The Principle: The Real Meaning of the Lord's Supper
The Lord’s Supper was established by Christ.
1 Corinthians 11:23-25 quotes the Lord Jesus as calling His Church to follow His example of taking bread and the cup with the phrase, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” Christ instituted this practice in Matthew 26:26-29, and because of his command to “do this,” it is not optional for the Christian. Note too that this practice was established by the authority of Christ, not the church.
The Lord’s Supper is an ordinance of the church.
First, we believe that the Lord’s Supper is an ordinance of the Lord. What we mean by this is that the Lord Jesus commanded it—He ordained it—in a way that would make it an ongoing practice of the church. As an ordinance, the Lord’s Supper does not bring special grace in and of itself. Some Christians refer to the Lord’s Supper a “sacrament” – something that is set apart as sacred – and consider the ceremony and elements to be holy in and of themselves. However, because we consider the Lord’s Supper to be only symbolic and testimonial in nature, we believe it is more appropriate to refer to it as an ordinance, rather than as a sacrament. The Lord’s Supper was ordained by Christ and is to be practiced in obedience to Christ – but not to receive some special grace.
The Lord’s Supper is symbolic in nature.
The Lord’s Supper is an “outward expression” of an “inward reality.” In this way it is similar to baptism, which is an outward expression of the inner reality of our death, burial and resurrection to new life in Christ, as His substitutionary sacrifice for our sin takes effect on our behalf. The bread and the cup are only symbolic of the body and blood of Christ. This understanding stands in marked contrast to several other views that have traditionally been held by various churches:
- Transubstantiation: the belief that as part of the ceremony, the bread and wine literally change into the body and blood of Jesus.
- Consubstantiation: the belief that Christ’s literal presence does not replace but is added to the bread and wine and imparts grace.
- Real Presence: the belief that Christ is really present in the elements, but that this special presence is spiritual, rather than physical.
When Jesus said, “This is my body” and “This is my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:24-25), what would the original hearers of these words have understood them to mean? Knowing that Jesus often used illustrations from daily life in His teaching, His disciples would almost certainly have considered these words to be nothing more than pictures of spiritual truths. While sitting with Jesus at the Last Supper, the disciples could not possibly have understood Jesus’ words, “This is My body” (Matthew 26:26), to mean that the bread was literally His body. Inasmuch as Jesus was still in His earthly body when He spoke, His disciples would no more have considered the bread to be the physical extension of His flesh than they would have considered Him to be a literal door when he said, “I am the door” (John 10:9), or to be a literal plant when He said, “I am the true vine” (John 15:1). The meaning of our Lord’s words is this: “This bread represents my body; this cup represents my blood.”
There is no indication that Jesus meant, or that His disciples understood Him to mean, anything more than that. The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic reminder of Christ’s death, much as the memorials in the Old Testament caused Israel to remember God’s work on their behalf (Joshua 22:9-16). Indeed, Jesus spoke these words within the context of the Passover, which was also given as a memorial to help people remember God’s work (Exodus 12:14). Christ is our Passover Who was sacrificed for our sins (1 Corinthians 5:7). There is but one sacrifice for sins for all time (Hebrews 10:12), and as the bread is broken, we must recognize the finality of this sacrifice. Christ’s body is not continually being broken for sin.