The Lord’s Supper at Faith Presbyterian Church No. 7

The “Shape” No. 1


In our studies so far we have considered the proper elements to be used in the Lord’s Supper. We argued that those elements ought to be wine and leavened or normal bread. We now turn to the second large question concerning the practice of the Lord’s Supper, viz. how the Supper ought to be served, celebrated, or conducted.

We are used here at Faith Presbyterian Church to a particular way of serving the Lord’s Supper and it is, in broad outline, quite like the practice widely found in American evangelical churches. There is a short introductory address, which contains from time to time a “fencing of the table” – a warning that those who are not sincere Christians should not participate -, the prayer (“anaphora” is the technical term for this prayer in Christian liturgical scholarship, though in the English world it is also often referred to as “the prayer of consecration” (within this prayer is the “epiclesis”, the calling upon the Lord to set apart the bread and wine to their sacramental use) – much less according to a form and much shorter in our practice than in other churches); the words of institution are said (usually following Paul’s account in 1 Cor. 11); and then the bread and wine in turn are distributed, by elders and deacons, to the congregation sitting in the pews, and the communion takes place as each participant eats the bread and drinks the wine. We have used this form of Lord’s Supper for many years and many of us who come from other churches would have been used to a form quite like it.

Now, as we shall see, almost any celebration of the Lord’s Supper would follow that very basic order, some much more elaborate, some much less. The anaphora, the words of institution, the distribution of the elements and the people eating the bread and drinking the wine: it is hard to imagine any form of Lord’s Supper that did not have those elements in that order. But there are significant differences of form found in Christian churches and some of those differences bear quite significantly on the understanding of the Lord’s Supper and the experience of it by Christian men and women, boys and girls.

The Lord’s Supper in the New Testament

In seeking to determine the proper form of our Lord’s Supper we must begin at the beginning with the material of the New Testament itself. However, it will perhaps not surprise you that the biblical materials are not terribly illuminating in this regard. There are the three accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the Upper Room, those in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. We have the summary of that material given by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11. And, then, we have a few incidental comments provided in other texts, in several cases nothing more than an indication that the Lord’s Supper was observed.

No communion is described for us anywhere in the NT and, in large tracts of the NT, including, surprisingly the Pastoral Epistles – where in letters given over to instruction of a young minister, we might well have expected some word about the administration of the Lord’s Supper. There is material on preaching and pastoral work in those letters, but nothing on the Lord’s Supper. It is not mentioned in the Letter to the Hebrews, or in the letters of James, Peter, and John. It is not mentioned in Romans or Galatians, in Ephesians or the two Thessalonian letters.

Whatever else we might conclude on the basis of the paucity of references to the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament after the gospel accounts themselves, it is surely right for us to point out to those Christians who seem to see the Eucharist as the center of everything in the Christian life, that the New Testament does not obviously support that conclusion. There is, for example, a great deal more about preaching in the NT, and about preaching’s power to work faith and holiness in human hearts than there is about the Lord’s Supper. There is a great deal more, a very great deal more about the practice of the Christian life, instruction in godly living, in the NT than there is about the Eucharist. This does not mean, of course, that the Lord’s Supper is not important. The material we do have makes the importance of the sacrament unmistakably clear. But, other things are as important or even more important in the total account of Christian life and worship that we are given in the Bible. When I was reading Scott Hahn and some of the other former Presbyterians who had converted to Roman Catholicism I often had cause to wonder about this. They made no bones about the centrality of the Eucharist in their entire construction of the Christian faith and life, but they never reckoned with the rather obvious fact that you would never come away from reading the NT with that conviction.

So, from the materials of the New Testament, what can be known about the practice of the Lord’s Supper?

From the three gospel accounts of the institution of the Supper and from Paul’s summary of that material in 1 Cor. 11:23-25, we learn this much about the action of the Lord’s Supper.

1. The Lord took bread, gave thanks, and broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying words to this effect: “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you.”

2. Then he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it to his disciples, saying words to this effect: “Drink, for this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for you/many.”

The wording is not precisely the same in every case. In Paul’s text in 1 Cor. 11, the second prayer is omitted as it is in Luke. He says simply, “The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread and gave thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper, he took the cup, saying ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.'” That is, in Luke and Paul’s order, there is no separate prayer after he took the cup as there is in the gospel accounts. Further, Paul adds a second, “Do this…in remembrance of me…” as part of the cup saying. Luke has that statement – “Do this in remembrance of me” – only after the bread, Paul has it after both bread and wine. Matthew and Mark don’t have that statement at all.

