|equels are usually not as good as the original.
Time and again, movie directors or music producers try to capitalize on a successful recipe. Sequels are often just recooked originals that don’t bring much new to a particular story or situation.
Not so in this case, as we focus upon New Testament references to communal meals and eating and drinking, both literally and metaphorically. While some of the themes will already be familiar from the first table talk article,1 in which we dealt with some of the Old Testament communal meals, I hope that you can see new vistas and hear new melodies that—while familiar—add new depth and meaning.
Communion Supper: Passover Echoes
I would guess that the most notable meal in Scripture, the one that challenges theologians to keep on writing, musicians to keep making music, or artists to capture the moment on canvas, must surely be the last meal of Jesus prior to His crucifixion. We know it as the Last Supper and continue to be intrigued by its significance and profound theological ramifications.
Actually, it was a fairly simple and definitely a traditional meal, prepared on the eve of the Passover festival that Jesus shared with His disciples that evening. According to Luke’s description of this significant event, Peter and John were sent ahead to prepare the Passover meal (Luke 22:8). Obeying Jesus’ instructions, they set out and find the place just as Jesus had told them. They secure the room and prepare another Passover meal for the small band of Jesus’ disciples—this will be their third with Jesus.
Jews from all over the ancient world traveled for the Passover festival to Jerusalem. It was one of the key elements defining the Jewish experience and remembering God’s mighty deliverance and protection during the Exodus. During the Exodus, the painting of blood upon the doorframe marked the particular house as one where God’s Word was highly regarded. The eating of the roasted lamb and the bitter herbs by the entire household (or a number of neighboring households [Ex. 12:3, 4]) underlined the importance of community in worship and salvation. All this provided the mental and religious backdrop for this significant moment and—consciously or subconsciously—were in the minds of those celebrating the moment when God’s angel had truly passed over.
Of the four Gospel accounts only John’s describes in detail the foot-washing that precedes the Passover meal (John 13:1-11), introducing an important theological element. Service for one another is to be a natural result of God’s ultimate service for His creation. As Jesus shares the elements of the Passover meal, He applies them to Himself and already points to the glorious day of sharing a meal in the kingdom (Matt. 26:29). He is “doing theology,” and we wonder how much the disciples understood at that particular moment. As Luke tells us, they were so busy discussing who would be the greatest (Luke 22:24) that they seemed to have missed both the object lesson (of washing the feet) as well as the reinterpretation of the Passover meal elements to the sacrifice and offering of Jesus Himself.
Later, following the resurrection of Jesus and the powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the table fellowship involving the practical breaking of bread or eating together becomes a key marker of the new movement (Acts 2:42-47). In fact, at the end of the trip from Jerusalem to Emmaus, Cleopas and his friend suddenly recognize Jesus when He breaks the bread before their eyes (Luke 24:30-32). This bread-breaking and sharing the cup was the final confirmation that helped them to recognize Jesus. It suddenly made the events of their journey with Jesus “click” in their minds.
Eating in Antioch: Meals and Theology
Eating together was only one of the key practices of the early church as believers remembered Jesus’ sacrifice and understood ever more of its meaning for their life and fellowship. These meals could also cause division and tensions—particularly in the context of Jewish purity concerns. Paul describes one of the more problematic meals in his Epistle to the Galatians. Peter, after having experienced and understood the disturbing vision described in Acts 10:9-16, travels to Antioch, the most important city in Roman Syria and the third-largest city of the empire. As he ministers in this international metropolis to Jews, Jewish Christians, and Gentile converts, he eats with all of these groups. At this point it is important to remember a vital element of communal meals that is present in all eastern cultures (including also the Old Testament period): eating and drinking together unites people in purpose and establishes a bond that is stronger than many modern contracts.
In response to the arrival of some Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, Peter separated himself from the Gentile Christians. Galatians 2:12 tells us that he was afraid to fall foul of the newly arrived Jewish Christians who—apparently—belonged to a faction that regarded most (if not all) of the Old Testament purity laws (including circumcision) as a prerequisite of being a true follower of the Messiah. By not continuing to share meals with Gentiles and uncircumcised Gentile Christians, Peter was making a loud and definite theological statement regarding an issue that nearly split the early church (cf. Acts 15).
