By Mark Mayberry
To understand the significance of the Lord’s Supper and to keep it properly is of highest importance to the Christian. A proper observance of the Lord’s Supper will yield great spiritual blessings, but an improper observance of this memorial feast will result in great condemnation. Let us diligently study this subject and then make proper application of what we learn.
A. Origin of Observance
How did this practice originate? Just before his death, on the night that he was betrayed, Christ instituted the observance of the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 26:26-29; Mk. 14:22-25; Lk. 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-25). For generations, the Passover feast had commemorated God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian captivity (Exod. 12:21-27). However, in celebrating the Passover with his disciples, Jesus gave it a new meaning.
B. Emblems of Observance
The first element of the Lord’s Supper is unleavened bread. Unleavened bread is bread baked from unfermented dough, i.e., bread that is made without any yeast. The Passover was also called the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The Lord originally commanded the Jews to use such bread because they were to eat the Passover in haste (Deut. 16:1-3). Later leaven came to symbolize the evil influence of sin that must be purged away (Matt. 16:6; 1 Cor. 5:6-8). Thus the unleavened bread represents the broken body of our sinless Savior.
The second element of the Lord’s Supper is the fruit of the vine. This symbolizes his blood that was shed for many for the remission of sins. In the Old Testament, the blood of animals was shed in the place of the offender. However, the blood of bulls and goats could not completely remove the stain of sin. A better and more perfect sacrifice was needed. Jesus is that sacrifice! We now find permanent forgiveness through the blood of Christ (Eph. 1:7; 1 Pet. 1:18-19; Rev. 1:5). The Lord’s Supper celebrates this fact!
C. Day of Observance
When was the Lord’s Supper observed? The early church regularly assembled on Sunday for worship (1 Cor. 16:1-2). On this day Christ was raised from the dead. On this day the church was established. One of the primary reasons the disciples came together on the first day of the week was to “break bread.” Sometimes this expression refers to eating a common meal (Acts 2:46; 27:35), but it often refers to the observance of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 10: 16; Acts 2:42; 20:7). Thus we clearly understand that the Lord’s Supper was observed on the first day of the week..
D. Frequency of Observance
How often did early Christians observe the Lord’s Supper? To answer this question, we need to understand how necessary inference is used to establish Bible authority. A necessary inference is something that is clearly implied by the things that are stated. Necessary inference is simply a part of the reasoning process. When evidence is collected and a conclusion is drawn, that conclusion is our inference. It is “necessary” to the extent that the evidence demands it.
Jesus often taught through parables or illustrative stories, and then called upon men to infer the necessary spiritual lesson and apply it to their lives. For example, in debating with the Sadducees about the resurrection, Jesus argued that God’s statement to Moses from the burning bush necessarily implied that Abraham enjoyed a continuing existence beyond the grave (Matt. 22:23-33). Jesus also used this approach in reassuring John the Baptist that he was indeed the Christ (Matt. 11:2-6).
We learn how often to partake of the Lord’s Supper through necessary inference. It was the practice of the New Testament church to observe the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). The question might be asked, “Which first day?” Since none is specified it follows that they did it each first day. Whenever there was a first day of the week, they observed the Lord’s Supper. A comparison might be made to the Old Testament commandment to observe the Sabbath day. Which Sabbath day? God did not specifically say, but the Jews clearly were to infer that each Sabbath day was sacred (Num. 15:32-36). As often as there was a Sabbath day it was to be observed. So it is with the Lord’s Supper. New Testament Christians met every first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:1-2, RSV). In their weekly assembly they partook of the Lord’s Supper. Observing the communion on a monthly, quarterly, or yearly basis is without Bible authority.
E. Purpose of Observance
1. A memorial or commemoration. Men often erect monuments and memorials to past events. Our government has dedicated sites, such as Gettysburg, Arlington National Cemetery, the wreck of the USS Arizona, the Vietnam Memorial Wall, etc., to honor those how have fallen in battle. These places are considered hallowed ground. Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Independence Day parades and celebrations remind us of those who gave their lives for the sake of freedom.
On a personal level, we treasure the tattered pictures of our loved ones. We save momentos that remind us of past joys. From time to time, we return to the old homeplace of our youth and think about days long past. Occasionally we revisit the family cemetery, and standing silently beside the tombstones of our ancestors, we are reminded that someone lived and was loved, died and is fondly remembered.
The Lord’s Supper is a memorial that reminds us of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 11:23-25). If our Lord had not died on the cross, forgiveness and redemption would not have been possible. If the resurrection had not occurred, we would be without hope. Thus it is not surprising that the death, burial and resurrection of Christ is the central theme of the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-5). Calvary was the greatest sacrifice in human history. The Lord’s Supper is the world’s greatest monument to the world’s greatest event.
