The Three-Fold Meaning of the Lord's Supper
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 review these three aspects.
Memorials of Jesus’ death on the cross
On the evening he was betrayed, while Jesus was eating a meal with his disciples, he took some bread and said, "This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19). They each ate a piece of the bread. When we participate in the Lord’s Supper, we each eat a piece of bread in remembrance of Jesus.
"In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you’" (v. 20). When we drink a small amount of wine (or grape juice) at the Lord’s Supper, we remember that Jesus’ blood was shed for us, and that his blood signified the new covenant. Just as the old covenant was sealed by the sprinkling of blood, the new covenant was established by Jesus’ blood (Hebrews 9:18-28).
As Paul said, "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 looks back to the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Is Jesus’ death a good thing, or a bad thing? There are certainly some very sorrowful aspects to his death, but the bigger picture is that his death is the best news possible. It 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.
The death of Jesus is a tremendous gift to us. It is precious. When we are given a gift of great value, a gift that involved personal sacrifice for us, how should we receive it? With mourning and regret? No, that is not what the giver wants. Rather, we should receive it with great gratitude, as an expression of great love. If we have tears, they should be tears of joy.
So the Lord’s Supper, although a memorial of a death, is not a funeral, as if Jesus were still dead. Quite the contrary—we observe this memorial knowing that death held Jesus only three days—knowing that death will not hold us forever, either. We rejoice that Jesus has conquered death, and has set free all who were enslaved by a fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15). We can remember Jesus’ death with the happy knowledge that he has triumphed over sin and death! As Jesus said, our mourning will turn into joy (John 16:20). Coming to the Lord’s table and having communion should be a celebration, not a funeral.
The ancient Israelites looked back to the Passover events as the defining moment in their history, when their identity as a nation began. It was when they escaped death and slavery through the powerful hand of God and were freed to serve the Lord. In the church, we look back to the events surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as the defining moment in our history. That is how we escape death and the slavery of sin, and that is how we are freed to serve the Lord. The Lord’s Supper is a memorial of this defining moment in our history.
Our present relationship with Jesus Christ
The crucifixion of Jesus has a continuing significance to all who have taken up a cross to follow him. We continue to participate in his death and in the new covenant because we participate in his life. 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). In the Lord’s Supper, we show that we share in Jesus Christ. We commune with him. We are united in him.
The New Testament speaks of our sharing with Jesus in several ways. We share in his crucifixion (Galatians 2:20; Colossians 2:20), death (Romans 6:4), resurrection (Ephesians 2:6; Colossians 2:13; 3:1) and life (Galatians 2:20). Our lives are in him, and he is in us. The Lord’s Supper symbolizes this spiritual reality.
John 6 conveys a similar picture. After Jesus proclaimed himself to be the "bread of life," he said, "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day" (v. 54). Our spiritual food is in Jesus Christ. The Lord’s Supper pictures this ongoing truth. "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him" (v. 56). We signify that we live in Christ, and he lives in us.
So the Lord’s Supper helps us look upward, to Christ, and be mindful that true life can only be in him and with him.
But when we are aware that Jesus lives in us, we also pause to think what kind of home we are giving him. Before he came into our lives, we were habitations of sin. And Jesus knew it before he even knocked on the door of our lives. He wants to get in so he can start cleaning things up. But when Jesus knocks, many people try to do a quick tidy-up before they open the door. However, we are humanly unable to cleanse our sins—the most we can do is hide them in the closet.
So we hide our sins in the closet, and invite Jesus into the living room. Eventually we let him into the kitchen, and then the hallway, and then a bedroom. It is a gradual process. Eventually Jesus gets to the closet where our worst sins are hidden, and he cleans them, too. Year by year, as we grow in spiritual maturity, we surrender more of our lives to our Savior.
It is a process, and the Lord’s Supper plays a role in this process. Paul wrote, "A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup" (1 Corinthians 11:28). Every time we participate, we should be mindful of the great meaning involved in this ceremony.
When we examine ourselves, we often find sin. This is normal—it is not a reason to avoid the Lord’s Supper. It is simply a reminder that we need Jesus in our lives. Only he can take our sins away.
Paul criticized the Corinthian Christians for their manner of observing the Lord’s Supper. The wealthy members were coming first, eating a great meal and even getting drunk. The poor members came last, still hungry. The wealthy were not sharing with the poor (vv. 20-22). They were not really sharing in the life of Christ, for they were not doing what he would do. They were not understanding what it means to be members of the body of Christ, and that members have responsibilities toward one another.
So as we examine ourselves, we need to look around to see whether we are treating one another in the way that Jesus commanded. If you are united with Christ and I am united to Christ, then we are united to each other. So 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.
As 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." By participating together in the Lord’s Supper, we picture the fact that we are one body in Christ, one with each other, with responsibilities toward one another.
At Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, Jesus pictured the life of God’s kingdom by washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-15). When Peter protested, Jesus said it was necessary that he wash his feet. The Christian life involves both serving and being served.
Reminds us 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. There will be a great messianic "banquet," a "wedding supper" of celebration. The bread and wine are miniature rehearsals of what will be the greatest victory celebration in all history. 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).
We always look forward, as well as backward and upward and inward and around. The Lord’s Supper is rich in meaning. That is why it has been a prominent part of the Christian tradition throughout the centuries. Sometimes it has been allowed to become a lifeless ritual, done more out of habit than with meaning. When a ritual loses meaning, some people overreact by stopping the ritual entirely. The better response is to restore the meaning. That’s why it is helpful for us to review what we are symbolizing.
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