“Eat of My Flesh.”

In John 6, we see a turning point in Jesus’ ministry where He begins focusing on eternal life. The chapter begins with Jesus feeding a great multitude from meager provisions of fish and bread, and, in verse 14, many see Him as the prophet coming in the footsteps of Moses. This conclusion comes out in verses 30-31 where they remind Jesus that Moses brought bread from Heaven to feed God’s people, but Jesus corrects them and reminds them that the bread they reference came from God.

In verse 33, Jesus turns their attention away from physical bread and onto Himself. In this, He begins to call Himself the living bread or the bread of life, and he, numerous times, calls on them to believe on Him and receive eternal life. He invites them to eat and drink of Him, but what is He talking about here? Is this talking about transubstantiation? Is this a reference to the Lord’s Supper? The Jews of the time were likewise confused by His words in this passage, and many turned away.

The language involved in these verses lend themselves to our ideas of the Lord’s Supper, but these words have no more to do with that memorial than does the song “Break Thou the Bread of Life.”

Break Thou the bread of life, dear Lord, to me,
As Thou didst break the loaves beside the sea;
Beyond the sacred page I seek Thee, Lord;
My spirit pants for Thee, O living Word!

In verse 63, Jesus focuses on spiritual sustenance, and He states that His words are spirit and life. To be a part of Him, to come to Him, to truly believe in Him, we must obey Him. Then, when many turn away from Jesus in verse 66, Jesus asks His apostles if they too will abandon Him, but Peter shows that he understands when he replies, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” If Jesus is to be a part of us, His words must be a part of us.

Jesus’ words are that of which we should be partaking. It is not enough to simply observe a physical memorial. We have to be hungry and thirsty enough for eternal life that we will ingest His words. These are what can give us eternal life. While we seek bread from Heaven, while we desire to partake of Jesus, we must take part of His teachings and let them fill our lives.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Memorializing the Innocent

Standing before the Lord’s Table, we often revisit thoughts surrounding the various memorials we have in our culture, whether they be monuments, days, or ceremonies. The vast majority of these memorials center around the numerous military conflicts this nation has been a part of, and we memorialize soldiers who have fallen and great leaders that led us to triumph. We lionize and idealize those to whom these numerous memorials are dedicated, but there are two groups involved in these conflicts we seldom commemorate, or indeed recognize at all: our enemies and the innocents.

The past hundred years or so have seen some of the largest and bloodiest conflicts in the history of this world. Sennacherib’s loss of 185,000 at the hands of Jehovah in II Kings 19 is mere child’s play by today’s standards. War casualties in the last century number in the millions, and if you break it down only to civilians, some casualty  figures look like this:

  • WWI: almost 7 million
  • WWII: 40-52 million
  • Korean War: 1.5 million
  • Vietnam War: 2 million
  • Iraq + Afghanistan: as many as 1 million

Counting only these conflicts – a small fraction of the wars and battles that have been fought the last hundred years – over 60 million have died in the crossfire of opposing armies. It may surprise you (as it did me) that in every conflict listed, except World War I, civilian death tolls outnumbered military deaths by a margin of at least 2-to-1. In almost every case, the number of innocents who died were more than double those actually involved in the conflict, and, with a couple notable exceptions, these lives are seldom remembered. (Memorials dedicated to the Holocaust and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki come to mind.)

In fact, far from being memorialized, these deaths are often marginalized and trivialized. They are reported as “collateral damage,” or we breathe a sigh of relief that “at least they are not American lives.” Then we forget them as readily as any other unpleasant fact we’d rather not dwell on. Try, however, to tell an Afghani mother whose son was cut down in a skirmish on the streets of her hometown that her child was merely collateral damage in a conflict for a greater good. Tell an elderly Japanese man or woman who lost loved ones in Hiroshima or Nagasaki that their loss saved American lives in the long run. See how it goes. Who memorializes the innocents, lives cut short by the choices made by others?

Now I want you to imagine, for a moment, that Great Britain launched a war against us. Imagine they carpet bombed strategic locations and major metropolitan areas to cripple us quickly. Imagine you had a son or daughter in one of those locations who was killed in those bombings – not because they were part of the military trying to fight the invading forces, but simply because they were in the way when the bombs fell. Imagine that son or daughter became “collateral damage.” How would you feel after that?

After the dust cleared, the treaties had been signed, and the troops gone home, would you ever be able to look at England the same way again? Would you ever be able to forgive them? Might you cringe every time you heard and English accent? Would you throw away all of your old Beatles albums? Adding to this, what if the attack on our soil was completely justifiable by political standards? What if history was on the side of Great Britain? Would that change how you feel? Would the pain be erased, knowing that your child’s death, in the long run, saved the lives of those you view as enemies? Somehow I doubt it.

