The Lord’s Supper


Matthew 26:17-30

Text Comment

I made some comments on the first part of our text last Lord’s Day morning in dealing with Judas and his betrayal.  I won’t repeat those comments, but will make a few others on the part of the text that deals with our subject for this morning.

v.19     Remember, the city of Jerusalem was crowded with Passover pilgrims. The population of Jerusalem swelled by as much as three or four times its customary population during the Passover week. So even to find a place to celebrate the feast, to eat the meal itself would not have been necessarily an easy matter. Every inn, every home was crowded, not only with its own people but those who would come for the Feast. Then a lamb would have to be purchased, taken to the temple and slaughtered there, and then be brought back to the  room where the meal was to be eaten.  [Strack – Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, IV, i, 41]

v.27     Scholarship has been able to reproduce the outline of a Passover meal such as it would have been eaten in the Lord’s own day.  (There are some features of the traditional, the modern Jewish seder that were not part of the Jewish Passover either in the ancient epoch or in the time of the Lord). If you have seen, for example, some of those presentations by Jews for Jesus regarding the Passover meal some of what they talk about was not part of the original ceremony. But it now seems probable that the thanksgiving over the bread and then over the cup were the regular parts of the Passover ritual and the Passover meal itself.  The grace spoken by the head of household over the unleavened bread began the eating of the Passover meal itself and the blessing over the cup – actually the third of four cups drunk in the Passover liturgy – ended the meal.  That is why Paul, in 1 Cor. 11, can say, “In the same way, after they had eaten, he took the cup saying…”  The eating of the meal itself – the Passover meal of lamb, unleavened bread, bitter herbs, fruit purée and wine – separated the Lord’s breaking of the bread from his blessing of the cup. [J. Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, 84-88]  In other words, the Lord did not interrupt the normal flow of the Passover liturgy and insert some new acts nor did he wait til the Passover liturgy was over and introduce a new ceremony.  He used the acts of the Passover ritual itself and gave them a new interpretation with these remarks that the bread was his body and the wine was his blood.  The ritual we know as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion did not originate in a separate ceremony. In the Christian Lord’s Supper, the rest of the Passover ritual fell away, looking back as it did to the exodus from Egypt, and only the parts of the ritual that Jesus gave new meaning were kept for the new Lord’s Supper.  That is why, in all the accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the Gospels, nothing is said about the rest of the meal or the rest of the ritual, just this about the bread and the wine.  Only the unfamiliar words, the startlingly unfamiliar words in a very familiar ritual were recorded and preserved.  [France, 368]

The breaking of the bread is another feature of the Jewish ritual that Jesus calls special attention to and invests a new significance and meaning in, either simply with the words that he adds to the act “this is my body” or by putting it in a slightly different place in the ritual. It continues to be a way that the Lord’s Supper is described in the New Testament:  “the breaking of bread.”  The emphasis on this act of breaking the bread, “a circumstance entirely trivial in itself in the original ritual,” indicates that there is something now very significant in this for the purpose of this new ritual, predicting his violent death as he has been predicting it for some months before this. But by asking his disciples to eat the bread and drink the wine, he is inviting his disciples personally to participate in the effects of this death, the meaning and the significance of it, to appropriate that death for them. [France, 368]  [R. Otto in F.F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles (Gk. Txt), 100]

The diet of most people in Judea in the first century, and you need to know this to appreciate the point because you may have heard otherwise, at least on ordinary days, was bread and water. Wine was the drink of feasts and of special occasions for most people.  That it is wine here that is meant is made clear in v. 29.  In any case, the bread in the Lord’s Supper ritual is a symbol of nourishment, it being the daily staple of life, it’s what people need to live, and it’s their food.  Wine, however, does not seem to be a symbol of ordinary nourishment but a symbol of festival and of feasting.

