Fencing the Table

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God requires his people to have a circumcised heart.

Exodus(30) (Part of the Rescued(29) series)
by Marc Webb(70) on March 24, 2024 (Sunday Morning(336))

Communion(2), Lord's Supper(1), Salvation(82)


In Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall” there is a quote: “Good fences are necessary to have good neighbors.” “Mending Wall” is a poem about borders—the work it takes to maintain them and the way they shape human interactions. The speaker and the speaker's neighbor spend much of the poem rebuilding a wall that divides their properties. As they do so, they debate the function of the wall and how it affects their relationship. The speaker suggests that the wall is unnecessary as it excludes people, injuring otherwise harmonious relationships. But the neighbor argues that walls actually improve relationships, because they allow people to treat each other fairly and prevent conflict. The speaker asks the neighbor why they need to continue repairing the wall at all and in response, the neighbor says simply and repeatedly: "Good fences make good neighbors." He believes that a good neighbor establishes clear boundaries, and in doing so prevents conflicts from arising between people who live near each other. The speaker believes that building the wall itself will most likely cause conflict, by creating a sense of "us" vs. "them."

In our scripture this morning, found in Exodus 12:43-51, God is creating a clear boundary between his people, the Israelites and the “mixed multitude” that came out of Egypt with them. There were clearly those whom God considered “us” and others that he considered “them.” God allowed others to come out of Egypt with his chosen people because they were to be a blessing to the whole world. But the “mixed multitude” were not going to have all the obligations and blessings that his chosen people had. One of these obligations and blessings they would enjoy was the Passover. The Passover was to be celebrated by God’s chosen people every year to commemorate his saving them from slavery and bringing them out of Egypt. Because the “mixed multitude” were not God’s chosen people they would be restricted from taking part in the Passover celebration. God’s chosen people were set apart from all others because they had the mark of the covenant called circumcision. But the Lord provided a way that the “mixed multitude” could join the “us” group. By taking the mark of the covenant they would be able to partake in the Passover.

The title of today’s sermon is “Fencing the Table” and refers to the rules set around who may and may not participate in the Lord’s Supper. The idea of “fencing the Table” comes from the Old Testament concept of keeping the holy things of worship holy. The expression appears to be of late-seventeenth-century origin and the practice goes back to the Reformation. It has been in continuous use in the Scottish Church ever since then. In our scripture this morning, God is “fencing the table” making the boundary clear that only those who have the mark of the covenant could partake of the Passover meal. Without the mark, the “mixed multitude” could not understand the significance of the Passover. The same is true for Christians and non-Christians or the “mixed multitude”, today. As Christians, we are under the new covenant, and as such, we must have the mark of the covenant. To enjoy fellowship with God, we must have had a spiritual circumcision, or a circumcision of the heart. For us today, “fencing the table” means that in order to partake in our “Passover” meal, or Communion, we must have had a circumcision of the heart. We must have believed in Jesus Christ for our salvation. Just like Passover, Communion doesn’t mean anything to those who have not trusted and believed in Jesus Christ for their salvation. That brings us to our big idea this morning that God wants us to understand: God requires his people to have a circumcised heart.

Before we look at our scripture, let’s open up our study of God’s Word in prayer: Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for bringing us together as a body of believers. Help us to be one as you and Jesus are one. Help us to be guided by your Holy Spirit as we look into your Holy Word this morning. Open and illuminate our hearts and minds to your Word and transform us where we need to be transformed. Then lead us out into the world to share the good news of your son, Jesus Christ, this week with those we come in contact with. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Our first point this morning is Introduction. I am going to read verse 42 from last week and then verse 43a from this morning’s scripture. This is what God’s Word says, “Because the Lord kept vigil that night to bring them out of Egypt, on this night all the Israelites are to keep vigil to honor the Lord for the generations to come.” And 43a, “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “These are the regulations for the Passover meal:”

God has delivered the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. He delivered them by “passing through” Egypt killing the firstborn and “passing over” the Israelites. Those who had placed the blood of a perfect sacrifice on the doorposts were saved. The Lord then commanded them to commemorate the Passover on that same night every year. The Israelites were to keep vigil in honor of the Lord because he kept vigil on the original Passover night to save them from the Destroyer and bring them out of Egypt.

