The Lord's Supper, sometimes called communion, the Table of the Lord, the agape or the Eucharist, is limited in most churches to a sip of wine and a piece of bread. Why then is it called a "supper" in the NT?
The meal is potluck, or as we like to say, "pot-providence." Everyone brings something to share with everyone else. When the weather is nice, all the food is placed on a long folding table out in the carport. A smaller card table at one end of the long table contains drinks, cups, forks, napkins, etc. A chest full of ice sits on the floor beside the card table. Kids run wildly around having so much fun that they must be collared by parents and forced to eat something. After a prayer of thanksgiving is offered, people line up, talking and laughing, to serve their plates. In the middle of all the food sits a single loaf of bread next to a large plastic jug containing the fruit of the vine. Each believer partakes of the bread and juice while going through the serving line. The smaller kids are encouraged to occupy one of the few places at a table to eat. (They sure can be messy!) Chairs for adults (there are not enough for everyone) are clustered in circles, mainly occupied by the womenfolk, who eat while discussing home schooling, child training, sewing, an upcoming church social, the new church we hope to start, etc. Most of the men stand to eat, balancing their plates on top of their cups, grouped into small clusters and solving the worldís problems or pondering some hot topic of theology. The atmosphere is not unlike that of a wedding banquet. It is a great time of fellowship, encouragement, edification, friendship, caring, catching-up, getting to know, praying with, exhorting, and maturing. The reason for the event? In case you did not recognize it, this is the Lordís Supper, New Testament style!
Foreign though it may seem to the contemporary church, the first century church enjoyed the Lordís Supper as a banquet that foreshadowed the marriage supper of the Lamb. It was not until after the close of the New Testament era that the early church fathers altered the Lordís Supper from its pristine form into a memorial service. We advocate a return to the way of Christ and His apostles.
The Form & Focus of the Lord's Supper: A Feast & The Future
The very first Lordís Supper is also called the Last Supper, because it was the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples before His crucifixion. The occasion for the meal was the Passover. At this Passover Feast, Jesus and His disciples reclined at a table heaped with food (Ex 12, De 16). Jewish tradition tells us that this meal typically lasted for hours. During the course of the meal, "while they were eating" (Mt 26:26), Jesus took a loaf bread and compared it to his body. He had already taken up a cup and had them all drink from it. Later, "after the supper" (Luke 22:20), Jesus took the cup again and compared it to his blood, which was soon to be poured out. Thus, the bread and wine of the Lordís Supper were introduced in the context of a full meal (the Passover). Would the Twelve have somehow deduced that the newly instituted Lordís Supper was not to be a true meal? Or would they naturally have assumed it to be a feast, just like the Passover?
"The Passover celebrated two events, the deliverance from Egypt and the anticipated coming Messianic deliverance" (Reinecker, Linguistic Key to the Greek NT, p. 207). Soon after that Last Supper, Jesus became the ultimate sacrificial Passover Lamb, suffering on the cross to deliver His people from their sins. Jesus keenly desired to eat that Passover with His disciples, saying that He would "not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God" (Luke 22:16). Note that Jesus looked forward to a time when He could "eat" the Passover "again" in the kingdom of God. The "fulfillment" (Luke 22:16) of this evidently was later written about by John in Revelation 19:7-9. There, an angel declared, "Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!" The Last Supper and the early churchís Lordís Suppers all looked forward to a fulfillment in the wedding supper of the Lamb. (And what better way to typify a banquet than with a banquet?)
His future wedding banquet was much on our Lordís mind that night. He mentioned it first at the beginning of the Passover feast (Luke 22:16). He mentioned it again when passing the cup, saying, "I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes" (Luke 22:18). Then, after the supper, He referred to it yet again, saying, "I confer on you a kingdom . . . so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom . . ." (Luke 22:29-30).
Whereas twenty-first century Gentiles associate heaven with clouds and harps, first century Jews thought of heaven as a time of feasting at Messiahís table. This idea of eating and drinking at the Messiahís table was common imagery in Jewish thought of the first century. For instance, a Jewish leader once said to Jesus, "Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God" (Luke 14:15). In Matthew 8:11 Jesus Himself said that "many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven."
The eating that is associated with the coming of Christís kingdom is even seen in the model prayer of Mt 6:9-11. In reference to the kingdom, Jesus taught us to pray, "your kingdom come, your will be done." The very next sentence is "Give us today our daily bread." Interestingly, the Greek underlying Mt 6:11 is difficult to translate. Literally, it reads something akin to, "the bread of us belonging to the coming day give us today." Linking 6:11 with 6:10, Jesus may well have been teaching us to ask that the bread of the Messianic (kingdom come) banquet be given to us today. I.e., let the kingdom come and the feast begin today!
