The Jehovah’s Witness Easter
For Jehovah’s Witnesses, Easter is a special time of year. It’s an opportunity to point out to everyone else that we’re getting just about everything wrong…again. The cross is pagan; sacraments are out of order; once-a-week, once-a-month? Pshaw! Local bakery bread? Not on their table; grape juice? Not in their cups; All who believe invited? Well yes, but just to look on. Of course, Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate Easter in any meaningful way.
My wife and I, many years ago, attended one such occasion and it seemed to me the strangest non-event I have ever seen. There was a solemn atmosphere, everyone having dressed up especially for the occasion, a prepared talk was delivered, and a ceremony took place in which no one participated, and everyone packed up and went home, apparently very satisfied.
Fundamentalist and cultic groups spend more time comparing and contrasting themselves with others they consider apostate than anything else. On their website the Watch Tower insists:
‘We adhere strictly to the Bible in our observance of the Lord’s Evening Meal, which is also known as “the Lord’s supper,” the Last Supper, and the Memorial of Jesus’ death. (1 Corinthians 11:20 King James Version) In contrast, many beliefs and practices of other denominations in connection with this observance are not based on the Bible.’
They quibble over terminology, what we call the table; they argue over timing, the frequency with which we come to the table; they quarrel over purpose, what we do at the table and why; they severely restrict participation, who may approach the table.
The Last Supper and The Last Passover
On their website the Watch Tower claim, ‘The Memorial of Jesus’ death was observed once each year by the early Christians.’ This is not borne out by the evidence. The New Testament says nothing specific concerning the frequency of communion services; it is not mandated, though a pattern may be detected from apostolic and post-apostolic sources.
It may be argued the early disciples would have known to celebrate the Lord’s Evening Meal annually on Nisan 14…but who told the gentiles? Neither Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles who, in 1 Corinthians 11 wrote at length on the subject, nor Luke, the Evangelist to the gentiles who quoted Jesus from multiple sources, mention it. Neither mention anything to do with frequency in addressing themselves to people unfamiliar with Jewish custom.
This is how the Watch Tower arrives at many of its doctrinal peculiarities, by sometimes convoluted extrapolations, having no foundation in Christian Scripture, speaking when the text is silent.
Later in the same article they write:
‘Jesus instituted the Lord’s Evening Meal on the date of the Jewish Passover, and he died later that same day. (Matthew 26:1,2) This was no coincidence. The Scriptures compare Jesus’ sacrifice to that of the Passover lamb. (1 Corinthians 5:7,8) The Passover was observed once each year. (Exodus 12:1-6;Leviticus 23:5) Likewise, the Memorial of Jesus’ death was observed once each year by the early Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses follow that Bible-based pattern.’
The early Christians did not observe an annual memorial meal. The institution of the Lord’s Evening meal on the date of the Jewish Passover was indeed no coincidence. However, they have read into the text entirely the wrong interpretation and missed the whole point of this significant occasion. Note carefully, they recognise something was instituted on that evening.
Paul writes to the church in Corinth:
‘For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when 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 also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in’ (1 Cor.11:23-26)
In a Facebook discussion on the question, Bavesh Roger, a regular contributor wrote:
‘In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul repeatedly uses the Greek word sunerchomai in reference to a corporate church service. Here Paul talks about the Lord’s Supper. By “Lord’s Supper” he must mean communion because, according to him, it unites the participants with the blood and the body of Christ. If this Lord’s Supper was a yearly Passover meal then why did Paul instruct them to eat at home if they are hungry (v.22 and 34) before they sunerchomai (come together)?’
‘And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them,’I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ And he took a cup and when he had given thanks he said, ‘Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes. And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying,’This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’’ (Luke 22:14-20)
What an opportunity Jesus, Luke, and Paul had to speak of frequency, but they are silent on the matter. Compare this with the clear injunction given through Moses in Exodus.
‘Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their father’s houses, a lamb for a household…’ This Exodus text relates to the last meal the children of Israel ate, belt fastened, feet shod, staff in hand, ready for departure from their Egyptian bondage (Exodus 12). It marks the birth of the nation.
