"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.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
In the bread and in the wine, we remember what our Savior did for us in the historical past. In a unique sacrifice, once for all time, he gave his body and shed his blood for our salvation. In our communion services, we commemorate his sacrifice for us.
But communion also pictures what our risen and living Savior does for us in our own past, present and future. Jesus gave himself for us even when we were sinners, and he continues to give himself for us, serving our needs. Both the bread and the wine point us not only to what Christ did in the past, but also to his loving, ever-present involvement in our lives right now.
The body of Christ
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul compares the church to the body of Christ. “Is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” he asks. “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).
The communion bread should remind us that in participating with Christ, we are also participating with one another, because we are all one in him. Although we are different in many respects, we are all nevertheless members of one another (Romans 12:5), for we all partake of Christ, the Bread of Life. Our unity is in him, and this unity is not just a figure of speech—it affects the way we treat one another.
In Corinth, however, the believers were not treating one another the way that they should. There were divisions among them (1 Corinthians 11:18), and instead of commemorating Christ together, they were divided even in the way they ate and drank the memorials of his death. The early arrivals were apparently so inconsiderate that they ate all the food and overindulged in wine, leaving nothing for those who arrived late (verse 21).
Wealthy people could arrive early, but poor people could come only after they had done their work. The result in Corinth was that the hungry people remained hungry, because all the food was gone by the time they arrived, and they felt humiliated (verses 21-22). So Paul scolded the wealthy for their behavior, because it did not reflect the unity in Christ that believers ought to have.
Paul did not require the wealthy to give up their wealth. He simply told everyone to eat at home (verse 34). The bread and wine are not a means of satisfying hunger, but a means of commemorating Christ’s death and resurrection, of showing our common faith in our crucified and risen Savior. The believers are to eat at home, and when coming together to eat the Lord’s Supper, they are to wait for one another (verse 33), so they will be participating together. Communion is to reflect unity, not discrimination or judgment (verse 34).
So Paul encouraged the Corinthians not only to examine themselves, but also to recognize the body of the Lord (verse 29). He is not talking about the flesh-and-bone body of Jesus (which the Corinthians could not see), but about the body of Christ, the church (which they could see), in which Christ dwells through the Spirit. They were to discern that the believers formed one body, united by their spiritual union with Christ—and this awareness was to make a difference in the way they treated one another.
A symbol of unity
The Lord’s Supper is to be an expression of unity in Christ. Since the Corinthians were using their meal to discriminate against the poor, they were not reflecting unity; therefore their meal was not the Lord’s Supper (verse 20). It should have been, and in verses 33-34 Paul tells them one way to avoid the problem. He wanted all believers to share equally in “the Lord’s table” (1 Corinthians 10:17, 21).
The bread of communion points us not just to Jesus on the cross, but to Jesus very much alive in the church today. The fact that Jesus died and rose for each and every one of us means that we have a spiritual equality. We need to see each other as people for whom Christ died, people Christ loves dearly—and we should love each other dearly, too.
Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat…. Each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. (Romans 14:9-13)
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
The new covenant
The communion wine reminds us not just that Jesus shed his blood for us—it reminds us of our new life in Christ right now. Jesus said that the wine is the new covenant in his blood—that is, our ongoing fellowship with God that he makes possible for us. Jesus did not die just for our past—he died so we would have a fellowship with God that extends into eternity.
The new covenant involves several changes:
First, God writes his laws on our hearts (Hebrews 8:10). This does not mean that we memorize sacrificial regulations or that we have an automatic desire to perform the ritual laws of the Old Testament. What this means is that God works inside us to change us to be more like he is. He puts his love within our hearts.
Second, the new covenant means that everyone will know God, or have fellowship with him (verse 11). The old covenant, in contrast, was made with a nation containing both faithful and unfaithful people; the new covenant involves a people who are all faithful—made faithful by our faithful Savior.
Third, the new covenant involves complete forgiveness—God will “remember their sins no more” (verse 12). Although the people had sins, the people are forgiven and will never be condemned.
These are exceedingly great and precious promises, and though in Christ we have entered into them and “tasted them,” as it were, they are not yet fully realized as they will be at his appearing, when the resurrection takes place and we “put on immortality.”
We already have the down payment of the promises (2 Corinthians 1:22). The Holy Spirit is already at work in our hearts, changing us to be more like Christ. We already know God and have fellowship with him (1 John 1:3), and we are already fully forgiven in Christ (Romans 8:1). The promises are being fulfilled, because the new covenant in the blood of Christ has been established.
When we drink the communion wine, we should remember that we are in covenant with God—an agreement in which he has pledged according to the certainty of his own faithfulness to cleanse our hearts, to renew our minds, and to forgive all our sins. He has promised to complete the work he has begun; we can be confident in what he is doing, because it is all based on what Christ did.
The life of Christ
Blood is not only a symbol of death—in the Old Testament it is also a symbol of life (Leviticus 17:14). Just as the body of Christ (represented by bread) is now visible in the church, the life of Christ (represented by wine) is also visible in his church—through his love in us expressed in good actions.
The church does not perfectly reflect the life of Christ. We have sins and shortcomings. The promises are not yet fully realized—but they are sure and certain promises—guaranteed for us by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The church is where Christ is working not only to preach the gospel, but also to change the hearts of the people who bear witness to his power to forgive, cleanse and transform sinners.
When we take the bread, accepting the bodily sacrifice of Jesus for us, we are also accepting his visible body in the world today—the church. When we take the wine, we accept not only his forgiveness, but also his promise to change our hearts.
The Lord’s Supper reminds us not just of Jesus’ death—it reminds us that he is raised and lives even now within us, within every member of his body, the church. When we partake of the Bread of Life, and drink the new covenant in Jesus’ blood, we are accepting his promises and inviting him to live within us and change us. This coming year, how might he want to change you?