The Meaning of the Lord's Supper -NEW PDF Print E-mail
Written by Calvin Fox   
Friday, 30 July 2010 13:13

I have been rethinking what the Bible teaches about the Lord's Supper and what I believe about it personally.  The major change in my understanding comes from a major change in my approach.  Through the years I have interpreted the passages involved according to my Theology, especially the Doctrine of Salvation by faith alone.  Hence, as a good Baptist, I have held a Zwinglian or Memorialist view of the Supper, seeing it primarily as an Ordinance to be obeyed as a memorial to the atoning death of Jesus (the usual Evangelical view).  Nothing happens in the Supper (it is not a real Meal).  We do not receive anything objective from Communion, it is simply something we do.  Of course the Lord is present, but He always is, especially wherever two or three gather in His Name.  This is what I believed for years.

But when I apply another Doctrine I believe, i.e.-Scripture alone as primary authority for faith and practice, I come to a different understanding, especially when I interpret the verses involved in a more literal or "realist" way.  Thus the Bread and Wine are, in fact, the Body and Blood of Jesus!  Why? Because Jesus said so and I believe His Word.  If you respond with, "But what about Salvation by faith alone (no Sacraments involved, etc"), as I used to do, then you and I are putting our Theology above Scripture rather than under it.  [There is a good reason why the Doctrine of Scripture comes first in most Theology textbooks and why it is the first of the "5 Solas" of the Protestant Reformers. "By Scripture alone" is the Formal Principle of Protestant or Reformed Theology.  It forms or shapes or is the norm and source of all other Theology]  Using a literal, realist approach to interpret the relevant texts led me to the position outlined in the Essay that follows.  I wrote it to clarify my own understanding and my conclusions surprised me. (This is not intended as an academic paper with footnotes and sources, but be assured I did the research)
I. In John 6, Jesus said his "flesh and blood" are real food.  He was not talking about the Communion Bread and Wine

John 6:51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats from this bread he will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52 Then the Jews who were hostile to Jesus began to argue with one another, “How can this man  give us his flesh to eat?” 53 Jesus said to them, “I tell you the solemn truth,  unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves.54 The one who eats  my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life  55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true  drink. 56 The one who eats  my flesh and drinks my blood resides in me, and I in him 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so the one who consumes  me will live because of me

Unlike the synoptic Gospels, there is no mention of the "Last Supper" in the Gospel of John and this chapter is not the description of a Sacrament.  Jesus does not point to any object external to himself and say "it" is something else.  This passage teaches our need for spiritual appropriation of Jesus himself. At first he uses the image of Bread, saying he is the Bread that nourishes Life.  Jesus is the staff of Life. Then he switches to the metaphor of "flesh and blood". This chapter teaches that we must ingest or appropiate  the "flesh and blood" of Jesus (Jesus himself) continually to have Life.  (My use of "continually" comes from the tenses of the verbs Jesus used: v.51 aorist active subjunctive v. 53 aorist active subjunctive v.54 present active participle v.56 present active participle- all meaning "continuing action.) This fact alone convinces me Jesus is not talking here about receiving Communion.

The comparison in the chapter of "eating and drinking" with "believing" (e.g. v.4 and v.54) seems to make it clear that they are interchangeable. This requires both the food and the ingesting to be spiritual. However, careful study of the Lord's words indicate that eating and drinking is not synonymous with believing.  Rather, believing makes eating and drinking possible.  Believing in Jesus is meant to lead beyond that to  eating and drinking the "Body and Blood" of Jesus, i.e.- the person of Jesus himself.

The object of believing in Jesus is to make it possible to obtain Life from Him, not only Redemption.  Likewise, the object of eating any bread is to receive nourishment from it.  Faith receives, not only Jesus, but what Jesus offers. In this case, he offers Life or the nourishment of Life.  [He also offers the Holy Spirit flowing within. See John 7:37-39.  There is a connection here, but the Spirit and Life are not the same.  Like Jesus, the Spirit gives Life to believers. John 6: 63]

John 1:4 In him was life [Eternal Life is the very life of God Himself, which is, by definition, eternal]

John 5:21 the Son gives life

John 6:48 I am the bread of [i.e.-the source of] life.

2 Corinthians 4:10 the life of Jesus ...in our bodies...11 ... in our mortal flesh.

Colossians 3:4 Christ is our life

We know Life comes through believing in the Gospel about Jesus and in Jesus Himself.  But that Life is dynamic, meant to grow deeper. We are to increasingly experience and enjoy that Life in the here and now, not just ine Heaven.

