The Timing of the Communion

When Jesus instituted the communion, he said “do this.” Grammatically, Jesus employed a present tense imperative, indicating that he expected his disciples to keep participating in the ceremony recurrently (Lk. 22.19; 1 Cor. 11.24). We are to “keep doing this” “until he comes” (1 Cor. 11.26).

But, when should Christians participate in the Lord’s Supper? And how often? Two views on this subject have prevailed.

Indefinite Recurrence

Many take a lax approach to the issue, arguing that it ultimately does not matter when one participates in the sacred rite, so long as one does participate from time to time.


William Dau, a Lutheran pastor and professor at Concordia Seminary during the early 20th century, opined that the New Testament leaves

“an absence of any fixed rule as to the frequency of a Christian’s communing,”

though he recommended that the sacred meal should be observed “frequently” (Orr, ed., 1928).

Gordon Fee likewise insists that while the Lord’s Supper was a “regularly repeated meal” within early Christendom (1987, p. 555) and “should be a continuing practice in the church” (2014, p. 125), still, “the frequency of its observance…surely is not binding” (ibid.).


Accordingly, advocates of this view suggest that the supper may be consumed any day of the week (Sunday through Saturday), and that we are also at liberty to decide the frequency of its recurrence (daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, etc.).

Weekly Recurrence

On the other hand, there is the view that contends that the rite must be observed every first day of the week, and that we are authorized to observe this meal only on that day.


Acts 20.7 indicates that the disciples at Troas “were gathered together” on the “first day of the week” in order “to break bread” (ASV). The passive voice (i.e., were gathered) is suggestive of the fact that a source other than the church itself had called for the gathering — i.e., God had convened them on that day; hence, Sunday, the day of the Lord’s resurrection (Mt. 28.1), was called “the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1.10) — i.e., the day set apart by him and for him.


Note especially that the disciples were convened on the “first day of the week” “to break bread,” an expression which here alludes to the Lord’s Supper (cf. 1 Cor. 10.16; Acts 2.42; and see below). Ardnt and Gingrich characterize this phrase as an “infinitive of purpose” (790; cf. Acts 13.44; 15.6; Rev. 19.19).


Grammarian Daniel B. Wallace observed that “one of the most common uses of the infinitive” is to “indicate the purpose or goal of the action or state of its controlling verb” (590; see also Mounce, 1993, p. 298).


In other words, participating in the breaking of the bread is the reason the disciples of Christ are called together by God on the first day of the week. Hence, the church that meets on Sunday, without observing the Lord’s Supper, is not fulfilling the very purpose for which it has been convened (by God) on that day!

What’s more, since the church was instructed to worship God together every first day of the week (the literal rendition of 1 Cor. 16.1-2; cf. Jn. 20.19, 26), and since the purpose for assembling on the first day of the week is “to break bread,” it necessarily follows that the sacred supper is to be observed every first day of the week. A bi-weekly, monthly, quarterly, or yearly observance of the Lord’s Supper is therefore contrary to God’s very purpose for establishing a weekly assembling of the church — namely, “to break bread.”


Sunday or Monday?

But delving deeper into this passage (Acts 20.7-11), the careful reader will discover that the expression, break bread, is employed twice in this section — once in verse 7; again in verse 11.


Cursorily, it appears that the disciples broke bread on Monday morning, after midnight, for Paul preached “until midnight” (v.7), raised Eutychus (vv. 8-10), and thenbroke bread” before “daybreak” (v. 11). On this basis, some believe they have apostolic precedent for partaking of the communion on a day other than the first day of the week. However, this view is unsustainable, as we shall see momentarily.


Another view argues that the disciples were operating on Jewish time, which made the first day of the week last from sunset on Saturday until sunset on Sunday. Hence, when the disciples “broke bread” after midnight (supposedly, Sunday morning), they were still doing so on the first day of the Jewish week (see more below). However, this view is also untenable.


Actually, the evidence indicates that two suppers are in view. The context distinguishes between the supper of verse 7 (which was the Lord’s Supper) and the meal which took place later in verse 11 (which was a common meal). Several points argue for this distinction.


