It is also called the Lord’s Table, Communion, Messianic Passover, and the Eucharist. What does it mean? How should we celebrate it?
Let’s use the question-and answer format for clarity and conciseness.
1.. Why do some churches call the Lord’s Supper an ‘ordinance’ and others a ‘sacrament’?
An ordinance can be defined as a “prescribed practice or ceremony” (J. Rodman Williams, vol. 3, p. 221) There are two visible or public ordinances in all churches: baptism and the Lord’s Supper (other denominations add others, like marriage and last rites). Ordinance is related to the word ‘ordain,’ and Jesus clearly ordained those two ordinances. A sacrament means that the physical object (i.e. water or the bread and wine) are made sacred by faith and prayer and consecration.
Those distinctions are not watertight, and so here are some generalizations.
A.. Usually churches in the Protestant tradition call it an ‘ordinance’ because the elements are not sacred in themselves, but are symbolic of or represent the Lord’s blood and body. But the Spirit is involved in this supper because he lives in the heart of the believer who has faith in the Lord as the Christian takes the elements. So it is not a meaningless meal, but holy or sacred, particularly when the participants pray in faith and in the Spirit.
Standard Baptist churches, Calvary Chapels, Pentecostals, and countless independent charismatic churches see things like this. But sometimes I hear them refer to the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament.
B.. Roman Catholics call it a ‘sacrament’ because the elements are sacred or made sacred, for God transforms the substance beneath the appearances (note the stem sacred and sacrament in both words). They believe that they partake of the body and blood of Christ because of God’s miracle. This transformation is called ‘transubstantiation.’
C.. Other Protestant churches, Lutherans, for example, also call it a ‘sacrament’ because they believe that those who take the bread and wine literally and physically partake of Christ’s body, but not because of a miraculous transubstantiation, but because of Christ’s glorified body and blood being “in, with and under” the bread and wine (Williams, vol. 3, p. 249, note 131). This view is called consubstantiation.
To sum up, Renewalists belong to all of these denominations (and many more), but this post assumes the symbolic view, because I personally prefer a streamlined approach to many things in Scripture. But I do not want to quarrel about it because these are articles of faith, unprovable empirically (unverifiable with our own five senses).
2. What are various names of the Lord’s Supper?
A.. The Lord’s Supper
It is used in 1 Cor. 11:20, and oddly it is used with the word “not.” The Corinthians were abusing the Lord’s Supper, so Paul wrote that is not the Lord’s Supper that they were eating. But this term is used the most often in various churches today, says Williams (vol. 3, p. 241). However, in my experience, communion is the term used most often. Maybe in your church the next terms are used.
B.. Breaking Bread
It comes from Matt. 26:26, which says “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’”
Acts 2:42 says that the disciples devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer (see also v. 46).
Acts 20:7, 11 says that the believers in Troas gathered together on the first day of the week and broke bread.
Renewal theologian J. Rodman Williams cites several scholars who say that breaking bread in those contexts was an agape feast (potluck), and then the disciples celebrated the more focused Lord’s Supper after the feast.
C.. The Christian or Messianic Passover
In 1 Cor. 5:7 Paul says that Christ is our Passover lamb, and he has been sacrificed. Luke clarifies the connection when he says that when the feast of unleavened bread—the Passover—had come, on which the Passover lamb was sacrificed, Jesus sent Peter and John to get things ready for the last meal (Luke 22:7-8).
Thus, Jesus and how he instituted the bread of his body and the cup of his blood are the fulfillment of the Old Testament Passover (Exod. 12:21-27).
Nowadays, however, many teachers on Christian TV claim that Christians—Messianic Jews or Gentiles—should celebrate the Seder meal. But let your conscience be your guide. If you do celebrate the Seder, please do it in a Messianic context. (See the final section of application.)
D.. Holy Communion
Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 10:16 that the cup of blessing is the communion of the blood of Christ, and the bread is the communion of the body of Christ. The word communion can be translated as “participation or “sharing.” (It’s the Greek word koinonia.) But since the old King James Version has “communion,” people have adopted it (and no doubt earlier translations than the KJV have this word too). Over all the churches I have attended or visited and communion is offered, this term is by far the most frequent. I don’t recall Eucharist or Messianic Passover, though once in a while I hear the Lord’s Supper or the Lord’s Table.
E.. The Table of the Lord
Paul warns in 1 Cor. 10:21 that we cannot partake of the Lord’s Table and the table of demons or gods of idols that have received sacrifices. The Lord himself is at his table, and let’s not have syncretism or mixture of holy and unholy. In any case Paul used the term “Lord’s Table” in that one verse.
