An Overview of the Lord’s Supper

Introduction

On the eve of His crucifixion, just prior to leaving the upper room for His solitary vigil in Gethsemane, the Lord Jesus issued a commandment to His disciples to do something for each other. In addition, He earnestly requested them to do something for Him. Nearly six weeks later, on the day of His ascension, Jesus commissioned those same Galilean men to do something for people everywhere.

The commandment was that they love one another; the commission was that they expressed God’s love to the world through the preaching of the gospel, and the request was that they demonstrated their love for Him in the Breaking of Bread. This commandment is permanent, the commission continues until the end of the age, and the request was for a specific season, having a definite cessation point.

The season

It was never the Lord’s intention that the Breaking of Bread be continued indefinitely; it was designed to cover the interval between the descents of two divine persons, the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the descent of the Lord to the air to ‘receive from the world His own’. Put another way, it covers the period of the physical absence of our Saviour. This was not conveyed to the disciples in the upper room, but was revealed by the ascended Lord directly to the apostle Paul several years later, ‘For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you … for as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come’, 1 Cor. 11. 23-26.

When the Lord was with the disciples they needed nothing symbolic to remind them of Him; neither will we when He returns, for we shall see Him and be with Him. However, at present He is out of sight, and, therefore, in order that we may continually appreciate Him and what He has done, He requested that we should perpetuate the Breaking of Bread. Whilst it has often been remarked that the Lord Jesus said ‘this do in remembrance of me’, i.e., He made no reference to our forgetting, most of us recognize the variability of our affections, and acknowledge we have the potential to forget Him, just like the chief butler did to Joseph.

The setting

Each of the synoptic gospel writers supply ample evidence to show that the inauguration of the Lord’s Supper took place on the night Judas Iscariot kissed Jesus, and identified Him to the mob that had come to arrest Him. However, it is in Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians where the setting is dramatically and explicitly stated, ‘The Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread’, 1 Cor. 11. 23. While Judas was outside, plotting with those who hated Him, the Lord was inside expressing His love for us. While Judas was outside plotting to see what he could get, the Lord was inside talking about what He would give – His body and His blood.

John Morrison captures this point in his hymn,

‘Twas on that night,

when doomed to know,

The eager rage of every foe,

That night in which he was betrayed,

The Saviour of the world took bread’.

Perhaps this point is emphasized in the First Epistle to the Corinthians to expose the appalling behaviour displayed by many of them as they came together (supposedly) to eat the Lord’s Supper. Against the backdrop of the solemnity of its institution, many of the Corinthians were participating in the remembrance of the Lord in a careless and self-centred manner.

The symbols

Each account we have of the inauguration of the Lord’s Supper states clearly that the symbols to be used are bread and a cup, the cup being used by way of metonymy for its contents which, as Matthew and Mark indicate, was the fruit of the vine. Horatius Bonar captures these requirements very succinctly in the words, ‘Only bread and only wine, yet to faith the solemn sign’. Whilst wine in Bible times was red, Prov. 23. 31, and the bread used in the upper room was unleavened, nowhere in the New Testament are we given any instructions as to the kind of bread or the kind of wine we should use.

As we think of these two symbols, we need to avoid reading into them more than the Lord intended. We know that bread is the product of wheat being ground in the mill to produce flour, and the flour is then placed in the oven to endure the heat of the flame. We also know that wine is the product of grapes being plucked and crushed so that their juices flow to be matured into wine, but these processes are essential for bread and wine to be made. At the Lord’s Supper the bread and cup do not symbolize how the Lord was made flesh and blood – the focus is not on his coming in but on His going out, His ‘departure’, Luke 9. 31 JND. Furthermore, neither the bread nor the wine has any intrinsic relevance. The Lord selected two very ordinary and inexpensive commodities that were readily available, and conferred upon them a symbolic relevance that far transcends their actual worth. The true cost of the bread and the cup does not relate to their monetary value but to what they represent

So we have the two symbols, bread and wine, and on that point I recall something that Jack Hunter taught many years ago. He said that the first time we read of ‘bread’ in the Bible it is associated with a curse. In Genesis chapter 3 God said to Adam, ‘In the sweat of your face shall you eat bread’, v. 19 NKJV. The first time we read of ‘wine’ in the Bible it is also associated with a curse. The sad incident is recorded for us in Genesis chapter 9, where we learn that Noah planted a vineyard and drank of its wine. The consequence of his drunkenness was an appalling sin resulting in Canaan being cursed.

