#WCSK Episode 2.5: Communion (The Lord’s Supper)

How this principle applies to your everyday life:

What Christians Should Know (#WCSK) (#WCSK2) Volume II Part V Communion Graphic

 

While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:26-29; c.f. Mark 14:22-25 and Luke 22:14-20).

Introduction & Background

One of the reasons I enjoy teaching about Communion is that this fundamental idea and sacrament ties together so many themes, and neatly bridges the gap between the Old Testament and the New Testament. The central crux of the Bible tells a story of a loving God, through Jesus, who executes a rescue mission to restore a severed relationship with His people.

Communion, or The Lord’s Supper, is a sign representing the restoration of fellowship with God as He invites us to sit at His table in the intimacy of a meal. Another term used for Communion is The Eucharist, derived from the Greek word eucharisto meaning, “to thank.” 

A component of Communion is to come together and to “give thanks” for what Jesus has accomplished for us all.

If you learn nothing else from this lesson, the key take home point is that Communion is intended to draw people closer to God,so that they can fellowship with Him, not as isolated individuals, but as a unified community.

Communion is an ongoing ordinance that is observed repeatedly throughout our Christian walk; it is a sign of fellowship with Jesus, and brings together other believers in the body of Christ. While baptism (the other sacrament) highlights the start of a Christian’s life and relationship with Jesus, Communion highlights the remembrance of what God has done for us, and the continuation of our covenantal relationship with Him. Hence, Paul writes in I Corinthians 11:25, “In the same way [Jesus] took the cup also after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me’” (emphasis added).

Keep in mind that in the time of Jesus, sitting down to have a meal with someone was a pretty intimate exercise, which is why so many religious authorities ridiculed Christ for sitting down at the tables with those who were “sinners.”[1] So, the context of Communion implies a closeness and familiarity with God, and those with whom you are at the table.

There are many allusions to Communion in the Old Testament. For example, after the Lord liberates the Israelites from Egyptian bondage and leads them out into the wilderness, He gives the people the Ten Commandments as a way to explicitly define expected behavior in a relationship with Him. Then, in Exodus 24:9-11 it says:

Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself. Yet He did not stretch out His hand against the nobles of the sons of Israel; and they saw God, and they ate and drank” (emphasis added).

In Deuteronomy 14:23-26, the law prescribed annually that as part of their tithe, the households of Israel would eat grain and drink wine in a location specified by the Lord. The people would do this and thus remember and rejoice over what God has done for them.

However, in order to truly understand what Communion is, you must first understand the Passover.

The Passover

When Jesus instituted The Lord’s Supper in Matthew 26, He did so during the Passover celebration. The Eucharist must take the Passover into consideration, as Jesus is the “Passover lamb.”[2]

Therefore, if we go back in Biblical time (the Old Testament), we find God’s people (the Israelites) under oppressive Egyptian bondage. God sends Moses, a mediator, to deliver the people from their oppression. Moses, being extremely hesitant (Exodus 3 and 4), basically asks God, “Hey, I’m just a guy. It’s been a while since your people have heard from you, so why would anyone—either Pharaoh or the Israelites—believe me when I tell them that you sent me?” God responds by saying, “Don’t worry, they will believe you. Tell them that I Am sent you, and I will grant you the ability to perform miraculous wonders to reveal to everyone that I am The Lord.” The miraculous wonders were the ten plagues that struck Egypt. Essentially, Moses asked Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” Pharaoh said no. Then a plague struck. This happened nine times, and Pharaoh still would not budge. It was just before the tenth plague that God called Moses to Him and gave instructions for the institution of the Passover:

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover. On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt” (Exodus 12:1-13).

The Passover was a sign that pointed well beyond itself, to something much greater. That sign revealed that God was going to cast judgment on Egypt, but the Lord was going to make a distinction between His people who would be “passed over,” and those who were to receive divine judgment. What separated those who would be saved from the rest is the blood of a lamb without defect on the doorpost and lintels of the Israelites’ houses. The people also ate unleavened bread and consumed the food “on alert” and in haste, ready to go at a moment’s notice. Back then, the Passover was never something final in and of itself, but a sign that prepared them for what was coming.

