The Lord's Supper

A study of the meaning and import of the observance of the Lord's Supper.

©1999 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.
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The Lord's Supper

    My personal theological pilgrimage has taken me from one end of the spectrum to the other in consideration of the Lord's Supper. Studying under those who regard the Lord's Supper as a sacramentalistic rite, as well as under those who spiritualize the entire meaning of the practice, has allowed me to understand their reasoning, and thus to search out a Biblically moderating theology of this meaningful observance.

    Initially I was introduced to an understanding of the Lord's Supper in the context of the Restoration Movement, referred to by some as "Campbellism" because of the founding activities of Thomas Campbell and his son, Alexander Campbell. These churches observe the Lord's Supper every Sunday, which they regard to be a "restoration" of the practice of the New Testament church. When I was baptized at the age of twelve in the Christian Church, I was immediately allowed to partake of the Lord's Supper for the first time, and encouraged to do so every Sunday for the remainder of my Christian life. Within weeks of that first partaking I can remember memorizing the complete passage in the gospel account where Jesus partook of the Last Supper with His disciples. I was allowed to recite such each week and be a "server" in the distribution of the Lord's Supper emblems during "Junior Church." Only those children who had been baptized could partake, so there was a degree of elitism in being able to thus participate.

    Further theological training in a Bible College sponsored by the Christian Churches emphasized more specifically the importance which these churches placed on the weekly observance of the Lord's Supper. Their Arminian-based theology allowed the partaking of the Lord's Supper each week to become a performance of "works" whereby the adherent maintained his salvation relationship with God or good standing with the Body of Christ. Thus they offered the Lord's Supper not only in the Sunday morning worship service, but also again in the evening service, lest anyone might have missed such in the morning. In addition, the elders of the church took the Lord's Supper emblems to the shut-ins and the sick, due to the essentiality of weekly participation. Families who were going on vacation would take along juice and crackers to observe the Lord's Supper beside the road on Sunday morning, if necessary. Obviously there was a sacramentalistic understanding of the Lord's Supper, wherein weekly participation was regarded as essential to the preservation of personal salvation and right-standing with God.

    When I went to seminary at New College in Edinburgh, Scotland, the Presbyterian theology of the Church of Scotland concerning the Eucharist was somewhat different than what I had previously been taught. My first surprise came when I partook of the Lord's Supper in St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh and realized that they used wine rather than Welch's Grape Juice. Having grown up in the Midwest of the United States, all beverages concerning alcohol were regarded as taboo, so this was a bit of a shock. Also while in Scotland, I first experienced a congregation of Christians partaking of the wine from a single chalice. Sometimes referred to as "one-cuppers," they pass a single chalice along with a wiping cloth to everyone in the congregation; each person takes a sip from the chalice, wipes the rim, and passes it on to the next person. Overall, the Church of Scotland theology of the Eucharist tended to be as sacramentalistic as that of the Christian Churches, if not more so.

    Then I returned to the United States and took another degree with the Quakers. Advocating a spiritualistic quietism, the Friends Churches eschew the externalities which are so prone to ritualism, legalism and sacramentalism. Instead, they emphasize a quiet time of personal "communion" with God within their services, with no rite or ritual utilizing tangible substances. This theological understanding was at the far extreme from that which I had learned in the Christian Churches, since it rejects the physical observance of the Lord's Supper entirely.

    Somewhere between the extremes of a ritualistic sacramentalism which attributes saving significance to the Lord's Supper and the spiritualized "communion" which fails to perpetuate the particular actions that Jesus seems to have exhorted, there is a Biblically moderating theological understanding of the Lord's Supper. I must admit that the repetitive weekly ritual of mandatory participation in the Lord's Supper tended to diminish its meaning and lessen its significance in my own experience, and it has taken many years for this observance to be reinvested with its proper meaning in my life.

    In this study we will note some of the Biblical statements which explain the significance of the Lord's Supper for Christians in every age. Perhaps these observations will serve to reinvest the act of participating in the Lord's Supper with new meaning in your life, as they have in mine.

An act of Obedience

    Jesus said to His disciples, "Do this in remembrance of Me? (I Cor. 11:24,25). This is an imperative, a command. Jesus obviously wanted His followers to perpetuate this observance. In fact, it seems to be the only act that Jesus asked His followers to do in His memory, So it is that the Church throughout the centuries of Christian history has observed the Lord's Supper in one form or another, regarding the observance as an act of obedience to Jesus' command. Jesus said, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments" (John 14:15), soon after partaking of the Last Supper with His disciples.