Birth of a Nation, Birth of a Kingdom
We typically assume it is the Last Supper because it was the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples before his crucifixion. True, but more is happening here. Jesus took elements of the Passover meal and used them to symbolise his flesh and blood in the imminent sacrifice at Calvary.
Just as the first Passover meal and its subsequent celebration by Israel marked the founding of the nation, so this last Passover meal marked the founding of a new community, taken from all tribes and peoples (Rev.7:9,10) who put their faith in Christ, the one who fulfilled the Law. There is, for them, no longer a Passover. There is, instead, a regular and frequent memorial of their ultimate release from bondage to sin and the fear of death.
The earliest post-apostolic document, the Didache (late 1st early 2ndcentury), describes early Christian practice in relation to what it calls the Eucharist:
‘On the Lord’s Day come together, break bread and hold Eucharist, after confessing your transgressions that your offering may be pure; 2 but let none who has a quarrel with his fellow join in your meeting until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice be not defiled. 3 For this is that which was spoken by the Lord, “In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice, for I am a great king,” saith the Lord, “and my name is wonderful among the heathen.” (Ch.14)
‘Eucharist’ comes from the Greek eucharista signifying gratitude, grateful, to show favour or gratitude, (from charis favour, grace, gratitude). Breaking bread is distinguished here from the familiar communion, and we will come on to that, but it is clear the early church held Eucharist every Lord’s Day.
There is no universal agreement today in the Christian Church, one party favouring weekly observation, another favouring ‘frequent’ observation. There is freedom to practice as it is thought right in every place.
On this basis it may be argued the Watch Tower has every right to decide the Watch Tower Last Supper should be an annual event. They will not, however, allow such latitude to others, insisting their way must be right and ‘Christendom’ wrong and apostate. Surely, however, these differences are a working out of Paul’s words on Christian freedoms:
‘Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord.’ (Ro.14:4-6)
The Love Feast
One of the notable aspects of communion in the early church is summed up in that word communion; something the community does together and in communion with God. Brian Chapell, in his book Christ-Centred Worship, writes:
‘The Lord’s Supper began in the context of a Passover meal (Matt.26:17-29) but was also reflected in an evening meal (Luke 24:28-30) and an early breakfast (John 21:13). By the time Paul writes to the Corinthians, it is clear that New Testament Christians are regularly celebrating Communion within the context of a larger meal that is integral to their weekly worship (1 Cor. 11:20-22).’ (p 291)
As has been pointed out, the Watch Tower insists:
‘We adhere strictly to the Bible in our observance of the Lord’s Evening Meal, which is also known as “the Lord’s supper,” the Last Supper, and the Memorial of Jesus’ death.’
Jehovah’s Witnesses regard themselves as sticklers for biblical detail, even calling this ‘the Lord’s Evening Meal,’ but they appear to have missed this point altogether. The Jehovah’s Witness Last Supper can hardly be called a supper. Of course, if they had a literal evening meal, it would prove a scandalous waste of food.
Chapell wisely observes:
‘There are many aspects of early church worship that were derivative of a Middle Eastern culture (e.g. greeting one another with a kiss). We should be cautious about insisting that an ancient church in a culture accustomed to communal meals intended for all churches in all cultures in all ages to commune just the same. A scriptural practice is not necessarily a scriptural mandate.’ (Christ-Centred Worship, pp 292,3)
These communal meals in the early church were called agape feasts, or love feasts. They were intended to strengthen bonds, break down community barriers (Eph.2:14-19) and build harmony and strength into the new community drawn from a dizzying mixture of countries, cultures, and backgrounds. They are mentioned in Jude 12, where Jude describes people who have crept into the Christian community and threatened the pure gospel: ‘These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves…’
Guarding and building up the new society of faith was of great importance but, as Chapell observes, ‘A scriptural practice is not necessarily a scriptural mandate.’ It is helpful to remember, when we compare now to then, that the early church didn’t have two-thousand years of history to draw upon. They were pioneers in the faith that is so familiar to many of us today. These cultural events formed new bonds between true believers, in a new ‘Way.’ The modern equivalent might be the pot-luck dinner, tea and coffee after a morning service. The point is, people bond over food.
