The church has talked endlessly about the meanings behind the ordinance, but there are two things about the Lord’s Supper that we do not talk about much.
The first is that when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, one of his intentions in doing so was that it would demonstrate unity in the body of Christ. Considering this, if unity was one of his intentions, we should then ask ourselves why it is that we have instead allowed it to be a source of controversy in the church.
Did not Paul write concerning the Lord's Supper, “Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:17).
The other thing that we do not talk about much is that as far as the meaning of the Lord’s Supper is concerned, Jesus spoke of it as of yet to be fulfilled in its entirety. That is, the true meaning of the Lord’s Supper has not yet been revealed to man. Jesus told the disciples that he himself would not again partake of the Lord’s Supper until it was “fulfilled” in the kingdom of heaven.
This being the case, another question that we should ask ourselves is that if the entire meaning of the Lord’s Supper is not even yet completely fulfilled, how is it that we are so presumptuous to say that we have complete understanding of its meaning? How can we say that all other understandings that differ from ours are wrong?
The Commencement of the Meal
As Jesus and his disciples met in the upper room to celebrate the commemorative Passover meal just a few days before Jesus was crucified, he had some words to say that are somewhat enigmatic, and have been subject to various interpretations. As we read the words of the historian Luke, here is how he records the event:
When He [Jesus] had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.
And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” (Luke 22:19-20 NAS)
The Gospel writers of Matthew and Mark also record essentially the same words. Here is Matthew, for instance:
While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-27 NAS)
How We Have Interpreted these Words of Jesus
Down through the ages, the words that Jesus said about the bread being his very body and the wine being his very blood have been understood in various ways. Some have taken the meaning to be quite literal; that is, that the bread and wine actually and physically become the flesh of the incarnate Jesus and the blood of Jesus.
Others have thought that Jesus was merely speaking figuratively, or metaphorically. They have thought that the bread and wine do not literally become flesh and blood, but that Jesus only meant these elements to be a representation of an unspoken deeper spiritual truth.
In between these two interpretations are other views which in some way mollify the two extremes. However, even with all of the discussion that we have had throughout the history of the church about what Jesus said, our understanding of his words still remains unclear.
Historically, we in the various churches have built up all manner of theological points and arguments to support our understanding. Oftentimes, we have taken unyielding positions about what Jesus meant by his words. However, without exception, all of these dogmatic opinions are premature. Jesus himself tells us that we cannot yet know the true significance of the Lord’s Supper. It has not all yet been revealed.
It is as I had mentioned previously: Jesus himself said of this meal of bread and wine, “I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:16 NAS, emphasis added). It is important that we keep this in mind, because these words tell us that the absolute true meaning of the Lord’s Supper is something that we cannot know at present. We cannot know because it has not yet even been fulfilled. We do well to remember this.
these words of Jesus, we know that we cannot yet explain the deepest meanings
of the Lord’s Supper. This is why our often stubborn adherence to one certain
perspective of what the full meaning of the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist is
more damaging than it is enlightening; as well as it is presumptuous.
The Flesh and Blood of Jesus
We also do well to remember that this was not the first time that Jesus spoke in such an enigmatic fashion about the eating and drinking of his flesh and blood. If we think that this particular reference to the eating and drinking of his body and blood was difficult for the twelve close disciples of Jesus to understand, consider an earlier teaching that he had given to the people.
On a previous occasion, as Jesus was speaking to a very large crowd of people, he spoke the following words to them:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.
As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also shall live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate, and died, he who eats this bread shall live forever. (John 6:53-58 NAS)
The people who heard these words of Jesus had a very difficult time with them. Even those who up to this point had been followers of Jesus said, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it.”
Because it was so difficult, many of those who were once considered disciples of Jesus (speaking beyond the twelve disciples) withdrew from him and no longer walked with him (John 6:60-66). We must say that these are difficult words and, like the people on that day, we also wonder what Jesus meant by them.
However, we must remember that we should not take these words of Jesus apart from the context with which he spoke them. Jesus did not suddenly spring these sayings onto the Jews without some previous lessons on the subject. He had already been in conversation with these same Jews earlier, and his words about his flesh and blood were a continuation of what he had been telling them on the day previous to this.
When Jesus spoke the above words, he had just the day before, fed more than five thousand people by multiplying some barley loaves and a few fish from a boy’s lunch. Everyone present ate and was filled.