F.. The Eucharist
Luke 22:17, 19 says that when he took the bread and gave thanks, he broke it. “Gave thanks” comes from the Greek word eucharisteō (pronounced yew-khahr-eest-eh-oh) and it means “I thank (you).” (It is still used in modern Greece for the standard “thanks!”—ef-khah-REE-stoh!) J. Rodman Williams points out that the word Eucharist as such is not found in the New Testament, but the word is used in the early Christian document the Didache (pronounced dee-dah-khay) at Section 9.1 (vol. 3, p. 244).
To sum up, all these terms are perfect synonyms and are interchangeable. If you lead a church, I suggest you settle on one term and stick to it. Using these different terms each week may confuse the average believer. “We’re taking communion this week, but last we had the Eucharist. Are they different? I don’t get it.” In this post, I distribute the terms, just to give a feel for how they are equal.
3.. What does the Lord’s Supper mean for me and the church?
A.. It inaugurates the New Covenant
The most important and deepest meaning of the meal is that by it Jesus himself inaugurated the New Covenant. Luke 22:20 says that Jesus took the cup and said that it was the cup of his new covenant. Then his death on the cross, where he shed his blood, ratified his covenant with all of humanity that receives it by faith. Animal sacrifices in the Old Testament were always inadequate; humans needed a permanent and once-and-for-all-times sacrifice. They have it now in Jesus. Taking holy communion is a reaffirmation and a reminder of the New Covenant.
B.. It is a remembrance or memorial of his sacrificial death
Paul records traditions about the Lord’s Supper he got from the Lord himself (1 Cor. 11:23-26). And when the Corinthians took the bread and cup, it was ordered to do this “in remembrance of me.” So taking the Lord’s Supper was an historical event; “it is an earthly representation of an historical event,” so it was not an elaborate ritual, but it has a stark simplicity to it (Williams, vol. 3, p. 245).
The Eucharist is the remembrance that our sins are forgiven. Matthew’s account of the supper says that all of the disciples should drink, for it is the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Matt. 26:27-28). The cost of our forgiveness is immeasurable—the death of God’s dear Son. The Eucharist is a reaffirmation of God’s gift of salvation. Every communion we take, we affirm God’s seal in our hearts—we have been totally forgiven.
C.. It is a communion between Christ and his church, the church and Christ, and each other.
So the divine exchange between these two sides is full and active during the communion.
First, Jesus said that he was eager to eat the Passover with his disciples (Luke 22:15). He literally says, “with you.” He desired close fellowship with them (and you). After his resurrection, the eyes of the disciples were opened after he took bread and broke it (Luke 24:30-21; John 21:12-13). That’s the communion or spiritual fellowship between Christ and his church.
Second, in the communion between the church and Christ, in John 6:53-54, Jesus said that unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink of his blood, you have no life in you; but those who do, have eternal life. Clearly, this is a spiritual participation, not a literal one. How could it be? Many say this passage does not refer to the Lord’s Table, because he said before entered Jerusalem, but I say it still touches on the Lord’s Supper.
Communion enhances the spiritual communion between Christ and his people—communion that already exists in relationship between him and them.
Third, celebrating the Eucharist also enhances communion and union with each other. In 1 Cor. 10:17 Paul affirms that there is one loaf, and so we who are many are one body, for we all partake of one loaf. The one loaf of his body is unity. So there is a vertical dimension between God and humankind, and a horizontal dimension between person to person. 2 Cor. 6:14-15 says that light and darkness have no “communion” or fellowship (koinōnia), and the inverse is true: light and light have fellowship with each other. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper is a deep way to have communion with each other.
D.. It celebrates expectation of the eternal kingdom.
Jesus himself said he would not partake of the Eucharist until it finds its fulfillment in the kingdom of God, and he would not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes (Luke 22:16, 18). Then he said he would celebrate it anew when he drank the cup with the disciples in his Father’s kingdom (Matt. 26:29). Paul writes that when we take the bread and cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor. 11:26). And Rev. 19:7, 9 depicts the Lord’s Table as the marriage supper of the Lamb, which has come and met the Bride (of Christ). So the Messianic Passover will find its ultimate fulfillment in the coming kingdom, and then all of us together will take it with him.
4.. Who can administer it?
A.. Christ Jesus himself is the chief administrator of the Eucharist. He ordained it, and now he has sent his Spirit into our hearts, and he blesses the physical taking of the bread and wine. He is present during this meaningful ceremony in his name.
B.. In the four Gospels and Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians, it is never spelled out who can administer it. Therefore, let’s open up the door and say that any believer in Jesus who has purified and surrendered his life may administer it (see no. 6).
5.. Where and when may it be taken?
