Section 8: The Church
Week 4: Life in the Church
Day 2: The Lord’s Supper
Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper during his last supper with his disciples. At that time:
Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom (Matt. 26:26-29).
What Happens During the Lord’s Supper?
Luke and Paul both add that Jesus instructed his followers to continue to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in memory of him (Luke 26:14-20, 1 Cor. 11:23). So we do. The Catholic Church, however, believes something more than a memorial is going on. Catholics believe that, when a priest consecrates the bread and the wine, they actually become the body and blood of Christ. In other words, the bread doesn’t just symbolize Jesus’ body. It becomes Jesus’ body. The same goes for the wine. It becomes Jesus’ blood.
The Lutheran view is similar in that it affirms that Christ is physically present in the bread and the wine. It differs, however, in one significant regard. The Catholic view (called transubstantiation) says the bread and the wine become Christ’s body and blood. The Lutheran view (called consubstantiation) insists the bread and wine remain bread and wine. Nevertheless, Jesus is physically present within the bread and the wine.
The Bible, however, nowhere suggests anything like this happens during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. In fact, it suggests quite the opposite. Jesus regularly used symbolic imagery to describe himself. Jesus for example said:
I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved (John 10:7-9).
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)
Even though Jesus said he is the true vine, we don’t think of him literally as a vine. Nor do we think of him literally as a gate. In a similar way, we aren’t meant to think of the bread and the cup as his literal body and blood. He was using symbolic language to describe the significance of what he was about do for us. The bread represented his body that was going to be broken for us and the cup represented his blood that would be shed in order to bring about the new covenant.[i]
What is the Meaning of the Lord’s Supper?
If the bread and the cup aren’t really Jesus’ body and blood, what’s the big deal? Why do we bother with it today? The Lord’s Supper is rich meaning, and Jesus wanted us to regularly keep the truths it teaches regularly in mind.
A symbol of fellowship with God
We were created to experience perfect intimacy and fellowship with God. That fellowship was destroyed by sin, however. In the Old Testament, God would occasionally allow his people to eat a meal in his presence to give them a taste, as it were, of the kind of fellowship they were meant to have. (Ex. 24:9-11, Duet. 14:23-26).
In a similar way, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, God wants us to realize he is present in our midst and that we have the privilege of experiencing a renewed fellowship with him. What’s more, we are reminded of the even greater intimacy that awaits us when Jesus returns and we are able to eat and drink with him again in the Father’s Kingdom (Matt. 26:29, Rev. 19:9).[ii]
A symbol of our participation in Christ’s sacrifice
The Lord’s Supper symbolizes more than just our restored relationship with God though. It’s also a powerful reminder of how that renewed relationship came about and what it cost. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we vividly recall Christ’s death. The bread and the cup represent his body and blood. Together they represent his sacrifice on the cross. The act of eating the bread and drinking from the cup further symbolizes the fact that Jesus’ sacrifice was for our benefit. By eating and drinking, we show that we are united with Christ. We, therefore, died along with him and participate in the benefits of his sacrifice.[iii]
A symbol of unity
The Lord’s Supper is also a reminder of the unity all believers share. We were all saved by Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. According to Paul that’s why, we who are many, partake in the one bread. The Lord’s Supper symbolizes the fact that, as believers, we are united by our shared faith in Christ.
When you celebrate the Lord’s Supper do you think of it as a time of fellowship with God? Do you call to mind the sacrifice Christ made for you? Do you reflect on the fact that you share in the benefits of that sacrifice? Are you aware of your connection to other believers?
The next time you celebrate the Lord’s Supper, make sure you don’t just go through the motions. Focus on the meaning behind it.
[i] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Doctrine, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House (1994), 993 and Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, Second Edition, Grand Rapids: Baker Books (1998), 1130.
[ii] Grudem, 989.
[iii] Ibid., 990.