The Lord’s Supper is often known as the Eucharist or Holy Communion. Some refer to it as the Blessed Sacrament or even Sacrament on the Table. It is also known as an ordinance of the Lord. So what do these terms mean and are they accurate or useful descriptions of the celebration that we know?
It is largely the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches which would use the Blessed Sacrament and Sacrament at the Table terms.
• A sacrament is simply a symbolic religious ceremony.
• An ordinance is a decree or an order which on this occasion was given by The Lord Jesus.
• Eucharist is derived from the Greek word eucharisto which simply means “thanksgiving.” In 1 Corinthians 11:24 which is the word used for “when he had given thanks.”
• Communion is derived from koinonia which simply means fellowship, sharing or as in the AV: communion. In 1 Corinthians 10:16 “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?”
• The Lord’s Supper is the term that we are probably most comfortable with. This comes from 1 Corinthians 11:20-21. Paul in this passage, by way of rebuking the Corinthian for drunkenness and greed at the Lord’s Supper tells them that it is not the Lord’s Supper that they are celebrating.
Due to an abuse of these terms we have understandably reacted against some of them. We should however not be afraid of them; they are all good biblical terms. Perhaps it is time that we claimed them back for the use for which they were intended.
The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament around a table. It is an ordinance of the Lord Jesus in which we give thanks together in fellowship as we eat together.
In speaking of the Lord’s Supper; the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC) Basis of Faith states that it is a “commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice offered once for all and involves no change in the bread and wine. All of its benefits are received by faith.” As an FIEC affiliated church we wholeheartedly subscribe to this statement but a more full declaration can be found in for example the declaration of faith of the Elders of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis where John Piper is the pastor. This declares that: “We believe that the Lord’s Supper is an ordinance of the Lord in which gathered believers eat bread, signifying Christ’s body given for His people, and drink the cup of the Lord, signifying the New Covenant in Christ’s blood. We do this in remembrance of the Lord, and thus proclaim His death until He comes. Those who eat and drink in a worthy manner partake of Christ’s body and blood, not physically, but spiritually, in that, by faith, they are nourished with the benefits He obtained through His death, and thus grow in grace.” This concise statement is clear and helpful and is probably something that we should adopt as a church for our own doctrinal basis.
Some useful points for us to understand what we are doing when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper:
1. It is the Lord’s Supper. It was given by the Lord for a set purpose. It is not our supper and therefore we cannot do as we please. Even though there are very few instructions concerning the process we are not at liberty to make more or even less of the ordinance than is prescribed in scripture; in particularly 1 Corinthians 11: 17-34. The rules are to be obeyed, the Corinthian church were guilty of abusing the celebration and were rebuked by the Apostle Paul who declared their ritual to not be the Lord’s Supper, it may have looked like it but it was false and therefore unacceptable to God. 1 Corinthians 10:14-17
2. It is the Lord’s Supper. It is a meal with all of the benefits that a meal has. Due to the abuse made by the Corinthian church as recorded in 1 Corinthians 11:17-22; where the people were being greedy with both the bread and the wine; the meal has become a token or symbolic meal. Because the meaning of it is spiritual rather than physical, it was never intended to be a feast but a memorial! We therefore break one loaf signifying Christ’s body given to us and drink of one wine (fruit juice) signifying the New Covenant in Jesus’ blood. The Old Covenant was ratified through sacrifice and the sprinkling of blood, see Exodus 24:8. This Covenant required the death of an innocent victim (an animal) which pointed forward to a more perfect sacrifice. A New covenant was to come. Jeremiah speaks of this in chapter 31:31-34:
“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” This New Covenant finds perfect fulfillment in Jesus, it is His death and resurrection that brings about all that Jeremiah foresaw. This Lord’s Supper that we celebrate states this most clearly. It is our Passover meal.
3. It is a Remembrance. The Lord said to do this in remembrance of him! Whenever we eat and drink we must remember Jesus; it was He who came from the glory into this world as a baby with the set purpose of accomplishing salvation for His people. But who is He? He is Immanuel which means “God with us.” Matthew 1:23. He is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” John 1:29 He is the Son of God whom the Father loves: Mark 1:11 He is the Creator: John 1:3 He is God come into the world, made flesh: John 1:14.
This same Jesus died as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. We are made right with God through His death and resurrection. This is what we remember when we celebrate this supper. It is not a morbid occasion as some make it out to be. It is not about our feelings or sentimentality it is a celebration of all that our God has done for us in Christ Jesus.
4. It is a Declaration. 1 Corinthians 11:26 tells us that whenever we celebrate this supper we are declaring something of great importance about Jesus; He will come again. The great promise of the New Testament is that Jesus is building His church (a nation of people that are set apart by Him!) Matthew 16:18 and that there is coming a day when all that are to be saved will be complete. At this time Jesus has said that He will return from glory and gather His saints to be with Him forever: 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18. Whenever we have this communion we declare that fact to each other (and to observers!) this will serve as an encouragement. Paul in 1 Thessalonians concludes the promise of Jesus’ return with the instruction that believers are to encourage each other with this great promise.