In the key verses in Acts and 1 Corinthians, the agape feast was done regularly. Acts 2:46 says day by day, breaking bread in various houses. Acts 20:7 says it was celebrated on the first day of the week (Sunday) in an upstairs room. 1 Cor. 11:18 says that when “they assemble together,” indicating all the believers in that city. Back then, the church did not have separate buildings, so they met in assembly in an open space or a larger building already available. So in large gatherings or small house meeting, they took the Lord’s Supper.
Paul writes the words of Jesus, who said, “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26, NKJV). In other words, you may take communion every day or once a week or as often as you like.
Some pastors have said that you can take communion by yourself, in your car at work during lunch break or in your home or elsewhere. J. Rodman Williams urges the church that it is not a solitary communion, no privacy allowed. It is a community meal, and every passage in which it is found does suggests this is true (vol. 3, p. 256). However, my own humble opinion is that I leave it to your conscience to be your guide. Please take it in community, if you take it privately.
6.. Who may partake?
A.. The clearest truth is that all participants must be followers and believers in Jesus Christ. They must be born again. This is supported by all of the above Scriptures. Jesus set up his supper for his disciples, and Paul assumed that the Corinthians were believers. Therefore every denomination or believer in any church should be allowed to take it. It is not appropriate (in my humble opinion) for a church to block or exclude other believers. Communion is for every born-again follower of Jesus, regardless of his or her church origins.
B.. But there are certain people who are excluded.
In today’s consumer-driven and number-crunching church of “y’all come!” this is hard to swallow, but Scriptures are clear.
First, unbelievers are not allowed, though they can certainly attend church when it is being offered. Communion must not be a “y’all come!” ceremony. Unbelievers can come to the agape feast (potluck in today’s lingo), but they must stop short at the separate Eucharist. They must have first made a profession of faith. If they are born again at the church service when the Eucharist is taken, then it is up to them if they take it on that very day. They may or may not feel comfortable.
Second, children who have not received Christ as Lord are not eligible, even though they are in a different category from unbelievers, for their parents (or one parent) are probably saved. Family ties is not the qualification, but the profession of faith is. Further, Paul writes, “Let a man examine himself” (1 Cor. 11:28). A child cannot do this properly, until he gets older. He can look forward to taking it as the months and even years move forward. When exactly this happens is up to the parents, and if they are unclear, they can ask their pastor. Many mainstream churches have catechism classes. (But the ones I have attended and attend do not.)
Third, unrepentant believers should not be invited to take communion, unless they repent from their hearts just before communion (and perhaps during it, but let’s not figure out where to draw the line). In 1 Cor. 5:9-11, Paul warns that we should not associate or eat with brothers and sisters who are sexually immoral or greedy or idolaters, slanderers or alcoholics or swindlers (this is a vice list that is not exhaustive, but a sample). Communion is the ultimate meal, and caution must be heeded before they can partake of it. It is holy; let’s not demean it with cheap grace.
But how do we proclaim its sacredness without excluding people who have not yet repented, but are about to or not about to, at that time? Do we call for first-time salvations and rededications, so they can get their hearts right, and then take communion? Do we not say anything about examining oneself, but just let the “chips fall where they may”? If so, then Paul’s words are thrown aside, and we risk putting condemnation on the spiritually unprepared (see no. 7). I suggest that in a large church where the newcomers are not known, salvation and rededication be offered first, and then take communion. In a smaller community gathering, an announcement can be made that this is for believers, and this announcement can be made at a big church too.
To sum up, all believers who come in a spirit of repentance are welcome to take communion. One does not have to do those items in that vice list (1 Cor. 5:11) to need repentance. All believers should repent of their sins before taking the cup and the bread. “Lord, I repent of all my sins. Thank you for your willingness to forgive.” If the Lord quickens specific sins to your memory, repent of them. But don’t allow Satan to prompt all sorts of condemnation for all your sins. That’s out of balance and excessive. Just the one or ones the Lord prompts, without guilt and condemnation.
7.. How do we examine ourselves?
Paul writes these sober words in 1 Cor. 11:27-34:
27 And for this reason, he who would eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily shall incur the guilt of the body and blood of the Lord. 28 But let a man examine himself, and in this manner let him eat of the cup and drink of the cup. 29 For the one eating and drinking judgment on himself eats and drinks without discerning the body. 30 For this reason, many among you are weak and sick, and a fair number have died. 31 If we were discerning ourselves, we would not be judged. 32 We who are being judged are being disciplined by the Lord, so that we are not condemned with the world. 33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for the others. 34 If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you don’t come together resulting in judgment. As for the remaining matters, I will give directions when I come (1 Cor. 11:27-34, my tentative translation).
That is a heavy passage bulging with warning and promise. The Lord’s Supper is serious.