    Misinterpretations of the Scriptural record have caused some to make commandments and imperatives beyond what Jesus intended. For example, when Jesus took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it to His disciples, the King James Version translates His statement as "Drink ye all of it" (Matt. 26:27-KJV). Some have understood this as a command to drink every last drop of juice in the cup, to lick it clean or wipe it out with a cloth. The "all" does not refer to "all of the juice," but rather to "all of the disciples." Newer translations make this clear by translating Jesus' statement, "Drink from it, all of you" (Matt. 26:27-NASB).

    Others, such as the Christian Churches mentioned previously, have considered a particular frequency of observance of the Lord's Supper to be an act of obedience. Desiring to "restore" the practices of the New Testament church, and noting that Paul and the other Christians in Troas "were gathered together to break bread on the first day of the week" (Acts 20:7), they have determined that it is imperative to do so on every "first day of the week." This is not a direct command of Scripture, and therefore not an essential act of obedience. Earlier in the historical narrative of Acts, Luke reports that "day by day they were breaking bread from house to house" (Acts 2:46). Are we to make daily observance a commanded act of obedience? No. Paul records Jesus as having said, "As often as you drink, do it in remembrance of Me" (I Cor. 11:25). The frequency of observance of the Lord's Supper is not a direct command of Scripture. It is more important that Christians properly remember Jesus Christ in the midst of partaking of the bread and wine, whenever it is observed.

    Jesus did indeed ordain that Christians should remember Him through the observance of the Lord's Supper, but we must beware of making additional commandments of varying details. The fact that Jesus did ordain this ongoing act of remembrance is the basis of the Church's regarding it as one of its "ordinances" throughout its history, and encouraging Christians to partake as "an act of obedience."

An act of Identification

    Paul indicates that part of the reason of Christians assembling together was to "eat the Lord's Supper" (I Cor. 11:20). The partaking of the food items in the observance of the Lord's Supper will have little or no meaning to those who have not identified in spiritual union with the Lord Jesus Christ. Apart from such they will not be able to "remember" the significance of what the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ means to their lives. Those who have not consented to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in their lives would be participating in a commemorative supper of One who was a stranger to them. The Lord's Supper is intended for those who know Jesus Christ as the Lord of their lives, and for whom the continued remembrance of His sacrifice reminds them of their identification with Him.

    Such spiritual union and identification with Jesus Christ is not an externally visible reality. "The Lord knows whose are His" (II Tim. 2:19). Therefore, it is not the place of other Christians or the collective church community and leadership to develop man-made criteria of who has or has not identified with Jesus Christ. When they do so, they take it upon themselves to "judge" another's spiritual identification. "Judge not, that ye be not judged" (Matt. 7:1). Some ecclesiastical organizations practice what has been called "closed communion," allowing only those who have identified with their denomination or congregation to partake in the Lord's Supper observance. They seem to have mistakenly made the Lord's Supper into an act of identification with a particular organization, rather than an act of remembering our spiritual identification with the Lord Jesus Christ.

An act of Covenant

    Jesus explained to His disciples that "this cup is the new covenant in My blood" (Luke 22:20; I Cor. 11:25). Covenants are contracts or agreements between two or more persons. In many societies such covenants have been ratified by the letting of the blood of those entering into the agreement in order to serve as a visible seal of their consent. God's agreed arrangement of His dealings with mankind is in like manner referred to as a "covenant." After the exodus and the receiving of the Ten Commandments on Sinai, Moses "took the blood of sacrificed animals and sprinkled it on the people, and said, 'Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you" (Exod. 24:8). That agreement, which mandated that the Israelites keep the Law, is referred to as the "old covenant," the record of which is contained in the Old Testament, which simply means "old covenant."