Last week we learned that the Israelites left Rameses and journeyed to Succoth. Now Moses records what most Bibles title “Passover Restrictions.” These restrictions were needed because of the “mixed multitude” who left Egypt with the Israelites. They may have been Egyptians who married Israelites or realized that the God of the Hebrews was more powerful or real than their Egyptians gods. They may have been slaves from other countries that Egypt had conquered and used the exodus to make their escape. Whatever the case, there were non-Israelite people now traveling with the Israelites. God was “fencing the table” by setting requirements and restrictions that had to be followed to ensure that the Passover would be kept sacred and holy to the Lord. It was not because the “mixed multitude” was racially different, it was because they were religiously different. It was because they worshiped many gods instead of the one true God, not because they weren’t Israelites.

That brings us to our second point called Instructions, found in Exodus 12:43b-49. This is what God’s Word says, “No foreigner may eat it. Any slave you have bought may eat it after you have circumcised him, but a temporary resident or a hired worker may not eat it. “It must be eaten inside the house; take none of the meat outside the house. Do not break any of the bones. The whole community of Israel must celebrate it. “A alien residing among you who wants to celebrate the Lord’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat it. The same law instruction applies both to the native-born and to the alien residing among you.”

The Lord is making a distinction between who could partake of the Passover meal and who could not. The Passover was the salvation event that the Lord used to save his people from the Destroyer and bring them out of slavery from Egypt. It was only to be commemorated by the Israelites and if you weren’t an Israelite, commemorating it wouldn’t have made any sense to you. The Lord starts his instructions by placing restrictions on who was allowed to partake of the Passover meal. He mentions different categories of “foreigners.” A foreigner being someone of another race and religion who in some way was associated with the Israelite community. He begins with a slave who has been bought. A slave that had been bought was considered a permanent resident of the community and so was eligible, but only after they had been circumcised. A “temporary resident” or “hired worker” were not considered permanent members of the covenant community and so could not eat it. Some of these may have been God-fearing persons but until they became part of the people of God, they could not partake in the Passover meal. Only those who trusted in the Lord and worshiped him could partake of it. Circumcision was the sign that you had faith and trusted in the Lord.

To understand this, we need to go back to Abraham. In Genesis 12:1-3, we see God’s call to Abraham: The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Abraham, by being obedient to the Lord’s call to leave his family and go to another land, proved that he had faith and trusted in the Lord. Because of Abraham’s obedience, God made a covenant with Abraham and in Genesis 17:11-13, we see God’s covenant sign: “You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.” Alexander says, “Those who are circumcised enjoy the benefits associated with the everlasting covenant initiated with Abraham.”

We see how sacred and holy this covenant was when Moses is on the way back to Egypt with his wife, Zipporah and their son. Exodus 4:24-26 says, “At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. So the Lord let him alone. (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.) Seemingly, because Moses had not kept the covenant of circumcision, the Lord was about the kill him. This was a sacred and holy “setting apart” of God’s people for his holy purposes. Circumcision was the sign God required to be counted among his chosen people (Big Idea)

In the middle of giving the regulations for the Passover, the Lord gives a number of specific instructions about how they were to eat the Passover meal. These instructions speak to the unity of the community. First, it had to be eaten inside one house. This goes back to the instructions given to the Israelites at the first Passover in Exodus 12:3-4. Each father was to sacrifice one lamb for their household. But if a household was too small to eat the whole lamb, they were to share it with their nearest neighbor. ​​ The key was they had to eat it together under one roof, specifically under the roof where the blood of the perfect sacrifice had been applied to the doorposts.

