During the Bible days, the preferred method of assassination was poisoning. These were the days before snipers’ bullets or explosive devices. To kill someone, such as a king or a pharaoh, a person would have to get “up close and personal” and do it with a sword or a dagger.
Obviously, the problem with that method was that the king or pharaoh was surrounded by bodyguards who were bigger than the assassin and better armed. There wasn’t much chance of the assassin surviving that kind of attempt! Arrows were a possibility, but the chance of getting close enough and then getting the shot just right made the odds of success very small.
So all in all, the safest option for the ambitious assassin was to find a way to slip poison into the drink that would be served to the official, and then slip away before it was served. Poisoning was the weapon of choice.
That is why the Bible refers to extremely trusted people as cupbearers. For obvious reasons, a person would not be chosen for this role without having the highest level of trust in the kingdom. It could only be filled by a person with so much integrity that they could never fall for a bribe, never be corrupted, and never be guilty of anything that could be used to blackmail them.
Nehemiah is a notable example of a cupbearer. He was the official cupbearer for King Artaxerxes.
Obviously, being a cupbearer was infinitely more important than it sounds. We think, “glorified waiter,” but they would have thought, “the person the king trusts with his life.”
The more powerful the king, the more powerful his enemies. And the more powerful the king, the less likely he would have people he could really trust.
That is why the cupbearer would be even more than the person that the king could trust with his life. He would also be the person whom the king could most deeply confide in. The cupbearer carried the king’s deepest longings and experienced the king’s most vulnerable moments.
History tells us that the cupbearer in the ancient Near East would routinely drink from the cup himself in the presence of the king before offering it to the king. Why would he do that if he was already the most trusted person in the king’s life? Because this ensured that the person in that trusted position hadn’t become slack in his work.
Yes, he carried the cup, but who had handled the grapes? Who had guarded the process of making it into wine? Who had kept the wineskins in locked and guarded rooms where it could ferment without having an evil intruder slip in and mix something in?
To be a cupbearer meant that you took responsibility for the entire supply chain. It wasn’t just a moment at the table. It was a lifestyle of responsibility and a lifetime of diligence.
Which brings me to the Last Supper.
We all know the deep symbolism of that Passover meal which became the turning point between the Old Testament and the New.
For the last time, the blood over the doorposts was commemorated, because for the Jewish believer, the old covenant was about to be supplanted by the blood on the cross, shed for our sins by Jesus Himself. That is a subject for a different time and a different teaching.
But since Jesus is indeed our King (as He acknowledged under interrogation by Pontius Pilate just a few hours after this “last supper” took place) – and, in fact, He is the GREAT King — we turn now to considering the fact that He shared the cup with us.
This is a great reversal of the ways of kings. He took the cup first, and then offered it to the disciples.
The traditional site of the upper room where Jesus met with His disciples is now called the Cenacle, and it is located less than a mile and a half from the site where King Herod’s palace stood!
We don’t know if King Herod (an evil man) would have taken part in the Passover meal that all Jews were required to share that very evening. But it is fascinating to think that in the gilded halls of that palace, Herod (who trusted no one) would have waited to drink his cup that same evening until the cupbearer had tested it for poison.
In the upper room, however, our Great King reversed that procedure. We read that after supper He took the cup and, after having blessed it, gave it to them rather than the other way around.
How gracious of our Lord Jesus to share the cup of His NEW COVENANT with us! When Jesus said to do it “until He returns,” He included all of US in the wide sweep of His grace, because although the twelve disciples have all died, we the church are still sharing that cup to this day and will do so “until He returns.”
Now here comes the question that brings a shock to us: COULD THERE BE POISON IN THE CUP?
Before you answer too quickly, let’s read what the Bible actually says on the matter.
“…whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 11:27-30)
Please take special notice of the words “MANY among you are weak and sick, and A NUMBER OF YOU have fallen asleep (died).” Are you like me? I was staggered to read these words carefully and hear Paul saying that this act of sharing in the Lord’s cup had caused MANY in the church at Corinth to become weak and sick, and A NUMBER of new graves in the cemetery!
And who had enacted this judgment? Verse 32 tells us that it was the Lord Himself!
When I had read this passage in the past, I had glossed over the PREVALENCE of this judgment! I sort of thought that once in a great while, an individual might have experienced this. Like once in a generation, or something like that.
But Paul founded this church between AD 49 and 50, and he wrote this letter to them only four years later! Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we are told that within these 48 months or so, MANY had fallen ill, become physically weakened, and a number of those had died FOR THE SINGLE CAUSE that they were taking communion irreverently, thoughtlessly, or with no actual intention of submitting to the King!
This is God’s holy Word, and we dare not try to water down what He is telling us! And we must not assume, “Oh, for some reason God did that at Corinth, but it can’t be the reason why anyone gets weak or sick or dies in the church today.”
On the contrary, James 5 teaches that when the elders come to pray for our healing, we are to confess our sins so that we may be healed. Again we see the connection: Sometimes sin results in sickness.
We would do well to tie these two threads of thought together: We share a cup with the King, and if we are so honored, it cannot be just a moment at the table. We each need to take responsibility for the entire “supply chain” of our life. To bear the King’s cup calls for a lifestyle of responsibility and a lifetime of diligence.
Paul said that there is a process in place to ensure the integrity of those closest to the King. When we take communion, it is an intimate act of devotion to our King and to His will. But mysteriously, for those who do so with a dastardly heart? There can be death in the cup. At other times, only sickness (perhaps as a warning).
There is no mistaking the solemn and literal warning that the Apostle Paul gives us. If we take the cup in an unworthy manner, does the King not know?
We are not told whether the illness and death that Paul refers to occurred instantaneously or whether it was so gradual that only the Holy Spirit could confirm that the sudden downturn in the individual’s health was caused by the violation of this sacred covenant. Either way, the rebellious heart is the cause, and the sickness or death is the result.
We are not required to be perfect; otherwise no one would survive the taking of communion. But we are certainly expected to be sincere. He who reads all hearts knows the deepest thoughts and intentions of our hearts.
We need not be frightened that He will see something that we don’t even know about and bring judgment upon us. And we need not be paranoid that some hidden or wayward part of our subconscious mind will bring us into the crosshairs of danger. He is a gracious King.
But we certainly should not be flippant or thoughtless about taking the bread and the cup. To do so with a callous disregard for the will of our King is unhealthy. He is no fool, and He sees our hearts.
Brothers and sisters, if you have been one who approaches the moment of taking communion with a sudden nervousness, scanning back over your week to see if there is anything there to forgive … that is a good start! But it is better to live daily as if communion were in an hour. We are to live a life of examining ourselves and comparing our thoughts, attitudes, and actions with the will of Jesus. If you examine yourself daily, you can approach the table confidently!
To bear the cup (and share the cup with our King) calls for more than last-minute “cleaning up” as the cup is being served. Let’s ask for the fresh filling and sanctifying of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives so that we walk in His holiness and can “take communion at a moment’s notice.”
© Steven R Jones, 2021 April