In our introduction to the New Testament evidence that might have a bearing upon the question whether children of believing parents should be admitted to the Lord’s Table, we observed that this question is not directly addressed in any passage. Whatever conclusions we draw from the New Testament regarding paedocommunion, they will have to be derived from general biblical themes that describe the nature of the sacrament and the manner in which it is to be received. Since 1 Corinthians 11 is the one passage that extensively deals with the proper reception of the sacrament, it is the most important piece of New Testament evidence that has implications for the practice of paedocommunion. Accordingly, we will have to give this passage special attention in a forthcoming article.
Before treating 1 Corinthians 11, however, there are two distinct pieces of New Testament evidence that will be the focus of this and a subsequent article. The first of these is the New Testament teaching regarding the Lord’s Supper in its similarity with as well as distinction from the Old Testament Passover. The subject of the relation between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper is an especially important one, since the argument of paedocommunionists depends almost entirely upon the alleged Old Testament precedent of children participating in the Passover as a household rite in Israel. If there are significant dissimilarities between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper, a principal leg under the paedocommunionist argument may prove to be too weak to support the weight placed upon it. The second of these pieces of evidence is the teaching of John 6. Since this passage speaks directly to what it means to eat the body and drink the blood of Christ, it has implications for the question of the sacramental eating and drinking of Christ that occurs by means of the Lord’s Supper. Though often overlooked in debates regarding the subject of paedocommunion, this passage is a significant piece of New Testament evidence for the manner in which Christ is to be received by His people.
The Passover and the Lord’s Supper: Similarities and Differences
In its basic form, the argument of many paedocommunionists is easily stated. If all children (with the exception of unweaned infants) in the old covenant participated fully in the Passover meal, and if the Lord’s Supper is a new covenant form of the old covenant Passover, then it follows that children should be admitted to the Lord’s Table. Any refusal to admit children to the Lord’s Supper is tantamount to a denial of the continuity within the covenant of grace in its old and newer administrations. Such a refusal spiritually impoverishes the children of believing parents and is incompatible with the greater fullness of the new covenant adminitration. When children are not received at the Table of the Lord, their participation in Christ is compromised and their status as members of the covenant community through baptism is called into question. In order to assess the force of this argument, we need to consider whether its premise, that the Lord’s Supper is a kind of new covenant Passover, is valid.
The apparent plausibility of this premise stems from what we have already acknowledged regarding the occasion for the institution of the Lord’s Supper. In the Gospel accounts of Christ’s institution of the Supper, we are told that it occurred “on the first day of Unleavened Bread” (Matt. 22:17; par. Mark 14:12). The meal Christ ate with His disciples on the night He was betrayed took place in the context of the annual celebration of the Passover feast. In the accounts of the institution in Mark and Luke, the Gospel writers note that this meal was eaten on the “first day” of the feast, “when they sacrificed the Passover lamb” (Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7). On the basis of these Gospel accounts, it is traditionally believed that the elements that Christ consecrated as signs of His body and blood, the bread and the wine, were elements of the Passover meal. The Lord’s Supper, therefore, has clear connections with the Passover, not only in terms of the occasion for its institution but also in terms of the elements that are constitutive of its sacramental character.
I use the language “traditionally” at this point, because there are some interpreters of the New Testament accounts of the last supper who argue that it did not actually occur on the night the Passover was celebrated. For example, Paul Letham appeals to John 18:28 (cf. John 19:14,31), which suggests that the Passover was eaten on the day after Christ’s betrayal, to argue that the Lord’s Supper was not instituted on the day of the Passover meal. On this construction, the meal Christ shared with His disciples on the night of His betrayal was not the traditional Passover meal and, therefore, there is no direct historical link between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper. In his comments on this apparent discrepancy, John Calvin suggests a different construction, namely, that the “day of preparation” was the traditional day in the Jewish calendar on which preparations were made for the celebration of Passover on the Sabbath day of the Passover week (cf. John 19:14). On Calvin’s view, the meal Christ celebrated with His disciples was the Passover meal, though it occurred on Thursday evening (14 Nisan in the Jewish calendar) before the official date of the Passover meal on the Sabbath in the traditional Jewish calendar. The problem with these constructions, however, is that the Gospel accounts clearly teach that Jesus’ meal with His disciples occurred on the day when the Passover lambs were traditionally slaughtered (Mark 14:12; Matt. 27:62).
A simpler and likelier explanation of the apparent discrepancy between the Synoptic accounts and the Gospel of John is represented in the New International Version’s translation of John 19:14: “It was the day of Preparation of Passover week, about the sixth hour.” This translation is based upon two instances of traditional language usage in this verse. First, the term used for “preparation” had a technical meaning in the first century A.D., and referred to Friday as the day of preparation for the Sabbath. And second, the term used for “of the Passover” also had come to refer to the entirety of the Passover week as the period during which the feast of Unleavened Bread was kept. The language of John 19:14, therefore, should probably be rendered as “Friday of Passover Week.” On this understanding, the Lord’s Supper was instituted on the occasion of the Passover meal, which was itself part of the celebration of the week of the Passover feast. Admittedly, there are some difficulties and differences of opinion regarding how John’s references to the time of Jesus’ betrayal and death prior to the Passover can be squared with the clear testimony of the Gospel accounts. Nevertheless, it seems undeniable that the Lord’s Supper was instituted in the setting of a celebration of the Passover meal.
