by Barry Evans
This Sunday at the worship services of Mercy Hill Church, we will be observing one of the most unique and important practices of the church, communion, or the Lord’s Supper. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, of all the things we do as a church, the practice of the Lord’s Supper is very likely the hardest to comprehend for new believers, and even those who have been in the faith for most of their lives may not really understand it.
We know Jesus started it and commanded us to do it. We probably have some idea that it connects to His dying on the cross and thus, to the gospel. But what exactly is the purpose of this practice, and why did Jesus tell us to do it? Besides the cryptic nature of eating a small piece of bread and just a little wine or juice, Christians can’t even seem to agree on the name for the thing (the Eucharist, the Lord’s Table, the mass, the breaking of bread, etc.), so how are we supposed to understand what it’s about?
Well, while we don’t all seem to agree what to call it, pretty much all Christians take part. At Mercy Hill, we refer to it as communion. In 1 Corinthians 11:20, Paul calls it “the Lord’s Supper,” and we use that term for it as well. It’s mentioned a few times in Scripture, both as an historical event that took place in Jesus’ ministry and as a continuing practice of the early church. Matthew, Mark , and Luke‘s Gospels all detail the historical event, while John refers to the events surrounding it in chapters 11-13 and prefigures its meaning earlier in Jesus’ ministry (John 6:35ff) when Jesus calls Himself “the bread of life” (v. 35) and says, “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever,” (v. 51).
That teaching right there goes to why communion is confusing. Eternal life requires eating Jesus? Understandably, the skeptics in the crowd picked up on that and asked what on earth He could mean by it. Jesus explained, but He didn’t make it any easier for them.
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 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. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum (vv. 52-59).
It’s not hard to see the connection to the communion table here, with Jesus advising believers to eat His flesh and drink His blood. Nor is it hard to understand why John reports, “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?,’” (v. 60) and, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him,” (v. 66). Now it’s clear Jesus doesn’t mean that taking the Lord’s Supper is what saves us, because He explains in v. 63, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life,” explaining that we are not saved by any physical act, such as eating or drinking, but by the Holy Spirit through faith.
There’s one more major passage of Scripture that deals with the Lord’s Supper, and that’s the one I want to camp out on a bit, because I think it will give us some clear answers to why (and how) we practice communion. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 that the Corinthian church is not doing a good job in its observance of the Lord’s Supper. In doing so, he gives probably the clearest single explanation in Scripture of the meanings and purposes of communion.
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”In the same way also he took the cup, 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 (vv. 23-26).
Using this passage as a base, we can start to pull out a few points on what communion is and why it is so important.
1) Communion is a Memorial
Twice, Jesus is quoted as saying, “Do this in remembrance of me,” (vv. 24-25). Each of the elements is to be taken specifically as an act of remembering Jesus’ sacrificing Himself for us. The bread is meant to bring to mind the damage to His body, and the cup is meant to remind us of His blood being shed. In Scripture, blood is a sign of life, and even today, we use the term “spilling blood” to refer to killing. The blood of sacrifices would be used in the making of covenants. Now the “new covenant” (v. 25) of salvation in Christ has been instituted by the death of Jesus.
Not only did Jesus give His life, but He put Himself in our place, living the life we could not live and suffering more than just death. He felt hungry, thirsty, beaten, humiliated, hot, cold, sad, frustrated, lonely, exhausted, tempted, and every other way you and I feel under the curse of this fallen world. So not only did He shed His blood; He put His very body on the line in all manner of sufferings. In the eating of the bread (body) and the drinking of the cup (blood), we are remembering that Jesus has given His all to save us, suffering and dying to buy our way to eternal life. But it is not enough for us to remember what Jesus has done for us. We are called to share it. That brings us to our second truth.
2) Communion is a Proclamation
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (v. 26).
When we come together for communion, as we remember Jesus’ death, we proclaim the truth of the gospel to one another in the taking of the bread and the juice. But more than that, we proclaim it to those who have not yet trusted Christ and observe the act of us taking the Lord’s Supper. Communion is meant to preach (“proclaim”) the gospel to them as well, to draw them to place their trust in the death of the risen Savior. This is one reason we restrict the taking of the Lord’s Supper only to believers, lest anyone think it is merely the act of eating that saves. In fact, eating and drinking the communion elements without faith is a dangerous thing indeed, as our next point demonstrates.
3) Communion is a Reflection
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.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. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged.But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world (vv. 27-32).
In taking communion we are to examine our standing with Christ and whether or not we are worthy to take it, lest we be found “guilty.” That means, before taking the elements, one must be certain he or she is in right relationship with Christ, trusting in Him for salvation and living a life of obedience to Him. Believers should reflect on whether they have any sins that need confessing, so that they will not be subject to discipline by God. It’s such a serious matter, that Paul says some people have even died, because they did not examine their own hearts in taking communion!
Thus communion is all about relationship, first our relationship with Christ, as we have seen, then our relationship with each other in the church.
4) Communion is Unity
Paul’s major complaint about the way the Corinthians take the Lord’s Supper is that there are “divisions among” them (v. 18). They are not united in one fellowship as the church, but each is only thinking of him or herself. It’s so bad that, “One goes hungry, another gets drunk” (v.21). People are eating and drinking it all for themselves without regard for others. But the Lord’s Supper is meant to identify us as those who are trusting Christ’s sacrificial death and in so doing to unify us as believers in Him. It is for this reason that we call it “communion.” We are taking part in community with Christ and with each other. So the act of taking communion is done together in the worship service, not privately, and it is done with the mindset of serving one another rather than merely our own needs and desires. True communion should fulfill the desires of our Lord when He prayed to the Father asking:
that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me (John 17:21-23).
And beyond these four points, of course, communion is something Jesus commanded us to take part in, so we do it. Hopefully, this post has answered some of your questions as to the meaning of it.
There’s a lot more that could be said on this topic, but it is beyond the scope of a single blog post. For a more in depth look at what Paul has to say about communion, I urge you to check out John Piper’s sermon “The Lord’s Supper as Worship.” Some of my comments originate with Piper’s sermon, and he presents this topic in a much fuller capacity there, including dealing with some misconceptions concerning the Lord’s Supper that have arisen over time.
God bless you as we take communion together this Sunday!
Barry Evans is a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. He lives in Greensboro, NC and is a member at Mercy Hill Church.