An Overview of the Lord's Supper
"What is the Lord's Supper?" "How is the supper observed?" "What is its purpose?" "What is its significance?" "How often should we partake of this supper?" "What does one partake?" These and many more questions could and should be asked about the Lord's Supper. If one approaches this topic with a humble heart seeking God's will, then these questions will be answered quickly and easily. However, if we seek to justify our personal opinions or group traditions, then we may have to wrestle longer with the Scripture as we seek to undo our prejudice and simply follow God's will in God's way.
"What is the Lord's Supper?"
For those who are considering this topic for the first time, then this question may seem to be a reasonable place to start. For those who have lost track of the number of times they have studied this topic, this may also be an appropriate place to start. After repeated exposure to the details, we can lose sight of the primary purpose for the observance of the Lord's Supper. Therefore, for the sake of all humble truthseekers, regardless of past knowledge, let us consider the answer to this question based upon the Bible.
The Lord's Supper was instituted by Jesus Christ during his last week before his crucifixion (Matthew 26:17-30). This week fell during the time of the Jewish holidays, the Passover feast and the week of Unleavened Bread (Matthew 26:17). The Lord's Supper does share some features common to the Jewish Passover, which also focused around a meal. In each case, the elements of the meal symbolized specific events, ideas, or objects that were of great significance. The meal provided a time for a group's common reflection and the significance of the objects behind the emblems (Compare Exodus 12:1-13:10 with Matthew 26:26-29).
Beside the gospel accounts of Christ's institution of the Lord's Supper (Matthew 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:7-20), we have one other passage that provides detailed information, I Corinthians 11:17-34. This additional passage is a rebuke from the apostle Paul to the Corinthian church, which was abusing this memorial supper. Besides these passages, we have only traces and references of detail. With these passages and a few others at our disposal, we look to the Bible to see what is God's will for our observance of the Lord's Supper by answering our questions from the introduction.
"How Do We Observe the Lord's Supper?"
Desiring to observe this memorial supper in a manner that is authorized by God, we turn to the Scripture to see what Jesus commanded when He instituted the supper, and we look to Paul's rebuke of the Corinthians abuse. Therefore, we ask the question, "What did Jesus do when He instituted the Lord's Supper?"
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, "Take, eat; this is My body." Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom." Matthew 26:26-29
Jesus took the unleavened bread, gave thanks for it, broke it, and divided it among His disciples, which they ate. They also took fruit of the vine, or grape juice, divided it and drank it. In brief, this is the Lord's Supper and how we observe it, yet the Lord's Supper is more than a common meal among Christians. It offers two symbols, illustrating spiritual principles that are key for the Christian to remember and consider at every observance.
Having established how the Lord's Supper is observed, we now turn our attention to discerning why we are to observe it. What is the significance of each emblem? What is its purpose?
From the passage we observed earlier (Matthew 26:26-29), we learn that the bread represents Christ's body, and the fruit of the vine represents His blood, which Jesus said was His "blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins". What is the significance of these symbols? We have learned what they symbolize, but what is the significance of Christ's body and blood? The answer lies within understanding the nature of sin, justice, mercy, and sacrifice, but first let us examine the reasoning behind the similar Old Testament Passover, which served as a shadow, or illustration of things to come.
The Old Testament Passover Feast:
God told Moses on the night of the institution of the Passover feast the Israelites were to choose a firstborn lamb without spot or blemish. They were to kill the lamb, roast it, and eat it. Additionally, they were to dip hyssop into its blood, and strike the doorposts of the house in which they were staying. That night God's avenger killed the firstborn of each house that did not have blood on the doorposts. Many lambs' lives were sacrificed so that the children of Israel might live (Exodus 12:1-30).
