Shortly before his death, Jesus shared a meal with his disciples. He shared a cup of wine with them, and then some bread. “He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me’” (Luke 22:19).
When Jesus told his disciples to do “this” in remembrance of him, what were they to “do”? They were to take bread, give thanks, break it and share it. They were also to share some wine (verse 17; 1 Cor. 11:25).
Although the Last Supper may have been special due to the festival season, the substances used were more ordinary. The disciples were to “do” what they had probably done many times before: share bread and wine. Now, they were to do it in remembrance of the fact that Jesus gave his body and blood on behalf of others so that we could have a new relationship with God.
When two disciples were on the road to Emmaus, the resurrected Jesus walked with them. They recognized him only after “he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them” (Luke 24:30). In the breaking and sharing of the bread, they became aware of who Jesus was.
Jesus’ Last Supper became etched into the memory of the disciples. It was a tremendously significant moment. It is therefore likely that they remembered Jesus every time they got together and shared bread. When the disciples came together to break bread and pray (Acts 2:42), whenever they shared an evening meal with other disciples, they would remember their Savior.
Three reasons for annual observance
Some churches commemorate Jesus’ death every week; some monthly; others quarterly. Some do it annually. Does Scripture prescribe a correct frequency? At least one preacher has argued that the Lord’s Supper should be taken only once each year. He gave three reasons for an annual observance:
1) “There was a definite time — a definite hour — when He held this supper, setting us an example.... It was `when the hour was come,’ [Luke 22:14] that Jesus first introduced the bread and the wine.”
2) Jesus changed the way we observe “the ordinance of the passover for New Testament times.... We take unleavened bread, symbolizing his broken body, and the wine, symbolizing his shed blood, as a memorial, looking back to his death.... The time for commemorating passover...is once a year. Jesus set us an example (1 Peter 2:21), observing it at this set time once a year (Luke 2:42).”
3) “We do it in remembrance of the Lord’s death — a memorial of His death. And memorials of momentous occasions always are observed annually, once a year, on the anniversary of the event they commemorate.”
The three reasons examined
Let us examine these reasons. 1) First, it is true that Jesus did not begin the Last Supper until a particular hour came. There was a definite time and place.
However, there is no indication in the Bible that we are required to follow these specific details. For example: The cup was shared after supper (Luke 22:20). We do not know what time that was. We do not know whether the disciples had a quick meal, or a very leisurely one. It might have been as early as 7 p.m. or as late as 10 p.m. If the hour is really important, then we do not have enough guidance to be sure.
We do not have to share the bread during a supper, and we do not have to wait until after a supper to partake of the wine. Nor do we have to go to an upper room or recline at a table. These details are not significant for us, and the same is true of the hour.
2) Second, is the bread and wine a New Testament version of the Passover? Jesus shared the bread and wine at the beginning of the Passover season — that was the date it happened — but Jesus never said that the bread and wine replaced the Passover lamb and meal. The supper Jesus ate was called a Passover meal, but Jesus did not call the bread and wine a Passover. He instituted a new ceremony.
The Passover lamb was a commemoration of the Exodus; it also looked forward to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The bread and wine look backward in memory of Jesus Christ. Although they both picture death of Christ, they do so from different perspectives, and they are different ceremonies. The symbolism of the old covenant Passover has been fulfilled, and it does not need to be repeated. The Passover ritual is obsolete.
It may also be helpful to point out that the Passover is not the only ritual that Jesus fulfilled. He also fulfilled the sin offerings, fellowship offerings, grain offerings, annual offerings, monthly offerings, weekly offerings, and daily offerings. The Passover offering was an annual event, but the others were much more frequent, and the bread and wine commemorate the death of Jesus, which fulfilled daily rituals as well as annual ones.
The Passover lamb commemorates an event in Israelite history. It was part of the law of Moses, and could be observed only by circumcised people. But the early church recognized that gentile Christians did not have to become circumcised and did not have to observe the law of Moses. What Christians observed in the bread and wine was not a slightly altered version of the Passover lamb. Gentile Christians were not commemorating the Exodus from Egypt. Rather, they were commemorating Jesus Christ. It was a new ceremony. Bread and wine has little in common with lamb and bitter herbs.
Did Jesus observe the Lord’s Supper once each year? No. He observed it only once in his lifetime. We cannot determine anything about our frequency from his example.
We do not need to be limited by old covenant rules about the Passover when we observe a different ritual under a different covenant. The observance of the Lord’s Supper is not mandated or regulated by the old covenant or the Hebrew calendar.
The primary point is that there is no reason to apply rules about the Old Testament Passover to the New Testament Lord’s Supper. Although they both symbolize the death of Jesus, they are different ceremonies and have different rules. The old covenant ritualistic rules have been declared obsolete (Heb. 8:13). Spiritual meaning and reality are much more important. The new covenant does not make rules about when to eat bread and drink wine in commemoration of Jesus’ death. The Bible does not require any particular frequency.
For example, if precise timing were important, should we not observe this ritual when it is evening in Jerusalem? Shouldn’t everyone observe this ritual at exactly the same time, worldwide, no matter where they live? No, the exact time is not that important. Jesus did not assign symbolic meaning to the time.
It is not necessary to follow the Jewish calendar. It was designed for old covenant Israel, a people who lived in a specific region and climate. It was not designed for a worldwide church of Christians.
The old covenant was not as finicky about calendar dates as some might think. For example, when Hezekiah restored the festivals to Judah, everyone kept the Passover in the second month (2 Chronicles 30:2, 15). Although the law of Moses made provision for keeping the Passover in the second month, the Jews in Hezekiah’s day did not qualify for the specific provisions of the second Passover. Hezekiah was, strictly speaking, breaking the law of Moses (v. 18).
