The Lord's Supper A Sacred Observance
Commemorations are an important part of our lives. We all have dates on our personal calendars when we celebrate milestone events—birthdays, anniversaries, and the like. As citizens of the United States, we also observe national days of remembrance such as Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day.
For the followers of Christ, however, there is an even more significant commemoration: the Lord’s Supper. This is a time when those who have been born again look back and reflect on our Lord’s death at Calvary. While that day was one of unimaginable pain for Christ, it was without doubt the most important event in all of world history. For centuries, the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament had looked ahead to that day. In our era, as believers and recipients of salvation, we look back to it.
According to Scripture, Jesus Christ himself instituted the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper on the night before His crucifixion. Luke 22:19-20 records that at the conclusion of His last Passover meal with His disciples, Jesus “took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave it unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me [italics added]. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.”
When we partake of the emblems that Christ established as symbols, our actions are far more than a mere ritual. We are signifying our allegiance to Him through obedience to His command.
The observance of this ordinance is one of the most meaningful expressions of commitment and adherence to the doctrines of Christianity, because the death and resurrection of Christ are the foundation of our faith. When Jesus died on the Cross, His body was broken and His blood poured out as the price for our redemption. When we partake of the emblems that Christ established as symbols, our actions are far more than a mere ritual. We are signifying our allegiance to Him through obedience to His command.
Personal reflection on the death of Jesus Christ is a natural part of our Christian lives. All born again Christians have a heart connection to Calvary, so of course we consider Christ’s sacrifice as we commune with Him in our private devotions. However, Christ himself instructed His followers to observe a corporate commemoration of His sacrificial death as well.
For more than twenty centuries, this observance has been carried out by the Christian Church. Generations have come and gone; religious and philosophical trends of thought have emerged and disappeared; empires have formed, flourished, and dissolved—and through all that time, Christ’s followers have commemorated the fact that God’s Son came to earth and died for the sins of mankind.
In contemporary religious circles, a variety of names are used to refer to this observance, depending on specific church traditions. Each name brings out a different aspect or perspective regarding it. Many churches refer to it as Holy Communion, alluding to the fact that in partaking of it, we commune with Christ and other believers. Some call it the Eucharist, a word that means “thanksgiving,” and certainly thanksgiving is an important part of how we look back to Calvary. Here in the Apostolic Faith, we call it the Lord’s Supper, pointing to the fact that it occurred during the final meal Jesus ate with His disciples. Today, in Apostolic Faith churches around the world, we follow the example of Christ’s actions at His Last Supper with His disciples. As a worldwide community of believers, we gather on regular occasions to look back and reflect together on Christ’s death.
An ordinance instituted by Christ
We often refer to this observance as an “ordinance service.” The dictionary gives two definitions for the word ordinance. The first is, “A piece of legislation enacted by a municipal authority.” The second definition is, “an authoritative order or decree,” as in, “The president issued an ordinance.” In today’s vernacular, we might call it an “executive order.” Some synonyms for this usage are edict, law, ruling, or mandate. If the edict of an earthly ruler is important, how much more important is a decree from the Ultimate Authority who made Heaven and earth?
During His time on earth, Jesus instituted three ordinances: the Lord’s Supper, the washing of the disciples’ feet (which we observe during the same service in the Apostolic Faith), and water baptism.
As law-abiding citizens of our country, we show respect for legal ordinances by obeying them. We fasten our seatbelts, pay our taxes, get permits when we build a new home, and follow traffic laws when we drive. Similarly, the main way we show respect for the ordinances of Jesus Christ is by obedience to His instruction.
The connection to Passover
The name “Passover” is derived from the Hebrew word pesach which is based on the root word meaning “pass over.” It refers to the fact that God passed over the homes of the Israelites during the last of the ten plagues, just before their deliverance from Egypt.
Exodus 12 describes what took place on that fateful night. On the day before the final plague was to occur, the Israelites were instructed to sacrifice a perfect lamb and place its blood upon the doorposts and lintel of their houses. Each family was to gather inside the home and eat the lamb, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. That night those who were in a dwelling marked by blood were spared—“passed over”—when the Lord went through the land and slew all the firstborn of Egypt. Thus, in a very real way, the blood of the lamb saved the Israelites from death. God instituted the ordinance of the Passover to commemorate Israel’s deliverance, and instructed that it was “to be observed of all the children of Israel in their generations” (Exodus 12:42).
Israel’s commemoration of the Passover each year was a type or foreshadowing of the time when the Lamb of God, the Perfect Sacrifice, would be offered for the deliverance of all mankind. The Lord’s Supper looks back and commemorates that same event.