John 10:10 I came that they may have life [healing?] and have it abundantly- Note the present active verbs: "be having" and the single Greek word " more abundantly" means superabundant (in quantity), exceeding abundantly- beyond expectation.  This is what Jesus promised us to experience now, not simply after we pass away.

As sinners we need to be forgiven and redeemed.  Absolutely! We also need the life of Jesus within that being forgiven and redeemed makes possible.  We can not live as Christians are meant to without the life of Chrsit abundantly within us.  Realizing that while reading John 15:5 (“without me you can do nothing”) is what brought me to begin feeding on Christ in my heart years ago as a teenager.  Being offered Communion every week, reminds me to continue to seek and recieve that Life.  That does not mean I am being born again repeatedly.  I married my wife once years ago.  In my heart, and occasionally verbally, I often renew and reaffirm mycommitment to her.  That does not mean I repeatedly marry her.  That was done once for always.  So with my relationship with Christ.  It needs to be constantly updated and renewed and strengthened. The life I have in Him is always in need of going “deeper“.

Believing in Jesus means I come to Jesus.  I commit to Him.  I trust Him that He can save me.  This commitment and trust are life long. Eating is also a life-long activity. Eating is receiving, ingesting and absorbing the life-giving nourishment that Jesus, as Bread, offers to those who come believing.   The sequence should be, “I believe, therefore I can and shall eat“.  For most evangelicals, the sequence is “I believe, therefore I have eaten- at the moment I came, the moment I believed.  Meal over." 
Knowing that believing in Jesus they shall have eternal life and be raised up in the Last Day- (vs.39,40,44,47,54)  may cause some Christians to overlook having Life now, as well as in the future. Believers are meant to experience the Life of God (which is what Eternal Life is) within them now and all the time, not simply in the future (again see the present tenses in vs. 47,54 cf 3:36, et al).  This overlooked distinction is very important and led me to see that the comparison  of "eating and drinking" with "believing" (e.g. v.4 and v.54) is misleading. They are not connected but interchangeable or synonymous. There is believing and there is "eating and drinking".  Those who do the former should not miss out on enjoying the latter. 

How and when do we do this "eating" as Believers?  Inasmuch as Jesus continually gives Himself, His life, to us, we can receive it anywhere, anytime.  My experience is that I especially receive a good supply of life-giving nourishment from the Lord when I am deep in the Scripture (which should be hid in the heart and thus available always) and in Scripture-led prayer (singing and praying guided by Bible verses)  That is the normal, usual and most satisfying time and place for me to receive what Jesus offers.

John 6: 63 The words that I [Jesus] have spoken to you are ... life.

I come out of solid Bible study (and prayer based on it) stronger, encouraged, convicted and inspired or comforted.  The Life within me is nourished and made more abundant.  Many texts teach us that Scripture is Food and gives us Nourishment when we chew and digest it.  There are none that say this of Holy Communion.

God grows the Church through the preaching of the Word

1 Cor 3:6  I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.

Eph 4:15 we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole … body grow(s)… cf 2:21  In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;

cf Colossians 2:9 holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together … grows with a growth that is from God.

How does the Lord give this growth?

Ephesians 4:11  [The Risen Christ] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, [all of whom preach or teach the Word of God] 12  to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,  13  until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,  14  so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. [because the Ministers listed ground the Saints in Biblical Truth]

Is is very instructive to note how the earliest Church grew-  Acts 6:7 The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many ... became obedient to the faith. 12:24 the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents. 19:20 the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed. NRS

The Church grew numerically and spiritually in conjunction with the intentional, aggressive preaching of the Gospel.  The life of the church grows proportionately with the spread of the Word of God. 

Eph 5:25... Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,  26  that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,  27  so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.  29  ... no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 

How does Christ nourish His Church?

Christ nourishes His Bride through His commands in the Law cf- Eph 6:4  fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up [Greek: nourish them- same word] in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.  (which means grounding and training them in the Scriptures see 2 Tim 3:5 with Deut 4:8-9, 6:6-7, etc)

Eph 4:15 [How do we grow?]  speaking [practicing] the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,

1 Pet 2:2 2  Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation. cf 1 Cor 3:1-2, Heb 5:12-13 [milk, meat = the Word of God]

NET Bible comments- The word for spiritual in Greek is λογικός (logikos), which is a play on words with the reference in 1:23-25 to the living and enduring word (λόγος, logos) of God, through which they were born anew. This is a subtle indication that the nourishment for their growth must be the word of God.-

Jer. 15:16 Your words were found, and I ate them, your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart

Psalm 19:7  The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;  8  the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;  9  the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether.  10  More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.

