Remembering Christ's Death

Luke 22:27; 1 Corinthians 11:24-29

God has designed our brains to perform two key functions – to learn and to remember. Learning acquires knew knowledge while remembering reviews prior knowledge.

Our Western, American culture strongly prioritizes learning and experiencing new things because doing so fuels our consumeristic system that relies on people purchasing more education, experiences, products, and services. Remembering and enjoying things already learned, experienced, and obtained is not so beneficial to the economy.

In the church, pastors and teachers feel this pressure when they prepare sermons and teaching materials for worship services and other church gatherings. They feel the need to present something new, obscure, and uniquely insightful which church members and group participants – esp. those who’ve been followers of Christ for many years – have never considered or heard before. They may feel lazy about preaching and teaching things which the majority, if not all, in the church or group already know or have heard before. They fear (or perhaps know) that people in the congregation or group may feel bored, disappointed, disinterested, or let down if they hear or learn nothing new from the lesson or message they are giving.

This fascinating pressure and reality is not a biblical one for the Bible clearly emphasizes the priority of remembering. The primary Hebrew word for “remember,” zakar, occurs more than 200 times in the Old Testament (OT). The Greek counterpart, mimnesko, occurs 74 times in the New Testament (NT), appearing in every NT book except 1 Tim, 1 Pet, and 1-2 John. Even the Bible itself remembers, repeats, and re-presents much of what has already been said in the Bible previously in numerous ways.

Did you know that the NT quotes, in one form or another, from every OT book except four: Obadiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, and Esther? The NT quotes from the OT at nearly 900 times and refers to OT characters, material, and stories more than 3,000 additional times. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible “repeats” what it has previously said an incredible number of times, revealing that a significant aspect of spiritual change and transformation in our relationship with God and one another should consist of remembering not just learning new things. This realization challenges our covetous and idolatrous obsession with learning and experiencing something new.

What does it mean to remember?
Once again, our prevailing Western worldview robs us of appreciating the full meaning of remembering. We tend to view it as the mere recall of information, such as reciting information for an exam or affirming that we have heard certain information before.

In Scripture, however, “’remembering’ is more than mental recall. It involves emotion and volition as well as cognition” (Jeffrey Arthurs). According to OT scholar, Robert Cosand, it “is an understanding of the reality of the past in such a way that the events of the past become a force in the present, producing some activity of will or of body or both.” So, “remembering” in Scripture is retaining and recalling information so that the information will affect, alter, influence, and shape your choices, feelings, lifestyle, mindset, priorities, and values in life.

Consider these NT instructions:
  • Gal 2:10, “Remember the poor.”
  • Col 4:18, “Remember my chains.”
  • Heb 13:3, “Remember those who are in prison.”
  • Heb 13:7, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God.”

In each case, believers are being urged to let their knowledge of people impoverished, imprisoned, and in spiritual leadership over them continually change, influence, and inspire their actions, feelings, and mindset in the present and future.

“When we utilize only rudimentary memory, we operate more like animals than humans. Animals have enough memory to return to their nests and avoid dangerous areas based on past experience, but they lack the capacities of language, reason, and will required to put memories to use toward ethical and spiritual purposes” (Jeffrey Arthurs).

Consider the parable which Jesus told of the unjust manager (Matt 18:23-35). This man owed a debt similar to a full year’s income, something he was unable to repay, so the debtholder felt sorry for him, cancelled the debt, and let him go free. This man who had been forgiven so much then turned around and demanded the imprisonment of a man who owed him a much smaller debt, something similar to a one-day’s wage.

Christ told this story to show how this man had failed to remember the forgiveness he had first received. His problem was not amnesia – that he had lost the memory of being forgiven. It was stupidity – that he had failed to make the emotional, mental, and behavioral impact which remembering such an experience should have brought about in his life. Since he had been forgiven so greatly, he should have learned to be just as merciful and forgiving to others.

It is this very tendency and propensity to forget who God is, what God has done, and what God calls us to be and do that we should value being reminded. We should participate in church worship services, Sunday School and Bible study classes and groups, and read the Bible personally as much as possible – not primarily or exclusively to learn new things but, perhaps most importantly, to be reminded of what we already factually know so that we can strengthen our connections to that knowledge and let that knowledge deepen, strengthen, and transform our behavior, feelings, mindset, priorities, and values to an even greater, more consistent and pervasive degree.

Consider what Fred Rogers (the former “Mr. Rogers” of PBS fame) once did when he was invited to Washington, DC by the prestigious National Press Club as a guest speaker. This gathering included diplomats, key government leaders, and key public influencers. After a light lunch, he was asked to speak. You might think that for what he would be paid to give this speech and because of the prestigious nature of the audience, he would have prepared some significant, insightful things to say which would inform and impress them in new ways.

Instead, he pulled out his watch and requested two minutes of silence. During this silence, he requested that each member of the audience quietly reflect upon and remember people from their past who had made their present, professional success possible – people such as coaches, financial donors, friends, mentors, parents, and so on. For two minutes, he and his prestigious audience sat in silence. As the two minutes came to an end, many were crying softly with tears running down their faces. Just two minutes of purposeful remembering had accomplished what a finely tuned speech could not do.

Why do we observe the Lord’s Table?
This is why we observe the Lord’s Table. Not to receive forgiveness of sins or to somehow receive new favor or grace from God not otherwise possible. We observe the Lord’s Table to “remember” Christ. Paul repeats this emphasis twice in his instructions for observing the Lord’s Table as a church family. He quotes Jesus as saying, “do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11:24), then again, “in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11:25).

