The Liturgy in the Bible
By Arthur A. Just, Jr.
The worship of early Christians developed from Jewish worship and the ministry of Jesus. The New Testament gives us both the forms of worship and the theology behind those forms. As an orthodox Jew Jesus worshipped where Jews worshipped and participated fully in Jewish rites.Although Jesus was critical of many aspects of Israel’s religious life such as the purity and Sabbath laws, he never spoke against Israel’s liturgical life and submitted himself to its rhythm as a faithful descendent of Abraham. When he cleansed the temple, it was the market place located in the Royal Portico (Stoa) on the southwest side of the temple mount.Jesus never spoke against what happened in the Holy Place or the Holy of Holies, nor did he criticize what went on in the synagogue or at the Passover.
Jesus’ disciples and his other followers followed their Lord by their uncritical acceptance of Israel’s liturgical life, and their adaptation of Israel’s worship to form the backbone of Christian worship. Christian liturgy, therefore, grew out of Jewish worship rites. For New Testament Christians, understanding why we worship as we do requires that we rediscover how Jesus and the disciples worshipped.
The Three Places of Worship for the Jews: Temple, Synagogue, House
For us to fully appreciate the impact of Jewish worship on the worship of early Christians and on us, we need to know the three places of worship for the Jews: temple, synagogue, and house.
The temple was the supreme place of worship for the Jews because this is where God dwelt, the place God was present for Israel for salvation, specifically in the Holy of Holies.This was the place for the sacrifices that pointed forward to Christ. It was a place of holiness, for one of the core values of first-century Judaism was God’s holiness.1 The presence of God’s holiness in creation and the temple was central to how Israel mapped the world. Maps define boundaries as a means of ordering the universe in which one lives. Jesus and his disciples shared the same culture as the people of his day, particularly the religious establishment. One of the reasons Jesus is crucified is because he crossed some of the boundaries that these religious leaders used to define themselves. Many of the boundaries Jesus crossed directly affected the core value of purity and holiness — touching lepers, healing on the Sabbath, eating with tax collectors and sinners. But as Luke points out from the very beginning of his Gospel, Jesus crosses these boundaries because he is, as the Son of God, the embodiment of holiness and purity, and he is re-drawing the boundaries of holiness not only for Israel, but for the entire cosmos. As the “Holy One of God,” whatever Jesus touches and proclaims clean and holy — no matter how unclean and unholy it might be in the eyes of his first-century culture — it is now holy because it has been transformed by the Creator who has broken into his creation to make all things new. As one author puts it: “Jesus as the cornerstone of the true temple becomes the new center of the map and all holiness is measured by proximity to him.”2
One of the great themes of Luke’s infancy narrative is to announce in no uncertain terms that the place of God’s holiness is not only in Holy Scripture and the temple of Jerusalem, but is now also in the flesh of Jesus Christ.It may have been quite shocking to first-century Jews to find out that Mary is described as the New Israel, the new temple, and even perhaps the ark of the covenant, not because of who she is, but because God chose her womb as the locale of God’s holiness, as a temporary and portable vessel housing the immanent presence of the true God, thereby fulfilling the purpose originally given to Israel, the temple, and the ark.
Jesus as the new temple is at the center of Luke’s teaching. In John’s Gospel, when the Jews ask Jesus for a sign to verify his actions, he tells them: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2:19). The Jews were incensed, claiming it took forty-six years to build the temple and Jesus claimed the power to rebuild it in three days? The evangelist John helps us understand the meaning of Jesus’ words: “But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (Jn 2:21).
Glimpses of the temple liturgy appear throughout Luke’s Gospel which remarkably begins and ends in the temple (Luke 1:5-25 and 24:50-53). At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel Zechariah goes into this holy place to do his turn as a Levitical priest. It is here that the angel appears to him and says that he and Elizabeth will bear a son and that his name will be John. When he did not come out from that place, the people were perplexed because they did not know what was happening and they were thinking that God was speaking to Zechariah.
In the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector these two men are in the temple for prayer. This would have been during the morning or afternoon sacrifices. The prayer of the tax collector during the atonement sacrifice is most appropriate for what he knows to be going on in the Holy Place. His prayer is literally: “Make a atonement for me, a sinner.” He understood the true meaning of the temple rituals.
Even more holy than the Holy Place was the Holy of Holies where only the High Priest could enter once a year on the Day of Atonement. Leviticus 16 describes what went on in the Most Holy Place in tabernacle on this day by Aaron, the High Priest. Blood was poured on the mercy seat for the sins of the people, and then Aaron would lay his hands on the scapegoat confessing over it all the sins of the people as he sent it out into the wilderness bearing their iniquities. The shedding of blood for the sins of the people and the transference of sins from the people to the scapegoat were at the heart of the rituals on the day of Atonement.That is why, when Jesus, our High Priest, shed his blood on the cross and died for the sins of the world, the temple curtain was torn asunder, for everyone now had access to the Holy of Holies through Jesus. There are no more physical boundaries to God’s holiness. Hebrews 9 describes the significance of Christ’s death in this way:
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent ( not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Heb 9:11-14)
As a place of sacrifice, there is little in common today with the worship in the Temple, which is one of the reasons early Christians borrowed almost nothing from the Temple liturgy except the singing of Psalms and the reading of Scriptures.With the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ and the tearing of the Temple curtain, the liturgy of the Jerusalem temple became obsolete.