This, however, is exactly what Christ’s sacrifice was, and it is what God did for us.

  • Jesus was an innocent death. II Corinthians 5:21 and Isaiah 53:9 refer to Christ as sinless or blameless. Even Pilate attests to Jesus’ innocence in the face of unjust accusations.
  • Jesus was “collateral damage.” Repeatedly, in Isaiah 53, the prophet tells us God’s chosen Servant would be bruised, beaten, and killed in our place. We should be the casualties of the war with sin, but those sins cut Him down instead.
  • Jesus died for His enemies. The first few verses of Romans 5 make it clear that Christ came and died for us while we were at enmity with God. Where few would think to die for a righteous man, Christ laid down His life to save those opposed to Him.

Unlike the numerous civilian casualties of war, however, Jesus was not merely caught in the crossfire haphazardly. He was not in the wrong place at the wrong time. His death was no accident. He walked into the conflict willingly to be the innocent sacrifice that would save those who would reject Him. God sacrificed His child that those who set themselves against Him might not perish but have eternal life, and I have to ask myself, “How could God do this? How could He send His Son to die in my place? How could He offer such a sacrifice for an enemy?” Then I read Isaiah 55:6-9, where the prophet extends an invitation of forgiveness to a people who rejected God:

Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

God’s ways are higher than our ways. His love is greater than our love. He was willing to sacrifice His Son for the sake of those on the side of sin and lawlessness that we may have hope of life after death. That’s why we take the time to memorialize this innocent death.

Psalm 113

Many of us have songs that take us back to a place, remind us of important events, or remind us of a specific person. It is no different for the saints of old. In Matthew 26:30, Jesus and His apostles sing a hymn after the last supper. Psalm 113 is the beginning of the Hallel songs that would be sing at Passover, and it would have likely been the first of the songs sung at that Passover feast in the upper room.

Imagine the setting where Jesus is singing these words, knowing he would soon be betrayed and crucified. Do the words to this psalm take Jesus back to a place He once occupied, not scorned or ridiculed, but Creator? Would verses 5-7 take deeper meaning, sacrificing Himself to lift up those in need of salvation? Does the song bring any sense of doubt or apprehension in our Savior, or does He gain resolve, knowing these people need Him?

This psalm would have been sung every year of His life at Passover, a reminder of how much man needs God’s intervention and how much He has done for us. After this Passover, however, Jesus finds the resolve and strength to go to the cross. Songs may remind us of many things, when we read Psalm 113, we should be reminded of how much we need our Savior and how much He has done for us. We can be taken back to that fateful Passover night, see the resolve He has in going to the cross and commit ourselves to having the same resolve in our spiritual lives.

lesson by Tim Smelser

The Passover, the Crucufuxion, and the Lord’s Supper

Our Passover Sacrifice

The setting for the last supper eaten by Jesus with His apostles was in contest of the Passover feast. In Exodus 12, the Passover is instituted as salvation from the Angel of Death that would pass through the land of Egypt. Each household was to select a lamb, sacrifice it, and spread the blood of the lamb over their doorways, signaling them as God’s people. The sign of blood saved them from death, and this feast was kept as memorial of that great deliverance from the bondage of Egypt.

As Jesus approaches His death, Peter and John prepare for Passover – procuring a sacrificial lamb, securing a location and preparing that lamb. The head of household would bless the cup and speak about the meaning of this meal. Psalms 113 and 114 would be sung, proclaiming Jehovah’s glory and majesty and commemorating Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. Then a second cup and the unleavened bread would be blessed and partaken of, followed by the lamb. Then a third blessing and cup would be offered, accompanied by the singing of Psalms 115-118. Finally, a fourth cup was taken, and the feast would conclude.

In Matthew 26:26-29, Jesus acts as the household head, distributing the unleavened bread and blessing it – adding the detail that the bread represents His body and the cup of blessing representing His blood. His referencing the blood of the covenant refers to Exodus 24:3-8 where the people of Israel dedicate themselves to the Lord’s service, and Moses sprinkles blood on the alter and the people, sealing the covenant between them and the Lord. This blood was not for the cleansing of the people. It sealed a pact. The parallel for us is that the cup of the Lord’s Supper represents the new covenant entered into with Christ.

Memorializing Christ

In I Corinthians 11, Paul reiterates the scene of Christ’s last supper with His apostles, and, in verses 24-26, he reminds us that this continued practice is a perpetual memorial of the sacrifice our Lord. We proclaim His death, and we do so in our presence (Matthew 26:29). It is an affirmation of our belief in His sacrifice, in His resurrection, and in our hope for His return.