The most extensive treatment of the Lordís Supper is found in 1 Corinthians 10 - 11. The deep divisions of the Corinthian believers resulted in their Lordís Supper meetings doing more harm than good (11:17-18). They were partaking of the Supper in a "unworthy manner" (11:27). Evidently the rich, not wanting to eat with the lower social classes, came to the meeting so early and remained there so long that some became drunk. Making matters worse, by the time that the working class believers arrived, delayed by employment constraints, all the food was gone and they went home hungry (11:21-22). Some of the Corinthians failed to recognize that the Supper as a sacred, covenant meal (11:23-32). The abuses were so bad that it had ceased being the Lordís Supper and had instead become their "own" supper (11:21, NASV). Thus Paul asked, "Donít you have homes to eat and drink in?" If merely eating ones own supper were the objective, private dining at home would do. Their sinful selfishness absolutely betrayed the very essence of what the Lordís Supper is all about.
From the nature of their abuse of the supper, it is evident that the Corinthian church regularly partook of the Lordís Supper as a true meal. In contrast, no one today would ever come to a typical Lordís Supper service expecting to have physical hunger satisfied, nor could they possibly get drunk from drinking a thimble sized cup of wine (or much less, grape juice). However, the inspired solution to the Corinthian abuse of the Supper was not that the church cease eating it as a full meal. Instead, Paul wrote, "when you come together to eat, wait for each other." Only those so famished or undisciplined or selfish that they could not wait for the others are instructed to "eat at home" (1Corinthians 11:34). Paul wrote to the Corinthian church some twenty years after Jesus first turned His Last Supper into our Lordís Supper. Just as the Last Supper was a true meal, so too the Corinthians understood the Lordís Supper to be a true meal.
Further, the word behind "supper" (1Corinthians 11:20) is deipnon, which means "dinner, the main meal toward evening, banquet." It never refers to anything less than a true meal, such as an appetizer, snack or hors díoeuvres. How likely is it that the authors of the NT would use deipnon to refer to the Lordís "Supper" if it were not supposed to be a true meal? The Lordís Supper originally had numerous forward looking aspects to it. As a full meal, it prefigured the feast of the coming kingdom, the marriage supper of the Lamb.
The opinion of scholars is clearly weighted toward the conclusion that the Lordís Supper was originally eaten as a full meal. Donald Guthrie, in The Lion Handbook of the Bible, states that "in the early days the Lordís Supper took place in the course of a communal meal. All brought what food they could and it was shared together." Dr John Drane, in The New Lion Encyclopedia, commented that "Jesus instituted this common meal at Passover time, at the last supper shared with His disciples before His death . . . the Lordís Supper looks back to the death of Jesus, and it looks forward to the time when He will come back again. Throughout the New Testament period the Lordís Supper was an actual meal shared in the homes of Christians. It was only much later that the Lordís Supper was moved to a special building and Christian prayers and praises that had developed from the synagogue services and other sources were added to create a grand ceremony." J. G. Simpson, in an entry about the Eucharist in The Dictionary of the Bible, observed that "the name Lordís Supper, though legitimately derived from 1 Corinthians 11:20, is not there applied to the sacrament itself, but to the Love Feast or Agape, a meal commemorating the Last Supper, and not yet separated from the Eucharist when St. Paul wrote." Canon Leon Morris, in his Commentary on 1 Corinthians for the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries insists that 1 Corinthians 11 "reveals that at Corinth the Holy Communion was not simply a token meal as with us, but an actual meal. Moreover it seems clear that it was a meal to which each of the participants brought food." I Howard Marshall, in Christian Beliefs noted that the Lordís Supper "was observed by His disciples, at first as part of a communal meal, Sunday by Sunday."
The Functions of the Lord's Supper: A. Reminding Jesus
Partaking of the bread and cup as an integral part of the meal originally served several important functions. One of these was to remind Jesus of His promise to return. "Reminding" God of His covenant promises is a thoroughly Scriptural concept. In the covenant God made with Noah, He promised never to destroy the earth by flood again, signified by the rainbow. That sign is certainly designed to remind us of Godís promise, but God also declared, "whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth" (Ge 9:16 ). Later on in redemptive history, as a part of His covenant with Abraham, God promised to bring the Israelites out of their coming Egyptian bondage. Accordingly, at the appointed time, "God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them" (Exekiel 2:24-25). And during the Babylonian captivity, Ezekiel, records that God promised Jerusalem that He would "remember the covenant I made with you" (Ezekiel 16:60).
