Passover, Communion, Lord’s Supper, Eucharist: All are traditional names for the observance commemorating Jesus’ death. Should we use any (or all) of these to describe our service?
In 1845, in Philadelphia, J.L. Boyd and C.S. Minor led a small sabbatarian church to observe an annual “Passover” with bread and grape juice in commemoration of Jesus’ death. “They also washed one another’s feet, following Jesus’ Passover example. They continued this practice alone for 30 years before they ever found any others who agreed with them.”1
By the 1880s, those we know today as the Church of God (Seventh-Day) all came to accept this custom. When Herbert Armstrong first learned that the Church of God (Seventh Day) kept an observance called Passover, he disagreed. He agreed that Communion should be kept at the Passover season, but argued that it was wrong to call the service a Passover. In a letter to Katie Gilstrap dated 3 May 1928 he wrote:
Christ abrogated this Passover entirely, instituting in its stead a new ordinance, called the Lord’s Supper…. The Lord’s Supper is the true scriptural name and title for the ordinance. Read I Corinthians 11:20-34. The name Passover is not used in the New Testament at any time, as the name of this ordinance under the New Testament, after the crucifixion. It is improper for us, then, to call it the Passover.2
By the spring of 1929, Mr. Armstrong had changed his opinion. He began to keep not only the Passover, but all of the other annual Holy Days as well.3 Two decades after his public ministry began, he published the first version of “How Often Should We Partake of the Lord’s Supper?” He thought the name Lord’s Supper was a misnomer and the correct name should be Passover. Yet, in print, he did not disparage the phrase Lord’s Supper or those who used it. He sometimes used it himself, with quote marks.
Mr. Armstrong also commented on the other common name for this ordinance — Communion. He occasionally applied the term Communion to the bread and wine. Sometimes he put Communion within quotation marks, but not always. Unlike his comments about “the Lord’s Supper,” he wrote nothing that suggested the word was unbiblical.4 He never commented on the term Eucharist.
1 Corinthians 11:20
Some ministers interpreted 1 Corinthians 11:20 as a command not to call Passover “the Lord’s Supper.” When and how this began is not clear. Despite dozens of articles on the Passover, this interpretation appeared in print only three times, and with little explanation.5 Because 1 Corinthians 11:20 is the key to understanding the correct use of the term Lord’s Supper, a detailed explanation of that verse will be given later in this paper.
The term Passover was used in the Gospels for Jesus’ last supper.6 The term Passover reminds us that “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). Many commentators recognize that early Jewish Christians continued to keep the Passover, but with a new Christian emphasis.
Returning to the questions asked at the start of this article: What about the names Communion, Lord’s Supper and Eucharist? Do these names also have a biblical basis, and may we use them as well?
Paul writes about Communion to a divided church
The name Communion is rooted in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. Understanding what Paul said about Communion will help us understand what he said about the Lord’s Supper.
The church at Corinth was filled with doctrinal, moral and relational problems that were sapping its vitality and threatening its integrity. From the outset of the letter we learn that the Corinthian church had begun to divide into various camps. People were taking sides. The congregation was in serious trouble. Paul called on the believers to base their relationships on solid Christian values.
The troubles at Corinth even extended into their religious meetings. Beginning with chapter 10, Paul discusses a variety of ways they could restore Christian decorum to those gatherings. He addresses acceptable hair styles, the use of spiritual gifts, speaking in tongues, and the orderly function of worship services. Paul’s discussion of the Lord’s Supper is part of this larger theme.
To introduce this discussion, Paul first writes about idolatry. He begins by drawing on the symbolism of the food and drink of the Christian Passover as typified in the wilderness experience of Israel:
For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.7
Paul points out that Israel had communed with God. They had shared in a holy meal. Despite their personal, intimate feast with God, they turned away from him and degenerated into paganism. “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.”8
Those who had once communed with God turned from him to commune with idols. Their immorality led to 23,000 deaths. Paul warned the church that they could be tempted in the same way. Yet no one should despair, for God would “provide a way out.” Paul reminded the Corinthians that they, like Israel, also communed with God.
Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in [or communion with] the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in [or communion with] the body of Christ?9
When the Christians gathered to share bread and wine, the church participated in, or communed with, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Christ was present — symbolically in the bread and wine, and literally through the Spirit.
However, Paul feared another type of communion that some at Corinth thought their Christian liberty permitted. Some wished to participate in the sacred meals of the pagan cults. They reasoned that since the idols were nothing, they could go into pagan temples and participate in the religious meals. Paul knew there was great harm in such practices.
To stop this practice, Paul contrasted Christ’s sacrifice, represented in the bread and wine, with the altar in God’s temple and also with the sacrifices of pagans. “The sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with [or commune with] demons.”
Simply because the idols were nothing was no excuse. Demons were present at idolatrous feasts. The idols may have been nothing, but the demons were real. This was not simply a theoretical problem. Just as God was present when the Christians shared bread and wine, so demons were present at pagan feasts. A Christian had to decide with whom he or she was going to commune. Paul wrote, “You cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.” [Note that Paul wanted them to have part in “the Lord’s table” — that is also a biblical name for the tradition of bread and wine. It would be an odd focus on terminology if the observance could be called “table” but not “supper.”]
Paul then answered the question that naturally flows from the above discussion: Is it permissible to eat meats sacrificed to idols that are not a part of a temple meal? The communion took place only within the context of a religious meal. Therefore Paul judged that such meat is acceptable, as long as eating it troubles no one’s conscience.
After having discussed these and other principles, Paul returned to the subject of Communion by addressing the specific practices within the Corinthian church.
In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk…. do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this: Certainly not!10
Paul was disgusted that such practices existed within the church. Though they were drunken and gluttonous, the Corinthians’ gravest sins lay in their callous disregard for one another, which resulted in the pollution of Christ’s name. How could they commune with Christ when they despised his body, the church?
The origins of the Corinthian problem
How did such practices begin? Some believe that the Corinthians justified their practices as an imitation of Jesus, who ate a meal at his last Passover, when he instituted the symbols of bread and wine. But if that is what the Corinthians believed, why does Paul make no mention of that belief? Instead, his approach hinges on bringing Christ’s example to their attention, an example they have forgotten, rather than correcting any false understanding of that example.
Paul begins his discussion of Communion with a warning about communion with demons, whose drunken, gluttonous festivals Christians were to avoid. The behavior of the Corinthians mimicked these practices much more than they did the example of Christ. It therefore appears that instead of justifying their approach with Christ’s example, the Corinthians may have simply reflected the social values of their day:
There was a Roman custom to serve different types of food to different categories of guests…. Given such a custom, it would have been normal behavior for the wealthier members not to have any qualms about eating their bountiful provisions and letting the poorer do the best they could.11
Since the church gathered for such meals in the homes of the rich, most likely the host was also the patron of the meal…. In a class-conscious society such as Roman Corinth would have been, it would be sociologically natural for the host to invite those of his/her own class to eat in the triclinium [the dining room], while the others would eat in the atrium [the courtyard].12
In the average well-to-do house of the Roman era, a dining room accommodated about nine people, the atrium thirty to forty. In any large Christian gatherings…some would have been in the dining room, others in the atrium outside. It would have been the natural procedure for the host’s social equals to gather early in the dining room and for the lesser lights to find their places in the atrium.
Since the Corinthian church was composed of well-to-do…as well as slaves…the time of arrival would differ. The well-to-do could come early, while the slaves would arrive late. The latecomers would doubtless find no place to be besides the atrium of the house and would be entering hungrily a scene where others had already reached the point of satiety.13
Paul knew that if this situation continued, the congregation’s spiritual life was jeopardized. Paul reminded the Christians of Jesus’ own example and instruction:
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”… For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.14
The Corinthians had forgotten the example of Jesus. Their selfishness, even if it had a social basis, was inexcusable. They were bringing shame and division to the Body of Christ and dishonoring the memory of their Lord.