There are more differences of this type. It does not appear that the NT is interested in giving us an exactly fixed liturgy of the Supper. And you find a certain variety among churches as a result, some orders closer to Paul and others to Matthew and Mark. Sometimes there is a separate prayer for the wine as there was for the bread; here we have typically followed Paul’s order with one prayer for both the bread and wine. Interestingly, there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that the prayer of the Lord’s Supper is distinctly an anaphora or epiclesis, either an offering of the elements to God or a prayer that God would bless the elements to their sacramental use. However appropriate such a prayer may be, it is not described in the NT.

In any case, when the Lord commanded us to “Do this in remembrance of me” and when Paul says, “I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you,” what we were commanded to do was a general imitation of the Lord’s action at the first Lord’s Supper, not an exact recapitulation of every word and deed, for we cannot be sure from the materials of the NT what that would be.

But, take note of how little is said about precisely how the Supper was taken. When Jesus is said to have given the bread to his disciples, what precisely is meant? Did he hand it to the nearest one and was it then passed from hand to hand around the table? That seems likely but it is not said. It is certainly possible that the Lord went around the table himself handing the bread to each disciple. Clearly, in any case, what was done in that small room with twelve men present, would not necessarily have been done or even been possible in a large congregation meeting in a more public room. There was certainly no need for assistants in the Upper Room as there are in church sanctuaries.

The situation, by the way, is very similar to that pertaining to baptism. Christians argue strenuously about how baptisms ought to be performed precisely because the NT never actually describes a baptism being performed. If at some point we were told that the apostle and the convert stepped out into the pool and the apostle, while repeating the baptismal formula from the Great Commission, laid the man under the water and then lifted him up again, we would all baptize in that way. If we were told that, while standing next to the new convert, the apostle poured or sprinkled water over his head, we would all baptize in that way. But the fact of the matter is that the NT never says anything about this at all, hence the argument about how baptism is best performed.

In any case, there is nothing remotely like a command regarding the actual management of the Lord’s Supper: precisely what is to be said, in what order each and every element is to take its place, how the elements are to be presented, whether a table is to be used, how the participants are to receive the elements, and the like. Our conclusions as to all such questions are either based on extrapolations from biblical principles, the imitation of historic Christian practice, or absolutely practical considerations and the interests of convenience, aesthetics, or tradition.

However, there are things we can safely say about the practice of the Lord’s Supper from the teaching of the New Testament. I want to enumerate at least some of those things tonight.

I. First, the Lord’s Supper should be observed as a regular part of the Sabbath worship of the Church.

As early as Acts 2:42 we read that the new Christians, in the days and months following Pentecost, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.” Now there is a debate about the phrase, “breaking of bread.” But, it seems very likely to me, that this is to be taken as a reference to the Lord’s Supper. As one scholar put it, the emphasis on the act of breaking the bread shows this “circumstance wholly trivial in itself” to be “the significant element of the celebration…. But it could only be significant when it was a signum, viz. of Christ’s being broken in death.” [R. Otto in F.F. Bruce, Acts: The Greek Text, 100]

If “the fellowship” refers, as may also be likely, to a fellowship meal, then we have a Christian gathering in which a meal was taken together and the Lord’s Supper was added to it. This seems to be the suggestion of the summary a few verses later in v. 46. This would have been, then, very like what was the practice, years later, when Paul had to address the abuses of this practice, where the agape or fellowship meal – before or after which the Lord’s Supper was observed – had become an occasion for the rich to indulge while the poor either did without or ate their meager fare at the other end of the table.

My point from Acts 2:42 is simply that the Lord’s Supper was taken frequently. Even daily in those earliest days.

In Acts 20:7 we read that Paul and his companions, after waiting a week in Troas, came together with the church there on the first day of the week “to break bread.” It surely seems likely that the reference here as well is to a Lord’s Supper taken after a fellowship meal. For the church met through the evening and, as Paul preached on, until the wee hours of the morning. As v. 11 suggests, the Lord’s Supper was not taken until after midnight.

The evidence of Acts is admittedly sparse. Nothing is said about how the Lord’s Supper was taken, there is no reference to the words of institution or anything else. There is even no reference to wine, only to the breaking of bread as standing of the entire meal. But, it is clear that this simple meal was a regular and important part of early Christian worship and life, a simple remembrance of the Lord’s death, a celebration of his life and the promise of his provision for his people.

When we get to 1 Corinthians, this picture is confirmed, even if from a rather sadly negative perspective. Clearly the Lord’s Supper was a regularly established practice in the Corinthian church because it had become the occasion for the demonstration of the church’s sins. From 1 Cor. 16:2 we know that this church gathered on Sunday and surely the impression everywhere given is that when it gathered it observed the Lord’s Supper in connection with a fellowship meal.

The fellowship meal eventually gave way, perhaps for a variety of reasons – from persecution to catering – and in the earliest account we have of a Lord’s Supper after the NT period, the description in the Apology of Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century, the Lord’s Supper stands alone at the end of a Christian worship service which began with prayer and the reading and preaching of the Scripture. But what is clear in Justin is that weekly communion continued to be the practice of the Christian church.

The Lord’s Supper may have been created out of a Passover meal, but it was not itself a Passover meal. That it was instituted out of the Passover guaranteed that the Lord’s Supper would be understood as a religious meal, a sacramental rite, but that fact did not determine much else about the Lord’s Supper. The Passover was taken once a year. The Lord’s Supper was taken at least once a week. Of course, there were many other sacrificial meals in the OT ritual, and every day there were sacrifices made at the temple, even on the Sabbath day the morning and evening sacrifices were continued. So there was certainly preparation for a regular sacrificial meal to be eaten by Christians every Lord’s Day.

II. Second, there should be an emphasis on the one loaf and the common cup.

It is clear enough that the NT church thought of the single loaf and the single cup as expressive of a unity of faith and dependence upon the Lord on the part of the congregation. Paul makes this point in 1 Cor. 10:17.

“Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”

The same thing is never precisely said of the cup, but it is invariably referred to in the singular. “Cup”, never “cups”.

Now, I don’t say that the Lord made anything of this in the institution of the Supper as we have it in the gospels. What is more, we don’t know what was done to preserve the symbolism if more people were present than could be served from a single loaf. We don’t know how much bread each communicant ate or how much wine was drunk. However, that symbolism is precious. We know Paul availed himself of it in his letter to the Corinthians. Surely, it ought to be preserved in what ways it can be.

Perhaps it is enough to have a single loaf on the table, but it may be possible to serve all who commune from that single loaf instead of breaking up other loaves ahead of time into small, bite-sized pieces.

The problem with the common cup, for ages the practice of the church, is that people today, including many in this congregation I’ll wager, simply won’t stand for it. They are afraid of the germs. However many studies may have been done by Roman Catholic and Anglican churches that indicated there was no significant evidence of danger, people simply won’t stand for it. We talked about it once here and rather quickly dismissed it as a practical impossibility.

There are some churches that practice intinction – the dipping of the bread into the wine and, in that way, taking both elements together – as a way of preserving the common cup. Intinction has been the practice of the Eastern Church for ages. But then the bread and wine are mixed in a way that they clearly were not in the first Lord’s Supper nor in early Christianity. One wonders if the symbolism of either bread or wine survives the practice of intinction.

At any rate, true to the material of the NT we will want to preserve what measure we can of the symbolism of the single loaf and common cup.

III. Third, the Lord’s Supper, as the entire sacramental and liturgical life of the church, should be under the superintendence of gospel ministers.

Now, for ages there would have been nothing controversial in that statement. Christians everywhere and in every kind of denomination would have assumed that the Lord’s Supper should be administered by a minister, just as baptism. If you had pressed them for their reasons, they may well have struggled to come up with impressive ones, but their unquestioned acceptance of the practice was at least proof of how deeply rooted in Christian tradition this ministerial administration was.

Now, today, quite suddenly, we are beginning to hear other voices. My professor at the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland, I.H. Marshall, has written a valuable book on the Lord’s Supper. At the end of the book he offers some practical suggestions for the practice of the Supper and one of them is this:

“The New Testament says nothing about who should conduct or celebrate the sacrament, and there is no evidence whatever that anything corresponding to our modern ‘ordination’ was essential. The celebration of the sacrament today should not be confined to those ordained to the ministry by laying on of hands but should be open to any believer authorised by the church to do so.” [Last Supper and Lord’s Supper, 156.]

Now, I think he gives away his case there at the last. The NT doesn’t say anything about the church authorizing people to conduct the Lord’s Supper either. Can’t have your cake and eat it too! If we are going to live and die by what the NT does not say, then all kinds of things are possible that we never thought of before!

