The Lord's Supper


Introduction

The first Christians were marked by persevering “in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, in breaking of bread, and prayers” (Acts 2: 42). The fellowship in which they were found and the teaching to which they were subject are therefore classed together. Then, as flowing from this, there are the practical matters which characterized them—the breaking of bread, and prayers—for the omission of the conjunction and before “breaking of bread”, makes that and “prayers” to be characteristic actions of the Assembly (or Church). This immediately raises questions with both reader and writer as to what characterises the Christian community with which he or she is practically associated. There may be teaching and fellowship, but is it such as the apostles would recognise? Again, there may be many practical things going on, but is the company characterised by prayers and the breaking of bread? Nor should it be forgotten that it is possible for the practical matters (and our subject here is particularly the breaking of bread) to be taking place but in a setting where the teaching and fellowship is adrift from both the letter and spirit of Scripture.

The Lord’s Supper

To be preserved from formalism and the thoughts of men, we need to get it established in our souls that the breaking of bread is also the Lord’s supper. Scriptural terminology is critically important, and you will invariably find that the spiritual state is poor (though perhaps not acknowledged) where the “words … taught by the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2: 13) are viewed as of little or no consequence. Now the word supper is a translation of the Greek word deipnon and refers to the principle meal of the day. Thus when the Lord was made a supper at Bethany (see John 12: 2), it was no mere light refreshment, but a distinct honour paid to Him. Lazarus, Martha and Mary did it for the Lord, and, in essence, the supper provided belonged to the Lord. That meal was six days before the Passover, and therefore preceded the institution of what we now know as “[the] Lord’s supper” (1 Cor. 11: 20) but the principles are essentially the same. When we come to the actual ordinance itself, some think that it is the very fact that the Lord instituted it Himself that caused the apostle to describe it as “[the] Lord’s” (my emphasis), but this overlooks the context in which the expression is found. The Corinthian saints, in assembling together, were “each one in eating” taking “his own supper before [others]” (v21, my emphasis), and it is clear that this is contrasted with “[the] Lord’s supper” of the previous verse. Since the expression occurs nowhere else in Scripture, “[the] Lord’s supper” clearly has in mind a feast that belongs to Him. There is also a parallel with the “feasts of Jehovah” (Lev. 23: 4), which by the Lord’s time has become the feasts of the Jews (see John 5: 1; 6: 4; 7: 2). This change in language was necessary because “this people draw near with their mouth, and honour me with their lips, but their heart is removed far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught of men” (Is. 29: 13). With this in mind, it is better to avoid abbreviated terminology when referring to the breaking of bread. Scripture never refers to it as the ‘supper’ but the ‘Lord’s supper’, and the word Lord is all–important for it serves to help prevent us forgetting that we have to do with Him and not just our brethren. Sadly, the mere form of things may be kept up long after spiritual power has departed.

The Breaking of Bread

The breaking of bread is the only other descriptor given to the Lord’s supper, and clearly refers to the practical act associated with it. The term in itself was nothing new, and the Jews were certainly familiar with it (see Lam. 4: 4; Matt. 14: 19; 15: 36; Mark 8: 6, 19). At root, it simply means to break a loaf into manageable pieces (the Lord’s supper was instituted at the Passover, when the bread would be unleavened and therefore hard and flat—see Mark 14: 1). This basic meaning of the breaking of bread is clearly the sense in Luke 24: 30, 35 where the Lord was made known to the two disciples in the breaking of bread, and in Acts 27: 35, when Paul partook of food shortly before the ship–wreck. It may also be the sense in Acts 2: 46, where the added words “they received their food with gladness and simplicity of heart” would suggest an ordinary meal rather than the Lord’s supper.

   However, the term breaking of bread also had a heightened significance to the Jews (as well as Christians) beyond mere eating. Thus in Jeremiah 16: 7 we read of the custom of breaking bread and drinking wine with mourners to comfort them. It was all that friendship could do when death had entered a household, and bereavement pressed on those sorrowing. Scripture being one whole, there is clearly a connection between what the prophet speaks about and that which the Lord instituted on the night in which He was delivered up. Yet there are differences too: Jeremiah speaks only of a “cup of consolations” (v7), but the apostle speaks of a “cup of blessing” (1 Cor. 10: 16). Again, instead of the finality of bereavement that is before the prophet, Paul is able to say “for as often as ye shall eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye announce the death of the Lord, until he come” (1 Cor. 11: 26, my emphasis). Thus the NT feast is infused with blessing and hope, just as the OT occasion lacked these features.