Do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!15
Paul demanded changes in the Corinthians’ Communion
The Corinthian Communion needed a completely new attitude and approach. Order and decorum would have to be restored to the service. Poorer members would have to be respected. Godly relationships within the church would have to be restored. Only then would the congregation’s communion with Christ become secure.
It is in that context that 1 Corinthians 11:20 tells us, “When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper” (King James Version). If one reads Paul’s charge “this is not to eat the Lord’s supper” by itself, one might conclude that Paul commanded the church not to call Communion “The Lord’s Supper.” However, once Paul wrote about a problem, he never left the solution in doubt.
If Paul meant that they were not to call the gathering the Lord’s Supper, then what were they to call it? Paul never said. Paul never even called the gathering a Passover. He was not writing about what to call the service. He had other more important matters in mind.
A small word is key to understanding
Let’s look again at 1 Corinthians 11:21. The word translated into English as “for” is gar, which is a “conjunction used to express cause, inference, continuation, or to explain.”16 The word for in English can have that same meaning. Paul’s own use of the word gar in this context shows that he intended his comments in verse 21 to explain his comments in verse 20.
What does Paul say is the reason for their not observing the Lord’s Supper? Their ill-mannered, disrespectful and carnal approach to the whole evening — not the name they used. “It is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk…do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?”
Put another way, what Paul said was this: Because you have so polluted Christ’s memorial, it can no longer be said that you are observing the Lord’s Supper. Yes, you should be observing the Lord’s Supper. You think you are observing the Lord’s Supper. But you are not. Repent. Correct the situation. Change your attitudes. Then you will again be observing the Lord’s Supper.
Instead of condemning the term Lord’s Supper, Paul implied that the term is acceptable when the participants’ behavior is also acceptable. This term, just like “the Lord’s table,” is acceptable. Paul wanted them to observe the Lord’s Supper. What a shame they were not!
The Lord’s Supper is respectful
From Paul’s letter we can conclude that the term Lord’s Supper was used in the first-century church, at least at Corinth, and probably in other churches, too. The name is not derisive, but is an appropriately respectful term for the Christian ceremony. Its respectful character is proven by its etymology.
[Lord’s Supper] is derived from the Greek collocation kyriakon deipnon in 1 Cor 11:20. Kyriakos means something like “belonging to the kyrios (lord)”, “owned by the kyrios.” In the papyri and inscriptions it designates Caesar’s domain…. Deipnon was what the Greeks called the main meal of the day, eaten in the late afternoon or evening…. Moreover, deipnon also designated the festal meal or banquet (in the NT, e.g., Mark 6:21; Luke 14:16,17,24).17
John used deipnon in writing about both the Last Supper and for the future marriage supper of the Lamb.18 Luke used deipnon to describe a great banquet in one of Jesus’ parables. There deipnon is used as a type of God’s kingdom.19
The fact that the Corinthian church debased the gathering is disappointing, but understandable. Their attitudes reflected the pagan Greco-Roman culture from which they had come and among which they still lived. Adherents of pagan mystery cults often communed with demons at their drunken gluttonous religious meals. Former pagans may have approached the Christian observance in the same way.
The word “supper” (deipnon) is common in Greek writers, and in papyri and inscriptions for cult meals of communion between gods and men. This circumstance may explain why the early church fathers seldom employed the term.20
We do not know why Christians began using the phrase “the Lord’s Supper.” Perhaps it arose from a need to distinguish the Christian ceremony from the Jewish Passover. In any event, the unfortunate association of a religious “supper” with hedonistic pagan celebrations made an otherwise perfectly acceptable name unpopular among early Christian writers. Having distanced themselves from the Jewish practice, they later needed to distance themselves from paganism. They then began to use another term, the Eucharist.