Jesus as the New Temple
But there is more. Jesus is now the new temple (cf. Jn 1:14; 2:19–22). Jewish Christians and God-fearers familiar with the Old Testament would be acquainted with the idea of the movement of God’s presence. God led Israel out of Egypt as a pillar of cloud by day and as a pillar of fire by night (Ex 13:21–22).God’s glory visibly came to dwell over the ark and the tabernacle to guide Israel in her travels (Ex 40:34–38; cf. also 25:22; 33:7–23). After the priests processed with the ark to the newly built Jerusalem temple, God took up residence there (1 Kings 8). Shortly before the first temple was destroyed, Ezekiel saw God’s glory leave it (Ezekiel 10), and this same glory of God appeared to him in Babylon (Ezekiel 1). After the exile, the rebuilt second temple lacked the glory of the first temple (Ezra 6:13–18), but God promised one day to fill it with even greater glory (Haggai 2:1–9; Zechariah 8–9). That promise comes to fulfillment when Jesus the “King of glory” comes in (Ps 24:7–10), when the Lord himself comes to his temple (Mal 3:1).
Indirectly, Jesus announces a shift in the locale of God’s presence — from the physical temple in Jerusalem to the fleshly body of Jesus. In a sense, the temple is rendered obsolete by Jesus’ incarnation (cf. Jn 4:20–26). The destruction of the temple will prompt people to look for God’s presence in the location where he has come to dwell forever — in Jesus, who, in turn, comes to dwell in his church through the Gospel — his Word and Sacraments.The church must be prepared to see that the end times begin with the death and resurrection of Jesus. After this beginning of the end, God’s grace will no longer come through animal sacrifices at the stone temple. Rather, his grace will come through what the Lord has instituted to be the worship life of the church: catechesis, Baptism, Lord’s Supper. This font of the church’s life prepares the people of God for the parousia, which could come at any time.
Throughout his teaching Jesus warns his disciples that they will suffer betrayal just as he is about to be betrayed, and that they must be prepared if they are to persevere to the end. Christians will experience persecution for no other reason than their connection with Jesus. The name of Jesus defines their identity, for Christians bear in their bodies Jesus, the new temple, God’s holy presence. For that reason, Christians are living stones and their bodies are temples. The opponents will hate them because the presence of God has shifted from the temple of Jerusalem to where Christ has promised to be present: in those baptized in his name, in the Gospel, in his Supper. How ironic that the
All of the Gospels emphasize this significant reality — there is a shift in the location of God’s presence from the stone temple (cf. 21:5–6) to the new temple of flesh — Jesus himself. As Jesus frequents the (stone) temple during Holy Week, the two are one — in the same place — reinforcing for the disciples that Jesus is the new temple. He is the source of divine teaching. He is the one who speaks the words of God. He is also the new place of atonement, the new Passover sacrifice. The forgiveness of sins comes through him. The time will soon come when the stone temple in Jerusalem is destroyed (21:5–24). But for now during Holy Week the old and the new are together. The new temple teaches in the old temple, and the new people of God — his disciples — freely mingle with the people of the old covenant.
During Holy Week those in Jesus’ company heard his teaching, shared meals with him, and were with him in his times of prayer (cf. 21:36; 22:39–45). In the early church, this pattern of Holy Week will continue (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7). Jesus’ disciples, “rising early” (cf. 21:38) on Sunday morning (Acts 20:7), the day of resurrection, will flock to the new temple, the church in order to hear the teaching of Jesus — the words of God. There they will also break bread — celebrate the Lord’s Supper from the night of his betrayal — and remain watchful in prayer (Lk 21:36). Hence Jesus’ Holy Week pattern continued in the church’s liturgy — the Service of the Word, the Service of the Sacrament, and the prayers. This pattern will preserve the church in faith until the end, so that Jesus’ followers will be prepared to stand before the Son of Man when he comes (Lk 21:36).
During Jesus’ Galilean ministry, the primary place for his teaching was the synagogue, where, Luke tells us, Jesus was glorified by all because of his teaching.The reading of Scripture and its interpretation were central to the worship in the synagogue. As Jesus went from synagogue to synagogue to teach on the Sabbath, the people were responding to his teaching with great acclaim because he taught with such authority.
Even though Jesus grew up in Nazareth, during his ministry in Galilee he lived in Capernaum because of its strategic location on the northwest shore of the sea of Galilee on “the Way of the Sea” (Mt 4:13). In the center of Capernaum was a synagogue, a place where Jesus communed with his Father through Word and prayer, and where Jesus, the Word made flesh, read and interpreted Scriptures as they were to be interpreted as to their fulfillment in a Messiah who would come to teach about the kingdom of God and heal many who were broken by sin, sickness, and the devil. From the beginning, Jesus tied the presence of God in the Scriptures and his holiness as the Son of God to the cleansing of those who had become infected with effects of the fallen world.3
Teaching and Proclamation in the Synagogue of Nazareth — Luke 4:16-30
At his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus continues his custom of teaching in the synagogues on the Sabbath (cf. 4:15). Jesus came to the synagogue of Nazareth in order to read Isaiah 61 and to declare that the messianic era of salvation now begins in him. This is a climactic moment in salvation history. Here is Jesus, the Word made flesh, entering into a liturgical context in order to read the inscripturated word from Isaiah. Jesus’ entire purpose in coming to the synagogue in Nazareth was to read the word of God and interpret it christologically. Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth launches his ministry of the new creation.Luke does not give us the full synagogue liturgy, but he does show that Jesus read from the prophets and preached in the synagogue.