5. It is Recognition. We are by the taking of the bread and wine saying that we recognise him. In 1 Corinthians 11:29 Paul warns those who do not recognise the body of the Lord are bringing judgement upon themselves. If we eat and drink in a way that takes Christ from being the focal point; then the blessings dry up and the church becomes weak and sickly. That is exactly what had happened in Corinth. They were guilty of eating and drinking wrongly and the clear results were that the church had become were sick. The evidence being that they of immorality amongst the leaders! This should be a salutary warning to us as a church. It is clearly important that we celebrate the Lord’s Supper correctly; the consequences of not doing so are serious!
6. It is a Communion. In 1 Corinthians 10:16 Paul tells us that not only do we give thanks and that we remember we also take part. As we take the bread we have a participation (NIV) or communion (AV) with Christ. The letter that Paul writes is to the church at Corinth and in this he is saying that when the church eats together (there is great emphasis on togetherness in the passages concerning the Lord’s Supper) then they are in communion with the Lord Jesus. John Stott said: “Jesus did not only break the bread; he gave it to the disciples to eat. He did not only pour out the wine; He gave it to them to drink. He was not content that they should watch and listen; they must eat and drink. So the service is a communion as well as a commemoration.” This leads me to the conviction that the Lord’s Supper is intended for the gathered church and is not really available for individuals or for small group participation. (That I am sure will promote much discussion in certain quarters.) Our problem is that poor traditional teaching and wrong understandings have infiltrated the church. Rome teaches that the Mass must be celebrated for entrance into heaven, we might not believe that, but it has certainly left an unhelpful mark within the church. The New Testament clearly teaches that the same blessing as is received from celebrating the Lord’s Supper can be gained through hearing God’s word. The communion is a special “means of grace” by which God imparts blessing to the gathered church. It is not a “means of special grace” as some believe, by which special and more important blessings (usually expected just prior to death) are given by God through the hand of the participating priest. The very fact that these leaders claim to be priests is a good hint at what they believe. The mass as they would call it is a regular offering for sin given on behalf of the people by the priest in charge. Jesus Christ is our great High Priest who sacrificed Himself once for all. His shed blood is sufficient for the forgiveness of sin for all who believe on Him. He is the only Priest that we need.
This Lord’s Supper is so much more than a ritual that we do regularly. If we add to it as some have, then we are guilty of devaluing its true meaning. It is all about Jesus and nothing else. Equally if we take away from it then we are also guilty of depriving ourselves of its true meaning. We in effect devalue the purpose for which Christ instituted it and are guilty of celebrating something other than the Lord’s Supper. It might look the same but if celebrated wrongly then we are guilty before God. Our celebration is a sham: Corinthians 11:27
We should therefore examine ourselves and our motives and recognise who it is that is symbolised in the bread and wine: 1 Corinthians 11:28-29
The result of not celebrating truly is weakness in the church and a falling asleep. A dead and formal church with no life and power! We must guard against such a thing; we need our church to be full of life for the Lord’s sake, for our spiritual health and for the gospel benefit of those with whom we are involved!
What is happening?
More to the point we ought to ask “what is not happening” when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Certain groupings e.g. the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches believe in a miraculous changing of the bread and wine upon the blessing by the officiating priest (transubstantiation). They believe the bread to miraculously become the actual body of the Lord and the wine to become His blood. They then feast upon His body and drink His blood in a literal fashion. This they believe to be the true food and drink that Jesus spoke of in John 6:53-59 But is this what Jesus meant when He instituted the Lord’s Supper?