Eucharist replaces Lord’s Supper and Passover
Among the early Christian writings outside of the NT the Didache, the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, and Justin Martyr’s Apology deserve to be studied as witnesses to the Lord’s Supper. In these writings the technical term for the Lord’s Supper is eucharistia…a word which took the lead in Christian tradition for a long time and which is still, as in the past, dominant in Catholic circles.21
It may surprise some that the name Eucharist has a biblical basis. Eucharist comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving, eucharistia, a word used for the prayers of thanks offered at meals. Matthew and Mark chose eucharisteo as their word for Christ’s prayer over the symbolic wine of the Last Supper.22 When someone observes Eucharist, they are expressing thanks for Christ’s shed blood.
The New International Version says that Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10:16, called the Communion cup “the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks.” However, the word translated here as “thanksgiving” is not eucharistia, but eulogias. Other translations render this word as “blessing.” The King James Version speaks of “the cup of blessing which we bless.” This translation creates a problem in that it can be understood to mean that the church is the one that blesses the cup. It would be more accurate to say that God blesses the cup in response to our prayers.
“Blessing according to Jewish custom is bestowed by prayer.”23 And prayers for blessings should always have a profound sense of thanksgiving, of eucharisteo. The term Eucharist springs from this concept and this passage in 1 Corinthians.
In gathering to memorialize Christ’s death, Christians remember Jesus is their Passover Lamb, slain from the foundation of the earth. Filled with thankfulness, their memorial is also a Eucharist, a thanksgiving for God’s mercy, love, and selfless sacrifice. In consuming the sacred symbols of the Lord’s Supper, their observance becomes a communion with the blood and body of Christ. In communing with Christ, they commune with Christians everywhere.
At the Last Supper, the apostles ate bread broken from a single loaf and drank from a single cup passed to them by Jesus. “Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and give it to his disciples…. Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it” (Mark 14:23). In passing the bread and that cup among themselves, they symbolically expressed their unity with one another and with Christ.
Paul implies in 1 Corinthians that this use of one communal loaf and one cup passed from one person to another continued to be practiced. He wrote:
After supper he [Jesus] took the cup, saying, `This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man out to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup (verses 25-28).
The sharing of a single cup heightened their sense of sharing in Christ and of belonging to his one body. Passed from hand to hand, this single cup, drunk from by all, emphasized the oneness of the faith. As the church grew, this practice changed, but the belief in Christian unity through communion with Christ remained.
Let’s summarize some points we’ve discussed and the conclusions we can draw from them.
- Passover is the name the Gospels give to the Last Supper at which Jesus instituted the symbols of bread and wine.
- When Christians eat those symbols, they commune with Christ. The name Communion expresses that truth.
- Paul did not condemn the name Lord’s Supper or suggest a substitute. This suggests that he found the name perfectly acceptable.
- The etymology of Lord’s Supper shows it to be a respectful and reverent name. Using it reminds believers of whose “supper” they are eating.
- The Corinthians should have been observing the Lord’s Supper but were not, because they were abusing their fellow Christians and thereby heaping shame upon Christ’s name.
- Eucharist comes from a word meaning thanksgiving. Christ and the church gave thanks over the wine symbolizing Jesus’ shed blood, the blood of the new covenant. Eucharist can then be an expression of the believers’ thanks for what God has done for them.
Therefore, the names Passover, Communion, Lord’s Supper and Eucharist all have a biblical basis. Each name expresses different aspects of either Christ’s sacrifice or of church custom. The acceptance or use of these names does not imply the acceptance of any doctrinal error, immorality, or superstitious ritual associated with them. The fact that others may have misused these names is unfortunate. These names should be used with the respect due them. Immorality or doctrinal error in association with these names does not mean that the church should avoid their use. Avoidance of these terms may lead Christians to forget certain aspects of the ordinance. “Out of sight, out of mind.”
Does the church now keep the Lord’s Supper? The answer is yes; the church has always kept the Lord’s Supper, though we have not always called it by that name.