What Jesus read from Isaiah is critical for understanding what Jesus would preach throughout his ministry, the character of his work as Messiah, and also for our understanding of how our worship today is a continuation of Jesus ministry.4
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
because of which he has anointed me
To proclaim good news to the poor
He sent me
To proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
To send away in release
the broken ones
To proclaim the year of jubilee
At the center of Isaiah’s prophecy is preaching: proclamation of Good News to the poor, the preaching of release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and the preaching of the acceptable year of the Lord. For Luke and the other evangelists, the proclamation of Jesus is performative speech, that is, Jesus’ words create what they say. They create reality and enact it. His word is a creative word, as in Genesis, so that when he speaks things happen. Jesus’ preaching declares and enacts the new creation that comes through the presence of his flesh — the flesh of the Creator — coming to his creation to make all things new. Jesus announces this by means of the Old Testament where he now interprets texts christologically and sees those texts becoming reality by means of his voice that brings this new reality into existence. With his presence in the creation as the Creator, his teaching and his miracles announced that already now the new creation had dawned.
Jesus’ preaching as performative speech continues in the church today.When a pastor reads Scripture and preaches in the Divine Service, his word also creates reality because it is a performative word. It creates what it says by virtue of the office that he holds as a called and ordained servant of the Word. When the pastor reads God’s Word and preaches Law and Gospel, Christ is present bodily for his people to forgive them their sins and thereby give them life and salvation. The pastor’s words actually forgive sins as if it were Christ himself forgiving sins, as Luther affirms in his Small Catechism.5
Miracles and Release from Bondage
Jesus is present in this creation as Creator not only to announce that sins are forgiven and a new creation has dawned through his teaching and preaching, but he also performs miracles that testify to the presence of God in his creation already now making all things new. The reality of this ministry of release is described by Isaiah as good news to the poor, release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to those who are oppressed, and the year of jubilee. In all of these categories, one thing is central — release from the bondage that all humanity and all creation endures as a result of the fall into sin. What Jesus proclaims and the miracles he performs demonstrate the reality of that proclamation releases people from their bondage to demon possession, sickness, sin, and death. This release is always attached to his flesh, for he says “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21).
The word for release is often translated as forgiveness — release from the bondage of sin — but for Jesus there no distinction between spiritual and physical bondage for both are demonstrations that we are captive to a world that needs restoration to wholeness. The captive and the oppressed include both those who are physically in bondage to sickness or demon possession, or spiritually in bondage to sin and death. Jesus in his ministry carries out this programmatic fulfillment of prophecy by releasing creation from its bondage to sin and restoring it to its proper state of harmony with the Creator. That’s what forgiveness is — release from the burden of our sins that causes us guilt and shame. It is freedom like none other we might know, freedom to live in a broken world knowing that Jesus has taken upon himself all our sins so that we might not have to bear the burden of those sins ourselves. “To send the broken ones away in release” refers to absolution in the fullest sense, encompassing the resurrection of the body.
These four categories of bondage — demon possession, sickness, sin, and death — are manifestations of the fallenness of the creation that needs restoration to health and wellness.6Health and wellness is restored only when the world, and individuals in that world, are released from this bondage.The good news is that this release is present in him who is crucified to accomplish that release and raised from the dead to proclaim that now in him all of creation has been freed from the bondage of its fallenness. Jesus’ ministry is a continuous expression of release to the captives. Jesus comes performing miracles that are a sign that the new era of salvation is present in him. Miracles testify that in Jesus God is present to perform acts of release for his creation to recreate it and restore it to wholeness. The fiftieth Jubilee year liberated slaves, forgave debts, returned people to their homes, and stopped all sowing and reaping (Lev 25). The Jubilee year in the OT anticipated the Messiah’s eternal salvation. Jesus announces in Galilee that the Jubilee year is now present in him and his ministry. This message of release unites the Old and New Testaments.
“Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your ears” says Jesus to his relatives and friends in Nazareth (Lk 4:21), and so it is. Even now, the Scripture is fulfilled in our ears, as his Word becomes alive in us.7With this word, “Today,” Jesus announces the inauguration of the end times. This is a profound Christological statement that identifies the kingdom with Jesus. Jesus announces in Galilee that the Jubilee year is now present in him and his ministry. It reveals to us how our Baptisms initiate us into a life of continual release, sustained in the Lord’s Supper.8
Jesus and the New Creation
As Jesus journeys to Jerusalem and the cross, he absorbs into his flesh the world’s sickness and sin, and releases people from bondage through his flesh. The great and final miracle of release is his passion and death. Creation demonstrates that it is being re-created by the darkness that covers the whole earth from the sixth to the ninth hours (noon to 3:00 p.m. — Lk 23:44). This is an act of God in his creation because the creator of all things has died. The darkness is an extraordinary, cosmic sign that the creation is becoming unglued. Matthew reports an earthquake and the resurrection of saints who, after Jesus’ resurrection, walked around the holy city, as if the entire church age had transpired in an instant and the eschaton had come prematurely (Mt 27:51–53).