During the tenth plague, God “passed over” the houses with blood on them, but for the houses without the blood, calamity came in the death of the firstborn son. It was after this tenth plague that Pharaoh let the Israelites go. Therefore, after the Israelites were set free from bondage and subsequently celebrated the Passover yearly, they looked back and remembered what God had done for them—set them free from death, to live for God. The Passover was a sign of deliverance and redemption.

Now, fast-forward to Matthew 26 with Jesus and the disciples in the upper room. Similarly, before the spotless, sinless Passover lamb, Jesus, had His blood shed on the vertical and horizontal beams of the Cross, He added new meaning and significance to the Passover. He, as the only begotten Son of God, would suffer the total wrath of God at Calvary, yet His blood would subsequently allow God’s wrath to “pass over” all of humanity. And, just like in Egypt when the Passover was initiated before the tenth, final, and worst plague, Jesus adds this novel importance before the Cross: Jesus told His disciples that the unleavened bread was, “My body” which would be broken, and the cup was now “My blood” that is “poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.” Hence, when we partake of Communion, we now look back and remember what Jesus did for us, which is exactly how God qualified why we are to participate in Communion. Jesus said “Do this, in remembrance of me” (emphasis added; Luke 22:19).

Generally speaking, when we remember, we typically memorialize an event in time (e.g. birthdays, anniversaries). We also memorialize events in space (e.g. makeshift roadside memorials and monuments at the location of significant historical events). People memorialize all the time (like bumper stickers that say, “We will never forget”) because the danger in forgetting is that we become detached from the significance of what the memorial represents, regardless of whether that memorial points to a person, an event, or an idea. For example, if I were to forget the “memorial” of our wedding anniversary, then my wife may think that my commitment to our marriage is faltering because I forgot. If I stopped going to church every Sunday and did not remember both the sacredness of The Lord’s house (space) and the Sabbath (time), I will become detached from the community of believers, forget who I am, and lose my identity as a member of a larger whole.

If we don’t purposely take into account the sacrifice of Jesus and give thanks through The Lord’s Supper, we will become detached, forget, become disinterested, and then turn away. No one ever pursues something that they regard as irrelevant. 

Hence, in the Old Testament, labeling someone as “apostate” is like calling someone a bad word. And what does apostate mean? It comes from the Hebrew word sobeb meaning a “backslider” or “one who lets go” or “one who forgets.” This is what David meant when he writes in Psalm 103:2, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits” (emphasis added).

The original Passover was an event that freed only Israelites from Egyptian bondage once. This was limited to a specific people in a specific place at a specific time. The sacrificial blood of Jesus on the Cross paid the price of sin for eternity and is sufficient for all of humanity.

What Communion Means

By participating in Communion, you proclaim the death of Jesus on the Cross as the final sacrificial atonement that eternally satisfies the debt of sin owed to God. 

Paul writes in I Corinthians 11:26, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink from the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” By eating the bread and drinking the wine, you figuratively internalize the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice, and are therefore liberated from sin and death. Of course, bread and wine have physical nutritional value, but the sustenance of communion transcends its physical value. Communion also provides spiritual nourishment that refreshes our intangible spiritual self. Hence, this is why in John 6:53-57 Jesus says:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me.”

Of course, if you read this verse literally, you may think that partaking in Communion sounds very paganist with the literal eating of human flesh and the drinking of human blood. As I mentioned in prior lessons, Biblical interpretation always lets Scripture interpret Scripture, so when we consider the whole Biblical cannon, we realize that here, Jesus is speaking symbolically. Jesus also said that He is a “vine,”[3] a “door,”[4] “the bread,”[5] “the way,”[6] and “the light.”[7] These are all also figurative expressions which is why we literally cannot toast Jesus in the oven or turn Him on to illumine a dark room. Moreover, in Luke 22:20, Jesus refers to the cup “which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” Literally, the cup is not a covenant. Symbolically, the cup represents a covenant. In fact, a cataclysmically dangerous idea is to suggest that Communion literally represents ingesting Christ’s physical body and blood because the implication is that by repeatedly participating in such a ritual, what Jesus therefore did on the cross is inadequate.[8]

Logically speaking, we know that Jesus’s physical body ascended into Heaven[9] and His body literally is in another realm, meaning that it cannot be literally omnipresent and here for us to eat and drink. We also know by implication that Levitical law prohibits cannibalism[10] and the drinking of blood,[11] and that Christ came to fulfill the law not to abolish it.[12]

The bread and wine symbolize the respective body and blood of Christ, and point to a spiritual presence of Jesus during the sacrament. 