1 Ralph Orr. “Has God’s Church Always Kept the Passover?” Reviews You Can Use, March-April, 1993, p. 32.
2 Herbert Armstrong’s copy of his letter to Katie Gilstrap, 3 May 1928. The Herbert Armstrong personal papers collection, Grace Communion International, Item 3690, Box 10.
3 Did the Gilstraps influence Mr. Armstrong to keep the Holy Days? The Gilstraps had observed both Passover and Unleavened Bread since 1893. In 1907 they contacted the Church of God. Despite the church’s differences with the Gilstraps over the Holy Days (the church did not keep them) they recognized J.G. Gilstrap as a Church of God minister well into the 1920s (Richard Nickels, A History of the Seventh Day Church of God, private printing, 1973, pp. 240-241, 146, 177, 197).
Katie Gilstrap wrote at least one article discussing how the spring Holy Days meshed with the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Herbert Armstrong’s 1928 letter to Katie was in response to that article. Perhaps as a result of her influence, Herbert Armstrong started in the spring of 1928 an intense personal Bible study of the Holy Days. The record of this study has been preserved in his personal papers. His study apparently led him to start observing Unleavened Bread by the spring of 1929.
Into the middle 1930s Mr. Armstrong still referred to Communion both as the Lord’s Supper and as Passover. By 1940, Passover had become the preferred name.
4 “The ‘Communion,’ which is instituted by New Testament Bible authority, is a memorial of the death of Christ” (Herbert Armstrong, The PIain Truth About Christmas, 1987 and earlier editions, p. 3).
5 The closest thing to an official statement on the verse is found in only two pieces of literature, “How to Observe God’s Festivals,” published in 1959 and 1974, and a revision of the same entitled “Observing the Spring Festivals,” in the March 24, 1986 Worldwide News. Both articles read, “No leavened product is to be used with the Passover service — which is improperly termed ‘Lord’s Supper’ (I Corinthians 11:20).” The article did not originate but instead repeated our oral tradition.
6 Matthew 26:17-20; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:7-19. John’s account of that evening differs markedly from that of the Synoptics. In John’s Gospel the Last Supper is simply called an evening meal (John 13:1-3).
Despite the fact that Jesus called his Last Supper a Passover, he evidently did not mean that it was a Passover in the traditional sense. This is evident from its timing (at the beginning of the Passover day as opposed to the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread), and the absence of most traditional elements associated with the Jewish festival. “Everything that is typical of a Passover is missing: the paschal lamb, the stewed fruit, the bitter herbs, and the Passover haggadah” (Klauck, “Lord’s Supper,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 4, p. 365). Yet the Synoptics teach that the Last Supper was a Passover, no matter how nontraditional it may have been.
7 1 Corinthians 10:1-3.
8 1 Corinthians 10:7.
9 1 Corinthians 10:16.
10 1 Corinthians 11:17-22.
11 Charles H. Talbert. Reading Corinthians: A Literary and Theological Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. New York: Crossroad, 1989. pp. 74-75.
12 Gordon D. Fee. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, F.F. Bruce, editor. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991, p. 533.
13 Talbert, p. 75.
14 1 Corinthians 11:23-27.
15 1 Corinthians 11:22.
16 Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. University of Chicago Press, 1952, p. 151.
17 Hans-Josef Klauck. “Lord’s Supper,” translated by David Ewert. The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol 4. New York: Doubleday, 1992. pp. 362-363.
18 John 12:2; 13:2, 4; 21:20; Revelation 19:9, 17.
19 Luke 14:12, 16-17, 24.
20 M.H. Shepherd, Jr. “Lord’s Supper.” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Abingdon, 1962.
21 Klauck, p. 363.
22 Matthew 26:27; Mark 14:23-24.
23 Klauck, p. 364.
24 Which Day is the Christian Sabbath? 1991 revision. pp. 68-69; The Truth About Easter. 1992. pp. 5, 19, 21.
Author: Ralph Orr