Then, seeing what Jesus had done, they said, “This certainly must be the Prophet who was promised to come into the world” (John 6:14).
Because of this, the next day they followed Jesus across the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum, waiting to see what other marvelous sign Jesus might perform, and perhaps hoping to get a little more to eat. Indeed, the truth be told, it actually was not to hear the words of a prophet that they followed Jesus across the sea. It was, in fact, in order to get some more food. It was not their empty hearts that they were hoping to fill, but their empty bellies.
Jesus told them, “It is not because you saw these signs that you are looking for Me, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.”
Jesus Speaks of Signs
Jesus speaks here of the signs that the people witnessed the day before. This is an important word. The Greek word that is translated here as signs is the word semeion. In some Bible versions and in some other places in the Bible this same word is translated as miracle. It is true that the signs usually were miraculous in nature in Scripture, as was the feeding of the five thousand, but the most important point of the sign was not the miracle itself, but that the sign was meant to be a confirmation that God was involved with what is happening at that time.
When people saw these signs, it was not only that they were witnessing some amazing occurrence, but they were to understand that this miracle was an indication that God was present, and that they should heed what the meaning of it all was. Sometimes the word is translated as attesting miracle, since that is what these really were—miracles attesting to the fact that God was present in the deeds.
It was in fact, the signs themselves that Jesus was performing in the healing of the sick that was the reason that there were more than five thousand people following him in the first place (John 6:2). When Jesus fed all of the people by multiplying the boy’s lunch, they took this as yet another sign that God was involved with the ministry of this man they knew as Jesus, and whom they now began to call a prophet.
However, simply gaining the physical benefit of the sign, such as in a healing of a sick person or getting some food to eat, is not the same as seeking to know the meaning of the sign. The people following Jesus were more interested in eating than they were to know spiritual truth. It was because they were hungry for the bread that Jesus provided that they followed him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.
Because Jesus knew that they were thinking only of their bellies that he advised them, “Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man shall give to you, for on Him the Father, even God, has set His seal” (John 6:26-27 NAS).
With these words Jesus was simply telling the people that temporal and physical food should not be the object of their search, but the eternal food that can come only from the One whom God had sent to them. The authority of Jesus to provide this heavenly food was validated by the sign of the multiplication of the bread and fish.
This sign is what Jesus was referring to when he spoke of God the Father setting his seal. Indeed, that is the true purpose of a sign. It is to point the way to a greater truth—an eternal truth.
Back to the Upper Room of Communion
As we return to the upper room and to the Lord’s Supper on the night that Jesus was betrayed, we again read the words that he said to his disciples:
And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” (Luke 22:19-20 NAS)
Considering what we have read about the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood and as I mentioned earlier, it would seem to diminish the impact of the words of Christ if we dismiss these images merely as metaphors. This is not the same as saying as he did on another occasion, “I am the door for the sheep.”
On the other hand, neither is it fair to the teaching manner of Jesus to say that this is an initiation of an ordinance that institutes a practice of the physical eating of the flesh of Jesus and a physical drinking of His blood. To do this would be to ignore that when the disciples had trouble understanding the meaning of the statement that the flesh profits nothing, Jesus answered them that it was the words that he spoke that are spirit and life.
It is also important to understand that when Jesus instituted the ordinance of the meal of the Lord’s Supper, it was not done without any forethought. Not only did Jesus preplan where the meal was to take place, but also when they would do it. Jesus planned this meal to be at the time of the Passover in Jerusalem.
Jesus was very thoughtful and deliberate in his planning. He told his disciples, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15 NAS).
The Passover Meal
The Passover was an annual feast that the Israelites had observed ever since they had fled their slavery under the Pharaoh of Egypt as early as the 14th century BC. With very few exceptions, they have continued to observe this event every year since that time. The Passover meal commemorated the night in which the blood of a sacrificial lamb was smeared on the doorposts and lintel of the doors of their homes so that the angel of death would not kill their firstborn.
On that fateful night, in every one of the Egyptian’s homes where they had not applied this blood, the firstborn of the family was slain. The Israelites were told that on that night that they should eat the meal in haste with their staffs in their hands, ready to leave on a moment’s notice. Because of this, this feast was also called the feast of unleavened bread, one of the reasons being that there would be no time to put the leaven into the bread and allow it to rise before cooking it.
