The Significance of the Communion

The Lord’s Supper is more than a communal meal; it is a memorial.


When Christ instituted the ceremony, he instructed his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22.19; 1 Cor. 11.24). Obviously, his disciples would not need to remember Christ at the time — for there he was!


Rather, in anticipation of his forthcoming departure, Jesus inaugurated the rite for his disciples, leading by example, so that, when his disciples partook of the meal in the future in his absence, they could look back and remember the sacrifice he would make for them the following day.


Thus, this meal among Christians has been kept, and will continue to be kept, in memorial of his death “until he comes” (1 Cor. 11.26).


The burden of the present article is this: how do the elements of the communion — unleavened bread and fruit of the vine (see part one) — serve as a memorial of Christ? Let’s reflect upon the significance of these two items of worship.


Significance of the Bread

Of the bread, Jesus said: “Take; eat; this is my body which is given for you” (Mt. 26.26; Mk. 14.22; Lk. 22.19). The “giving” of the Lord’s body is an allusion to his sacrificial death, by which he provided atonement for the sins of the world (cf. Gal. 1.4; 1 Jn. 2.2; Jn. 1.29).

While the atonement is a multifaceted subject, demanding more detail than is appropriate for the present topic, let us simply observe that it was necessary for a member of the Godhead to die for man’s salvation (cf. Heb. 2.14-15; Acts 17.2-3; Lk. 24.26, 46). But how is that possible? God, as such, cannot die (1 Tim. 6.16—“immortality” literally means, “no death”). Hence, if God had to die to save mankind, it was first necessary that he become a mortal human being (Heb. 2.17-18). So, “a body” was prepared for him (Heb. 10.5), with which he could offer his life in exchange for, and for the benefit of, the lives of his own creation (cf. 1 Pt. 2.24; 1 Cor. 5.7).


There are many ways to reflect upon the sacrifice of the body of Christ during the breaking of the bread.


First, one may reflect upon his body motivationally — as a deterrent to sin; or, conversely, as a stimulator to live righteously.


The physical agony which Jesus endured should pierce the heart of every conscientious Christian, reminding us of the high cost of sin. It should tell us that sin is not worth it, if his life was the price (1 Cor. 6.20). Repentance from sin is therefore the natural result of reflecting sincerely upon the suffering of the Lord (Acts 3.18-19; cf. Rm. 2.4).


By the same token, thinking about the great love which Jesus exemplified upon the cross should motivate us to live for him (1 Pt. 2.19-24; 1 Jn. 3.16). The Lord’s bodily sacrifice should not only cause us to flee “from dead works,” but it should prompt us “to serve the living God” (Heb. 9.14). Because “he died for all,” we should “no longer live” for ourselves, but “for him who died” for us “and rose again” (2 Cor. 5.14-15). In short, the broken body of Christ should be an inspiration for every God-loving soul to live our lives in his honor.

Second, one may reflect upon his body submissively. His body reminds us that God alone deserves our humble submission. It does this in two ways.


(1) His broken body proves the fairness of God’s government over us. As Paul put it, it was given “to demonstrate his righteousness” (i.e., his fairness; Rm. 3.25).


If man asked the question: Is God a fair and good ruler, worthy to be followed; or is he aloof and unconcerned with mankind’s wellbeing?, then the body of Christ shows us that God himself was willing to live up to the very standard he set over us. He did not establish one standard for himself and another (impossible) standard for his weakened underlings.


Rather, far from being aloof and disconnected from the plight of our race, he himself became weak like us; was tempted like us; experienced suffering and death like us, in the flesh, so that he might be a “merciful and trustworthy” ruler over us, and so that he might be “able to aid those who are tempted” (Heb. 2.14-18). No more can our kind tell God: ‘Give us a break! You just don’t know what being human is like!’ Instead, the body of Christ proves that he alone is “worthy” to be followed with admiration and devotion as a leader who fights in the trenches alongside his fellow soldiers (Rev. 5.12-14).


(2) His broken body also proves that God alone has the right and power to rule over us. There is a sense in which Satan rules the kingdoms of this world (cf. 2 Cor. 4.4, Jn. 12.31; 14.30; 16.11). The sin, suffering, and death that pervades material existence are each evidences of Satan’s cruel dominion here below (cf. Jn. 8.44). At times, it seems Satan exercises more power in this world than the creator himself.


In that light, it may be asked: is God really just who lets the enemy sow injustice in the land with seeming impunigty? Or, is God powerless in the face of Satan? If so, why should I submit to such a weak authority?


The body of Christ shows that Satan’s powers are temporary, and pale in comparison with God’s. John tells us that one of the reasons the Lord assumed bodily form was “so that he might destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn. 3.8).


Jesus himself said, in anticipation of his bodily sacrifice, that “now the ruler of this world will be cast out” (Jn. 12.31). The body of Christ, in its dying and in its resurrection, shows us that God is more powerful in weakness than Satan is in strength (cf. Lk. 11.21-22; Col. 2.15), both in the heavenly realm and in Satan’s own backyard (cf. Mt. 28.18f).