In the New Testament era, the Apostles Paul and Peter alluded to the connection between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper. In 1 Corinthians 5:7, Paul wrote to the Early Church, “For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.” In 1 Peter 1:19, Peter spoke of “the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.”
Jesus’ final Passover
The night before Jesus’ crucifixion, knowing that He was soon to die, the Lord expressed His desire to celebrate a final Passover meal with His disciples. This was a solemn occasion, and one filled with great significance. Jesus knew it would be His last opportunity before His death to commune intimately with those who eventually would carry the Gospel to the world. Everything that happened that evening was divinely orchestrated, and for that reason, it is important for us to study this occasion carefully.
Three of the Gospels describe Jesus’ final Passover and the ordinances He instituted at its conclusion. Matthew’s account is one of them. It begins with these words: “Now the first day of the feast of unleavened bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying unto him, Where wilt thou that we prepare for thee to eat the passover?” (Matthew 26:17). According to Mosaic Law, only the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread—the day when the lamb was slain in each household—was called the “Passover.” However, in the time of Jesus, the whole week was known as “Passover.”
In verses 26-29 of chapter 26, we read how Jesus instituted the commemorative observance. “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.”
The symbolic emblems
While the Lord used tangible objects to teach His disciples about the observance He was establishing, there was nothing mystical or supernatural about the bread and the fruit of the vine—they were merely symbols. The breaking or parting into pieces of the bread symbolized the breaking of Jesus’ body. The pouring out of the juice represented His shed Blood—in fact, the Greek word translated shed literally means “poured out.” Together, the bread and fruit of the vine symbolize the sacrifice of Christ’s life that paid the price for our redemption.
We might wonder why Jesus used symbols when He instituted this ordinance. Scripture does not give a definitive answer, but we can be certain that it was for our benefit and understanding. It is possible that the disciples would have forgotten mere words in the stress of events that would soon occur. Perhaps the emotional strain of seeing their Master crucified would have submerged the memory of those final hours. The cup and the bread gave the disciples—and us—tangible images to serve as a reminder.
The “fruit of the vine” (Matthew 26:29) must be juice that is “of the vine” rather than from some other fruit. Remember that Jesus identified Himself in John chapter 15 as the “true vine.” In the Apostolic Faith, we use unfermented grape juice, rather than a product that has been allowed to change its character from the fresh product of the vine.
The bread is to be “unleavened bread.” Leaven is a type of yeast that is added to dough to make it ferment and rise. In Scripture, leaven often symbolizes sin. Jesus offered Himself as a sinless Sacrifice for us, so to accurately portray His sinless nature, the bread was to be unleavened.
The bread and the fruit of the vine have no inherent spiritual value in themselves, nor do they impart grace to those who receive them. They simply represent what has been provided for us through Christ’s sacrifice.
The physical action of eating and drinking reminds us that we spiritually take in and depend upon Jesus and the saving benefits of His death and resurrection.
The physical action of eating and drinking reminds us that we spiritually take in and depend upon Jesus and the saving benefits of His death and resurrection. Just as food and drink are essential in sustaining our physical existence, so the blessings and benefits that come to us through the body and Blood of Christ are critical to our spiritual health and wellbeing.
Eating of the bread and drinking of the cup symbolizes our union with Christ. We do not merely look on the emblems and think about Christ, but we actually receive and partake of them. By doing so, we demonstrate outwardly that we have appropriated the benefits of His sacrificial death inwardly (see John 6:53).
It is important to understand that partaking of the emblems is not a means of obtaining forgiveness for sins. Those who participate must be born-again believers, because along with commemorating Christ’s death, we are reflecting on the time when God’s mercy personally drew us to Himself and imparted Christ’s righteousness to us.
Instructions for partaking
In obedience to Jesus’ admonition, “This do in remembrance of me,” the Early Church frequently met together to observe the Lord’s Supper, in some cases as often as every day, according to Acts 2:42-46. With Jesus’ physical presence gone from their midst, no doubt gathering together to remember Him was a great comfort.
The Apostle Paul was not present when Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper. However, according to Galatians 1:12, God himself revealed to Paul what took place on that night, and in 1 Corinthians chapter 11, Paul gave instruction regarding how this sacred event was to be observed. Since the epistle of 1 Corinthians predates the Gospels, this is the earliest written account of the Lord’s Supper.
From Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 we learn the following.