Not only did the Israelites observe the Passover in the second month that year, they also observed the Festival of Unleavened Bread in the second month. The law of Moses did not authorize such a thing. And not only did they observe it in the wrong month, they also kept it for 14 days instead of seven! (v. 23). And God was happy with the whole thing (v. 27). An extra festival in the wrong month is perfectly acceptable to God. He looks on the heart more than on the calendar.
The example of Hezekiah shows that it is permissible, even under the old covenant, to observe festivals at different times. It is permissible to addmore celebration — even more so in the new covenant! The Lord gives us liberty, not legalism.
3) Third, it is claimed that memorials are always observed annually. It is true that many memorials are observed annually. However, some newly married couples commemorate their marriage every month. And we know that the Israelites had a weekly memorial of creation, the Sabbath. So we cannot use cultural customs about commemorations to say anything about how often the Bible requires us to observe the Lord’s Supper.
A further examination of the biblical evidence
When we examine the reasons for having an annual commemoration, we find that none of the reasons are conclusive. And if we put three inconclusive arguments together, we still don’t prove anything. We might like for the Bible to tell us exactly when and how to do things, but sometimes it doesn’t. If we try to force the Bible to answer a question it really doesn’t answer, then we will misuse the Scriptures and be dogmatic about things we shouldn’t be.
Is it possible that the Bible does not tell us how often we should observe the Lord’s Supper? Is it possible that such an important ceremony is left up to the decision of the disciples? Is it possible that different groups of Christians can observe different frequencies, and all be acceptable?
Perhaps it is possible. Let’s see what the Bible says. It indicates flexibility in the timing when it tells us that Jesus said, “Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25). “When” might indicate a set time, but “whenever” indicates flexibility.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians also gives evidence that the Lord’s Supper was being observed frequently. He corrected them for their behavior at meetings in which they ate and drank, and it sounds like this was frequent (verses 17, 20, 33). It was done when they came together “as a church” (verse 18). Paul told them that they should satisfy their hunger at home (verse 34) — but they should nevertheless “come together to eat” (verse 33). What were they supposed to eat? The context shows that Paul was instructing them on their conduct when they ate the bread and wine in commemoration of Jesus’ death. This is what the Corinthians had been doing, but in a poor manner. He corrected them on their manner, but said nothing about the frequency.
Paul did not say that the Corinthians should partake of the Lord’s Supper every time they met. But he certainly makes no restrictions on frequency, and the words Paul used allow for frequent participation. The Bible simply does not tell us how often to partake of the Lord’s Supper. There is no command about how often we should commemorate the Lord’s death, just as there is no command about how often we should fast.
The Lord’s Supper is a new covenant ceremony, and it is not restricted by old covenant rules about the Passover. And since the new covenant does not specify when the Lord’s Supper should be observed, we are free to make our own decisions about it. It is our policy that members may observe communion as often as they wish. This may be done by small groups without any need for prior approval from church leaders. Many of our congregations have a monthly Communion service; some also have an annual service that includes a voluntary footwashing service.
Some people think that once a year is often enough. Other people think that it is not often enough. How often should we remember the Lord’s death? Very often — even daily. But is it necessary to have the physical symbols of bread and wine in order to remember the Lord’s death? No, the physical symbols are not absolutely necessary.
But are they helpful? For many people, yes. That is why Jesus told us to do these things in his remembrance. Many people understand and remember ideas better when they have not just words, but also actions in which they participate. The lesson is being made in more than one way, and can be communicated to a wider variety of people.
Some people think well in abstract thoughts, in the world of ideas. Others prefer more practical thoughts — they prefer to deal with things they can see, touch, taste, smell or hear. The Old Testament had many rituals that were physical signs and symbols of spiritual truths. God knows that humans often need such visual aids.
Some people will find it helpful to participate in the Lord’s Supper more often than others will. Some will find it easy for the bread and wine to remind them of spiritual truths about their Savior; others will find this association more abstract and not so easy.
Some people associate the bread and wine with ritual rather than meaning. In their experience, the focus was on the ritual, not on Christ. This is sad, and it is no surprise that people with such experiences do not want to partake of the Lord’s Supper too often. In their experience, frequent communion is associated with meaningless ritual and perhaps with lifeless churches.
Other Christians have a different background. They had only an annual observance, a funeral-like ceremony, in which people were overly concerned about formality. These members may associate an annual ceremony with a church that didn’t understand Jesus’ death as well as it should have. They ask, To help us remember what Jesus did for us on the cross, shouldn’t we follow his instructions on how to remember him? If we do it more often, then maybe we won’t forget.
There is truth on both sides of this issue. We do not want a meaningless ritual — but a ritual can be meaningless no matter how rare or often it is. If it’s done too often, it can lose its meaning. But it doesn’t have to. Many marriages have daily rituals that continue to be meaningful.
What is most important is not so much the frequency, but a clear understanding and explanation of the meaning. If the meaning is explained once a year and people remember it throughout the year, then once a year is enough. If the meaning is explained and the action is done throughout the year with that meaning in mind, then the repetitions are not too often. For some members, a more frequent communion will be helpful. Others may be more bothered by it than helped. And both sides will sometimes attempt to use the Bible to try to make it say what they want.
There is no way to please everyone. But people of both persuasions can still do the frequency they want. Those who want to participate only once a year may do so; those who want a greater frequency may do so as often as their groups wish.
Different believers have different fears about frequent or infrequent communion, but the real issue for most people is the meaning of the actions we participate in. For the Lord’s Supper, we do not want people to “go through the motions” without remembering the Lord’s death. We want to remember the meaning. For further comments about the meaning, see “The Three-Fold Meaning of the Lord’s Supper,” by Joseph Tkach.