By Mark Scott
In the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr gave an account of the weekly worship of Christians.
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen (from Justin Martyr’s “First Apology”).
This description (and Acts 2:42-47, which is similar) illustrates that Scripture reading, preaching, prayer, fellowship, and the observance of the Lord’s Supper were central to the early church’s worship. All of those elements of worship are opportunities for the church to relive the gospel. But Communion, perhaps more than any other element in the worship service, dramatizes the gospel.
Communion matters to people in the Stone-Campbell Movement. (People sometimes say it is the most important part of the assembly.) Why this strong distinctive in celebrating the table of the Lord in our heritage?
Communion is the perfect time for the church to teach the gospel. If 1 Corinthians 11:17-26 is the most read Bible passage (and there seems to be good evidence for such), then instruction about the Lord’s Supper has an early precedent. Erasmus said, “What good is it to be baptized if one has not been catechized; what good to go to the Lord’s Table if one does not know what it means?” (quoted by John Stott in The Challenge of Preaching, 2013).
The Gospel writers and Paul seemed to think God’s people needed instruction in the Lord’s Supper. The individuals and communities of faith who received the testimonies about Jesus learned some things about the Lord’s Supper as Jesus observed the Last Supper. Paul had to instruct the Corinthian church about their observance of Communion because their gathering was not for the better but for the worse (1 Corinthians 11:17). Communion teaches the gospel.
The occasion of the institution of Communion was the Feast of Unleavened Bread or Passover (Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7). This took place on the fourteenth of Nisan (Thursday evening). A lamb was prepared and eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs to remind God’s people of their deliverance from Egyptian bondage. Every Jewish family marked this occasion, and family members had various roles in the meal. It was something anticipated each year. Jesus likewise anticipated it (Luke 22:15).
Fred Craddock observed, “In the Synoptics Jesus eats the Passover, but in John he is the Passover.” Due to the original context of Communion, the Supper announces liberation from sin and its captivity. Communion dramatizes the redemption in the gospel.
Several things transpired during this Passover meal. Jesus taught on greatness in the kingdom, washed the disciples’ feet, identified Judas as the betrayer and Peter as the denier, and affirmed that all the disciples would cave in to the pressure around them. But when the Supper was actually instituted, where Jesus invested new meaning into an old meal, the first thing he did was give thanks.
The Greek word eucharisteo from which this thanksgiving comes literally means “good grace.” G.K. Chesterton said, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought.” Communion without appreciation is like a baseball field without a pitcher’s mound. Communion dramatizes the gratitude in the gospel.
In Communion there is something to eat and drink. God’s people actually consume something into their bodies. Jesus gave thanks and then broke bread. He broke the bread so that all could eat. (The breaking of the bread is not to symbolize Jesus’ broken body. Jesus’ body was not broken [John 19:36]. Breaking bread allows everyone to participate. Passing the cup allows the same. Luke’s account might even refer to more than one cup [Luke 22:17, 20].) The consuming of the bread and the fruit of the vine dramatize the reception of the Messiah and the unification of the church, key concepts in the gospel.
By consuming the bread and the cup, Christians are acknowledging their reception of Christ—whether transubstantiation (the Catholic understanding), or consubstantiation (the mainline Protestant understanding), or metaphoric symbolism (the Evangelical understanding).
In receiving the bread and the cup, Christians remember the Lord. This remembering is more than just thinking back to Calvary and the Garden Tomb. This idea of remembering is actually “reliving.” In remembering the grace (God’s love for us that we do not deserve) of God on Calvary, Christians actually relive their appropriation of that grace through faith. Believers relive their conversion experience. As Steve Brown reminds us, “The world drinks to forget; Christians drink to remember.” When we remember, we dramatize our conversion to Christ.
The tradition of observing Communion is ancient. It goes back to the earliest days of the church (Acts 2:42-47; 20:7; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; see “Archaeologists Unearth the Centrality of the Table”). The frequency of taking Communion goes back to Jesus’ statement, “as often as you [do] it,” as well as apostolic precedence. The purpose clause “to break bread” in Acts 20:7 indicates that one purpose of gathering was to observe the Lord’s Supper. We may not want to split the Body of Christ over the body of Christ, but tradition (more so the tradition beyond the New Testament itself) is on the side of frequent observance of Communion, probably at least weekly. It helps to dramatize the gospel weekly so that it does not get stale.
Participation (or Unification)
Some Christian mysticism is involved in Communion, and it is not just between God’s people and the Lord through the bread and the cup. When God’s people take Communion they not only participate in (have in common) being one with Christ, but their oneness also extends to other members of the church (1 Corinthians 10:16, 17).
The Corinthian congregation obviously had huge issues here. Selfishness and lack of deference were contradicting the gospel that was to be dramatized in the partaking. Things were so bad that some people had even died, and others were ill (1 Corinthians 11:30). Paul calls the church to embrace a less selfish posture as they participate in Communion so that the gospel will not be blasphemed among the unbelievers.
Communion is helpful in a weekly rhythm because, if for no other reason, it allows us to push the pause button. Communion is a sanity check not only on the believer’s walk with the Lord but also with others in the church. Paul calls for a serious “testing of life and motives”—the Greek means to test and to approve by passing the test (1 Corinthians 11:28).
Part of this examination is discerning the Lord himself in the bread and cup (which is stronger than symbolism but less than transubstantiation), but it also involves us assessing if we are at peace with everyone in the church, not duping ourselves into thinking we are right with one another when we are not. This examination may lead to reconciliation (cf. Matthew 5:23, 24), which always dramatizes the gospel.
Not every Christian is a preacher, but every Christian preaches in Communion. Paul said, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26, English Standard Version). There is something eschatological about the Lord’s Supper. Jesus illustrated this when he said he would not drink of the fruit of the vine until he would drink it new in the kingdom of God (Matthew 26:29; Mark 14:25). Something about Communion shoots the world a message that says, “Get ready.” Communion comes alongside preaching to tell the world the drama of redemption.
Perhaps more than any of the other factors already mentioned, Communion is a celebration of a covenant-making God who has decided to call the pouring out of his Son’s blood on Calvary good for the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness is the message of the drama of the cross (Luke 23:34). Forgiveness is the message of the drama of the resurrection (Luke 24:45-47). Communion takes us back to Calvary and the Garden Tomb. Let’s celebrate. Please pass the bread and the cup.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri. He also writes the weekly Bible school lesson treatment that appears at christianstandard.com.