(1) The Nature of the Meals

The bread-breaking of verse 11 is further explained by the verb, “and eaten.” This term (geuomai) signifies to taste. It is used in the sense of taking nourishment from common food (cf. Acts 10.10; 23.14), and deriving joy or satisfaction from it (cf. Lk. 14.24), or being repulsed by what is consumed (Mt 27.34). Emphasis thus is placed on the feeling derived from the meal, “usually implying enjoyment of the experience” (Mounce, 2006, p. 707), a fact which hardly comports with the ceremonial supper of Christ (a meal not designed to satiate the appetite).


Commenting on this passage, Greek scholar, W. E. Vine, remarks:

“As to whether Acts 20:11 refers to the Lord's Supper or to an ordinary meal, the addition of the words "and eaten" is perhaps a sufficient indication that the latter is referred to here, whereas ver. 7, where the single phrase "to break bread" is used, refers to the Lord's Supper. A parallel instance is found in Acts 2:43,46. In the former verse the phrase "the breaking of bread," unaccompanied by any word about taking food, clearly stands for the Lord's Supper; whereas in ver. 46 the phrase "breaking bread at home" is immediately explained by "they did take their food," indicating their ordinary meals” (193).

It may be worth noting also that the term, with its various inflections in modern Greek, has come to mean to dine (geumatizo), dinner (geuma), and to savor food (geuomai).

In short, when the disciples came “to break bread” (v. 7), they observed the Lord’s Supper, without satiating themselves. But when Paul “broke bread and ate” (v. 11), he savored a common meal.

(2) The Number of the Participants

The bread-breaking of verse 7 was consumed by all the disciples (plural), whereas the meal of verse 11 was consumed by Paul alone (singular).


This lends itself greatly to the premise that verse 7 refers to the Lord’s Supper, consumed by the church at large, while verse 11 refers to a common breakfast, as only Paul is said to have eaten it, no doubt to provide himself with plenty of nourishment for the next leg of his journey, commencing shortly thereafter (around “daybreak”), which he traversed “on foot” (v.13).


Nevertheless, McGarvey posits that the singular form in verse 11 may merely indicate that Paul “officiated at the table” of the communal supper (249). He thus believed that verses 7 and 11 both allude to the Lord’s Supper, and he preferred a Saturday night-Sunday morning timeframe (the Jewish first day of the week) for these events, as aforementioned.


Certainly, that explanation might be plausible if the text had merely said that Paul “broke bread” (i.e., stood alone serving the communion to others). When Jesus, for example, served the communion to his disciples for the first time, the Bible says that Jesus “broke” the “bread” (Mt. 26.26; Mk. 14.22; Lk. 22.19; 1 Cor. 11.23-24), of course employing the singular form.

But Luke indicates, in Acts 20.11, that Paul also singularly ate the food. When Jesus served the Lord’s Supper to his disciples, the text always employs the plural form for the word eat (esthio).


To put it plainly: in the Lord’s Supper, he (singular) broke bread; whereas they (plural disciples) ate (esthio). In Acts 20.11, however, Paul (singular) broke bread and he (singular) savored it (geuomai).

Accordingly, the fact that in the Lord’s Supper the eating is plural, while in Acts 20.11 the eating is singular, combined with the fact that two separate words are used to describe the eating (esthio versus geuomai), suggests that two different kinds of meals are involved — one, corporate and ceremonial; the other, personal and to satiate.

(3) The Atmosphere of the Meals

The atmosphere surrounding the meal of verse 11 is also suggestive of its common character.

After raising Eutychus and returning to the upper room where the disciples had worshipped, Paul “conversed” (ESV) with them until dawn. This word (homileo) has come to mean, to deliver a sermon (i.e., a homily; homiletics).


However, in the New Testament, it simply meant “to be in company with, associate with; to converse with” (Mounce, 2006, p. 1223). It denotes an informal, free and friendly fellowship, as may be clearly discerned through examining its three other uses in the New Testament (cf. Lk. 24.14, 15; Acts 24.26; see also Dan. 1.19).


