The Lord’s Supper
Like all biblical customs, commands and requirements, without understanding the biblical context of the Lord’s Supper it’ll remain a mystery and it’ll also be misused. And I am so thankful to God that he has given us such a rich understanding of this sacred meal, reaching back to the most profound Old Testament salvation event – the Exodus of Israel from Egypt.
If you’re unaware of the Exodus story, it begins like all of God’s great acts – with a promise. God promised the patriarch Abraham that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him (Genesis 12:1–3), and that despite his descendents being enslaved in a nation that was not their own, God would punish that nation and deliver his people (Genesis 15:13–14).
As we should expect, it happens as God said it would. The nation of Israel are the descendants of Abraham who end up in slavery in Egypt, and when they call out to God for deliverance, God responds by sending his servant Moses and accompanies him with mighty acts of judgement (Exodus 1–11). The first nine plagues have devastated Egypt, but Pharaoh’s heart was as hard as it had ever been, and so God sent the final plague which was the death of all the firstborn in Egypt.
For the Israelite families to escape this plague, God gave them a sign. He told them to kill a year old male lamb and smear the blood of the lamb over the doorposts of their homes, so that the angel of death would ‘pass over’ those homes on account of the blood of the lamb. This is why it is called The Passover (Exodus 12). And for Israel to remember this great act of judgement and salvation for his people, he told them to celebrate The Passover as an annual festival, for their own recollection of the event, and for all future generations to know that they were once slaves in Egypt but God delivered them out of that land through mighty acts of judgement. God wanted them to remember that he had come to their rescue, saved them from the hand of their enemies, brought them into the land of Israel and set them apart to be his own special possession.
The Passover meal was to remind them that they were a people who belonged to God. And because of this, God said that no foreigner was allowed to share this meal with them, unless they became an Israelite (Exodus 12:43–45). This was because The Passover meal defined the identity of Israel, her ‘membership’ if we can borrow New Testament language, made clearer by the command that ‘The whole community of Israel must celebrate it’ (Exodus 12:47). This was a corporate / shared meal of remembrance for the people of God, to the exclusion of all others.
In short, the Passover meal that the nation of Israel shared each year was a celebration for those who had been saved by God. Remembering this truth was to motivate trust and obedience, so that God would make himself known to the nations, through them.
When Jesus came into the world, the Israelites had been celebrating the Passover for about 1400 years, and Jesus is on record celebrating it with his disciples on the night he was betrayed (Matthew 26:17–28; Mark 14:12–26; Luke 22:7–22). And as Jesus shared this meal with his disciples – not his immediate family (as was custom) – he made the point that his family were made up of those who were his disciples (see also Mark 3:31–35 & Luke 11:27–28). And as Jesus shared this meal with his disciples, he turned the Passover meal into something new. Jesus replaced the salvation act of God saving Israel from slavery in Egypt, and replaced it with God’s greater act of salvation; saving his people from slavery to sin through Jesus’ death on the cross.
In Luke’s account of Jesus sharing the Passover meal with his disciples, we read (Luke 22:19–10);
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them (his disciples), saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”
Jesus used the bread to symbolise his body given for you; and Jesus used the wine to symbolise his blood, which is poured out for you.
And by doing this, Jesus replaced the Exodus story by teaching us that it was all fulfilled in him, and through his death on the cross. And notice, what is missing in the gospel accounts of this Passover meal is the lamb itself. Which I believe is intentional, so that our focus would be on the bread and the wine, with Jesus himself being the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
Notice also that Jesus is not saying the bread and wine transform into something they’re not, as our Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends believe. These elements remain bread and wine, but they symbolise the body and blood of Jesus. They are powerful, not because of what they are, but what they represent. And just like the Passover meal that the Lord’s Supper fulfils, it was meant to be repeated for generations to come. And likewise, the purpose for the Lord’s Supper is to remind the people of God, now the church, that they had once been slaves, but by the grace and mercy of God acting through Jesus Christ, we have now been set free to live as his children. And remembering this truth was to further motivate trust and obedience to Jesus, so that God would continue to make himself known to the nations, through his Holy Spirit inspired body now, the church. And in this way, God’s promise of universal blessing given to Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3 is being fulfilled.
There are some common questions that arise when the Lord’s Supper is practised, and we’ll answer them now. They include the following three;
- Who is it for?
- How do we qualify to participate in it?
- How should I prepare myself to take it?
Who is it for?
