Maranatha is an important but much neglected phrase among Christians today. It is nowhere near as popular as other biblical Semitic phrases like hallelujah, hosanna, Abba and the ever ubiquitous amen. It appears in a few songs and is briefly mentioned in the odd sermon with a quick explanation of what it means. “Marana tha” is an Aramaic phrase that means “our Lord, come!” Even though it appears only once in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 16:22, the scholarly evidence suggests that it is very significant for a number of reasons.
Since Paul used it without translation or explanation to the Greek-speaking Corinthian church, it was already a well-known expression even among Gentile Christians. It therefore likely originated from the original Jerusalem church which spoke Aramaic. It is amazing to think that it was an expression that would have been used by the likes of Peter, James and Mary, people who actually knew Jesus or at least knew someone who knew him. The fact it was preserved from the pioneers of the faith across the early church tells us it was significant to them. It is what scholars call a liturgical formula, that is a common standard expression they used in worship that expressed their core beliefs. More specifically, the evidence suggests maranatha was an appeal that was part of a prayer used at the end of the Lord’s Supper.
Today, even though we all partake in the Lord’s Supper, unlike the New Testament church maranatha does not feature in how we conduct the rite. On its own, the phrase is significant but when it is put back into the proper context of the Eucharist, we gain a fuller understanding of both what it and the meal mean. It also has implications for what it means for the church to gather. Paul says regarding the traditions surrounding Lord’s Supper he received (1 Corinthians 11:23),
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26 ESV, italics mine)
Paul was echoing Jesus’ own words to do it “in remembrance of me” and his desire to eat it with them “when the kingdom of God comes” (1 Corinthians 11:25, Luke 22:16, 19.) So even though today we usually do not associate them, the Lord’s Supper originally anticipated the Lord’s return. Also, the tradition of appealing “maranatha!” certainly fits the meaning of the meal as it was instituted by Jesus himself. It looks both backwards and forwards. Implicit in praying maranatha at the end of meal, is the recognition of a present reality, that Jesus who died is now the risen Lord. In partaking of the Lord’s Supper, we remember a past event, Christ’s death for us, acknowledge a present reality, that he is now Lord, and anticipate a future event, which is our Lord’s return.
The Lord’s Supper uniquely connects the past, the present and the future. This is because it encapsulates a particular view of history, where it is heading and what it means, uniquely in the person and story of Jesus of Nazareth. The death, resurrection and exaltation of the Messiah inaugurates the end of this world and the emergence of a new age. His return is the full realization of the age to come. The Lord’s Supper has this eschatological outlook. This means it is the end time meal, shared among believers, in anticipation of their Lord’s coming where they will have fellowship with him in person, in a new creation. The Lord’s Supper is an end time meal for an end time gathering.
I have been suggesting that the nature of the Lord’s Supper characterizes the nature of our assembly. This is because I think it is the centre piece of Christian gatherings. For one, Paul assumed whenever believers assembled they would share the common meal. This at least suggests it was a consistent feature of their gatherings. Jesus himself ordained the meal as the means to remember him by until he comes again. Since he calls us to gather in his name, the Lord’s Supper is explicitly how he wants us to acknowledge him. This underscores that the meal is essential to Christian assembly.
So what is church then? It is the in-person gathering of faithful believers awaiting their now absent Lord’s return, a purpose which is realized as they partake in the meal he gave them. Presently, when we share the common meal it is without him but he has not left us without the promise that one day he will return to share it with us, in person and in his kingdom. Because of this hope we end the Lord’s Supper with the prayer “maranatha”, our Lord, come!
Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians – Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, p. 527, IVP, 2008.
 Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, pp. 110, 174-175, Eerdmans, 2003.
 Ibid., p. 173.
 Ben Witherington III, Making a Meal of it, p. 58, Baylor University Press, 2007.