The richness and importance of the Lord's Supper in Christianity are conveyed by the various names given to it. It has been called both a sacrament and an ordinance of Christ. In terms of its origin in history, it is called "the Last Supper"; as an act of thanksgiving by the church, it is called the Eucharist (from Gk. eucharistein/eulogein) and the Eucharistic Assembly (synaxis); from its Jewish-Christian origins, it is the Breaking of Bread and the Memorial of the Lord's passion and resurrection; in patristic development, it is the Holy Sacrifice because it mysteriously makes present the one, unique sacrifice of Christ and includes the church's offering; also it is the Holy and Divine Liturgy because the whole worship of the church finds its center in the celebration of this Sacred Mystery. Within the liturgy it is called the bread of angels and bread from heaven and the medicine of immortality. It is also Holy Communion since it is union with Christ. Finally, since the liturgy ends with the sending forth (missio) of the faithful to fulfill God's will in their lives, it is called "the Mass."
The New Testament both describes its institution by the Lord Jesus and refers to its actual implementation and celebration by the church. Further, the New Testament sets the context for the institution of the Last Supper by an emphasis on table fellowship. Jesus was both the guest at ( Luke 5:29-32 ; 7:36-50 ) and the host at meals during his ministry ( Mark 2:15 ). Further, the feeding miracles of Jesus ( Mark 6:31-44 ; 8:1-11 ) point not only to shared fellowship but also to the future "messianic banquet" (see Isa 25:6-12 ). Jesus spoke of meals and joyous banquets in his parables (e.g., Matt 22:1-14 ; Luke 14:15-24 ). Further, according to Luke, the disciples "ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead" ( Acts 10:41 ; cf. Luke 14:30 ).
Institution. Before looking at the actual records of the institution of the Lord's Supper, it is necessary to note the debate as to whether the institution occurred within the Passover celebration. The majority opinion has been and remains that the Lord Jesus ate the Passover meal with his disciples on Thursday evening (the beginning of Nisan 15) and when doing so instituted the Lord's Supper. Then he was crucified on Friday. This is clearly what the Synoptic Gospels teach. However, it has been argued that since John's Gospel affirms that Jesus was crucified on the afternoon of Nisan 14, when the paschal lambs were being sacrificed in the temple (18:28), the Last Supper was a pre-Passover meal the night before at the beginning of Nisan 14.
Here, it is assumed that the Lord's Supper originated in the context of the Passover; the actual texts of the institution point to this fact and so does the whole theology of the meaning of the Lord's Supper in terms of the sacrificial death of Jesus, the Lamb of God, who inaugurates the new exodus. Further, we assume that the words of institution were said by Jesus within the Passover, when the head of the family prayed over the unleavened bread before the main meal and over the third cup of wine after the main meal.
The Meaning of Jesus' Sayings. The two sayings, "This is my body" and "This is my blood, " were interpolations into the Passover ritual at two important points before and after the main meal. The central content of the meal is the flesh of the slain lamb.
Jesus transcends the original meaning of this feast, for he is the fulfillment of the Passover Lamb/Victim. The unleavened bread now stands as a symbol of his body and the wine of "the cup of blessing" as a symbol of his blood.
The disciples did not eat the flesh of Christ by taking the bread and they did not drink his blood in taking the wine. In the Passover the slain lamb represented the efficacious death of the lambs in Egypt. In the Lord's Supper, which emerges from the Passover, the bread and wine represent the atoning sacrifice of Christ Jesus as the true paschal lamb. Neither the slain lamb nor the bread and wine contain in and of themselves any efficacy. So both at the Passover and at the Lord's Supper the sacrificial death is presupposed and is no part of the actual meal. So the Lord's Supper is both a proclamation and a remembrance (memorial) of what God the Father has done in his Son, Jesus Christ, just as the Passover is a proclamation and a remembrance of what Yahweh did for Israel through the slaughter of the lambs in Egypt.
Further, since the bread and wine symbolize the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, to be invited to partake of them is a great privilege. It is the grace of being one with him in his sacrifice and also of sharing by anticipation in the fruit of his atonement partaking of the messianic banquet in the kingdom of God. After his resurrection from the dead and before his ascension into heaven, the disciples ate with Jesus on various occasions (e.g., Luke 24:30-31 ; John 21 ). After Pentecost (Acts 2) they celebrated the Lord's Supper on each Lord's Day. In their breaking of bread they knew the presence of the same Lord who had dined with them during the forty days. However, the slaughtered lamb no longer had any part in the meal for its central position had now been taken by the bread and the wine. So the Lord's Supper is a remembrance of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ and an expection of the joy of being with him in his kingdom. It is also the fellowship of and in the new covenant, that is, of a relation with the Father through the Son and by the Spirit.
The Teaching of Paul. The apostle's teaching on the Lord's Supper is found not only in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, but also in other parts of the epistle. We need, therefore, to examine 5:6-8, 10:1-22, and 11:18-34.
In 5:6-8 Paul refers to Christ, "our Passover lamb" who has been sacrificed, and writes: "Therefore let us keep the Festival with the bread of sincerity and truth." It is probable that here we have an allusion to the Lord's Supper.
