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The Lord’s Supper 2: it’s the Lord’s Table

last supper painting - modern version

The Lord’s Supper 2: it’s the Lord’s Table

In many ways feasting is more Christian than fasting. In communion we are invited to the Lord’s Table, to eat with him.

The Bible records God feeding people frequently.

The Gospels are also full of Christ feeding people.

The Lord’s Table falls into that sequence.

This is the second of a series of posts about the Lord’s Supper. The first is here. A related post on ‘What you love matters’ is here.

One of humanity’s most basic needs is food and drink.

‘God is not only the giver of food; he is the food we most deeply need. Alexander Schmemann insists that “man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God. Behind all the hunger of our life is God. All desire is finally a desire for Him.”’ (Vander Zee, p.239)

“Senior reminds us that the Lord’s Supper draws from past biblical feedings and brings them all to their provisional apex in this meal:

(1) Yahweh’s manna feeding of his people under Moses (Exodus 16);

(2) Yahweh’s increasing the supply of meal and oil through Elijah (1 Kings 17);

(3) Yahweh’s miraculous feeding of a hundred men through Elisha (2 Kings 4);

(4) Jesus’ miraculous Feeding of the Five Thousand Israelites (Matt. 14); and

(5) Jesus’ miraculous Feeding of the Four Thousand Gentiles (Mark 8).

The feedings become more and more universal until here, at last, there is a feeding that intends to benefit “the whole wide world” (‘for many’ v. 28). “Give us this day our daily bread,” a petition that Jesus put right in the middle of his Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:11), like his Lord’s Supper, makes concern for people’s bodies central to the church’s spiritual life. (Bruner, Kindle Locations 11702-11706)

We can go further than this and look eschatologically.

The Lord’s Supper supersedes the Passover ceremony; and it will, one day, Jesus says, be superseded by the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Isaiah 25:6-9, Revelation 19:6-9). The Lord’s Supper looks forward to the eschatological fulfilment of the kingdom of God when Christ returns, and we will be reunited with him in a great party inaugurating the reunification of heaven and earth in God’s new heavens and earth. Hallelujah.

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The Bible has various labels and phrases to describe the practice of the Lord’s Supper.

  • Break bread — Acts 2:46, 20:7
  • The Lord’s Supper — 1 Cor 11:20
  • Love feast, although this phrase may be a reference to shared meals — Jude 1:12

Christians also refer to this sacrament as:

  • Communion — derived from the Greek word koinonia found in 1 Cor 10:16, translated as ‘sharing’ or ‘participation’ in modern versions, but in the Authorised Version translated ‘communion’.
  • Eucharist — from the Greek eucharistia, often translated ‘thanksgiving’, and used for the Lord’s Supper because Jesus gave thanks for the bread and the cup when he instituted this ceremony. The word eucharist is also used by some to signify the elements themselves. Bruner speaks of how the English word ‘caress’ derives from this Greek word, and how, in the Supper, God embraces us with love (Bruner, Kindle Locations 11662-11664)
  • The Lord’s Table — found in the OT book of Malachi.

In theological books on this subject the most common designation is ‘the Lord’s Supper.’

How does Scripture guide our understanding and practice of the Supper?

The earliest written account of the institution of the Supper is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In addition we have the accounts in the synoptic Gospels which were probably first written down later that 1 Corinthians. All four of these accounts, however, almost certainly rely on an oral tradition and practice predating them.

So what do these passages actually say and tell us? Below the four passages are set out side by side in the English Standard Version.

Matthew 26:26-29Mark 14:22-25Luke 22:15-201 Cor 11:23-26
26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”22 And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” 23 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. 24 And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. 25 Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”22 And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” 23 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. 24 And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. 25 Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. [margin: ‘broken for you’] Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In 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.” [margin: ‘as my memorial’] 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

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Some general comments about the Supper, the Lord’s Table.

The Supper was an innovation.

According to the synoptic Gospels Jesus gave this instruction at the so-called Last Supper, so it was given at a Passover meal (in contrast, John places the Last Supper on the evening before Passover). However, there is no reason to think that Christ was instructing the repetition of a Passover meal. He was instead innovating a new ceremony for his followers.

