The Lord's Supper: A symbol of faithIntroduction
Our study on "Church Involvement" summarized the many responsibilities we have toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. One of these responsibilities is that we do not forsake the gathering together of the brotherhood. When we gather, we are to do so in a particular way. Jesus asked that we share together in a symbolic meal. This meal is called the "Lord's Supper", or the "Holy Communion". It is a meal which uses symbols of bread and wine to remind us of Jesus' death on our behalf. Feeding on these symbols is an outward expression of believing in Jesus' death and resurrection on our behalf - the meal serves as a reaffirmation of our faith.
The key passages which deal with the Lord's supper are found in the description of the meal in the three synoptic gospels, Mark 14:22, Matt.26:26 and Luke 22:19, and in the apostle Paul's teaching on the supper in his letter to the Corinthians, 1Cor.11:22.
Fifteen hundred years before the birth of Christ the Hebrew people (Jews, the children of Israel) were slaves in Egypt. The tenth plague was about to fall on Egypt. The Hebrews were to protect themselves from the plague and to prepare for their escape. On that evening each family killed a young lamb and painted their door posts with its blood. The lamb was then cooked along with unleavened bread (i.e., bread prepared quickly - there was no time to wait for it to rise). That night the angel of death passed over Egypt; where there was no blood the first born in the family died. The people ate their meal and early the next morning were led out of bondage. The plagues hand finally beaten Pharaoh and so he sent the Israelites packing (he later changed his mind). So God, with a mighty and out-stretched arm, rescued his people, led them safely through the Red Sea into the wilderness to meet with him.
The remembrance of this great act of God was celebrated by each family in the Passover Feast. The meal would consist of a cooked lamb (later other meats were included) and unleavened bread (wine was also later included). The head of the family would recount the great events of the Passover and Exodus, i.e., how the blood of the lamb had saved them from the Angel of Death and how they had been rescued from bondage by their God.
Jesus, on the Thursday night, the night of his arrest, had joined with his disciples to celebrate the salvation event of the Exodus. Yet now he changed the focus of the meal. No longer would his disciples remember the Exodus from Egypt, they would now remember the "Exodus" from Jerusalem (Luke 9:31, "departure" = exodus in the Greek). They would remember the cross and the empty tomb. Jesus also changed the symbols from bread and meat to bread and wine.
So, on the Passover evening Jesus passed around the bread saying, "Take eat, this is my body", and the wine, saying, "Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the new agreement which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." Jesus was telling his disciples that the bread and wine are symbols of his body and blood given for broken humanity.
An act of remembrance
The Lord's supper is primarily an act of remembrance - "Do this in remembrance of me", 1Cor.11:22. In this act of remembrance we concentrate on the death of Christ - "for as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim (set forth) the Lord's death until he comes", 1Cor.11:26.
In the institution of the Lord's supper, Jesus took the Jewish Passover meal and created a new remembrance meal. The Passover meal was designed to focus attention of God's great salvation event in the Exodus, Ex.12:21-27. By participating in the meal, with its symbolic meaning, the Israelites proclaimed (set forth) the great act of God's passover. In the Lord's supper our act of remembrance focuses on Jesus' death and what it achieved. Jesus' death established the new covenant (agreement) between God and mankind; it was the means of restoring our relationship with God, and so God could now say "you are my people and I am your God." So, when Jesus instituted the communion he said, "this is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for many" "for the forgiveness of sins."
The establishment of the covenant between God and mankind, through Christ's death on the cross, is prefigured in the Old Testament in Exodus 19-24 - "You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, (the response to God's offer) you shall be my possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a Kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (the promise), Ex.19:4ff. After relating the covenant law, Ex.20-23, the people respond, "all the words which the Lord has spoken we will do." Moses then "built an altar", the people "offered burnt offerings and sacrifices" and Moses took half the blood and put it in basins." He then read the law and the people responded, "all that the Lord has spoken we will do and we will be obedient." Moses then took the blood and threw it upon the people and said, "behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words."
So, the Lord's supper is primarily a symbolic act of remembrance; it recalls that Christ has shed his blood as a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins and that this has enabled the establishment of the new covenant (or agreement) between God and mankind. The central promise of the new covenant is life, Jn.3:16, and our response is faith / belief, Jn.6:28-29.
The substance of the Holy Communion
In the Lord's supper there is a primary response of toward Jesus as we participate in the meal and this primary response stimulates a group of secondary responses:
The primary response: faith in Christ
In the Lord's supper, as we remember Jesus' death on our behalf, we respond in faith. Our eating is a way of saying "I really believe Lord that you gave your life that I might live." Our drinking is a way of saying, "I really believe Lord that you shed your blood for my sins."
The Lord's Supper serves as a reaffirmation of faith by the members of the Christian community (church). This insight comes from John 6 where the idea of eating Christ's body and drinking his blood is explained. Jesus states that "if any man eats of this bread he will live for ever and the bread which I give for the life of the world is my flesh", 6:51. "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life", 6:54. The mystery is explained in Jesus' words "Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life..... the work of God (i.e., the labor required of us by God) is to believe in the one he has sent," 6:27-29. Eating and drinking of Christ's body and blood simply means believing in his sacrificial death on our behalf, 6:53. The idea of a release of life by participating in flesh and blood comes from the Old Testament, Lev.17:11. Christ's violent blood-letting has made atonement (paid the penalty) for our rebellion and secured eternal life for all who believe, Jn.3:15.
As God fed the children of Israel in the desert with the miraculous manna from heaven, so Christ feeds with a miraculous life-giving food. Not loaves and fishes, but rather his sacrificial death on our behalf. Eating Christ's body and drinking his blood simply means believing on the crucified Son of God who gave his life as a ransom for many ("poured out his life for the forgiveness of sins").
The secondary responses
As we join in this meal and centre our minds on the great fact that Jesus has died for us to give us life everlasting and release us from the power of sin, we are stimulated to respond in four ways. These are the secondary responses, although certainly not second-rate.
i] Praise and thanksgiving. A natural response to what Jesus has done for us. The Holy Communion is often called the "eucharist", a word that derives from the Greek word for thanksgiving.
ii] Fellowship. The meal was always to be a family / church activity. As the group joins in the meal they are faced with a tremendous truth. Each person in the group is a new person in Christ. No longer are they slaves of sin, no longer do they face the blackness of a death without God. Each person is bound together by a profound truth, a truth that unites them - Jesus has died for us. When we realize this, we can't help but be drawn nearer to each other. The common meal symbolizes our common sharing in Christ through faith. "Because there is one loaf (Christ) we who are many are one body, for we all participate in the one loaf", (i.e., exercise faith in Christ), cf. John 6:56. Observe how distressed Paul the apostle is when the church in Corinth allows the unity of the Lord's Supper to be affected, cf., 1Cor.11:17-33. The Lord's supper expresses our common bond forged by our common faith in Christ, and for this reason we often call it "communion".
iii] Hope. Jesus said, "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, Matt.26:29. As we join in the meal we are reminded of the great feast with the Father in heaven and so we look forward with hope to that day when we shall all be together as one people.
iv] Commitment. Jesus said, "This is my blood of the new agreement." The new agreement is, that through Jesus' death for us, God is our God and we are his children. To be one of his children means to be a disciple of Jesus, to follow in Jesus' footsteps. Jesus has given his life that we might live, and for this reason we strive to realize the life we now possess in him.
The next time you share in the Lord's Supper, consider the points raised in these notes before attending.