With his body, Jesus showed that Satan’s arsenal (i.e., sin, suffering, and death) is powerless before God, for, with his flesh, he resisted all of Satan’s temptations to sin (cf. Jn. 16.33; Mt. 4.4ff), demonstrated the power to overcome and heal Satan’s oppressions (cf. Lk. 13.16; Acts 10.38), and even prevailed over Satan’s power over the grave (cf. Heb. 2.14-15). Sin, suffering, and death may have won the battle; but God wins the war!


Hence, the body of Christ demonstrates that God alone has the right to rule humanity. His law and government is truly just, for the king fights against the marauding menace that oppresses his own people and defeats him. Let us submit!


Third, one may reflect upon his body thankfully. After all, it should have been us! We, not he, deserved the death-penalty (Rm. 6.23; 2 Cor. 5.21). Yet, “through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all,” all who are faithful in Christ have been released from that eternal sentence (Heb. 10.10; cf. vv. 5-10, 14). When Jesus said that he came to “give his life a ransom for many” (Mk. 10.45), he employed a preposition (anti) which denotes: in the stead of; in place of. Indeed, Jesus died in our stead (cf. Heb. 9.28). “Thanks be to God” (1 Cor. 15.57; cf. Col. 2.6-7)!


Finally, one may reflect upon his body fraternally. The communion is not merely about our relationship with God. It also serves as a reminder of the common-union we have with our fellow-Christians.


The body of Christ binds us together (Eph. 4.15-16). This is the distinctive point that Paul makes in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11.17-12.27). The broken body of Christ should reminds us of our care for one another — that we, his church, are all “one body” in Christ, while each of us individually are “members” of that body (1 Cor. 12.12, 20).


Hence, speaking of the church, Paul wrote:

The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread” (1 Cor. 10.17).

When my brother eats the bread, he shows himself to be a part of that one body (or bread) — and when I share in the same, though I am a separate member of that body (eating a separate piece of bread), am also part of that same body with him — a partaker of the same loaf. Let us therefore not consume the bread with contempt or callousness in our hearts for our brother or sister in Christ, but with love and unity (1 Cor. 11.21-32). His body should remind us of that unity.


Significance of the Fruit of the Vine

Of the fruit of the vine, Jesus said:

This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Mt. 26.26).

In the divine plan, bloodshed is necessary for sins to be forgiven (Heb. 9.22). Death through bloodshed (i.e., a violent death) is sacrificial in nature — a life for a life (cf. Lev. 17.11; Isa. 53.12).


Since his life was so pure, all who belong to Christ Jesus have “been justified by his blood” (Rm. 5.9; cf. Rm. 3.25; Eph. 1.7; 2.13; Col. 1.20). Hence, the fruit of the vine reminds us of his forgiveness which gives us confident access to heaven itself (Heb. 10.19).


What’s more, the Lord spoke of his “blood of the new covenant.” Not only does the blood provide forgiveness for the sinner, it also served to ratify the New Testament from God to man. The Old Testament also was established by bloodshed (Ex. 24.8; cf. Zech. 9.11), for only by means of death can a testament be ratified (cf. Heb. 9.16-22). With his own blood, Jesus established a new, “eternal covenant” for his people (Heb. 13.20; cf. v.12).


Multiple Cups

Some object to the use of multiple cups when serving the fruit of the vine, arguing that the text only mentions one cup at the first communion. Certainly, serving the fruit of the vine in only one literal cup is permissible. Still, several points must be kept in mind.


First, the term, “cup,” as employed in passages pertaining to the communion, actually is not a reference to a singular, literal container, but rather, by metonymy, to the juice it contained. When Jesus said, “this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk. 22.20), obviously it wasn’t the container that was “poured out,” but its contents.


Hence, the disciples likely drank from multiple, literal containers (see below), while only drinking one “cup” of fruit of the vine. In other words, it is not the literal cup that is spiritually significant, but the oneness of the substance consumed.


Second, Paul, writing to the church at Corinth from the city of Ephesus hundreds of miles away (1 Cor. 16.8), spoke of “the cup of blessing which we bless” (1 Cor. 10.16). Does this refer to one literal cup — i.e., a common container shared between brethren hundreds of miles apart every Sunday? Surely not. Rather, “the cup” stands for one substance — i.e., the fruit of the vine — which brethren all over the world share weekly, albeit using multiple containers.


The same passage speaks of Christians (from two separate congregations) eating from “one bread” (1 Cor. 10.17). Do those who object to the use of multiple cups also reject the use of multiple wafers? Such would be absurd, for while each Christian eats a separate piece of unleavened bread (creating multiple pieces), all Christians around the world still partake of only “one bread” — one substance.