Matthew Henry explains:

“Paul did not now go on in a continued discourse, as before, but he and his friends fell into a free conversation, the subject of which, no doubt, was good, and to the use of edifying. Christian conference is an excellent means of promoting holiness, comfort, and Christian love. They knew not when they should have Paul’s company again, and therefore made the best use they could of it when they had it, and reckoned a night’s sleep well lost for that purpose” (209-10).

Contrastingly, in verses 7 and 9, Luke describes Paul’s “speech” as a dialogue (dialegomai) — a back and forth formal discussion (wherein Paul was leading, the others following): reasoning instead of preaching, but doing so in a structured, class-type format. In effect, in their worship prior to midnight, the disciples were having a lengthy question and answer session with the apostle.


However, in verse 11, a different word is used (homileo), indicating a change in the nature of the communication. Thus, Adam Clarke rightly characterizes Paul’s common conversation with the disciples in verse 11 (after midnight) as “very different” from his speech in verses 7 and 9 (before midnight), which was more of a “solemn, grave discourse” (852).


It is within that environment (of informal conversation) that Paul “savored” his meal.

What’s more, consider this: the author actually employs three different conjunctions in verse 11 — de, kai, and te. The last of these (te) is of most significance here, as it connects the participle, eaten (geuomai), with the participle, conversed (“talked,” NKJV) — “eaten and (te) talked.” Thayer highlights the difference between kai and te:

According to Bäumlein (Griech. Partikeln, p. 145), καί introduces something new under the same aspect yet as an external addition, whereas τέ marks it as having an inner connection with what precedes” (616, emp. added).

He further observes that with te,

“things are thus connected which are akin, or which are united to each other by some inner bond, whether logical or real” (ibid.).

In this case, Paul’s meal (v. 11) and his common conversation with the disciples are linked together. Hence, if his conversation was of the common variety, then so was the meal!


Simply put: Paul broke bread and both ate and conversed with the disciples until daybreak. The communion would hardly have lasted that long, nor would the disciples have engaged in a free and friendly conversation with each other during the more formal ceremony of the Lord’s Supper.


Verse 11, then, indubitably describes a common meal.


But McGarvey offers an objection to this notion:

“…if it was a common meal, it would be strange that he alone should eat, especially to the exclusion of his traveling companions, who were going to start as early in the morning as he did” (ibid.).

This may be readily answered by the fact that his traveling companions had likely already departed from the scene.

Paul’s company consisted of about eight or so individuals, including the author, Luke, himself (20.4-6). Luke and company appear to be present during the worship session, before midnight, as Luke speaks of the “upper chamber where we were gathered” (20.8, ASV). However, by daybreak, Paul’s cadre is no longer with him, as Luke says that “he (Paul) departed” — not we departed, as per before (v.11). Hence, Paul left by himself.

Later we learn that Paul “had arranged” for his friends to travel separately — Paul traveling “on foot;” his cadre going by boat (v. 13). At some point, then, between midnight and dawn, Luke and company had “gone ahead to the boat” (v. 13).


In fact, this is even clearer in the original text, in which Luke clearly separates his actions from Paul’s, as follows: “he departed (by himself, without us, v. 11)…But we (emphatic), having gone ahead to the boat, etc…” (v. 13).

Thus, it is perfectly natural for Luke to transition from talking about things we did (20.5-10) to talking about things he (Paul) did (20.11-14), including eating a common meal without them, since Paul was now without his “traveling companions.” Paul’s friends likely caught the boat early and decided to eat breakfast at port or at sea.


At any rate, the common nature of the conversation after midnight indicates that the meal Paul “savored” was also not of a ceremonial character.


(4) Luke’s Use of Roman Time

The bread-breaking of verse 7 was consumed on “the first day of the week,before midnight, whereas the latter meal was consumed after midnight (i.e., the second day of the week). To explain this point, a little background material is warranted.


There was a difference between the Greco-Roman calendar and the Jewish. The Jewish day started near sunset — around 6pm — and lasted until the following sunset. Using this system, some have supposed that when the disciples met on the first day of the week at Troas, and Paul “continued his message until midnight,” that they actually met on Saturday night (the start of the Jewish first day of the week).


