The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming.
Matthew 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:19-20; Acts 2:41-42; 20:7; 1 Corinthians 10:16,21; 11:23-29;
Christ commanded all Christians to eat bread and to drink from the cup in thankful remembrance of him and his death. The Lord’s Supper is a celebration of the presence of God in our midst; bringing us into communion with God and with one another; feeding and nourishing our souls. It also anticipates the day when we will eat and drink with Christ in his Father’s kingdom.What is the Lord’s Supper?, New City Catechism Day 46
The Lord’s Supper, also known as the Eucharist (Matt 26:27; Luke 22:17–19; Acts 27:35; 1 Cor 10:30; 11:24) or Holy Communion (1 Cor 10:16) is the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, or the sacrament of communion with Christ and participation in his risen and ascended sacrifice.
The institution narratives of the Lord’s Supper portray the event as a Passover meal. Luke’s Gospel is particularly clear about this point, as Christ underscores to the disciples at the beginning of the meal: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (22:15). The text further notes that the preparations happened at the beginning of the Festival of Unleavened Bread “on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed” (22:7).
The Passover is the celebration of the deliverance of the Israelites from death and from slavery in Egypt. The Israelites were commanded to slaughter a lamb and apply its blood to their doorposts so that they would be delivered from the judgment rendered by the angel of death. This deliverance also marked the beginning of the exodus from Egypt, and these twin meanings constituted the core of Israelite identity. They are to commemorate it every year, at the inception of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when the Israelites were to rid their homes of yeast for seven days: “For the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance” (Exod 12:14 NIV).
Christ intends his disciples to understand that his sacrifice, his body and blood offered upon the cross, is simultaneously a recapitulation and summation of the depth of meaning of the Passover meal, and a deliverance from a deeper slavery shared not just by Israel but by all of humanity to the powers of sin and death (Rom 6:1–14). His suffering on the cross is the cataclysmic confrontation with these powers, and his resurrection is his triumph and vindication over them. When Christ ascends into heaven, Paul describes it as a victory march by a conquering general, a general who leads not defeated nations but captivity itself captive (Eph 4:8).
When Christ leads slavery to fear and death captive in the victory of his ascension (Heb 2:14–15), Paul also says he “gave gifts to men” (Eph 4:8). This gift giving is central to the New Testament theology of the Eucharist. The Greek word from which it derives means “to give thanks,” understanding the sacrifice of Christ as the cosmos-altering gift of the Triune God given to rescue humanity from wicked powers. Paul’s understanding of this meal as a communion, fellowship, or participation with the risen and ascended Christ is the corollary to the gift character of this meal.
In this meal, Christ feeds us with his own presence and sacrifice, which is why he is described as “Christ our Passover Lamb” (1 Cor 5:7). Although the bread and the wine of the Passover meal is mentioned in the institution narrative, the lamb is not. The book of Hebrews develops this point in order to highlight the priesthood of Jesus. He possesses a priesthood more perfect than the Levitical priesthood. He has a priesthood with no beginning or end, the priesthood of Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem who brought out gifts of bread and wine and blessed Abraham and to whom Abraham gave a tithe of a tenth of all his possessions (Heb 7; Gen 14:18–20). The institution narratives, read in the overarching context of the New Testament, suggest that Christ is both priest and sacrifice, offering the sacrifice of himself (Ps 50:14–15; Heb 13:15). One image used to understand the Eucharist in the New Testament, then, is the continual making present of the Passover and sacrifice of Christ to his people.
This sacrifice does not only remove the guilt of sin but also liberates the church from its power. In the christological debates of the fourth century, this dimension of Christ’s sacrifice was a critical rationale adduced for the affirmation of Christ’s divinity and for the profession of the hypostatic union between the divine and human natures of Christ. The union between these natures had to be not only moral or volitional but ontological, because through the Eucharist he makes us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4), which he could not do if he were not simultaneously both God and human. The Eucharist was food which enabled the people of God to become what they professed to be. “Be what you see; receive what you are,” proclaimed Augustine of Hippo in a sermon on the Eucharist.
Another central image for the Eucharist in the New Testament is the idea of the Eucharist as food for the difficult and perilous journey that we must make in this life. Typological reflection upon the institution of the Passover meal draws this dimension out. The Israelites were to eat the meal “with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover” (Exod 12:11 NIV), for they were to begin the journey from Egypt to the promised land immediately upon eating this meal.
Several images in Scripture extend this sense of the Eucharist, most importantly the image of the Eucharist as spiritual manna. The Israelites were given the “bread of angels” (Ps 78:25 NIV) to eat in the wilderness on their journey: the manna and the quail were their food for the journey. Christ says in John 6 that he is “the bread that came down from heaven” and the “bread of life.” This “bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (6:48, 51 NIV).
A third image for the Eucharist in the New Testament narratives is the sense of this meal as a foretaste of the eschatological banquet (Isa 25:6–8; Matt 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:16, 18; Luke 14:12–14; 1 Cor 11:26; Rev 19:6–9; John 14). This point accentuates not only the nourishment of this meal but the lavishness of the gift. In this foretaste of the heavenly banquet, as the Anglican Kenyan Eucharistic liturgy says, “Christ is the host, and we are his guests.”
The term “Lord’s Supper” highlights this crucial image of the Lord as our host. He not only serves us the lavish spiritual food by communing with us with his own presence (1 Cor 10:16–17), he humbles himself to cleanse us in body and soul as we approach this feast (John 13:1–17). In a number of Reformation-era churches, the desire to highlight the banquet character of this meal led to dramatic changes in the symbolism and organization of the meal. In many churches, stone altars on the eastern end of the church were removed and tables with four visible legs were placed among the people, and the Lord’s Supper was celebrated with communicants sitting down at the table.
Because the Lord himself communes with us in this bread and wine, we too are to commune with one another (Acts 2:42–46; 1 Cor 10:17; 11:17–34). There is therefore a deep irony in the fact that the symbol of the church’s communion with God and of the members with each other has become a major source of division within Christendom. Churches have been rent over whether the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ, or whether the Eucharist is an “unbloody sacrifice,” or whether it is a pure memorial of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice upon the cross.
Both Paul and John seem to have “realistic” understandings of the Eucharist, but the imagistic quality of what happens in the Eucharist means that certainty cannot be had about the mode of Christ’s presence in it. The Anglican Lancelot Andrewes offers a characteristically judicious statement on the meal: “Christ said, ‘this is my body.’ He did not say, ‘this is my body in this way.’“
Jonathan Warren P. (Pagán), “The Lord’s Supper,” in Lexham Survey of Theology, ed. Mark Ward et al. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018).