Finally, in regard to the wine: his blood “poured out” is unmistakably the language of Old Testament sacrifice.  As the breaking of the bread which is the Lord’s body points to his death, so does the pouring out of his blood. This is not any blood; this is the blood of a sacrifice for sin.  And the “for many”, poured out “for many”, connects this sacrifice to that of the Servant of the Lord of whom we read in Isaiah 53 he would give his life as a guilt offering and “pour out his life to death and bear the sins of many.”  All of this Matthew makes explicit by adding the Lord’s words, “for the forgiveness of sins.”  God’s covenant with his people had always been based on forgiveness secured through the sacrificial shedding of a substitute’s blood, and now the sacrifice of which all those other sacrifices had been nothing but anticipations and prophecies is about to be offered. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is about to be sacrificed.  The Lord’s Supper, in the breaking of the bread and the pouring out of the wine, is a portrayal and a remembrance of that sacrifice by which we are cleansed from the guilt and the defilement of our sins.

v.29     “fruit of the vine” was the ritual language that the Passover required to be said and the Lord here used in the grace over the cup [Mishnah, Berekoth 6.1]. The Messianic banquet, remember, has already appeared in a number of places in the Gospel of Matthew account as a picture of the consummation of salvation.  All of what the Lord is about to undergo and all that his disciples will remember in their celebration of the Lord’s Supper has in view this consummation of salvation at the end of the age when Jesus comes again.  This has been, as you remember, the great theme of the last section of the Lord’s teaching, the section that ended at the end of chapter 25.

v.30     The hymn would have been all or some of the Hallel, Psalms 115-118, the psalms then traditionally sung at the end of the Passover meal.

It is a happy providence that we come to the institution of the Lord’s Supper on Reformation Sunday.  The Reformation was both a theological and a liturgical revolution, it was a repudiation of the ritualistic theory of salvation and of righteousness at least very widely held in the church of those days, a theory in which the Mass, or what had become of the Lord’s Supper, lay at the very center.  A whole set of beliefs and practices had grown up around the Supper – a system of priest craft, of superstition, and of ritual righteousness – that had made the Sunday service of the Christian church actually a barrier to rather than an encouragement to true and living faith in Jesus Christ. The Lord’s Supper had come to replace Jesus himself in the thoughts and in the actions of his people. Before many people ever encountered the Reformation as a revolution in thought and belief, they encountered it as a revolution in worship. When they came to the Mass, as the service was called, the priest no longer had his back to the congregation; he no longer spoke Latin but spoke their everyday language; he no longer was the only one to drink the wine; he invited the entire congregation to participate in everything; the Supper was preceded by a sermon in which God’s people were all encouraged to trust the Lord Jesus for themselves, to rejoice in his love and salvation, and to honor and serve him by living a life of obedience to his commandments; and, instead of once a year, Christians were expected to take the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, or, at least, much more often than they had before.  They were taught that the Lord’s Supper was not a different thing, not a strange, even a threatening and sinister thing; a thing surrounded by dark superstitions, but simply another one of those many things that the Lord had given us to strengthen our faith in him, and to renew our love for him and our love for one another.  At least so it was in the springtime of the Reformation.

We are all painfully aware of how this rite that Jesus instituted there in the Upper Room the night of his betrayal became a cause of intense contention and then of deep division in the church.  One great scholar has described v. 26 (and its parallels in the other Gospels) the statement, “This is my Body” as the most controversial text in the Bible.  It is hard to believe that any of those eleven men still present that night, which heard the Lord Jesus speak and watched him act, could have believed that Christians would be wrangling for 2000 years about what he meant, about how the ritual was to be performed, and to what purpose it was to be performed.  But so it has been.  It has been a matter of great contention even among Protestants, the heirs of the Reformation. It is not too much to say that there exists not one Protestant church but many Protestant churches, at least in the first place, because they could not agree about the Lord’s Supper.

Why, we wrangle today, even in our own conservative Reformed and Presbyterian world!  If  we no longer have to argue over whether the bread actually turns into the body of Christ or whether righteousness and the favor of God is given to us merely for participating in this ritual – as did the Protestant Reformers – we still argue over whether the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated frequently or infrequently and whether baptized and weaned children should participate or not. I heard, not so long ago, a PCA minister, a man for whom I have a great respect, say that every Sunday communion is a sure road to ritualism and unbelief.  And we argue about how it ought to be practiced, as we are practicing it now at Faith Presbyterian Church or as we used to practice it, sitting in our pews.  I read an essay a few weeks ago arguing that our present practice here at Faith is a violation of biblical principles.

So it is important for us, in the midst of all of this unfortunate wrangling, to return time after time to the institution of this ceremony, so simply and beautifully described in the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, to return to the words and deeds of the Lord Jesus himself as he created this ceremony for his church and for our perpetual remembrance of him as our Savior.  I could preach many sermons on these few verses, to be sure, compact as they are, but it is worth our trying to concentrate on the main points, to concentrate on what is most obvious here, on those things that would have occurred simply and obviously to the disciples that fateful and wonderful night.

