A former professor of mine, Dr John Mark Hicks, has greatly influenced my perceptions about the Lord’s Supper. You can read some of my thoughts here. Dr Hicks promotes the thought that the Lord’s Supper is most authentically celebrated in the context of a meal. If that suggestion has you scratching your head I strongly recommend his book “Come to the Table“. You can also gain a picture of what this might look like in practical terms in his blog post here.
It was the process of flicking through his book recently (for something else) that prompted me to preach a series of sermons on the topic of Israelite sacrifices found in Leviticus. This would probably surprise him. 🙂 In preparing each sermon I have barely looked at his book since, but I read a snippet this last week that turned my attention to 1 Corinthians 10:18. In this passage Paul writes, “Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar?”
That’s a pretty abstract thought without context. In this passage Paul discusses the Lord’s Supper. He warns the church not to worship idols and God at the same time. His reasoning for this (among other arguments) flows from the nature of the Lord’s Supper. In the Lord’s Supper we connect with Christ. It’s a reality, not just a remote memorial. We cannot join ourselves to an idol, and then come and join ourselves to God expecting him to accept us as holy.
The weight of this argument is contained in verse 18 but easily overlooked if we’re not familiar with the Israelite sacrificial system.
Verse 18 references the Israelites eating sacrifices and compares that to the Lord’s Supper. The only (or at least “only major”) sacrifice that the Israelite public ate was the Fellowship Offering described in Leviticus 3 and 7. So since the Lord’s Supper shares similarities with Fellowship Offerings, perhaps we should understand them a little better.
A Burnt Offering almost always preceded Fellowship Offerings. Burnt Offerings sought forgiveness from God (Lev. 1:4) and dedicated the worshiper to God. In a Burnt Offering the worshiper burnt the entire animal on the altar. Having purified oneself the worshiper could proceed to the Fellowship Offering.
A Fellowship Offering was a freewill offering. God did not demand it. People could offer this sacrifice out of thankfulness for a specific event, or just as a means of praising God for no particular reason. Although it’s called a sacrifice, only the fat of the animal (a bull, sheep or goat) was actually sacrificed. The priests took a portion for their families, the remainder had to be eaten by the worshiper within 24 hours. (In some circumstances it was 48 hrs.)
Since no single worshiper could eat a whole bull, or sheep, or probably not even a goat within 24 hours, we understand that they shared their food with others. Someone making a Fellowship Offering would bring their family and friends with them. This offering is perhaps better described as a communal celebration shared with the priests and even with God. God received the choice portions of the sacrificed animal (the fat). The priest received his share. The community ate together as they celebrated God’s goodness.
In his commentary on Leviticus, Rooker notes regarding 3:11 that the portions burnt “on the altar as food, an offering made tot he Lord by fire“, should not be regarded as the Israelites thinking God needed physical food for nourishment. Rather they offer him this “food” as a means of involving him in their meal. Rooker provided this summary, “The worshiper… shared a meal with the Lord, which means that he had fellowship with him.” (103)
Since Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 draws the analogy between Fellowship Offerings and the Lord’s Supper let’s consider what we can learn from the Fellowship Offering that might inform our contemporary practice.
- The Fellowship Offering needed to follow a Burnt Offering. The Burnt Offering provided the atonement necessary to allow fellowship between God and his people. Likewise, Paul’s primary concern in 1 Cor. 10 is the holiness of those participating in the Lord’s Supper.
- The Fellowship Offering is a great name for a ritual that brought God and his people together around a table. But if the idea of God participating in a meal with his people is a bit ambiguous in Leviticus, Paul really brings the idea to the fore. He describes the Lord’s Supper as “participation” in the body and blood of Christ. This differs dramatically from the goal of merely “remembering” the body and blood of Christ.
- The meal was worship. Paul states that “those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar.” Even if you didn’t bring the sheep to the temple, if you participate in the meal, you join with the others in worshiping, thanking and praising God.
- Both the Fellowship Offering and the Lord’s Supper involved a full meal. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul makes it clear that the Lord’s Supper was originally eaten as part of a meal. Although the meal had become problematic Paul doesn’t abolish the meal. He corrects the lack of love present at the meals that allowed some to eat while others were hungry.
- The Fellowship Offering was always a joyful expression of thankfulness and praise. Similarly, we have much to thank and praise God for as we commune with him around a table. Jesus death grants us the forgiveness we need to approach God’s throne with confidence. Guilt and mourning should not be part of our Lord’s Supper experience. We don’t mourn Jesus death, we celebrate his love and forgiveness.
And that is just one reason why knowing Leviticus is important!
I know that’s a pretty long post with lots of information. If you have any questions please leave a comment. I’ll answer your questions immediately as best I can and will also write another post if I need to research it.