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The Sacrament of Holy Communion,
by Scott Sperling
26While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to His disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”
27Then He took a cup, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it all of you. 28This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.”
30When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (Mt 26:26-30 NIV)
19And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”
20In the same way, after the supper He took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:19-20 NIV)
23For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, 24and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” 25In the same way, after supper He took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” 26For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.
27So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. (1 Cor. 11:23-29 NIV)
Towards the end of their Passover supper, Jesus, as He was supping with His Apostles, instituted the Sacrament of Holy Communion (known also among Christians as the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper). Though not explicitly expressed in the passage in Matthew, we know from the writings of Paul that the Sacrament of Holy Communion was intended to be observed by believers in the entire Christian Church (implied in the passage above, 1 Cor. 11:27-29).
It was appropriate that Holy Communion be instituted during the Passover supper, for in a way, Holy Communion has replaced the Passover for the people of God, as the primary, recurring religious observance that commemorates God’s work on behalf of His people. “At the latter end of the Passover-supper, before the table was drawn, because, as a feast upon a sacrifice, it was to come in the room of that ordinance. Christ is to us the Passover-sacrifice by which atonement is made (see 1 Cor. 5:7); Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. This ordinance is to us the Passover-supper, by which application is made, and commemoration celebrated, of a much greater deliverance than that of Israel out of Egypt” (M. Henry). “We observe that the celebration of the first Sacramental Supper of the Lord was joined in one continued supperly action with the Sacrament of the Passover; our Lord herein declaring the old church and new to be one in Him, and the Sacraments of both, to have Himself for their signification” (D. Dickson).
As a whole, this Sacrament is not complicated, or elaborate: consume the bread and wine, in remembrance of Christ and His atoning sacrifice. As such, the Sacrament can be performed by any group of Christians, virtually anywhere, and at any time. But we should not let the simplicity of the execution of the Sacrament hide the importance for us as Christians, and the solemn seriousness with which we should observe it. “We must never forget that this central ordinance of our Christian worship was instituted by our Lord Himself. It is an indication of His foresight and forbearance; for it shows first that He saw we should need to be repeatedly reminded of what He is to us, and then that He condescended to help the infirmity of our wandering natures by providing the most impressive means for continually presenting the great central facts of His work before our minds and hearts. He enlists the services of the three senses of sight, taste, and touch, to aid the sense of hearing in bringing before us the vital truths of His gospel” (Adeney, in Pulpit Commentary).
Paul, writing to the Corinthians about the Sacrament, expresses the seriousness and solemnity of it, when he tells us that harm can come to those who participate in the Sacrament without proper meditation on the central meaning of it: “So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 11:28-29, italics mine). To me, this passage in Corinthians, tells us that it’s crucial that those who lead people in this Sacrament, instruct them of its significance, seriousness and importance. Moreover, prospective partakers in the Sacrament should be lovingly told that they should abstain from it if they are not in the proper frame of mind to “discern the body of Christ” (either as non-believers, or distracted believers). The church must be careful that the Sacrament of Holy Communion not be performed in a rote manner. As Paul tells us, the seriousness and significance of the Sacrament must always be observed.
The Sacrament, in its proper execution, reminds us to put Jesus, not complex theological issues, at the center of the Christian religion. The Sacrament depicts the importance of Jesus, not just as an abstract religious personage, but as someone whom we must allow to enter our lives. “We eat the bread and drink the wine. Christ is the Bread of life. We must personally participate in Christ, and receive Him into our lives, in order to profit by His grace” (Adeney, ibid.).
As we said, the Sacrament was instituted towards the end of the Last Supper: “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to His disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body’” (vs. 26). Note the sequence of the Sacrament, as instituted: Take the bread; give thanks; break the bread; take and eat, taking note of Jesus’ words, “This is My body”. We would do well to follow the Sacrament, as instituted. Each step has significance.
First, we take the bread: this is Christ, the Bread of Life. “The body of Christ is signified and represented by bread; He had said formerly (see John 6:35), I am the bread of life, upon which metaphor this sacrament is built; as the life of the body is supported by bread, which is therefore put for all bodily nourishment (see Matthew 4:4; 6:11), so the life of the soul is supported and maintained by Christ’s mediation” (M. Henry).
Second, give thanks. The thanks vis-à-vis the bread is two-fold, in our case: for Christ as the Bread of Life; and for Christ’s sacrifice of His body.
Third, break the bread. Breaking the bread is symbolic of the breaking of Christ’s body on our behalf (while it is true that, to fulfill prophecy, no bones were broken in Jesus’ body, certainly His body was broken in other ways, by the crown of thorns, the thirty-nine lashes, the crucifixion, etc.). “The breaking of the bread I consider essential to the proper performance of this solemn and significant ceremony: because this act was designed by our Lord to shadow forth the wounding, piercing, and breaking of His body upon the cross; and, as all this was essentially necessary to the making a full atonement for the sin of the world, so it is of vast importance that this apparently little circumstance, the breaking of the bread, should be carefully attended to, that the godly communicant may have every necessary assistance to enable him to discern the Lord’s body, while engaged in this most important and Divine of all God’s ordinances.” (A. Clarke). I dare say, in many (possibly most) cases during Protestant enactments of the Sacrament, the breaking of the bread is not performed. This should be changed, based on our Lord’s institution of the Sacrament. It can easily be added to the Sacrament by giving congregants a decent-sized wafer, and instructing them to break it, before consuming it. Instruction concerning the reason they are breaking the bread, that Christ’s body was broken on our behalf (“given for you”, as Luke quotes in Luke 22:19), will aid in the congregants “discerning” of the body of Christ in the Sacrament.