Why do we say this? Consider how the centrepiece of a Passover meal would have been the roast lamb and yet, despite the obvious resonance of the Passover in the Supper, and Christ himself being described as the Lamb of God in many passages of the NT, the Passover lamb gets no mention at all in the Gospel accounts of the institution of the Supper (Vander Zee, pp.145-146).

The Supper is to be repeated.

The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:24-25 record that Jesus instructed his followers to repeat this ceremonial meal by using the phrase, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Christians believe that those who follow Jesus are to continue repeating this ceremony until Jesus returns. The evidence shows that the early church took up this practice from the very earliest days of the first church (Acts, and Fee, p.552).

The Supper is to be repeated frequently.

The Bible gives no explicit guidance about how often Christians should break bread.

Acts 20:7 suggests that the practice in one congregation of the early church was to break bread every Lord’s Day. But that is not an instruction. It’s a descriptive passage. It simply tells us what the custom was in that congregation. Nevertheless, the history of the church gives many similar examples of weekly participation.

I believe that it is up the leaders in each congregation to determine for that fellowship a pattern or rhythm of celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

The Supper consists of two elements.

We can be quite sure that the drink in the cup would have been wine, and yet the word wine is never used in the Gospels, nor in the other passages referring back to the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Scripture habitually speaks of ‘the bread’ and ‘the cup.’ So may we, which is especially useful for those churches that choose not to use alcoholic wine.

Although wine is not mentioned, clearly in the Supper Jesus tells us that in some way the bread is analogous to Christ’s body and the red wine is analogous to Christ’s blood. By using the two elements one analogous to the body and the other analogous to the blood, Jeremias is surely correct to say that Christ was alluding to the separation of the blood from the body inherent in the sacrifice central to the Passover (Vander Zee, p. 146).

The question of whether we must use unleavened bread and red wine is a secondary question on which believers differ. And in some traditions only one of the two elements is distributed in communion, again a cause of dispute.

The Supper was not a meal for nourishment of the body.

The Lord’s Supper does not seem to have been a full meal, as such, although it may often have been celebrated alongside an actual meal (Vander Zee, p.157).

How do we know that the Lord’s Supper was not a full meal, but rather what we might call a ceremonial meal? It is strongly implied from what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 11, culminating in verses 33-34 (ESV):

33 So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— 34 if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgement. About the other things I will give directions when I come.

It is also the implication of Acts 2:46:

46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts… Acts 2:46 NIV

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What about John 6:30-59? Is that relevant to a theology of the Lord’s Supper?

John’s Gospel does not include an account of Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper, however, a section of Jesus’ teaching in John 6 seems potentially to be relevant.

About John 6 there is considerable diversity among Bible scholars about whether John thought Jesus was referencing the breaking of bread. For my part I think John would have assumed his readers would link this section in his Gospel to their experience and theology of the Lord’s Supper

A theology of the Lord’s Supper will hinge on several things.

Primarily it will hinge on how we take Jesus’ words, ‘This is my body.’

That, in turn, will be influenced by whether you think what Jesus taught in John 6 is relevant to the Supper, or not about the Supper at all.

This is the second post in a series about the Supper.

The first is here.

There was also a related post on ‘What you love matters.’

The next post, the third in the series, sets out the main positions on the Supper taken down the centuries.

Bibliography

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Gregg R ALLISON, Historical Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2011

Frederick Dale BRUNER, Matthew, A Commentary: The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2004

John CALVIN, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (based on the 1559 Latin edition), translated and abridged by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1986

John CALVIN, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (The First English Version of the 1541 French Edition), translated by ELSIE ANNE MCKEE, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009

Millard J. ERICKSON, Christian Theology: 2nd Edition, Baker Book House Co, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1998

Gordon D FEE, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1987

James K A SMITH, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009

James K A SMITH, You are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2016

Leonard J VANDER ZEE, Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2004

Robert E WEBBER, Blended Worship: Achieving Substance and Relevance in Worship, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1994

Andrew WILSON, Spirit and Sacrament: an invitation to eucharismatic worship, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2018

 

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