But, the fact of the matter is that Prof. Marshall, like many today – including sound PCA ministers -, thinks of NT worship as a brand new thing, largely unconnected from the worship of the former epoch. But, clearly, that is not right. Elders are mentioned in the NT but we don’t know what an elder is except from the evidence of the OT. Baptism is mentioned in the NT, but it is explained in the OT in the teaching about circumcision. The sacramental teaching of the Bible is largely found in the OT. The nature of Christian worship is largely uncommented upon in the NT – what various actions belong to Christian worship, how ought they to be performed, what is to be sung to God, what role the minister or priest fulfills and what is done by the people, how ought a minister to dress when at work in the house of God – but there is comprehensive teaching about all of this in the Bible; it just happens to be largely in the OT. Now we could take the view that all of the OT teaching is cancelled and that we start all over again in the NT and are left with virtually nothing in the way of definite instruction because God wanted us to be free to do our own thing. However, we don’t take that view in regard to anything else the Bible teaches or anything else in our life and work as Christians. We know the Psalter teaches us how to pray and how to sing, we know the prophets confront our unbelief and teaches our ministers how to preach, we know the wisdom literature gives us instruction for life, even as we know that the huge tracts of material on worship in the OT teach us how to worship God. The NT is always, and absolutely naturally, citing the OT in demonstration of its teaching, even in regard to worship (e.g. 1 Pet. 2:4ff.).

And the NT bears its own witness to this fact. How much in agreement NT and OT worship actually are is demonstrated by the fact that the apostles and other Jewish Christians were still participating in the worship of the Jerusalem temple 30 years after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, blood sacrifices and all! They stopped using the temple only when it was destroyed, not because they could not worship there in a manner entirely faithful to their Christian faith. After all, the OT worship was the worship of Jesus Christ!

So it is not enough to say that the NT doesn’t explicitly say that anyone could administer the Lord’s Supper. The High Priest of our souls administered the first one, never once are we given to believe in the NT that just any church member administered the Lord’s Supper – just any church member didn’t baptize either; every baptism we know anything about in the NT was conducted by a man set apart to the office of the ministry or the Christian priesthood. Even Philip, presumably a deacon, was also an evangelist and a preacher of the Word. In the early church, as far back as we have evidence, it was always a minister who conducted the Lord’s Supper. If it was a revolutionary principle of NT worship that its sacred meal was led now by this Christian, now by that, and that a minister was no longer needed – as he had been required for every sacred meal of the OT (even Passover, once it was centered in the temple) – the early church very quickly and completely forgot that revolution. Is that likely?

Fact is, if you interrogate the Bible on the question whether the church’s sacred meals can be lay-administered, the answer is a most definite No! When ministerial reservation was violated there were severe penalties. Think of Saul usurping Samuel’s place at the sacrifice and of Uzziah going into the temple to burn incense and getting leprosy as a punishment for doing that which was for the priests to do. [2 Chron. 26:18]

The Reformed have usually argued for the minister’s role in the sacrament on the basis of the relation between the Word and the sacrament, the latter being a visible form of the former. So, it is right that the minister of the Word should superintend the Lord’s Supper as it is right that he preach. That is fair enough.

I think, myself, the better biblical reason is because the minister is appointed and authorized to speak and act on the Lord’s behalf. There are acts of the Lord in the Lord’s Supper and those are performed by the minister, precisely so that it may be clear that the Lord is performing them himself – as he did at the first Lord’s Supper – breaking bread and giving bread and wine to his disciples as emblems of his body and blood.

The Lord was with his disciples and fed them at the first Lord’s Supper. Then, after his resurrection, he met with them again at mealtimes. Without a doubt the early Christians regarded the Lord’s Supper as a continuation of those meals at which the Lord was present with his people, though now unseen. To have a minister speak and act is the biblically appointed means of both effecting that divine presence and demonstrating it. Just as a minister baptizes because it is Christ who is really doing the baptizing – we are, after all, chiefly interested in what God does, not what man can do (and in the Bible circumcision and then baptism is always regarded as God’s act) – so in the Lord’s Supper a minister administers precisely so that it should be clear to the Lord’s people that he is present to feed them. [Cf. Marshall, 144.]

Now, we have not talked about what the Lord’s Supper means and what we should take from it. That comes later. We are just beginning to discuss how the Lord’s Supper ought to be conducted. And we have begun with what can be learned from the NT itself. And we have from the NT: 1) the prayer; the words of institution in various but largely similar form; and the basic order of the supper, the bread being broken and distributed and then the wine. 2) a meal taken every Sunday. 3) a common loaf and common cup at least in symbol. 4) a minister conducting.

That is not a great deal, but it is a very good start and explains, in largest part, the Lord’s Supper service as almost all evangelical Christians know it. Our Supper will not change in these particulars, though the matter of the common loaf is something we can address.