Why and How We Celebrate the Lord's Supper
From Gospel Translations
1 Corinthians 11:17-34
But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. 21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. 23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. 27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. 33 So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another—34 if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.
Before we return to Romans next week (Lord willing), I thought it would be good for us to put the Lord’s Supper in biblical context and focus our attention on why and how we keep this ordinance. So today we will put the message first and then lead into the Lord’s Supper with the sermon.
After the Bible, which is the infallible foundation of our lives and our church, one of the most important documents in the life of our church is the Bethlehem Baptist Church Elder Affirmation of Faith. I encourage all of you to read it. You can see it at the church website or Desiring God website. Paragraph 12.4 gives the doctrinal summary of what we believe and teach about the Lord’s Supper:
We believe that the Lord’s Supper is an ordinance of the Lord in which gathered believers eat bread, signifying Christ’s body given for His people, and drink the cup of the Lord, signifying the New Covenant in Christ’s blood. We do this in remembrance of the Lord, and thus proclaim His death until He comes. Those who eat and drink in a worthy manner partake of Christ’s body and blood, not physically, but spiritually, in that, by faith, they are nourished with the benefits He obtained through His death, and thus grow in grace.
I will try to give a biblical foundation for this understanding of the Lord’s Supper under six headings: 1) the historical origin; 2) the believing participants; 3) the physical action; 4) the mental action; 5) the spiritual action; and 6) the sacred seriousness.
1. The Historical Origin of the Lord’s Supper
The Gospels of Matthew (26:26ff), Mark (14:22ff), and Luke (22:14ff) all report the Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples the night before he died. Each describes Jesus giving thanks or blessing the bread and the cup, and giving them to his disciples saying that the bread is his body and the cup is the blood of the covenant, or the new covenant in his blood. In Luke 22:19, Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The Gospel of John doesn’t report the eating and drinking, but rather the teachings and actions that filled the evening.
As far as we can tell from the earliest records, the church did what Jesus said: They reenacted that supper in remembrance of Jesus and his death. Paul’s letters are the earliest testimony that we have, and in 1 Corinthians 11:20, he refers to an event in the life of the church called “the Lord’s Supper.” It’s called “the Lord’s Supper” probably because it was instituted or ordained by the Lord Jesus, and because its very meaning celebrates the memory of the Lord’s death. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:23-24, “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” “I received from the Lord . . .” probably means that the Lord himself confirmed for Paul (who wasn’t at the final supper as the other apostles were) that what the others reported about the Last Supper really happened.
So the historical origin of the Lord’s Supper is that final supper that Jesus ate with his disciples the night before he was crucified. The actions and meaning of it are all rooted in what Jesus said and did on that last night. Jesus himself is the origin of the Lord’s Supper. He commanded that it be continued. And he is the focus and content of it.
2. The Believing Participants of the Lord’s Supper
The Lord’s Supper is an act of the gathered family of those who believe in Jesus, the church. It is not an act for unbelievers. Unbelievers may be present—indeed, we welcome them to be present—there is nothing secretive about the Lord’s Supper. It is done in public. It has a public meaning. It is not a secretive, cultic ritual with magical powers. It is a public act of worship by the gathered church. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 11:26, Paul says, “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.” So there is a proclamation aspect to the supper. Proclamation, not privacy, is the note to strike.
We do not forbid taking the Lord’s Supper to someone in a nursing home or a hospital, but that kind of individual celebration is exceptional, not the Biblical norm. Five times in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul speaks of the church “coming together” when the Lord’s Supper is eaten. Verse 17b: “When you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” Verse 18: “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you.” Verse 20: “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.” Verse 33: “When you come together to eat, wait for one another.” Verse 34: “If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment.”
In other words, they were debasing the Lord’s Supper by connecting it too closely to their regular supper, and some people had lots to eat and others had nothing. So he said, Eat your own supper at home and come together to eat the Lord’s Supper.
And notice the word “church” in verse 18: “when you come together as a church.” This is the body of Christ, the assembly of the followers of Jesus. Those who have turned from idols and trusted Jesus alone for the forgiveness of their sins, and for the hope of eternal life, and for the satisfaction of their souls. These are Christians. So the participants in the Lord’s Supper are the gathered believers in Jesus.
3. The Physical Action of the Lord’s Supper
The physical action of the Lord’s Supper is not the consumption of a seven-course meal. It is very simple. It is eating bread and drinking the cup. Verses 23b-25, “He took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”
Nothing is specified about the kind of bread or the way it is broken. The only statement about what was in the cup is given in one verse each in Matthew, Mark, and Luke: “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom” (Matthew 26:29; cf. Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18). So it is called “the fruit of the vine.” I don’t think we should make a big deal over whether simple grape juice or wine is used. There is nothing in the text that commands or forbids the one or the other.
What we should be concerned about is playful substitutes—say, bagels and coke around a campfire. The Lord’s Supper is not a plaything. We should celebrate it with a sense of weightiness—which we will talk about in just a moment.
I might mention in passing also that there is nothing in the New Testament about the frequency of the Lord’s Supper. Some believe it would be good to do it weekly; others practice it quarterly. We are in the middle and generally celebrate it on the first Sunday of each month. I think we are free in this matter and the question becomes one of 1) What frequency and infrequency corresponds to its proper importance in relation to the ministry of the Word of God? and 2) What frequency or infrequency helps us feel its value rather than becoming callous to it? Those are not easy judgments to make, and different churches make them in different ways.
