The Bread and the Cup
The True Meaning of the Lord's Supper
The solemn words of our Lord Jesus: "Do this in remembrance of Me" are well known to most Christians. They are carved into the front of the communion tables in many churches throughout the world. They were first uttered by our Lord, on the night before His crucifixion during a Passover ceremony that our Lord and His 12 apostles shared together.
During the Passover meal, the Lord instituted, what has come to be known as Communion, or the Lord's Supper. In Catholic tradition it is referred to as the Mass. And it is also called the Eucharist in other traditions. It is a beautiful ceremony that the people of God are to celebrate because it commemorates the greatest event in salvation history; the day that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, as our substitute.
At the same time, however, it is an observance that is misunderstood by many in the Christian Church. And it is truly amazing how religion, over time, was able to squeeze the life out of God's beautiful ceremony commemorating His love, grace and power. Human institutions have caged up biblical truth and boxed it into traditions which have no basis in Scripture.
There are some that see the bread, and the blood, or grape juice, as the actual body and blood of Christ which is sacrificed again and again each time the elements are administered. There are others who claim that, although the elements are not changed into the physical body of Christ, nevertheless, His body is present in the elements in a spiritual sense.
Let me suggest to you that neither of these views is correct. Rather it was meant to be a memorial service, given to God's people, to remember the Lord's death until He returns.
I. The Lord's Supper and the Passover
The Passover, upon which the Lord's Supper is based, was the most holy feast of the Jewish year. It commemorated the final plague that was placed upon the Egyptians in order to get them to release the Israelites, so that God could lead them into the promise land. The plague was the death of the firstborn of Egypt. The firstborn of the Israelites, however, were spared if they placed the sprinkled blood of a lamb upon their doorposts. The lamb was then roasted and eaten with unleavened bread. The Lord commanded that throughout the generations to come, the feast was to be celebrated. This Passover ceremony commemorates the greatest salvation event of the Old Testament: God's salvation of His people out of Egypt.
Is it any wonder that our Lord chose this Passover celebration to institute a memorial service of His own. This service commemorates the greatest salvation event of all time. That is the day that the Lord gave His body and His blood, as our substitute on a cross, to save us from eternal hell.
II. The Background to I Corinthians 11:17-34
To get a full understanding of the Lord's Supper we need to look at I Corinthians 11. This is a chapter that is correcting the Corinthians on the way they were treating this sacred observance. The Corinthians were not acting like the Body of Christ. There was no unity there. And that lack of unity came out in the Communion, or Lord's Supper. There were people who were coming early and eating and drinking, even getting drunk, while others who came later, went hungry. Paul tells them that this is not right. They weren't eating the Lord's Supper at all. Furthermore, they had houses in which to eat and drink.
III. Paul's Understanding of the Lord's Supper
It is after Paul scolds the Corinthians about how they are treating the Lord's Supper that he explains to them what it's all about. He gives several reasons for it:
1. It is a Communion
First of all, we can see both from this passage and from I Corinthians 10:14-17 that the Lord's Supper is a communion. In this earlier passage Paul is telling the Corinthians not to participate in idol feasts. In doing this he says:
"Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to wise men; judge what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ."
Here he plainly calls it a communion. And in talking to the people in I Corinthians 11 about not waiting on each other to eat, he is implying the same thing.
There are two reasons why this ceremony is called a communion. When we partake of the Lord's Supper, we are entering into a communion with the Lord Himself. There is nothing mystical and magical about the bread and wine. It rather symbolizes our relationship with the Lord through the blood of Christ. It is in His sacrificial death on the cross that the barrier between God and humanity was broken.
The other reason that it is a communion is that through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, fellow believers have communion with one another as well.
2. It is a Thanksgiving
The word that is sometimes used for the Supper is the Eucharist. It comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving. Paul tells us that before He broke the bread, Christ gave thanks (11:24). There are many things which we can be thankful for, but the most important is that God sent His Son into the world to die for our sins, even though we didn't deserve it. Taking the Lord's Supper with an attitude of thanksgiving helps us remember that our salvation is a gift, and not a work that we have done.
3. It is a Memorial
In I Corinthians 11:24-25 Paul quotes our Lord as saying "Do this in remembrance of Me." Our faith is grounded in historical events. Jesus gave the bread and wine new meaning. Rather than symbolizing the Passover events of Egypt, now Jesus says that the bread symbolizes His body broken for us. The wine sybolizes His blood shed for us on the cross. Jesus, of course, is referring to His upcoming crucifixion. We see in I Corinthians 5:7 that our Lord is actually called our passover, who is sacrificed for us. Yet rather than covering our sin, this sacrificial lamb took away our sin completely.
4. It is a Proclaimation
In verse 26 we see that the Lord's Supper is also a proclamation. It proclaims to the world our faith in the crucified Lord. In word and in symbol, Christ's death for men is set forth before them. It is an acted play, of sorts, proclaiming the Lord's death.
5. It is an Anticipation
Paul goes on to say in verse 26 that we are to proclaim the Lord's death "until He comes." This is a service that looks forward to our Lord's return for us. Jesus didn't remain in the grave. He ascended to the right hand of the Father, and will one day appear again. This reminds us that this world isn't all there is. There is a greater world ahead.
6. It is an Examination
Paul says to let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread and drink of that cup (28). He says that no person shoud take communion like it is just another meal. It is a solemn rite, given to the people of God and charged with deep significance. Before taking part in such a service, the very least that we can do is conduct a rigorous self-examination. Failure to do so will result in communication unworthily.
This doesn't mean that the person must be sinless. If that were the case, then none of us would be able to partake. We are all unworthy. To take the Lord's Supper in an unworthy manner is exactly what Paul is preaching against in this passage. It is treating the Supper as just another meal, and going through the motions without giving serious thought about what the event really means.
The Corinthians failed to treat it as a meal of fellowship. Rather it was used as a meal to indulge themselves, and get drunk. Paul's answer to them was to wait for one another, and eat at home if they were hungry.
The Lord's Supper is a wonderful service that memorializes the greatest salvation event in human history. It is full of great significance for all who have accepted the Lord Jesus Christ by faith. Besides remembering what Christ did for us, it is truly a time of communion, thanksgiving, proclamation, anticipation and examination. Each time we participate, we should ask ourselves if we are treating it as a mere ritual, or giving it the significance that it truly deserves.
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