The History and Meaning of the Lord’s Supper

In our church this morning, we will celebrate together the Lord’s Supper .  It’s something we do every six weeks, and it’s something we focus on in our Good Friday and Christmas Eve services, as well.  Sometimes, we’ll have our deacons distribute the bread and cup in the usual manner; sometimes, we’ll ask our congregation to come to the front, as individuals or sometimes as families.  We’ve used the Baptist “chiclet”, we’ve broken Hawaiian bread, Matza crackers, and we’ve even ordered communion discs from a Roman Catholic resource.  In every case, though, we’ve used grape juice in the cups.

This particular observance is one of the most important things we do as believers and church members.  We remember Christ’s death on the cross, and we remember, too, his promise that we will share this supper together in glory.  As Baptists, it is one of two ordinances in the church, the other being baptism.  Yet, the Lord’s Supper has a significant history in the Church.  It varies from Catholicism to Protestantism, and it varies even inside the Protestant denominations.

A Brief History

(from Historical Theology: an Introduction to Christian Doctrine, Gregg R. Allison.  For extensive details regarding the Lord’s Supper and other doctrines of the Church, I highly recommend Allison’s book in addition to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Theology)

Scripture tells us that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus commemorated the Passover – his last supper – with his disciples.  In the process, he instituted a celebration that has been observed throughout time in all Christendom.  In the Gospel of Matthew, we read:

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. 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 26:26-29 ESV

Paul gave instructions to the early Church regarding their observance and abuse of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-32).  And, in Acts 2:42 we see a description of the fellowship of the early church:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  Acts 2:42 ESV

The early Church father Justin Martyr, in First Apology, provided restrictions on who could participate in the Lord’s Supper.  He wrote,

And this food is called among us eucharistia [meaning ‘thanksgiving’], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is living as Christ has enjoined.

From this we learn that only baptized believers could participate, and then again, only those who were in proper relationship with Jesus and his church.  It was an activity that was celebrated every week.  Other early Church fathers, such as Cyprian, Ignatius, Tertullian, and Augustine clarified the purpose of the Lord’s Supper for various reasons, mainly due to heresies that were arising from various groups and church leaders.

Augustine’s contribution to the theology of the sacraments was significant and influenced the church for centuries.  He defined a sacrament (the Lord’s Supper) as “an outward and visible sign of an invisible yet genuine grace.”  In other words, sacraments like the Lord’s Supper are necessary for salvation.  He also maintained that Christ was truly present in the bread and wine, the forerunner of the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation.

Augustine’s view was expanded in later centuries by others who took his views one step further.  Transubstantiation, the view that the bread and wine, after the priest’s words of consecration are pronounced, actually becomes, in substance, the body and blood of Christ, grew widely until the Church made the doctrine official in a church council in 1215.  Although some disagreed with this view, saying that there was no scriptural affirmation of it, church leaders, led by Thomas Aquinas, waved the banner of transubstantiation until it was an official part of church doctrine.

Needless to say, in the Reformation, the view of transubstantiation was a significant topic of discussion.  Reformers such as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin stood in direct opposition to the Catholic Church’s view of the Lord’s Supper.  Calvin and Zwingli denied the mysterious change of substance in the bread and wine, though Luther believed the bread and wine co-existed with the body and blood of Christ, a view known as consubstantiation.  Regardless, Calvin stated in the Institutes of Christian Religion that

…the breaking of bread is a symbol; it is not the thing itself.  But having admitted this, we shall nevertheless duly infer that by the showing of the symbol the thing itself is also shown…he would never dare assert that an empty symbol is set forth by him.

The Anabaptists, a reformed group in the time of Calvin and Zwingli, stated in the Schleitheim Confession that those who wished to participate in the Lord’s Supper must be baptized believers.  Zwingli was incensed – not by the view of the Lord’s Supper itself – but by the Anabaptist view that “baptized believers” meant those adults who had been immersed (as opposed to baptized infants).

In the 1600’s, the Baptists emerged and John Smyth, pastor and leader of what were known as ‘general Baptists’, stated the Lord’s Supper is “the external sign of the communion of Christ and of the faithful…”.  Thomas Helwys added to that, stating that the Lord’s Supper “…is the outward manifestation of the spiritual communion between Christ and the faithful…”  They both agreed that the Lord’s Supper should be observed in every worship meeting, thus the practice of weekly observance.  In addition, the London Confession restricted participation in the Lord’s Supper to those who had been baptized.

In later years, John Wesley viewed the Lord’s Supper as a means of conversion for unbelievers.  Baptists began to practice “closed communion”, limiting the ordinance to immersed believers.  They also replaced the wine with unfermented grape juice, the result of influence from the American temperance movement.

Presently, evangelicals reject wholly the view of transubstantiation, yet from one Protestant church to another, a variety of views can be found.  Consubstantiation, spiritual presence, and memorial are the three main views found regarding the Lord’s Supper.  The regularity of observance varies too, from yearly to quarterly to weekly.

In specific regard to Southern Baptists, the Baptist Faith and Message states that baptism is a prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper, and then defines the ordinance as

…a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming.

I agree wholeheartedly that our Lord’s Supper is for baptized believers – not just Baptists – and that we observe the ordinance as a remembrance of Christ’s death on the cross for us.  I believe, too, that there is a mystery in the Lord’s Supper…that Christ would take the punishment for my sins, and that grace is given to me, a sinner.

For that, I take the Lord’s Supper and celebrate.

Soli Deo gloria!

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Filed under Theology, Worship

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