What is the meaning of the Lord’s Supper?
Is it wrong to use the term “Lord’s Supper”?
What kind of bread and wine should be used?
May children and non-Christians participate?
Must it be done in church, or may it be done at home?
Does the service have to be led by an ordained elder?
May communion be led by a woman?
What format should be used?
What is our belief about transubstantiation?
The Lord’s Supper is a reminder of what Jesus did in the past, a symbol of our present relationship with him and a promise of what he will do in the future. Let’s examine these three aspects.
The bread and wine are memorials of Jesus’ death on the cross (Luke 22:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:26). In the Lord’s Supper, we each eat a piece of bread in remembrance of Jesus. When we drink the “fruit of the vine,” we remember that Jesus’ blood was shed for us, and that it signifies the new covenant. The Lord’s Supper looks back to the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Jesus’ death shows how much God loves us — so much that he sent his Son to die for us, so that our sins may be forgiven and we may live forever with him. This is good news! Although we may be saddened by the enormous price that had to be paid for us, we are happy that it was paid. When we remember Jesus’ death, we also remember that Jesus was dead for only a short time. We rejoice that Jesus has conquered death, and has set free all who were enslaved by a fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15). Our mourning has turned to joy (John 16:20).
Christians look back to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as the defining moment in our history. This is how we escape death and the slavery of sin, and this is how we are freed to serve the Lord. The Lord’s Supper is a memorial of this defining moment in our history.
The Lord’s Supper also pictures our present relationship with Jesus Christ. The crucifixion has a continuing significance to all who have taken up a cross to follow Jesus. We continue to participate in his death (Romans 6:4; Galatians 2:20; Colossians 2:20) because we participate in his life (Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 2:6; Colossians 2:13; 3:1).
Paul wrote, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). With the Lord’s Supper, we show that we share in Jesus Christ. We participate with him, commune with him, become united in him. The Lord’s Supper helps us look upward, to Christ.
In John 6, Jesus used bread and wine to illustrate our need to be spiritually nourished by him: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him” (verses 53-56). The Lord’s Supper reminds us that real life is found only in Jesus Christ, with him living in us.
When we are aware that Jesus lives in us, we also pause to think what kind of home we are giving him. We allow him to change our lives so that we live the way he wants us to. Paul wrote that we ought to examine ourselves before we eat of the bread and drink of the cup (1 Corinthians 11:28). The Lord’s Supper helps us look inward, to examine ourselves because of the great meaning in this ceremony.
As we examine ourselves, we need to look around, to other people, to see whether we are treating one another in the way that Jesus commanded. If you are united with Christ and I am united with Christ, then we are united to each other, too. The Lord’s Supper, by picturing our participation in Christ, also pictures our participation (other translations may say communion or sharing or fellowship) with each other (1 John 1:3, 7).
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:17, “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” The Lord’s Supper pictures the fact that we are one body in Christ, one with each other, with responsibilities toward one another.
Third, the Lord’s Supper also reminds us of the future, of Jesus’ return. Jesus said he would not drink the fruit of the vine again until he came in the fullness of the kingdom (Matthew 26:29; Luke 22:18; Mark 14:25). Whenever we participate, we are reminded of Jesus’ promise. Paul wrote that “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). The Lord’s Supper helps us look forward.
The Lord’s Supper is rich in meaning. That is why it has been an important part of the Christian tradition throughout the centuries. Sometimes it has become a lifeless ritual, done more out of habit than with meaning. Some people overreact by stopping the ritual entirely. The better response is to restore the meaning.
Some say that the ceremony of bread and wine should not be called the Lord’s Supper. Two reasons are given for this. First, that the ceremony should be called by its old covenant name, Passover. The second idea was that 1 Corinthians 11:20 says that the Corinthian Christians were not eating the Lord’s Supper.
The bread and wine is not a Passover. At Jesus’ Last Supper, the meal was a Passover meal; the sharing of bread and wine was done after the supper, and Scripture does not call it a Passover.
What does Scripture call it? It does not give a formal name. In 1 Corinthians 10:16, Paul calls it a “cup of thanksgiving.” In verse 21, he calls it “the cup of the Lord” and “the Lord’s table.” Since Scripture does not require a particular name, Christians are free to use any term that helps them understand that they are talking about the sharing of bread and wine in commemoration of Jesus’ death. Historically, three terms have been most common:
- Eucharist. This comes from eucharisteo, the Greek word for giving thanks (1 Corinthians 11:24).
- Communion. This word is used in the King James translation of 1 Corinthians 10:16; it means sharing or participation.
- Lord’s Supper. Since Paul calls the memorial “the Lord’s Table,” it is not much different to call it “the Lord’s Supper.” It would be picky to say that “table” is OK, but “supper” is forbidden. The Bible doesn’t require us to use any certain term, and doesn’t forbid us to use any term.
Why then does Paul tell the Corinthians that “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat”? (1 Corinthians 11:20). He explains what he means in the next verse: “for [or “because”] as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk.” They were not eating the Lord’s Supper, not because that was the wrong term, but because they were not participating in the right spirit. They were not sharing. Paul was commenting on the manner of their observance, not giving rules about names.
For a more detailed answer, see “The Name of the Lord’s Supper” by Ralph Orr.
Since Jesus began the Lord’s Supper after having told his disciples to prepare for the Passover, it is likely that he used unleavened bread. From the historical situation, we can also conclude that the bread Jesus used was made from wheat harvested the year before, as required by old covenant law (Leviticus 23:10-14). However, neither the Scriptures nor the symbolism requires us to imitate these particular details.