  • First, the Lord’s Supper is a ritual to be observed by the Lord’s disciples, by all of them together.

That point is made clearly, and one would think emphatically here. He gave the bread to his disciples we read in v. 26 and then in v. 27 we’re told that he told all of them to drink the wine.  The Lord’s Supper is an act that the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ perform together.  This continues to be a simple emphasis in the rest of the New Testament’s commentary on the Lord’s Supper.  It was a ceremony, a ritual, a set of acts that the church participated in together.  Paul, you remember, will make a great point of the moral implications of this.  We all eat the same bread, we all drink the same wine. No matter whether we are young or old, no matter whether we are male or female, no matter whether we are rich or poor, no matter what our social class or standing may be, we participate in this meal as an act of togetherness, of unity, of mutual faith and love and mutual dependence upon the same Savior and the same salvation.  To take the Lord’s Supper is to confess with one’s actions not only that he is a disciple of the Lord Jesus, but that he is a disciple among other disciples.  As Paul would later put it, “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”  We remember from the Gospel of John that all of this eating of the Passover meal came after the Lord had washed his disciple’s feet and used that humble service to teach them that they were to regard one another as joined at the hip, the objects of one another’s love service and care. The Lord’s Supper then, when it was instituted that night just some moments later, would have been for those eleven men a powerful experience of their unique unity as fellow disciples of Jesus Christ.  That is how it had always been in the ancient epoch: sacrificial meals at the temple were never taken alone, they were never private affairs.  The priests would have been eating with the family, and the family would have been eating together, and actually several families would have been eating together at the sacrificial meals at the temple or the Tabernacle. And so it continues in the Lord’s Supper. It was not a private, contemplative act; it was a social and public ceremony.

In far too much Christian thinking about the Lord’s Supper through the ages and in far too much of the church’s practice, the Supper has seemed to be a private and individual act – as if each believer were all by himself, even if he were a member of a large congregation, all were individuals privately participating.  But that night it was a group who participated in the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is a ritual feast enjoyed by people together. I don’t know how many times through the years I have been asked by couples thinking about their wedding service if they could have the Lord’s Supper together as a part of that service. I have always told them that they certainly may, but they can’t have it by themselves. If they want it, everybody else gets it, too, and that usually ends any interest in having the Lord’s Supper as part of the wedding service. The Lord’s Supper is a ritual feast enjoyed by the people, the congregation, the assembly, together.

  •  Second, the Lord’s Supper is a participation in the Lord’s death for our salvation.

I use the word “participation,” because it is a broad term and, in fact, we enter into the Lord’s death, we appropriate it for ourselves anew and afresh in various ways.  Jesus said explicitly that night – though Matthew does not include his words in his account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper – “Do this in remembrance of me.  That is simple enough.  We are to remember in and by this Supper what Jesus did when he poured out his life as a sacrifice for sin that we might have forgiveness and peace with God.

But Matthew’s account is simpler still.  He only records the Lord’s commands to “Take and eat” the bread and “drink” from the cup.”  But he also said the bread was his body and the wine was his blood.  Now, when he said that, obviously, the Lord’s body was standing in front of them and all of his blood was inside his body.  During that first Lord’s Supper it would have been inconceivable to those men that the Lord meant anything else than that eating the bread and drinking the wine were ways for them to participate and to appropriate for themselves the Lord’s death and its consequences, its virtues, its powers. It was a ghastly mistake to ever have supposed that he meant that the bread was in some supernatural way to be transformed into his actual body so that we were actually consuming the flesh of the Son of God.  There is nothing in all of Holy Scripture to suggest anything so grotesque or superstitious.  In the Old Testament everybody knew they were eating the meat of the bull or the lamb, and in the New Testament everybody they were eating bread or they were drinking wine.

But by identifying the bread with his body and the wine with his blood, by commanding us to eat the bread and drink the wine the Lord was very obviously making the Supper, the Communion into an act of personal appropriation on our part.  We are as much as taking to ourselves again the Lord Jesus and his death in our place for our sins and our salvation.

