I. THE MEANING OF “TO BREAK BREAD”
The meal instituted by Jesus for His church goes by a variety of titles in the NT, including Lord’s Supper and Agape. Another designation is “the breaking of bread.” It eventually came to refer to the meal proper, at least in Christian circles.
There is general agreement among scholars that the phrase “break bread” refers in the NT to participation in an entire meal.2 Most of the references to the phrase “break bread” come from Luke’s writings.
A. The Meaning of “To Break Bread” in Acts
Luke uses the phrase “break bread” five times in Acts. Four of these include probable references to the Lord’s Supper, while the last is more likely a common meal. It is all but certain that, in the former, Luke uses this phrase as a virtual synonym for the eucharistic meal.3
B. Evidence for a Sole Tradition4
While we may appreciate the differences that we encounter in the various Last Supper accounts, as well as the attempt to explain these differences, it must be noted that variations in how an event has been handed down do not necessarily imply different traditions. Several factors must be kept in mind when wading through these variations. First, not everything that Jesus said at the Last Supper was recorded. Second, it cannot be ruled out a priori that Jesus may very well have spoken all of the recorded sayings at various stages in the meal. On this view it is quite possible that Jesus Himself elaborated on initial statements at the request of His disciples.
Some differences may be due to each writer’s explanation of the obvious intent of Jesus. For instance, it is not difficult to see how the phrase “poured out for many” could be interpreted by another writer as “for the forgiveness of sins.” There is no substantial difference in meaning between the two phrases. Other differences may be due to the natural semantic field which each writer would encounter when translating Jesus’ words from Aramaic to Greek.5 Though the accounts are independent narratives, all of them “descended from the same original tradition.”6
The term “break bread,” when used in the context of the Christian assembly, seems always to designate the Lord’s Supper, celebrated with bread and cup and in the form of a full meal. All the evidence examined thus far seems to point in the direction of a sole apostolic tradition—one in which the eucharistic elements (bread and wine) are combined with a meal. Although there are various designations for this feast (Lord’s Supper, breaking bread, or Agape), they all refer to the same thing. It is likely, then, that the entire package together forms the apostolic tradition of the Eucharist.
What impact does a uniform tradition have on the setting of the Lord’s Supper? It is difficult to escape the theological implications of a uniform meal-setting of the Supper. Why, for instance, should there be any uniform setting if the setting itself is insignificant? In fact, there are many reasons for this uniform setting, all of which are steeped in theology.
II. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE MEAL FOR COMMUNITY
Having shown what the setting of the Lord’s Supper is in the NT church (i.e., a full meal with one loaf of bread and one cup), it remains to be seen what theological significance there is to this setting. If the setting of the Lord’s Supper as practiced by the NT church is void of any real and abiding significance, there is no compelling reason to hold to that setting. If, on the other hand, it can be shown that the setting itself (not simply the principles resulting in this setting) conveys theological truth about the Supper, then the setting is a significant part of the Supper. The extent to which the setting of the Lord’s Supper contributed to this community-aspect in the NT church may be measured in three areas: concern for the poor, dissolution of class distinctions, and a barometer of right-standing in the community.
A. An Expression of Concern for the Poor
Paul chides the Corinthian practice of the Supper because some of the members remained hungry even though there was plenty of food available. It is here that Paul begins to show the importance of the unity-aspect in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:17-34). The implication is that one aspect of the Supper is provision for the poor.7 Obviously the situation for “those who have nothing” in Corinth would have improved little by removing the meal-aspect from the Supper—they still would have been hungry.
B. An Expression of Equality of Status
Another aspect related to concern for the poor is in regard to differing status at the meal. Theissen points out that the social organizations of the ancient world were typically “homogeneous” and exclusively “class-specific,” and even more so in religious associations.8 This is in marked contrast to the social structure of the Lord’s Supper. The norm for the Lord’s Supper was to be the opposite.
All of this, of course, implies social significance for the meal aspect of the Lord’s Supper. During this meal all social, economic, and spiritual distinctions necessarily come to an end. The participants become one body and, hence, had one status. Any distinction is not only discouraged, but condemned.
