The Second Commandment
Chapter 11 – The Occasional Elements of Worship
We have considered some of the pitfalls in symbolism. While many long for symbols and illustrations, their use is perilous. Two problems tend to accompany the use of symbolism: symbols are easily misunderstood, and people can pay more attention to the illustration than to the lesson being illustrated. This is why so many remember the parables of Christ even when they don’t understand His teaching, and it is why there are so many distinct interpretations of the parables.
God nevertheless uses symbolism; it has its place. Already we have noted that Jesus used illustration extensively, at times stringing several parables together in His teaching. We have also noted that Old Testament worship, enacted for a time before God was ready to make the gospel clear, was full of symbolic representations of truth. While symbolic ritual has nearly disappeared in the New Testament, we are still to follow those commanded in the New Testament. They may be thought of as “ordinances,” because Christ has ordained them for our use. Examining closely, we find that Christ has established only two symbolic ordinances.
Baptism and the Supper
Baptism is the first of Christ’s ordinances, blessed by Him when He Himself was baptized in the Jordan River (Matthew 3:13-17) and established for the church when He commanded the apostles to baptize disciples in His name (Matthew 28:16-20). In the opening verses of Romans 6, Paul explains the meaning behind this ordinance. Believers are baptized (literally “immersed”) in water to represent death, burial and resurrection. They have died to sin in Christ’s death and they have risen to new life in Christ’s resurrection. Of course baptism in water could not accomplish this; it had to be accomplished by a spiritual immersion, which can only be accomplished by Christ Himself. (John 1:33) Water baptism, then, is an outward sign of an inward reality. It is a ritual by which the church symbolizes the spiritual effect of Christ’s death and resurrection upon the believer. It is, furthermore, a symbol which is well explained in the Bible; God has not left it to us to wonder what it means.
The second of Christ’s ordinances is His Supper, called either “The Lord’s Supper” or “The Lord’s Table.” After eating the last Passover with His disciples, Jesus led them in eating bread and drinking wine, which He called His body and blood, saying that His body would be broken for them and His blood shed for them. (Luke 22:14-23) Of course He didn’t transform bread and wine into His own body and blood; He was right there with them, both flesh and blood, while they ate bread and drank wine! This, too, was an outward sign of an inward reality. Jesus was painting a great picture of His own death, which was a sacrifice for His people to save them from their sins. He spoke of them repeating this symbolic supper at intervals “in remembrance of Him.” In I Corinthians 11:23-26 Paul instructed the church to observe this ordinance simply, remembering the sacrifice of Christ for us. Once again, the meaning of the ordinance is plainly taught in Scripture, so that both ordinances point to the saving work of Christ on the cross.
The Ordinances in Worship
These two ordinances are the “irregular elements” of New Testament worship. While reading, preaching, praise and prayer are always to be observed, Baptism is only observed when a new believer professes faith in Christ, and we are never specifically told how often we are to observe the Table, but hints are given that it may not be as regular as preaching. This is good, since symbols can easily take on greater significance than God intended. Nevertheless, the ordinances are elements of worship, and we are required to observe them properly.
We have seen that the apostles went to some pains to explain the ordinances so that they would not be misunderstood in the church. This was done for the same reason that God limited the number of ordinances: because men tend to misunderstand and overemphasize symbols. The same practice must be observed in biblical churches. The ordinances must be supported with sound teaching so that they are neither misunderstood nor overemphasized. This is why they may never be primary. If churches are focused on Baptism and the Supper as the primary means of worship, those churches will wind up not understanding the lesson God has for us in the ordinances: they will not understand the atoning death of Christ. Thus Paul could say, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel.” (I Corinthians 1:17)
Misunderstanding the Ordinances
Sadly, the church all too often misunderstands the ordinances of Christ. This most often happens when men read too much significance into the ordinances. The Roman Catholic Church has long taught such a doctrine. Rome teaches that Baptism actually cleanses a person from original sin, as though water blessed by a priest could remove the stain of Adam’s guilt! It also holds that the Supper is a magical rite in which priests transform bread and wine into Jesus’ body and blood so that they may offer Him up to God again each time the mass is said. Such errors have an amazing grip on men’s minds, and even in Protestant circles there are some who believe the bread and wine to be much more than symbolic representations of Christ’s work. Some who baptize babies and even some who baptize believers have taught that the water of baptism makes someone a Christian. This is elevating the symbol above the thing symbolized! Water, bread and wine can save no one; only Christ who died once for sin (Hebrews 10:12) can cleanse a guilty soul.
At the same time we must guard against giving the ordinances too little significance. They were ordained by Christ and are not to be treated lightly. Some have taught that the ordinances are no longer necessary, ignoring the command of both Christ and His apostles. Others have missed the critical point that Christ gave His ordinances to the church, and they have taught that Christians may participate in these rituals without any connection to the local body of Christ. Still others have said that the form and manner of the ordinances don’t really matter; we may baptize however we wish and we may substitute something other than bread and wine in the Supper. Clearly the church will always require sound biblical teaching if it is going to observe the ordinances rightly.
Multiplying Ordinances Another danger is that of making up new ordinances that Christ never established. The Roman Catholic Church actually has seven! They have taken good, scriptural practices such as marriage and the selection of church officers and called them sacraments, putting them on a level with Baptism and the Supper and giving them a ritual significance the Bible never intended. They have further invented new rituals never mentioned in Scripture, such as confession and confirmation, and added these to the worship of the church. This is a clear violation of the principle that we may only worship God as He requires.
Catholics are not the only ones to invent new rituals for worship; evangelicals have been guilty of the very same thing. Whenever churches invent new ideas for worship, they run the risk of those things becoming essential in people’s minds. In this manner the altar call has become for some an indispensable element of worship – even though it never occurs anywhere in Scripture. It is not for nothing that this silly ritual has been called “the American sacrament.” Anything which we add to worship which is not taught in the Bible runs the risk of becoming a new, unauthorized ritual in the church.
God has used symbolism sparingly and carefully. The church ought to learn from that. The ordinances of Christ ought to stand out in our worship as unique; they must not be crowded out by human invention. And when we observe them, we must do so biblically, teaching carefully the lesson that God intended.