This presence is confirmed when Jesus says that when two or more are gathered in His name, He will be present[13] and by His parting words at the end of the Great Commission, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (emphasis added; Matthew 28: 20).

Communion also means that other believers, who also belong to the body of Christ (the Church), come together with you as a unified community. Paul writes in I Corinthians 10:17, “ Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread” (emphasis added). Communion gathers God’s people together at His invitation, which fits the Biblical model that when God blesses, He brings together. (And when He judges, He divides and separates). While Communion invites us to look back and remember what Jesus has done for us, it also invites us to look forward and realize that the best is yet to come, for the bread and wine now foreshadows a royal heavenly banquet with Jesus in Heaven in the future: “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29). In His future kingdom, all of God’s elect will dine at the marriage feast of the lamb in heaven.[14]

The Sign of the New Covenant

In the first volume of What Christians Should Know, the sixth lesson was on covenants, or an agreement between God and His people. It’s worth revisiting the last part of that lesson to appreciate how Communion is a sign of a covenant.

In Jeremiah 31:31-34 it says, “‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord. ‘But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more’” (emphasis added).

The mediator of this covenant is Jesus, and the covenant has certain provisions and conditions. God provides the apostate Israel with this covenantal promise on the verge of the people being exiled from the Promised Land for covenantal violation.[15] The promise of this covenant is an unconditional divine pledge of pure grace. Because Israel was continually unfaithful, God makes the decision to forgive her sins and establish a new relationship where the law is no longer external but written on their hearts. God will forgive sins and remember them no more. As a result, the apex of the new promise is that everyone who has faith and obeys will have eternal life and fellowship with God.[16] This promise is only possible through Jesus.

The internal sign of this New Covenant is faith. The external signs are baptism and Communion. Baptism represents the start of the covenant, and Communion represents the continuance of the covenant.

In order to put the New Covenant into context, let us look at Matthew 26:26-29: “‘Take, eat; this is My body.’ And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins’” (emphasis added).

Essentially, since the beginning, in Genesis, humans were unable to obtain the blessings offered in all of the prior covenants because they were incapable of meeting The Lord’s conditions. So, it became necessary for God to graciously give more in order to save His creation. As is always the case, humans can’t do, so God does and provides. So in the New Covenant, Christ now becomes a mediator[17] for us between humanity and the Father, because in the past, a covenant directly between God and humans failed. Just as in every other covenant, in order to participate in this covenant, one ought to have faith[18] and believe in Christ as the One who redeems humanity. Also, in prior covenants, the people involved were incapable of obedience because they lacked the redemption and atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who now frees us from the bondage of sin,[19] which prevents us from obeying God. With the New Covenant, faith produces obedience,[20] and thus we become participants in the promise.[21] And this covenantal promise is everlasting with everyone who believes, so that God will be your God, you shall be His,[22] the Holy Spirit works in us to bring about New Covenant power,[23] and God is subsequently revealed to us in full.[24]

The New Covenant is the replacement[25] of the old Mosaic covenant, and is the fulfillment of every other Old Testament covenant.[26] Again, we participate in Communion to memorialize the covenantal power, grace, sufficiency, and timelessness of what Jesus did for us.

The Who, When, and How of Communion

There is no explicit Biblical prescription of who can partake in Communion.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the text describes Jesus initiating The Lord’s Supper with His disciples, who knew Jesus and had an understanding of what He was doing. Logically, having a basic comprehension of who Jesus is and what Communion is should be a prerequisite for participation. If that isn’t the case, then the sacrament becomes devoid of meaning. That is analogous to saying an unknown prayer to an unknown god in an unknown language. In fact, although the Bible does not say who can or cannot participate in The Eucharist, it does say what that person must perform: self-scrutiny. Paul writes:

Therefore 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. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep” (emphasis added; I Corinthians 11:29-30).

