Questions from an Assembly Observer: One Bread and One Cup

An observant onlooker comes to the Lord’s Supper held weekly by a local New Testament church. He is struck by the visual simplicity of the event. Men and women respectfully and modestly dressed, gather in a neat, but unornamented building, around a plain table with one loaf of bread and one cup on it. The math is not difficult. Sure enough, all 34 in fellowship take from one loaf and one cup. But why? “Why is there just one loaf of bread and one cup?” He determines to get an answer.

What he observed on the table are simple, yet God-given symbols of the body and blood of the Lord Jesus – a single loaf of bread and a single vessel filled with wine. And by the simple act of breaking and eating the bread, and drinking from the cup, they joyfully and thankfully obey the simple precept of their Lord to “remember Me,” and in so doing, “show His death” until His return.

Of course, behind these simple symbols there is a rich ocean of meaning. In the majesty of creation, I discern God’s eternal power and Godhead; it is in the “upper room,” however, that I learn His heart.

But why one bread and one cup? Surely, the most cursory examination of so-called “Christian Religions” reveals a wide array of practice. Within one system, there are many wafers, with one cup, while others retain a single loaf, with many cups. So with such a variety of practices, what is right, and why? Three lines of truth from the New Testament should assure us of the correctness of the simplicity we embrace.

The argument from example (the “Pattern”)

The synoptic Gospels, in nearly identical language, directed by the Holy Spirit, record that at the close of the Passover meal, the Lord Jesus took “bread” and “the cup” and after giving thanks for them, distributed them to the eleven disciples. That this was a single loaf of bread and a single cup of wine is indisputable from the inspired record and is the simple pattern for those committed to authentic New Testament practice.

Detailed historical narrative about the Lord’s Supper does not occur elsewhere in the New Testament aside from Paul’s reminder of its inception in 1 Corinthians 11. Therefore, the first mention is the decisive and normative pattern; everything else conforms to its example (Matthew 26:26-28; Mark. 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20).

The argument from teaching (the “Precept”)

The bulk of the New Testament’s teaching regarding the Lord’s Supper was committed to the Apostle Paul. With inspired authority, he refers to “the bread” and “the cup” (1 Cor 11), always in the singular, and never in the plural.

When combined with Christ’s admonition, “this do ye,” it is clear that conformity to the details of the Lord’s Supper as pictured and taught is not merely a matter of taste. It is a matter of submission to the authority of Scripture; by its unambiguous direction, we take the bread and the cup, as memorials of Christ’s body given for us, and His blood shed on our behalf.

The argument from spiritual meaning (the “Principle”)

Throughout the administration of the Old Covenant, the bodies of countless animals were offered as sacrifices to God. The writer to the Hebrews vividly contrasts them with the unique offering of Christ. By one act, one Man, in one body, offered one sacrifice to God forever (Hebrews 10:10). “One bread” is a telling reminder of the solitary grandeur of that one gift of grace.

So, likewise, the one cup is another lovely symbol of the unique act of Calvary. The rivers of blood of a previous era are now conclusively ended. The line of beasts that trudged to the earthly sanctuary will never be seen in the heavenly one; all is finished! No further sacrifice can, or ever will, be required for sins’ full cleansing (Heb 9:12).

Further, both the bread and the cup are poignant reminders of the union that believers have with one another in our risen Lord. The apostle Paul eloquently said, “We being many, are one bread.” The singular gift of His body and blood has created another singular entity, the Church, His Body and Bride. As members of that body, we are linked to our Head and to all others of “like precious faith.” Of course, the New Testament always sees the observation of the Lord’s Supper as the collective act of a local church (with all of the Biblical distinctiveness that it implies).

The bread and the cup are wonderful signposts that point our forgetful hearts to Him. The emblems are not Christ (in spite of the errant assertions of transubstantiation, consubstantiation, receptionism, etc.). They are simple memorials that point to their infinite Object, the Lord Jesus, Himself. Horatius Bonar expressed it well:

“Only bread and only wine,
Yet to faith the solemn sign.”

In our remembrance, the unique person and work of Christ are to have total preeminence. May God help us, with undivided hearts, to view in symbol that one body and blood, and then, in spirit and in truth, worship the Father for His “unspeakable gift.”