At the Last Supper, the Lord Jesus’ final Passover celebration with His disciples, He broke some unleavened bread (matzoh) and commanded His followers to “Take, eat.”
Then He gave them a cup of wine and said, “Drink from it” (Matt. 26:26–27). Those commands are the reason followers of Jesus are to obey Him still today by observing the Lord’s Supper or communion. Even so, the question remains, what is the specific meaning of this ceremony?
The command to take communion has been understood in several different ways. First, some ancient church traditions have adopted a view called transubstantiation. This view maintains that when an ordained priest blesses the communion bread and wine, the elements are transformed into the actual flesh and blood of Jesus respectively, while keeping the appearance, taste, and odor of bread and wine.
The most problematic issue with transubstantiation is that it is most commonly taught as a re-sacrifice of the Lord Jesus. The Bible plainly states that the Lord’s suffering and death was a “once for all” event (Heb. 10:10), never to be repeated. Hebrews 7:27 states that the Lord Jesus “does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.” Having suffered, died, and been raised from the dead, the Lord Jesus “always lives to make intercession for” those who have trusted in Him (v. 25). There is no need for the Messiah Jesus to be sacrificed over and over again in any kind of ceremonial way.
A second view, held by Lutherans and frequently called consubstantiation, is that while the elements of communion are not transformed into the physical body and blood of Jesus, the elements and the Lord’s body and blood are both present concurrently. In essence, this view is saying that, when used in the Lord’s Supper, the molecules of the bread and wine do not change. However, in addition to remaining as actual bread and wine, they also contain the Lord’s body and blood. This seems to misunderstand the metaphorical nature of Jesus’ words, to be discussed below.
There is a third view, held by Reformed churches, called the mystical presence view of communion. This view is based on taking Jesus’ words about the unleavened bread (“This is My body . . .”) and the cup (“This is My blood . . .”) in a literal sense (Matt. 26:26–28). This tradition believes that the Messiah Jesus is mystically present in the elements of communion, meaning in a spiritual sense, but not a corporeal or physical one. This view believes that receiving these elements by faith is a sacrament, meaning a source of receiving divine grace. In a sense, this view sees the Lord’s Supper as a way of receiving spiritual nourishment. Although the mystical presence interpretation is both responsible and respectable, it is better to take Jesus’ words about the bread and the cup metaphorically.
Those who hold to the spiritual presence view believe it is taught in the Bread of Life discourse (John 6:41–58) when the Lord Jesus said “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life” (v. 54). But these words should not be taken literally nor are they related to communion. In the context, the Lord Jesus said, “He who believes has eternal life” (v. 47, italics added), indicating that eating His flesh and drinking His blood are merely metaphors for faith in the atoning work of Jesus. The text indicates that those who took these words literally, saying “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” (v. 52), entirely misunderstood what the Lord Jesus meant.
The mystical presence view maintains that the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament (or a means of receiving divine grace).
But the Scriptures teach that grace is received only by faith (Eph. 2:8–9) and that followers of Jesus experience union with the Messiah Jesus when they trust in Him. Paul frequently says that believers in Jesus are “in Christ” (e.g., Rom. 8:1; 2 Cor. 5:17), meaning that they are identified with and are in union with Him. Not only are we “in Him” but He is in us: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). This is made possible by the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit from the moment someone trusts in Jesus (Rom. 8:9–10). Ultimately, Paul exhorted believers, “as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him (Col. 2:6). This means that just as we received Jesus by faith, so we are to walk in faith in order to receive divine enablement.
A fourth view, which has the most biblical support, teaches that the Lord’s Supper is a memorial and symbolic meal. As for the memorial aspect, it is essential to recognize that the Lord Jesus inaugurated the Lord’s table at a Passover meal. Therefore, it should be understood in a similar way. Scripture says that Passover was “to be a memorial for you [Israel], and you must celebrate it as a festival to the loRd” (Ex. 12:14 hcsb). Similarly, the Lord Jesus would tell His followers that when they celebrate communion, they do so “in remembrance of ” Him (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24). So the Lord’s Supper was intended to memorialize our redemption from sin by remembering the body and blood of the Messiah Jesus.
With regard to the symbolic nature of the elements, we should recall once again that the Lord Jesus inaugurated communion at a Passover meal, called the Seder (order or service). By the New Testament era, Jewish people had developed all sorts of symbolic elements to be included in the Passover Seder, such as bitter herbs, representing the bitterness of slavery and a bowl of salt water representing the tears of slavery (Ex. 12:8; Num. 9:11). So, when the Lord Jesus said that the bread and wine were His body and blood, none of those present would have understood these words in a literal sense. As Jewish people, the disciples would have been familiar with the symbolic elements of Passover. Therefore, they would have recognized that the Lord Jesus was using a metaphor, meaning, “This bread is a symbol of My body and this cup is a symbol of My blood.”
The Lord’s Supper, celebrated as a symbolic memorial, remains a crucial outward celebration of the New Covenant. Since believers are commanded to observe this ceremony, some have called it an ordinance, a far better term than a sacrament.
If the Lord’s Table is only a symbolic memorial, some wonder if the specific elements are all that important. Would it be okay to observe communion with potato chips and soda pop? It must be remembered that these symbols have specific and important meaning. The Lord Jesus chose unleavened bread and the fruit of the vine to institute this ceremony because they represent His sacrifice. He used matzoh (unleavened bread eaten at Passover) for several reasons. First, matzoh was significant because leaven (yeast) in Scripture is frequently used as a symbol for sin. The Lord Jesus warned of the “leaven of the Pharisees” (hypocrisy) and “the leaven of the . . . Sadducees” (unbelief) (Matt. 16:6). Paul urged the Corinthians to clean out “the leaven of malice and wickedness” (1 Cor. 5:8). So, the unleavened bread represents the sinlessness of the Lord Jesus.
Second, ancient (and modern) matzoh was pierced in straight lines to keep it from rising. This symbolized that the Lord Jesus “was pierced through for our transgressions” and “by His scourging we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). Potato chips, fluffy loaves of bread, or even unleavened communion wafers miss the important symbolism of celebrating the Lord’s supper with matzoh.
Additionally, the wine used during a Passover meal is a deep red and represents the blood of the Messiah Jesus that cleanses us from sin (Heb. 9:14). So soft drinks or even white wine or juice are inadequate in representing His blood. For the cup to communicate its symbol, we need to use red fruit of the vine, whether juice or wine.
The symbolic nature of the Lord’s Supper doesn’t minimize its importance any more than the God-ordained Passover celebration diminished God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt. We must observe it regularly because: (1) The Lord Jesus commanded that we observe it (“Do this in remembrance of me,” Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24); (2) The Lord’s Supper is a proclamation of our faith that the Lord Jesus died as our substitute, that He will return, and implicitly that He is alive because the resurrection is necessary for His return (“you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes,” 1 Cor. 11:26); and (3) The Lord’s Supper is a declaration of the fellowship of all believers because by it we share our unity in the Messiah Jesus (“Is not the cup . . . a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread . . . a sharing in the body of Christ? . . . we who are many are one body;” 1 Cor. 10:16–17). The Lord’s Supper remains a crucial celebration—its value and importance is in no way diminished by viewing it as symbolic.
While some people call communion a sacrament (a gracegiving practice) and others an ordinance (an observance commanded by the Lord), I prefer to call it a New Covenant ceremony. Ceremonies are designed to communicate a truth by our actions. Every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we are declaring that the Lord Jesus died for us, rose again, and is returning as our King. Observing the Lord’s Supper is a living declaration of the good news that saved us from our sin.
by Michael A. Rydelnik
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