The context is the previous verses (vv. 17-22): divisions among them; self-centeredly eating apart from others at the feast; one person is hungry and another is drunk; humiliating the “have-nots.” The vice list done by brothers and sisters can also provide the bigger context (1 Cor. 5:11). The Corinthians had been treating the agape feast and then the Lord’s Supper as a farce.
In any case, self-examination is the way to come to the Lord’s Table worthily. Self-examination can be done just before taking the meal, for it prepares the heart. Self-examination leads to clearer discernment. That is a key word in that passage. If we examine ourselves, then we will not fall under judgment. That’s the good news.
Please note that the key word is an adverb “unworthily.” This speaks of behavior, not one’s soul. But the difference is not sharp. Behavior influences the soul and heart, and the heart produces bad behavior. The good news is that the heart and soul and behavior can change in Christ. Repentance is the key.
Another matter: Is the reverse true? Can we have health and strength and not die when we eat worthily? That depends on whether one believes that healing is in the atonement, the cross. My own take on this issue is that everything flows from the atonement, salvation and healing included. But just as some people pray to receive Christ, but nothing happens or things get short-circuited (Matt. 13:1-23), so people can pray for healing and nothing happen. Salvation and healing flow out of the atonement, but there are no guarantees because there are too many factors that we cannot figure out. So can the reverse be true? Maybe, but no guarantees.
8.. What words do we speak before offering the Lord’s Supper?
I suggest that you read a passage from one of the synoptic Gospels: Matthew 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:14-20; or from 1 Cor. 11:23-26. Then pray out loud in public before distribution is done. Those words from any of those passages can guide your prayer. Be thankful. It is called the Eucharist, after all.
9.. How is the bread and cup be distributed?
This varies in so many ways in so many churches that it would be presumptuous to be rigid. Williams suggests taking the bread from one loaf, which symbolizes the one body of the Lord (vol. 3, p. 261). Then it is broken into pieces, which symbolizes his body being broken open. Good idea. But nowadays churches rush the Lord’s Supper, so a large church may not find that feasible, for it would take too long. Or the large church can tell the people that the loaf had been prayed over and broken before the church service. That seems like a good compromise.
Finally, Williams suggests that the elements be placed on a table, whether they are distributed by ushers afterwards or people come up to take them (ibid. 262). Jesus himself reclined at table, but when he explained the elements’ significance and distributed them, surely he sat up. A table in a modern church reminds the church of that scene, two thousand years ago.
Both bread and the wine (or grape juice) should be taken, not one or the other. I never heard of a church offering only one, but if it happens, it is not completely following the Lord’s Supper he set out in the New Covenant Scriptures. A needless omission.
And finally in disposing of the elements, they are not sacred in themselves, so they can be disposed of as each church deems suitable (ibid). But if a church regards the elements as sacred, then I assume they have already worked out how to dispose of them.
10.. What about a hymn after the meal?
In those passages in Matthew and Mark, Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn. Tradition says that Pss. 113-118 were sung. That is a huge section, particularly Ps. 118, so it is up to the church to edit and exclude and include words or songs. Instrumental music during the meal and a set of songs to be sung afterwards would be great. The Lord’s Supper is a sacred and sober recollection of the sacrifice of the Lord. Once the elements are eaten and drunk, celebrate his resurrection. Those psalms have vocal praises in them. “Praise the Lord!”
How does this post help me grow in Christ?
You must take communion regularly. It must be done meaningfully. Pray to repent of your sins. Recall that the bread and wine is taken for the forgiveness of sins. Before you take it, recall that it is done in memory of the sacrifice of Christ. A little reflection about this would match its purpose. Then after you take it, celebrate it.
Now a word about the Seder meal. It was reenacted after the Last Supper two thousand years ago. As noted under point no. 2.C, I took the Seder from a Messianic point of view, and the host explained each element (e.g. the salt water dripping from the celery sticks represents tears coming from oppression). Personally, I did not find it all that meaningful. My preference in celebrating the Passover is to follow Jesus and how he instituted it, as his last supper before he died for the sins of the world—by breaking and sharing the bread of his body and drinking of the cup of his blood. I celebrate his sacrifice every time I take the Lord’s Supper, all throughout the year. This is much more meaningful to me than just once a year.
Those three Gospel writers are eager to streamline the Lord’s Supper, not add a long list of procedures, however interesting they may be (and they were not all that interesting to me). And that’s the direction the entire New Covenant Scriptures move—streamline the Old Covenant Scriptures and in many instances throw them out (e.g. penalties and rituals).
But you let your conscience be your guide. If you want to take the Seder meal, then so be it. Just go to church and take it as Jesus clearly instituted it. Just take it in a Messianic context. Without it, you eat an incomplete meal, like a painting on only half the canvass, while the other half is blank.
Written by James Malcolm
At that link, look for Williams, vol. 3, pp. 241-63.