For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. ( 1 Corinthians 11:26 (NASB95) )
These words of the Apostle Paul are often rehearsed when Christians practice communion.1 It is frequently said that they remind us to think back to the historical event of the death of Christ and to look forward in anticipation of His future return. But does that mean we are just marking time between these two events? Come with me as we explore an idea that may add another dimension, not only to communion, but also to life.
A Scene in Heaven
Some years ago I was re-reading the last book of the Bible, Revelation. I’ve always been impressed with the scene in chapters 4 and 5 where the Apostle John, exiled to the Mediterranean island of Patmos first finds himself in another dimension of the universe. He could read, write, talk, walk, hear and see normally though it was certainly an eerie place. The first thing that caught his attention was a throne upon which sat a being with human shape yet made of pure light. Surrounding the throne were four things that might we might have easily mistaken for sculptures something like Gothic gargoyles, except they moved and spoke. I take their appearance to be symbolic of their multidimensional abilities. John simply called them “living creatures.” In a circle around them were 24 thrones holding what appeared to be humans wearing gold crowns which he referred to as “elders.” Surrounding the entire area was a countless host of beings that somehow John discerned to be God’s messengers, in English, angels. It was certainly an awe-inspiring place even for a man who had often witnessed the miraculous.
Four “Living Creatures” Worship
Like John, I found myself fascinated by the four creatures standing next to God’s throne and wondered what their role might be. For many years I had been satisfied with the thought that because human monarchs surround themselves with guards, these creatures were the guards of God’s throne. But this time I changed my mind. I realized that the being on that throne brought into existence all the beings of creation as well as the very fabric of the universe in which they all function with just the power of His will. He also knows the thoughts of all His creatures. If any approached the throne with malicious intent or broke some defined protocol, with just a word from the throne’s occupant they could find themselves in some far away corner of creation or simply snuffed from existence. So since God cannot be threatened by His creation, He certainly has no need for guards around His throne.
Then it occurred to me that Scripture tells us that angels are highly organized. (Rom.8:38; Eph.3:10; Dan.10:13,20) Because of their placement near the throne and the fact that that these four beings direct some of the events that unfold in The Revelation (Rev. 6:1,6; 15:7) I concluded that these are the top angels. Perhaps God speaks to them and they in turn direct the appropriate leaders of legions of angels who carry out the will of the throne. Furthermore I remembered that Scripture mentions that humans will one day rule over angels. (1 Cor. 6:3; Heb.1:6-8,14) You may think me presumptuous, but I began wondering if one day I might be directing these honorable and powerful beings. Even if I don’t, I thought it might do me some good to put myself in their shoes in what little way I could.
John points out that these four creatures never stop expressing their adoration of God through a refrain which he overheard and recorded. I memorized it in English and Greek and began repeating it when I was not focused on tasks throughout my day. I also trained myself to repeat it when falling asleep, having a dream I didn’t like, or becoming barely conscious in the morning. At first I just repeat the words, but as I imagine myself standing next to the throne of God alongside these creatures it becomes a tremendous experience of genuine worship and has led me to realize that this three line refrain alludes to the core themes of Scripture.
Holy, Holy, Holy.
The most fundamental theme of Scripture is the revelation of the nature, character and purposes of our Creator. Over thousands of years the eternal being seated on that throne has revealed Himself to humans in words and actions that He expects us all to digest and respond to. In this record we discover that is not just wonderful, He is a wonder – beyond full human comprehension. He is separate from this creation and upholds it by His will. He is eternally consistent as well as flawless in His love, righteousness and justice. All this is wrapped up in the word Holy, a word that as I repeat it now not only brings to mind all the ways God has revealed Himself throughout Scripture and nature, but the fact that He reveals Himself because He loves us.
Lord, God, Almighty
This Holy One is also Lord, the master of all creation even if some temporarily live in rebellion or denial of this fact.
The last part of this line can be translated into English two ways: “God, Almighty” or “The Almighty God.” I prefer the latter since it is a more natural translation of the Greek text and because it contrasts with the many lords and many gods humans serve. Which ever way you put it, and no matter what language you put it in, it seems to me that there is no human utterance that ascribes higher honor, majesty and sovereignty to any being than this. The fact that every sentient being must come to grips with the immutable sovereignty of this being is a second core theme of Scripture.
Who Was, Who Is
There is no way to escape that the grammatical connection between the previous lines and the last in this heavenly creed. This Holy One, this Almighty, Eternal, Sovereign creator is somehow the one who died.