Creation’s bondage to sin and the curse of death, which Jesus had been absorbing into his flesh since his conception and bearing publicly since his baptism, is now completely laid upon him to do its destructive work. All demon possession, all sickness, all sin, all death is now placed upon him, and this full concentration of the world’s bondage creates an unnatural darkness for three hours as the creation is being re-created and healed. The Creator who has come to his creation is at this moment of death bringing in a new creation. The darkness is a sign that already now the end of all sickness and brokenness has come in the death of Jesus, even though it has not yet come in its fullness. A new and eternal eighth day, a dawn from on high, is about to break forth and shine forever on those who dwell in “darkness and the shadow of death” (Lk 1:78–79).
Jesus’ work of atonement is completed, and he is about to enter into his own Sabbath rest (Lk 23:54, 56). God’s provision for his new creation is completed; the new order is ready to shine forth, and it will do so with the first morning light of Easter. Together, darkness and light — the three hours of darkness while Jesus is on the cross and the brilliant light of Easter morning — inaugurate the new creation, the eternal Sabbath rest for the people of God (Heb 4:9–10). The new day of Sabbath rest has that beginning, but it will have no end; in the eschaton there will be no darkness, only light (Rev 21:23–25), no crying or mourning from suffering and death, only joy (21:4).
When Jesus rises from dead on the third day, after his Sabbath rest in the tomb, he brings all creation with him. This is the eighth, eternal day where Jesus frees once and for all the creation from its bondage to sin, which manifests itself in storms, demon possession, disease, and death. Through his crucified and resurrected flesh creation’s restoration to health and wellness is ongoing in the life of the church where his miracles continue in the Gospel and the Sacraments that testify that Jesus is present to perform acts of release for his creation to recreate it and restore it to wholeness.It is therefore in the church’s liturgy of Word and Eucharist that we find health and wellness.9
Teaching and Miracles — Word and Sacraments
Teaching and miracles — that’s what Jesus’ ministry is all about. And those same two activities of Jesus continue in the church today as the Lord continues to teach his people through the Word that is read and preached in our Divine Services, and the miracle of baptism that gives us access to the holy food of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. Sacraments are the new miracles of Jesus in the world today because they testify to the bodily presence of Christ in his creation bringing in the new creation.
In baptism, Christ is present in water through Word and Spirit where he turns sinners into saints, taking us across the boundary of death into a life that never ends, delivering us from darkness into his light. In the Lord’s Supper, Christ is present in, with, and under bread and wine to give us the very same body and blood that was crucified on Calvary and raised again on the third day. And what is most remarkable about all this is that these very same structures of table fellowship — Word and Meal — are the means through which we now a foretaste of the heavenly feast with angels, and archangels, and with the whole company of heaven.
The worship in the house also had an influence on the Christian liturgy of the Sacrament. This service along with the Passover seder provided the foundation for the Christian liturgy of the Sacrament as a part of Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners. Table fellowship is a very simple concept shared by all cultures. For people who have things in common, the most natural and intimate way of expressing their common fellowship with one another is at the table through a meal. In the ancient world, the meal itself was always prepared for by “table talk,” and in the case of a formal meal like the Passover seder or the Greek banquets, this “table talk” would take the form of teaching at the table by an invited guest who would serve as “banquet speaker.”
Table Fellowship in the Old Testament
The early Christian communities were liturgical and sacramental, but they did not use the eucharistic nomenclature of later centuries. Table fellowship with God was a natural metaphor for Jewish Christians to describe how God communicates his salvific intentions, for the history of the Jews is a history of God’s presence at significant times in the context of a meal. The Passover meal was central, but so also was the weekly remembrance of the Passover in the Sabbath evening seder that gave a weekly shape to the religious life of the Jews. In the various covenants made between Yahweh and his people, a meal often sealed the covenant. The basic principle of Jewish table fellowship could be stated as follows:
. . . as God gives food to the covenant people, so God gives Torah-instruction to them. Bread/food are a clear and unmistakable symbol of Torah-instruction . . . Food and instruction are interchangeable symbols, replicating each other. In other words, a meal is a perfect setting for teaching, as Wisdom in the Old Testament or symposia in Greek literature indicate.10
Throughout the various peoples and cultures in the ancient Near East, table fellowship signified a high level of friendship and unity. To invite a guest to a meal was a universally understood act of hospitality. Ancient Israel bears witness to the importance of table fellowship as an occasion at which God often communicated his promised salvation. The history of Israel is punctuated at significant times with God’s presence at a meal.
God provided fruit trees in Eden, but Adam and Eve violated the fellowship boundaries set by God when they ate from the forbidden tree in the presence of the serpent, plunging the world into sin. In subsequent history, God begins to restore his fallen creation, and his redemption is often accompanied by or celebrated with a meal.The covenants Yahweh made with his people often were celebrated with a meal. When a covenant was cut in ancient Israel, an animal would be cut in half, and the two parts of the animal would be laid aside one another. The parties cutting the covenant would then walk between the two pieces of the sacrificed animal. This was a solemn agreement that if either party broke the covenant, the other could render the guilty party as that animal — he could cut him in two. When you cut a covenant, the animal used in the sacrifice is not left there to rot, but is eaten as a sign and symbol of the intimate fellowship that exists between the two parties cutting the covenant. So whenever there was a cutting of a covenant there was always food and a meal that accompanied the covenant.
