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Definition

One of the Church’s two ordinances or sacraments, the Lord’s Supper, was instituted by Jesus to commemorate his death, to symbolize the New Covenant, to point to the fellowship of a redeemed people gathered at his table, and to anticipate the messianic banquet yet to come.

Summary

The Lord’s Supper traces its symbolic roots to the Passover meal at the time of the Exodus. It was instituted by Jesus at the time of his final meal with his disciples. The bread and the cup point to his broken body and shed blood and are the definitive symbols of the New Covenant in Christ. Debate concerning the significance of the Supper (particularly the way in which Christ is present at the Supper) was a central point of division at the time of the Reformation, both between Protestants and Roman Catholics, and among Protestants. Protestants reject the idea of transubstantiation but maintain divergent understandings of the precise significance of the Supper. Nonetheless, all would agree that the bread and the cup speak eloquently as symbols of Christ’s redemptive work at Calvary, of the fellowship of the people of God in Christ, and of the coming day when a redeemed people will gather in the presence of the Savior at his eschatological banquet.

The Roots of the Supper

The very existence of the people of God in the Old Testament was grounded in the work of deliverance that God brought about at the Exodus. He visited judgment on the land of Egypt for their mistreatment of Israel, but as he did so, he provided a means of salvation for his people. A lamb would be slaughtered, and the blood of the lamb would be put on the doorframes of the houses of God’s people. When the angel of death passed over, the homes where the lamb’s blood was visible would be spared the plague of the death of the firstborn son. In a very tangible sense, the lamb died instead of the firstborn son of the household. The people of Israel would eat the supper of lamb with bitter herbs and unleavened bread as they prepared to flee. The Passover meal (Exod. 12) was to be a continual reminder of the great salvation that God brought to his covenant people through a great act of judgment.

The Institution of the Supper

The final meal that Jesus had with his disciples immediately before his betrayal and arrest was the traditional Passover meal, but Jesus infused the meal with a new significance tied to his impending death.1

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Matt. 26:26-28).

Jesus symbolically associated the bread and the cup with his body which would soon be broken and his blood which would soon be shed. The blood is now the “blood of the covenant” – the new covenant that Jesus would institute through his death and resurrection. As the Passover meal served as a foundational meal of the old covenant, taking place on the brink of the foundational saving act of the covenant (the Exodus from Egypt), so the Lord’s Supper was the foundational meal of the new covenant, taking place on the brink of the saving work that Jesus would achieve on the cross.2 As the Passover meal served as a reminder of the redemption that the Lord achieved for his people in bringing them out of bondage in Egypt, the Lord’s Supper becomes a powerful reminder of the redemption that the Lord Jesus achieved for his people in releasing us from slavery to sin. This meal is, then, the foundational and enduring symbol of the new covenant in Christ.3

As Paul records the instructions of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 11 (arguably the earliest record we have of the institution of the Supper), Jesus speaks of his disciples obeying his instructions “as often as” (1Cor. 11:25-26) we take the meal, indicating that this should be an ongoing practice. It is no surprise, then, that from the establishment of the church at Pentecost, the believers “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

The Significance of the Supper

Jesus’ words of institution make it clear that the meal serves as a symbol of the new covenant and as a remembrance his death (1Cor. 11:24-25). However, the nature of Jesus’ presence at the Supper is disputed.

When Jesus says that the bread “is my body” and the cup “is my blood of the covenant” (Matt. 26:27-28), what exactly does he mean? In speaking of the spiritual danger of participating in idolatrous feasts, Paul draws a parallel to the spiritual significance of participating in the Lord’s Supper: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1Cor. 10:16). In what sense is this a “participation” in the body and blood of Christ?

Essentially four different types of answer to these questions have been proposed, leading to four different views of the nature of the Supper and Jesus’ presence there.

