In the movie V for Vendetta, the masked man frequently speaks these key words: “remember, remember.” Referencing Guy Fawkes and the failed Gunpowder Plot on November 5, 1605, the character known only as V quotes the famous poem: “Remember remember, the fifth of November…” Throughout the movie, the call to remember is a call to action. V is not merely interested in history for history’s sake (though he recognizes history’s importance and power), but he sees it as a catalyst for the past speaking into the present.
Throughout the Bible, God’s people remember not out of nostalgia or with dreamy-eyes missing the “good ole days” but as a spiritual rhythm for rehearsing and commemorating God’s faithfulness. God builds remembrance into their life through holy days, feasts, festivals, covenant signs, and memorial objects so they will have visual reminders of God’s power and provision throughout their history.
They were to draw from the well of this history as they faced new challenges. Through remembering, their worries of what stood in front of them was met by the memories of God showing up in dire circumstances. Remembering is how God’s people find faith to combat their fears. Looking back changes how we look forward. Yesterday teaches us for today and tomorrow.
This comes up most often today in the concept of communion, or the Lord’s Supper. As we consider what remembering means in this meal, it provides a framework for understanding the active, participatory nature of remembering throughout the Bible.
What It Means to Remember
In I Corinthians 11:24-25 (see also Luke 22:17-20), Paul recounts the instructions Jesus gave the disciples as he shared the inaugural new-covenant meal with them. Jesus says as we swallow the broken bread (his body) and as the wine (his blood) pours down our throats, we are to remember Christ. Verse 26 lets us know that each time we eat and drink from the Lord’s Table we are proclaiming his death. It is the visible gospel. The Word preached is the gospel we hear with our ears, but Communion is the gospel we see with our eyes and taste with our mouth. The Sacraments (Baptism and Communion) are the God-given visual aids for the church.
So then, what does it mean to remember? Does it suggest not letting facts slip out of your mind? Does it mean remember the suffering of Jesus so I feel really thankful or really awful—depending on your church’s view? I would guess that when most evangelicals hear the words “remember” or “in remembrance” during Communion we have a limited and rather low understanding of the word. To “remember”, for us, seems like a small mental activity with little force behind it. But, in the Bible, a call to remember—especially when tied to a covenant sign or ceremony—is a vibrant, powerful, and a participatory concept where we reapply and recalibrate our lives according to what’s being remembered.
“In our Western (Greek) intellectual heritage, ‘remembering’ means ‘recollecting’: recalling to mind something that is no longer a present reality. Nothing could be further from a Jewish conception. For example, in the Jewish liturgy, ‘remembering’ means participating here and now in certain defining events in the past and also in the future.”
Here are two brief examples from the OT of how remember is used as an active way of bringing past realities into present living. To read other passages on remembering see the following: Psalms 25:6-7; 105:8; Lev. 36:42, 45; Jer. 14:21; Ezek. 16:60.
After the flood, God tells Noah the rainbow is the covenant sign that he will not cover the whole earth with water again. Each time the sign of the rainbow can be seen the covenant is remembered. “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’” (Gen. 9:16-17)
The preeminent picture of redemption in the OT is the exodus of Israel from Egypt. This event is tied to its celebration in the memorial meal of Passover. Every year on Passover the Israelites would again participate in this meal to remember who—or whose—they were. The remembrance meal isn’t simply a nod of the head to something from generations ago but it is a visible and lively memorial that God rescued Israel out of Egypt and established them as a people of his own possession. They participate in the meal because they are in fact participants in the reality of this redemption as Israelites. “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statue forever, you shall keep it as a feast.” (Exodus 12:14)
In his book on Paul’s theology, theologian Herman Ridderbos gives us some great insight into the term remember (anamnesis).
“The anamnesis [remembering] intended in the Supper is something different from and more than keeping in remembrance one deceased….It is not a question here only of the commemoration of what has once taken place in the past, but no less of its abiding, actual redemptive significance. Christ’s self surrender is now…the new and definitive fact of redemption which in the eating of bread and in the drinking of the wine the church may accept as such again and again from the hand of God.…It is not merely a subjective recalling to mind, but an active manifestation of the continuing and actual significance of the death of Christ.”
The Puritan John Flavel provides a practical distinction in two ways one could remember Christ’s death. The first is speculatively and transiently, but the second is affectingly and permanently. “A speculative remembrance, is only to call to mind the history of such a person, and his sufferings: that Christ was once put to death in the flesh. An affectionate remembrance, is when we so call Christ and his death to our minds, as to feel the powerful impressions thereof upon our hearts.”
Even in our culture we have some parallels to this active concept of remembering. Renewing marital vows is becoming increasingly popular. Basically, people renew their vows with an understanding they are remembering what they originally vowed to one another, taking in those commitments once again, and realigning their love, commitment, and marriage based upon the vows that are in place but sometimes forgotten. The first time a couple makes those vows they make a covenant to one another and enter marriage. I don’t see the renewal of vows as re-establishing a covenant already in place. Instead, they are reminding themselves in a dynamic way what the covenant vows entailed and how that shapes their marriage relationship each time they remember and live in accordance with them.
One thing that encourages me is the current resurgence in churches of understanding the ongoing application of the gospel. Christians regularly hear from the pulpit and read from the pen that the gospel is believed once for salvation but is reapplied daily as we can confess our sins and receive fresh grace in Christ. This growing awareness of what it means “to preach the gospel to ourselves daily” or to “apply the gospel” might give us some insight as to how we believe in Christ and again receive his grace as we eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord’s Supper. Every time we take Communion the gospel is proclaimed and we believe and embrace it again—in other words, we remember. It is mystical, but not entirely different from the mysticism involved in the reapplication of the gospel daily for a fresh receiving of Christ’s grace and a renewed vigor from gratitude for such grace.
That, in part, is how Communion is a gospel proclamation. It’s not just that we explain the gospel as we give communion or that the elements themselves picture the gospel, though both are true. But, even more, the gospel is proclaimed because when I partake of the bread and blood of Christ it is an act of faith where I’m again believing in Jesus, taking in him and the gospel promises I get with him, remembering the new covenant benefits that are given to me in Christ, and receiving fresh grace from him. My hope in writing this is that we come to the Lord’s table with eagerness and expectancy, believing this is not a dull religious ceremony but a dynamic and Spiritual gospel experience.
 Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011) 799.
 Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of his Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 421-22.
 John Flavel, Sermon XXI in The Fountain of Life (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1968) 1:262.