Acts 20:7 records that this is practiced on the first day of the bread, and in Acts 2:42 records they broke bread (worshipfully) steadfastly. This is a consistent practice, and it is reasonable to take this as meaning we partake every Sunday after this model. In fact , Paul, in I Corinthians 11, while warning Christians to take this memorial seriously, refers to it as the central focus of Sunday worship. It is the primary reason for our assembly, and it is worship to Jehovah God. In this, our focus is to be on God and the sacrifice He put His Son through.

We have all attended memorial services, whether it is a funeral or some larger scale gathering for an event. We prepare and plan for these events. We take them seriously – even more so if we are asked to participate. How much more should we be prepared for the memorial of our Savior’s death. Would we memorialize the death of a loved one with the same casualness with which we sometimes commemorate Christ? Paul calls us to examine ourselves in I Corinthians 11:28-29, warning us of behaving unworthily in this event. In Exodus 12:15, the Lord strongly prohibits any leaven at all throughout the Feast of Unleavened Bread, keeping pure staying worthy, and, in Hebrews 10:28-29 cautions us to never treat Christ’s blood as something common or taken for granted. If we treat the memorial casually, we treat the sacrifice casually.

Conclusion

The Bible tells us we come together on the first day of the week with the purpose of memorializing Christ’s death. It is anything but commonplace. Christ has become our ultimate Passover lamb. His blood saves us from death – the consequences of sin – and delivers us from the slavery of sin. He delivers us as no other could. We memorialize His sacrifice on that cross and reflect on the terrible sin that put Him on that cross, and we remember our redemption in Him.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Scripture & the Christmas Story

It is the time of year when we start to see things like “Happy Birthday Jesus” on church signs and bulletins. We’ve discussed before the importance of making sure we do things God’s way rather than man’s way, and, even among the secular world, many do understand that what is typically portrayed as the “Christmas Story” is not what happened.

The Evolution of Christmas

Starting in Matthew 1, we have one account of Jesus’ birth. Luke chapter 2 does much the same with a few additional details. Many elements are familiar, such as the shepherds whom the angels appear to. These come to Jesus’ birthplace. Eight days later, He is circumcised. At least forty-eight days later, He was presented in the temple, and the wise men visit after this, seeing a young child in a house – Jesus is now at least two months old.

The actual year, season, and date are completely unknown. Judging from New Testament clues, the “first Christmas” could have been in late autumn. The climate was mild in that the shepherds spent the night with their flock.

Man has romanticized and built up ritual around this story, and there was even early controversy in the church over what date Christmas would be observed on. (Some churches rejected 12/25 in favor of a January or March observance. The date was actually picked to serve as competition with pagan rituals observed on 12/25. Saint Nicholas passed away in early December around 400 AD, and his death was commemorated with the exchange of gifts.

Paul & Holidays

We have many traditions that have pagan or religious origins (All Hollow’s Eve, birthday candles, St. Valentine’s Day, etc.). In Galatians 4:8-11, Paul basically says that observing special days is not wrong, but these should not be seen as religious acts of worship. There is a separation between secular and religious celebrations.

Christ’s Established Memorial

In contrast to the unknowns surrounding Christ’s birth, we are given explicit details regarding the observance of Christ’s death. We are told when to observe; we know how we should observe; we know the manner and attitude to be held. God’s word makes it clear that the focal point of Christ’s life is His death rather than His birth.

In I Corinthians 2:11, Paul explains that we know nothing of God except what the Spirit has revealed to us. I don’t know what you are thinking or what makes you happy unless you tell me. The same is true for God. Leviticus 10:1, II Samuel 7:5, and I Kings 12:33 all serve as examples of individual who step outside of God’s desires, and it is not pleasing to Him when this happens.

Conclusion

Isaiah 7 records God asking Ahaz to request a sign confirming His faithfulness to His people. Ahaz feigns false faith in denying a sign, but the Lord provides a sign nonetheless. The sign is Christ, the virgin birth, the one named Immanuel, and God tells of a wonderful kingdom established and ruled by this Messiah. Isaiah 9:6 tells us of a Wonderful Counselor, a Mighty God, an Everlasting Father, a Prince of Peace whose reign will never fail. It is a grand story, but it is not the “Christmas Story.”

Christ’s birth was glorious. His coming and birth is the subject of many prophecies. It is appropriate for us to study and revere His birth, but we should do this at any time – not just once a year. We cannot disregard what God has commanded and substitute our own traditions and assume we please God. We have not the authority to dictate to the Creator what we feel should be pleasing to Him when He has told us what He desires from us. Christ’s coming and death cured the problem of sin, and we should be always thankful for that gift. Let us celebrate Christ the way God wants us to – every day of our lives.

lesson by Tim Smelser