In 10:1-22 Paul presents the important analogy for the Lord's Supper from the Old Testament ( Exodus 16:4 Exodus 16:14-18 ; 17:6 ). The supernatural food was the manna that came down from heaven and the supernatural drink was the water that gushed from the rock. However, despite their reception of supernatural sustenance, most Israelites perished because of their idolatry. Let this be a warning to believers, says Paul. To eat at the table of pagan gods is to fellowship with demons and to make a mockery of the Lord's Supper, for in the Eucharist there is fellowship with God in Christ and with fellow believers in the body of Christ. Also evident in this passage is a particular emphasis on the actual bread and wine: they are the actual means of sharing in the body and blood of Christ, but they are not equated with that body and blood.
In 11:18-34 we find that the Lord's Supper is the whole of the common meal that concluded with the Eucharist. Paul writes to admonish the church for its abuse of the common meal and in so doing he probably contributed toward the separation of the Eucharist from the common meal. His words in verses 27-30 are very strong. He says that "anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself." Paul could mean that to treat the sacramental bread and wine like any other food is sinful; or he could mean that the abuses at the common meal by the Corinthians reveals that they do not appreciate the true nature of the body of Christ (as the communion and fellowship of believers in Christ).
The Teaching in John's Gospels. There is no account of the institution of the Lord's Supper in the Gospel of John. This may mean that (as Rudolf Bultmann maintained) John is antisacramental. Or it may mean that John presupposes the institution and brings out its full meaning in various places. This second possibility is adopted here and can be illustrated as follows.
At the wedding of Cana (2:1-11) the changing of water into wine is a sign. The wine represents the wine of the Eucharist and is the blood of Christ that cleanses from all sin. It replaces the purifications and washings in water in Judaism.
After the feeding of the multitude (6:1-15), Jesus spoke of himself as the "bread of life" or "the bread of God" that comes down from heaven to give life to the world (vv. 22-51). Then he identified this bread with his flesh, which is eaten (lit. munched), and also spoke of his blood, which is drunk and which gives eternal life (vv. 52-59). (Some scholars see the latter as an addition by a redactor, but the passage can also be seen as a natural climax to the teaching on the bread of life.) The use of the term "flesh" belongs to the antidocetic emphasis of the Gospel and thus the element of the Eucharist is here flesh (not body) and blood. For the Evangelist the presence of Jesus Christ in the Lord's Supper/Eucharist is more real than was his physical presence to the disciples in Palestine. This is because partakers of the Eucharist enjoy a communion with him in the eating of his living flesh (vivified by the Spirit) and the drinking of his blood, which was not possible before his glorification to the Father's right hand. Yet this eating and drinking of flesh and blood are not physical but spiritual ("the words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life, " v. 63).
It is generally agreed that the foot-washing in John's Gospel ( 13:1-20 ) replaces the institution. The words of Jesus to Peter point to the necessity of feeding on Christ in his appointed way: "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me." The "person who had had a bath" points to baptism, which cannot be repeated. The foot washing is an allegory of the Lord's Supper" I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done for you." The Eucharist is one (or the) way appointed by Christ for the washing away of postbaptismal sins. It is also the inspiration for the life of love in following the example of Jesus himself.
In the farewell discourses of Jesus (chaps. 14-17) there are various indications of the reality of the Eucharist and its being made life-giving through the gift and presence of the Paraclete, the Spirit sent from the Father in the name of the Son. The Vine with its wine ( 15:1-8 ) points to Christ and his blood. Then, in the high priestly prayer of Jesus we hear him consecrating himself as the source of the flesh and blood, which are to be the heavenly food of the future Eucharist ( 17:19 ).
Finally, the piercing of the side of Jesus and the coming forth of blood and water ( 19:34 ) graphically state that the two sacraments, baptism and Eucharist, flowed from the atoning and liberating death of Jesus Christ (see also 1 John 5:6-8 ).
Summary. Whatever name is given to that which Jesus instituted, it would seem that it has the following characteristics.
First, the ekklesia [ejkklhsiva] and its holy meal belong to the new covenant in much the same way that Israel and its Passover belong to the old covenant. Second, Christians are to rejoice in the living presence of the Lord Jesus in their midst as they remember his atoning, sacrificial death. Third, the early church encountered the vital presence of Jesus Christ not in the bread and wine as such but in his presence in their midst and in their hearts. The purpose of the elements (which are truly holy and indispensable for they replace the Passover lamb) is to symbolize and recall the once-for-all and unrepeatable death of Jesus Christ. Finally, the joy of knowing Christ in the holy meal is a foretaste of the fuller communion and friendship in the life of the future kingdom of God.
The key theological elements of the Lord's Supper as it was celebrated in the early church are: (1) the proclamation of the death of Jesus through "memorial" and "remembrance" and a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; (2) the inauguration of the new covenant in the sacrificial blood of Jesus; (3) the participation and fellowship in Christ unto the Father, and with one another in Christ; (4) the experiencing the firstfruit of the joy of the eschatological kingdom of God; (5) the presence of the Spirit of the Father to vivify; and (6) the presence of faith, which is faithful and obedient, in the hearts of believers.
Immediately after the period of the apostles there was a speedy development of eucharistic practice and theology in the ante-Nicene and then post-Nicene church. The results of this often appear to have moved far away from the New Testament foundations, because of the emphasis on sacrifice in terms of the Eucharist itself.
Bibliography. J.-J. Allmen, The Lord's Supper; I. C. Heron, Table and Tradition; A. J. B. Higgins, The Lord's Supper in the New Testament; J. Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus; J. Reumann, The Supper of the Lord.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Lord\'s Supper, the'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".