The Consequences of Sin:
God continued to use this symbol in His requirements for worship in their covenant. Every year the Israelites sacrificed two goats as atonement for their sins (Leviticus 16:1-34). Throughout the year sacrifices were offered for every trespass and sin. In each case the one who violated God's law was to bring forth a sacrifice, usually a young bull, lamb, or goat, kill it before the priest, and the priest would offer it as an atoning sacrifice to the Lord (Leviticus 4:1-5:7). The temple, the focal point of these sacrifices, became a bloody place, filled with the blood of countless animal sacrifices. For each sacrifice the sinner had to lay his hands on the animals head and then kill it. The innocent animal suffered for their sins. What was the lesson they must have learned? Sin has profound penalties and consequences. Something was required to pay the price.
"For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul." Leviticus 17:11
The consequences of sin are death (Romans 6:23). Every sin demands separation from the pure and holy God (Isaiah 59:2). It is the highest price. A price which we cannot afford to pay. God made a covenant with the Jews in which they offered animal sacrifices for their sins, but there was a deficiency in the sacrifice.
"For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. ... For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins." Hebrews 10:1-4
Animal sacrifices could never justify the souls of the people for whom they atoned. Justice will not allow an animal's life to substitute for that of a man. The consequences of man's sin were greater than any animal could bear, so something, or someone equally worth a man's soul had to be offered. These sacrifices served merely as illustrations of the gravity and consequences of sin and our need for a redeemer, until the true Redeemer came (Galatians 3:10-25; Romans 7:12-13):
"Therefore, when He came into the world, He said:
"'Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You have prepared for Me. In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You had no pleasure. Then I said, "Behold, I have come -- In the volume of the book it is written of Me -- To do Your will, O God." "Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them" (which are offered according to the law)' ...
"By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. ...
"'"This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them,"' then He adds, '"Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more."'
"Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin. Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh. Hebrews 10:5-20
The only thing equal or greater in value to all of the creation, was the Creator Himself. Innocent Jesus was the only One who could justly take the punishment due us. With His body, He suffered what should have been the fate of each human. Through His sacrifice, the wrath that should have befallen us fell on Him. He became our Passover lamb (I Corinthians 5:7).
"Why is the Lord's Supper a Supper?"
Having understood the significance of the elements, let us consider, "Why is it a meal?" "Why do we eat these elements?"
"Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him." ...
"For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." ...
And Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst."
"I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die.
"I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world."Then Jesus said to them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed." John 6:27-58
Just as earthly food gives health and nourishment to the body, Jesus' life brings spiritual health and nourishment to our souls. One cannot help but be impressed with his deep and profound need for Christ while he partakes of the Lord's Supper.
"Are We to Observe this Memorial?"
How do we know that Jesus meant for all Christians to observe this memorial, and that it was not a one-time event which Jesus observed with His disciples?
"For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, "Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me."
In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me."
For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes." I Corinthians 11:17-22
Not only did the apostles partake that one time, but Paul preached and instructed New Testament disciples to continue to observe this supper. Not only were they instructed to partake, they were instructed to partake in a worthy manner (I Corinthians 11:26-32). This is part of the pattern that God left for us to obey in the New Testament.
"About What Should I Think While Partaking?"
In addition to considering the lesson behind the symbols of the Lord's Supper, the apostle Paul referenced related thoughts for complimentary consideration:
"For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes. Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.
"But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. "For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world." I Corinthians 11:26-32
In addition to considering the sacrifice of Christ, we are to consider the implications upon our lives. We are to judge ourselves. Are we partaking in a worthy manner? No one is worthy of the sacrifice of Christ. It is truly a gift (Romans 6:23), but the manner in which we partake is to be worthy. Are we giving all diligence to follow and obey Christ? Or, is our commitment a halfhearted commitment? By using the supper as an opportunity to reflect upon lives, we judge ourselves now, repent of our sins, gain forgiveness through Christ's blood, and avoid the condemnation of God. Therefore, the supper serves as a time to focus on our priorities, commitment, and the direction we are taking in our life.