    Through the prophet Jeremiah, God indicates that He "will make a new covenant" (Jere. 31:31). When Jesus said that "the cup is the new covenant in My blood," He was explaining that the shedding of His blood in His death by crucifixion would serve as the ratification of the "new covenant." The new covenant is not based on the "letter of the Law," but on the Spirit of grace (II Cor. 3:6). In the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ, He took the death upon Himself which mankind deserved, in order to give His spiritual and eternal life to man, and be the expression of that life through man. The "new covenant" agreement involves God "putting His laws into our minds, and writing them upon our hearts" (Heb. 8:10: 10:16), providing us with the gracious provision of the dynamic of the life of the risen Lord Jesus in order to function as God intended. When we partake of the Lord's Supper we remember the "new covenant" arrangement which God has effected, ratified by the shed blood of Jesus Christ on the cross, and energized constantly by the dynamic of God's grace in Jesus Christ.

An act of Participation

    Paul explains that the partaking of the cup and the bread in the Lord's Supper are "a sharing" in the blood and body of Christ (I Cor. 10:16). The word for "sharing" is the Greek word koinonia, and can be translated "participation" or "fellowship." The King James Version translates the word as "communion," from which we get the designation of the Lord's Supper as "Communion." The Greek word koinonia and the English word "communion" both refer to something that is the basis of a "common union." Christians gather together and partake of the Lord's Supper because of a "common union" with the Lord Jesus Christ, and thereby they participate and fellowship and share together in the remembrance of such.

    When Christians "come together" (I Cor. 11:18) and "meet together" (I Cor. 11:20) to observe the Lord's Supper, they must put aside all thoughts of selfish individualism. Recognizing our "common union" with Christ in the Body of Christ, the Church, we participate together in the remembrance of Christ's having united us and made us "one Body" (Eph. 4:4) in Him. The Lord's Supper observance is no place for "lone ranger" individualism, but is a participatory act of sharing and fellowship with other Christians who desire to remember Jesus Christ. Does this call into question the practice of partaking of the Lord's Supper as a family or small group outside of the context of a church service? Not necessarily, for the Lord's Supper is not to be regarded as an exclusively ecclesiastical rite administered by the leadership thereof. Jesus said, "Where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst" (Matt. 18:20)

    It is important, however, to recognize that the Lord's Supper is an act of participation and sharing and fellowship. When gathered together remembering Jesus Christ through the Lord's Supper, we indicate our "common union" in Him.

An act of Thanksgiving

    Luke records that during the Last Supper of Jesus with His disciples, Jesus "gave thanks" prior to encouraging the disciples to partake of the bread and the cup (Luke 22:17,19). The Greek word which is translated "to give thanks" is eucharisteo. This word is a composite of two other Greek words, eu meaning "good," and charis meaning "grace." To "give thanks" is to recognize and express the "good grace" of God. It is on the basis of this word that the Lord's Supper is often referred to as the "Eucharist," but few Christians who use this term seem to understand its meaning. When we partake of the Lord's Supper we "give thanks" by recognizing the "good grace" of God in the "finished work" of Jesus Christ. From the cross, Jesus exclaimed, "It is finished" (John 19:30), implying that He had accomplished what God Had intended (John 17:4), taking the death of mankind in order to restore the life of God to man. We "give thanks" for such in the Lord's Supper. "Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (I Cor. 15:57).

    In Matthew's account of the Last Supper, the King James Version translates that "Jesus took bread, and blessed it" (Matt. 26:26-KJV). Such a reading seems to provide justification for a priest "blessing" the substances used in the Lord's Supper. Newer translations recognize that Jesus was not investing the bread with any particular significance or benefit. He was "blessing God" rather than "blessing the bread," or more literally, He was saying "good words" unto God in thanksgiving for what the bread signified. "Jesus took bread, and after a blessing, He broke it" (Matt. 26:26-NASB).

    Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper as an act of thanksgiving, and expressed "good words" about the "good grace" of God.

An act of Representation

    In the various accounts of the Last Supper, Jesus is recorded as explaining to the disciples as He gave them the bread and the cup that "This is My body" (Matt 26:26; Mk. 14:22; Lk. 22:19; I Cor. 11:24) and "This is My blood" (Matt. 26:28; Mk. 14:24). The fact that Jesus was handing His disciples one substance and referring to it as another substance has led to various theories as to what is represented in the Lord's Supper.

    Roman Catholic theology developed the theory of "transubstantiation," whereby they assert that the substance of the bread and wine is transformed supernaturally into the actual substance of the body and blood of Jesus. So convinced are they of this transformation of substance that Catholic adherents have sacrificed their lives rather than spill the wine of the Eucharist, fearing that they would be spilling the sacred blood of Jesus. A young Catholic boy was appalled when he saw Protestant Christians take the bread of the Lord's Supper and bite it. "Look," he said, "They're chewing on Jesus!"