No personal relics of Jesus have been preserved. There is no grave site we can visit for his tomb was left empty. Instead, he left only the Lord’s Supper. Through observing this memorial feast we are continually reminded that Jesus suffered and died for our sins. The unleavened bread recalls to our minds the broken body of the Lord, and the fruit of the vine reminds us of the Saviour’s blood that was shed for our sins. In observing this memorial, our minds are carried back to that awful night when Jesus was betrayed in Gethsemane, to the cruel mob, to the unlawful trials held under the cover of darkness, the mockery and humiliation he endured, the long agonizing walk to Calvary, the anguish of the cross, the nails that were driven into the hands and feet, the spear that pierced his side, and the blood that was shed for you and me (Isa. 53:3-6).
Knowing that man was prone to forget, Christ appointed this supper to keep the memory of his great sacrifice alive in our hearts. No greater calamity could befall a Christian than to forget what God had done for us. The one who forgets the death of Christ will also forget to live for the Lord.
2. Communion. The Lord’s Supper is an expression of our union with Christ and with one another (1 Cor. 10:16-17). The word communion comes from the Greek word koinonia, which means partnership, joint participation, a sharing together, or fellowship. Observing the Lord’s Supper is an outward expression of our unity as Christians. Furthermore, in partaking of this feast, one shares in the benefits of the Lord’s sacrifice (1 Cor. 10:16-17).
In the context of 1 Corinthians 10:14-22, Paul warns the Corinthians against becoming involved in idolatrous rites. Eating meat in the idol’s temple unites the eater with evils of idolatry. By participating in pagan festivals, the saints at Corinth were having fellowship with evil. So likewise, when Christians eat of the bread and drink of the cup of the Lord, they were united with Christ and share in the blessings that his sacrifice affords.
We share in these blessings, not only by partaking of the Lord’s Supper, but also by keeping his ordinances and commandments. In order to maintain fellowship with our Saviour, we must walk in the light. Breaking bread is no substitute for godly living (1 Jn. 1:6-7).
3. A proclamation. The gospel must be proclaimed to the whole world (Mk. 16:15-16). Not everyone can stand before a congregation and proclaim the gospel, but every Christian can preach a sermon by partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Through a faithful observance of the Lord’s Supper we proclaim the Lord’s death till he comes (1 Cor. 11:26).
The Greek word translated “proclaim” in this passage is most often used to refer to preaching. Each of us preaches a sermon when observing the Lord’s Supper. No sermon from the pulpit, however eloquent it may be, can speak as effectively as the whole congregation joining together in a solemn, faithful and discerning observance of the Lord’s Supper. It is a proclamation of God’s love and grace. By participating in this event, we publicly confess our faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Surely this is a confession that all Christians take unspeakable joy in making.
By the same token, however, our actions may speak loudly in a negative way. Whispering, giggling, writing notes, clipping fingernails, playing with babies, and day dreaming all indicate that something is wrong with our attitude. An improper observance of the Lord’s Supper will make one spiritually weak and sick. We must examine ourselves and properly discern the Lord’s body. We should reflect on our faith, and resolve to be more dedicated in the future. Those who do not partake acceptably eat and drink damnation to themselves (1 Cor. 11:26-20).
What does it mean to eat worthily? Obviously, no one is truly worthy of Christ’s great sacrifice. As sinners we deserve condemnation. Salvation is an expression of God’s grace, not our goodness. Despite our best efforts, we are still unprofitable servants (Lk. 17:10). However, we must endeavor to walk worthy of our high calling (Eph. 4:1). In observing the Lord’s Supper we must endeavor to partake in a way that is pleasing to God.
The Lord’s Supper is a most solemn observance charged with deep and sacred meaning. It should be observed with reverence and great care. The one who partakes unworthily has sinned, not against mere emblems, but against the Lord himself. He has shown disrespect for Christ’s body and blood.
Let’s take this a step further: If an improper observance makes one “weak and sickly,” pray tell what no observance will do? How can we justify deliberately missing this memorial feast? The Lord was willing to give up the glories of heaven, come to this world of sin and sorrow, and die a shameful death because of his love for you. Do you care enough for him to assemble with the saints when they remember him? Is that asking too much when we consider what he did for us (Heb. 10:25)?
In observing the Lord’s Supper, the Christian must look backwards and remember the death of Christ. We must look inward and examine self. We look outward to those lost in sin and proclaim our faith in the Lord’s atoning sacrifice. We also look forward in anticipation of his glorious return. This feast reminds us that Jesus is coming again. Thus, there is an optimistic quality to this memorial, even in the midst of a sad remembrance.
If properly observed, the Lord’s Supper will increase our love, faith, zeal, hope and joy. May we come to appreciate its meaning more and learn to partake of this divine memorial in a more worthy manner.
The Lord’s Supper is observed in God’s kingdom (Lk. 22:29). Are you a citizen in the kingdom of heaven? If not, why not obey the gospel and be added to the kingdom (Jn. 3:3-5)?