Like the Passover meal, the Lord’s Supper is intended for those who have been saved by God and united together as God’s people.
This is where the witness of the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth is so helpful. It’s the best place to go to answer this question because Paul was writing to correct a misuse of the Lord’s Supper, and as he does that we get some clear answers to who this meal is for. We’ll briefly survey texts from chapters 10 – 12.
Paul first brings up the issue of the Lord’s Supper to speak against idolatry. And the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper is used to speak against idolatry because it brings us together as a body to focus on Jesus – which is the antidote to idolatry because to focus on Jesus is to focus on God himself. And as Paul does this, he says (1 Corinthians 10:14–17);
Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.
Paul here is describing our fellowship / participation in both Christ and the church. The elements of bread and wine represent Jesus’ body and blood, and despite the fact that we … are many, by sharing in that one loaf, we become one body. Therefore the Lord’s Supper is a meal for those who are both in Christ and united to each other as members of his church.
The idea of being one body will be further grounded in chapter 12 as Paul continues to teach that each of us are members of one body, his church. Which is why the Lord’s Supper is a meal that is meant for the members of any local church to share together, as they come together to keep their eyes on Jesus who is their Saviour. And this ‘coming together’ is the main point of chapter 11.
Paul’s objection to the church here in Corinth is that they are not celebrating the Lord’s Supper with the unity of the body of Christ in mind. Because as Paul rebukes the church here, he says (1 Corinthians 11:20–21a);
So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers.
The idea being, if you’re not sharing this meal as a body, it’s not the Lord’s Supper at all, because the Lord’s Supper is a representation of our unity with Jesus as his church. Recognising Jesus is not enough if it does not lead you to recognise your place within his body, the church. And Paul is saying that if we don’t recognise the wider body of the church as we share it, we are not sharing the Lord’s Supper at all. In the same way that Israel shared The Passover as a nation, the Lord’s Supper was to be shared by God’s churches as bodies, having been united together as one by faith in Jesus.
Further to this, Paul goes on to say (1 Corinthians 11:29);
For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgement on themselves.
Paul could be referring to the physical body of Jesus here, which is also no doubt true, however in the context of his argument and in particular his lengthy explanation of the body of Christ as the church in chapter 12, it seems as though this reference to the body of Christ in 11:29 is primarily referring to the church, as Paul says elsewhere, for we are members of his body (Ephesians 5:30).
And as Paul goes on to ground his point that the Lord’s Supper must have the body of Christ in mind, he says (1 Corinthians 11:33);
So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together.
Because Jesus came to unite us together as one (Ephesians 2:14–22), as he is one with his Father (John 10:30), the Lord’s Supper is a meal for those who are united to Jesus and have become members of his body, which is his church, to the exclusion of all others.
This means the Lord’s Supper is not for those who claim to believe in Jesus but are not committed to his people. This is because to believe in Jesus is to follow Jesus, and you can’t claim to be a disciple of Jesus and refuse to commit yourself to the people he laid down his life to save. That person would be living a lie, and it would be inappropriate for them to share in the Lord’s Supper until they see the error of their ways and be united to a church body.
It also means that the Lord’s Supper is not appropriate for those who are in active conflict with one another. No doubt conflict will arise as we speak truth in love to each other, but where division arises from conflict we must be quick to apply grace, forgiveness and reconciliation so that we share this meal in an appropriate manner.
Once the members of a church are united together again as one, they qualify to participate in this meal that represents our unity with Jesus and each other.
How do we qualify to participate in it?
This is the question often asked by those who realise the Lord’s Supper is not meant for them because they have not yet committed themselves to Jesus, and by consequence are not yet members of a local church – and it’s the right question to ask. If the Lord’s Supper is a meal for those who are gathered together as God’s people, then it means we qualify to participate in it when we have been gathered together with God’s people.
But note, this gathering together is not simply a physical gathering of people, as if anyone who is regularly present on Sunday mornings automatically qualifies to participate in the Lord’s Supper. Paul’s instructions to the church here in Corinth show us that to gather together in Christ is to become a member of the body of Christ, through faith in Christ.
Paul makes this point clear in the next chapter, where he describes the church as a body in this way (1 Corinthians 12:12–13);
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
You see, to be united to Jesus is to be part of his body, the church. To be a part of the church is to be united to all the others, through the Spirit of Jesus, having been identified through baptism. Once this happens, a person is rightly regarded as a member of the body of Christ, and the Lord’s Supper is a meal that is appropriate for them to share in.