Thus, when verse 7 says they met on the “first day” “to break bread,” they argue that the church began their services on Saturday night, with Paul speaking until midnight, after which they partook of the Lord’s Supper (v. 11) early Sunday morning before daybreak (still the first day of the Jewish week). However, the evidence is against this view.


The Greco-Roman day, like our own, which Luke indubitably follows here, began at midnight and ended the next midnight. The facts in the case indicate that Paul met with the brethren at Troas on Sunday evening (the Greco-Roman first day of the week, though the Jewish second day), worshipped until midnight, revived Eutychus who fell from the third story window, then (Monday morning 12am-6am, the Greco-Roman second day) fellowshipped with the brethren, ate a common breakfast, and finally left around “daybreak” (v.11). Here’s why:


Verse 7 indicates that the brethren met on the evening of the “first day of the week,” while Paul departed from Troas “on the morrow” (ASV) — literally, the first day’s tomorrow. Again, verse 11 indicates that his departure occurred around “daybreak.” Hence, from the evening before to the following dawn, two days are involved; not one.

If Luke was following the Jewish system, then Saturday evening until Sunday at dawn would only constitute a single day (the first day of the Jewish week; cf. Gen. 1.5, where evening and morning are regarded as one day in Jewish reckoning). Dawn would not be the evening’s “morrow.”


Conversely, it is the Greco-Roman system that makes an evening a part of one day, and the following dawn a part of the next day (as Luke does). Hence, the brethren unequivocally met on Sunday night (the first day of the week), while Paul left on Monday at dawn (the next day).


With that in mind, we can only conclude that Paul and the brethren consumed the communion in verse 7 before midnight (Sunday, the first day of the Greco-Roman week) — since that was the very purpose for which they assembled on the first day of the week — while the bread-breaking in verse 11 was of a different character, since it was consumed on the following day (Monday morning, the second day of the week).


Wayne Jackson puts it most trenchantly:

“If [verse 11, AP] was the communion, then it was observed on Monday, in which case the disciples did not do what they assembled to do [on the first day of the week, AP]!” (253).

A Concise Overview

Stepping back, and viewing the passage broadly, we discern that the entire body of information in this section of Scripture indicates that there were two separate sessions during this gathering: one, before midnight; the other, after midnight. We have:

1. Two different days: “the first day of the week” (v.7a) vs. “the next day” of the week (v. 7c-11).

2. Two different “talks”: a formal dialogue (v. 7-9) vs. a friendly conversation (v. 11).

3. Two different objectives: “to break bread” (v. 7b) vs. “to depart” (v. 7c).

4. Two different crowds: with Luke and company (vv. 7-10) vs. without Luke and company (vv. 11-14).

Is it not reasonable, based on this information alone, to conclude that two separate meals are also involved here?

All of this argues strongly that the first day of the week is the only authorized day for Christians to observe the communion, since there is a clear demarcation between the communion observed on the first day, before midnight, and the meal consumed the next day, after midnight.


Conclusion

In summary, the time and frequency of observing the Lord’s Supper is established:

1. Observing the communion is the very reason the church is called together on the first day of the week (Sunday).


2. Since the church must assemble every first day of the week, and since the communion is the primary purpose of the first day of the week gathering, it necessarily follows that the church must observe the communion every first day of the week (every Sunday).

3. The practice of the early church (particularly at Troas) demonstrates that the communion was observed specifically on Sunday. They did not observe the meal earlier in the week [1]; neither did they observe it the following day; and Luke specifically demarcates midnight as their stopping point for their formal, Sunday worship (including the Lord’s Supper) [2], with the remaining portion of the night spent in convivial conversation and culinary nourishment.

Hence, each Sunday (i.e., every first day of the week) is the designated day for taking the communion. No other day has been set apart for that purpose.


