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?What’s the Controversy?
To begin, here are some of the phrases I’ve heard in churches about the Lord's Supper:
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.
John 6:22–3422 On 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. 23 Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24 So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus. 25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?" 26 Jesus 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. 27 Do 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." 28 Then they said to him, "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?" 29 Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." 30 So they said to him, "Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.' " 32 Jesus 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. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." 34 They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."
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:
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:
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:60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, "Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It 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. 64 But 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.) 65 And he said, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father."
It’s time to consider the other main passage in the New Testament on Communion.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
8 Food 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. 10:14–2214 Therefore, my beloved,flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 The 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? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 18 Consider the people of Israel:are not those who eat the sacrifices participants (koinōnos) in the altar? 19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, 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. 21 You 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 … 25 Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 26 For "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 purpose of 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.17 But 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.18 For, 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, 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 20 When 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.21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22 What! 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:
Several items to observe here:
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?
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.