Second, none of the meat could be taken outside. Again, this reminded them that the Passover meal had to be eaten inside a house where the blood was applied. This would also keep the meat from becoming defiled in some way and keep them from sharing the meal with a non-Israelite. Third, they were not to break any bones of the sacrificial animal. While this was not specifically mentioned in the Lord’s original instructions in the early part of chapter 12, this seems to have been the point of not cooking the meat in water but roasting the complete animal over the fire. This was a sign pointing to Jesus Christ as our perfect Passover Lamb. Finally, the whole community of Israel was to celebrate the Passover. This was to be a family meal eaten in each family’s home, but it was also a communal meal in that all Israelites were to eat the meal on the same day at the same time. But notice the wording, “The whole community of Israel must celebrate it.” You could not be part of the community of Israel and not share and celebrate the Passover. Every Israelite was obligated yearly to remember how the Lord had saved his people from slavery in Egypt. Because they shared being rescued by the Lord, they were to share in the Passover uniting them into one community.

In verses 43b-45, the Lord instructs Moses on who could not partake of the Passover. Now, in verses 48-49, the Lord instructs Moses on how those same people could partake of the Passover. In “fencing the table”, God was not preventing “outsiders” from participating, but as Alexander says, “he was drawing attention to the importance of circumcision and the covenant associated with it.” “Us” and “them”, meaning everyone, could now partake of the Passover meal as long as they were circumcised proving that they trusted in and worshiped the one true God. By allowing non-Israelites to be included in the commemoration of the “salvation” meal, God was fulfilling his ultimate plan for the redemption of the whole world.

So, essentially, the only persons who could celebrate the Lord’s Passover were those whose family had all their males circumcised. That was the requirement to be able to partake in the meal. This meant that they were identifying with the Lord and his chosen people. They were placing their faith in the one true God and accepting him by faith just as Abraham did. ​​ They were just like one who was born in the land. The “land” here is not Egypt but is looking forward to the time when the Israelites would celebrate the Passover in the Promised Land. Native-born meant those who were born as Israelites and circumcised as prescribed by the Lord to Abraham. This same law of circumcision was to be applied to the native-born and to the alien or foreigner living among them. To be included in the family of God and to have fellowship with him you had to be circumcised. (Big Idea).

That brings us to the third point this morning, Instruments, found in verses 50-51. This is what God’s Word says, “All the Israelites did just what the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron. And on that very day the Lord brought the Israelites out of Egypt by their divisions.”

Both of these verses are familiar because they were recorded before. Back in Exodus 12:28 it says, “The Israelites did just what the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron.” In verse 50, it is reiterated that “all” of the Israelites obeyed what the Lord commanded. Exodus 12:41 says, “At the end of the 430 years, to the very day, all the Lord’s divisions left Egypt.” And in verse 51, it is reiterated that on that very day the Lord brought the Israelites out of Egypt by their divisions. The Israelites were completely obedient to what the Lord commanded, and the Lord was faithful to bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Not that the Israelites salvation was dependent on anything they did but they needed to be instruments of faith in the Lord and his commands in order to be saved. And not that the Lord was saving them because of their works but he was the instrument through which salvation was brought to his chosen people because of their faith in him. Because of the Lord’s faithfulness to his people, they were to remember his salvation by partaking in the yearly commemoration of Passover. The reason these verses are repeated was to show future generations the importance of obeying the Lord and his covenant just as their forefathers did.

Today, we also commemorate the event of our salvation. When we partake in Communion, we are remembering Jesus Christ's sacrifice on the cross for the world and for each one of us. But the Communion meal is also subject to “fencing the table.” For the Israelites a physical circumcision was required for them to partake of Passover. For us today, a spiritual circumcision, or a circumcision of the heart, is required to partake in Communion. A circumcision of the heart means that you have believed in Jesus Christ for salvation, repented of your sins and have been transformed inwardly and outwardly. A true circumcision of the heart involves God “cutting away” things from your heart, which results in the transformation of your life. Before you can partake in Holy Communion you must admit that you are a sinner, believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins and confess He is Lord of your life. Communion doesn’t make sense if you haven’t taken this step of faith. This is important because in the next two weeks, there will be two opportunities to remember Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross: This Thursday, during our Maundy Thursday Service and Sunday, April 7, which is our next Communion Sunday. So, if you have never accepted Jesus as your Savior, this next step is for you: My next step is to admit that I am a sinner, believe that Jesus died on the cross for my sins and confess Him as my Lord making it possible for me to partake in Holy Communion.

