The Lord’s Supper
1 Corinthians 11:23-26: 23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 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.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Where Does the Title “The Lord’s Supper” Come From?
Christians generally use one of three titles to refer to this ordinance: 1) The Lord’s Supper, 2) The Eucharist, and 3) Communion. The first title derives its name from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:20: “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.” This title connects the ordinance to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. He owns, presides, and rules over it.
“Eucharist” comes from the Greek word εὐχαριστία meaning thankfulness (cf. Matt 26:27; 1 Cor 11:24). This word appears in the primary texts describing the Lord’s Supper (Matt 26:26-29; Lk 22:14-20; 1 Cor 11:23-26). The element of thanksgiving surrounding the meal appropriately identifies the Lord’s Supper as a celebration.
Lastly, the title of “Communion” comes from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:16: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (ESV) The word the ESV translates as “participation” comes from the Greek word κοινωνία and it conveys the idea of a communal association for the mutual benefit of those involved. The Lord’s Supper thus provides Christians with an opportunity to share in the spiritual benefits that He purchased on their behalf by enjoying communion with him.
What is the Lord’s Supper?
The Lord’s Supper is a Christian celebration patterned after the meal Jesus ate with his disciples before his crucifixion (cf. Mk 14:22–25). This Christian ordinance is a covenantal meal that visibly proclaims the gospel message and functions as a means of grace for the people of God. The three main components of this definition are 1) covenant, 2) the gospel, and 3) means of grace.
Covenant. In Matthew 26:28, Jesus identifies the cup as the “blood of the covenant.” Luke 22:20 refers to the cup as “the new covenant in my blood.” In the Old Testament, covenant ceremonies involved special meals and the shedding of blood. Exodus 24:1-11 describes the covenant that Yahweh made with the people of Israel. During this covenant ceremony Moses sprinkled blood on the people of Israel and said to them, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Exod 24:8). The blood sprinkled on the people signified their entrance into a covenant relationship with God. The sprinkled blood also signified a self-maledictory oath. In other words, by agreeing to the terms of the covenant, the people of Israel were saying, ‘May our blood be spilt if we fail to keep the covenant.’
The people of Israel broke covenant with God, but God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah of a new and better covenant than the Mosaic covenant. Jeremiah 31:31-34 speaks of a “new covenant” that is not like the covenant God made with Israel when he brought them out of the land of Egypt (Jer 31:31-32). Members of this new covenant will have the law written on their hearts (v. 33). Their iniquities will be forgiven and their sins remembered no more (v. 34). Therefore when Jesus refers to the cup as the “new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:20) poured out “for the forgiveness of sins,” he is teaching his disciples that his sacrificial death purchases all of the blessings of new covenant as described in Jeremiah 31:31-34. Entrance into the new covenant community comes to those who by faith receive the blood of Christ on their behalf for the forgiveness of sins. This does not mean that we enter the new covenant by partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Instead, we are to view the Lord’s Supper as covenant renewal. Around the Lord’s Table we renew our covenant with Christ and with each other.
Gospel Proclamation. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26). Paul’s statement suggests that the Lord’s Supper functions as a visible proclamation of the gospel message. Thus, when we partake of the supper, we announce the good news that God’s reign has come in the person of Jesus Christ. This gospel proclamation also serves as a reminder to God’s people of the Lord’s death on their behalf. Jesus said, “Do this…in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11:25). Christians have, therefore, rightly regarded the Lord’s Supper as a memorial commemorating the Lord’s death.
Paul’s words at the end of 1 Corinthians 11:26, “until he comes,” allude to Jesus’ statement before his disciples, “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt 26:29). These words give the Lord’s Supper an eschatological (end-time) dimension. In this sense, the Lord’s Supper anticipates the marriage supper of the lamb described in Revelation 19:6-9. The bread and the cup remind believers that Christ will one day return to earth to consummate his kingdom and his pure bride (the church) will reign with him forever. Of course the guarantee of this future promise is grounded in the past event of Christ’s sacrifice.
Means of Grace. Lost in many post-reformational churches is the idea that the Lord’s Super functions as a “means of grace.” Richard Barcellos defines the phrase means of grace as “the delivery systems God has instituted to bring grace — that is, spiritual power, spiritual change, spiritual help, spiritual fortitude, spiritual blessings — to needy souls on earth…The means of grace are those conduits through which Christ alters, modifies, adjusts, changes, transforms, and develops souls on the earth.”[i] Christ not only acquired grace for us, but He distributes grace to us through various means. The primary means in which Christ distributes grace to his people is through the Word of God and the ordinances.
