But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part, I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, in order that those who are approved may have become evident among you. Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God, and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you. For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was betrayed took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord in order that we may not be condemned along with the world. So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you may not come together for judgment. And the remaining matters I shall arrange when I come.
Instead of a detailed exposition of this passage I want us to see only two main things. One is that the Lord's Supper is a celebration of how Jesus established the new covenant. And the other is that this new covenant creates and controls the existence of local churches.
Point #1: Celebration of Christ's Work
The first point is made explicit in verse 25: "In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.'" So each time we drink the cup of the Lord's Supper, we are to remember that the shedding of the blood of Jesus is how the new covenant was established. "This cup is the new covenant in [or by] my blood".
The New Covenant Prophesied in Jeremiah 31
The new covenant was prophesied in Jeremiah 31:
Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people . . . [and] I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
So the new covenant is God's pledge to forgive the sins of his people and to put his laws within us and to write them on our hearts, and to be our God and to make us his people.
Not a Mere Possibility
The new covenant is not a mere possibility; it is a new creation. It is something not merely that God proposes, but something that he accomplishes. It is the creation of a people for God who will not forsake him. They will be his people and he will be their God forever. The certainty of it lies not in them, but in God's covenant commitment: he says that he will forgive their sins and remember their iniquity no more. And he says that he will write his laws this time not just on tablets of stone, but on tablets of the heart.
Two Problems Solved
So the two problems that separate people from God are solved in the new covenant.
- The first is the problem of guilt because of sin (which Jesus solves by shedding his blood to lift our guilt by taking it on himself—"I will forgive their iniquity"—"this cup is the new covenant in my blood").
- The other problem is rebellion—our tendency to run away from God and follow the destructive suggestions of the world (which God solves by writing his law on our hearts so that it is not just his will imposed from outside, but it is his will experienced from the inside as our own will).
Not Just a Command, but Also a Gift
Another way of promising the new covenant was made by Moses in Deuteronomy 30:6, "And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live." In the new covenant "thou shalt love the Lord your God" is not just a command, it is also a gift.
Ezekiel 36:27 puts the new covenant commitment of God like this: "I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances." In the new covenant the allegiance of the human partner in the covenant is not left in question. God secures it—with the infinite worth of his Son's blood and with the infinite power of his own Spirit.
New Covenant, Jesus' Death, and Our Hearts
The connection between the new covenant, and the death of Jesus, and the working of God in the hearts of his people to cause them to walk in his ways is made explicit in Hebrews 13:20–21.
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in you that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
There it is: the blood of Christ, the eternal covenant, and God fulfilling the new covenant promise to work in us what is pleasing in his sight.
"My Hope and Stay"
So the first point from today's text is simply to say that the Lord's Supper is a celebration of how Jesus established the new covenant—by shedding his blood for his people and thus securing for them the forgiveness of their sins and the sanctification of their souls.
That's why the hymn writer sings, "His oath, his covenant, his blood support me in the whelming flood." It may be that in my covenant relationship with God I will take an oath of allegiance, and make covenant vows, and shed my blood. But none of that—none of my deeds—is my hope and stay. My hope is that behind and underneath all of that is a massive divine initiative that chose me, and predestined me, and bought me, and called me, and raised me from the dead, and justified me, and put his Spirit within me, and wrote his law on my heart, and is working in me that which is pleasing in his sight, and will glorify me just as surely as his Son's blood is of infinite value. That's what supports me in the whelming flood. When all around my soul gives way, he then—he and his oath and his covenant commitment, and his blood, and his sovereign, irresistible, covenant initiative—is all my hope and stay.
That's the first point: the Lord's Supper celebrates that new covenant and its establishment in the death of Jesus.
Point #2: Existence of Local Churches
The second point is that this new covenant creates and controls the existence of local churches. I stress "local churches" here not to deny the importance of the universal church—the people of God in all ages and all places. That's true. The new covenant establishes a people of God much larger than any one local church or denomination. When God says in Jeremiah 31:33, "I will be their God and they will be my people," he means that the new covenant will establish one great people of God.
The New Covenant Creates the Local Church
But I stress the fact that the new covenant creates and controls "local churches" because that is the application that Paul makes here in the letter to the local church in Corinth.
Notice verse 18: "In the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you." When you come together "as a church." Here "church" is not the universal body of Christ. This is not the people of God in all places and all times. This is the people of God gathered in one place for worship and ministry. This is what we call a "local church."
This means that God wills for the new covenant to create local churches. The covenant promise, "You will be my people and I will be your God," does not just create a universal body, but local expressions of that body in specific local gatherings called churches.
