What is Communion?
Depending on the church you attend, you probably participate in something called “communion” or “The Lord’s Supper” at least once a month (sometimes more). You know, the time when you eat some bread and drink some grape juice. This is one of two of the most recognized sacraments – in other words, ritualistic activities that the church has historically done to affirm internal realities. But, what is communion all about? Why do we eat some bread and drink some juice? We know it has something to do with Jesus on the cross, but what does it mean? This standalone episode features a recent message Dr. John Neufeld prepared for his series called Celebrating Our Freedom in Christ. Listen as He explains the purpose and aim of communion.
Dr. John Neufeld is the Bible Teacher at Back to the Bible Canada.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio.
One writer has said that the passage we are about to read is like a precious diamond dropped on a muddy road. Let me explain. Up till now, we have seen that the Corinthian church is aptly described as a muddy road. There were divisions in the church in Corinth, both divisions around leadership and divisions between the rich and the poor. Some of the people in that church were more fascinated with Greek philosophical speculation than with the truth of Christ. Some were sexually immoral. Some believers, because of their greed, were suing other believers, and had disgraced the message of Christ before their watching city. Some through cavalier attitudes about Christian freedom, were hindering weaker believers in their progress in faith. The love feasts in the church had degenerated into drunkenness. The corporate life of the church in Corinth was indeed a muddy road, and in the middle of this Paul drops a diamond. There is an invitation. Christ has invited this muddy, dirty, bruised ragged, fractious, misguided people to come to his table of peace and love and reconciliation.
Isn’t that how it is with us? Whether you attend a church which celebrates communion only occasionally or whether you attend a church that never enters into worship without the Lord’s Table, in any case, this passage of scripture is for all of us.
How often have you felt muddy, dirty and sin soaked – unacceptable to be either at church or invited to the Lord’s Table. But then, isn’t that what the Lord’s Table actually intended? It is God’s diamond, his rich grace dropped right into our lives. It is an ancient tradition that began 2000 years ago that finally brings peace and love where it is needed most. Into messy lives. You with God’s people over 2000 years are invited to the same table the table of our Lord.
I am reading one of the truly beautiful passages from the Bible. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. “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 he also 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.”
Today, I want us to see that how The Lord’s Table, when rightly understood brings unity, set’s our hearts on fire, and opens our eyes to see what Christian faith truly means. I want to explain that. From this passage I want us to see how the Lord’s Table first invites us to look back and then to look forward. Let’s start with looking back.
We need to remember, that when Paul wrote these words (the year was A.D. 54) that none of the 4 gospel accounts, that is Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, had yet been written. Jesus had been crucified some 20 years ago, and Mark would write down the first orderly account of the life of Jesus 5 years after Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. Matthew and Luke would write about 15 years after this letter. What that means is that at the time of the writing of 1 Corinthians, in A.D. 54, the only place you would hear about the crucifixion of Jesus, and what that meant was when you celebrated the Lord’s Table.
So Paul records, the first written account of the night when Jesus was betrayed. That’s why he writes, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you.” These words are in fact technical words. There was in the ancient world a three-fold process of handing down knowledge and insuring that it remained accurate.
First of all, a truth or an event or a teaching would be established because it had come from a trustworthy source or a trustworthy teacher. Secondly, the teacher chose recognized students who could be trusted and who would become authorities in their own right having both memorized his teaching and having been trained in what the teaching actually meant. Then thirdly, the last phase in handing down accurate knowledge meant passing on the teaching through an established tradition so that the truth content and the tradition in which it was handed down would not be changed. This, says Paul, is what Jesus did. He was the established teacher. He chose his disciples who memorized and understood his words and then Christ established the Lord’s Table, the tradition he instituted as the vehicle to insure that we would have an accurate tradition of what his death meant.
Now, someone will say,
“But why didn’t the apostles just write down everything Jesus said right away? Why did we have to wait 25 years until the first account of Jesus came out? And how then can we know this is accurate?”
Well, for one, those who understand ancient cultures will tell you they are overwhelmed with how accurate oral tradition when properly undertaken is. In other words, this method described here worked perfectly. I have a friend who was a missionary to tribal people in Brazil. He would tell me that he would visit a tribe, preach the gospel there, and then come back to that same people some 5 or more years later and find out that key leaders had accurately memorized exactly what he taught last time he was there. Now, most of us can’t do that because television and the media have turned our brains into a liquid soup so that we can’t remember anything. But a great many cultures properly handed down oral traditions and are dead on in their accuracy. So there was no need, at least initially, to write a book. And, indeed, the eye-witnesses were still among them should you ever question accuracy.
Secondly, it seems that the teaching of Jesus probably was written down in some note form, but not put into an orderly format for about 25 years because the disciples believed that Jesus might come back very soon. They had no idea that his coming would be delayed. So as time passed they came to realize that they needed written document, documents that would outlive the living apostles Jesus had chosen.
So please understand that the Lord’s Table was from the outset meant to be an accurate instruction to help God’s people remember what happened in real history. Of course, that is not the only meaning of the Lord’s Table. We have already noticed back in chapter 10:16 these words: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?” And so, the table is more than a memorial. In some fashion it does call God’s people into a fellowship or a sharing of his sufferings. I did discuss that matter when we studied that passage and I will not repeat it here.
But in this passage we can see that one of the meanings inherent in the Lord’s Table is that it is given to us as a teaching aid. We are given not only the words that describe what the cross means we are given a picture in the tradition of the table. Indeed, I would think, that the practice of Communion ought always to be attended with an explanation of the meaning of the death of Christ – that it was given as an atonement for our sins.
In fact, to reinforce this, Paul twice repeats what Jesus said. In verse 24, “This is my body with is for you.” And in verse 25, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” From our vantage point we might think that it only means accurately remembering what happened, but in the Greek it meant more than that. It meant to try to put oneself into the drama, to personally relive it – the agony, the suffering, the betrayal, the mock trial, the passion, the death.
There is an old Negro spiritual that some of you remember:
“Where you there when they crucified my Lord,” sang the old black slaves. “Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”
But some of us might say, “But I wasn’t there.” But listen, in the fellowship of the Lord’s Table you have been invited to share in the fellowship of his sufferings.
In other words, this is the purpose of the Lord’s Table:
To look back. When we do so, to imagine. Imagine what every point must have felt like, looked like, smelled like, what the emotions must have been like – the hatred, the sorrow, the cruelty, the compassion. Put yourself there, as if you were there. When you eat of the bread, know that these kernels of wheat were crushed to provide you with this food, and Jesus’ physical body was crushed to provide you with heavenly food.
That means there is a profound mystery in the Lord’s Table. I find the mystery being this, that in some way I feel, having been to the Lord’s Table, that I am in fact an eyewitness of Christ’s suffering. I don’t think I can explain that, but that in some mysterious way I have experienced in the table the sufferings of Christ. There is, as it were, a sacred and sanctified imagination in which I am brought to union with Christ in the table. Imagine. But there is more to do at the Lord’s table than to imagine.
I have said that one of the things that our Lord’s Table does is cause us to imagine. But, I might add, it also causes us to recall what we already know.
That is to say, one of the reasons for the Lord’s Table is to make sure we remember the details accurately. It was the night when Jesus was betrayed. It was a night of intrigue, greed, satanic perversion – yet a night of tenderness and mercy. There has never been a night like this.
It was Passover, the night the Jews remember. Passover remembers how Israel was delivered from cruel slavery in the land of Egypt. It is the Jewish story of salvation. On that night of remembering Jesus took bread. It was the Jewish Passover bread, the bread of haste, the bread baked without leaven – done that way because God had commanded them to do it that way. It was that way so that the Jews would remember there was not enough time for the bread to rise, no time for yeast, simply eat quickly for the journey. God would deliver. [God] would save you so quickly. The bread would not have time to rise.
Jesus held up this bread and then he gave thanks to God. The word “thanks” comes from a Greek word. The word is Eucharisto from which many Christians now call the Lord’s Table “The Eucharist”. In other words, this table is our reason to give thanks. Our salvation also came suddenly. And after he had given thank he broke the bread of haste and said, “This is my body”. He meant that the bread of haste was both the same symbol the Jews had in Passover, yet a new symbol at the same time.
This bread is a symbol of God’s sudden deliverance from slavery. But this bread, the bread that Jesus held up, symbolized deliverance from slavery to sin achieved through his body. He also took the cup, which, in fact, during the celebration of the Jewish Passover there were in fact 4 cups which symbolized 4 distinct redemptions God promises. Cup #1: I will take you out of Egypt. Cup #2: I will deliver you from slavery. Then came Cup #3: I will redeem you with a demonstration of my power. And, at that moment with cup #3, Jesus said “This cup is the new covenant with my blood, this is the demonstration of my power to save.”
