Not every supper is the same. There’s a considerable difference between a fast food eatery and a five-star restaurant. Fast food is quick and casual. You’re there for the price, not the atmosphere, and service happens at the counter.
Five-star restaurants are different. These places are formal and deliberate. Since you’re paying top dollar, you expect a pleasant atmosphere and attentive table service. Qualified waiters not only bring your meal and beverage, but know enough about the menu to make recommendations. They’re well-informed about the aging of beef and the best vintage of wine.
God offers us something better than a five-star restaurant: He invites us to His Supper. What can compare with the sacramental union of bread and wine with the body and blood of Christ? Even the finest cuisine pales in comparison. Such a meal requires a server who’s not only knowledgeable about his fare, but ordained to the task.
The first ordained waiters were Old Testament priests. During the time of the patriarchs, Melchizedek, priest of God Most High, blessed Abraham verbally and by serving him bread and wine (Gen. 14:18). After the covenant at Sinai, the Levitical priests served the people of Israel in various ways. First, they fed them the word of God through public teaching (Deut. 31:9-11; Neh. 8:1-3; Mal. 2:7-9). Second, they administered a “sacramental” system of sacrifices (Lev. 6:8-38; cf. Heb. 5:1; 7:27; 9:26-28). Third, they blessed the people by placing God’s very name on them as a sign of ownership (Lev. 9:22, Num. 6:22-27).
Yet the Levitical priesthood wasn’t an end in itself. It pointed to a greater priest who fulfilled their responsibilities. He not only taught the word, but has always been the eternal Word (Jn. 1:1; 14). In place of animal sacrifices, He offered up Himself as the ultimate sacrifice (Heb. 2:17; 3:1; 8:1). And having completed His work on earth, He blessed His people (Lk. 24:50). Jesus Christ remains the Great High Priest who intercedes for His people (Heb. 7:25).
But if Jesus is presently sitting at the right hand of His Father, then who’s presently serving here on earth? Since the priesthood is no longer tied to a tribe, some believe it’s expanded to all Christians. All believers have become a “chosen race and holy nation” (Ex. 19:6; 1 Pet. 2:9-10) called to offer themselves as “living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:2; 1 Pet. 2:9). This is the priesthood of all believers, the service of every Christian.
But God hasn’t given all the responsibilities of the priesthood to every Christian. Not everyone is called to preach the word, administer the sacraments, or pronounce the blessing. The first inheritors of these ministries were the apostles. Both priests and apostles were called to their office (Heb. 5:4; Acts 1:2; 1 Cor. 15:8-10) and given a ministry of word, sacrament, and blessing (Mt. 10:1-8, 28:19, Jn. 4:1-2; 2 Cor. 13:14). The Apostle Paul also described his work in priestly terms. In Romans, he referred to his teaching ministry as “the priestly service of the gospel of God” for the purpose of making acceptable “the offering of the Gentiles, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:15-16). In the Pastoral Epistles, he portrayed himself as a “drink offering poured on the altar” (2 Tim 4:6; cf. Ex. 29:40; Num. 18:7). He viewed his impending death in God’s service as a “libation offered to God.” Even though the Levitical priesthood was fulfilled in Christ, Paul clearly identified himself as a spiritual successor.
Yet the office of apostle was not given for all times and places. These men were part of the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20) and Paul was the last of them (1 Cor. 15:8). They were succeeded by presbyters—also called overseers (Acts 20:28), evangelists (2 Tim. 4:5), teachers (1 Cor. 12:28), and pastors (1 Pet. 5:20). The word “presbyter” even encompasses two offices: (1) those who rule without teaching and (2) those who preach and teach (1 Tim. 5:17). Since this chapter is interested in the latter, we’ll refer to them by the more common title, pastors.
Like the priests and apostles before them, pastors feed their flocks by preaching and teaching God’s word (1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 4:2), administering the sacraments (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:20), and pronouncing the blessing (Heb. 13:20-21). Paul spoke of himself and his associates as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). The phrase “servants of Christ” describes religious functionaries instead of menial workers. We know Paul functioned as an apostle, but what about his associates? Most likely they were pastors.