Leaven is also sometimes used in the Scriptures as an illustration for the sin in our lives. For instance, Paul writes, “Get rid of the old leaven, that you may be a new unleavened batch, as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with the old bread, leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and of truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8 BSB).
When God gave the instructions to Moses and the Israelites on how to observe the Passover meal, he did so with very specific instructions. The meal was a commemoration. It commemorated the day of the Exodus of the Israelite people from their bondage in Egypt. The Lord was very clear in his instructions that the Israelites should preserve this commemoration of the meal so that it would not become a mere ritual, but that its true meaning be preserved.
He told the people, “When your children ask you, ‘What does this service mean to you?’ you are to reply, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He struck down the Egyptians and spared our homes.’” (Exodus 12:26-27 BSB)
Two Significant Meals
The central meaning in both of meals, that of the Lord’s Supper and also of the Passover feast, was the importance of the sacrifice of an innocent one that is slain and whose blood was shed so that life could be given to another. In the case of the Passover, it was the blood of the innocent lamb of the flock that the Israelites applied to their doorways that saved the life of the firstborn child within the home. In the case of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus intended to teach that it would be his own body and his own blood that would give life to all who applied this sacrifice to their lives.
For the Israelites, Passover meal was a commemoration. It pointed back in history to an event in the lives of their people that held special significance. The Passover observance was in remembrance of the original night when God delivered the Israelites from slavery. However, not only did this meal point back in history, but as we have seen, in some ways it was also an indication of what would come in the future. It also symbolically pointed ahead in time to the sacrifice of Jesus.
The date of the yearly observance of the Passover meal in the time of Jesus was the day that he chose to initiate our own custom of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus chose this specific time because of what he intended to teach the disciples in the connection between these two events. The Lord’s Supper was actually a further fulfillment of the Passover meal of the 14th century BC.
The Lord’s Supper is also a commemoration. Just as the Passover meal commemorated the freedom given to the Children of Israel by God, the Lord’s Supper celebrates the freedom given by Jesus to his children by his own sacrifice.
Jesus told his disciples, “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you do it in remembrance of Me” (1 Corinthians 11:24-25).
Nevertheless, there is also a forward looking aspect to the Lord’s Supper. Jesus also said at that first meal that he would not eat it again “until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:16). It is the day that we still await.
A Third Significant Meal
“I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke -16 NAS).
Our need for caution concerning taking an excessively firm stand on the full meaning of the Lord’s Supper is especially true because even though Jesus spoke of the eventual and ultimate fulfillment of that meal, the Scriptures do not tell us much about this fulfillment, if it tells us anything at all.
But the Scriptures have given us a “teaser.” Near the very end of the writings, we have the record of a vision that was later given to John the Apostle, the same John who sat next to Jesus in the upper room on that night of the first Lord’s Supper. What he wrote in the nineteenth chapter of the book of Revelation may have some significance to this open question about the fulfillment of the Lord’s Supper.
In that passage of Scripture we read of a future of yet another meal—a third significant meal. This meal is called “The Marriage Supper of the Lamb.” Here is what John wrote:
I heard a sound like the roar of a great multitude, like the rushing of many waters, and like a mighty rumbling of thunder, crying out: “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give Him the glory. For the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His bride has made herself ready. She was given clothing of fine linen, bright and pure.”
For the fine linen she wears is the righteous acts of the saints.
Then the angel told me to write, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:6-9 BSB)
Mysterious words certainly, mixing realism and metaphor. Some of the subjects we are able to identify. “The Lamb” is undoubtedly Jesus. “The bride” is usually identified as the believers—the church as the great multitude of followers of Jesus throughout history. This also seems to be the case since there are numerous Scriptures likening the church to the bride of Christ.
And the clothing made of fine linen, bright and pure? How is this likened to “the righteous acts of the saints?” There are also many Scripture verses teaching us that the work of the believers will one day be rewarded in eternity.
Paul writes that we are to “always excel in the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” and that “each will receive his own reward according to his own labor” (1 Corinthians 15:58; 3:8).
Then, just a bit after John writes about the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, he tells us that he heard the voice of Jesus saying, “Behold, I am coming soon, and My reward is with Me, to give to each one according to what he has done” (Revelation 22:12)
And the One seated on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Then He said, “Write this down, for these words are faithful and true.”
“And He told me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give freely from the spring of the water of life. The one who overcomes will inherit all things, and I will be his God, and he will be My son” [and she My daughter] (Revelation 21:5-7 BSB).