The New Covenant

There are four inspired accounts of the institution of the Lord’s supper (see Matt. 26: 26–30; Mark 14: 22–26; Luke 22: 19, 20; 1 Cor. 11: 23–26). Matthew is the only eye–witness account, and the only one to tell us that the cup speaks of blood shed “for remission of sins” (Matt. 26: 28). Matthew also tells us of the Lord’s words “drink ye all of it” (v27) but only from Mark do we know that they did all drink of the cup (see Mark 14: 23.) In Matthew and Mark we read of His blood shed “for many”, but in Luke it is “for you” (Luke 22: 20) and he repeats this in connection with the breaking of the loaf (the others do not). This makes the announcement more personal and pointed. Paul, in his account, uses the words “in the night in which he was delivered up” (1 Cor. 11: 23)—phraseology which emphasises the depth of the Lord’s love and care for His own.

   All four writers, however, are alike in drawing a connection between the Lord’s supper and the new covenant (or covenant in Matthew and Mark). Now the only reference to the new covenant in the OT is in Jeremiah 31: 31–34 (although other prophets describe the blessings to be enjoyed under it). Jeremiah did not, however, state on what sacrifice this covenant would be based. It was the Lord Himself who revealed this when he declared “This cup [is] the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22: 20). Such words would naturally recall to the disciple’s minds the passage in Jeremiah, a passage which specifically states that the new covenant is made “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Jer. 31: 31). They would therefore understand that Israel’s entrance into the millennial kingdom was to be founded on their Lord’s own death. This might appear to leave no place for the Assembly, but we should not forget that, as Christians, we receive many of the same blessings (such as the remission of sins—see Matt. 26: 28), that Israel will enter into in the day of their national repentance (“And this is the covenant from me to them, when I shall have taken away their sins”—see Rom. 11: 27). There is thus no inconsistency in Paul and his fellow–workers claiming to be “ministers of [the] new covenant” (2 Cor. 3: 6), while engaged in furthering the Christian gospel. However, the omission of the definite article before the word covenant indicates that the apostles’ ministry was only “of spirit”—that is, a ministry simply having the spirit or character of the new covenant. It was not “of letter”  (v6) or literally the ministry of the new covenant. There is thus no basis for the Assembly abrogating Israel’s rights under the new covenant, nor, conversely, for the Lord’s supper being viewed as wholly Jewish.

The Lord’s Supper and the Passover

As well as the new covenant to be made with Israel, there is also the connection between the Lord’s supper and the Passover to be taken account of—for the disciples partook of both the Passover and the Lord’s supper at the same table, and in the same night.  Indeed, neither Matthew nor Mark make a clear distinction between the Jewish feast and the new arrangement that the Lord set on. In Luke the distinction is more obvious—his account of the Passover is given in Luke 22: 15–18, while that of the institution of the Lord’s supper follows in verses 19, 20. Now, in the original regulations about the Passover there was no mention of a cup, and so while the Lord did not object to being given one of the traditional Passover cups, he did not partake of it but simply said “Take this and divide it among yourselves” (v17). It was a human innovation in the feast of Jehovah. None of this is part of the Lord’s supper—it is still the Jewish feast. In verses 19, 20, however, the Lord takes a loaf and having given thanks breaks it, and gives it to His disciples, and “in like manner also” another “cup, after having supped” (v20, my emphasis). Now the word supped does not mean sipped (as the reader might misread it) but refers to the Passover meal or supper that preceded the Lord’s supper. Indeed, the words He uses in association with the two cups described make the distinction between the old feast and the new crystal clear: “this cup” (v20, my emphasis) in contradistinction to the earlier  “having received a cup” (v17).

