The Lord's Supper - Biblical teaching

What is the Lord's Supper about?  (The Lord's Supper is also known as Holy Communion or The Eucharist.)

Main New Testament Texts
Matthew 26.17-30, Mark 14.22-24, Luke 22.14-23, Acts 2.42-47, Acts 20.7, 1 Corinthians 5.7,8,  1 Corinthians 10.16-22, 1 Corinthians 11.13-34.

What do we do at the Lord’s Supper?
The biblical background will help to explain the function and order of various parts of the service of Holy Communion.

Self Examination
The Bible contains very stern warnings about the way in which we receive the Lord’s Supper.  In 1 Cor. 11.28 Paul says that
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.
In verse 29 he adds that in so doing such a person
eats and drinks judgement to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
then he explains that this is the reason why
many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep

The Corinthians were treating the Lord’s supper in an unworthy way. Firstly, they were treating it just like any other meal, simply a way to satisfy their desires, this dishonoured the significance given to the meal by Christ. Secondly, they were disregarding the needs of others, and so denying their fellowship in Christ.

We must always examine ourselves before we come to the Lord’s Table. Although ideally this is done in private devotion it is also the purpose of public exhortation and confession. We are to look at our own sins, not those of others. Paul uses a dramatic and vivid phrase - if we would judge
ourselves, we would not be judged (v31). We are to sit in judgement of ourselves, being honest about ourselves. If we will not do this, then we actually bring judgement on ourselves.

It is because of the stern warnings given by Paul that Reformed Churches have exercised discipline at the Lord’s table. In particular children are not permitted to the Table until there is clear evidence that they are able grasp and understand the significance of what they are doing.

However, discipline should also be exercised with regards to others. This is not a matter of judging others, but of being faithful to God’s command:
In chapter 5 Paul had written:
not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person. (v 11)

It should be remembered that proper discipline is an act of love not punishment, we are seeking to bring them to their senses (2 Tim 2.26) and to restore them gently (Gal 6.1)

‘This do, in remembrance of me.’  (Luke chapter 22 verse 19)
Remembrance is a rich theme in the Bible. The Lord’s Supper obviously has a similar basis as the Passover Meal where there is the encouragement that people should see the Passover not simply as
a past event but an event with some sort of present reality. However, at the Lord’s Supper we are not primarily remembering an event, but a person, Christ. The early disciples had eaten many memorable meals with Jesus, as we learn from the Gospel accounts.

The clear intention of Jesus is that we should do something - ‘this’ in remembrance of him, but precisely what that something consists of has always been a question of discussion and controversy in the Church. The danger we always face is that we become so obsessed with what we should or shouldn’t ‘do’ that we neglect the heart of what Jesus instructed. Action or ceremonial is never sufficient. If for example a robot was programmed to lay a wreath at the cenotaph on Remembrance day, that would not constitute remebrance. Remembrance begins with the mind, but should stir the emotions and the will into action. Thus in the Old Testament, remembrance is usually coupled with the call to faith, courage, obedience etc.

When we come to the Lord’s Table, we must beware of being automata, who hear the words, which we have heard so often, and go through the motions, but without responding to them. Remembrance is active, not passive, we are to call to mind what Christ has done for us, and be
moved to wonder, awe, thanks, praise, faith, obedience, love and so on.

Giving Thanks (Eucharist)
The word Eucharist has become the dominant title for the Lord’s Supper. This word means thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is an important part of the service as Cranmer’s 3rd Exhortation in the Book of Common Prayer reminds us:
‘above all things ye must give most humble and hearty thanks to God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, for the redemption of the world by the death and passion of our Saviour Christ....’

Of course the Christian should give thanks for everything (1 Thess 5.18) but it has particular relevance to Communion. At the Last Supper, as at other meals, Jesus said grace, that is he gave thanks before the breaking of the bread.. This was the normal Jewish custom, and should be
something Christians do too, in the modern Church of England liturgy, the prayer becomes a sort of glorified grace.

The act of obeying Christ’s command to remember ought to stir us up to thank God with our lips and lives. Thanksgiving is therefore of great importance, but interestingly in the Bible, other than has been mentioned, it is not linked particuarly with communion. Therefore the overall title Eucharist seems inappropriate.

Proclaiming His Death
‘...whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’  (1 Corinthians 11.26)

Reformed Christians are accused of focussing too much in the Commuion service on the atoning death of Christ. Here is the justification for our being so focussed. We see from what Paul says here that as we remember Christ, the chief thing we remember about him is his death for us. The very bread and wine drive this home, for we are reminded not simply of the body of Christ, but that it was broken for us, and not simply the blood of Christ, but that it was shed for us.

Paul tells us that in the Lord’s supper we proclaim the Lord’s death. This word means to preach, and therefore the connection between the death of Christ preached in a sermon and the death of Christ preached in the bread and wine is apparent. It is on this basis that Reformed theology has
made such a close connection betweeen word and sacrament, that they cannot be separated. We should not understand this preaching as being to outsiders. In the Churches to which Paul wrote, outsiders would not have been present. Rather the proclamation is to us, those who gather at
the Lord’s table to receive the bread and wine. To us is declared again in the bread and wine the death of Christ for us. As has already been noted, this will cause us to remember and give thanks. Without Christ’s death we cannot find peace and forgiveness with God. It is a reminder that the
sole basis of our hope for the future is that Christ died for us, taking upon himself the penalty for our sins.

However, we also see that we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. In one way this phrase might simply mean that once he comes again we will no longer need to be reminded of his death. Yet the phrase also reminds us that Christ is not dead but risen and ascended, enthroned in heaven and from there he will come again to judge the world. Because he has died for us, if we put our faith in him then we have nothing to fear from that coming judgement, we can look forward to the return of Christ with eager longing. In the Lord’s Supper we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Moreover, at this meal we look beyond judgement too.

A Foretaste
“I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Mtt 26.29)

The Lord’s Supper speaks to us not just of the past and the present but of the future too. If we belong to Christ then one day we will eat and drink with him at the heavenly banquet. This is the subject of some of the parables of Jesus. We have a foretaste of that meal in the Lord’s Supper, God and man at table sat down. Therefore our eyes should be lifted from our present troubles to look to future glory. It ought to encourage us to respond to his gracious invitation (see Luke 14.17), to make sure we are clothed with the right garment - Christ, (see Mtt 22.12). Since we are proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes, the Lord’s Supper ought also to look to the future. Like the Wise Virgins (Mtt 25) we are to be ready for the master’s return.
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” (v13)

What about John 6?
In verse 54 Jesus says “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.  Then in verse 56  He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.

A good summary of the historical positions is to be found in J.C.Ryle’s commentary on John. By and large Romans believe that Jesus is referring to the sacrament, whereas Protestants do not. Many early writers and modern Protestants follow the Roman line.

The argument against identification is that the plain sense of the passage is to identify eating and drinking with faith in Christ. Morevoer, this took place at least a year before the last supper. The Roman view would tend to suggest that anyone who receives the sacrament is therefore saved, a
clearly absurd belief (consider for example Judas Iscariot).

John chapter 6 is clearly about faith in Christ and the significance of his death. This is precisely what the Lord's Supper brings to our attention too, but whilst we can therefore see close links, this does not mean that Jesus words in chapter 6 are about the Lord's Supper. If anythign, the Lord's Supper draws attention to the teaching of Jesus about his death.

Written 1997.

© David Phillips 1995-2021