Psalm 119: 97  Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.  98  Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me.  99  I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation.  100  I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.  101  I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word.  102  I do not turn aside from your rules, for you have taught me.  103  How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!

Ezek 1:1  And [God] said to me, "Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you."  2  And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.   8  "… hear what I say to you. … open your mouth and eat what I give you."  9  And when I looked, behold, a hand was stretched out to me, and behold, a scroll of a book was in it.  10  And he spread it before me. And it had writing on the front and on the back, …Ezek 2:1  And he said to me, "Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll…."  2  So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat.  3  And he said to me, "Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. "Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey. 

John 6 teaches all this.  It is not about the Eucharist or receiving the elements of the Lord's Supper, but about feeding on the Bread [the Word] which is Jesus.  This truth is lost when this passage is said to be about the Eucharist.  But the most obvious occasion for a congregation to feed on the Word is in conjunction with the Eucharist (the latter being the Word made visible).  The Eucharist must always be accompanied by the preaching of the Gospel and it is by inwardly digesting that preached Word (and all Scripture) that we are truly fed.  When Biblical, expository Preaching is absent during the Service (which I think it often is) no one is fed by the Eucharist.

All this gives fresh meaning to the prayer: "Give us this day our daily Bread."

Luke 24:27  And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.  28  So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther,  29  but they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent." So he went in to stay with them.  30  When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them.  31  And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.  32  They said to each other, "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?"

Yes, the disciples recognized Jesus when he ate with them, but He was truly encountered in the opening of the Scripture.  The latter truth has often been lost when this passage is misused to teach that Jesus is known in Communion.

All this is fundamental and essential.  The Sacraments (Baptism and Holy Communion) must always be accompanied by the Word and by Faith in those who receive them.  The Scripture absolutely does not teach that the Sacraments work Ex Opere Operato, i.e.- in and by themselves alone.  No one is automatically “fed” spiritual food simply by “taking Communion“.  (Believing that they are is the fallacious reasoning behind Open and Paedo-Communion.)

My Conclusion: John 6 as such is not about the Eucharist. It does not teach, and therefore it is not the Scrptural warrant for, the belief that receiving the elements of Communion provides Life, or nourishment for that Life, which Jesus gives.   However, with John 6 in mind, Communion, accompanied by solid preaching of the Word, is obviously a great time to feed on the Lord in our hearts by faith, particularly as an entire congregation.  When that happens, the Eucharist becomes a spiritual Church Banquet for the Church.  In fact, that is the Banquet which brings the church together and gives it unity. (1 Cor 10:17)

II.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus said his "body and blood" are real food.  He was talking about the Communion Bread and Wine

In contrast to John 6, the Upper Room passages in the synoptic Gospels, are about a real Meal.  Jesus is recorded as saying the bread in the Meal is his body and the wine is his blood and we are to eat and drink them- his body and blood.  I now take this Scripture literally or in a realist sense.  The text does not teach the bread and wine represent the Body and Blood of Jesus, although that is the popular evangelical take on the verb, "is".

Matt 26:26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat, this is my body.” 27 And after taking the cup and giving thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood, the blood  of the covenant, that is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

It is important to notice that Jesus is speaking while he is alive and sitting at the table with the men.  How can what is on the plate and in the cup, both resting on the table, be his body and blood??  The bread and wine can not literally be his body and blood, and yet when the Apostles eat them, according to Jesus himself, they were eating his the body and blood while he was seated alive at the table.

Luke 22:17 ...he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves....19 Then  he took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body  which is given for you. [he gave them his Body] 20 And in the same way he took the cup after they had eaten [his Body] saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant  in my blood. [they drink His Blood]

How can all this  be? The Lord's Supper is a Sacrament!  A Sacrament is an outward, physical sign or symbolic act combined with a prescribed form of words [a formula], i.e.- the Promise made by Jesus, and as such it communicates or delivers what was promised to those who receive it.

A Sacrament must always be accompanied by faith.  Communion is more than a memorial.  It is also more than a sign and seal as Calvinists like to say. It is all that, but far more.  Something happens during Communion.  We do receive something objective from it.  The elements are what Jesus promised them to be.  Faith does not make them the Body and Blood, as though they would not be the Body and Blood of Christ if a person did not believe they were.  That error is known as  "receptionism".  Whether a person benefits from receiving Communion depends on faith.  If persons receiving the Elements do not have faith or in any way partake in an unworthy manner, they receive judgment. 