It is important to note that this prescription by Paul was given in the context of a letter to a church that was acting very badly, and had a multitude of problems. In reference to Communion, the people at the church at Corinth regularly got drunk, and some gorged on food while others went hungry (I Corinthians 11:20-21). This church also mixed idolatrous practices with The Lord’s Supper. What Paul was trying to tell them, and is a message that still rings true for us today, is that it’s not the physical Communion itself that matters most—it’s the proper understanding of the significance and symbolism that stands above the act. Ultimately what matters more than the person is the person in the context of one body, who as a unified community, partakes of one bread (I Corinthians 10:17).[27] The head of that body is Jesus.[28] When Jesus is the head that guides us, we think, act, and behave like Him.

In some circles, people say that you must be baptized prior to receiving Communion. Such an understanding goes way, way, back to the second century when a very old pastoral handbook, The Didache, makes the explicit prohibition that those who have not been baptized in the Lord’s name are unable to participate in the Eucharist. The author makes a notable, yet divisive reference to, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs” (IX.5).

In the New Testament, and in contrast to the Didache, there is no specific mention of baptism prior to engagement in the Communion. In the Eucharist-type scenes in Mark 6:41, 8:6 and Luke 9:16, 24:30, for example, Christ blesses, breaks bread, and then distributes food to whomever was there without baptism. It’s also very interesting that both in Matthew and Mark’s gospels it is established that Judas is the one who will betray Jesus before The Lord’s Supper, yet Judas still participates in the covenantal meal regardless. The Bible makes no mention if the original participants (the disciples) in The Eucharist were baptized. Of course, it goes without saying that if you are in fact baptized before you begin participating in Communion, it is never a bad idea.

In I Corinthians 10:1-4, Paul draws a connection between the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper to the nourishing manna and water that fed Israel in the wilderness. In 10:14-22, Paul uses the Greek word koinonia (meaning participation, fellowship, partnership, sharing) to refer both to the participation “in the blood of Christ” and “in the body of Christ.” In essence, Paul affirms that those who partake in the Eucharist are woven together with one another, “[W]e who are many are one body; 10:17, ESV) by partaking of the bread. This echoes Paul’s statement in Chapter 11:17-32 where he condemns the Corinthians for using the Eucharist as a means for class segregation and insensitivity to those without as a way to exclude them from the table—Paul emphasizes concern for every other member of the community.[29]

My last point on the who of communion is that although it is meant to draw people closer to God through their remembrance, denigration of communion can have catastrophic consequences

If there ever was a reason to what the Reformers called the “fencing of the table” it is to protect people and prevent them from bringing harm unto themselves. As R.C. Sproul writes:

“When a person participates in the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, instead of drinking a cup of blessing, they are drinking a cup of cursing. They are eating and drinking unto damnation, and God will not be mocked. If people celebrate this most sacred of activities in the church and they do it in an inappropriate way, they expose themselves to the judgment of God.

Oscar Cullman, the Swiss theologian, said the most neglected verse in the whole New Testament is I Corinthians 11:30: ‘This is why many of you are weak an ill, and some have died.’ Some scholars believe that the meaning of I John 5:16-17 is that God will not send Christian to hell who misused and abused the Lord’s Supper, but He might take their lives.”[30]

In the end, no one will ever be perfect or sinless when they participate in Communion, and one person will not be more deserving than the other. What we should all do is ensure we approach Communion with an attitude of repentance, remembrance, and responsibility.

There is no explicit Biblical prescription for who can perform the sacrament of Communion.

Communion is one of the sacraments executed by the Church. Common sense would compel us to conclude that that someone who has a comprehensive understanding of Communion would be the one performing it, and could thus explain its significance to those who are present. This person could also guard against abuse of the sacrament. Besides that, there is no clear Biblical prescription on what a person’s qualifications should be or even if they should hold a more senior position in church leadership.