The Lordís Supper is the sign of the new covenant. As Jesus took the cup He said, "this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Mt 26:28). As with any sign, it is to serve as a reminder. Thus Jesus said that we are to partake of the bread "in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19). The Greek for "remembrance" is anamnesis and means "reminder." Literally translated, Jesus said, "do this unto my reminder." The issue before us is whether that reminder is to be primarily for Jesusí benefit or for ours. The prepositional phrase "of me" (or "my") is translated from the single Greek word, emos, which grammatically denotes possession (i.e., the reminder belongs to Jesus). Thus, the church was to partake of the bread of the Lordís Supper specifically to remind Jesus of His promise to return and eat the Supper again, in person (Luke 22:16, 18). Understood in this light, it was originally designed to be like a prayer asking Jesus to return ("Thy kingdom come", Mt 6:11). Just as the rainbow reminds God of His covenant with Noah, just like the groaning reminded God of His covenant with Abraham, so too partaking of the bread of the Lordís Supper was designed to remind Jesus of His promise to return. Colin Brown quotes J. Jeremias as understanding Jesus to use anamnesis in the sense of a reminder for God, "The Lordís Supper would thus be an enacted prayer" (NIDNTT, III, p. 244).
Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11:26 confirms this idea by stating that the early church, in eating the Lordís Supper, did actually "proclaim the Lordís death until He comes." To whom did they proclaim His death, and why? Arguably, they proclaimed it to the Lord Himself, as a reminder for Him to return. It is significant that the Greek behind "until" is achri hou. When used with the subjuctive, it grammatically can denote a goal, or an objective (Reinecker, Linguistic Key To The Greek NT, p. 34). According to the English usage, I may use an umbrella "until" it stops raining, merely denoting a time frame. (Using the umbrella has nothing to do with making it stop raining.) However, this is not how the Greek behind "untilí is used in 1 Corinthians 11:26. Paul instructed the church to partake of the bread and cup as a means of proclaiming the Lordís death (as a reminder) "until" (so that, with the goal of) persuading Him to come! Thus, in proclaiming His death through the loaf and cup, the Supper looked forward to and anticipated His return.
This idea of seeking to persuade the Lord to return is not unlike the plea of the martyred saints of Re 6 who called out, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" (Revelation 6:10). And what did Peter have in mind when he wrote that his readers should look forward to the day of God and "speed its coming?" (2 Peter 3:12). If it was futile to seek to persuade Jesus to return, then why did Jesus instruct his disciples to pray, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done?" (Matthew 6:10).
The Functions of the Lord's Supper: B. Creating Unity
All this emphasis on the Supper as a true meal is not to say that we should jettison the loaf and cup, representative of the body and blood of our Lord. To the contrary, they remain a vital part of the Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). But just as the form of the Lordís Supper is important (a full fellowship meal that prefigured the wedding banquet of the Lamb), so too the form of the bread and cup are important. Paul made mention of "the" cup of thanksgiving and of the "one loaf" (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). The significance of using but one cup and one loaf in the Supper is "because there is one loaf, we who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf" (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). The one loaf not only pictures our unity in Christ, but according to 1 Corinthians 10:17 even creates unity. Notice careful the wording of the inspired text. "Because" there is one loaf, therefore we are one body, "for" we all partake of the one loaf (1 Corinthians 10:17). Partaking of a pile of broken cracker crumbs and multiple cups of the fruit of the wine is a picture of disunity, division, and individuality. At the very least, it completely misses the imagery of unity. At worse, it would prohibit the Lord from using the one loaf to create unity in a body of believers.
The Functions of the Lord's Supper: C. Fellowship
In speaking to the church at Laodicea, our resurrected Lord offered to come in and "eat" (deipneo) with anyone who hears His voice and opens the door, a picture of fellowship and communion (Re 3:30). The idea that fellowship and acceptance is epitomized by eating together was derived not only from the Hebrew culture of Jesusí day, but also from the earliest Hebrew Scriptures. Exodus 18:12 reveals that Jethro, Moses, Aaron, and all the elders of Israel came to "eat bread" in the "presence of God." More divine dining occurred at the cutting of the Sinai covenant, when Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and the seventy elders of Israel when up on Mt Sinai where they "saw God, and they ate and drank" (Exodus 24:9-11). It is significant that "God did not raise his hand against these leaders" (Exodus 24:11a). They were accepted by Him, as evidenced in the holy meal they ate in His presence.
This fellowship in feasting theme is continued on in the book of Acts, where we learn that the early church devoted themselves to "fellowship in the breaking of bread" (2:42, literal translation). In your English version, notice that in Acts 2:42 there is an "and" between "teaching" and "fellowship," and between "bread" and "prayer," but not between "fellowship" and "bread." In the Greek, the words "fellowship" and "breaking of bread" are linked together as simultaneous activities. They had fellowship with one another as they broke bread together. Luke further informs us that this eating was done with "glad and sincere hearts" (2:26). Sounds inviting, doesnít it? Many commentaries associate the phrase, "breaking of bread" throughout the books of Acts with the Lordís Supper. This is because Luke, who wrote Acts, recorded in his gospel that Jesus took bread and "broke it" at the last supper (22:19). If this conclusion is accurate, then early church enjoyed the Lordís Supper as a time of fellowship and gladness, just like one would enjoy at a wedding party.
The Frequency of the Lord's Supper: Weekly
We have thus seen the original form (a full fellowship meal with one cup and one loaf) and focus (forward looking) of the Lordís Supper. One final and important aspect needs to be considered: its frequency. How often did the New Testament church partake of the Supper? The Roman Catholics have it right on this point. Early believers ate the Lordís Supper weekly, and it was the main purpose for their coming together each Lordís Day.
The first evidence for this is grammatical. The technical term, "Lordís Day" is from a unique phrase in the Greek, kuriakon hemeran, which literally reads, "the day belonging to the Lord." The words "belonging to the Lord" are from kuriakos, which occurs in the NT only in Re 1:10 and in 1 Corinthians 11:20, where Paul uses it to refer to the "Lordís Supper" or the "Supper belonging to the Lord" (kuriakon deipnon). The connection between these two uses must not be missed! If the purpose of the weekly church meeting is to observe the Lordís Supper, it only makes sense that this supper belonging to the Lord would be eaten on the day belonging to the Lord (the first day of the week). Johnís revelation (Revelation 1:10) evidently thus occurred on the first day of the week, the day in which Jesus rose from the dead and the day on which the early church met to eat the Supper belonging to the Lord. The resurrection and the day and the supper all go together as a package deal!
Second, the only reason ever given in the New Testament as to the regular purpose for a church meeting is to eat the Lordís Supper. In Acts 20:7, Luke informs us that, "On the first day of the week we came together to break bread." The word "to" in Acts 20:7 is known as a telic infinitive. It denotes a purpose or objective. Their meeting was a meating! Another place in the NT that the purpose for a church gathering is stated is found in 1 Corinthians 11:17-22. The "meetings" (11:17) were doing more harm than good because when they came "together as a church" (11:18a) they had divisions so deep that "when you come together, it is not the Lordís Supper you eat" (11:18b). From this is it obvious that the primary reason for their church meetings was to eat the Lordís Supper. Sadly, their abuses of the Supper were so gross that it had ceased being the Lordís Supper, but officially they were gathering each week to celebrate the Supper. The third and last location of a reference to the reason for an assembly is found in 1 Corinthians 11:33, "when you come together to eat, wait for each other." As before, it shows that the reason they came together was to "eat." Lest this appear to be making a mountain out of a mole hill, it must be realized that no other reason is ever given in the Scriptures as to the purpose of a regular, weekly church meeting.
The fellowship and encouragement that each member enjoys in such a gathering is tremendous. It is the Christian equivalent of the neighborhood bar. It is the true happy meal or happy hour. It is a time that God uses to create unity in a body of believers. This aspect of the churchís meeting should not be rushed or replaced. Certainly it is appropriate to also have a 1 Corinthians 14 phase of the gathering (an interactive time of teaching, worship, singing, testimony, prayers, etc.), but not at the expense of the weekly Lordís Supper.
Practicing the Lordís Supper as a full meal today is can be a means of great blessing to the church. Here are some practical considerations concerning the "how to"s of implementing it.
Attitude: Be sure the church understands that the Lordís Supper is the main purpose for the weekly gathering. It is neither optional nor secondary to some type of "worship service". Even if a church only has the Lordís Supper one week, it has fulfilled its primary reason for having a meeting that week.
Food: If at all possible, make the meal potluck and purpose to eat whatever it brought. This makes the administration of the food much easier. Trust Godís sovereignty! In ten years of doing this, our church only had one Sunday where everyone brought desserts, and even then we solved the "problem" by simply ordering out for pizza! Over-planning the meal can take a lot of the fun out and make it burdensome. The one thing that is pre-planned is who supplies the one loaf and the fruit of the vine. The family that is hosting the meeting always supplies the bread and cup for our church.