    After the Protestant Reformation, Lutheran theology developed the theory of "consubstantiation." Denying the actual transformed substance of the bread and wine, it is somewhat ambiguously argued that the substance of the body and blood of Jesus is somehow present "along with" the bread and wine, in some mystical manner.

    The majority of Protestant theologies reject both "transubstantiation" and "consubstantiation," indicating that there is no miraculous or mystical change in the substance of the bread and wine. Rather, these food items are emblems or symbols which represent the spiritual significance of the death of Jesus Christ when His body was broken and His blood was shed. These serve only as a tangible, physical substance designed to draw out attention to the Person and Work of Jesus. Partaking of the bread and wine serves only as a picture of assimilating Christ's life into our lives. When Jesus said, "I am the bread of life...The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh...He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life" (John 6:48-58), we can be quite certain that His Jewish followers did not think that they were going to chew and digest Jesus' physical body. Such an idea would have been abhorrent to Jewish thinking, for they eschewed the eating of human flesh and the drinking of any blood. They knew that Jesus was speaking figuratively of receiving the spiritual reality of His life, using the technique of hyperbole. Likewise, at the Last Supper the disciples of Jesus, who were very familiar with the metaphorical word-pictures that Jesus employed, would have understood that the bread and wine represented the significance of receiving Jesus Christ, and in the ensuing days after the crucifixion and resurrection would have understood the symbolization even more completely.

    As an act of representation in order to focus one's attention on the significance of Jesus Christ, the observance of the Lord's Supper does not convey any spiritual reality or benefit. It is not a "sacrament," in the sense of having any "saving significance." It does not save a person, nor serve as a work of performance to maintain one's salvation. It is not a "means of grace," whereby participation therein allows God to do what He could not otherwise do. All that God has for us is in the action of His grace realized in Jesus Christ (John 1:17). The Lord's Supper is an act of representation wherein the emblems symbolize the significance of Jesus Christ and cause us to remember Him.

An act of Commemoration

    When Jesus commanded the disciples to continue the observance of such a representational supper, He told them to "Do this in remembrance of Me" (Lk 22:19; I Cor. 11:24,25). The act of remembrance involves "bearing in mind," which also enhances the idea of representation.

    There are many historical memorials to persons throughout history. Examples might be the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., or Napoleon's Tomb in Paris, France. They serve to draw people's memories back to these personages. People today also carry photographs in their wallets and purses as pictorial memorials of their loved ones who have died. Thereby they can remember their loved one, ever aware that the picture is not the reality. Neither are the Lord's Supper emblems the reality of Jesus. Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper as a perpetual memorial, not in stone or in photographic image, but in a form that would last through the ages, an observance of commemoration.

    Jesus said, "Do this in remembrance of Me." Some Christians have inadvertently allowed the focus of their remembrance to be shifted to concerns other than Jesus Christ. In many evangelical circles the leadership has so emphasized the admonition to "let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (I Cor. 11:28), that the Lord's Supper has become a time to "remember their sins" rather than remembering Jesus Christ. This is a tragic mis-emphasis and abuse of the Lord's Supper! The Lord's Supper is not a time to bring up the dirty laundry of the sins of one's life, but a time to remember the forgiveness of all our sins in the work of Jesus Christ; a time to remember grace, not sins. It is not an "altar of confession;" it is an act of commemoration.

An act of Examination

    What, then, did Paul mean when He said, "Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (I Cor. 11:28)? The context both prior to and following this verse must clarify the interpretation for us. We shall note that the self-examination is not an introspective navel-gazing of our sinfulness, but an examination of our mind-set within the partaking of the Lord's Supper, and a discernment of our right relation with the Body of Christ.