This is why Baptism is very important in the life of the local church. In 1 Corinthians 12:13 Paul assumes he’s speaking to a church full of baptised members – For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body… – as the Christ-ordained way for us to identify one another as citizens of God’s Kingdom. So if we were to break it down, we’d be left with this;
We need to be disciples of Jesus to become members of his body / church.
We show ourselves to be disciples of Jesus through baptism.
Once baptised into a local church, we are received as members and qualify for the Lord’s Supper.
How should I prepare myself to participate in the Lord’s Supper?
Because the Lord’s Supper represents the body and blood of our Lord, it is right for us to carefully examine ourselves before we share this meal. In particular, how we are living with respect to Jesus, and how we are living with respect to his body, the church. Paul was clear about this in his instructions to the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 11:27–29);
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgement on themselves.
We take this meal so seriously, and are eager to ensure we share this meal according to the scriptures, because those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgement on themselves. This is why Paul teaches us to examine ourselves as we prepare to participate in this meal.
And so, we look to Christ and ask, ‘Am I trusting him?’ ‘Have I been following him?’ ‘Is my life a reflection of his?’ ‘Am I living in obedience to him?’ ‘Is my love for Jesus motivating me to love his people?’ ‘Am I truly seeking his Kingdom above all things?’
And then we look to the church and ask, ‘Am I loving them as Christ loved me?’ ‘Am I committed to them as family?’ ‘Have I been laying down my life to serve them?’ ‘Have I been responding to their needs … if I even know what they are?’
And these questions will motivate a Christian to ask our gracious God for forgiveness, and the motivation to repent where necessary. Empowered by the bread and the wine that remind the church that their sins have been forgiven on account of Jesus’ Name; and that Jesus died for those he now lives to intercede for, and wills us to turn to him for motivation to reflect him here as we seek to do his will.
The genius of this is that the ones who truly examine themselves will see the error of their ways and turn to Jesus if they’re not there yet. This self-examination will also lead others to commit to the church if they have not done that yet. And where motivation is lacking to either flee to Jesus or commit to his church, there we should expect the Spirit of Jesus to be absent, and that person unfit for participation in the Lord’s Supper. But in the mercy of God, where a person is identified as a ‘non-Christian’, they become the object of the church’s evangelism in the hope they see their need for forgiveness, put their trust in Jesus who provides it, and follow in his ways. For we know that only by faith and repentance toward Jesus do we find peace with God and eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Some other frequently asked questions;
What about children of church members?
We know that God does not have grand-children, only children, which means that all our kids need to turn to Jesus in order to be saved.
Can members of other churches share the Lord’s Supper with us?
Yes. We believe members of all evangelical churches are qualified to share the Lord’s Supper with us when we enjoy it as a church.
What happens if someone shares in the Lord’s Supper who does not biblically qualify?
The Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:27–31;
… whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. […] For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgement on themselves. […] if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgement.
And so, because it is the responsibility of every church member to guard the truth of the gospel, the honour of our King Jesus and the purity of his church, if we see someone in our family participating in the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, we should speak to it ourselves. If we are not sure how to do that, we can speak to an elder for help to do this in a way that is fitting in the Lord.
Also, as the elders typically serve the bread and wine to the church, they are in a good position to have a conversation with a person who participates in this meal in an unworthy manner. These should be opportunities to lead people toward faith and repentance in Jesus, and by implication, a commitment to his church and a practice that is in alignment with the word of God.
When is it inappropriate for church members to share the Lord’s Supper?
Because the Lord’s Supper is a meal that was designed by God to represent the unity we have in the body of Christ, it is inappropriate for church members to share the Lord’s Supper in contexts where the whole church is not given the opportunity to gather together as one.
So for example, a Growth Group; a ministry team; a youth camp; a dinner out with a handful of church members, etc.
This is why as Paul prepares to give instructions about the Lord’s Supper to the church in Corinth, he does so by saying (1 Corinthians 11:18–20 and 33–34);
In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you […] So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat […] So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgement.
To share the Lord’s Supper, the whole church needs to be given an opportunity to come together as a body. Not everyone needs to be present, but they all need to be given the opportunity to do so.
And as mentioned above, it would also be inappropriate for church members to share this sign of unity if they are divided. It would be best for them to first be reconciled to one another in love, and then come forward to share this meal in sincerity and truth (see Matthew 5:23–24).
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