While the patriarchs offered sacrifices at various times, a major fulfillment of the promise in Abraham’s covenant came at the deliverance of the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt. At the Passover, the blood of the sacrificial lamb without blemish was applied to the lintel and doorposts. The covenant promises to Abraham and to Moses are brought together in Ex 6:2–9 and 12:48–49. The Passover (Exodus 12; Josh 5:10–12; 2 Ki 23:21–23; etc.) was a key institution in the OT since it celebrated the exodus deliverance, the salvation event that was the birth of the nation of Israel. God instructed Israel to use the setting of the Passover meal to inculcate the fundamental doctrines of God, his people, and salvation (Ex 12:24–27). This divinely appointed juxtaposition of teaching and eating is OT precedent for Jesus’ table fellowship and Christian worship.This covenant is reaffirmed at the foot of Mt. Sinai through another bloody act of sacrifice, where the people promise to hear and heed God’s covenant (Ex 24:4–8).11 The sacrificial and liturgical worship at the tabernacle and then the temple involved many kinds of meals, some only for the priests, but others for the worshiper (s) too (Leviticus 1–7). The weekly remembrance of the Passover in the Sabbath evening Seder meal helped give a liturgical shape to the daily and weekly life of the Jewish people.
The Table Fellowship of Jesus
It was within this milieu that the Gospels record the table fellowship of Jesus. For God to feed his people in the intimacy of the table would call to the Jewish mind the rich OT precedent for this practice. But for God to become flesh and sit at table with them, giving them food from his own fleshly hands, was something surprisingly new indeed. In Jesus, God was present in the flesh to establish a table fellowship of eating and drinking with his people. And Jesus’ practice was startlingly new — even scandalous — for another reason. While there were strict limits on those invited to many OT meals (e.g., the Passover; the temple sacrifices), Jesus freely ate and drank with sinners.
The table fellowship of Jesus consists primarily in his teaching at the table, much of which involves table metaphors.12The act of table fellowship, including both the meal itself and the participants of the meal, is also a form of teaching.13 Neither the teaching nor the eating is of greater importance than the other; both must be considered together as one and the same activity. When one sits down at a table with friends, one talks and one eats; both activities are integral to table fellowship. Table fellowship reveals something about the participants in that fellowship, particularly the host at the table. The table fellowship of Jesus reveals something about who he is, and what he must do, and therefore it has a direct relationship to who he is as the Christ.
Table fellowship is one of the means by which the evangelist proclaims the arrival of the eschatological kingdom, the dawn of a new era. Jesus’ table fellowship demonstrates that Christianity is a religion embracing both sinners and righteous, both Jews and Gentiles. Table fellowship reveals the most intimate nature of the
Jesus’ lifestyle at the table is one of service, and he renders the ultimate service to humanity as God’s innocent, suffering Messiah by giving up his life for the world and offering up that life at the table, for a table is the ultimate place of fellowship for those who will live together without end.15This table fellowship “reveals a God who wants to sit down at table with all men and women and will remove all obstacles, even that of death, which stand in the way of the accomplishment of that communion.” 16 Table fellowship, then, is an act of communion and revelation, making known to the world a God who comes to teach about forgiveness through death and resurrection and to offer that forgiveness in the breaking of the bread.
Luke’s table fellowship provides the perfect vehicle for teaching about the nature of Christian eucharistic fellowship, for a pattern may be discerned in which there are three key elements to table fellowship — teaching, eating, and the presence of God.The presence of Jesus at the meal makes this table fellowship with God different from all other meals. In each table scene, Jesus is present to teach the participants at the meal about himself, a teaching of the kingdom of God in which he, the King, is present to offer the forgiveness of sins. The occasion is always marked by the theme of conversion, a turning to God in repentance and faith. The true participants of the fellowship are repentant sinners, personified by Levi the tax collector, who initiates the table fellowship of Jesus with his invitation to feast at his house (Luke 5), and by Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in whose house Jesus must stay and eat (Luke 19). In every Lukan meal, the teaching of Jesus is part of the table fellowship and essential to the meal. It prepares for the meal and makes the meal a seal of the forgiveness taught by Jesus. In Jesus’ table fellowship, three elements are apparent, namely,
a) It is a table fellowship with sinners, i.e. it is an inclusive event;
b) It is a table fellowship where Jesus teaches about the kingdom; and
c) The table fellowship is itself an expression of the New Age.
From its initiation at the feast with Levi to its climax at the Emmaus meal, the basic pattern of Lukan table fellowship reveals that there is always teaching at the table, eating as a seal of the fellowship, both of which take place in the presence of God.All of Jesus’ meals are acts of table fellowship — teaching/eating in the presence of Jesus — even though every meal is not the eucharist. Each meal must be measured against the cross and the resurrection.
The pattern of Jesus’ Galilean ministry was to travel from town-to-town from Sabbath-to-Sabbath, teaching in the synagogues and spending the Sabbath Evening Seder with those who invited him to preach. On a weekly basis in the context of the Sabbath Evening Seder Jesus would teach at the table before engaging in the meal. Here we see how the pattern of teaching and eating at the Passover Seder is captured by the Sabbath Evening Seder when a visiting rabbi like Jesus is invited to teach at the synagogue.