  1. This view is held by Roman Catholics and some others, who believe that in the Mass the elements become the body and blood of Christ so that there is, in some sense, a recapitulation of the offering of Christ. In the Reformation, the Roman Catholic doctrine was rejected, essentially on three key grounds: 1) Jesus is physically now present in heaven, and to suggest that his physical body can be present in multiple locations at once effectively undermines his true humanity; 2) The worshipful adoration of the elements (seen as the body and blood of Christ) which took place in the Mass was idolatrous; 3) The idea of a recapitulation of the sacrifice of Jesus undermines the finality and sufficiency of his work at the cross (cf. Heb. 9:24-26).
  2. This was view held by Martin Luther (although he would not use the label) and still generally held by Lutherans today. Luther wished to correct the errors of the Roman Catholic view while still taking seriously both Jesus’ identification of his body and blood with the elements and the idea that he was truly present at the Supper. Luther’s solution was to say that, although the bread and wine did not literally “become” the body and blood of Christ, Jesus is nonetheless spiritually present in, under and through the elements (hence the use of the Latin prefix con, meaning “with”). Thus there is a real sense in which Jesus is present at the Supper, even if there is no change in the substance of the elements themselves.
  3. This view is particularly associated with Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli and is held in some form by many Baptists. Zwingli insisted that Jesus’ statement that the bread “is” his body and the wine “is” his blood should be taken figuratively and not literally. After all, Jesus does use the verb “to be” in clearly symbolic ways in the gospels. Not only does he say “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35), but also “I am the door” (John 10:7), and “I am the vine” (John 15:5). The sacrifice of Jesus at the cross is complete, once-for-all, and so the Supper is a pictorial reminder, a memorial. Although Christ is always present with his people, he is not specially present at the Supper.
  4. The Reformed view. This position stems from John Calvin and is the predominant Reformed position, although there is a spectrum of understanding among those who identify as theologically Reformed.4 Calvin rejected both the idea of a physical change to the bread and wine and the idea of a bare memorial. At the Supper, Christ is present spiritually in a special way but is not present physically. There is a true spiritual communion that takes place between the Lord and his church as it is celebrated. The word “is” retains a symbolic (and not literal) meaning, but at the same time there is a true “sharing” in Christ that takes place.

The Practice of the Supper

Once the broader question of the theological significance of the Supper is settled, a number of questions remain concerning the practice and administration of the ordinance.

Frequency

Many evangelicals have reacted against the Roman Catholic practice of the weekly Mass and have reduced the frequency of their observance. Others maintain that, since Jesus seemed to anticipate that this would be a regular practice (“as often as you…”), and since we may expect that the Supper was intended to do us spiritual good, there is a strong case for maintaining the weekly practice. Many evangelicals (perhaps a majority) have settled on a mediating position of a monthly observance. There seems to be little ground for a hard-and-fast rule on this, but those who would greatly reduce the frequency of the Supper need to ask what is the motivation for doing so. Is this consistent with the Lord’s expectation that his death would be remembered regularly? What is the spiritual impact on the body of believers of gathering around the Lord’s Table only infrequently? For those who observe a weekly remembrance, it will be important to ensure that frequency of participation does not drift into ritualism or diminish the significance of the Supper for those who partake of it.

Administration

For Protestants, it has been important to signal distance from the Roman Catholic understanding that a “priest” must preside at the Supper, both to achieve transubstantiation and to be an administrator of what is seen to be a sacrificial offering. Some are comfortable with members of the laity administering the Supper. Others will still hold to the principle that recognized or ordained leaders (pastors, elders) should lead the service, generally for two key reasons: 1) to ensure that things are done decently and in order in corporate worship (cf. 1Cor. 14:40), with the Supper being carefully and reverently administered; 2) since the Supper is a reminder of the death of Jesus and in that sense a picture of the gospel, it must not be separated from the preaching of the Word (a point upon which Calvin insisted). It therefore might seem appropriate that one who is a recognized as a teacher of the Word within the church should administer the Supper and set it in its rightful context of biblical instruction.

Fencing of the Table

In 1 Corinthians 11:27-30 Paul issues a sobering warning against partaking in the Supper in an unworthy manner:

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.