Fourth, take and eat, with an awareness of Jesus’ words: “This is My body.” Let us note here how shocking this statement must surely have been to the Apostles at the time. Jesus did not say: “This is a symbol of my body”, or “This represents my body”; He said, “This is My body.” I believe the statement was worded this way to encourage us to dig deeper into its meaning. Fortunately, Jesus spoke in depth about this earlier.
Not long after Jesus miraculously fed the crowd of about five thousand (see John 6:5-13), He crossed the Sea of Galilee and was met by some Jews who were some of five thousand that He fed (see John 6:26). These Jews seemed to be sincere in their questioning (i.e., they were not Pharisees who were trying to trip Jesus up). They asked: “What must we do to do the works God requires?” (John 6:28). Jesus answered: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent” (John 6:29). The Jews replied by asking for a sign, similar to the sign of manna that their forefathers were given (John 6:30-31). Jesus replied that it is God who sends bread from heaven that “gives life to the world.” Then Jesus continued: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in Me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). Jesus contrasts the “manna”, which was given for sustenance, with Himself, as “the bread of life”. To consume this “bread of life”, is to “come to Him”, and “believe in Him”. To do so is to never be hungry (that is, spiritually hungry), and never be thirsty (that is, spiritually thirsty). To eat the “bread of life” (by coming to Him, and believing in Him), is to have complete spiritual fulfillment, forever.
Jesus elaborates: “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world” (John 6:48-51). So then, for the Sacrament, when Jesus says: “Take and eat; this is My body”, we are to eat of the bread as an outward sign that we have “come to Him”, and that we “believe in Him.” This is, as Paul says, to “discern the body of Christ.” It is the full understanding of the sacrifice that Jesus made by giving His broken body for us, and faith that by consuming Jesus as the bread of life, we will “never go hungry”, and “never be thirsty”.
Matthew leaves out of his narrative two important clauses that Luke supplies in his: “This is My body given for you; do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19). The phrase “do this in remembrance of Me” is important because it provides the reason the members of the church carry out the Sacrament of Holy Communion. The other clause, “given for you”, underscores that Jesus knew ahead of time that very soon He would be sacrificing Himself for us. “Thus the Lord, before He actually suffered, offered Himself as a victim voluntarily undergoing death, and showed it forth by the broken bread and the poured wine” (Pulpit Commentary). “Which is ‘given for you’: [Matthew and Mark] leave out this clause, which, however, is far from being superfluous; for the reason why the flesh of Christ becomes bread to us is, that by it, salvation was once procured for us… So then, in order that we may feed aright on the flesh of Christ, we must contemplate the sacrifice of it, because it was necessary that it should have been once given for our salvation, that it might every day be given to us” (J. Calvin). “After, ‘this is my body, [Luke] adds, ‘which is given for you’; …the sense of which is: ‘As God has in His bountiful providence given you bread for the sustenance of your lives, so in His infinite grace He has given you My body to save your souls unto life eternal. But as this bread must be broken and masticated, in order to its becoming proper nourishment, so My body must be broken, i.e. crucified, for you, before it can be the bread of life to your souls. As, therefore, your life depends on the bread which God’s bounty has provided for your bodies, so your eternal life depends on the sacrifice of My body on the cross for your souls’” (A. Clarke).
As we take the bread, which is Christ’s body, and eat of it, “in remembrance” of that moment in time at the Last Supper, there is a sense that we become one with Christ at the time of the institution of the Sacrament, at the Last Supper itself: Christ’s body, in our body, at the Last Supper. Then just as Christ goes on soon-after from the Last Supper to His death, it follows then that, in a sense, we are crucified with Christ, just as Paul says: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Paul also tells us elsewhere: “For we know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (Romans 6:6). We would do well to ponder our crucifixion with Christ, as we observe the Sacrament.
Matthew’s account continues, the institution of the Sacrament continues: “Then He took a cup, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (vss. 27-28). In one sense, addition of the wine to the Sacrament makes it complete, harking back to the passage in John’s Gospel, when Jesus said: “Whoever comes to Me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in Me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). “To assure us of full satisfaction and complete furniture for eternal life, Christ our Lord has not only taken bread in the Sacrament, but also has instituted a cup; that is, both food and drink, for certifying us, that we shall have complete nourishment in Him” (D. Dickson). “As it was the design of Christ to keep our faith wholly fixed on Himself, that we may not seek anything apart from Him, He employed two symbols to show that our life is shut up in Him. This body needs to be nourished and supported by meat and drink. Christ, in order to show that He alone is able to discharge perfectly all that is necessary for salvation, says that He supplies the place of meat and drink” (J. Calvin).