Then, still more, it is by this act of eating the bread and drinking the wine that Paul says we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” We are so used to that language that we don’t, I think, think about it as often as we should.  Why proclaim a death? We fear death, we mourn death, by why proclaim a death. Why shout a death from the housetops? Why at the top of our voices, as it were, shout to the world that Jesus Christ is dead, which is what Paul says that we are doing with the Lord’s Supper, because by the death of Jesus Christ is accomplished our salvation and the salvation of the world.  The way to eternal life is opened up. This is good news, Christ’s death is the best news there is, and all the more because it was followed by a resurrection, proving that this death had the power and virtue to show and to make for us the way to everlasting life.

And every time we participate in the Lord’s Supper, every time we eat the bread, his body, and drink the wine, his blood, we participate anew and afresh in that life-giving death.  We proclaim it to our own souls as our hope of eternal life, we cheerfully proclaim it to one another as the salvation we all share in Christ, and we proclaim it to the world as its only hope of life after death.  Or, to put it another way, as Jesus does here, here in the institution, we are reminded that it is this covenant with God, this relationship with God, or better, his relationship with us, that was secured through this death.  This is the blood of the covenant; this is the blood that makes for God’s covenant with us. This is the blood that made us his children, this is the blood that brought us into his family, and this is the blood that brought us peace with God.  Every time we eat and drink this food, our covenant with God is remembered and renewed.

  • Then, in the third place, the Lord’s Supper is an anticipation of the glory that is still to come.

That verse 29, as a conclusion to Matthew’s account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, lays special stress on this point.  The Lord himself will wait for us, no more wine for him, because he is waiting for the day when he can drink it together with us. His self-denial is the measure of his own eager anticipation of that day. Our eating and drinking is the measure of our eager anticipation of that day. This world, for those who trust in Jesus Christ, will end not with a bang, nor with a whimper, it will end with a festival and a feast and a party, at least for those who trust in Jesus Christ.  The Lord will be there, as he says, and as we read in Matthew 8, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be there along with a great many from the east, the west, the north and the south. These eleven men we read here will be there and all of us who trust in Jesus Christ will be there as well.

Every time we eat and drink, Paul says, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  When we eat this meal we look back to what Christ has done for us and we look forward to what he has in store for us.

And thus that dark betrayal-night

With the last advent we unite,

By one blest chain of loving rite,

Until he come.

All of that seems to be very obvious in the simple account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper.  Is it not obvious?  But now, put all of that in its larger context. After all, this new ritual that the Lord Jesus appointed for the use of the church, the account of its institution comes at the end of a very long Gospel. We have, in this Gospel, heard him call people to faith in himself and to salvation through faith in him.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

We have seen person after person put his or her faith in Jesus and receive new life and the forgiveness of sins, and peace with God and rest in heart and soul.  We have heard Peter confess Jesus as Lord and Savior and we have seen others refuse to do so. The Lord has taught at length in this Gospel about true and false disciples:  those who receive the Word with joy but do not last, and those who not only receive the word with joy but then bear fruit during their lives.  In this Gospel which we have called the Gospel of discipleship, we have heard the Lord distinguish again and again between those who are his followers in word only and those who are his followers in truth.  In one place after another he has said that his true followers are distinguished from his false followers by the fact that the true ones give their devotion to him and follow him, and serve him and obey his commandments and do his will. That was the emphasis of the Sermon on the Mount; it was the emphasis also of this last great section of the Lord’s teaching that ended at the end of chapter 25.  In all of this about salvation, about what it means to be a Christian, about how one lives the Christian life, only now, here at the end do we hear about this Supper that will be a ritual for the use of Christians, Christ’s followers in times to come.

Surely, no one can read the Gospel of Matthew or the institution of the Lord’s Supper and not realize that what is this but it is more of the same.  It is another way of practicing one’s faith in Christ which Matthew is very interested to teach us.  It is another way of being his disciple which is one of Matthew’s great emphases in his Gospel.  It isn’t the way, it isn’t even the main way; it is a part, a piece of that whole life of faith in Jesus Christ and discipleship or following Jesus Christ that has been described at such length in the Gospel so far.  As it will become clear later on, this Supper became a regular and sacred part of the church’s weekly worship.  It wasn’t the whole of that worship – there were hymns sung and prayers offered and a sermon heard – but it was a beloved part and perhaps from the very beginning it was the climactic part of that worship.  It summed up their whole faith and their entire life as the followers of Christ.  It gathered all the Christians together; it unified them week after week in a common act of faith and hope.  And it centered them, where they always need to be centered, where you and I need always to be centered, between the first coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and between his second coming, between his first and his second comings. Just to remember that and to consider the implications of where we stand between Christ’s first and second coming, is to understand what it means to be a Christian and to live a Christian life. It was remembrance, anticipation, and practice. It was communion with Christ, fellowship with one another, a looking to the future all over again, and over and over again.  It was a summing up and a capping off.  It was a way of both acting out our faith in Christ and having that faith renewed and strengthened. No wonder the Supper was celebrated every Sunday in apostolic Christianity!

