How Do We Honor Christ in the Lord’s Supper?

In a previous post, we answered the question: “Why Do We Celebrate the Lord’s Supper?”

In this post, we want to answer the question: “How Do We Honor Christ in the Lord’s Supper?”  In other words, how do we come to the Table of Christ (or not come to the Table) in a way that brings honor and glory and praise to Christ?

As we saw in the previous post, the Supper was commanded by Christ (see Luke 22:19) and the early church took this command very seriously.  All faithful churches, down to this day, celebrate the Supper regularly.

If the Supper is so important, it is imperative for us to seek to understand how to celebrate it in a manner that honors Christ.  Below I’d like to offer a few thoughts:

The first way we may honor Christ in the Supper is by recognizing the true meaning of the Lord’s Supper.  Jesus said in 1 Cor. 11:24-26:

“‘This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’  In the same way, He took the cup also after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”

The Lord’s Supper is a solemn time in which believers remember the death of Jesus Christ for us.  The breaking of the bread and pouring out of the wine or juice should remind us of that solemn night at the Last Supper when Jesus was betrayed and eventually crucified.  As we hear the Words of Institution recited, as we see the bread broken and juice poured, as we taste of the body and blood of Christ, we look through these sensory experiences to the reality of Christ’s death and remember that this is more than an ordinary meal, but a commemoration of a horrific, yet glorious, event that took place some 2,000 years ago.  As we receive the elements of this sacrificial meal, we are tangibly reminded of our unbreakable union with Christ which was secured for us in the death that Jesus died.  In remembering the true meaning of the Supper, we honor Christ.

The second way we honor Christ in the Supper is by receiving the Supper in faith.  This goes beyond mere mental recognition of the meaning of the Supper.  A person may have an accurate understanding of what the Supper is and the purpose it serves, yet fail to believe that Christ actually does offer Himself for them personally.  Such a person is not benefited by the Supper, and Christ is not honored in their partaking of it.  Calvin puts it this way:

“Wherefore, let it be a fixed point, that the office of the sacraments differs not from the word of God; and this is to hold forth and offer Christ to us, and, in him, the treasures of heavenly grace. They confer nothing, and avail nothing, if not received in faith, just as wine and oil, or any other liquor, however large the quantity which you pour out, will run away and perish unless there be an open vessel to receive it. When the vessel is not open, though it may be sprinkled all over, it will nevertheless remain entirely empty.”1

The Word of God and the sacraments of the Church are only beneficial to those who receive them with faith (see for instance, Hebrews 4:1-2).  As we come to the Table, we should come with faith–as “open vessels”.  If our hearts are filled with doubts, let us pray the prayer of the father of the boy with the evil spirit in Mark 9:24: “I do believe; help my unbelief.”  We honor Christ in the Supper when we partake it in faith–even with the faith of a mustard seed.

The third way we honor Christ in our partaking of the Supper is by seeing our need for it.  People of faith recognize that faith itself is no shield from the world’s problems or dilemmas.  Needs don’t suddenly go away because a person believes.  In fact, faith often makes a person more aware of their neediness and fragility.  This awareness is manifest in the believer’s approach to the Supper.  For them, the Supper represents their need for regular nourishment, both physical and spiritual. By partaking of the Supper regularly we are reminding ourselves of our ongoing need for Christ and His forgiveness; we are receiving Christ’s offer of Himself for our sins again and again.  Howard Griffith writes:

“Why then did Jesus command his disciples to eat and drink, and to do so repeatedly?  So that they might have the assurance of sins forgiven.  The bread taken and eaten, the wine drunk, represent the application of salvation to believers, because Christ’s words gave them and continue to give them that meaning.”2

Being a Christian is more than a moment in time when we “prayed a prayer” and “surrendered”, it is an ongoing embrace of the good news of the gospel, that Christ offered Himself for us.  We honor Christ in the Supper when we recognize our ongoing need for Jesus as we come to the Table.

The fourth way we honor Christ in our partaking of the Supper is by respecting the boundaries of the Supper put in place by Christ Himself.  If faith is necessary to honor Christ in the Supper (as stated above), then it follows that those who have not received the Lord Jesus by faith should abstain.3  In 1 Corinthians 10:16 Paul says:

“Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?”