The climactic meal during the Galilean ministry is the feeding of the five-thousand where Jesus first teaches them about the kingdom of God and then feeds them with miraculous food. The constellation of language links this feeding miracle with the Last Supper and the Emmaus meal, the other climactic moments in Jesus’ table fellowship.Here the King rules his kingdom by offering now the food that satisfies, a foretaste of the eschatological banquet that is not yet.
The Last Supper
The Last Supper is different from all previous meals, for it is here that Jesus speaks for the first time of “the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for you” (Lk 22:20) “for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:28). The Last Supper is the Meal of the new covenant, the new “exodus” (Lk 9:31), the new Passover (22:17–19; cf. 1 Cor 5:7). As Jesus institutes the Sacrament of his body and blood, he directs the disciples, “Do this in my remembrance” (Lk 22:19). The Last Supper is the only one of Jesus’ table fellowship meals that is to be repeated, and it is to be repeated “until such a time as it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (22:16; cf. 1 Cor 11:26). Thus the Supper has a strong eschatological focus that anticipates Christ’s return and the consummation of the kingdom. Later Luke records that the disciples regularly celebrated “the breaking of the bread” (Acts 2:42, 46). The Supper was held on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7) — Sunday, the day of resurrection — in remembrance of the risen Lord. The Supper was not incidental or superfluous; its regular celebration lay at the heart and center of the corporate life of the early church.
Luke is the only evangelist who preserves in his account two distinct cups of wine (22:17–18 and22:20). These cups point toward the fuller structure of the Passover meal itself. Jewish Christians who hear Luke’s gospel would be familiar with the Passover, but they might be evangelizing those who are not aware of the Passover structure and do not realize that the institution of the Lord’s Supper took place in the context of the Passover meal.
At the Last Supper, Jesus issues sublime promises that pertain not just to that night, but to every occasion when the church will gather around his Table. Jesus promises to be with them in a most intimate and miraculous way, with benefits that surpass those enjoyed by the people who reclined with him in person during his earthly ministry up until the night on which he was betrayed. The guests at the Lord’s Table — the Sacrament of the Altar — are actually in a more privileged position than were those who participated in the earthly meals of Jesus.
The unique promise of the Last Supper, which holds true for every celebration of the Lord’s Supper, is the bodily presence of Jesus’ body and blood: “this is my body, which is given on behalf of you” (Lk 22:19) ; “this cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is shed on behalf of you” (22:20). According to these words, the body and blood of Jesus are truly present with the bread and wine. The body of Christ present with the bread is the body given into death for the salvation of the world; the blood of Christ in the cup is the blood shed “for the forgiveness of sins.”
At other meals the guests were able to see, touch (7:38–39), and hear Jesus, but only at the Supper he instituted is Christ present in such a way that those who eat and drink receive his body and blood. The body and blood of Christ bring the forgiveness of sins and salvation he brought to the world through his ministry, his sacrificial death on behalf of all, and his resurrection. The disciples who dine with Jesus will have a place at his table in the eternal kingdom feast. The Supper in which the disciples participate holds the promise of future eating and drinking when the kingdom of God fully arrives in the eschaton. Like the penitent thief (Lk 23:43), they will join Jesus in paradise. Disciples that faithfully continue in “the breaking of the bread” receive these eschatological blessings as they feast at his Table.
The Last Supper is the climax of Jesus’ table fellowship with his disciples. Indeed, it is the most important meal of all God’s table fellowship from Eden to the parousia. Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples is the new meal of the new era of salvation. This communal meal is Jesus’ new Passover by which he establishes a new community that will celebrate this meal in remembrance of his death and resurrection and in anticipation of his return and a reminder of the entire table fellowship that Jesus engaged in from his incarnation to his ascension. As an act of divine remembrance, the Lord’s Supper is a continuation of the table fellowship of Jesus with sinners. God remembers his new covenant promises and bestows his gifts. And as an act of remembrance by the church, the Supper ties together both memory of Jesus’ words and action according to those words: “This do in my remembrance” (22:19).
In his final teaching to his disciples at his Passover where Jesus gives his body and blood, in what amounts to his last will and testament to them, he appoints these eleven disciples sitting at table with him a kingdom, just as his Father appointed to him a kingdom, and this kingdom brings with it the responsibility of serving as judges of the boundaries of this kingdom, “in order that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Lk 22:28-30).17 In other words, Jesus’ role as judge as to who may enter his holy presence is handed down to the church through the apostles and those who follow the apostolic pattern of teaching/preaching and administering the sacraments, sacraments that are the new miracles of the post-Pentecost church because they testify to Jesus’ presence in his creation bringing about the new creation.18 Entrusted with the responsibility to oversee the mystery of Christ’s holy presence, to apply Law and Gospel, to baptize, to absolve or retain sins, and to preside at the Supper, the apostles — and those who serve as their successors in Jesus’ ministry — will lead the new Israel to gather around the Table of the Lord in His Kingdom.
The Emmaus Meal
The Last Supper is not Jesus’ final meal with disciples. Jesus teaches two disciples on the road to Emmaus and breaks bread with them. There Jesus is present at table for the first time after his crucifixion and resurrection. The Emmaus meal is distinct from the meals that precede and follow. Unlike the pre-resurrection meals, in the breaking of the bread at Emmaus (24:30, 35) Jesus was for the first time recognized by disciples as the crucified and risen Messiah. It is extraordinary because the risen Christ, after teaching on the road, breaks bread and in so doing reveals himself to the opened eyes of the astonished disciples as the crucified and risen Lord in fulfillment of the Old Testament promises, just as he had taught them along the road (24:25–27).