C. An Indicator of the Extent of Participation in the Community
One final social aspect of the Supper may be seen in its use as a barometer of right-standing in the community. Fellowship in the NT community found its apex in common participation in the meal. Exclusion from table fellowship meant exclusion from the community as a whole.9
There is a tendency among all people to be homogeneous and to hesitate in associating with others who are different in some way. The Lord’s Supper as a meal forces its participants to erase all social, ethnic, and economic barriers.10
III. THE LORD’S SUPPER AS A PREFIGURE TO THE MESSIANIC BANQUET
In Matt 8:11 Jesus says: “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus here is referring to a feast that will occur at the end of the age. This feast, properly called the “Messianic Banquet,” is found throughout Jesus’ teachings, but seems to be confined to the Synoptics (cf. Matt 22:1-14; 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 14:16-24; 22:16, 18, 29-30). It is significant that wherever the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper are found in the Synoptics, they are never without this reference to the Messianic Feast.
A. Old Testament Antecedents to the Messianic Banquet
Old Testament references to this banquet are sparse at best. Jeremias sees Ps 118:25-29 as the only genuine antecedent to the idea of eschatological anticipation in the Lord’s Supper.11
The concept of the Messianic Banquet, although based on a select number of OT passages, nevertheless became embellished in later Judaism.12 By the time of Jesus the teaching about the Messianic Banquet had developed significantly, especially at Qumran.
B. New Testament Antecedents to the Messianic Banquet
The NT is replete with allusions to an eschatological feast. Luke 12:35-38 speaks of the parousia parabolically as a wedding banquet (the parable of the master/servant), as does Matt 25:1-13 (the parable of the ten virgins). Luke 15:22-32 recounts how the Father will celebrate by holding a feast when His prodigal son returns. Jesus gives us a preview of this provision in the feeding of the crowds (Matt 14:15- 21; 15:32-38 and parallels). He demonstrates His messiahship here (as in the Messianic Banquet) by virtue of providing an abundance of food. Indeed, the very first sign which Jesus performs is replete with eschatological and Messianic significance (John 2:1-11).
C. The Meaning of “In Remembrance of Me”
What does Luke mean by the phrase “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19)? The focus of the Supper has traditionally been derived from this phrase, which in turn has been interpreted to mean that the Supper is to be a time during which we are to focus on the death of Christ; a conscious reliving of what Christ had to suffer in order to redeem us. This suggests that the Supper, by extension, be a time of solemn reflection. The focus then is historical; a looking back, as it were, to the horrors of the cross. There are, however, problems with this understanding.
One such problem may be found in Acts 2:46. Here Luke recounts the practice of the early churches; that they “broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” It is noteworthy that Luke here describes the general mood of the early church as they partook of the Lord’s Supper. It was not with solemn reflection, but rather with “gladness” that they ate the Supper.
Moreover, the context of Luke 22:14-20 itself hardly favors an interpretation which views the Lord’s Supper as a focusing on the past. On the contrary, the tenor of this passage is eschatological. We have already noted that Luke twice records Jesus’ eschatological prospect of eating and drinking again in the kingdom (Luke 22:16, 18).13 In light of this, it seems odd that Jesus would then abruptly shift the focus of the Supper to a memorial of Him (i.e., a looking back) that does not also include an eschatological element.
Since the Last Supper was (at least for Luke) a Passover, it seems certain that Jesus’ words were meant as a play on [a] customary petition to God. All their lives the disciples had learned that the Passover was an opportunity to petition God to send the Messiah—now here He was, eating the Passover with them! Jesus is in effect saying, “You have been petitioning God to send the Messiah? Very well, here I am. Now I am going away, but I will be back once again to eat this meal with you in My kingdom. In the meantime, continue to eat this meal as a reminder (petition) to Me that this meal is yet unfulfilled.” It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the content of the “reminder” is for Christ to come again and to inaugurate the Messianic Banquet in fulfillment of the Lord’s Supper currently being inaugurated.