Also, the supper serves as a means to "proclaim the Lord's death till He comes". In addition to being a reflective memorial, both past and inward, it is a forward-looking memorial that is to be observed until He returns. The hope extended by Christ's sacrifice is a powerful, buoyant ideal that helps to keep our heads above the water until the Last Day.
"How Often Should We Observe the Lord's Supper?"
Once we learn the significance, the blessings, and the way of observing the Lord's Supper, one question naturally follows, "How often are we to observe it?" We know the New Testament disciples observed it with some frequency (I Corinthians 11:17-22), but what was the frequency? To answer this question, we turn to a New Testament example of the disciples observing the Lord's supper.
"Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight." Acts 20:7
The disciples came together on the first day of the week for the purpose of breaking bread. The phrase, "breaking bread" is a figure of the breaking and distributing of bread that is referenced in the institution of the Lord's supper (Matthew 26:26-29). We know this could not refer to a common meal because New Testament Christians were rebuked for eating common meals at assemblies, noting that their homes were intended for such social occasions (I Corinthians 11:17-22; 34).
Since they came together not on "the first day of the month", or the "first day of the year", but on the "first day of the week", what must be the frequency that God is communicating to us through this example? If we desire to adhere to the New Testament pattern, will we not also observe the Lord's Supper every "first day of the week"?
One might ask, "How do we know this is what God intended?". It is true that we have no direct statement for the frequency of observance. We are left without direct command, so are we to presume that God did not care? All we have is this single example of the occasion of its observance (Acts 20:7).
First, we must recall the deliberate and flawless wording of the Bible, authored not by man but by God. Second, God instructed us to observe apostolic examples as part of the pattern for our lives as Christians (Philippians 3:17; 4:9) . Third, we must not presume that any word is meaningless or incidental without reason to dismiss as material to another topic. As divinely illustrated, Jesus based one of His answers to the Pharisees questions on the tense of a verb and another upon the plurality of a noun (Matthew 22:23-33; John 10:31-36). Paul also based one of his logical arguments upon the plurality of a single word (Galatians 3:16). God's Word is intended and able to be studied with incredible scrutiny. God does not make any mistakes, or write anything rashly. Such conclusions challenge our faith in God and His Word, but the "just shall live by faith" (Hebrews 10:38).
Understandably, because many truthseekers' backgrounds are steeped in human traditions, many will question such a conclusion because it contradicts their beliefs. Consequently, several questions that would be naturally raised in response to this conclusion will be provided in a future article.
"Why Is the Supper Also Called 'Communion'?"
In the few Bible references to this supper, it is typically called "breaking bread" (Acts 2:46; 20:7) or just the "Lord's Supper" (I Corinthians 11:27). Jude 12 may contain a brief reference to the supper as the "love feast". Many disciples today use other names for this supper. These names may be appropriate, if they are rooted in Bible based ideas. However, human names communicating human notions and opinion have no place in the Christian's vocabulary.
The usage of the title, "communion", is probably based on its usage in I Corinthians 10:15-16:
"The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread." I Corinthians 10:15-16
The word communion means a sharing together, joint participation, or fellowship. The Lord's Supper was intended to be taken together in a local church (I Corinthians 11:17-22,33). Therefore, the word communion aptly describes the sharing in which we all participate in observing the Lord's body and blood.
Although some difficult questions can be raised that require much study to answer, the significance, elements, application, and frequency of observing the Lord's Supper are clearly detailed in Scripture. The supper was given to Christians as a memorial to help remember the significance and relevance of Christ's death to our lives. It provides a time of recalibrating our priorities in accordance with the profound application that is necessitated by our commitment to following Christ. The unleavened bread and fruit of the vine symbolize His body and blood that was offered in our stead for the remission of our sins. As we partake in this meal, we must not neglect to focus on our profound spiritual need for the spiritual nourishment that is provided for our souls in the life, teaching, and sacrifice of Christ.
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