How can those who have not yet received Christ in faith “share” in His body?  In the words of Anthony Carter:

“Communion, or common union, is born out of union with Christ. Only those in union with Christ have fellowship with Him. They share in His body and His blood and are consequently united to Him (John 6:56). The unconverted has no fellowship with Christ. The unconverted has no union with Him. There is no promise of Christ’s abiding with him. He has no portion in the body of Christ broken or the blood of Christ shed. Consequently, there can be no sharing in the elements that signify the person and work of Christ for the church (1 Cor. 11:24). The converted, on the other hand, discern that such are the blessings of being united to Christ.” 4

But there is another group that should also abstain from the Supper: the unrepentant.  In 1 Cor. 11:28 and 29 Paul says:

“Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” (ESV)

Again, in the words of Anthony Carter:

“The Christian life is the examined life, the life that takes seriously the call to repentance and the promise of forgiveness (1 John. 1:8–92:1). Unfortunately, there are those who deny the grace of repentance by hardening their hearts and refusing to forgive or be forgiven. Those who refuse to acknowledge their sin, but harbor bitterness, malice, and hatred in their hearts, and refuse godly counsel toward reconciliation with God and others, and thus neglect the grace of repentance—let them refrain from the Lord’s Table. Otherwise, to eat and to drink in such a state is to call forth the disciplining hand of God (1 Cor. 11:32).”5

If we desire to honor Christ in the Supper we must honor the boundaries that Christ Himself has put into place.

The last thought I have for you is this: we honor Christ by making ourselves available to partake of the Supper as often as possible.  If all that I have said above is true, it is imperative that we make ourselves available to partake of the Supper.  It will nourish and enliven your faith.

If your church celebrates the Supper every week, missing a week here and there will present no major problem.  However, if your church only celebrates the Supper once a month or once a quarter, it is imperative, if at all possible, that you make every effort to be present.  Christ is eager to meet you there and to give you more of Himself.

  1. John Calvin, “The Institutes of the Christian Religion,” Book 4, Section 17.
  2. Spreading the Feast (P&R, 2015), 47-48.
  3. This point has not been controversial until recently.  In the 2,000 year history of the Church, I am personally not aware of any movement in the Church where non-believers were allowed to partake of the Supper, that is, until recently.  This should give us tremendous pause when we see some current day leaders in the Church opening the table to anyone and everyone.
  4. See the article “When Should You Not Take Communion?” at https://www.ligonier.org/blog/when-should-you-not-take-communion/. Accessed on 08/23/18.
  5. See the article “When Should You Not Take Communion?” at https://www.ligonier.org/blog/when-should-you-not-take-communion/. Accessed on 08/23/18.

Why Do We Celebrate the Lord’s Supper?

“On the night Jesus was betrayed, He took bread, broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is given for you, do this in remembrance of Me.'”

If you have attended church at some point in your life, chances are good that you have heard those words before.

These words make up part of what Christian churches call “The Words of Institution.”  The Words of Institution are the words spoken by Christ Himself at the Last Supper as He inaugurated the new covenant in His blood (see Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-26).1  All Christian churches since the time these words were first spoken by Jesus have repeated these words in preparation for their celebrations of the Lord’s Supper (or Eucharistic celebrations).  To this day, churches of all stripes across the world re-enact portions of the Last Supper event regularly as a core part of their worship.

But why?  Why do churches regularly re-enact this Last Supper event?

The simplest answer is because Jesus commanded His followers to do so.  In Luke 22:19, Jesus says at the Last Supper table to His disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

The apostle Paul says that he received instruction on the celebration of the Supper “from the Lord”  and “delivered” that same instruction to the churches he started (1 Cor. 11:23).   All churches that are faithful to the Bible, since the time of Christ, commemorate the Lord’s death in the Supper in one way or another at regular intervals.2 John Piper says:

“[T]he historical origin of the Lord’s Supper is that final supper that Jesus ate with his disciples the night before he was crucified. The actions and meaning of it are all rooted in what Jesus said and did on that last night. Jesus himself is the origin of the Lord’s Supper. He commanded that it be continued. And he is the focus and content of it.”3

EUCHARIST, COMMUNION, OR LORD’S SUPPER?

But the practice is richer than sheer obedience to commands.  Some of that richness can be seen in the various names given to the practice of re-enacting the Last Supper.  Here are some examples:

The Eucharist.  The word Eucharist literally means “thanksgiving.”  This terminology emphasizes the gratitude believers share in Christ’s sacrifice.  As we receive the bread and the cup again and again, we are reminded of the abundance we have in Christ.4.  In the words of Tish Harrison Warren:

“The Eucharist is a profoundly communal meal that reorients us from people who are merely individualistic consumers into people who are, together, capable of imaging Christ in the world.  Of course, eating itself reminds us that none of us can stay alive on our own.  If you are breathing, it’s because someone fed you.  We are born hungry and completely dependent on others to meet our needs.”5

When the Eucharist is received, believers are filled with gratitude towards a God who continually meets their needs in Christ.

