are told the glorified saints will sing to Him in heaven: "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" (Revelation 7:10).
He has wonderfully saved us in Christ; and all the glory will go to Him forever and ever!
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I love it that Paul ends this introduction with the word, "Amen". To say "amen" is as if to say, "I believe it; and let it be so!" And I propose that that should characterize our attitude of heart today as we partake of the Lord's supper - a hearty 'Amen!' to all that we remember that Christ has done for us through it.
As we take of the bread and the juice this morning, let's remember the One who gave Himself for our sins - and as we do, say 'Amen!' to what He has done! Let's remember that He died in order to deliver us from this present evil age - and as we do, say 'Amen!' to the great rescue which He has accomplished. Let's remember that He did it in accord with the will of the Father - and as we do, let's say 'Amen!' to the love the Father has shown us. Let's remember that it results in "grace" and "peace" being offered to us from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ - and as we do, let's say 'Amen!' to the offer.
And in all of it, let's say 'Amen!' to the fact that all the glory will eternally go to Him.
1John R.W. Stott, The Message of Galatians (Downers Grove: IVP, 1968), p. 18.
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