By repeatedly partaking of the Supper (the cult meal of the New Covenant) we are “reminding” Christ of our plight that we are still without a host at our banquet and that the Banquet itself is still in its unfulfilled state. The Lord’s Supper, then, is an appeal to Christ—a reminder, as it were—to return and bring this meal to its fulfillment.14
D. The Eschatological Focus in the Pauline Tradition
But what of the obvious connection of the “remembrance” to Christ’s death in 1 Cor 11:23-26? The “remembrance” is for Paul a “proclamation of the Lord’s death.” But does this not suggest (as the memorial view holds) that the “remembrance” has a historical rather than eschatological focus? There are many indicators given by Paul in this very passage that his theology of the Lord’s Supper is little different than what we have argued is Luke’s theology.15 For instance, it is difficult to determine, if we are to adopt the memorial view (viz., that we are to remember Christ’s death), to whom we are “proclaiming” Christ’s death. To unbelievers?16 To ourselves? The former seems unlikely because in the early church the meetings were made up almost exclusively of believers.17 While the latter seems possible, it is not without difficulties. It would seem strange that Christians are to “remind” each other that Christ died. Moreover, just what form this proclamation would take is not readily apparent.18 While neither of these objections is conclusive, both of them militate against the memorial view to some degree.
In light of Luke’s eschatological focus, Paul’s words make equally good sense if we view this “proclamation” as a petition to Christ. Christ’s death in the Lord’s Supper texts is virtually synonymous with the initiation of the New Covenant: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor 11:25; cf. Matt 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20). It does not seem too far wrong, then, to say that this “proclamation” acts as a “reminder” to Christ; that is to say, whenever we partake of the Lord’s Supper we are “proclaiming” to Christ (reminding Him) that He has initiated the New Covenant by means of His death,19 and that we now want Him to bring it to its consummation by coming again and inaugurating the Messianic Banquet in His kingdom.20 Hence, the purpose of celebrating the Lord’s Supper is to sound a plea for the Second Coming: “As often as the death of the Lord is proclaimed at the Lord’s Supper, and the maranatha rises upwards, God is reminded of the unfulfilled climax of the work of salvation ‘until (the goal is reached, that) He comes.’”21 As Wainwright notes: “At every eucharist the church is in fact praying that the parousia may take place at that very moment.”22 Each time the church comes together for the Lord’s Supper, Christ is reminded that He is still not “eating” and not “drinking” (Luke 22:16-18), and that the heavenly banquet which the Lord’s Supper prefigures has not yet been “fulfilled in the kingdom.”23
E. Maranatha and the Lord’s Supper
At the end of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes the somewhat disjointed exclamation, maranatha (“Come, O Lord!”), a phrase which Higgins and others believe accompanied the Lord’s Supper.24 There is some question as to whether maranatha here is to be taken as an imperative or a perfect. The former (“Our Lord, come!”) would refer to the parousia, while the latter (“Our Lord has come!”) would refer to the incarnation. Still others take the perfect as present-referring and see in this phrase a statement of the “cultic presence of Christ” in the Eucharist.25
In spite of all the uncertainties surrounding this word, it seems best to take it as an imperative paralleling the statement found in Rev 22:20, (“Come Lord Jesus!”).26 The earliest church writings seem to have taken it this way.27 The Didache gives explicit instructions for the activities surrounding the Lord’s Supper.28 Remarkably though, in those places where the Supper is most mentioned it is never connected with the death of Christ. Yet, as Goguel notes, there are at least two places where the instructions for the Lord’s Supper in the Didache have eschatological dimensions.29
It is likely that the writer understood maranatha in the imperative sense (“Our Lord, come!”) rather than in the perfect sense (“Our Lord has come!”) for several reasons. As Goguel has noted, there is a conspicuous absence of anything resembling a historic outlook here.30 On the contrary, everything in these passages seems to point to a future hope. An appeal is made to God to “gather together” the church “into thy kingdom.” God is implored to “remember” His church and to “deliver” it from “all evil.” Another appeal is made for grace to come and for the present world to pass away (an obvious request for the inauguration of the kingdom). The exclamation “hosanna!” is historically tied to the hallel of the Passover and means “O, save,” indicating “an imploring cry to Yahweh to bring to reality that which the liturgy has depicted.”31 The fact that maranatha falls so closely on the heels of all this makes the imperative meaning (“Our Lord, come!”) likely. Indeed, the perfect (“Our Lord has come!”) follows awkwardly at best.