The evangelist’s final word about Emmaus is programmatic for Christian worship until the Last Day: “And they were expounding the things he taught on the road and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread” (24:35). The breaking of the bread recalls all of Jesus’ table fellowship, particularly 22:19 and the Words of Institution. Jesus’ continuing practice of teaching and eating with his disciples at table has given the church the pattern for its liturgical worship. In this description the church found the pattern for its liturgical worship.Thus, the unique character of this juxtaposition of teaching and eating was established by our Lord himself in his table fellowship ministry (Luke 5, 7, 9, 14, 19), at the Last Supper (Luke 22:14-38), and at Emmaus (Luke 24:35).
In Acts this same pattern of teaching and eating is present in the table fellowship of the church (1:1-4; 2:42; 20:7-12). These meals in Acts confirm that from the beginning the church followed the divine pattern through worship that included teaching and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Worship in the New Testament church is a continuing table fellowship with God that reaches back into the Old Testament and looks ahead to the eschatological wedding supper (Is 25:6–9; Rev 19:6–9), affording a foretaste of the feast to come. Jesus’ table fellowship lies at the very heart of the kingdom of God as it is now present in the liturgical life of the church.This is the classic liturgical formulation of Word and Sacrament that continued in the church’s eucharistic celebrations as the two liturgical structures that exist today in our own liturgies.19
The common bond between the meals of Jesus during his ministry, the Last Supper, the post-resurrection meals, and the early Christian eucharists is that they are first and foremost acts of table fellowship where Christ is present to teach and eat with his people. At Pentecost until now, Jesus continues to be present among us sacramentally in liturgies of Word and Sacrament.In this way, table fellowship is revelatory. In reality, there is no difference between any of the meals of Jesus except their temporal relationship to the cross and the resurrection. At all these meals Jesus is present — present to teach about the kingdom of God by teaching about his death — present to break bread and reveal his salvific and eschatological intentions. All meals are governed by the presence of Christ who in each case is remembered by the church as the one who has suffered, died, and risen.20Table fellowship of teaching and breaking bread becomes the occasion for the presence of the eschatological kingdom because it is a celebration of the new covenant that is founded on Christ’s death and resurrection.
Lutheran Theology of Worship
A Lutheran theology of worship embraces the centrality of the two essential structures of Christian liturgy — the Word of Jesus and the Meal of Jesus. As we observed, the basic structures of the liturgy have been in place from the New Testament and even the Old Testament, given to the church and institutionalized by Jesus himself in the Last Supper and the post-resurrection meals. If one approaches the liturgy from the perspective of the liturgical structures of Word and Sacrament, then one approaches it from the perspective of God. Christian worship is a continuation of the reconciled world’s table fellowship with God in which he proclaims to us in his transforming Word salvation in Jesus Christ, and in his sacramental Meal he offers us the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ’s body and blood in, with, and under bread and wine.In both his Word and his Meal, salvation is present because Jesus Christ is present with his gifts. Our liturgy of Word and Sacrament, then, is nothing more and nothing less that table fellowship with Jesus, a proclamation that he continues to make all things new among us.
J. Neyrey, The Social Word of Luke-Acts (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991) 275 describes the values of our culture’s symbolic universe: “What is a symbolic system?Cultures embody and express core values. These values are structured in the cultural life of group. A core value in the U.S. is democracy, which is structured in terms of elections, opinion polls, etc. The core value influences how things are classified and where they are located. It is the overarching rationale for behavior, the principal justification for the shape of the system. The core value, moreover, is replicated throughout the system, giving it direction, clarity, and consistency.”
J. Neyrey, The Social World, 293.
Cf. J. Pilch, “Sickness and Healing in Luke-Acts,” in The Social Word of Luke-Acts ed. J. H. Neyrey, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991) 200: “Jesus taught in the synagogues ([Lk] 4:15) and many of his healings took place in that context or bore some relationship to the synagogue (4:33; 6:6; 7:1 — centurion built the synagogue for us; 8:40 Jairus — chief of the synagogue; and 13:10).Through the social network of the synagogue and its informal communication system, the personal lives of those who attend would be known and disseminated. While the Gospel narratives often sound as if petitioners meet Jesus for the first time, it is highly probable that his visits and teaching activity in the various synagogues provided him with more than a passing acquaintance with many people in the area.”
Excerpts on the sermon in Nazareth are from A. A. Just Jr., Concordia Commentary: Luke 1:1-9:50 (St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1996) p. 192.
“The Office of the Keys and Confession,” Luther’s Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1943) p. 19.
For a careful analysis of Jesus as a folk healer within the health care system in Luke’s world, see J. J. Pilch, “Sickness and Healing in Luke-Acts,” 181-209. Pilch notes that humanity’s captivity to a fallen creation required a holistic solution that affected not only the individual, but also the family and social groups. As he says in his conclusion (p. 209):
“The Mediterranean cultural preference for being or being-in-becoming recommends a definition of health which emphasizes a state of wholesomeness . . . Biblical culture’s view of the healthy and wholesome human being as composed of three balanced symbolic body zones [heart/eyes, mouth/ears, hands/feet] helps identify and categorize the ailments suffered which were presented for healing.Another look at the same material from the perspective of purity, wholeness, cleanness and its opposites: impurity, uncleanness and unwholeness suggests perhaps the most comprehensive taxonomy of all: one based on purity concerns. From the perspective of symbolic body zones, Luke appears to have singled out the heart-eyes zone as a leit-motif in Luke-Acts though the other dimensions also remain present.”