The Lord’s Supper should be observed reverently. Since this observance is a memorial of our Lord’s sacrifice, it should take place in a solemn and reverential manner. In Corinth, the church members were holding a fellowship meal prior to the Lord’s Supper. Unfortunately, the occasion had become little more than a time to eat and socialize. There was a lack of sharing and caring: in fact, while some ate and drank excessively, others went hungry. That behavior did not demonstrate the unity and love believers should exemplify toward each other, nor was it a proper preparation for the sacredness of the distribution of the emblems. Paul condemned these actions and reminded the Corinthians of the real purpose of the Lord’s Supper.
The Lord’s Supper fulfills the old covenant. In verse 25, Paul quoted Jesus’ words as He offered His followers the cup, “This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.” The word testament could also be translated covenant. Under the old covenant (the Law given to Moses), people could approach God only through the priests and sacrificial system. Jesus’ death brought about a new covenant or agreement between God and man. Now, all people can approach God and communicate with Him directly. The new covenant—validated and put into effect through the shedding of Christ’s Blood—completed all the types and shadows of the old covenant, fulfilling everything the old covenant looked forward to.
The Lord’s Supper is a testimony to others. When we take part in the Lord's Supper, it is proclaiming to others what Christ has done for us. The Apostle Paul pointed this out by saying, “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come” (verse 26). The word shew means “to declare or speak of,” so observing the Lord’s Supper is another way of giving our testimonies.
The Lord’s Supper should not be taken unworthily. In verse 27, Paul gave a solemn warning. “Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” The word translated unworthily actually means “in an unworthy manner,” and the thought conveyed is “frivolously” or “irreverently.” In the original Greek, the word related to the balancing of weights. The implication is that if a person participated in the observance of the Lord’s Supper with sin in his heart or in a casual and irreverent way, he was not honoring (or balancing) the importance and sacredness of this memorial with an appropriate heart condition, attitude, and behavior.
While participating unworthily is a very serious matter, this verse may have caused some to hesitate in coming to an ordinance service, thinking that worthy means “deserving.” That is one definition of the word; we could say, “That soldier is worthy of the honor bestowed on him,” meaning, “he is deserving.” However, if worthy means “deserving” in this verse, no one should participate in the Lord’s Supper. How could anyone deserve the shed Blood of Jesus Christ? We are worthy because God made us worthy when He saved us! We recognized our need, looked to Jesus for forgiveness, and experienced salvation.
If we have been saved but continue to feel “unworthy” to participate in the Lord’s Supper, we must ask ourselves: Am I doubting the power in the Blood of Jesus to make me fit to participate? God’s Word teaches that the Blood of Jesus avails for the deepest sin. We read in Isaiah 1:18, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” We must remind ourselves that to partake worthily of the Lord’s Supper is to receive the emblems in faith, while remembering and honoring Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation.
The Lord’s Supper requires personal evaluation. Paul told the Corinthian believers that before participating, each individual should “examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup” (verse 28). The word examine means “to test.” Paul was not saying they were to attempt to determine whether or not they were saved. Rather, they were to evaluate their motives and actions, making sure that they were participating with reverence and full commitment to the Lord, and with appreciation for the price paid for their salvation.
Notice that Paul did not say they were to examine themselves and leave in despair, or stay away all together. His instruction was positive! He was simply encouraging these new followers of Christ to search their hearts and then in honest faith and with due solemnity, to “eat of that bread and drink of that cup.”
The Lord’s Supper is to include discerning of the Lord’s body. The word discern in verse 29 means “to understand, perceive, or recognize.” This indicates that as we partake of the emblems, we are to ponder the sacrifice Jesus made for us with all of our spiritual understanding and mental capabilities. We are to strive to comprehend the full meaning of the offering made for us on Calvary.
The Apostle let it be known that because of misuse of the Lord’s Supper, “many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep” (verse 30). Paul was warning that God’s judgment could come, bringing physical affliction and even death, to those who observed this religious ceremony improperly.
The importance of participation
The Lord’s Supper is a sacred and beautiful time. Just as every faithful Israelite kept the Passover, so every Christian in our day should participate in the Lord’s Supper. If an Israelite neglected the Passover, he was cut off from the congregation (see Numbers 9:13). In view of this solemn fact, honoring Christ through personal participation is clearly a matter of great importance.
The Lord’s Supper is far more than a ritual. We have learned from experience that God blesses those who follow the commands of Jesus! Ordinance services are precious occasions that bind our hearts together and draw us closer to our Lord himself.
In closing, consider again Jesus’ words: “This do in remembrance of me.” Jesus longs to be remembered! He showers us with love and blessings in so many ways, and one way we can show our love for Him until He comes is to perpetuate His memory by participating in the Lord’s Supper.
Let us never miss an opportunity to do so.