The Bible does not attach any significance or importance to the age of the flour, nor whether it was leavened. Similarly, it does not specify whether the bread was made with wheat or barley. Scriptures about the last supper do not use the word for unleavened — the Bible simply says that it was bread. It uses the common word for a common food.
When Jesus said, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:51), he did not specify whether he was wheat or barley, leavened or unleavened. The point he was making does not rest on such details. He was simply comparing himself to food in general, the most common staple of the diet. Just as bread is the basis of physical life, Jesus is the basis of eternal life.
When Jesus called himself bread, he was referring to its value in the common people’s diet, not to any specifics of shape or density. If he had lived and ministered in southeastern Asia, he might have compared himself to rice as the staff of life. His point did not depend on the specific grain being used — just that it was a common part of the diet. Jesus is the staple of our spiritual nourishment.
The wine that Jesus used was probably red, fermented wine from the previous year. That was what was available. It was probably mixed with water, as wine usually was in that day. Scripture does not mention these specifics. It simply says “fruit of the vine.”
When Jesus instituted the symbols, he did not make detailed requirements for the food or drink. He used words that were commonly used for ordinary food and drink. This made it easier for the disciples to do “this” in his remembrance. Whenever the original disciples shared a meal, they could remember what Jesus had done at the Last Supper.
The significance of the bread is not the type of grain it is made from, its texture, or whether it has fermented. Its significance is that it is food, and that we share it. Scripture simply says it is “bread,” without specifying “unleavened.” That is why the church teaches that members may use any type of bread whenever they observe communion.
Similarly, the significance of the wine is not its fermentation. The significance is that it is liquid, thus allowing it to represent Jesus’ blood of the new covenant, and that we drink it, symbolizing our taking the new covenant into ourselves. Jesus called it by a general term: “the fruit of the vine.” Therefore we allow either wine or juice to be used for communion.
Some people avoid wine because of allergies. Others avoid it because their body reacts with alcohol in undesirable ways. Some Christians in less-developed nations find it very difficult to find wine. Substitutes are permissible. The effectiveness of the ceremony does not depend on chemistry, but on our relationship with God.
Is it permissible for people to participate in the Lord’s Supper or Communion before they are baptized?
The Lord’s Supper is for people who have faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, even if they have not been baptized yet. The bread and wine are for those who have faith in Christ. People must make their own decision as to whether to partake. We do not believe it is appropriate to refuse to let people partake if they want to do so. God knows those who are his. We can’t, nor do we wish to, police everybody’s heart as to whether their faith is real. Some people may become convicted and come to faith during the course of the Lord’s Supper service, and it would be right for them to partake.
May people observe without participating? Yes. Anyone is welcome to observe the service.
Do we want the Lord’s Supper to be part of a formal church service, or something done privately in individual homes?
We have always made arrangements for members to take the elements (bread and wine) in their own homes when they were unable to participate with the congregation. Although an elder would officiate in such situations when one was available, we permitted a member to lead when an elder was not available.
The New Testament never even hints at the idea that administering at the Lord’s Supper is a function restricted to ordained leaders. For example, Paul did not mention anything about ordained leaders when he addressed the Corinthian church about the Lord’s Supper. No verse connects the Lord’s Supper with leadership offices.
As far as we can tell from the New Testament, Christians were able to observe the Lord’s Supper as often as they wanted, without any need for elders, whenever two or three or more were gathered in his name. If an elder is present, it is traditional, though not required, that the elder lead the communion.
Members may partake of the Lord’s Supper at any time in small groups. We are pleased that groups commemorate our Lord’s death, and see their own existence in that context, knowing that our unity comes because of our participation in him.
May communion be led by a woman? Yes, of course. This function is not restricted to pastors, elders, or other church leaders, and may be done by anyone who has faith in Christ. Just as women sing prayers in church, they may also pray at a communion service that God will bless the elements for our commemoration of the Lord’s death and our participation by faith in our Lord.
As an ordinance of the church, what degree of standardization does the church wish to suggest regarding the service format for communion?
We want our service to follow a general standard, including prayer, a basic explanation of and blessing on the bread and wine, and worshipful music. Communion services can follow any dignified and respectful format that brings glory to God and does not bring reproach on the name of Christ. It must not be done flippantly, but with meaning. It should be a dignified occasion, yet at the same time, a joyous occasion—thereby appropriate for coming into the presence of God.
Jesus said, “This is my body.” Some churches take this statement literally, and teach that the bread becomes the body of Jesus Christ. However, other churches take this statement to be a figure of speech, that Jesus meant something symbolic or metaphorical. Jesus often used figurative language. For example, when Jesus said, I am the bread that came down from heaven, he did not mean that he was literally bread. He meant it figuratively.
At the Last Supper, when Jesus said the words, he was with the disciples, holding some bread, telling his disciples, This is my body. The disciples could see his body; they could see that the bread was not his body. In the original setting, the disciples would have understood Jesus’ words in some figurative way.
Jesus also said that the cup was the new covenant in his blood. That’s figurative language. He was not concerned about the actual cup. He used the word “cup” to refer to the wine inside the cup. It was a figure of speech. The wine wasn’t the new covenant, either. Jesus was speaking figuratively. He did not say that the wine was his blood.
The bread symbolized the body of Jesus. However, this does not mean that the bread is “only” a symbol — as if symbols are not important. Symbols are important. The bread represents the body of Jesus, and that’s an extremely important representation. Moreover, Jesus is present in the ceremony, as well as in the physical bread and wine, in some spiritual way. By partaking of the bread and wine, we participate in our Lord (1 Corinthians 10:16). The bread and wine is a ceremony of participation, not just a symbol to remind us that Jesus died for us.