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Staring at the sun

If, like me, you attend a nonconformist church you might have noticed that at the Lord's Table those who give thanks for the cup have more to say than those who give thanks for the bread. The wine, as a representation of the blood of the Lord Jesus, is an image that stirs the imagination and the emotions. The sacrificial imagery of the Old Testament also provides a rich seam of thought for the prayers of thanksgiving but for many who officiate at the Table, giving thanks for the bread is not so easy. The privilege of giving thanks for the 'broken body' of the Lord, represented by the bread, is rendered even more difficult by the fact that, to all intents and purposes, his body was not … well, broken. After all, the Scriptures say, that 'not one of His bones shall be broken’ (Jn 19:36 c.f. Ex. 12:46; Num 9:12; Ps 34:20).

This article intends to show that the symbolism of the bread is as meaningful and potent as the wine but in order to make that case, we will need to look not only at the biblical material but also at some non-biblical Jewish texts, such as the Mishnah and the Talmud.

Covenant Blood

The first thing to bear in mind is that the bread and wine are both symbols of the New Covenant that God established with 'the house of Israel and the house of Judah' (Jeremiah 31:31ff). Although the New Covenant is superior in every important respect to the covenant made with Israel at Sinai, there are some significant similarities. In order for there to be a covenant certain elements and ordinances need to be present. In the account of the establishing of God's covenant with Israel at Sinai, three ordinances are apparent in Exodus 24. The first is sacrificial blood: 'Moses took half the blood and put it in basins, and half the blood he sprinkled on the altar… And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, “This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words”. (Ex. 24:6ff)

In the ancient Middle East, covenants were established through religious ceremonies that involved the ritual slaughter of animals. In his commentary on Exodus, Philip Graham Ryken explains, 'Animals were sacrificed. Then their blood was sprinkled on the people, and also on God, represented by his altar. Both parties were undertaking a covenant commitment. The covenant was not signed but was sealed in blood, which showed that the whole arrangement was a matter of life or death. (Exodus: Saved for God's Glory, Crossway Books, p. 783).

Covenant Banquet

In Exodus 24:9ff, Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and seventy elders of Israel eat a fellowship meal in the presence of God on Mount Sinai. From the biblical narrative it is not clear if the food they ate was from the sacrifices that had been offered at base camp or whether it was supernaturally created but, either way, the meal was provided by God. David rejoiced in Psalm 23:5 that the Lord, who was his shepherd, prepared a table for him in the very presence of his enemies. The table provided protection. In Bible times, to be invited to a meal in someone's home was a great honour. The highest courtesy was shown to the guests, who could be secure in the knowledge that their host would not soon become their enemy. To harm a guest or for a guest to betray a host was a heinous crime, which made Judas's betrayal of the Lord even more terrible. So, on Mount Sinai, God's seventy-four honoured guests could eat and drink in the knowledge that their heavenly host would not raise his hand against them.

As a covenant fellowship meal, the table at which Israel's prophet, priests and elders ate prefigured the Table of the Lord. Each time believers gather at the Lord's Table, they can be certain that God's hand will not be against them unless they 'eat and drink in an unworthy manner … not discerning the Lord's body. (see 1 Cor. 11:17-33)

 

Covenant Bread

After the fellowship meal, Aaron, his sons and the seventy elders returned to the Israelite camp while Moses ascended the mountain to be shown the pattern for the tabernacle. Exodus 25 consists of instructions for constructing three main pieces of furniture for the tabernacle: the ark of the covenant, the menorah and, what the Authorised Version calls, the 'table of showbread'. Moses was instructed also to make pure gold dishes, pans, pitchers and 'bowls for pouring'. The prescribed offerings that were 'poured' were the 'drink offerings' which in Exodus 29:40, Leviticus 23:13, Numbers 15 and everywhere else consisted of wine. It would seem, therefore, that both bread and wine were present on the table in the tabernacle.

In Leviticus 24:5-9, the sacrificial nature of the showbread becomes clear. Every Sabbath, twelve unleavened wafers were to be set on the table with 'pure frankincense on each row, that it may be on the bread for a memorial, an offering made by fire to the LORD . There were two kinds of offerings in the tabernacle – bloody and unbloody – and the showbread was 'most holy … from the [unbloody] offerings of the LORD made by fire, by a perpetual statute' (Lev 25:9).

It is highly likely that the showbread and the wine served as memorials of the covenant fellowship meal on Mount Sinai when Moses and those with him saw God.