    The comment just previous to the admonition to "examine ourselves" refers to the manner in which we partake of the emblems of the Lord's Supper. "Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord" (I Cor. 11:27). The King James Version created a misunderstanding that caused many Christians to avoid partaking of the Lord's Supper. It reads, "whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord" (I Cor. 11:27-KJV). Many conscientious Christians took this to mean that if they considered themselves "unworthy," they should not partake lest they incur the wrath of God. We are all unworthy! But the good news of the gospel and the remembrance of the Lord's Supper is the recognition of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Many Christians forgot to study their grammar. Most English words which end with the suffix "-ly" are adverbs, not adjectives. That means they describe the action of the verb, not the noun-subject. The word used in the original Greek language is an adverb, not an adjective. Paul was not referring to the worthiness of the partaker, but rather to the manner of our partaking. We are to "examine" the mind-set and manner of our partaking, so that we do not partake frivolously, unthinkingly, or irreverently. We are to "examine" whether our thoughts are focused on the remembrance of Jesus Christ and the meaning of the Lord's Supper emblems, rather than drifting off on the superficialities of mundane concerns which cause the Lord's Supper to become just a religious ritual of participation. God hates religious triviality, and will judge such.

    The comment which follows the admonition to "examine ourselves" likewise indicates that our "examination" pertains to the mind-set which considers our proper relationship to the Body of Christ. This is not something to be taken lightly or flippantly. Christ died on the cross so that His life might be manifested in individual Christians and in the collective Body of Christ, the Church. Paul explained, "He who eats and drinks, eat and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly" (I Cor. 11:29). Failure to discern our rightful functional place in the Body of Christ, and how this was effected by the redemptive purchase of Christ's life on the cross, is cause for God to bring discipline and judgment upon us (I Cor. 11:29-32).

    The Lord's Supper is an act of examination wherein we "examine ourselves" concerning whether we are focusing on the meaning of what the Lord's Supper signifies. We are to examine our mind-set so that the manner of our partaking will rightly discern the meaning of what we are doing.

An act of Proclamation

    Paul explains to the Corinthians that "as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death..." (I Cor. 11:26). The Lord's Supper is an act of proclamation, for in partaking of the emblems of the bread and wine we proclaim that we believe in the efficacy of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. This is foundational to the good news of the gospel.

    Since it is an act of proclamation, the Lord's Supper is intended for believers who want to proclaim the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the living implications of His life operative through us. Many Christians claim to have a difficult time proclaiming the gospel and giving a "testimony" of their faith in Jesus Christ, but little do they realize that they do so every time they partake of the Lord's Supper. The Lord's Supper is an act of proclamation.

An act of Anticipation

    The complete statement of Paul indicates that "as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes" (I Cor. 11:26). The Lord's Supper is not only an act of remembrance of the first coming of Jesus Christ and His redemptive work, but it is also an act of anticipation of the second coming of Jesus Christ when He will consummate His restorative work for mankind. In this eschatological connotation of the Lord's Supper we recognize the confident expectation of hope that Christians have for the return of Jesus Christ.

    When Jesus partook of the Last Supper with His disciples, He said, "I will never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God" (Luke 22:16), and "I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes" (Luke 22:18). Jesus was anticipating the completion of His redemptive work and the inauguration of the kingdom. That has already taken place, for we have been "transferred into the kingdom of the beloved Son" (Col. 1:13), and in a spiritual sense Jesus is partaking of the Lord's Supper with us today. At the same time there is the "not yet" consummation of the kingdom wherein we will commune with Jesus Christ "face to face" (I Cor. 13:12). In that sense the Lord's Supper remains an act of anticipation "until He comes."

    The Lord's Supper must not be allowed to become merely a repetitive ritual. It is not a sacramental rite that conveys spiritual benefit simply because one goes through the motions of partaking of bread and wine. By maintaining a disciplined mind and attitude, the Lord's Supper can continue to be a meaningful act for every Christian. In order to be such, we need to gather together with other Christians in "communion," and together remember the significance of Christ's taking the death that we deserved, in order to give us His life.

    Though the Lord's Supper draws our attention primarily to the death of Jesus Christ on our behalf, since the emblems point to the broken body and shed blood of Jesus, it is important to remember that His death by crucifixion was but the remedial action of God to pay the price of our redemption. That serves as the foundation for the gracious provision of Christ's life made available through the resurrection. We are "born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (I Peter 1:3). Jesus said, 'I came that you might have life, and have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). The dynamic life of the risen Lord Jesus indwelling our spirit and expressed through our behavior is the essence of the gospel and of the Christian life. We rejoice in such when we remember the basis on which His life was made available in the partaking of the Lord's Supper.