Third, as covered in the previous installment (see The Communion, Part 1), Passover customs involved drinking multiple cups of fruit of the vine. Luke’s account depicts the Lord and his disciples following at least part of this custom (Lk. 22.14-23). Each person present had a small container, capable of holding between 3 to 5 ounces of liquid (Shulchan Aruch 472:9; cf. “Required Amount of Matzah and Wine for the Seder”).


According to Jewish custom, each individual could drink multiple times between the first and second “cups,” but not between the third and fourth (Pesachim 117b:19). Also, if a person wished to combine the four small cups into one large vessel, he could do so (Pesachim 108b:2), but he had to drink from that larger vessel four separate times (Pesachim 108b:4). These ancient provisions indicate individuality in the ritual. Each person present held their own separate cup — some small, some large.


When Jesus said, “take this, and divide it among yourselves” (Lk. 22.17), he used a term which means to partition, or to separate into parts (cf. Mk. 15.24). Observe that they were to “divide it” — i.e., the cup. If this refers to the literal container, then those who oppose divided cups are rejecting the Lord’s instruction!


Obviously, however, “the cup” refers to its contents.


While it is possible that the disciples “divided” the contents of the cup when each drank from one vessel, it is more likely, in keeping with Jewish custom, that he was instructing them to pour the juice from a larger vessel into each separate cup being used by the disciples respectively.


Either way, distributing the fruit of the vine by dividing it between the disciples — whether using a group cup or individual cups — is in perfect harmony with the Lord’s instructions. Both fulfill the command.


Literal Or Metaphor?

When Jesus said that the bread “is my body” and the cup “is my blood,” was he suggesting that his disciples were consuming his literal flesh and blood?

More than a billion people around the world believe this. The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation suggests that the elements of the communion literally change (trans) substance (substantiation). Though they appear to be bread and wine, they actually become flesh and blood.

In like manner, millions of Lutherans espouse the doctrine of consubstantiation, which argues that the literal flesh and blood of the Lord combine with the bread and wine.


Neither of these positions have Biblical support.


First, the Lord’s literal body and blood were “taken up” into heaven (Mk. 16.19; cf. Acts 1.9-11; 1 Pt. 3.22). But since “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Cor. 15.50), Jesus’ flesh and blood had to be “changed” (1 Cor. 15.51). No longer does his “lowly body” — i.e., his “natural” body which was sacrificed on the cross (cf. 1 Cor. 15.42-45) — exist as such, for it has been transformed into a “glorious body” (Phil. 3.21) — a “spiritual body” which cannot decay (1 Cor. 15.44, 53, cf. 47-49). Since that is so, it is no longer possible to consume the Lord’s literal body and blood.


Second, the Lord’s expression is undoubtedly a metaphor. When David said that God “is my rock” (Ps. 18.2), he was not suggesting that God is literally a solid mineral material. Rather, God is compared to a rock — a solid and reliable support.


Even so, his disciples did not consume the Lord’s literal flesh and blood, for when he said, “This is my body…my blood,” his literal body and blood were sitting beside them in the room, still unbroken and unshed! Rather, the bread and juice are emblematic of the body and blood of Christ.


Third, these emblems are meant to remind his disciples of his body and blood, not actually become them (Lk. 22.19). In Hebrews 10.3, this same term, remembrance (anamnesis), is employed with reference to animal sacrifices offered during the Old Testament regime — in them there is “a remembrance of sins every year.” The slaughtering of the animal evoked a strong memory of the sins the sacrificer had committed. Of course, the animal was merely a provocative emblem of their sins; it didn’t literally become their sins.


Equally so, the bread and cup are emblematic or reminiscent of his presence. To be clear, the term is stronger than a mere memory-jog. For the eleven disciples especially, it was to serve as a reminiscence. Vine characterizes the term as

“an affectionate calling of the Person himself to mind…not simply an external bringing to ‘remembrance,’ but an awakening of mind” (see entry for “Remembrance”).

Hence, rather than becoming his literal flesh, the Lord himself explained that the bread and cup are emblems designed to evoke a mindset of longing for him in his absence.


Self-Examination

The communion is also a time for self-reflection.

But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Cor. 11.28).

We must each honestly evaluate ourselves in the light of the purity of the one who died for us. If there is sin in our life, we must admit it and expunge it. Denying-self leaves no room for selfish denial (cf. Lk. 9.23; 2 Cor. 13.5; Gal. 6.4; 1 Jn. 1.9).


Sincerity and Purity

There is further significance to be found in the unfermented aspect of the communion. Paul wrote:

Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5.7-8).

While “the feast,” here, refers to the Christian life generally, the communion certainly is implicated in an analogical manner. An “unleavened” thing, in the author’s mind, served to symbolize “sincerity and truth.” In that light, one wonders what those who consume leavened bread or fermented wine at the table of Christ are symbolizing.


At any rate, when we participate in the communion, we must do so with sincerity and truth, leaving behind “the leaven of malice and wickedness.”


Conclusion

Such is the significance of the elements of the Lord’s Supper. In our next installment, we shall examine the participants of the ritual.


Go To Part Three

Vine, W.E.  Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words.  Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985.


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