The Lord’s Supper serves as one of two symbols depicting for us the reality of the Gospel, baptism being the other. Whereas baptism tells the story of our union with Christ in death, burial, and resurrection to new life (Romans 6), the Lord’s Supper paints a picture of how Jesus accomplished such new life for us in the sacrifice of his body.
In John 6, Jesus (rather graphically on the surface) told his followers, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (6:54-55). Feeding on his flesh and drinking his blood consists of relying fully upon his sacrifice to cover and remove the sin in our lives and grant to us the perfection required to see God. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper we eat of the bread and drink from the cup doing so “in remembrance” of Jesus. Jesus said in view of such remembrance that the bread “is my body, which is given for you” and the cup “poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:14-20).
As a picture of sacrifice, the bread and cup flowed from the last Passover meal Jesus shared with the Twelve but became a brand new meal for us.
The Passover centered upon a lamb without blemish or spot, brought into the house of the Israelites for 14 days. Then at twilight, each family sacrificed its lamb and smeared its blood upon the door posts and lintel while roasting its flesh for a meal. The blood was a sign for the people and for God—that in his judgment carried out upon Egypt he would pass over his people. The meal was a memorial reminder of the event for all generations to follow that God rescued them from their slavery in Egypt.
Jesus is our Passover lamb. We unite with him through faith, and his sacrifice on the cross—the spilled blood and broken body—cause us to pass safely through God’s judgment, removes us from our enslavement to sin, and ultimately brings us into our eternal Promised Land. As such, our Lord’s Supper is a new memorial meal that reminds of us Jesus, whose life and work was foreshadowed by the Passover of Exodus 12.
Yet the Lord’s Supper ties back to an even earlier point in our faith history. In Genesis 14, Abraham was returning to his land after rescuing Lot from war. On his way, a mysterious priest-king named Melchizedek met Abraham and blessed him. In return, Abraham offered Melchizedek a tenth of what he had. When Melchizedek met Abraham to bless him, he “brought out bread and wine.” Hebrews 4-7 teaches us that Melchizedek was also a foreshadowing of Christ—the great high priest who has blessed us with an offering of body and blood, symbolized with bread and wine.
All of this serves as a foundation to the Lord’s Supper, but perhaps one of the most clear treatments of the meaning and purpose of the Supper in the life of the church comes from 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.
In his letter, Paul chastises the Corinthians for abusing the Lord’s Supper by neglecting the body—the church—as a whole. Some would come to the meeting place early and gorge themselves on the bread and become drunk off the wine while those who came later would go hungry and without for there would be nothing left.
Paul therefore tells them to discern the body, or take care to remember all the members of the church, before they partake. And he tells them, “when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” It is a meal that has a corporate focus, not an individual one.
Perhaps most telling is Paul’s admonition in 11:17-21:
17 But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. 21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.
Paul criticizes them because when they come together as a church, they should be partaking of the Lord’s Supper but they are not because of their failure to consider one another and take of it properly. Thus they are using the bread and the wine in a meal, but it is not truly symbolizing what it should.
But another thing this teaches is that the Lord’s Supper is central to the life of the church.
When Paul makes the statement, “when you come together as a church,” he indicates that Christians can get together at different times and in different places but there is something specific and special to that gathering being called “church.” Church is more than a group of Christians joining together for Bible study, prayer, fellowship, and worship. There are certain demarcations that say, “This gathering of Christians represents a church.” One of those signs, in fact perhaps, the primary sign is sharing in the Lord’s Supper.
Without the sharing of the Supper, a gathering is not a church. This naturally leads to the question, “How often should we celebrate the Supper?” We have no specific command in Scripture other than, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). But we do have general patterns in Scripture.
In Acts 2, Luke described that first church at Jerusalem with the words, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Breaking of bread was a euphemism that, in context, referenced the Lord’s Supper where Jesus “took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it” (Luke 22:19).
The church at Jerusalem came together “day by day” in various ways. While we cannot be sure exactly how often that included celebrating the Supper, the tone of the passage indicates it would have been more often than not. As we have seen from 1 Corinthians 11, Paul seems to expect or anticipate they partook whenever they “came together as a church.” And Luke in Acts 20:7 states, “on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them,” perhaps indicating he saw the Supper as the purpose for church gatherings on the first day of the week.
Again, while not given a command for a particular frequency in partaking, the Bible paints a picture that “for as often as you eat this” means quite regularly. It is here that some protest, “If we celebrate the Supper too often, it will lose its meaning.” But if given proper treatment, this is no more the case than loss of meaning for regular preaching, prayer, and worship together as a church.
On the contrary, since the Supper is central to the life and definition of the church and since it paints a visual reminder of the Gospel story (essentially giving an interactive illustration to what we preach, pray for, and sing about), we would be better served as a body to celebrate it more often than less!