He is quoting what Christ said – ahem, reminding us of what Christ said – as he had observed his final Passover meal with the twelve disciples. As Luke writes, “He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me’” (Luke 26:27).

What does Christ mean by doing this “in remembrance of him”?

In the OT, God had given the nation of Israel an elaborate and extensive system of ceremonies, memorials, and symbols by which they were to worship him. To be clear, these practices did not produce faith, nor did they provide salvation. They did, however, ensure that the people would be repeatedly and profoundly reminded of God and his ways. Consider what Heb 10:3-4 tells us about the OT sacrifices, for instance:

In those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.

These sacrifices were never intended for take away the sins of people who offered them, but they were intended to “remind” the people of their sins, encouraging them to abstain from sin and seek God’s forgiveness by faith alone.

This is why the Catholic practice of observing the sacraments is wrong, including the Catholic observance of the Lord’s Table – called the Eucharist – because they believe and teach that doing so results in God forgiving their venial, everyday sins. Yet just as the OT sacrifices could not result in the forgiveness of sins, so observing the Lord’s Table today does not result in the forgiveness of sins.

Only the death and resurrection of Christ himself, applied directly to our hearts by faith alone, can result in the forgiveness of sins, and such faith and forgiveness occurs once in a person’s life, at any place and time, never to be repeated again. Such faith and forgiveness is personal (not attached to ceremonies and rituals) and perpetual (not temporary, but permanent).

Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved. (Acts 16:31)

If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom 10:9)

Have you believed on Jesus Christ alone as your God and Savior? If not, are you ready to do so today? Participating in the Lord’s Table will not save you. Turning to Christ alone as your God and Savior right now at this very moment will.

Since observing the Lord’s Table does not bring about the forgiveness of sins, we do as Scripture teaches and only invite those who have already believed on Christ to participate. As the pattern of Scripture shows us, those who believe on Christ first announce their faith publicly through baptism. That’s when the church recognizes a person as a genuine, serious followers of Christ who may also participate in the Lord’s Table with seriousness and purpose. Only that person who has believed on Christ and identified with him may properly remember him as well.

Unlike the elaborate system of remembrance that Israel was supposed to practice, we as followers of Christ today no longer follow such a system. We instead focus practice gathering together weekly and regularly together as a church in groups of varying sizes – as a congregation, as smaller groups, and one-on-one – to as much as possible so that we may read and study the Word, pray, sing, and serve God together.

Christ does, however, command those who are baptized followers of him to practice one specific “ritual” together, though (we call it an ordinance). It is the Lord’s Supper, as described for us in 1 Cor 11:23-34. And why did he tell us to do this? To remember him and to remember specifically his death for our sins.

How should we observe the Lord’s Table?
We are told to observe the Lord’s Table regularly (1 Cor 11:26). “As often” means “multiple times.” Some churches do so once a year, others (like us) once a quarter, others once a month, still others once a week. The Bible doesn’t prescribe a specific rhythm, only that we must do so on a recurring basis. And we should do so to “remember” Christ’s death.

  • To “remember” Christ’s death, though, means more than to ensure that we retain the information that he died for our sins. As we’ve learned:
  • It means to let the information that we know about Christ’s death affect more deeply profoundly, and tangibly the way that we feel, think, and behave.
  • It means to let the truth about Christ’s death on the cross – his unrivaled, substitutionary suffering for our sins – touch our hearts and change our priorities, lifestyles, and choices to an even greater degree.
  • It means to let the death of Christ, which has already saved us, encourage and strengthen us more deeply to accept and persevere through our own suffering as individual followers of Christ and as a church.
  • It also means to let the death of Christ draw us more closely together in heart and life as a church family.

Jeffrey Arthurs explains, “By remembering we renew our minds and strengthen ourselves in the Lord.” But this will only occur to the degree that you focus your mind on Christ, focus your emotions on Christ, and focus your physical senses on Christ. Observing the Lord’s Table provides us with a dedicated opportunity to do so. Will you participate in this way?

We are also told to observe the Lord’s Table reverently (1 Cor 11:27-29). “Worthily” or “unworthily” describes the inner heart attitude that we should have when we observe the Lord’s Table. We should be serious and respectful, as though we were attending a funeral or a serious ceremony. More importantly, we should be introspective, meaning we should “examine” our own hearts to ensure that we are not ignoring known, unconfessed sins or aware of known hard feelings and unresolved tensions with other people in the church.

If such inner, spiritual, and relational distractions exist in your heart, then quietly confess those to God and receive his immediate and full forgiveness (1 John 1:9). And if possible, speak to anyone present with whom you may be at odds to seek their forgiveness as well.

With these biblical qualifications given, here are some questions you can ask yourself as you meditate internally through quietness, prayer, and song, and through eating the bread and drinking the juice:

  • What would it feel like to go through Christ’s suffering and crucifixion for myself?
  • What did it cost Christ (what did it cost him, what did he have to say ‘no’ to, what did he have to turn down) to die for me?
  • How should Christ’s suffering for me change the way I feel about my own hardships?
  • How should the suffering and death of Christ be changing how I approach and participate in worship?
  • How should Christ’s suffering change the way I treat other people in my family, community, and esp. my church?
  • How should the suffering and death of Christ be changing my daily and weekly priorities?

By asking questions like these, you are better able to “remember” with significance the suffering and death of Christ for your sins as a follower of Christ.

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