There is no explicit Biblical prescription for how often one should perform Communion.

The closest reference made with regard to the frequency of Communion can be found in I Corinthians 11:26, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup …” Our church, Deeper Life Christian Fellowship, performs Communion on the first Sunday of the month. Other churches do it weekly, while others do it a few times a year. In Acts 20:7 there is a description of some in the early church whom had Communion weekly. Acts 2:46 even speaks of people “breaking bread” in their homes, and not in a formal ‘church.’ Yet, it must be noted that in the 1st century Church, people’s homes then were where people customarily came together. There is no right answer to “How often?” as long as it is being done, and being done correctly.

Conclusion

What this all means is that whenever or wherever you participate in Communion, you have to have a keen understanding of what it is that you are doing. It’s not a time to zone out with a wafer and a small cup of grape juice in your hand, nor is it a small snack just to hold you over until lunch. Rather, it is an earnest time to reflect on the self and upon what Jesus has finished for all of us. It’s a sacrament performed in the context of a community, the body of Christ, who fellowship with one another through Christ. It’s a time to contemplate how the eternal fulfillment of His work is something bigger and better than anyone can imagine, and the “mini-feast” today will pale in comparison to the heavenly banquet in the future. Had it not been for the blood sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross—where His body was broken and His blood was shed—there would be no hope for anyone. Yet, because of Him, we continually remember and memorialize that our salvation is due to the Messiah who set us free from bondage, reconciled us back to God, so that one day we can live eternally with Him.

Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal

 

[1] See Luke 5:27-32

[2] I Corinthians 5:7 (NIV)

[3] John 15:1

[4] John 10:9

[5] John 6:41

[6] John 14:6

[7] John 8:12

[8] The Roman Catholic Church, for example, promotes a doctrine of transubstantiation, which says that the bread and wine actually become Christ’s body and blood, and that grace is imparted to those who are present ex opere operato. This Latin phrase means “by the work performed” and refers to the priest performing the sacrament, elevating the bread and declaring it to be the actual body of Christ. The obvious problem here, besides the fact that it is in blatant contradiction to the Bible, is that a human priest is given divine power and the sacrifice of Jesus is diminished from something final and finished (John 19:30; Hebrews 1:3, 9:25-28) to something that has to be repeated.

[9] Acts 1:9-12

[10] By implication means that the Bible never says, “Don’t eat people” but cannibalism is described as a terrible evil when people turn away from the Lord. For example, read Leviticus 26:14-30 (esp. v. 29). See also Deuteronomy 28:53-57; Jeremiah 19:3-9; Lamentations 2:20, 4:10

[11] Genesis 9:3-8; Leviticus 17:11; Deuteronomy 12:23

[12] Matthew 5:17

[13] Matthew 18:20

[14] Revelation 19:6-10; see also Matthew 22:1-14 for the parable of the wedding feast and Jesus inviting all those who will embrace Him to His table.

[15] Leviticus 26:27-39; Deuteronomy 28:36-37, 45-68

[16] John 3:15, 5:24

[17] Hebrews 8:6, 9:15, 12:24

[18] Romans 1:17, 5:1

[19] Romans 8:2

[20] James 2:17

[21] I John 2:4-6

[22] Jeremiah 32:38-40; Ezekiel 34:30-31, 36:28; II Corinthians 6:16; I Peter 2:9-10; Revelation 21:3

[23] Acts 1:8; I Corinthians 12:13; II Corinthians 3:4-18

[24] John 1:14; Hebrews 1:1-3

[25] Luke 22:20; I Corinthians 11:25; II Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 8:8, 13, 9:15, 12:24

[26] Luke 1:72-73; Romans 4; Galatians 3:6-18, 29; Hebrews 2:16, 6:13-20

[27] c.f. Matthew 5:23-24

[28] Ephesians 1:22, 4:12, 5:23; Colossians 1:18

[29] The Society of Biblical Literature, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, ed. Paul J. Achtemeier et al., (New York, NY: Harper San Francisco of Harper Collins Publishers, 1985), 623-24.

[30] R. C. Sproul, What is the Lord’s Supper? (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2013), Kindle

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *