For the last two thousand years, believers have discussed the proper understanding of the elements (the bread and cup) of the Lord’s Supper. Some believe that the bread and cup become the literal, physical body and blood of Jesus Christ. Others believe that Jesus is spiritually present in the elements. Others believe there is no presence in the bread and cup, and that the Lord’s Supper is a remembrance.
All of these understandings of the Lord’s Supper revolve around the meaning of “is” when Jesus said, “This is my body… This is my blood.” (Matt 26:26; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor 11:24-25) Regardless of how we understand the bread and the cup, what about the meal itself? “The meal?” you ask. Yes, the meal. When the Lord’s Supper is mentioned in Scripture, it is mentioned in the context of a meal.
Consider these passages from the Gospels:
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.” (Matthew 26:26-29 ESV)
And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:22-25 ESV)
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” (Luke 22:19-22 ESV)
Even the Gospel of John mentions the meal, though the elements are not mentioned (unless we count the bread that is given to Judas):
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. (John 13:1-4 ESV)
What about in other parts of Scripture? How is the Lord’s Supper modeled among Christians in the New Testament after the resurrection and ascension? This is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians:
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. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. 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. (1 Corinthians 11:20-26 ESV)
Notice that the Corinthians were partaking of the Lord’s Supper as part of a meal. (This is the only use of the phrase “Lord’s Supper” in Scripture.) Paul does not condemn the meal. Instead, he condemns the Corinthians for not showing concern for others during the meal. From the repetition of “eat” and “drink” throughout this passage, the meal seems to be an integral part of the Lord’s Supper. (By the way, the word for “meal” in 1 Cor. 11:21 is the same word translated “supper” – as in the Lord’s Supper – in verse 20 and in John 13:2&4 and John 21:20.)
Similarly, Jude uses the plural word for “love” to specify the “love feasts” of the recipients of his letter (this is the only use of the phrase “Love Feast” in Scripture):
But these people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively. Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion. These are blemishes on your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, looking after themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever. (Jude 1:10-13 ESV)
I realize that this is not a very happy passage to consider the Lord’s Supper, but again we see the Lord’s Supper associated with more than the elements. Here Jude warns his readers not to let blasphemers “feast with you” during “your love feasts”.
There are a few more passage that we should consider. In the three Gospel accounts of the Lord’s Supper, the authors use a certain formula that includes “taking”, “blessing”, and “breaking” the bread. These formulae are found in other passages that may or may not indicate that the people are partaking of the Lord’s Supper:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-27 ESV)
On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. (Acts 20:7-11 ESV)
As day was about to dawn, Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. Therefore I urge you to take some food. It will give you strength, for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.” And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat. Then they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves. (Acts 27:33-36 ESV)
The last passage (Acts 27) is most interesting. It includes all three of the formulaic expressions found in the Gospels. However, it is occuring on a ship, in a storm, with unbelievers. Perhaps this does not indicate a Lord’s Supper, but it does demonstrate how “breaking bread” can be used to indicate more than simply eating bread. Similarly, the passage in Acts 2 shows that “breaking bread” includes “food”, not just bread. There are other passages that use this formula, such as the feeding of the 4,000 and the feeding of the 5,000, in which the people are not partaking of the Lord’s Supper.
There is one more passage that is associated with the Lord’s Supper. This one is also from 1 Corinthians:
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. (1 Corinthians 10:16-21 ESV)
In this passage, the elements of the Lord’s Supper are used to demonstrate our fellowship with Christ. As such, we cannot fellowship with both Christ and demons. (This is the only use of the phrase “Lord’s Table” in Scripture.) Although only bread and cup are mentioned in this passage, Paul mentions the fuller meal in less than a chapter (see above 1 Cor 11:20-26). Also, the word “table” can be used to indicate a meal, not a physical table (see Acts 16:34 where the Greek word “table” is translated “food” or “meal”).
By the way, if you are keeping score, here are the phrases used to describe the Lord’s Supper and their number of occurrencnes in Scripture: “Lord’s Supper” – 1; “Lord’s Table” – 1; “Agape or Love Feast” – 1; “Eucharist or Thanksgiving Feast” – 5; “Breaking Bread” – 8.
So, what can we learn from this? Does Scripture command us to take the Lord’s Supper as a full meal? No. Is there something special about the bread and cup? There seems to be in the Gospel accounts and in 1 Cor. 10-11. But we should also remember that at times Scripture uses “bread” to represent more than just bread; so even there the elements of bread and cup could indicate a full meal. Did the Christians in the New Testament take the Lord’s Supper as a meal? It seems that they did. Could we be missing something if we limit the Lord’s Supper to only the bread and the cup? I guess we’ll all have to answer that one for ourselves. What do you think?