Communion.  Many Protestants, like myself, refer to the act of receiving the Lord’s body and blood as the “Lord’s Supper” and sometimes as “Holy Communion” or just “Communion.”  The word “Communion” is born out of the idea that believers share a “common union” with Christ.  When they partake of the bread and wine together, they are outwardly expressing their shared union and fellowship with Christ.  1 Cor. 10:16 says:

“The cup of blessing that we give thanks for, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” (HCSB)

The term “communion” focuses on the precious union that believers share with one another in Jesus Christ.  This union with Christ is the source of all other blessings that we have in Him.

The Lord’s Supper.  The term “Lord’s Supper” comes directly from 1 Cor. 11:20-21 where Paul says:

“Therefore, when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk.”

When we think of supping (eating), we think of continual coming.  Eating is something we have to do every day.  Our tanks are filled and then emptied over and over again.  In the same way, our need for Jesus never ends–the Lord’s Supper reminds us of our ongoing need to feast on all that Christ is for us.  Eating is also something that appeals to our senses.  God, in His infinite wisdom, has put tangible experiences at the heart of our worship.  The breaking of the bread and pouring out of the wine or juice should remind us of that solemn night at the Last Supper when Jesus was betrayed and eventually crucified.  As we hear the Words of Institution recited, as we see the bread broken and juice poured, as we taste of the body and blood of Christ, we look through these sensory experiences to the reality of Christ’s death our entire being is engaged–our minds, our hearts, and our bodies.6

NOT A NEGOTIABLE PRACTICE

When asking the question “What are the marks of a true church?”, many writers and Christian scholars today agree that there are two fundamental marks that separate a true church from other kinds of spiritual gatherings: First, a true church preaches and teaches the bible correctly.  Secondly, a true church correctly administers the sacraments (also called “ordinances” in some churches) of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.7

Every single gospel in the Bible contains an account of the Last Supper, though John’s account focuses more on Christ’s teaching and not on the eating and drinking.  This moment in the lives of Jesus and His followers was very significant and the early churches took Christ’s command to “do this” seriously.  In fact, in many early books of church order, we gather that the Supper had a dedicated time set aside whenever believers gathered–one portion of worship was for prayers, bible reading and the sermon, and the other was set apart for the receiving of the bread and cup.

What all of this suggests, therefore, is that reason that the church celebrates the Supper is that we can do no other–it is at the very heart of what it means for the Church to be the Church.

 

  1.  These Words, though simple enough on the surface, are filled with concepts that are brimming with meaning.  Words like “cup,” “blood” and “covenant”, all of which we hear every time we celebrate the Supper, have a backstory which is leading up to the very realities that are pictured in the Lord’s Supper.  Some theologians like to use the word “anticipate”–the Old Testament Passover, sacrifices, feasts, and covenants all anticipate a greater Passover, sacrifice, feast, and covenant that is to come, namely, Christ’s sacrifice, which is the heart of the Eucharist celebration.  Howard Griffith provides a helpful explanation of these “anticipations” in his book Spreading the Feast: Instruction & Meditations for Ministry at the Lord’s Table, (P&R, 2015).
  2. Some churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper weekly, some monthly and still others quarterly.  During the time of the Reformation (started in the early 1500s), those intervals became larger because some of the Reformers wanted to avoid ritualistic interpretations of the Supper which had crept into the Roman Catholic Church, which they were breaking away from.
  3. See “Why and How We Celebrate the Lord’s Supper at https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/why-and-how-we-celebrate-the-lords-supper. Accessed on August 26th, 2018.
  4. To many Evangelicals, the term “Eucharist” will be foreign.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this of the meaning of the term “Eucharist”: “The inexhaustible richness of (the sacrament of the Eucharist, i.e. the ‘Mass’) is expressed in the different names we give it. Each name evokes certain aspects of it. It is called: ‘Eucharist’ because it is an action of thanksgiving to God. The Greek words eucharistein and eulogein recall the Jewish blessings that proclaim — especially during a meal — God’s works: creation, redemption, and sanctification. (CCC 1328).
  5.  The Liturgy of the Ordinary (IVP, 2016), 71.
  6. A similar emphasis is understood in traditions that use the term “Breaking of Bread” to refer to the Lord’s Supper.
  7. See Wayne A. Grudem, Christian Beliefs: 20 Basics Every Christian Should Know, 115.