Inherent in the rituals of Judaism and Christendom are many mysterious symbols, but the physical symbols the Lord left His saints are few, yet full of spiritual meaning. Their simplicity contrasts to the elaborate formalism which reflects man’s cravings to merely feel right and good, without having the spiritual reality. Such teachings as transubstantiation held by Roman Catholics or consubstantiation held by Luther are contrary to the simple truth of the Scriptures. The bread and cup are memorials speaking to us of the body and blood of our Lord.
The simple elements found within a local assembly are in I Corinthians 11. Those in vs. 1-16 involve the truth of Headship acknowledged and expressed in the assembly. Then, closely linked and following in vs. 17-34, Paul gives instructions involving the elements of the Lord’s Supper, which are features observed characteristically by the local assembly and which acknowledge Lordship. Both are vital and precious to the Lord and must also be precious to us.
Names for the Supper
“The Lord’s Supper,” expresses the dignity of this gathering and the corresponding obedience it demands and expects. “The Breaking of Bread” indicates its simplicity and the act that is involved. It is to be the response from loving hearts that desire to give honor to the Lord and to remember Him. It is not to be a remembrance of our blessings nor is it a recounting of our unworthiness, but rather it is to be a distinct time when our hearts are occupied with Him, His worthiness, His virtue, His work, and His suffering, as well as His surpassing greatness and glory.
Conditions at the Supper
Both in the Gospels and in I Corinthians 11 (the first circulated account given by the Holy Spirit), the circumstances show us the sad conditions that may exist among the believers, neither of which should be found. In the Gospels, Judas left to betray the Lord and the remaining disciples were disputing who was the greatest. In Corinth, the features of the Supper were marred by the self-centered and carnal condition of the saints. Sadly, all of these conditions may be found among us.
In contrast, the Lord and His servant Paul direct our attention to the one Person Who should be the focus of attention and the purpose of gathering. I Corinthians 11 makes clear we must examine ourselves in view of coming together for this Supper, not to stay away, but to be in the proper condition of spirit in relation with our brethren and with the Lord, unmarred by unconfessed sin that hinders our ability to remember Him.
Emphasis of the Supper
Our Lord’s emphasis on this observance shows its importance to Him. We often think of its value to us, and there is value to every saint, but more important is what the Lord receives. We should not come to the Supper only for what we receive, but come with the exercise and preparation to ensure that the Lord receives what He desires. We come to pour the flask of worship’s precious ointment on Himself, as Mary did in John 12. We disregard self or others to do so and thus to honor Him in the midst of His people.
Features of the Supper
The instructions show that the Supper is a distinct observance that is linked exclusively with the local assembly. One searches in vain to find any observance outside a local assembly, and this is especially seen in Acts 20. Paul waited a week to be with the assembly to remember the Lord. It is clear that he never considered carrying this out on the ship or in some other place. The fellowship of the local assembly is expressed in its coming together into one place, taking of one loaf and one cup. Sadly, that fellowship was being contradicted by wrong behavior in Corinth and had to be corrected by this instruction.
In Acts 20 and I Corinthians 11, the Supper is also linked with, but distinct from, the ministry of the Word that followed it. It is not “tacked” on to some other gathering for ministry or another purpose. It is to have the prominent place, as it is exclusively occupied with worship. It is also seen in these passages as being observed prior to the ministry that followed. Both a spiritual order and the order of Scriptural practice indicate that the Lord’s Supper should be first, taking priority over all other meetings.
It is a weekly observance only on the first day of the week when the assembly gathers. This was the consistent practice of New Testament saints. It was not observed on other days nor less than every Lord’s Day.
The practices and teachings of the New Testament clearly show that there is only one loaf and only one cup in the Lord’s Supper. Both are significant. Any change to more than this will inevitably lead to changes in one’s understanding of its nature and purpose. One loaf signifies the uniqueness of the Lord’s body that was given for us, as well as the unity of the body of Christ, and the unity of the local assembly (I Cor 10:16-17, 11:29). But what about one cup? Doesn’t it also signify the fellowship of the saints in the sacrificial work of Christ that has established that unity (I Cor 10:16)? It also seems to suggest the uniqueness of the sacrificial work and the suffering of the Lord Jesus, the once-for-all sacrifice that has put away sins. It is not many works, but one that stands eternally sufficient to meet every requirement of sinners before God.
If requirements (that don’t exist) were to demand more than one cup, it seems that there are means that can be used to maintain the truth of this practice, avoid individual cups, and yet meet such demands. However, on a practical note, we believe that there has never been a case of any serious disease contracted by the use of one cup. Again, brethren should never reuse wine that has been in the cup by pouring it back into the container. Wine is not the disinfectant that many people think it is! Sanitary measures are only reasonable and would ensure minimizing any difficulties while remaining true to the Word of God.
The bread the Lord used was likely unleavened. However, the word shows that its unleavened character is not important. It is simply “bread,” and the many implications of bread generically are too large for this article. However, the word connotes bread as a loaf, even though small, not a slice or wafer.
The word “wine” is not mentioned in connection with the Supper. The emphasis is on the “cup” and the contents are included. When the Supper was instituted, the contents of the cup were wine, the fruit of the vine. Wine is not grape juice. The words may be the same in our text, but any grape juice would quickly ferment under the unrefrigerated conditions found in Israel at that time, so we can be sure that the word, unless otherwise clearly indicated, means normal, fermented wine from the grape.
It is appropriate for the assembly to sit in a circle around the memorials of the Lord. The word used for the Lord’s being in the midst indicates a gathering around Himself, and the circle demonstrates the uniqueness of the gathering (not for ministry, but for remembrance and only involving the local assembly), and the prominence given to what speaks vividly of Himself.
Finally, the Lord’s Supper demands preparation of heart and spirit so we will come in a proper condition morally and spiritually to carry out this most precious act. We feel that so often we come without prepared hearts or due consideration of the Person in the midst of His people. May the Lord cause us to increasingly appreciate and obey His last command, “This do, in remembrance of Me.”