Though it is clear that the Lord’s Supper was instituted in the context of the celebration of the Passover, the similarities between the Lord’s Supper and the Passover should not be overstated on this account. Though both rites involve fellowship meals that commemorate an important event in redemptive history, there are several important differences between them. When these differences are borne in mind, it is not correct to view the Lord’s Supper as a kind of new covenant Passover, as many paedocommunionists are inclined to do.
The first important dissimilarity between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper is evident from Christ’s words of institution. When Christ consecrated the cup as a token of His blood shed upon the cross, He declared “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28; par. Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20). This language is derived from Exodus 24:1–11, which provides an account of the covenant fellowship meal that was eaten by Moses, Nadab, Abihu and the seventy elders of Israel on the top of Mount Sinai. Rather than connecting the meaning of the elements of the Lord’s Supper with the celebration of the Passover meal, Christ connects it directly with the covenant renewal ceremony of Exodus 24, a ceremony that was itself reminiscent of the way the Lord had confirmed His covenant with Abraham (cf. Gen. 15:7ff.).
In each of these Old Testament antecedents of the Lord’s Supper, the covenant between the Lord and His people is confirmed by a ceremony of blood-letting that signifies the solemn bond between them. Not only does the Lord bind Himself to keep the covenant by means of a kind of “self-maledictory oath,” but He also reminds His people that covenant disobedience will require a blood atonement for the sins of the people. Though there is a great deal more that can be said about the meaning of these Old Testament antecedents for the Lord’s Supper, the point to notice is that Christ’s words of institution do not connect the Supper with the Passover, but with the covenant renewal meal that Moses and the elders of Israel celebrated on Mount Sinai. Unlike the Passover meal, which was originally a household observance in Israel, the meal that constitutes the most important Old Testament antecedent for the Lord’s Supper was shared only by Moses and the twenty-four elders of Israel.
The second important dissimilarity between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper is already implied in the first. Whereas the Passover was an old covenant observance that commemorated the event of the Exodus from Egypt, the Lord’s Supper is a new covenant observance that commemorates Christ’s sacrificial death, which is the fulfillment of all the types and ceremonies of the law, especially the sin and guilt offerings of the old covenant. It is certainly true that the Lord’s Supper fulfills the Passover. Christ is, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:7, “our Passover lamb.” This fulfillment of the Passover certainly belongs to the fullness of the meaning of the death of Christ, which is commemorated and proclaimed by means of the Lord’s Supper. However, consistent with Christ’s own appeal to the Old Testament precedent of Exodus 24, the sacrifice for sin that Christ’s death represents is linked up in the New Testament with all of its Old Testament antecedents. When Christ institutes the Lord’s Supper, He does so in order that it might be a means of remembering and proclaiming Him and His atoning death upon the cross. In the New Testament’s understanding of Christ’s sacrificial death, it is not the Passover but the sacrifices that typify atonement for the guilt of sin that are most pertinent. As we noted in our earlier consideration of the Old Testament evidence regarding the participation of children in various covenant observances, the meals associated with the sacrifices that most typify the atoning death of Christ were not shared by the entire old covenant community. Though we may not appeal directly to these Old Testament restrictions to determine whether children should participate in the Lord’s Supper, we may conclude that there are no Old Testament precedents that are sufficient to determine whether this sacrament ought to be received by all members of the new covenant community, including the children of believing parents.
In addition to these two important dissimilarities between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper, there are several lesser differences between them in terms of the manner in which they are to be kept. As we have seen, the Old Testament Passover was an annual observance, which required the participation of the male members of the covenant community (and, in traditional practice, only those males who were “sons of the commandment”). Furthermore, the observance of the Passover was to take place in a particular place where the Lord had placed His name. The Lord’s Supper, however, was instituted by Christ to be celebrated wherever His people gather as a fulfillment of the old covenant temple. When the new covenant community gathers, they gather as a sanctuary of God by His indwelling Spirit (cf. Eph. 2:22). Consequently, the Lord’s Supper is celebrated in the new covenant in a different location than the Passover, and as a regular feature of the worship and ministry of the church. Furthermore, though the New Testament does not explicitly command the women of the new covenant community to participate, their participation is an evident implication of the New Testament’s teaching of their participation in Christ through faith (cf. Acts 2:42; Gal. 3:28). There are, accordingly, a number of striking differences between the manner of the administration of the Passover and of the Lord’s Supper. It is instructive to note also that one of the elements that was consecrated as an integral feature of the Lord’s Supper, the “cup of blessing,” was not a stipulated feature of the Passover according to the Old Testament legislation. Thus, an element of the Passover meal that had no divinely authorized part in its Old Testament institution, has become an essential element of the Lord’s Supper as it was ordained by Christ.
Any evaluation of the common paedocommunionist appeal to the Old Testament Passover to argue for the admission of children of the Lord’s Supper, may not overlook these significant differences between the two rites. Though the Passover celebration was undoubtedly the setting within which the Lord instituted the sacrament of communion, there are too many substantial differences between the old and new covenant rites to allow any easy inferences from the one to the other. This holds true in particular for the question with which we are concerned. Our consideration of the similarities and differences between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper indicates that we need to look especially at the New Testament evidence, when it comes to the determination of the proper recipients of the new covenant sacrament. As we have previously noted, that New Testament evidence is provided for us principally in two places, John 6 and 1 Corinthians 11. It is simply impossible to establish the practice of paedocommunion on the basis of the alleged similarities between the Old Testament Passover and the New Testament Lord’s Supper.
Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of the Mid-America Reformed Seminary. He also serves a contributing editor of The Outlook.