The Passover meal itself was of course a memorial of the exodus from Egypt and the Mishnah refers to the Passover lamb as 'the body': 'In the temple they used to bring the body of the Passover-offering before him' (Pesachim 114a).

At the final Passover meal that Jesus ate with his disciples, he declared that the broken matzah was his body, thus switching the focus from the lamb to the bread. Although Jesus is the Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7), since his death his people have remembered his sacrifice by eating bread, not lamb.

The Bread of the Face

Most Bible versions refer to the show bread as the 'Bread of the Presence' but the literal meaning of the Hebrew Lechem ha Panim is Bread of the Face. If, as I have suggested, the showbread and the wine on the table in the tabernacle were memorials of the covenant fellowship meal Aaron and his sons ate on Mount Sinai, in all probability the Bread of the Face commemorated the astonishing fact that they 'saw God'.

Three times in the year, says Exodus 23:17, all Israel's males had to 'appear before God'.

The literal meaning of the Hebrew text is, at the three 'pilgrim festivals' of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles, the men of Israel were to go to Jerusalem to 'see the face of God.

In Psalm 42:2, the Psalmist cries, 'My soul thirsts for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God.' In verse 4 he recalls the times he used to go with the multitude to the house of God, 'with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast.' The Revised Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version and Young's Literal Translation all translate verse 2 literally, 'When will I see the face of God?'

In the Talmudic tractate Menachot, there is a discussion about the purity of the menorah and the table of showbread and whether those pieces of holy furniture can become unclean. In Menachot 29a there is a remarkable statement: … 'they used to lift it [the table of showbread] up and exhibit the Shewbread on it to those who came up for the festivals, saying to them, Behold, God's love for you!' (emphasis added).

No one except a priest was allowed to enter the holy place and view the sacred objects, so removing an item from the sanctuary was an astonishing breach of temple etiquette. Why did the priests break temple protocol in such an apparently blatant manner by removing the holy table? Any answer must to some degree be guesswork but it might help if we remember that, according to Exodus 23:17, the Israelite pilgrims had travelled to Jerusalem to 'see the face of God'. Apart from the bread being a symbol of God's covenant with Israel and a reminder of the heavenly banquet on Mount Sinai, the bread was the 'Bread of the Face'. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the greatest expression of the love of God is the shining of his face. Psalm 67 begins with a prayer for God to 'make his face shine' on Israel, while three times in Psalm 80 the poet repeats this plea to God.

Perhaps the table was brought out at the time the high priest pronounced the benediction of Number 6:24-26: 'The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make His face [panim] shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up His countenance [panim] upon you, and give you peace.'

The sunshine of his face

Some of the great hymn writers have seen the connection between the communion table and our beholding the face of God there. They may not have arrived at that truth from the same direction as this study has but they saw the link nevertheless. Consider Charles Haddon Spurgeon's beautiful communion hymn 'Amidst us our Beloved stands' in which he sees the Lord's Supper as a face-to-face encounter with Jesus: If now, with eyes defiled and dim,/We see the signs, but see not Him;/O may His love the scales displace,/And bid us see Him face to face!

Horatius Bonar employs the same imagery in his equally moving communion hymn: Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face;/here would I touch and handle things unseen … Here would I feed upon the Bread of God,/here drink with thee the royal Wine of heaven.

Believers in Messiah come to the Table of the Lord to eat and drink in his presence, and because we are his guests his hand will not be against us. Indeed, we are favoured with a fellowship more intimate than that enjoyed by Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and seventy elders of Israel. Looking up, they saw God through a sapphire-blue heavenly expanse, whereas those who eat the New Covenant banquet are taken higher, like the apostle John who witnessed the same realities from the vantage point of heaven itself. The firmament through which the elders of Israel saw God was in all likelihood the 'sea of glass' which John saw before God's throne (Rev. 4:6).

 

The bread we eat is not only the Bread of the Face but also the body of our Saviour in whom we behold the love of our God. 'We have an altar,' says Hebrews 13:10, 'from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.'Messiah's body became the 'most holy offering' and the memorial meal a 'perpetual statute' for us.

 

Just as no one can stare at the sun without being blinded, so no man can see God's face and live but Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:6, that 'the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness … has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.' It is at the communion table, as we focus on the meaning of the bread and wine, that we may safely stare at the sun and see the love of our God most clearly.

 

Yours for the salvation of Israel.

This article was first published in the Spring Herald 2012

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