The Lord’s Supper
All Christian traditions observe the Lord’s Supper, otherwise known as Communion, the Eucharist, and the Lord’s Table. But the fact that Christians observe the rite is about where the agreement ends. Christians of various traditions assign different meanings to the practice. They disagree on the theology behind it. As noted above, they can’t even decide how to refer to it. Why is the Lord’s Supper such a verbal battleground? Is it because there is no clarity on the subject in Scripture? Can we really understand what the Bible says about this?
The Lord’s Supper: What’s the Controversy?
To begin, here are some of the phrases I’ve heard in churches about the Lord's Supper:
What we refer to as “the Lord’s Supper” was instituted at the Last Supper event with Jesus and his disciples (Matt. 26:26–28; Mark 14:22–24; Luke 22:19–20). The main passage for the meaning of the Lord's Supper is 1 Cor. 11:17–34. Some of the items above are important. They cannot all be doctrinally correct. But others are idiosyncratic and extend purely from historical tradition. To resolve the issue of the Lord’s Supper it’s best to restrict what we can say about it to what’s found in the text of Scripture. If the Bible doesn’t say a given thing about the meaning and practice of the Lord’s Supper, we shouldn’t add our own preferences and then call those preferences doctrine. To illustrate, here’s a question: Where do we find any of the items listed in the above six phrases specifically articulated in Scripture? The answer is straightforward: none of those ideas is taught in Scripture.
The Lord's Supper – The Bread of Life in John 6:22–34
The synoptic Gospel references (Matthew, Mark, Luke) are straightforward enough. What needs to be covered are John 6:22–65 and 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. We’ll begin with John 6 by breaking up the passage up into manageable pieces and underlining some key ideas.
22On the next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone.23Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.24So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus.25When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?"26Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.27Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal."28Then they said to him, "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?"29Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent."30So they said to him, "Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?31Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.' "32Jesus then said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.33For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."34They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."
Continuing with John 6:35–40 . . .
35Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.36But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.37All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.38For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.40For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day."
The Lord's Supper – The Body and Blood of Christ in John 6:41-58
41So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven."42They said, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven'?"43Jesus answered them, "Do not grumble among yourselves.44No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.45It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me-46not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father.47Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.48I am the bread of life.49Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."52The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"53So Jesus said to them, "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 you.54Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.55For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.56Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.57As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever."
The confusion about the Lord’s Supper usually starts here, but it's not hard to parse what Jesus is saying if we do two things:
The key interpretive issue is this: will you use the "eating flesh" language as your guide on Jesus' preceding and following explanations, or will you let Jesus' explanations guide the "eating flesh" language?
So let’s take our own advice. In light of Jesus' preceding explanation that sets up the "eating flesh" language, it is obvious Jesus doesn't want people to think the following:
Jesus makes no declaration that any of these things would happen. He has made clear that what gets you to heaven is himself—the person who came down from heaven (v. 57): “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.”
There are three ways to understanding this “whoever feeds on me” phrase:
(1) “Whoever literally eats my literal flesh will live.” Some of the Jews actually thought Jesus was saying this, and Jesus corrects this perception in what follows in the passage. The Old Testament law forbade the consumption of human flesh (Lev. 26:29) and blood (Lev. 3:17; 19:26), so the Jews that thought this was what Jesus meant were understandably offended. (And one would wonder why Christians today who think Jesus meant this are free to ignore the OT law at this point).
(2) “Whoever eats some literal bread that I will give him will live.” Jesus never hands out any bread in John 6. These words were not spoken at the Last Supper scene.
This observation is important, as many Christian traditions presume John 6 is part of the Last Supper—from which Paul taught that the Lord’s Supper tradition extends (1 Cor 11:17-34).
"On the next day" (6:22) chronologically disconnects John 6:22–65 from the previous feeding of the 5,000 section. In the synoptic Gospels’ chronology, the Last Supper does not take place immediately after the feeding of the 5,000. The same can be said about John’s Gospel.
During the Last Supper in the synoptic Gospels, Jesus connects his broken body (the bread) and his blood (the wine) to the new covenant. The Synoptic Gospels don't have the foot washing scene, but all four Gospels have the announcement of the betrayal. In John it comes in John 13:21–20—completely disconnected from John 6. None of the Last Supper passages have any language of eating flesh and drinking blood, and John 6 is not John's version of the Last Supper scene. The feeding of the 5,000 (Jn. 6:1–15) can't be echoing the Last Supper since the latter had not yet taken place (Jn. 13:1–30).
(3) “Whoever feeds on me” means “whoever believes in me.” This third option is precisely what Jesus has been talking about up to this point. He hasn't been talking about literally eating anything at any time. He's talking about believing in him.
The Lord's Supper – The Spirit of Life in John 6:60-65
John 6 ends this way:
60When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?"61But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, "Do you take offense at this?62Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?63It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.64But there are some of you who do not believe." (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.)65And he said, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father."
We’ve spent a good deal of time on John 6 since it is that passage that produces so much disagreement between Christians about the Lord’s Supper. The best strategy for clearing the air is: (1) Understand that the passage isn’t part of the Last Supper, the even upon which the Lord’s Supper is based (1 Cor 11:17-34); and (2) interpret the odd parts of the passage in light of the clear parts.
It’s time to consider the other main passage in the New Testament on Communion.