Once you have believed in Jesus Christ for your salvation “fencing the table” doesn’t end. As Christians, we are obligated to properly come to the Lord’s Table. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 says, “So then, 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 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.” Pastor Stuart, before he serves Communion, instructs us to do certain things. As Christians, we must search and prepare our hearts to take this sacred and holy ordinance. This is “fencing the table.” Charles Spurgeon in his sermon “Fencing the Table” outlines what each of us should solemnly do before we partake in Holy Communion. One, we must know why we are examining ourselves – it is because others have “profaned” themselves and taken part unworthily. Spurgeon talks about those in his day who took it in an unworthy manner. Some would take it on secular occasions, the poor would take it as a means to obtain benevolence, some would take it out of superstition, and some would take it believing that it would save them. What is important is that we can have wrong motives in taking Communion, so we need to examine our motives before we take it. The only reason we should partake is to remember Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross. If we take it for any other reasons, we profane it.

Next, we need to personally examine ourselves in certain areas. First, we need to examine ourselves concerning our knowledge. We can’t remember someone we never knew. Spurgeon says, “Have you ever known what it was to be spiritually hungry? Were you ever spiritually thirsty? If you have never known this spiritual hunger and thirst, if you have never realized your own spiritual needs, and if you have not known what it is, for Christ to supply those needs, I charge you to keep away from this table until you do know these things. Otherwise, you will be eating and drinking in utter ignorance; and the mere physical acts will be of no service whatsoever to you.” Second, we need to examine ourselves concerning our faith. Spurgeon again says, “Are you trusting alone in the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ?” I am sure that I have trusted my soul, for time and for eternity, wholly to the keeping of that Savior who lived, and died, and rose again for sinners.” He then says, “If you are believing in him, he invites you to come, and you will be welcome if you do come.”

Third, we need to examine ourselves concerning our repentance. Spurgeon continues, “A heart that has never been broken, because of sin, shall it come and remember the broken body and broken heart of Jesus? If your eyes have wept no tears of repentance, how can you properly remember him whose veins wept blood to redeem his people from their sins?” Do we hate our sin and want to truly turn away from it? Do we say as David says in Psalm 138:23-24, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” The Lord wants a contrite heart and a broken spirit so we need to make sure we are genuinely repentant before coming to the Lord’s table.

Fourth, we need to examine ourselves concerning our love. Do we truly love the Lord? Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Can we answer like Peter in John 21:16? “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you?” Lastly, we need to examine ourselves concerning our obedience to the commands of Jesus. If we aren’t obeying the commands of the Lord, then we aren’t truly loving him. When we truly examine ourselves concerning our knowledge, our faith, our repentance, our love and our obedience, then we are worthy to partake of Holy Communion. So, I pray that each one of us would take the time this week leading up to Maundy Thursday and/or Communion Sunday on April 7 to examine ourselves so that when we do partake of Communion it is with the right heart and the right spirit. Remembering Jesus' sacrifice is a sacred and holy thing that we do, and our Lord takes it very seriously and so should we. That brings us to our last next step which is to examine myself concerning my knowledge, my faith, my repentance, my love and my obedience, so I am found worthy by my Savior to partake in Holy Communion.

As the praise team comes to lead us in our final song and as the ushers prepare to collect the tithes and offerings, let’s pray: Lord God, I worship and thank you for your powerful Word. I pray that if there are those here this morning who do not have a circumcised heart, that do not know you as their Lord and Savior, that they will come to salvation. Lord, you are patient with us, not wanting anyone to perish, but wanting all to come to repentance and be saved. So I pray for those who do not know you yet and pray that you would draw them to yourself. Lord, we think about the upcoming opportunities to come together as a congregation to partake in Holy Communion. Instill in each one of us the need and want to examine ourselves so that we are found worthy by you to partake. Let us remember and never forget your sacrifice for our sins on the cross. I worship and praise you for your death, burial and resurrection. Help us to fall deeper in love with you everyday. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

The Origin of Fencing the Table by Rev. D.W.B. Somerset

The Short and Incomplete History of Fencing the Table by Rev. Judith Fulp-Eickstaedt

Mending Wall Summary and Analysis https://www.litcharts.com/poetry/robert-frost/mending-wall