G. Friedrich, khruvssw, TDNT 3:713 writes: “Jesus did not give theoretical teaching when He spoke in the synagogue. He did not expound Scripture like the rabbis. He did not tell people what they must do. His teaching was proclamation. He declared what God was doing among them to-day: This day is this scripture fulfilled (Lk. 4:21). His exposition was a herald’s cry.’”
Excerpts on the Nazareth sermon are from A. A. Just Jr., Concordia Commentary: Luke 1:1-9:50 (St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1996) pp. 193-194.
A. Kavanagh, Elements of Rite (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1982) 45-46 says it well: “The Sunday liturgy is not the Church assembled to address itself. The liturgy does not cater to the assembly.It summons the assembly to enact itself publicly for the life of the world. Nor does this take place as a dialogue with the world, often a partner whose uninterested absence reduces the dialogue to an ecclesiastical monologue.The liturgy presumes that the world is always present in the summoned assembly, which although not of “this world” lives deep in its midst as the corporate agent, under God in Christ, of its salvation. In this view, the liturgical assembly is the world being renovated according to the divine pleasure — not as patient being passively worked upon but as active agent faithfully cooperating in its own rehabilitation. What one witnesses in the liturgy is the world being done as the world’s Creator and Redeemer will the world to be done. The liturgy does the world and does it at its very center, for it is here that the world’s malaise and its cure well up together, inextricably entwined.”
J. Neyrey, The Passion According to Luke (New York: Paulist Press, 1985) 11 who cites G. Feeley-Harnik, The Lord’s Table: Eucharist and Passover in Early Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981).
Cf. X. León-Dufour, Sharing the Eucharistic Bread: The Witness of the New Testament, trans. M. J. O’Connell (New York: Paulist, 1987) 145: “The sacrifice described here [Ex 24:6–8] is par excellence the “communion sacrifice” that unites God and the people. The account of it has no parallel in the Old Testament, since this is the only instance in which the blood is sprinkled not only on the altar but on the people as well. The characteristic traits of a covenant are to be found here: God, who has taken the initiative by calling Moses to the mountain, has stipulated the conditions of the “contract,” and the people now bind themselves to observe them.”
Cf. E. Lohmeyer, Lord of the Temple (Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, 1961) 79-80: “The gospel of the Kingdom is so full of sayings concerning meals, eating and drinking, hungering and thirsting, that there is not one element of it which is not expressed somewhere in terms of a meal-metaphor. The blessing of this Gospel message, the challenge, the commandments, the promise, all are comprehended in this meal context and in the corresponding custom . . . This meal is both metaphor and reality, both parable and event; it reveals in the word what the act adumbrates, and sets forth in the act what the word by implication promises. Here we have the centre, around which all Jesus’ words and work revolve and in virtue of which they have unity. The meal takes place here and now, and yet remains in the nature of an eschatological message. The mystery of the meal explains the present and uncovers the coming fulfillment. In it there is brought together and interwoven all that the existence and the coming of the
Kingdom of God involve.” (emphasis Lohmeyer)
Cf. G. Feeley-Harnik, The Lord’s Table: Eucharist and Passover in Early Christianity, 167: “Jesus repeatedly emphasizes the difficulty of explaining his gospel in words, and indeed, most of the time his disciples do not understand what he is saying until he finally speaks to them in food.”
Cf. J. Jeremias, New Testament Theology: The Proclamation of Jesus (New York: Scribner’s , 1971) 115-116: “In the East, even today, to invite a man to a meal was an honor. It was an offer of peace, trust, brotherhood, and forgiveness; in short, sharing a table meant sharing life. In Judaism in particular, table-fellowship means fellowship before God, for the eating of a piece of broken bread by everyone who shares in a meal brings out the fact that they all have a share in the blessing which the master of the house had spoken over the unbroken bread. Thus Jesus’ meals with the publicans and sinners, too, are not only events on a social level, not only an expression of his unusual humanity and social generosity and his sympathy with those who were despised, but had an even deeper significance. They are an expression of the mission and message of Jesus (Mk 2:17), eschatological meals, anticipatory celebrations of the feast in the end-time (Lk 13:28f; Mt 8:11-12), in which the community of the saints is already being represented (Mk 2:19). The inclusion of sinners in the community of salvation, achieved in table-fellowship, is the most meaningful expression of the message of the redeeming love of God.”
Cf. Koenig, New Testament Hospitality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985) 115-116.
R. J. Karris, Luke: Artist and Theologian (New York: Paulist Press, 1985) 80.
Lk 22:30, translation mine.
This last section is a paraphrase of J. Neyrey’s argument, The Social World, 292-302.
Excerpts of this section on Luke’s table fellowship are from A. A. Just Jr., Concordia Commentary Luke 1:1-9:50 (St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1996) pp. 231-241.
Yet J. Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (London: SCM Press, 1969) 253 says: “. . . the death of the Lord is not proclaimed at every celebration of the meal as a past event but as an eschatological event, as the beginning of the New Covenant.”