One reason why people have difficulty in understanding the significance of Baptism and the Lord's Supper is they tend to think of them merely as word pictures that remind us of great truths. The blessing of the Lord's Supper, it seems, could be achieved just as readily if we did away with the cumbersome crackers and shot glasses of grape juice and replaced them with a large chart at the front of the auditorium. A flannel board presentation would do just as well, because the blessing is fundamentally found in the intellectual and emotional remembrance of the great truths of the gospel. It is no wonder that those who have held to the views attributed to Ulrich Zwingli have tended to less and less frequent Communion. Some Protestants have gone from the ancient view that every worship service should involve the Lord's Supper, to quarterly and even annual Communion.
Historically, most Protestants did not follow this line of thinking, and referred to Baptism, the Lord's Supper, prayer and the reading and preaching of the Word as means of grace. But even this way of speaking can lead to misunderstanding, and some people think of these things as having some kind of resident power. The means of grace may seem like spiritual vitamin pills that contain a mysterious substance that helps us be better people. To correct this idea, it is important to think of the means of grace as paths to Jesus, as means of connecting and communing with him.
This is not a modern problem; consider Jesus' words recorded in John 5:39: "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life . . . " The problem with his audience was that they supposed the Bible itself possessed eternal life. It was as if the words were magic words, and the physical pages had resident power in them. Jesus rejects such a view out of hand, and tells them that the Scriptures point to something far more important: "it is these that testify about me." (John 5:39) He, not the Bible, is the source of all we need. We can read, memorize and study the Bible and miss the heart of the matter: "You are unwilling to come to me so that you may have life." (John 5:40)
This is not to denigrate the Holy Scriptures; the Bible is God's infallible Word, completely trustworthy in all it teaches. But it is to remember that the written Word testifies to the Incarnate Word, and that is its great purpose. It is the Incarnate Word with whom we must deal if we will have life. Many people approach the Bible and theology in abstraction from the Lord Jesus. But Paul warns us about mere intellectual knowledge of divine things: "Knowledge puffs up; love builds up." (1 Corinthians 8:1)
A person may have earned a doctorate in theology and be thoroughly committed to the great truths of the Bible, and yet the Bible may do him no more real good than it does for the superstitious person who, while never having read the Bible, always carries one in his car as an amulet. It is the magic charm view of the Bible, against which Jesus comes in John 5:39, 40. For the Bible to do us great and lasting good, it must bring us to the foot of the cross of the Lord Jesus, where we can lose ourselves and find ourselves. It must bring us to him as he is offered to us in the gospel.
The preaching of the Word must be more than a moral pep talk, even though it should encourage us to apply God's Word to our everyday lives. And while good preaching involves intellectual instruction both in terms of biblical exposition and an exposure to systematic theology, it must so focus on the adoration of our Lord Jesus and what he did for us in his death and resurrection, that we, with Paul, can say, "I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified." (1 Corinthians 2:2)
The same is true for prayer, whether it is silent, spoken or sung. There is such a thing as saying prayers, and there is such a thing as praying. We may truly pray when we read or recite a prayer. And we may be merely saying words when we speak extemporaneously, even though we are using the language of prayer. It is a matter of communion and focus. We pray in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, through our Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ, to God, our Father.
If we approach Baptism and the Lord's Supper with this understanding, we will be on solid, biblical ground. Baptism, as we have seen, is a means to Christ. And if it does not lead us into a life of trust and devotion to Christ, of our regularly turning from sin to him, we may well question if we have experienced the reality of baptism after all.
The Lord's Supper really is a means of grace; it is a pathway to Jesus. When we eat of the bread and drink of the cup, we proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26) But the Supper is more than a visual lecture: God's Word is never an empty Word; the proclamation of the Word of promise produces the reality of the promise. In the case of the Supper: Christ himself, crucified, once for all time, on the cross, for helpless sinners. He is present in the Supper, the whole Christ, to nourish us by the work of the Holy Spirit. Christ, who physically sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven, from where he will physically come again, is present with us as the Holy Spirit makes the reality of our already being seated in heavenly places in Christ Jesus real to us and grants us true communion. (Ephesians 1:3; 2:6; Hebrews 12:22-24)
So it is that we are told: "Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?" (1 Corinthians 10:16) We share in Christ's body and blood as we eat the bread and drink the wine. So powerful is the supper that those who imbibed too much of the wine and became drunk, experienced dreadful side effects: physical sickness and even death in some cases. (1 Corinthians 11:30)
However, this should not lead us to superstitious dread, but joyful anticipation, because it is the heavenly meal, an appetizer of the Wedding Supper of the Lamb. As in the whole of New Testament worship, by eating it, we "taste . . . the good Word of God and the powers of the age to come." (Hebrews 6:5) He is, after all, already at the door, ready to call us in to the Banquet Hall of the Great King; it will be dreadful for those who know him only as Judge, but for us, it will be full Communion with our dearest Friend. (cf. James 5:9; 1 John 3:3)
At that grand meal, we will not eat strange food, for we will have tasted its like many times in the broken bread and common cup of the earthly assembly. At that grand meal, our focus will not be the exquisite delicacies set before us; we will be the ravished, enraptured Bride, whose only focus is the Bridegroom. The dainties are simply the accouterments of joy, the substance is Christ.
So it is in the here and now. We do not focus on medieval theories about how Christ is present, using Aristotelian logic to explain away what our senses tell us, for we perceive that we are eating bread and drinking wine. Rather, we simply focus on the fact that Christ is present so that as we eat the bread and drink the wine, we do really commune with him. But this does not happen automatically, simply by the work having been performed, ex opere operato. It happens as the Lord Jesus Christ, who is seated at the right hand of the Father, is the object of our faith, not the physical elements of communion. Our assurance of blessing is grounded on God's Word of promise, not the strength of our faith, nor the stirring of our emotions, much less on the correctness of our theory about the Supper.
The Supper is Communion and that tells us that it is a means to an end. That end is the Lord Jesus himself; it is a pathway to fellowship and adoration of him. It is in communion with him that we are changed, excited and empowered, to become more like him.