Paul, not one to mince his words, confronted Peter publicly about his double standards (Gal. 2:14). I don’t know if we can grasp the implications of this public affront. To be shamed publicly was the last resort in conflict, and highlights the importance that Paul attached to it. Acting with integrity was more crucial than table fellowship, as the following verses of Galatians 2 make clear.
The direct link between table fellowship and theology is easy to see and again underlines the importance of shared meals. Simply imagine if Paul had kept silent in that crucial moment of Christian history. While we don’t pay much attention to who is eating with whom these days, some of the issues Peter and Paul faced around the table involving inclusiveness, community stretching beyond race and ethnicity, and the basis of our salvation are still hot topics in Adventist theology.
Food and Drink Metaphors: Looking Toward the Future
Up to this point most of the references to table fellowship have been literal. However, the New Testament (as well as the Old Testament) also uses the eating/drinking activity as metaphors or symbols pointing to something beyond the reality of this planet.2 Metaphors are important tools of the trade when written texts are concerned. Metaphors are often ambiguous, making it more difficult to interpret them. We cannot always link a metaphor to one particular meaning. Understanding metaphors requires a knowledge of the values and concerns of a particular culture, but the good news is that metaphors are able to transcend time (as, for example, in the case of the Old and New Testament periods).
The book of Revelation contains dozens of references to eating and drinking—mostly in a metaphorical sense. Revelation 2:7 promises food from the tree of life to those who “overcome” from the church of Ephesus, which links it to the first three chapters of Genesis. Revelation 2:14, 20 reprimands those who eat food dedicated to idols. Looking at the specific context, it seems that this “eating” is not referring to the physical process of food intake but rather points in metaphoric language to spiritual prostitution.3
Revelation 17:6 is another example of eating and drinking used as a metaphor, and in this context points to judgment. The harlot is “drunk with the blood of the saints” and is about to be judged. Revelation 19:18 also uses the metaphor in the context of judgment—this time judgment hits the beast and its supporters, who are eaten by the birds of the sky. This echoes Old Testament references to complete destruction, as, for example, in the prophecy denouncing the descendants of Jeroboam (1 Kings 14:11) that was repeated more specifically in 1 Kings 16:4 and 21:24.
However, table talk in Revelation isn’t used exclusively to describe the completeness of the final judgment. It’s also used to describe the complete opposite—that is, final victory and salvation. This final victory is linked to banquets and meals and free food (Rev. 7:16; 11:5; 12:6, 14; 19:9; 21:6; and 22:17). The one who overcomes will dine with Jesus, who has been knocking on the door (Rev. 3:20). It is good to remember that this is not a potluck or fellowship lunch. Jesus Himself provides the bountiful food and drink and then sits to enjoy a meal with us—His redeemed. The ultimate banquet is by invitation only (Rev. 19:9) and is a fitting link to Eden, where eating demonstrated loyalties. This wedding feast is an echo of the Last Supper, but this time Jesus, the victorious Lamb of God, is sitting on the throne. No more hunger. No more thirst. No more doubts about the character of God. This feast is part of the culmination of the cosmic controversy.
As I think about the importance of table talk in the New Testament I recognize once again the power of sharing food, discovering community, working through challenging issues, and celebrating the greatest moment in this planet’s history. On that day Jesus willfinally return to bring home His children—those who trusted in His salvation (and not their own), those who heard the knock on their door and responded joyfully, those who recognized that divine grace—His grace—is sufficient. I am looking forward to sitting with Jesus around this festive table. Have you already booked your seat around that table?
1Compare Gerald A. Klingbeil, “Table Talk,” Adventist Review (August 20, 2009), pp. 24-26.
2The following section is based on research done in Gerald A. Klingbeil, “‘Eating’ and ‘Drinking’ in the Book of Revelation: A Study of New Testament Thought and Theology,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 16.1-2 (2005), pp. 75-92.
3In a similar vein, Jeremiah “eats” the Word of the Lord (Jer. 15:16) in the Old Testament.
Gerald A. Klingbeil, D.Litt., is an associate editor of the Adventist Review. He enjoys a good meal and appreciates the fellowship that comes with it.