   Fundamentally, the Passover is both a memorial and a sacrifice (see Deut. 16: 1, 2). The Lord’s supper, however, while also a memorial, is fundamentally not sacrificial in character. To make the Lord’s supper a sacrifice is to nullify the fact that what was accomplished at the cross is once for all and never to be repeated (see Heb. 9: 12, 26; 10: 10, 12, 14). When the Lord comes again, He shall appear the second time “without sin for salvation” (Heb. 9: 28)—which does not mean that He is personally pure (though true), but that the question of sin has been settled at His first coming. As a type, the Passover was fulfilled in the death of Christ (see 1 Cor. 5: 7). Thus when an enlightened Israel celebrates the Passover in the future kingdom (see Ezek. 45: 21), it will be as a memorial of the Lord’s death (rather than of their national deliverance from Egypt). The Lord’s supper is quite different to the Passover in that it was inaugurated immediately prior to the death of Christ (“in the night in which he was delivered up”—1 Cor. 11: 23), and will cease when He returns for it is “until he come” (v 26). Thus although it has the character of a memorial (“in remembrance of me … ye announce the death of the Lord”—vs. 25, 26), it looks forward as well as back. 

   Christians are to celebrate the Lord’s supper—hence the Lord’s words “this do” (1 Cor. 11: 24). However, in 1 Cor. 5: 7 we read that “our passover, Christ, has been sacrificed” (that is, a Passover lamb belonging to Paul and the Corinthians), followed by an exhortation to “celebrate the feast” (v8). Does this mean then that Christians are to celebrate the Passover? No, otherwise the apostle would be contradicting what he said in Galatians 4: 10 as to observing “days and months and times and years”. In 1 Cor. 5 Paul is making a spiritual application of “the feast of unleavened bread, which [is] called the passover” (Luke 22: 1)—the context demonstrates this (see 1 Cor. 5: 7). The moral state of the Corinthians was bad (leavened in the type—for leaven in Scripture always speaks of sin). They ought (in a spiritual sense) to keep the feast of unleavened bread—that is, to feed on Christ as the One without sin—and so bring their moral state into accord with what had been done for them in the death of Christ (as typified by the Passover proper). They had not done that for, sadly, it is possible to actually eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord, while failing to be spiritually in accord with what is set out in the feast of unleavened bread. This is to participate in the Lord’s supper “unworthily … not distinguishing the body” (1 Cor. 11: 27, 29)—that is, effectively dishonouring the Lord and what He has done in delivering up His body for us.

   Again, despite what many seem to think, the emblems of the Lord’s supper have no inherent value in themselves. In fact it is quite disturbing to meet otherwise well–informed Christians who seem to think that some kind of ‘magic grace’ is conveyed by a physical appropriation of the bread and wine. This appears to stem from a mistaken idea that John 6: 53 specifically has in mind the breaking of bread and that partaking of the emblems on that occasion is how we eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of man. However, John 6 refers to a spiritual appropriation of the death of Christ that ought to mark every day of our Christian lives. There is thus no warrant for confining the teaching of John 6 to the Lord’s supper, and there is a very real associated danger in so doing of losing sight of the daily necessity of feeding upon the Lord in His death as the bread of life to sustain us spiritually. The truth is that the loaf and the cup of the Lord’s supper are merely symbols—and this is easily proved, for when the Lord said “this is my body” and “this is my blood” (Mark 14: 22, 24) He had not yet died. What the loaf and cup represent is calculated to bring the Lord Himself forcefully before our minds in the most touching way—“in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11: 24). There is nothing that can draw out the affections of a true believer more than being reminded of the Lord’s own words “this is my body … given for you” and “my blood … poured out for you” (Luke 22: 19, 20). The effect is that the heart and mind are drawn away from the trifles of this life to contemplate the One who gave His all to secure us. This leads us on to the consideration of the character and meaning of the ordinance.