The New Covenant Controls the Local Church
Paul is wrestling here with the misbehavior of a local church. The rich were bringing their food to the love feast before the Lord's Supper and were eating and getting drunk with no care for the poor who didn't have any food to bring (v. 21). He rebukes them in verse 22 and says at the end of the verse: "Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you." And then he brings in the words of the Lord's Supper as an argument for why they should not be acting this way as God's people: "For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you. . . "
The "for" shows that he is giving the reason or basis for why they should not act in this unloving way. And the basis he gives is a reminder of what the Lord's Supper is: "This cup is the new covenant in my blood."
In other words the local church is not only created by the new covenant (I will be their God . . . I will write my law on their hearts); it is also controlled by the new covenant. The nature of the new covenant shapes the nature of the community it creates. People who are bought with the blood of Jesus, people who have the law of God written on their hearts don't pig out on their own riches and get drunk while others in the church have nothing and go hungry.
How a Local Body of Believers Should Think
The new covenant, secured and sealed by the blood of Jesus, creates the people of God and controls the people of God. And since it is God's purpose that there be local churches as expressions of that universal body of Christ, we may say just as surely that the new covenant creates those churches and controls them.
In other words when a local number of believers comes together to form a church, they are to think something like this; we are bound to God by the new covenant; and not only that, since we are bound to God by that covenant, we are bound to each other by that covenant too. The covenant that makes us belong to God makes us belong to each other. Therefore our commitment to each other in a local church is a covenant commitment. Our covenant relationship to God implies a covenant relationship to each other. God's covenant with us creates and shapes our covenant with each other.
What Makes Bethlehem a Church
This is the biblical and theological basis of the church covenant that you see printed in the worship folder this morning. This covenant was written almost exactly as we have it here by J. Newton Brown about 1853, and became one of the most widely used covenants among Baptists. The historical record of church covenants goes all the way back to the beginning of Congregational and Baptist life on the European continent in the early 1500s.
The Bible does not say explicitly, "Thou shalt have a written church covenant," any more than it says, "Thou shalt have marriage licenses," or, "Thou shalt have wedding rings." But for those believers who are persuaded that churches are to be governed congregationally rather than through district presbyteries or diocesan bishops, the biblical reality of the new covenant leads necessarily to a church covenant as the basis of our local commitment to each other and to God in the form of a church.
A bishop's rule does not make Bethlehem a church; a presbytery's vote does not make us a church. What makes us a church is our covenant. We are a church because we come together and, with common commitments, we pledge to be the church for each other and for the world and for the glory of God. Charles Deweese, who has written the most recent historical study of church covenants defines the church covenant like this:
A church covenant [is] a series of written pledges based on the Bible which church members voluntarily make to God and to one another regarding their basic moral and spiritual commitments and the practice of their faith.1
One way to look at it is that a church without a covenant is like a marriage without vows. Marriage vows are not spelled out in the Bible just like church covenants aren't. Both follow necessarily from the nature of the relationships.
Implications of a Church Covenant
This doesn't mean that you shouldn't ever leave a local church. The bride of Christ is greater than Bethlehem. It means rather that while we are members of this church, we are members of it by covenant—the new covenant creating a new people gathering in a local church with a covenant commitment to God and to each other.
Nor does the church covenant mean that you have to make the covenant pledge in order to worship here and be ministered to here. There are sometimes good reasons why a person does not yet make that covenant commitment.
But even though people must often come and go, and even though some are among us loved and cared about but not able to make the covenant with us, nevertheless Bethlehem exists as a definable, durable, accountable church by virtue of a covenant that the body makes with each other and with God.
Paragraph One of the Church Covenant
It begins like this,
Having been led, as we believe, by the Spirit of God, to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior, and, on the profession of our faith, having been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we do now, in the presence of God, angels and this assembly, most solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another as one body in Christ.2
In response to God's sovereign initiative ("Having been led by the Spirit of God")—in response to God's new covenant initiative—that act of covenanting is the essence of our church. We will spend the next four Sunday mornings and two Sunday evenings unpacking its contents.
May the Lord give us a deep and joyful grasp of its meaning for our life together, and prepare us to reaffirm it together on March 7.
1 It is a substantial revision of the New Hampshire Baptist Covenant of 1833. The sentence in our paragraph #3 which begins, "to seek God's help in abstaining from all drugs . . . " is our own 1982 revision of Brown's addition to the New Hampshire Covenant concerning teetotalism. Charles W. Deweese, Baptist Church Covenants, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990), p. 65. The covenant is printed in his volume on pages 161–162. It is also found in Champlin Burrage, The Church Covenant Idea: Its Origin and Development, (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1904), pp. 201–202.
2 Charles Deweese, Baptist Church Covenants, p. 81.