As a means of grace, the Lord’s Supper is rightly identified as communion with Christ. Communion around the Lord’s table happens amongst the Spirit-filled new covenant community (the church). Communion is, therefore, both vertical and horizontal. At the horizontal level, the Lord’s Supper is an ordinance that is to be celebrated with the church body. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10:17, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” To paraphrase Bobby Jamieson’s words, the Lord’s Supper binds the many into one. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper is part of what constitutes a local church. Michael Horton writes, “The sacraments [ordinances] draw us out of our private rooms into the public dining room. Here we are co-heirs at the family table, not consumers of exotic or meaningful religious experiences. Christ gives his body, and we thereby become ‘one body by such participation.’”[ii] At the vertical level, the body of Christ actually participates in the body and blood of Christ through this ordinance (1 For 10:16). In this sense, the Lord’s Supper is more than a memorial. It is a means of grace by which the Lord Jesus Christ is present with his church through the agency of the Holy Spirit to spiritually feed and strengthen the faith of weak souls in need of grace. By partaking of the supper, then, believers not only commemorate the Lord’s death, they commune with Christ by receiving the spiritual benefits Christ purchased through his death on their behalf.
Who May Partake of the Lord’s Supper?
In light of the discussion thus far, it is fairly obvious that the Lord’s Supper is only for believers in the Lord Jesus Christ—people we might refer to as new covenant Christians. To enjoy communion with Christ requires that a person be united to him by faith. Therefore true conversion is the starting point. But as we have seen, the Lord’s Supper is a covenantal meal for the new covenant community. How does one identify with the new covenant community? Answer: baptism. Baptism is the ordinance that publicly initiates an individual into Christ’s kingdom. Since the church wields the authority of the keys of the kingdom on earth until Jesus comes again, baptism is properly administered under the authority of local churches. Baptism becomes the effective sign of church membership and the “swearing in” ceremony into the new covenant. Only baptized believers who are members in good standing of a local church should participate in the Lord’s Supper.
The question of who may legitimately participate in the Lord’s Supper is of the utmost seriousness. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:27, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.” Similarly in 11:29, he writes, “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” Paul’s words reveal the weighty truth that the Lord’s Supper can function either as a means of blessing or a means of cursing. The believer who comes to the Lord’s Supper in faith receives Christ as liberator, justifier, and forgiver. The unbeliever who comes to the table also receives Christ, not as redeemer, but as judge.
How do we prepare for the Lord’s Supper?
Paul wrote to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 11:28, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink the cup.” I can remember when I was a boy thinking that examining myself meant I had to remember and confess every single sin I ever committed before partaking of the Lord’s Supper or else I might incur God’s judgment. Such thinking can easily lead a person to base his or her worthiness to participate in the sacred meal on a self-justifying feeling of pietistic sorrow. Others might examine themselves by calculating how many times they read their Bible, or prayed, or gave their financial offerings. Both of these behaviors are anti-gospel. At the core of both is the desire to justify self, whether that comes through beating yourself up enough to feel worthy or celebrating your righteous deeds to earn your reward. We must remember, however, that Paul’s comment in 1 Corinthians 11:28 is to be understood primarily in the context of relationships. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-22, Paul rebukes the Corinthians for schism and factions within the body when they come to the Lord’s table. This horizontal perspective on what it means to “examine” oneself should lead us to keep short accounts with our brothers and sisters. We should not approach the Lord’s table while harboring bitterness or unforgiveness in our hearts toward another church member. Perhaps the best way to prepare for a meal that proclaims the gospel is to demonstrate the fruit of the gospel by forgiving others and being forgiven by them.
I am not denying the fact that the Lord’s Supper does provide Christians with a focused season of confession before God. The very gospel we proclaim is the good news that our sin has been forgiven by the blood of Jesus. However we must remember that the Lord’s Supper is about the good news that Jesus came to save us not only from our sin, but also from our best efforts to earn God’s favor by our righteous deeds. The Lord’s Supper is not for religious all-stars, but for sinners who have no hope apart from the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. When we come to the table, we must lay all our attempts of self-justification aside and embrace the elements exactly for what they represent: Christ’s body broken for us and Christ’s blood shed for us for the forgiveness of sins.
[i] Barcellos, The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace, 23.
[ii] Horton, The Christian Faith, 822.
[iii] Barcellos, The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace, 111.