Let me illustrate with examples of "sacraments" that we all accept.  If a man with authority vested in him by the State pronounces, during a wedding, "this man and woman are now husband and wife'' or if the Government declares "This paper is now money", the man, woman and the paper remain what they are, but yet they change into what they are pronounced to be and remain both simultaneously. (Compare the Incarnation in which Jesus remained a human being while also being God)  Thus the bread and wine are pronounced by the Lord to be the Sacrifice and on that basis they are.  The substance of the bread and wine remains unchanged [this is neither "tran- nor substantiation"] but their function  or what they are good for and our relationship to them is changed on the basis of what Jesus said.  Therefore,  eating  the bread and wine given to them by the Lord with His Promise, the Disciples in the Upper Room were ingested His Sacrifce for their Salvation (not Him, but His Sacrifice). 

Jesus said, the wine is the blood of the Covenant.  The bread is his body sacrificed (given) for the forgiveness of sins.  The bread and wine (body and blood) are not Jesus.  They are his Sacrifice for sin.  This is the meaning of the phrase "body and blood'.  It is always used to refer to the Sacrifice Jesus made (in the Last Supper accounts and by Paul in 1 Cor 10:16, 11:27 cf 15:50; also Heb 2:14 ESV)

This is not about the "Real Presence of Christ" in the Eucharist (the topic debated between Lutherans and Calvinists)  This is about the real presence of the Sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist.  (The real presence of Christ Himself is in the Believer's heart by faith- Gal 2:20)  Again this understanding comes from taking the words literally.  In a Sacrament the elements communicate the reality. In this case they communicate the Sacrifice.  When we ingest them, we ingest it- not the benefits of it, but "it". This is the literal, realist interpretation of Christ's words at the Last Supper.  This is the primary purpose of the Eucharist.  The Lord's body is broken and his blood shed sacramentally before our eyes in our church. We stand in awe at this re-presentation of Calvary (1 Cor.11:26)

This is what Paul teaches in 1 Cor 11:29 when he writes eating and drinking the Bread and Wine improperly is to be guilty of sinning against the Body and Blood (i.e.- the Sacrifice) and to bring judgment upon one's self with physical consequences.  Thus we surely know the bread and wine do more than represent the Body and Blood of Jesus. Specifically, Paul says in 1 Cor 10:16 that the bread and wine are the Body and Blood of Jesus, i.e.- in the Sacrifice of Jesus 

1 Cor 10:16  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?

To eat the consecrated Elements is to share in, and identify with, the Sacrifice that Christ made for sin.  In this sense, the Bread and Wine are real Food and Communion is a real Meal.

1 Cor 10:18  Consider the people of Israel:are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar?  Lev 3:1-2, 7:15; 1 Cor 9:13

During Communion, Belivers are participating in the original, one and only, never to be repeated, Sacrifice made at Calvary.  That is what a Sacrament makes possible. This is not to say the Table is an Altar and the action there is itself a sacrifice.  The so-called "Altar" really is a Table.  The Eucharistic Prayers in some versions of the BCP are very wrong if and when they suggest otherwise (and they do)

Once consecrated, the ancient and unrepeatable Sacrifice is sacramentally present and Believers can appropriate it anew, even as they appropriate Jesus anew when they meet Him in His Word. It is an occasion not possible anywhere else.  It moves the Believer to repentance, renewed faith, commitment and thanksgiving ("eucharista").

[Discussion of who is qualified to make the "consecration" is a separate topic.]

III.  Additional Benefits given in the Lord's Supper: Assurance of Salvation

Believers receive renewed assurance. The Eucharist is a God-given sign and seal adminsterd by the Church to  the Believer which assures the Believer that [he] has all the Benefits of the Cross.  The Church, by allowing its members to receive the Elements, is renewing their assurance that they are Christians in the eyes of the Church, building up and giving strength to their faith.

This, of course, is the reason why the Church must require that communicants give evidence that they are Believers before they come to the Table, sound in the Faith (Confirmed) and not living in sin.  This is known as "fencing the Table" and is the argument for Closed Communion and against Open Communion and Paedo-Communion. [I do not believe Matt. 19:14 and Mark 10:14 teach Communion is for very young children. Baptists use these texts to support the Dedication of Infants to the Lord.]

Finally, many Bible texts teach that Believers receive union with Christ, adoption justification, imputed righteousness and the Holy Spirit when they accept Christ and are Baptized. They receive the gift of regeneration, saving faith and repentance prior to that through the work of the Holy Spirit as they hear the Gospel. These blessings can not be lost.  Believers do occasionally fall into sin and away from the Lord; but forgiveness is available anytime upon confession (1 John 1:9)  Therefore, I do not believe any of these blessings and gifts are given in the Eucharist.

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