The Lord's Supper
The last two years have seen a number of changes in our public worship services. Some changes were necessitated due to the easy transmissibility of the COVID-19 virus that necessitated maintaining distance between individuals. However, any time we change our public worship of our God it may make us uncomfortable simply because there is comfort in continuity of practice. However, even if we deem that we must change the structure of our worship due to circumstances beyond our control, we must still insure that our practices are based on biblical precedents. Let’s consider recent changes we made in the Lord’s supper.
The first change is in how we distribute the grape juice and unleavened bread. Previously someone would fill individual cups with grape juice and make or purchase unleavened bread. These would be handed out by passing serving plates along the pews with the elements of the Lord’s supper. To permit better separation of individuals we purchased prepackaged grape juice and unleavened bread that could be picked up on the way into the auditorium by each Christian. This change actually has made it easier to distribute the grape juice and unleavened bread than the old method. This points out one advantage of reviewing our worship practices. If we do it with the right attitude we can actually be strengthened by the process.
The second change had little to do with the pandemic but attempts to increase the importance we place on the observance of the Lord’s supper as part of our worship on the Lord’s day. The change made was to move the Lord’s supper observance to be the last part of our morning worship before we depart. This relatively minor change was done to set apart the observance of the Lord’s supper to be a distinct part of our worship. Is there a need to increase importance that we give to observance of the Lord’s supper or are these changes just cosmetic, change for change’s sake? Is all of this just a “tempest in a tea pot”?
Let’s examine a broader question, what importance did the apostles and early church place on this observance? First, the Lord’s supper was established by Jesus himself as a memorial of His life and purpose. Jesus said in Matthew 26:26-29; “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.’ ” The fact it was established by Jesus gives special significance to the practice.
Paul condemns the Corinthians observance for not placing the importance they should on the observance of the Lord’s supper. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:18- 21; “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.” Paul recognizes (my underline for emphasis) that although they should have assembled as a church to partake of the Lord’s supper, the Corinthians were instead treating it as a common meal. The importance that was given to the observance of the Lord’s supper by the church can be inferred by examining Paul’s travel plans. He remained at Troas for seven days so that he could speak with brethren when they were assembled to partake of the Lord’s supper. Act 20:6-7; “But we sailed away from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days we came to them at Troas, where we stayed for seven days. On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread…..”. Paul was sure enough that the church would be assembled together on the first day of the week to partake of the Lord’s supper that he could make his travel plans accordingly.
However, to me, the text that best illustrates the importance of the Lord’s supper in the worship of the church from the very beginning is in Acts 2:42; ‘ And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ This verse lists the essential elements of worship and service to the Lord to which the newly established church was devoted. These included the teaching, doctrine, of the apostles which they taught by the guidance of the Holy Spirit sent from God. John 15:26-27;26 “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.”
The early church was also devoted to fellowship. This is not simple social interactions such as parties, sports or eating of common meals as some count fellowship. The fellowship, the sharing together, we have is with God and Christ, and with other Christians as we walk together in the light of the truth. 1 John 1:7 says; “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” As we each work together in the truth and in love we do exactly as the early church did in sharing the joy of the gospel message.
The church of Acts 2 was also devoted to prayers. A good example of the church praying is in Acts 12:4-13; “And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church….he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.” In prayer we cast our burdens on God, make requests of God and give Him thanks and praise as God and for blessings bestowed. This was a normal part of their life and worship as it should be for us.
In this list of ‘big’ things is the simple statement that they were devoted to the “breaking of bread”. Partaking of the Lord’s supper is mentioned here as one of the integral parts of the worship of the newly established church. It is significant that this memorial was begun just a short time after Jesus death when many of those in the church had witnessed the crucifixion of Christ. The establishment as part of the church from it’s very beginning shows the importance placed on remembrance of Jesus death as a bedrock of Christians’ faith. This is not the eating of a common meal. The Corinthians were chastised by Paul for reducing the Lord’s supper to this (I Cor 11:18-21).
Partaking of the Lord’s supper is not an elaborate ceremony like the Passover that God established for the children of Israel, to remember how He brought about their deliverance from Egyptian bondage. It is the simple ceremony ordained by Christ for His disciples to keep. He established this during the Passover meal (Matt 26:26-29) although it was separate from that meal. In partaking of unleavened bread we remember His body and blood (His sacrifice for our sins). Paul by revelation repeated this account and provided further information. 1 Corinthians 11:23-27; “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, 'This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.” The simplicity of the observance of this memorial, drinking a thimbleful of grape juice and eating a small fragment of unleavened bread, is in stark contrast to the depth of its meaning, to remind us of Jesus life and his death, the forgiveness of sin and the new covenant established by His sacrifice. In partaking we each week profess our faith in Jesus.
What are the consequences of not giving this memorial the importance it’s deserves? A memorial that reinforces our knowledge of, and faith in Jesus? A memorial that reminds us each week that Jesus blood cleanses us from sin, and that His death resulted in a new covenant between God and man in which man could again partake of the tree of life? A common adage states that ‘those who forget history are doomed to repeat it’. As an example let’s look at the consequences to the people of Israel in forgetting how God had blessed them. Exodus 12:14 established the Passover as a memorial of God’s deliverance of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage, “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast” and continuing in vss 24-27,"You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever. And when you come to the land that the LORD will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the LORD's Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’ And the people bowed their heads and worshiped."
This annual memorial, to those who participate, was to reinforce the importance of God in the establishment and stability of the nation of Israel. The underlined phrase indicates the Passover memorial if kept properly also insures future generations will learn of God’s role in the nation’s welfare. What happens when they forget God’s blessings? In Judges 2:7-12 we read, “And the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the LORD had done for Israel. And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of 110 years. And they buried him within the boundaries of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of the mountain of Gaash. And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger." Israel’s failure to remember God’s blessings resulted in a nation of Israelites that followed other gods, ultimately resulting in God rejecting the nation of Israel. They forgot the very things the Passover was meant to bring to remembrance.
It is interesting that during the reign of the last good king of Israel, Josiah (II Kings 22-23:30), the book of the law of God, that had been lost, was found. After hearing the Law, Josiah reimplemented the statutes delivered to Moses, purged the temple and the nation of idol worship, and re-established the Passover observance. Josiah is praised for his faithfulness to God’s law in a remarkable statement in 2 Kings 23:22,25; "For no such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah. Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him." Josiah is characterized as the best king of Israel or Judah and that the Passover he ordered, was superior to any kept since the days of the Judges. This is lofty praise considering the list might include; Hezekiah, David, Solomon and the Passovers kept back to the time of the Judges, possibly back to Moses. The next verse is sobering however; (2 Kings 23:26); "Still the LORD did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him." The faithfulness of Josiah was too little too late. The people of Israel should have remembered God’s goodness all along, the very thing the Passover observance was designed to do. This sobering statement should tell us we must be diligent NOW to insure that we and our progeny do not forgot the lessons contained in the Lord’s supper memorial.
I think it is reasonable to conclude that the proper observance of the Lord’s supper is necessary for the survival of a congregation. If we do not regularly and correctly observe the Lord’s supper and we forget the gifts that God bestowed on us through His Son, we are just like the church at Ephesus. Christ through John says in Revelation 2:4: "But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first." They had forgotten the love Christ had shown for them by His life and death, the very things proper observance of the Lord’s supper teaches.
As we strive to serve God in the manner He wishes, it is important that we continue to examine our worship that we might be true worshippers (John 4:23); ”But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” Let us continue to reverently examine the way we worship to strengthen each other and ultimately ensure our entrance into heaven.