4. The Mental Action of the Lord’s Supper
The mental action of the participants of the Lord’s Supper is to focus the mind on Jesus and especially his historical work in dying for our sins. Verses 24 and 25: “Do this in remembrance of me.” As we do the physical act of eating and drinking, we are to do the mental act of remembering. That is, we are to consciously call to mind the person of Jesus as he once lived and the work of Jesus as he once died and rose again, and what his work means for the forgiveness for our sins.
The Lord’s Supper is a stark reminder, time after time, that Christianity is not new-age spirituality. It is not getting in touch with your inner being. It is not mysticism. It is rooted in historical facts. Jesus lived. He had a body and a heart that pumped blood and skin that bled. He died publicly on a Roman cross in the place of sinners so that anyone who believes on him might be rescued from the wrath of God. That happened once and for all in history.
Therefore, the mental action of the Lord’s Supper is foundationally remembering. Not imagining. Not dreaming. Not channeling. Not listening. Not going into neutral. It is a conscious directing of the mind back into history to Jesus and what we know about him from the Bible. The Lord’s Supper roots us, time after time, in the nitty-gritty of history. Bread and Cup. Body and blood. Execution and death.
5. The Spiritual Action of the Lord’s Supper
This is all important. The reason is that unbelievers could do everything I have described so far. Indeed, if the devil could put on flesh, he could do it. Eat, drink, and remember. There is nothing inherently spiritual about that. So for the Lord’s Supper to be what Jesus means for it to be, something more must be happening than only eating, drinking, and remembering. Something that unbelievers and the devil cannot do.
Let me read the key sentence from the Elder Affirmation of Faith once more and then show you in the Bible where it comes from. “Those who eat and drink in a worthy manner partake of Christ’s body and blood, not physically, but spiritually, in that, by faith, they are nourished with the benefits He obtained through His death, and thus grow in grace.”
Where does this idea of “partaking of Christ’s body and blood . . . spiritually . . . by faith” come from? The closest text to support this is in the previous chapter: 1 Corinthians 10:16-18. As I read it, ask, “What does ‘participation’ mean?”
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ (koinōnia estin tou haimatos tou Christou)? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ (ouchi koinōnia tou sōmatos tou Christou estin)? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar (koinōnia tou thusiastēriou)?
Here is something much deeper than remembering. Here are believers—those who trust and treasure Jesus Christ—and Paul says that they are participating in the body and blood of Christ. Literally, they are experiencing a sharing (koinōnia) in his body and blood. They are experiencing a partnership in his death.
Partaking of Christ’s Body and Blood, Spiritually, By Faith
And what does this participation/sharing/partnership mean? I think verse 18 gives us the clue because it uses a similar word, but compares it to what happens in the Jewish sacrifices: “Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants [a form of the same word] in the altar?” What does sharer/participant/partner in the altar mean? It means that they are sharing in or benefiting from what happened on the altar. They are enjoying, for example, forgiveness and restored fellowship with God.
So I take verse 16 and 17 to mean that when believers eat the bread and drink the cup physically we do another kind of eating and drinking spiritually. We eat and drink—that is, we take into our lives—what happened on the cross. By faith—by trusting in all that God is for us in Jesus—we nourish ourselves with the benefits that Jesus obtained for us when he bled and died on the cross.
This is why we lead you in various focuses at the Lord’s table from month to month (peace with God, joy in Christ, hope for the future, freedom from fear, security in adversity, guidance in perplexity, healing from sickness, victory in temptation, etc.). Because when Jesus died, his shed blood and broken body, offered up in his death on our behalf, purchased all the promises of God. Paul says, “All the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Corinthians 1:20). Every gift of God, and all our joyful fellowship with God, was obtained by the blood of Jesus. When Paul says, “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?” he means: Do we not at the Lord’s table feast spiritually by faith on every spiritual blessing bought by the body and blood of Christ? No unbeliever can do that. The devil can’t do it. It is a gift for the family. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we feast spiritually by faith on all the promises of God bought by the blood of Jesus.
6. The Sacred Seriousness of the Lord’s Supper
I close the way Paul does in 1 Corinthians 11. He warns that if you come to the Lord’s Supper in a cavalier, callous, careless way that does not discern the seriousness of what happened on the cross, you may, if you are a believer, lose your life, not because of wrath, but as an act of God’s fatherly discipline. Let me simply read slowly 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 as we move joyfully and seriously to the Lord’s table.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner [that is, not trusting and treasuring the precious gift of Christ] will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, [not to see if you are good enough, but to see if you are willing to turn away from yourself trust Jesus for what you need] and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body [that is, without being aware that this bread is not to be treated like a fish sandwich, the way some were doing in Corinth] eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 [And here is what he means:] That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died [not to be sent to hell; the next verse explains]. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined [that is, some are weak, and ill, and dying] so that we may not be condemned [that is, go to hell] along with the world.
Don’t take the Lord’s Supper lightly. It is one of the most precious gifts Christ has given to his church. Let’s eat it together.