The first thing that we must remember is what the occasion was that Jesus was celebrating. It was the feast of the Passover, part of which was the ceremonial breaking and sharing of bread and the drinking of wine together in celebration of God’s deliverance of His people from slavery in Egypt. The cost of their freedom was the death of the firstborn son in each family. God graciously accepted the sacrifice of an innocent victim on behalf of the firstborn son in any faithful family. That victim was to be a male lamb without any blemish. The parallel to Jesus is plain for all to see! The firstborn did not have to pay the price but an innocent victim did. It is no coincidence that it was on the night of the celebration of the Passover that Jesus was betrayed and would be arrested and made ready for execution. The head of the household would take unleavened bread and as they broke it would liken it to the bread of affliction that their forefathers had eaten on their exodus from Egypt: Exodus 12:17ff. Jesus with this in mind as He broke the bread declared that He fulfilled all that it spoke of. He said this bread speaks of my body given for you. Now when you do this do it in remembrance of me! Luke 22:19. In other words the Passover takes on a whole new meaning. The lamb of the Passover is perfectly superseded by Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Then when He comes to drink the Passover wine He declares as we have already considered it to be the New Covenant in His blood which is poured out for you: Luke 22:20 Bread and wine had always been an emblem, a picture of the reality. They were always used to remind the participants of the reality, there is absolutely no reason why for the Lord’s Supper that it should change. In actual fact to insist on it becoming the actual sacrifice acted out before our very eyes takes away the importance of the One Sacrifice made on behalf of sinners once and for all! 1 Peter 3:18
There is however a danger that we over simplify what is happening in our communion with God. There is much made in scripture of this being food for our nourishment, but the Lord makes it plain that this is dependent upon our remembrance of Him. C.H. Spurgeon said: “we not only eat of His bread, but symbolically we feast upon Him.” Vaughan Roberts in his book True Worship says on page 96 “In this there is a real presence of Christ at the Lord’s Supper but it is located in the heart of the believer and not in the elements themselves. Communion occurs by faith.” Article 28 of the Church of England helpfully states: “The body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten in the supper only after a heavenly and spiritual manner. And the means whereby the body of Christ is received and eaten in the supper is faith.”
Therefore as we eat in remembrance and faith our souls are fed by Christ. This is so much more than a lesser miracle of bread and wine changing their substance could ever be.
Who is it for?
Again we need to look at the beginning. As we have already discovered, the Lord’s Supper is a celebration of all that the New Covenant achieves. The New Covenant in Christ’s blood brings freedom from sin. The Passover meal of the Old Covenant was a celebration of freedom from human slavery in Egypt. The meal was for those who had benefited from God’s gracious deliverance. Anybody could enjoy the meal and the spectacle of it but only those who were truly grateful for what God had done really took part in its true purpose. Therefore it is logical to say that it is for the children of Israel only. It is exactly the same with the Lord’s Supper, many can eat bread and wine but only those who have benefited from the forgiveness of sin through Christ’s sacrifice achieved on the cross really commune with God in the partaking of the memorial meal. The Lord’s Supper therefore is for believers alone. It is a glorious reminder to them as to the graciousness of our God, the cost which He paid in Jesus His Son for the salvation with which we benefit and the great promise of eternal life found in and through Him.
The Lord’s Supper is for believers alone, to others it is merely a ritual that speaks of Christ’s sacrifice if only they will seek the full truth contained within.
Sadly due to wrong thinking there has become a sentimental element attached to the celebration. Comment concerning the communion can often be heard as to the beauty or the wonder of the celebration. It can so easily become an emotional occasion that almost fosters pity for what Jesus went through. Hebrews 12:2 tells us that Jesus endured the cross due to the pleasure that would result from its indignity and curse. Tears of pity are not required as we partake but it should cause heartfelt praise, worship and thanksgiving to God for the sacrifice made. It is not a solemn occasion but a celebration of deep joy in the same way as the Passover was to Israel. That is why the Lord Himself said that he had eagerly awaited that meal with His disciples: Luke 22:14. His imminent suffering was about to accomplish all for which He had come. As we gather for our regular Communion we must come as the Lord came: Eagerly!
The signpost found at a crossroads can be a helpful reminder as we celebrate communion. The signpost has 4 different instructions upon it. It points from one focal point to 4 different destinations. The Lord’s Supper can be likened to a crossroads. The signpost there reminds us to:
• Look back: Remembrance. When we see a signpost to Cardiff we do not stop there content that we have seen evidence of Cardiff. It spurs us on to travel to Cardiff and enjoy the pleasures found within. The bread and wine are a signpost pointing to Calvary. Do not stop and admire the sign but remember the place of ultimate sacrifice made on your behalf.
• Look up: Communion. Not only do we look back on what has been achieved but we are to look up to the One who achieved full and free salvation. It is Him we are communing with and are being fed by. As we eat and drink we are reminded of the cost but we are declaring once again that our trust is in Him alone.
• Look around: Fellowship. We are eating and drinking with like minded people; look around and appreciate them because they too are part of this great church gathered by the Lord Jesus. As we look around we should see that the even greater fellowship is found in God Himself. We are part of the family of God.
• Look forward: Hope. We are declaring Christ’s death until He comes. Until that time we have hope for the future but when that day comes then the church will be gathered in fullness; in perfect communion; in the presence of God Almighty.
The Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” The apostle Paul adds: “For whenever you eat of this bread and drink of this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes!”
“We believe that the Lord’s Supper is an ordinance of the Lord in which gathered believers eat bread, signifying Christ’s body given for His people, and drink the cup of the Lord, signifying the New Covenant in Christ’s blood. We do this in remembrance of the Lord, and thus proclaim His death until He comes. Those who eat and drink in a worthy manner partake of Christ’s body and blood, not physically, but spiritually, in that, by faith, they are nourished with the benefits He obtained through His death, and thus grow in grace.”