However, the first time we read of ‘bread and wine’ together in the Bible is in Genesis chapter 14, and it is not associated with a curse but with blessing. Abram had just returned from battle, having slaughtered the kings, and Melchizedek went to meet him bringing bread and wine. His first words to Abram were, ‘Blessed be Abram of the most high God’. As we meet Sunday by Sunday, how thankful we should be that we are not under a curse but are those who have been blessed by God.

The significance of the bread

Matthew and Mark inform us that when the Lord Jesus took the bread and had blessed it He said, ‘This is my body’; Luke adds ‘which is given for you’. In 1 Corinthians chapter 11, Paul states ‘which is broken for you’. Although there is some debate as to whether the word ‘broken’ should be included in the text, we know that no bone of the Saviour was broken. What Jesus was teaching the disciples was that the bread was a symbol of His body, His body sacrificially, voluntarily, and vicariously yielded up in death. The focus isn’t on the fact that He lived in a body and went about doing good but that the body in which He lived was given sacrificially for us on the cross. You and I have a body in order that we might be capable of living, for without a body we would not have existed. Jesus took a body that He might be capable of dying. How amazing – He, the source of all life, was going to die.

It is significant to note that in Matthew and Mark’s accounts the Lord Jesus ‘blessed’ the bread but in Luke and First Corinthians the Lord Jesus gave thanks for it. J. Heading in his commentary on Matthew teaches that, in blessing, the Lord’s thoughts were directed to the bread, in giving thanks His thoughts were directed to God. Thankfully, the actual words the Saviour used are not recorded in the Bible; had they been set down there would be the distinct possibility of quoting them week by week in a mechanical fashion rather than with real heartfelt appreciation.

How amazing to think that the Lord Jesus gave thanks for something that was going to symbolize His body willingly offered in death! Truly, we should take the bread with thankfulness, for He took our place and bore our sins in His own body on the tree; therefore, our hearts should overflow with gratitude. Through that which the bread symbolizes we have been wonderfully blessed, but for Him the bread symbolized suffering and death.

The significance of the cup

The four writers referred to above all record that the cup symbolizes the blood of the Lord Jesus, but they also provide additional information. Matthew states, ‘This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins’, 26. 28. Not only are persons in view but also sins, so Matthew emphasizes the trespass offering aspect of the Lord’s death. Mark’s account reads, ‘This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many’, 14. 24. No reference is made in Mark to sins; rather his focus is on people in general, ‘for many’, so he presents to us the sin offering aspect of the Lord’s death. Luke’s record is similar to Mark, except that the blood is shed for specific people, hence the Saviour says ‘for you’.

Another point to observe is that in Matthew and Mark’s account of the Lord’s Supper the blood is mentioned before there is any reference to the new testament, e.g., Matthew says, ‘This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins’, 26. 28. Luke in his Gospel, and Paul in Corinthians, mention the ‘new testament’ first, then the blood – ‘This cup is the new testament in my blood’, Luke 22. 20. Maybe the reason for this change is that Matthew and Mark emphasize the basis for all that we shall enjoy – hence the blood is mentioned first. In Luke and 1 Corinthians chapter 11 the emphasis focuses on the blessings that are ours, hence the New Testament (or covenant) is mentioned first.

Conclusion

To engage in the Lord’s Supper is an inestimable privilege but it carries a solemn responsibility. The latter section of 1 Corinthians chapter 11 shows the seriousness of participating in a careless manner and thus it behoves us all to examine ourselves and having done so to then remember the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

‘For the bread and for the wine,

For the pledge that seals Him

mine

For the words of love divine

We give thee thanks, O Lord’.

[Horatius Bonar]

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