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The Significance of the Supper

Category Articles
Date June 13, 2003

Tonight we are going to observe the New Covenant counterpart of the Old Covenant Passover. We are going to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. This morning I want to answer the question, "What does this mean?"

by William Smith

You may have heard the story of the little Catholic boy who accompanied his Protestant friend to church. He was very interested in what was going on and kept leaning over to his friend and whispering, "What does that mean?" When it came time for the sermon, he watched the minister take off his wristwatch and place it on the pulpit. He whispered, "What does that mean?" and the little Protestant boy whispered back, "It doesn’t mean a thing."

We should expect that people are going to want to know why we do what we do in worship and what these things mean. Perhaps we ourselves need to ask these questions and get answers before we are ready to answer the questions of others.

There is Biblical precedent for asking questions and getting answers about what we do in church. When the LORD instituted the Passover for Israel, He told the people they need to be ready for the question from their children’ "What do you mean by this service?" "Why do eat this unleavened bread for seven days and then have a meal of lamb?" The LORD told the parents to say, "It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel, when he struck the Egyptians, but spared our houses" (Exodus 12:26,27).

Tonight we are going to observe the New Covenant counterpart of the Old Covenant Passover. We are going to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. This morning I want to answer the question, "What does this mean?" Let’s consult the Apostle Paul to understand the significance of the Supper. We can summarize the significance with eight participles.


When we celebrate the Supper, we are obeying our Lord who instituted the Supper at His last Passover observance with His disciples on the night of His betrayal. Paul uses the language of Biblical tradition. "I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you" – Christ instituted this service by giving it to His apostles; they in turn passed it on to the whole church and to all subsequent generations. It is a Jesus-authorized tradition that He should be remembered in this way by the church through the ages. Our celebration is an act of obedience to our Lord.

In the church we have no right to introduce into our worship traditions, ceremonies, or services which are not authorized by Christ. This is one of the differences between Protestants and Catholics. Protestants observe only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for we find that these are the only two that Jesus commanded to be observed. On the matter of sacraments all Protestants agree – only those instituted by Christ. But the Reformed churches also apply this principle to the whole of worship. While we do not believe that the Bible gives us an order of worship, we believe that it gives us all the elements of worship and that we may include in worship services only those things which are authorized in the Bible.

If we observe the Lord’s Supper as an act of obedience, then it surely follows that we will not be unnecessarily absent when it is celebrated. We will take the invitation to come and celebrate the Supper as a command appearance, because it is Jesus who has instituted the Supper and authorized His church to call us together to remember Him in this way.


When we celebrate the Supper we are remembering. Twice Jesus said, "Do this in remembrance of me." When we hear the word "remember" we may think it means no more than to call to mind the facts that Jesus lived, and died, and instituted this Supper just before He died.

But in the Bible remembering is more than mental recollection of facts. When the Jewish people observed the Passover, they did more than call to remembrance the original Passover observance and the fact that God acted to deliver their forefathers from slavery in Egypt. They put themselves back in the situation in which Passover was instituted. They put themselves in the place of their forefathers and the sense of ominous anticipation their forefathers felt on the evening of the first Passover as they waited to see what God would do. They remembered the mighty miracles God had done in Egypt and especially the slaying of the firstborn by the death angel not just as the events which led to freedom for their forefathers. They entered into it all as something that, though they were not there, they were involved in and participate in. When God acted in Egypt He not only redeemed and set free their forefathers; he redeemed them and set them free.

When we come to the Lord’s Table we put ourselves in the Upper Room at the first celebration, and we enter into the nervous excitement of that atmosphere in which the disciples sensed that Jesus was about to do something momentous. We go to the cross and we see what is happening there as God acting in Christ to deliver us from enslavement to the devil and to save us from our sins. We see Him raised and ascended to the Father’s right hand, and we know that He is our living Savior who makes continual intercession for us. In the Lord’s Supper, as we remember Christ, we participate in all He did for us.


When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we are communing with Christ, specifically with His crucified body and blood and all the benefits that come from His sacrifice. Jesus takes the bread and says, "This is my body." He takes the cup and says, "This is the new covenant in my blood." Now we must ask: "In what sense do we eat the body of Christ and drink the blood of the new covenant?"

Many evangelical Christians today would say, "Well, this is figurative language, and, therefore, it really means nothing more than that when we eat and drink at the Supper, we remember that Christ’s body was sacrificed and His blood poured out for us. The Supper can stir up spiritual thoughts, but it is not really a means by which we receive Christ."

