What Is the Lord’s Supper and Why Is It Important?

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While baptism is the initiatory rite into the church, the Lord’s Supper is the continuing rite. It is an ordinance, since it was ordained by the Lord during His last supper (Matt. 26:26–29; Luke 22:19) and so should be practiced until His second coming (1 Cor. 11:26). It’s also referred to as “Communion” or the “Eucharist,” and some churches see it as a sacrament rather than an ordinance. It involves several symbolic elements: the broken bread is symbolic of Jesus’ broken body; the wine, for His shed blood that provided atonement for sin (1 Cor. 11:23–25). When received among the church it symbolizes the participants’ reception of Christ’s work as our substitute. It also symbolizes gospel proclamation, for Paul wrote, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). The corporate act is the declaration. It also involves social memory—“do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:24)— reinforcing the group’s identity and unity as those in union with Christ. And it is an ongoing reminder that the church is a new-covenant reality: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor. 11:25b).

Views on the Supper

The new covenant is a relationship promised to Israel, the frame-work by which the nation would be governed during the future messianic kingdom (Jer. 31:31). By God’s grace the church participates in some of the blessings of this covenant, based on Christ’s work on the cross (Matt. 26:28; Ex. 24:8), though complete realization awaits in the future. A person has a right relationship with God through Christ only on the basis of the new covenant (Heb. 9:18–20). Paul understands himself to be a minister of the new covenant (2 Cor. 3:6), a covenant that is salient in the present era in a non-supersessionist way. God has enlarged the scope of the blessings of the covenant but that does not change the way in which He will fulfill His covenant promises to Israel. He has done more, not less, than He promised. Practicing the Lord’s Supper reminds us of God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel and to nations.

Jesus’ words in 1 Corinthians 11:24–25, “This is my body”—and a similar expression concerning His “blood”— has been the focus of theologians and pastors throughout church history (Matt. 26:26, 28). What did Jesus mean by “is”? The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the elements of the Mass are changed into the literal body and blood of Christ. They become mystically present when the priest pronounces the consecration formula over the bread and wine. This is referred to as transubstantiation and is rejected by Protestants. The Lutheran theological position contends that the person partakes of the true body of Christ in, with, and under the elements (Formula of Concord, 7:35). There is no actual transformation of the elements, as in the Roman Catholic view. This is referred to as consubstantiation: Christ’s real presence is there in, with, and under the bread and wine.

The spiritual-presence view, in contrast to the two realpresence views, contends that Christ is spiritually present through the agency of the Holy Spirit and the elements manifest His presence. This is the view found in Reformed, Calvinist, and Presbyterian churches. The Lord’s Supper is more than a mere symbol or memorial; it is a means of grace.

The fourth view, the memorial one, goes back to Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531), who recognized “is” as a figure of speech, signifying or symbolizing Christ’s body and blood. This view is evident among Baptistic, Bible, and free churches. It is symbolic, similar to the eating and drinking in John 6:53–54 and the non-means-of-grace sharing in 1 Corinthians 10:16. Partaking in the Lord’s Supper is still a testimony of one’s faith (Heb. 9:22) and a public acknowledgment of a new identity (Heb. 10:20). The elements symbolize Jesus’ pierced body (John 19:33, 36) and His suffering and death (Matt. 20:22). The focus for the memorial view is the Lord’s Supper is to be done in remembrance of Jesus.

The Supper in Church History

Who may participate in the Lord’s Supper has been a question throughout church history. The first prerequisite is that a person needs to be in Christ. This is often referred to as regenerate participation—only those born again by the Holy Spirit may partake (John 3:3–8; James 1:18). Fellowship with Christ and other believers will not occur simply by the act itself. Those who are in Christ but out of fellowship with other believers in a local congregation may be prohibited from participating. Historically, self-examination and confession of sin have been key parts of preparing to rightly take the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:27–32; cf. Ps. 66:18; 1 John 1:8–9).

“The meal that was designed to unify those in Christ has often been the occasion to divide them.”

Reflection on participation in the Lord’s Supper also extends to one’s ecclesial identity. Often, in traditions that refer to it as “communion,” you will come across “open” communion, “closed” communion, or “close” communion. The open perspective allows anyone in Christ to participate; and since this tradition understands it as an ordinance of the universal church, anyone may administer it. It may also be taken in diverse locations and not limited to the church gathering.

The closed view contends that only members of a particular church may participate. The administration of the table is strictly regulated and it may only be taken under the auspices of a local church. The Roman Catholic Church is the foremost example of this view.

Finally, the close understanding holds that those in a right relationship with God and part of a local church may participate in the ordinance. The table is still regulated by a local church. In terms of who may be permitted to administer it, and while it does vary, there is still a preference for the Lord’s Supper to occur during the congregational service.

As we can see, the meal that was designed to unify those in Christ has often been the occasion to divide them. Maybe we can appreciate the diverse ways in which churches have understood the Lord’s Supper as a gift rather than a problem to solve. Maybe rediscovering the meaning of the Lord’s Supper can allow us to develop a spirit of hospitality and koinoˉnia, the communal life together we have in the triune God with one another (1 Cor. 1:9; 10:16–17; 2 Cor. 13:14).

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