Jesus told John earlier the meaning of the words “the one who was, and the one who is” so there can be no mistake: “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last and the living One; and I was dead and behold, I am alive forevermore and I have the keys of death and of Hades.” (Rev. 1:4,9;17b-18) How can this be? No one fully comprehends how this trinity who exists apart from space and time could incarnate one of themselves and allow Him to face physical and spiritual death as part of the full force of the wrath of God due the human race for their rebellion, but these words make it illogical to deny the fact. This is what we celebrate when we take the elements of communion in faith and acceptance of His forgiveness and sovereignty.
Who is “To Come“, or “Is Coming“?
Now the last bit of this line appears in most English Bibles as “is to come” or “the one who is to come”. But it doesn’t say that in the original Greek text!! “To read”, “to write”, “to come” are forms of verbs called infinitives. “Will read”, “will write”, “will come” are future. In Greek as in English these forms are clearly distinguishable. The original verb here is unmistakably in the present tense, “the one who is coming“. A curious fact because ancient Greeks use the present tense to emphasize the ongoing nature of an action much more than English speakers do.
OK, I can hear you say “So what?” Aren’t you splitting hairs here? “Is to come”, “is coming” what’s the difference? Let me give you an illustration that I hope will pull this together.
As the United States commemorated its 200th anniversary in 1976, the year’s events included the continental crossing of the last working Civil War era steam engine from New York to San Francisco. Since the train was to come right by the building where I worked just south of San Francisco, a group of us decided to witness this historic event. The trip took many months, but we kept watching the news reports to be sure it was still planned to come by us. Finally the report was that it will come by us at 11:30 am the next day. We took an early lunch hour and stood by the tracks at 11am. Eleven thirty came but no train. About 20 minutes later I was staring down the tracks at the place where the rails and the trees came together in the distance when there suddenly appeared an enormous plume of black soot and white steam above the trees. A few minutes later a large white light appeared rocking wildly from side to side above the tracks. I shouted “it is coming”. We heard the whistle. then a few minutes more and we could make out the old engine, then the railroad cars. It hadn’t arrived yet, but we said “it is coming” because we could see the evidence of the train in the process of coming. That’s what this verse is talking about.
I don’t intend to ignore the predicted events that will unfold just prior to His full visible revelation to mankind or to say they are happening now, but I think this verse reminds and teaches us that Jesus is in the process of coming and has been since He rose into the sky that day in the first century.
Do You See the Evidence of Christ’s Coming?
Many who have undertaken to chronicle human history have attempted to explain its progression by searching for causes and connections in environmental, economic, political and technological challenges and changes. However the primary factor and purpose behind the plodding developments of human history is the cosmic struggle of moving the message of Jesus’ death into the spiritually dark dungeons in human cultures. The rise and fall of empires, rulers and cultures has far more to do with the progress of the Gospel than anything else. This is a fact that most leaders of the world cannot stand to hear because they have replaced this sovereign God with their own speculations and traditions and are intent on remaking mankind in the image of their own dreams using their own ingenuity and power. Those that do are part of the darkness. But the words of our Lord are that the “gates of hell shall not prevail.”
God is coming. We all stand in the dynamic flow of God’s work in human affairs leading inexorably to a final open cataclysmic conflict that will end in the visible revelation the of the King of Glory. Only the Father knows its exact time.
Do you look at events around you and see this struggle being worked out? Do they drive you to mourn those who are living in darkness and to hunger for righteousness on their behalf so you are driven to your knees in prayer as well as to sacrificial action? Do you mourn for those whose family members are being murdered for being Christians? Do you understand that it must be that this violence will spread to where you are to? Do you see that He is in the process of coming and the darkness is trying to stop Him? Or are you simply looking at the superficial and the things that directly affect your comfort? If you cannot see Him coming and are not gripped by it then I fear you have not let your life be as transformed by the Gospel and God’s Word as much as God would have you be.
Don’t Be Lulled By Those Who Have Forgotten Jesus’ Coming
“Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming. (Matthew 24:42 (NASB95) )
The next time you take communion I challenge you to do it with the awareness that you stand in the dynamic flow of cosmic events. Our proclamation of Jesus’ death is not simply a personal passive event for our own comfort, it is part of His coming. It informs the forces of darkness. Our corporate stand will result in some coming to the light while others deepen their rebellion against the Holy one on the throne. Do not be lulled by those who have forgotten that He is coming and will be revealed and that that He will hold everyone accountable according to their faith in His death. (Rom.14:11) Let’s proclaim it together until He comes!Footnotes
- Also called The Lord’s Supper or Eucharist in some traditions [↩]