Found this while rummaging through some old notes. A few scattered thoughts on communion that I presented just before we received the Lord’s Supper a few months ago. Looks like I arranged it as a series of questions and answers with random observations elbowing in.
(Q1) Where did communion come from? How did it get started? What is its history?
Communion was instituted by Jesus on the night before he was crucified. The story of its institution is told in Matthew 26:26-29:
26 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.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 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.”
Communion was instituted at the Passover meal, which was the “communion” meal of the Old Covenant. Communion fulfills and replaces the Passover meal. There are some similarities and dissimilarities between the two meals. (Continuity and discontinuity; 1 Corinthians 5) Communion was established as the sacramental meal of the New Covenant. It has profound and eternal significance. More on that below.
Communion was anticipated long before the night Jesus was betrayed. As noted, communion flows out of the the Passover meal, which was a type of the new covenant meal. But God established the idea of a sacramental meal long before the Passover. God placed eating at the center of worship in the Garden of Eden. Obedience and disobedience revolved around eating: “You may eat of all the trees in the garden except the tree of knowledge.” And when Adam sinned, it was by eating a forbidden meal.
Food was created with deep spiritual significance from the beginning. Eating represents the union of the physical and spiritual realms—“keeping body and soul together.” The body takes in food and converts it to energy, and the spirit remains alive, united with the body. The lack of food causes the separation of spirit and body. Eating is communion: (1) the communion of the body and spirit; and (2) the communion of those eating together—when we eat together we are joined in spiritual union.
So, God created meals for communion from the beginning. Thus he placed meals at the center of covenantal communion throughout biblical history. From the Garden of Eden to the Lord’s meal with Abram to the covenant meal with the elders of Israel on the mountain to the Passover to the Feasts of Israel to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb…on and on it goes. Meals are communion.
So when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper just before his death, he took all of that covenantal significance and bound it up in one eternally significant meal—communion. When we eat the Lord’s Supper, we enjoy the union of Spirit and body and we are joined by the Spirit to those with whom we eat. (1 Corinthians 6:12-20)
(Q2) What does Communion mean? What is the significance of the meal? What does it represent?
First of all, communion is done “in remembrance” of Jesus. At communion, we remember that Christ died, was buried and rose again for our salvation. But “remembering” in the Bible is more than just “recalling.” Remembering in the Bible includes the idea of “reenacting.” When we remember the death of Jesus at communion, we relive the moment and reenact its power in the present. In fact, when we “remember” at communion, we pull the past, present and future together in one powerful moment. There are three views from the table:
(1) We remember the death of Jesus and relive his power to save here and now.
(2) We remember that Christ is joining his body together as one body in the present moment.
(3) We “display his death until he comes,” which means that, in communion, we bring the future coming of the Lord into the present and release the power of the coming resurrection in the here and now.
Second, communion is a covenant meal. In fact, it is a covenant renewal meal. Jesus said that the cup is the blood of the new covenant. Communion signifies the covenant that God made with Christ as the Seed of Abraham. God promised Christ the inheritance of all the redeemed from the earth and a renewed creation. God entered into covenant with Jesus as the second Adam, and communion is the reenactment and renewal of that covenant. Every time we eat physical bread, we are renewed in the spiritual presence of Christ, which demonstrates objectively that Christ has been given the physical world as his inheritance. The church as the body of Christ is the earnest of that inheritance.
Communion is also a covenant renewal meal between God and us. When we are baptized into Christ, we are baptized into the covenant faithfulness of God in Christ. When we receive communion, we celebrate the Holy Spirit’s renewal of that covenant—the covenant that God has made by grace through faith apart from our works, the covenant of grace that produces the faithfulness of God in us. Thus, communion is a renewal of God’s covenant with us that he will save us. God made a covenant with Jesus that he will save Christ’s elect and nothing shall prevent him from completing this task.
(Q3) What does communion do? What actual effect—beyond merely representing something—does it have?
As stated, communion renews covenant. But communion also forms community. When we receive communion, the Holy Spirit makes us one in union with God in Christ and with one another. In communion, we are joined to Christ and we are joined to the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit.
Communion effects reconciliation. Communion reaches back into the past and activates the power of the Cross to save all who believe, and it reaches into the future to pull a fully redeemed, totally healed world back into the brokenness of the present. Communion creates an intersection of time and space, heaven and earth past and future. (The three views we spoke about earlier.)
Communion brings all people together on level ground before the cross as the cruciform pivot of all space and time. At communion, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, men and women, Greeks and barbarians—and today, all races, nationalities, ethnicities, classes, etc. are reconciled in Christ. And communion is the living, visible model and mediation of the ministry of reconciliation.
This is why Paul was so furious about the “unworthy” celebration of the Lord’s Supper in Corinth. (1 Corinthians 11) The Holy Spirit judged the congregation in Corinth for failing through racial and social division to “discern the Lord’s body” and some were sick and some were dying as a result.
Communion forms unity and community. The unity of communion is the individual union formed between the believer and Christ and the believer with other believers. We are made one with God and others. The community of communion is the corporate union formed between Christ and the church as the body of Christ. Wherever communion is eaten, the body of Christ is formed. When two or three gather in his name—and Paul makes it clear that we gather to eat communion—Jesus is present. Actually present. And where Jesus is, the church is. And this is just an introduction to understating communion. But now, let’s put this understanding into practice and share the body and blood of Christ.