The Bases of the Lord’s Supper

It goes by at least three different names: Communion, the Eucharist, and the Lord’s Supper. Along with the names comes a great variety of ways to understand what exactly the Lord’s Supper means, how it should be celebrated, and who should participate. The differences notwithstanding, the Lord’s Supper ties Christians of all different stripes to one another. Anywhere in the world where we find a church, we will find the Lord’s Supper being celebrated.

Biblical Basis for the Lord’s Supper

The New Testament has four primary passages dealing with the Lord’s Supper: Matthew 26:17-30, Mark 14:12-26, Luke 22:17-20, and 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. Of these passages, the first three are parallels of one another: These narrative passages describe what happened on the night of the first Lord’s Supper. The final passage stands out as being a didactic passage, which means that Paul prescribes proper practices regarding the Lord’s Supper. Thus, the first three describe how Jesus conducted the first Lord’s Supper on the night of his arrest while the final passage gives instructions regarding how the Church should conduct the Lord’s Supper going forward.

According to all of the passages, the Lord’s Supper has two essential elements: bread and wine. However, many Protestant churches use grape juice instead of wine because of the Protestant aversion to alcohol. Of course, the passages from the gospels describe the drink used as “the fruit of the vine;” thus, technically, grape juice falls within that definition. However, it seems clear that Jesus, the apostles, and the early church all used wine because, in the passage from 1 Corinthians, Paul felt the need to remind the Christians not to get drunk when participating in the Lord’s Supper.

The place at which Jesus celebrated the first Lord’s Supper in the gospels is highly significant. In every one of the three gospel accounts of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus celebrates the Lord’s Supper immediately before his crucifixion. According to Paul, the meaning of the bread is tied to Jesus’s body which was broken on the cross: Paul quotes Jesus as saying, “this is my body, which is for you.”[1] Thus, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we must remember that we are celebrating the fact that Christ was nailed to our cross. We are celebrating the fact that his body was broken so that we might be healed.

Immediately following his presentation of the bread, Jesus picks up a glass of wine. Turning to his disciples, Jesus solemnly says, “this cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”[2] Thus, when we drink the wine of the Lord’s Supper, we must remember Christ’s blood which stained the dirt at the foot of the cross for the remission of our sins. By the shedding of his blood, our wounds are healed.

Historical Basis for the Lord’s Supper

Jesus didn’t create a new event on the night of his betrayal; instead, true to form, Jesus took something from Old Testament Judaism and gave it a new, improved meaning. According to Matthew’s gospel, the first Lord’s Supper took place during the Festival of Unleavened Bread.

Moses instituted the Festival of Unleavened Bread in the Old Testament to remind the Israelites of their exodus from Egypt. During the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Jews did not eat any kind of yeast bread in order to symbolize the speed with which the Israelites had to flee Egypt in the Old Testament. Since the Israelites had to flee Egypt in haste, they didn’t have time to wait on yeast bread to rise; thus, they ate unleavened or non-yeast bread.[3]

When Jesus gives new meaning to the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the apostles gathered around the table with him understand the old meaning of the festival; thus, they interpret what Jesus is doing along the lines of their understanding of the Festival of Unleavened Bread. The apostles know that the Festival of Unleavened Bread was about remembering how God had miraculously rescued their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. Thus, as Jesus takes over this festival’s meaning, he begins to use the Passover meal—a part of the larger Festival of Unleavened Bread—to remind the Church of how God has miraculously rescued us from our slavery to sin.[4]

The Passover meal took place during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Whereas the larger festival pointed towards the Jew’s hurried exodus from Egypt, the Passover meal itself pointed to the final plague on the Egyptians: the death of the firstborn. In the book of Exodus, the Israelites slaughtered, roasted, and ate a lamb before going to bed on the night that the Lord struck down the firstborn of the Egyptians. During this process, the Israelites smeared the blood of the slaughtered lamb on the doorposts of their houses in order to make a distinction between them and the Egyptians.

From then on, the Israelites continued the practice of slaughtering, roasting, and eating spotless lambs as the Passover meal during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. In this way, the Passover meal reminded the Israelites that spotless lambs had lost their lives to cover the lives of their ancient ancestors.

When Jesus takes over the meaning of the Passover meal, this is how his fellow Jews understand what’s taking place. By injecting himself into the Passover meal, Jesus draws a parallel between the function of the Passover lamb for ancient Israel and his function for the Church. This parallel is what leads Paul to call Jesus “our Passover lamb” in 1 Corinthians 5:7. Thus, Jesus is the new Passover lamb whose bloods covers and protects his people in the face of imminent death.

Therefore, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we must remember that Jesus has demolished the chains that held us in slavery to sin and that he is our Passover lamb whose blood ran freely on Mount Calvary to purchase our safety.

Summary

Thus far, we’ve established that the Lord’s Supper’s meaning connects closely to our salvation. The bread and the wine both point to the fact that Christ’s body was broken and blood was poured out on our behalf. Furthermore, the events around the first Lord’s Supper remind us that we’ve been rescued from slavery to sin by the blood of our Passover lamb, Jesus the Christ. For these reasons, when we approach the Lord’s Supper, we ought to come with a serious, repentant heart; for, the Lord’s Supper reminds us that Jesus gave all so that we could inherit the kingdom of heaven. May we never take the Lord’s Supper lightly!

At this point, we haven’t begun to consider the major theological issues of the Lord’s Supper. For that, you’ll have to check back in a few weeks!

Notes & Sources

[1] 1 Corinthians 11:24, all scripture quotations are from the NIV.

[2] Luke 22:20

[3] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, vol. 22 of The New American Commentary, ed. David S. Dockery (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 390.

[4] David. A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28, vol 33B of Word Biblical Commentary, ed. Bruce M Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker (Dallas: Word Books Publisher, 1995), 764.

 

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