Now, the cup of wine symbolized blood. At the original Passover blood was smeared on the doorframes of houses so that the angel of death would see it and “pass over” and save those who were covered with blood. But blood was also applied consistently to all of Jewish worship.
Hebrews 9:19-22 says it well.
“For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.’ And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”
Forgiveness doesn’t come by good intentions, nice feelings, well wishing, or thinking positive thoughts, or even by being remorseful or even pledging to try to be better next time.
Forgiveness comes with shed blood. Sacrifice is required, it is demanded. Forgiveness is not cheap, it is expensive.
And so, to symbolize the price of forgiveness the Old Testament priests sacrificed bulls, cows, and lambs to symbolize the cost of forgiveness. But what kind of forgiveness did all that blood of sacrificed animals actually bring? It forgave the worshipper of ritual uncleanness, but for all the terrible stuff like breaking the 10 commandments, like murder, like lying, like stealing, like adultery, like envy, like failure to honour father and mother, like misusing the name of God, like false worship, for these things no animal blood could forgive. All that was left then was condemnation, judgment, death, wrath – eternal stuff.
Listen again to the words of Hebrews 10:11-14.
“And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
And that is it: his blood is perfect, and his perfect blood poured out, splashed and running on the cruel cross, this blood makes perfect, forgives, saves, makes clean, washes off that muddy road forever, [for] those who hope in him. Here is forgiveness. Here is salvation.
And Paul says that is what we should imagine and recall and relive, that Jesus said “this is the new covenant.” This is a binding agreement that God makes with anyone who puts their faith in him – that Christ’s cross, his terrible sacrifice, his spent blood forgives you. Without this there is no forgiveness. With this you have God’s word, that your salvation is complete. And so therefore we look back to imagine, to recall. But we also look back to rejoice.
I use the word rejoice because this is the agreement, or covenant between God and us. Jesus said, “This is the new covenant in my blood.” And so, when we come to the table we not only come with a sober reminder, we come in joy, in gladness with hearts lifted up to God for the New Covenant with God is sealed by the perfect sacrifice of Jesus.
And so, the Lord’s Table calls upon God’s people to look back and remember. We are to do this in remembrance of him. In a sense, the Lord’s Table assures us that worship will never degenerate into what we should be doing or moralizing or even just thinking about how perfect are the attributes of God. Worship will always centre around the cross where Christ died in our place.
But look again at verse 26.
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
Do you see that the Lord’s Table not only invites us to look back but also invites us to anticipate what lies ahead?
I want you to notice two things in this verse. Here is the first: We are to repeat the Lord’s Table over and over again. As often as you eat.
It is the very simple phrase, “As often as you do it.” He doesn’t say how often, that was left to us. It might be every day or several times a year. But we are to keep repeating it.
Now we see how different the Lord’s Table is from our Baptism. Baptism is practiced but once in our lifetime, for it symbolizes that Christ’s death and his salvation was done but once, and once is enough.
So, then, why should we continue to repeat the Lord’s table? The answer is: that we are to do so until he returns or until his second coming.
There is some very fascinating connections between the Lord’s Table and the Wedding Supper of the Lamb. We are invited to this table, to keep repeating it. How long? Until he comes and in it we anticipate the table to come. Do you remember that I said that there were four cups drunk at Passover and Jesus pronounced the words at the third cup? What about the fourth cup? Well, Jesus never drank the 4th cup which dealt specifically with making Israel a nation and also looks forward to the defeat of all of Israel’s enemies.
That 4th cup will be drunk at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb when all our enemies have been defeated. Five years after this document of 1 Corinthians was written, Mark would record more fully what Jesus said. I am reading Mark 14:24-25.
“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.’”
So, in other words, Jesus delayed the drinking of the 4th cup to the time when we would drink it with him in glory. In other words, this Passover Meal was yet to be continued. It is to be continued when the first table has been shared by all of Christ’s people – from his first coming to his second coming. And then when the last of God’s elect have been called in and when Jesus reappears in glory, it is as if the Lord’s Table, the one that was never finished, resumes. And then all those who have already started at the table are bidden to come and sit with him again and complete the meal that had just started.
Do you know, I never go to the Lord’s Table without thinking about the fact that there is one more cup to drink in the age to come. I silently thank my Lord and Saviour that I am called upon to tie two pieces together: the beginning and the end of my salvation, from the cross to the skies.
What a blessing it is then to be invited to the Table of Our Lord.
To listen to this entire series, check it out here.