The Lord’s Supper: The Context for Paul’s Teaching in 1 Corinthians 11
To a great extent, Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians about the Lord's Supper is the heart of the doctrine. 1 Corinthians 8–10 is a large chunk of material covering one subject: how to handle matters of dispute among Christians. Paul focuses on whether it was permissible for believers to eat meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8).
1 Corinthians 8:8
8Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.
Neither eating meat sacrificed to idols or abstaining from it brings us any closer to God (v. 8). Eating is not of itself wrong. The real issue is how the eater treats the non-eater and vice versa.
1 Cor. 10:14–22
14Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.15I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.16The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation (koinōnia) in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation (koinōnia) in the body of Christ?17Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.18Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants (koinōnos) in the altar?19What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything?20No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants (koinōnos) with demons.21You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.22…25Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience.26For "the earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof."
What does this have to do with the Lord's Supper? Paul is concerned with fellowship ("participation") with God versus fellowship with demons ("flee from idolatry"; v. 14). He argues, based on the Old Testament sacrificial system where the priests ate part of the sacrifice as their "payment" for their service, that when one participates in the sacrifice ritual solidarity with the object sacrificed is established. The Old Testament priests were in fellowship with God when they partook of the sacrifice. That sacrifice became a communal meal between the priests and God. Solidarity is established when pagans make their sacrifices too.
Paul wanted Christians to avoid any connection to the actual ritual, but they could eat the meat that was later sold in the marketplace. Why? The buyer/eater was not connected to the ritual, and there would be no fellowship with demons.
The Lord's Supper is a communal meal. When we commune with God and with one another we don't "receive grace" just as the Old Testament priests did not "receive forgiveness" when they ate. The forgiveness was accomplished through their obedience of faith when the sacrifice was offered. What we "get" is what the Old Testament priests got: solidarity with God. Paul gives the one command in the New Testament associated with the purposeof the Lord's Supper: "Do this in remembrance of me" (1 Cor. 11:24, 25).
The Lord's Supper – Paul’s Teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34
This passage has been fundamentally misconstrued (or under-read) by many Christians. That’s led to a lot of misunderstanding about the Lord's Supper.
17But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.
Paul notes right away that when the Corinthians get together for the Lord's Supper, something is amiss, and he cannot approve.
18For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part,19for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.20When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat.
Paul's charge is straightforward. When the Corinthians meet for the Lord's Supper, their actions invalidate what they’re doing as a true observance of the Lord's Supper. Paul alludes to a factionalism problem but then gets more specific.
21For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.22What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.
This may seem odd, but just as at Passover and the Last Supper, a meal was associated with the Lord's Supper. We know from ancient descriptions that a "love feast" was tied to the observance of the Lord's Supper. Paul describes how the Corinthians were abusing the situation:
23For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread,24and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me."25In 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."26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.
Several items to observe here:
27Whoever, 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.28Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.29For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.30That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.31But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged.32But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
Here we get into especially disputed territory. What does it mean to eat and drink "in an unworthy manner"? Why should we examine ourselves? What does "discerning the body" mean? With respect to what should we judge ourselves to avoid being disciplined by God with sickness and even death? Most everyone whom I've read in evangelical circles on this assumes that the issue is unconfessed sin in the heart of the partaker. So they teach that we need to either confess sin before partaking or make restitution with a wronged brother before partaking.
Obviously, those are good ideas and the right thing to do in general. The problem is that this is not the point of what Paul is talking about for two reasons: (1) Paul says nothing about the need to confess sin before partaking; and (2) it ignores the problem Paul has just explained: the manner in which the Lord's Supper was being abused.
Paul does tells us what he means by partaking "unworthily." Understand that, and the rest falls into place. Eating and drinking in an unworthy manner means taking too much food so that others go hungry and getting drunk. The Greek word "unworthy" (ἀναξίως; anaksiōs) is the opposite of the word "worthy (ἄξιος; aksiōs). The word aksios means "deserving praise or commendation; worthy of being well received or commended; acceptable." It doesn't mean something like "sinful" or "backslidden." The word in 1 Cor 11:27, then, means "unacceptable; not deserving commendation." What has Paul just not commended? The way the Lord's Supper was being abused.
If we accept this idea, what do we do with the rest of the passage?
This may sound simple, but it’s what’s in the text. How can we be sure? Paul finishes by telling his readers what he's thinking, answering the questions raised above,
33So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat,wait for one another—34if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment….
The phrase "it will not be for judgment" is important. It is the same word (krima) that Paul used in the phrase, "For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself." Paul references his earlier warning here, and the way to take heed is (a) don’t chow down before everyone gets a chance to eat; and (b) if you're that hungry, eat at home first so that the poor don't suffer humiliation.
The Lord's Supper – Why Should We Observe It?
The purpose of the Lord's Supper is very simple: To remember the Lord's death until he comes. Everything else that has accrued around this doctrine does not derive from the text; it derives from the writings of theologians, which are historically conditioned. Catholicism wants to filter the whole thing through John 6, and then literalize it. Luther didn't want to teach what the Catholics taught, but what the Catholics taught was what he knew. He tried to steer a middle course, but instead read far too much into the purpose of the Lord's Supper. Baptist and others may have avoided that baggage, but have added their own, making the Lord's Supper into some sort of confessional rite. Many have forbidden children since they have taught you get grace in the rite (which is nowhere stated). But everyone, including children, can partake and remember how Jesus died on the cross and that someday they will get to observe the Supper in the Lord’s presence when he returns. It might just capture their imagination a bit.
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