Giving: Since celebrating the meal is a New Testament pattern and something important to the life of a properly functioning church, money spent by individual families on food to bring is a legitimate giving expense. Rather than merely dropping an offering in a plate each week, go to the grocery store and buy the best food you can afford. Bring it to the Supper as a sacrificial offering!
Clean Up: To facilitate clean up, you may want to consider using paper plates and napkins. At our church we do use plastic forks and cups, which need to be washed, but that is because folks sometimes carelessly throw away their utensils along with the rest of their trash. Better to throw away a plastic fork than a metal one! To help avoid spills, the host family supplies wicker plate holders each week, which can be reused and donít usually need to be washed.
Logistics: In warm weather it may be appropriate to eat outside, in the shade of a carport or backyard. Spilled food and drink is inevitable, and clean up is much easier outside. A large folding table can be placed where necessary and stored away after the meeting. In cold weather, when eating indoors is necessary, consider covering any nicely upholstered furniture with a layer of plastic and then cloth. Since children make the most mess, reserve any available seating at a table for them and insist they use it!
The Cup and Loaf: Some have found that taking the cup and loaf prior to the meal separates it from the meal too much as a separate act. It is as if the Lordís Supper is the cup and loaf, and everything else is just lunch. To overcome this false dichotomy, try placing the cup and loaf on the table with the rest of the food of the Lordís Supper. The cup and loaf can be pointed out in advance of the meeting and mentioned in the prayer prior to the meal, but then placed on the buffet table with everything else. This way, folks can partake of it as they pass through the serving line. This is a freedom issue.
Should the loaf be unleavened and the fruit of the vine alcoholic? The Jews ate unleavened bread in the Passover meal to symbolize the quickness with which God brought them out of Egypt. Certainly Jesus used unleavened bread in the original Last Supper. However, nothing is said in the NT about Gentile churches using unleavened bread in the Lordís Supper. Though sometimes in the NT yeast is associated with evil (1 Corinthians 5:6-8), it is also used to represent Godís kingdom (Matthew 13:33)! As we see it, it is a matter of freedom. As related to wine, it is clear from 1 Corinthians 11 that wine was used in the Lordís Supper (some became drunk). However, no clear theological reason is ever given in Scripture for so doing (but consider Genesis 27:28, Isaiah 25:6-9, Romans 14:21). As with the unleavened bread, it is a freedom issue.
Unbelievers: Should unbelievers be allowed to partake of the Lordís Supper? The Lordís Supper, as a sacred, covenant meal, has significance only to believers. To nonbelievers, it is merely food for the belly! It is clear from 1 Corinthians 14:23-25 that unbelievers will occasionally attend church meetings. Unbelievers get hungry just like believers do, so invite them to eat too. Love them to Jesus! The danger in taking the Lordís Supper in an unworthy manner applies only to believers (1 Corinthians 11:27-32).
Regarding the one cup and loaf, if an unbelieving child desires to drink the grape juice just because he likes grape juice, that is fine. However, if the parents purposely give it to an unbelieving child as a religious act, then that would be a violation of what the Lordís Supper is all about. It would be closely akin to the error of infant baptism.
Ordained Clergy: Some traditional churches feel that only an ordained clergyman can officiate at the Lordís table. This is evidently a holdover from Roman Catholicism. The New Testament makes no so such requirements.
Now that the New Testament form of the Supper has been duly established, the next question facing believers today concerns our Lordís intent for post-first century churches. Does Jesus desire for His people to celebrate the Lordís Supper in the same way it was eaten in the New Testament? Or could it be a matter of indifference to Him? Do we have the freedom to deviate from the Supperís original form as a true banquet? Why would anyone want to depart from the way Christ and His apostles practiced the Lordís Supper? The apostles plainly were pleased when churches held to their traditions (1 Corinthians 11:2) and even commanded that they do so (2 Thessalonians 2:15). We have no authorization to deviate from it.
To summarize all that has been posited, the Lordís Supper is the primary purpose for which the church is to gather each Lordís Day. Eaten as a full meal, the Supper typifies the wedding supper of the Lamb and is thus forward-looking. It is to be partaken of as a feast, in a joyful, wedding atmosphere rather than in a somber, funeral atmosphere. A major benefit of the Supper as a banquet is the fellowship and encouragement each member experiences. Within the context of this full meal, there is to be one cup and one loaf from which all partake. These are symbolic of Jesusí body and blood and serve to remind Jesus of His promise to return. The one loaf is to be used not only to symbolize the unity of a body of believers but also because God will use it to create unity within a body of believers.