But there is more to the wine than its mere sustenance. As the bread points to Jesus’ sacrifice, so does the wine: “This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (vs. 28). Note the verb tense that is used: “…which is poured out…”; Jesus does not say “…will be poured out…” This expresses that, as we carry out the Sacrament, we should have an awareness that Jesus’ blood is poured out, as if it is occurring in the present. Such an awareness strikes home the fact that Jesus’ sacrifice applies directly to each of us, for each of our sins. If, as we partake, we can say, “This is Jesus’ blood. It should be my blood which is poured out,” then we are truly “discerning” Christ’s sacrifice for us, which is one of the purposes of the Sacrament.
Jesus tells us: “This is My blood of the covenant” (vs. 28). Jesus’ words directly hearken back to the words of Moses, when the first covenant (or pact) was established between God and His people: “Moses then took the blood,” (that is, the blood of the sacrificed animals), “sprinkled it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words’” (Ex. 24:8). By directly referencing the passage in Exodus, Jesus was establishing a new covenant, in which His sacrifice, the pouring out of His blood, takes the place of the atoning sacrifices of the original covenant. “When Jesus spoke of His blood as blood ‘of the covenant’, He was surely claiming that, at the cost of His death, He was about to inaugurate the new covenant of which the prophet [Jeremiah] had spoken (see Jer. 31:31). This was a big claim. Jesus was saying that His death would be central to the relationship between God and the people of God. It would be the means of cleansing from past sins and consecrating to a new life of service to God. It would be the establishment of the covenant that was based not on people’s keeping it (see Ex. 24:3,7), but on God’s forgiveness (see Jer. 31:34)” (L. Morris).
Though just hinted at here, the writer of the book of Hebrews explicitly teaches us that Jesus’ sacrifice, indeed, establishes a New Covenant, which replaces the Old Covenant of atonement via the sacrifices of goats and bulls. Moreover, the New Covenant is more perfect than the Old one, because it is the perfect fulfillment to which the sacrifices in the Old Covenant were prophetically pointing. The writer of Hebrews teaches: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when Christ came into the world, He said: ‘Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You prepared for Me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings You were not pleased. Then I said, “Here I am—it is written about Me in the scroll— I have come to do Your will, My God.”’ First He said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings You did not desire, nor were You pleased with them’—though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then He said, ‘Here I am, I have come to do your will.’ He sets aside the first to establish the second.” (Hebrews 10:1-9, italics mine). “There was a two-fold manner of making a Covenant of Grace between God and the Church, in her head Christ; one called, ‘An Old Covenant’, before He came, of typical promises, painful and chargeable rites, and harder conditions to the external beholder; another Covenant after His incarnation, called ‘A New Covenant’ of better promises, and more [clearly understood], because now the dimness of the shadow is removed, the yoke of the ceremonies is broken, and the substance of the covenant is more clearly seen… He made His [Covenant] after His incarnation in plain and clear terms, after which He fulfilled the types of His death, and actually laid down His life for His redeemed people” (D. Dickson).
To conclude, Jesus added: “I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom” (vs. 29). This again is evidence that Jesus knew that His death was imminent. Jesus says this so as to “put upon His disciples the impression of His death shortly to follow, and so both engraft the doctrine of the Sacrament more deeply in them, and prepare them the better for His death” (D. Dickson). Though the reference to His soon death is solemn, there is the good news that Jesus would be with them to “drink it new”. This statement was to be multiply fulfilled. First, after the resurrection, in the infancy of the kingdom of God, Jesus was with the Apostles multiple times (see Luke 29:30; Luke 29:43; John 21:12; Acts 1:4; Acts 10:41). The ultimate fulfillment, though, is when all believers commune with Jesus at the great marriage supper of the Lamb, prophesied in the book of Revelation: “Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: ‘Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give Him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and His bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.) Then the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’” (Revelation 19:6-9).
Matthew adds: “When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (vs. 30). It was traditional for participants, at various times during the Passover supper, to sing and/or chant Psalm 113 through Psalm 118, which are psalms of praise and thanksgiving to God for His marvelous works in the lives of His people. That the Apostles and our Lord still did so, even on this solemn occasion, is an example for us. “How sad hours soever the Lord send to us, it is our part always to sing His praises” (D. Dickson). “[To sing God’s praises is never] unseasonable, no, not even in times of sorrow and suffering. The disciples were in sorrow, and Christ was entering upon His sufferings, and yet they could sing a hymn together. Our spiritual joy should not be interrupted by outward afflictions” (M. Henry). Moreover, “was it not truly brave of our dear Lord to sing under such circumstances? He was going forth to His last dread conflict, to Gethsemane, and Gabbatha, and Golgotha; yet He went with a song on his lips” (C. H. Spurgeon). May we always praise the Lord, no matter the circumstance.