What we call Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Table according to our respective traditions, in the early church, came at the end of the love feast. For most of church history the closest anyone came to trying to re-establish this practice is probably the Reformer John Knox. Again, Bryan Chapell explains:
‘The Scots did not simply come to the front of the church to receive Communion from the minister. Their custom was to place long tables across the front of the sanctuary (and down the centre aisle) where congregants would sit as families. Then the minister would distribute the elements to individuals closest to himself,so that those sitting at the table could serve one another. The New Testament significance of serving one another and sharing Communion was preserved by prohibitions on the minister reading Scripture during the table sharing.’ (Christ-Centred Worship, pp 58,9)
Still, it wasn’t a meal, simply a way of opening up the table for the church to serve as well as be served. I have seen similar done in some modern churches where congregants are invited to come up to the table, take the elements, and share with someone else in the congregation. In this we are not always so far from the Reformers, or the New Testament Church, as some would have us think.
The Reformers did a great thing when they gave primacy to the preaching of the Word. Chapell points out:
‘During the Reformation, concerns about sacerdotalism (the idea that the mere practice of the sacraments communicates sanctifying grace) led many Protestants away from ‘ritualistic’ practice of the Lord’s Supper. For many of the Reformers, the routine practice of Communion too easily made its observance nominal for the impious and magical for the ignorant. To engage the heart authentically required making the Lord’s Supper special, and that meant making it less frequent (monthly, quarterly, or annually)…
‘…The Reformers taught the primacy of the preached Word because they knew that without and understanding of the truths of Scripture, the significance of the liturgy and the sacraments would be lost. They had experienced the superstitious views of the sacraments and the nominal participation in the liturgy that were the inevitable consequences of a diminished emphasis on preaching. But they did not intend for the primacy of the Word to eclipse the other elements of worship. Grace preached was to be the context of understanding grace expressed in liturgy and sacrament.’ (Christ-Centred Worship, p 292/295)
It seems reasonable that the practice should vary according to the need of the church at any given time and place. Again, what Paul writes about freedom is relevant. The essential element in every age is not the supper but the sacrifice, not the ritual but an intelligent and biblical understanding of what we do and why we do it. A pity Jehovah’s Witnesses live in an echo chamber, hearing only themselves. They could learn much from church history.
Through so many generations, practise may vary, frequency may change, but the essential elements of bread and wine, what these elements mean to us, and an understanding of the grace of which they speak remain. A great error of cults and fundamentalist groups is in their ignorance of both the Bible and of church history.
The purposes of the Lord’s Supper, or Communion, are many. It is, as Jehovah’s Witnesses teach, a memorial of Jesus’ sacrifice for sin, just as the Passover was a memorial of Israel’s deliverance out of bondage in Egypt. The bread and the cup are emblems of Christ’s body and blood. (Mt.26:28; 1 Cor.11:24,25) The Watch Tower insists:
‘The purpose of the Lord’s Evening Meal is to remember Jesus, showing our gratitude for his sacrifice in our behalf. The observance is not a sacrament, or a religious practice that imparts merit such as grace or the forgiveness of si ns. The Bible teaches that our sins can be forgiven, not by a religious rite, but only through faith in Jesus.’
I have sometimes heard Christians insist Communion is, ‘just a memorial, only that, and no more.’ This is an age old reaction to the sacramentalism of the Roman and Orthodox churches, the teaching that the religious ceremony itself communicates grace, that the sacraments are efficacious and necessary for salvation. I understand, but there is so much more to this table. First I think of three aspects of remembering:
1. We remember the past, Christ’s sacrifice for sin.
2. We remember the present, Christ’s promise to be present today in believers.
3. We remember the future, Christ’s promise to return and unite with us in his fully realised kingdom.
Mike Livingstone, at Explore the Bible writes of our commemorating, participating, and anticipating.
We demonstrate our unity in coming to the table (1 Cor. 11:17-18,20,33-34).
We give public testimony to the message of the gospel in coming to the table (1 Cor.11:26)
We take seriously the call to examine ourselves in coming to the table (1 Cor.11:28)
We are lifted to a spiritual communion union with Christ at the Lord’s Table, remembering it is his table we approach. It is a means of grace in that we meet with him there, confessing our sins, reconciling with others, and depending on his grace.
