Why does John not record the institution of the Lord’s supper?
Even a cursory reading of the four Gospels will show that John’s record is markedly different to the three synoptic accounts, not only in what he records but also in what he omits. The omission of the institution of the Lord’s supper is made the more striking by the fact that John records some of the other events that took place on that occasion such as the prophecy of Peter’s impending denial. However, John is unique in that he alone records the Lord’s ministry on the spiritual conditions that should attend the breaking of bread—for John wrote late when things were becoming increasingly artificial.
On the very occasion the Lord set on the remembrance of Himself during His absence, He also spoke of the Kingdom of God. This was in spite the fact that Israel had rejected both the King and His Kingdom. In Matthew and Mark, the Lord’s supper is directly identified with the Kingdom (see Matt. 26: 29; Mark 14: 25), although in Luke the two thoughts are only associated (see Luke 22: 18). All this shows that at that time there was still the possibility of repentance for Israel and the Kingdom being set up in power. Later when Paul had the Lord’s supper given to him by revelation (see 1 Cor. 11: 23) there is no mention of the Kingdom. Later still when John penned his Gospel, he omits the institution of the Lord’s supper altogether. Its inclusion when John wrote would have inappropriate because Israel’s opportunity for immediate entrance into the Kingdom had passed. This peculiarity of John is worth exploring further.
The Gospel proclaimed in the Synoptics was “the glad tidings of the kingdom”, “the glad tidings of Jesus Christ” and “the glad tidings of the kingdom of God” (Matt. 4: 23; Mark 1: 1; Luke 4: 43). No other description in those three books is ever given. This Gospel continued to be preached after the day of Pentecost as Acts 8: 12 testifies. While the Synoptic writers trace the historical rejection of the King and His Kingdom, John, by contrast, begins with it (see John 1: 11). The Synoptics also record evidence in abundance of the power of the Kingdom in the casting out of demons, while John does not record a single instance of exorcism. The Kingdom was preached throughout the history given in the Synoptics but in John the words preach and proclaim, gospel and glad tidings are entirely absent and the word announce is only used once for the future service of the Holy Spirit (see John 16: 13). The subject of the Kingdom does come up twice but only in private interviews (see John 3: 3, 5; 18: 36, 37)—never in public. Such omissions show that by the time John wrote any hope of the establishment of the public Kingdom was over for the present. Accordingly, as the Lord instituted His supper in connection with the Kingdom, John omits the event.
Concerning the Lord’s supper, Paul says “I received from the Lord …” (1 Cor. 11: 23), raising the question as to why this personal revelation was necessary seeing as he had already met with Peter (see Gal 1: 18)—who had first–hand knowledge of the institution of the ordinance. The answer lies in what is contained in Paul’s account and what is omitted. As already mentioned, the Lord’s supper is no longer linked with the Kingdom, while a new thought is connected with the remembrance: “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). Thus the ordinance is to continue in the setting of the Assembly rather than the Kingdom “until he come”. But what of the spiritual conditions that should accompany it? Even in Paul’s day, while the Lord’s supper was physically observed, the spiritual conditions that should have marked its participants were being lost (see 1 Cor. 11: 27–34). These spiritual conditions can be summed up in one word: love. This word does not occur once in the Synoptics’ description of the events in the upper room, but is found 17 times in John 13: 1–14: 31. John sets the scene with his opening words “Jesus, knowing that his hour had come ... having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end” (John 13: 1). Now the Lord knew that His absence would be a great strain and so He promises to return for His own so that “where I am ye also may be” (John 14: 3). However, this is not all, for the Lord also said “I am coming to you” (John 14: 18, 28). This is something that can be realised when those who love Him remember Him in the “breaking of bread” (Acts 2: 42)—for the phrase “remembrance of me” (Luke 22: 19; 1 Cor. 11: 24, 25) has the sense of a calling of me to mind. Thus while John’s Gospel does not mention the Lord’s supper, it does supply us with much vital information concerning it—information that is consistent with John’s overall presentation.