Evidently the particular situation in Corinth was that, at the communal meal, the better off were coming with food for themselves, feasting and even becoming drunk, while the poor had nothing to eat. Arguably, then, the failure to “discern the body” is a failure to recognize and honor the people of Christ, his “body.” But the application of the principle arguably extends more widely: it is possible to come to the Table without repenting of sin (especially those sins impacting relationships within the church), and so to participate “unworthily.”

In light of this, it is important for the service leader to prompt and encourage careful self-examination for the believer, while also making it clear to any unbelievers present that the Supper is not for them. Added to this, church leaders need to exercise church discipline and so keep from the Table those who are living unrepentantly. Sometimes the exercise of this responsibility has been referred to as “fencing the table,” that is, putting in place around the table appropriate barriers of warning and discipline to guard against participation by those who are not living in faith, repentance, and charitable harmony with the people of God. Wise administration of the Supper will show sensitivity in this toward believers with tender consciences who might hesitate to come, but for whose sake the Lord instituted the Supper. John Calvin describes “worthy” participation in these terms: “This is the worthiness – the best and only kind we can bring to God – to offer our vileness and our unworthiness to him so that in his mercy we may be taken as worthy; to despair in ourselves so that we may be lifted up by him; to accuse ourselves so that we may be justified by him.”5

Where to “look” during the Supper

The Scriptures encourage us to “look” in a number of directions with the eyes of faith as we share in the Lord’s Supper.6 First, we are to look back with gratitude to Jesus and his death at the cross (1Cor. 11:24). Next, we are to look around at the body of believers with whom we share the Supper. It is something we do as we come together (v. 17) and discern the body of Christ (v. 29) as we eat. It is significant that we share this meal as a community, and do not partake of it individually in our homes. Sharing the one bread together is a sign of our fundamental unity (1Cor. 10:17). We also look up to heaven, where the risen and ascended Christ intercedes for us as our great High Priest (cf. Heb. 4:14-16). Finally, we look forward to the day when Jesus will return (1Cor. 11:26). The celebration of the Supper serves as a proclamation of Jesus’ death which anticipates his return. Jesus himself, when he instituted the Supper, ate it in anticipation of the future (Matt. 26:29). The ultimate outworking of God’s salvation plan has long been associated with the promise of a great banquet (Isa. 25:6; cf. Rev. 19:9). The Lord’s Supper serves as a foretaste of that great banquet, even as it reminds us of the only basis of our hope for participating in it.

Footnotes

1In addition to Paul’s record of the institution of the Supper in 1Cor. 11:23-26, there are three accounts in the gospels: Matt. 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:19-20.
2On these biblical-theological connections between the Supper and the Exodus, see especially Waters, Supper, pp. 88-91.
3Throughout this article, we use the term “The Lord’s Supper” (see 1Cor. 11:20). However, the term “Eucharist” (from the Greek word eucharistia, “thanksgiving”; see 1Cor. 11:24) and “Holy Communion” (see 1Cor. 10:16) are also often used.
4It is worth noting that many Baptists whose theology is broadly Reformed will nonetheless subscribe to a version of the Memorialist position on the Lord’s Supper.
5Calvin, Institutes, 4.17.44. Cited by Phillips, Supper, p.28.
6I remember first being encouraged to “look” in some of these directions at a service of the Lord’s Supper led by Vaughan Roberts at St. Ebbe’s Church, Oxford, England.

Further Reading

  • Mathison, Keith A. Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002.
  • Moore, Russell D., I. John Hesselink, David P. Scaer, Thomas A. Baima. Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper. Counterpoints Church Life. Paul E. Engle and John H. Armstrong, eds. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.
  • Phillips, Richard D. What is the Lord’s Supper? Basics of the Faith Series. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2005.
  • Schreiner, Thomas R. and Matthew R. Crawford. The Lord’s Supper: Remembering and Proclaiming Christ until He Comes. NAC Studies in Bible & Theology, E. Ray Clendenen, ed. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010.
  • Walters, Guy Prentiss. The Lord’s Supper as the Sign and Meal of the New Covenant. Short Studies in Biblical Theology. Wheaton: Crossway, 2019.

This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.