The apostles would later call it The Lord’s Supper.  Two things were called the Lord’s in the NT, the Lord’s Day and the Lord’s Supper. That name is somewhat ambiguous.  How is it exactly the Lord’s supper?  But the ambiguity allows the term to convey a rich collection of meanings.  It is a meal  provided by the Lord.  He has appointed it and he promises to be present when his people worship him by this ritual.  The bread is the bread he has given us, his broken body.  The wine is the wine he has poured out for us, his sacrificial blood.  It is his supper in those ways to be sure.  But it is also a meal that we participate in in honor of the Lord and to remember him.  So when Paul, outraged by the sinful practices of the Corinthian congregation, says “it is not the Lord’s Supper that you people are eating…” he means that you can’t fulfill the purpose of this meal which is to honor the Lord Jesus in your life if you are defying him in your behavior.  You can’t eat this meal in honor of the Lord if you are dishonoring him with your lives.  You can’t expect to find blessing in the presence and provision of the Lord if you come to him without faith or without love.  The Lord’s Supper is the whole of the Christian life in a summary.  It is the practice of faith, of hope, and of love for Christ and for one another, in a single, simple, beautiful, dramatic ritual.  To be sure, there is nothing in the Lord’s Supper that can’t be found at many other points in the Christian life, but it is all here in a beautiful concentration.  There is no message here, no reality here, no meaning here, there is not even an experience here, that you cannot find elsewhere in the Christian life.  There are other ways to remember the Lord’s death, other ways to proclaim that death as our salvation, other ways to unite with other Christians in our common faith, other ways to pledge ourselves to the Lord Jesus in anticipation of his coming again, other ways to anticipate the joys of that consummation.  But among all those other ways there is this supper that the Lord Jesus himself has appointed for the use of his people. There are other ways to give thanks to God than with a great feast on the last Thursday in November and other ways to celebrate the incarnation of God the Son, his coming into the world for our salvation, than with a great feast near the end of December, but those feasts sum up, and they adorn, and they concentrate our reflection and our attention and our interest and our emotion in those glorious realities that we celebrate in those feasts. And the Lord Jesus has given us just such a feast, such a meal to enjoy every week, every Lord’s Day when we meet together before him. And because he gave it to us, we can be sure that his blessing will rest upon us when we participate in it with faith and hope.

Oswald Chambers once described his wife, who’s nickname was Biddy, as a sacrament. He said she was a sacrament because, as in the Lord’s Supper, God conveys his presence through the common elements of ordinary life and God had conveyed his presence through her to him and to so many other people. In that way Biddy was like the Lord’s Supper. She was a sacrament he said. Well said.  And that is the idea.  The Christian faith is a large and complicated set of beliefs and teachings.  The Christian life takes 66 books adequately to describe.  But, with his genius, Jesus summed it all up and turned it into beautiful representative action in this simple ceremony or ritual: eating bread and drinking wine.  The Lord’s Supper has become the central defining act of a Christian culture and a Christian society.  It is that act that gives us a sense of identity far more than do fireworks on the fourth of July.  It makes us happy in the recollection of wonderful and beautiful things far more than do Thanksgiving or Christmas and it makes us committed to a way of life and a purpose for living far more than do any other ceremonies that we participate in the course of our lives..

So, every Lord’s Day, we re-center ourselves and our lives in this great remembrance of Christ’s love and sacrifice for us, the renewal of the covenant God had made with us, the refreshment of our fellowship with the Lord Jesus himself and with one another in him, and in anticipation of what will soon be ours. And all of this from the Lord’s own hand by his Holy Spirit, feeding us up for the life of faith and for our long pilgrimage to heaven.