Chapell observes, ‘Just as preaching represents the gospel in words, and as the sacrament represents the gospel in symbol, so the liturgy represents the gospel in structure.’
The Watch Tower teaches:
‘When Jehovah’s Witnesses observe the Lord’s Evening Meal, only a small fraction of us partake of the bread and wine .. Jesus’ shed blood established “a new covenant” that replaced the covenant between Jehovah God and the ancient nation of Israel. (Hebrews 8:10-13) Those who are in that new covenant partake of the Memorial emblems. It includes, not all Christians, but only “those who have been called” in a special way by God. (Hebrews 9:15; Luke 22:20) These ones will rule in heaven with Christ, and the Bible says that just 144,000 people receive that privilege. Luke 22:28-30; Revelation 5: 9, 10; 14: 1,3.’
One of the most bizarre, groundless teachings of the Watch Tower is the idea there are two groups in their new world, the ‘little flock’ of Luke 12:32, insisting, ‘the Bible says that just 144,000 people receive that privilege’ of being in this group (Rev.7), and the excluded great crowd of Luke 22.
This is a classic example of unthinking following, of followers accepting what leaders say just because leaders said it. A connection is conjured from thin air, they are told this makes sense, so they believe it makes sense. This kind of blind faith goes back to the Society’s earliest days, to Charles Russell who audaciously called his Studies in the Scriptures, ‘the Bible in an arranged form.’ He wrote of his six-volume work:
‘Furthermore, not only do we find that people cannot see the Divine Plan in studying the Bible by itself, but we see, also, that if anyone lays the SCRIPTURE STUDIES aside, even after he has used them, after he has become familiar with them, after he has read them for ten years —if he then lays them aside and ignores them and goes to the Bible alone, though he has understood his Bible for ten years, our experience shows that within two years he goes into darkness.’ (The Harvest: The Due Time for the Unfolding of the Truth)
I beg you, don’t let anyone do your thinking for you. Proverbs 4:23 counsels, ‘keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.’ The writer is referring to the centre of your inner life, the seat of all thinking, feeling, and choosing. By all means take counsel from wise counsellors but determine to do your own thinking.
Jesus, in Luke 12:32 calls the group of disciples he is addressing ‘little flock,’ not because they are especially elect among the saved, but because they are the embryo of the new Christian community, the church. He is referring to their size relative to what is to come, not relative to the rest of the church at that time.
To link this verse in Luke 12 to the other end of the New Testament, to Revelation 5:9 and Revelation 7 is particularly odd. They are effectively creating a priesthood class, ironic from a group that has railed against such a thing from its beginnings.
The kingdom is given to the church, the whole church, not an elect priesthood group. There is nothing in the New Testament about a mediating ‘clergy’ mirroring the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament since ‘We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God…’ (Heb. 4:14; 2:17,18; 10:19-23)
Israel was called to be ‘a kingdom of priests’ (Ex.19:6), the whole nation mediating God to the world. Peter, writing to the scattered church, speaks of those who come to Christ (the saved) being ‘built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ (1 Peter 2:5) He goes on:
‘You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.’ (v 9)
The ‘you’ in this passage refers to the church. The whole church mediating God to the world.
Evangelical Protestant Christians are consistently united on the importance of limiting participation at the Lord’s table to those who believe, those who have entered the new covenant by faith. The wisdom of this is seen in the Scriptural warning to the church, ‘Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of Christ.’ (1 Cor.11:27, c.f. Jude 12) Communion is a congregational act, hence the restrictions concerning unresolved issues in the new community established in Christ, but it is the whole congregation that participates, not a select few.
The ‘elect’ in the New Testament are the saved, however you understand their coming to salvation. The saved come to the Lord’s Table, the saved remember his sacrifice and promises, the saved confess their need of grace and come to receive grace. Here the faith of the saved appropriates the blessing, and the saved reconcile with other believers before coming because Jesus will have reconciliation and unity in his whole church, which is a work in progress (Philip.3:12-16).