At the time of the Reformation, the Roman Catholics, the Lutherans, and the Calvinists (or Reformed) would have all disagreed with the prevailing evangelical view of our day, and would all have agreed that in some way Christ is present, and we are partake of His body in the Supper. The Catholics said that the bread and wine are transformed into the literal body and blood of the Lord. The Lutherans said that the bread and wine remain what they are, but that the body and blood of the Lord permeate and surround them so that the literal body and blood of Christ are present. The Roman Catholics and Lutherans also agreed that to take the elements is to receive Christ.

Now the Calvinists agreed that Christ is present and that He is received in the Supper. But they insisted on two things: First, they insisted that the glorified and ascended body of Christ remains in heaven. Second, they insisted that Christ is received, not automatically in the Supper, but only where there is faith to receive Him. But they also insisted that, where there is faith, we really do receive Christ, and commune with His sacrificed body and shed blood.

How does this work? It works "spiritually" – that is, by the work of the Holy Spirit whom Christ has given to us. The Spirit gives and stirs faith, and by faith we are lifted up to heaven, where Christ is, and we commune with Him. We are united to Him and our souls are nourished by His body and blood given for our salvation. The important thing here is that the Supper is the means by which this happens. The Spirit uses the Supper as a means of uniting us the crucified, risen Savior, of drawing us into communion with Him, of bestowing upon us the blessing of His death for us.

If you miss the Lord’s Supper, do you miss anything? Yes, you miss an opportunity to receive Christ.


As we are celebrating the Supper we are also fellowshipping. Communing with Christ inevitably means fellowshipping with one another. In fact is was a colossal failure of fellowship that lies behind the rebukes and warnings that the Apostle issues to the Corinthian church in giving this teaching about the Lord’s Supper.

We cannot be sure of the exact circumstances of the observance of the Lord’s Supper in Corinth. But they would assemble as we do on the first day of the week for worship and, frequently, if not every Lord’s Day, they would celebrate the sacrament. It may be that on the occasions they celebrated the Lord’s Supper they also had something called a love feast, which would be something like a fellowship dinner. Or, it may be that they had a more substantial meal than we do when they met at the Lord’s Table. Whatever the nature of the meal, it seems that each brought food and drink. The rich would bring an abundance while the poor would bring very little. Those who would arrive first, again probably the rich, would go ahead and eat without waiting for those who came later. Some were hungry while some drank to the point of intoxication.

What Paul saw was a breach of Christian fellowship so serious that he said there assemblies for worship did more harm than good. He refused to call the meal they ate the Lord’s Supper. He accused them of despising the church of God. And he interpreted at least some of the physical maladies and deaths among them as God’s disciplinary judgment on them. They were not showing love and experiencing unity at the Supper. Hence, they denied that all who partake of Christ are made one by partaking of Him, the one Lord.

All this serves to teach us that, when we come to the Table, we must come in fellowship with each other and we should find that our unity is deepened. We come with love, forgiveness, and forbearance and we come as one people. This also warns us of the importance of maintaining our unity and repairing it diligently. Withdrawing from one another is not an option. The Lord calls us to draw near to each other as we draw near to Him.


Paul says, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes." We proclaim or preach the Lord’s death as we celebrate the Supper.

This statement reveals a very important aspect of the Supper, which is the connection between the Word and the sacrament. What we proclaim orally in reading the Word and preaching, we proclaim visually in the Lord’s Supper. Long ago Saint Augustine gave us a helpful brief definition of a sacrament when he called a sacrament "a visible word".

The Word and sacraments always go together. The Word preached is first in priority because the sacraments would be meaningless apart from the Word. Simply to come into a service where bread and wine are given and received without any words would be at best confusing and at worst misleading. We are compelled to ask, "What is the significance of this eating and drinking?" In Reformed churches we never celebrate the Lord’s Supper without a sermon and without the reading of the Words of Institution from Paul or one of the three Gospels which record the institution of the Supper. The Word read and preached comes first in order and first in importance.

But the sacraments come along and after the Word to picture and to confirm what the Word says. The whole gospel is in the Lord’s Supper if we rightly understand it. The bread and wine are symbols of the work of Christ on the cross, saving us by the sacrifice of His body and blood. The offering and distribution of the bread and wine tell us that Christ is freely offered to all who will receive Him. Our receiving the elements, eating, and drinking are symbols of faith receiving Christ and being nourished by Him unto eternal life. The tangible signs of bread and wine tell us that Christ is a truly and really present to our faith as these sings are to our sight, touch, smell, and taste.

It is not some other grace we receive in the Lord’s Supper than we receive in the reading and preaching of the Word, but the same grace confirmed and received by a second means.


When we celebrate the Supper we are also discerning. Paul warns the Corinthians that if they eat and drink in an unworthy manner, they will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. He goes on to say that if one eats and drinks without "discerning the body" he will eat and drink judgment on Himself.