The Lord’s Supper—Its Character and Meaning

As to the character of the Lord’s supper, “the Lord Jesus, in the night in which he was delivered up, took bread, and having given thanks broke [it]” (1 Cor. 11: 23, my emphasis). That is all we are told He did before He broke the bread, and gave it to the disciples. Matthew and Mark state that He also gave thanks before giving the cup (see Matt. 26: 27; Mark 14: 23)—Luke and Paul only imply this. Mark and Matthew also speak of the Lord blessing (eulogew) before He broke the bread, whereas Luke and Paul tell us that the Lord gave thanks (eucharistew). The difference is not great, and can be explained in that eulogew gives the character of His utterance, while eucharistew expresses the form in which it was delivered. Interestingly, Paul, in speaking of what Christians were characterised as doing in later celebrations of the Lord’s supper, says “the cup of blessing which we bless” (1 Cor. 10: 16), thereby showing that both loaf and cup are to be blessed. However, no record is anywhere given of what was said on such occasions. Even when we return to the very first breaking of bread, no indication is given of the terms with which the Lord blessed and gave thanks. Matthew, (who must have heard it), is silent about it, and neither of the other historians nor Paul have supplied the omission. Certainly that thanksgiving must have been full and perfect and yet not a syllable of it has been preserved in Scripture. And rightly so, for since the Spirit of God is to direct us in our worship, the words of the Lord Jesus on that first occasion have been carefully kept from us. Had it been otherwise, it would surely have been used as a form and no service would have been thought complete without them. The loss would have been great, however, for then dependence on the Holy Spirit’s guidance would have been surrendered.

   The character of the service thus expressed by the Lord’s actions, its meaning was explained by His words when He handed to the loaf and the cup to His disciples saying “This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. In like manner also the cup, after having supped, saying, This cup [is] the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22: 19, 20). Paul expands on this further in 1 Cor. 11: “For as often as ye shall eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye announce the death of the Lord, until he come” (v26). The breaking of bread is thus both a remembrance of the Lord Jesus, and an announcement of His death.

   First as to the remembrance of the Lord. The emblems of the bread and the wine represent the Lord as actually dead, the former being the symbol of His body, and the latter of His blood, the separation of the two speaking of his death. Hence a communion that only has a loaf but not a cup (as in Romanism) is a denial of the Lord’s death, for it virtually presents the blood as not shed. The loaf and the cup, in a very vivid and touching way, therefore remind us that the Lord has died. We do not, however, remember a dead Christ, but a living Christ and this is the force of the word remembrance (anamnesiV) or, as it can be rendered, a calling of me to mind. The symbols of His death, recall to our minds the One we now know as living.

   Second, as to announcing the Lord’s death. The words “for as often …” immediately remove any idea of an infrequent observance, for that would indicate that the Lord’s death meant little to us. Nor do we remember the Lord’s death (we remember the Lord) for the word that is used in relation to His death is announce (kataggellw)—that is, for others to take account of. It is not that the breaking of bread is an evangelistic service (that would be to destroy its character as being for the Lord), but that we testify to heaven (and unbelievers if they are present) where our loyalties and affections lie.

   One further matter in connection with the meaning of the Lord’s supper. In 1 Cor. 10, Paul tells us that “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not [the] communion of the blood of the Christ? The bread which we break, is it not [the] communion of the body of the Christ? Because we, [being] many, are one loaf, one body; for we all partake of that one loaf” (vs 16, 17). Space precludes much being said on this but the service is clearly not an individual one, except in the matter of proving one’s personal fitness beforehand in order to partake of it (see 1 Cor. 11: 26–32). Individualism at the actual breaking of bread is therefore totally out of keeping with its character—as is any sectarianism, of whatever shade and form. The Lord’s supper is a very profound expression of fellowship, for not only is the loaf a symbol of the Lord’s body given for us in death, but it is also a figure of how  the “many” have been made into “one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:17) by a common interest in the death of Christ. There can be no proper celebration of the Lord’s supper if our thoughts do not take in every soul that belongs to Him, even if our collective failure and weakness means that expressing this is necessarily curtailed. It should also raise a question in our consciences when Scripture says “we, [being] many, are one loaf” while, as to practical fellowship, we can only say ‘we, being few’!

Conclusion

The over–riding impression of this profound subject is how everything is presented in a very simple fashion. Even when the ordinance is to take place is left open (in contrast to the exact stipulations connected with the OT feasts of Jehovah). Thus “this do ye, as often as ye shall drink [it], in remembrance of me” (v 25)—though there was clearly a strong association with the first day of the week (see Acts 20: 7). Man being what he is, he loves to legislate in the absence of clear direction in the Word, and so a whole raft of frankly unhelpful rules and regulations have been attached to the simple “this do in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11: 24). Certainly more could be drawn from Scripture than has been presented here, but the relative dearth of the instruction is undeniable. This is surely intentional for the occasion demands hearts moved in love towards the One who has loved us rather than minds conformed to a dry ritual.

Updates