Paul and his associates were also called “stewards of the mysteries of God.” In the ancient world, stewards watched over the possessions of others. If this is the case, then what mysteries were being entrusted to them? In order to answer this question, we need to understand the nature of Biblical mysteries. Rather than being puzzles to be solved, these mysteries have already been revealed. Paul identified the gospel and the preaching of Christ as a mystery made known (Rom. 16:25; Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:3). To the Colossian church, he described his ministry as “the stewardship from God” concerning “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints … which is Christ in you” (Col. 1:25-27). Thus, the mysteries of God involve the revelation of the gospel entrusted to the apostles and their successors.
Yet notice the mysteries in 1 Corinthians 4 are plural. While there is only one gospel, it can be expressed in different forms. Gospel preaching involves audible words, while gospel sacraments express visible words. Jesus’ words of institution are a case in point. “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk. 22:20). The sensory wine is a visible sign connected to Christ’s word. Thus, its celebration imparts the mystery to God’s people.
Today, pastors are the stewards of these mysteries. They are called to nourish the flock (Jn. 21:15; 1 Tim. 4:6), something achieved through word and sacrament. Consequently, the ones who continue these ministries of Old Testament priests and New Testament apostles should be the ones who administer the sacraments.
The requirement of having pastors administer the sacrament leads to a number of implications. First and most obvious, it rules out the practice of self-administration. God’s people who are unable to attend church due to health concerns would require a pastoral visit to receive the sacrament. A case can also be made that a representative number of the congregation should accompany the pastor, since the sacrament is intended to be a corporate feeding of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:17). Whatever the circumstance, Christians should not serve themselves.
Second, it rules out other officiants. While it’s true that the Lord’s Supper is under the oversight of both pastors and elders, only the former can preside. Elders may assist in the distribution of the sacrament to facilitate orderly worship as long as a pastor is officiating. The reason has to do with the functional distinction between these two offices. Unlike pastors who succeed the priests and apostles in the ministry of word and sacrament, ruling elders follow the Old Testament elders of the people (Ex. 24:9; 2 Sam. 5:3; 1 Kgs. 8:1). These rulers exercised authority over Israel (Deut. 19:12; Josh. 20:4; Lk. 20:1), but their authority didn’t carry over to the means of grace. This means that churches with vacant pulpits may not celebrate the sacrament unless guest pastors can fill the gap.
Finally, this serves as a corrective against the democratizing tendency in the modern church. Some Christians reject the distinction between clergy and laity out of a desire to promote equality. If we hold to the priesthood of all believers, then why would we need specialized “priests”? Why should only a few be able to preach, administer the sacraments, and pronounce blessings?
The answer is that God never intended the priesthood of all believers to displace the ordained servants of His Church. Paul made this point in 1 Corinthians 12. The body of Christ includes many members (v. 14), but not all of them have the same gifts and calling. Some were more prominent like the apostles and prophets (v. 28) while others less noticeable were just as indispensable (v. 22). The body of Christ today includes both teachers and helpers (v. 28) along with many other gifts. As the successors of priests and apostles, pastors have been given different gifts than other members in the church. Unlike other members, they are set apart through ordination (laying on of hands) by the church (1 Tim. 4:14). Blurring the distinction between clergy and laity denies both the goodness of diverse gifts and the unique calling that God gives to pastors. Thus, linking the sacrament to these ordained waiters is a way of preserving this ancient distinction.
Unlike our common dining experiences that vary in atmosphere, pace, and price, the Lord’s Supper offers an ecclesiastical atmosphere, a liturgical pace, and the priceless body and blood of Christ. For such a profound dining experience, God provides the servers. He ordains pastors to be the ordinary and perpetual waiters. Due to their gifts and calling, they continue as the exclusive servers of the sacrament.
 J.N.D. Kelly, The Pastoral Epistles (repr.; London: A & C Black, 1998), 208.
 David W. Gill, “1 Corinthians” in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (vol. 3; Clinton E. Arnold, gen. ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 123: “The word “entrusted” (oikonomos) was commonly used in the Hellenistic period of the person in charge of an estate belonging to an absentee landlord.”
 Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 160.
This post has been adapted from Ken’s forthcoming book, Eating and Drinking with God.
This article originally appeared here.