The question is what does it mean to "discern the body"? Some today say, that in light of the issue at Corinth being the breaches of fellowship and unity at the Table, Paul must be saying something like. "He who eats and drinks without discerning that the church is the body of Christ, and who, therefore, conducts himself in a way that disrupts the unity of the body, will eat and drink judgment on Himself."

But I think the ancient view, the view adopted by our PCA doctrinal standards, and what remains the majority view among commentators is correct. This view interprets verse 29 in connection with verse 27. In verse 27 the one who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner will guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. There can be no doubt that this verse speaks of Jesus’ body and blood. It makes sense that, while still speaking of the importance of the manner in which we participate in the Lord’s Supper, in verse 29 he uses briefer description " the body" in the same sense. He is referring to the body of Jesus.

The point that Paul is making is that we must be able to discern Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament. This is not ordinary meal. It is a sacred meal in which the minister consecrates the elements by asking God to set them apart from their normal and common uses. The bread of the Lord’s Supper is a sign of the crucified body of Jesus, and we, by eating it with faith, are united with that body and all its saving effects.

This teaching gives us a strong reason to stick with the traditional Reformed practice of not giving the sacrament to baptized children who have not yet made their own professions of faith. Right participation in the Lord’s Supper requires a person to discern the Lord’s body in the sacrament. That discernment requires a personal and conscious appropriation of the Gospel.


When we celebrate the Supper, we are also examining ourselves. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. We are to examine ourselves so that we will not eat and drink in an unworthy manner, and so expose ourselves to the Lord’s disciplining judgment. But what are we to examine?

Some think that we need to go through a long and torturous process of introspection in which we seek to discover every sin, look at every contradiction of thought, word, and behavior which might call into question the sincerity of our profession of faith, and hope that we might find some indications of genuine faith. There are some Christians who are very hesitant to come to the Table for fear that they will eat and drink judgment on themselves. Others, who may not go to such lengths of examination, wonder if it would be right to partake, if they come to a service not knowing or having forgotten the sacrament will be celebrated, and not having gone through any preparation.

But I do not think this is what Paul intends. John Calvin is very helpful here: "If you want to derive the proper benefit from this gift of Christ, you must bring faith and repentance." He goes on to point out that under repentance he includes brotherly love. Then he says, "Indeed it is not perfect repentance that is asked for…the Lord does not keep you out, even if in other respects you are not all you ought to be. For faith, even if imperfect, makes the unworthy worthy" (1 Corinthians commentary, p. 253).

Anyone who lacks faith in Christ, anyone who is not sorry for his sins, anyone who does not seek unity of the brothers, should not come to the Table. But those who can discern the Lord’s body in the Supper and who comes sorrowing for sin and seeking grace are welcome at the feast.

If you are ready to come to church and to hear the preaching of the Word with faith, then you are prepared to come to the Table. This is the examining to which the Lord calls us.


When we celebrate the Supper, we are anticipating. Paul writes that when we eat the bread and drink the cup we "proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes." The Lord’s Supper will not be observed forever. It will come to an end when the Lord comes, for then the communion we now enjoy with Him at the Table will be replaced by face to face communion. That does not in any way demean the Lord’s Supper. The communion we have now with Christ in the worshiping congregation as we receive the Word and the bread and wine is as good as it gets in this life in this world.

But there is a longing at the Table for more. Not just for the renewal of our communion with Him at the Table, but for a closer, more intimate, unhindered communion we will enjoy with Him when He comes, and we sit down with Him at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Then we will be freed of sin and all its consequences. The we will be holy in soul and whole in body. And we wills see Him as He is and we will know Him as He now knows us.

Jesus too is looking forward to that great occasion. He told His disciples when He instituted the Lord’s Supper in the Upper Room, "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God" (Luke 22:15,16). When He gave them the cup He said, "Take this and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes" (Luke 22:17,18). Jesus is looking toward, as we are, to the time when together we will eat and drink in the kingdom. And so, when we celebrate the Supper, we think to ourselves, "Maybe next time in the kingdom" and we pray as did the ancient church at the Supper, "Marantha" – "Our Lord, come."

Sometimes people ask, "What does your church have to offer me?" Of course, we want our church to be a well-rounded church with effective ministries of all sorts. But what we have to offer always comes down to something very simple. What we have are words – the Word of God read and preached. And what we have is some bread and wine – consecrated by the Word and prayer to be to us the body and blood of our Lord. By these things we have communion on earth with Christ who is in heaven. I think that’s pretty significant, and if the church can give me that, I am satisfied.



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