Question & Answers About the Lord's Supper
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?
Should it include footwashing?
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 Cor. 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 indeed paid.
When we remember Jesus' death, we also remember that Jesus was dead for only three days. We rejoice that Jesus has conquered death, and has set free all who were enslaved by a fear of death (Heb. 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 (Rom. 6:4; Gal. 2:20; Col. 2:20) because we participate in his life (Gal. 2:20; Eph. 2:6; Col. 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 Cor. 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 graphically 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, "A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup" (1 Cor. 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. Ifyou 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 Cor. 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 (Matt. 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 Cor. 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.
We used to say that the ceremony of bread and wine should not be called the Lord's Supper. Two reasons were given for this. First, that the ceremony should be called by its old covenant name, Passover. And the second idea was that 1 Cor. 11:20 says that the Corinthians Christians were not eating the Lord's Supper.
We have already mentioned that 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 in addition to the supper, and Scripture does not call it a Passover.
What does Scripture call it? It does not give a formal name. In 1 Cor. 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 Cor. 11:24).
- Communion. This word is used in the King James translation of 1 Cor. 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 simply doesn't require us to use any certain term, and doesn't forbid us to use any particular term.
Why then does Paul tell the Corinthians that "When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat"? (1 Cor. 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." In other words, 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 advice 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 would seem reasonable to conclude that he used unleavened bread. From the historical situation, we can also conclude that the bread Jesus used was made from grain harvested the year before, as required by old covenant law (Lev. 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 used 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 may have been mixed with water, as wine often 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 simply find it very difficult to find wine. That is why substitutes are permissible. The effectiveness of the ceremony does not depend on chemistry, but on our relationship with God.
Question: Is it permissible for people to partake of the Lord's Supper or communion before they are baptized?
Answer: 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. We tell people that the bread and wine are for those who have faith in Christ. They 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, even if they are not baptized. God knows those who are his.
We explain that the Lord's Supper is for those who have faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. However, we can't, nor do we wish to, police everybody's heart as to whether their faith is real. Some people may actually become convicted and come to faith during the course of the Lord's Supper service, and it would be right for them to partake.
Question: May people observe without participating?
Answer: 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?
Answer: 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 he lead the communion.
Our denominational practice is an annual, collective worldwide Lord's Supper service with footwashing on Nisan 14 or Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter, observed in some churches as the anniversary of the Last Supper). For those who miss this annual service for sickness, travel, etc., private services can be held at any convenient time or location. We have also observed the Lord's Supper or communion at special conferences, retreats, and other congregational meetings, including the fall festival.
We also teach that members may partake of the Lord's Supper at any time in small groups, and many are doing so. This is an already established practice. 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.
Answer: Yes. This function is not restricted to pastors, elders, or other church leaders, as discussed above, and may be done by women or any other lay members. Just as women may 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.
Of course, when only women are present, women will lead. There is no need to invite a man in, as if his prayers would be more effective, or as if women cannot picture their union with Christ unless a man prays over the symbols. Moreover, a woman may lead the service even if men are present. As we have previously explained (1996 and 1997 study paper), women may pray and read scripture, and these are the primary roles involved in leading a communion.
Answer: It is optional. For more information, see the article by Joseph Tkach.
Answer: We want our annual denominational service to follow a general standard, including prayer, a basic explanation of and blessing on the bread and wine, and worshipful music. Other 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 never be done flippantly, but with meaning. It should be a solemn and dignified occasion, yet at the same time, a joyous occasion—thereby appropriate for coming into the presence of God.
We have not heard of any problems in this regard, and we therefore do not feel it is appropriate to establish restrictions at this time. We are not going to specify a dress standard, music, time limits, quantities, etc. We pray that members will seek to be guided by God's Spirit to the level of formality appropriate for each situation.
What is our position on transubstantiation?
Do we teach that the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus Christ?
Jesus said, "This is my body." Some churches take this statement literally. However, other churches take this statement to be symbolic. In either case, Jesus did mean what he said. In some way, the bread and wine communicates the grace of Jesus to us. However, it is quite possible that what Jesus said, and what he meant, was 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 what he said, yet he meant it figuratively. Whether communication is literal or figurative, it still has meaning.
At the Last Supper, when Jesus actually said the words, he was right in front of the disciples, holding some bread, telling his disciples, This is my body. The disciples could see his body. They could see the bread. They could tell that there was a difference. In the original setting, the disciples would have understood Jesus' words in some figurative way.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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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. And the wine itself wasn't the new covenant, either. Jesus was speaking figuratively. He did not say that the wine was his blood.
The pattern is consistent: Jesus was speaking figuratively. 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 Cor. 10:16).