End Notes

[1] Interestingly, Luke explains that Paul’s company “stayed seven days” (v. 6) in the city (Monday through Sunday) precisely for the purpose of meeting with the entire Troasian congregation in order to participate in the Lord’s Supper with them on Sunday, before moving on in their journey the next Monday morning.


If the disciples were authorized to take the communion on days prior to that (Monday through Saturday), why did they not do so earlier in the week, especially since Paul was in a hurry to get to Jerusalem before Pentecost (20.16)? Why wait seven days to do it on the first day of the week, if any other day would have been suitable for that purpose?


Some have postulated that they waited seven days, not because they wanted to take the communion with the disciples of that city (which could only be taken on Sunday), but because no boat became available during that time. Again, the evidence militates against this hypothesis.

The text clearly indicates that they did not need a boat to arrive at their next destination (Assos), since Paul was able to walk there “on foot” (20.13). Thus, they were not merely waiting for a boat.


Still, there may have been other plausible explanations for their delay. Perhaps the first day was the only day the local church could actually convene that week? Perhaps Paul became ill, or perhaps protracted inclement weather inhibited travel, etc.?


However, the most plausible explanation, given all the evidence, is that Paul’s company stayed the week in the city because 1) they wanted to take the communion with the church at Troas; and 2) the church was authorized to observe the communion only on the first day of the week. Since they were unable to arrive in town until Monday, they stayed until the following Sunday to accomplish this objective.


[2] If the disciples at Troas met to take the Lord’s Supper on Sunday (instead of Saturday night), why did they wait until the evening of the first day to do so?


Actually, there is no indication that they had waited at all. It is possible that they had already assembled earlier in the day Sunday morning.


There is much extra-biblical evidence that suggests that Christians typically met just before daybreak on Sunday, “before it was light,” and sometimes again that evening (Pliny’s letter to Trajan, 10.96; cf. Melmath, pp. 401-7; Benko, pp. 10ff). If so, then Luke simply skips over that previous Sunday morning assembly to concentrate upon the evening one, in which the disciples may have observed the communion again (multiple observances of the communion on Sunday is in perfect harmony with the Lord’s instructions), after which Paul continued his speech until midnight.


It is also possible, though highly unlikely, that they had met earlier in the day to take the communion, and continued the same assembly all day, stopping only when Eutychus fell out of the window at midnight. While Luke gives us the ending point of this assembly (i.e., midnight), he does not specify when that assembly actually started.

The only thing we can conclude, based upon all the evidence, is that they partook of the communion at least once sometime before midnight on the first day of the week.


Ardnt, William & Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1957. 

Benko, Stephen. Pagan Rome and the Early Christians. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Butt, Kyle. “What is the Fruit of the Vine?ApologeticsPress.org. Access date: October 7, 2018. http://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=11&article=1262

Clarke, Adam. Clark’s Commentary: Vol. 3, Matthew-Revelation. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1824.

Fee, Gordon & Douglas Stuart. How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014.

Fee, Gordon. The First Epistle To The Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Co., 1987. 

Golinken, David. “The Origins of the Seder.Schechter.edu. Access date: October 16, 2018. http://www.schechter.edu/the-origins-of-the-seder/

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Volume 6: Acts to Revelation. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000.

Jackson, Wayne. The Acts of the Apostles From Jerusalem to Rome. Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications, 2nd Edition, 2005.  

Jackson, Wayne. "Was the Fruit of the Vine Fermented?" ChristianCourier.com. Access date: October 6, 2018. https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/224-was-the-fruit-of-the-vine-fermented

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Peabody, MA: Christianbook Distributors, 2016. 

Lees, Frederich R. and Dawson Burns. The Temperance Bible Commentary. London: S. W. Partridge, 1868. 

McGarvey, J.W. Original Commentary On Acts. Bowling Green, KY: Guardian of Truth Foundation, 2005. 

Melmath, William. Pliny: Letters, Loeb, London: William Heinemann, 1935. 

Mounce, William D. Basics of Biblical Greek. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993.

Mounce, William D. Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006. 

Orr, James, ed. (et al.).  The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 3.  Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986.

Thayer, J. H.  Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.  T. & T. Clark, 1958. 

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

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.  


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