To summarize, then, the Lord’s Supper is eschatologically oriented, not simply (nor even primarily) historically oriented. It is intended to prefigure the feast that we will enjoy with the Lord Himself at the Messianic Banquet. Until the Messianic Banquet comes at the inauguration of the kingdom we are to partake of this banquet—as a banquet—in absentia, via the Lord’s Supper, as a petition and a reminder to Christ to return. We petition Him by proclaiming to Him that His death has initiated the New Covenant and that we long for Him to bring it to its consummation (“Maranatha!”). Each time the Lord’s Supper is celebrated it reminds Christ that the Messianic banquet remains in its prefigure form (i.e., as the Lord’s Supper), that He is still “not eating” and “not drinking” with His church, and that the “fulfillment” of the Supper has not yet come. The implications of such a focus for the community-setting of the Lord’s Supper are addressed below.
IV. IMPLICATIONS FOR THE COMMUNAL FORM OF THE LORD’S SUPPER
The Lord’s Supper, as we have seen, looks forward to the coming Messianic Banquet in the kingdom. It anticipates and prefigures that banquet and is therefore intended to foreshadow it.32 “In its entire execution,” therefore, “the eucharist should be a foretaste of the coming kingdom of God.”33
A. The Lord’s Supper as a Banquet
The most obvious implication of this principle is that the Lord’s Supper itself should take the form of a banquet. The Biblical imagery associated with the eschatological banquet is one of celebration and abundance of food (Isa 25:6-8; Matt 22:4; Luke 15:22-32; Rev 19:9); and indeed, this is just what we find in the apostolic practice of the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:46). As we have already shown, the word supper in every instance in the NT refers to nothing less than a full meal— and arguably always refers to a banquet or feast. Nor will it do to view the Lord’s Supper as merely a symbolic meal, for what Paul calls the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor 11:20 is nothing less than a full-blown meal held in common.
In spite of this emphasis in the NT, some scholars reject the notion that the Lord’s Supper must take the form of a full meal. Stagg for instance observes that, “the supper anticipates the messianic banquet at the end of the age, but it is not itself that banquet.”34 This is true, but the reason it anticipates the banquet is precisely because it prefigures it. A symbolic meal can prefigure the banquet only with difficulty. It would not be too far wrong to say that only a banquet can meaningfully prefigure a banquet. This may be compared to other Biblical promise/fulfillment concepts. The sacrificial death of Christ was prefigured by a real death, not a symbolic one. The eternal rest into which we enter when we come to Christ was foreshadowed by a real sabbath rest (Heb 4:1-11). The church as a whole has not “usually done justice to the theological implications of the fact that the eucharist is a meal.”35
One may still question whether this association of a meal with the Eucharist is a valid one. Could it not be argued, for instance, that a meal was the proper expression of community for the social setting of the first-century world, but that other expressions of community may be more appropriate for social settings of different times and places? It must be conceded up front that this is indeed possible. If this is adopted, on the other hand, one must ask larger questions of Biblical imagery. Is there really going to be a Messianic Banquet at the end of the age, or is the idea of a banquet merely an illustrative device designed to convey festive joy in the kingdom? (If indeed “kingdom” itself is not merely the first-century expression of God’s reign—perhaps a more appropriate term might be used in non-monarchical societies). Is the culture of the church at this point based on the surrounding culture or is it based on eschatological reality? If in fact there is going to be a Messianic Banquet at the end of the age, and if that banquet (as we have seen) is rooted in eschatological reality, then we must see the Biblical imagery of a communal banquet as independent of Hellenistic society: “The notion of the Eucharist as a presiding of the Messiah over the banquet table in the kingdom must be kept strong because it is scriptural.”36 But if this is the case, then it is difficult to imagine how one can argue that the meal-aspect of the Lord’s Supper is culturally relative. On the contrary, it seems rather that the meal aspect of the Lord’s Supper, insofar as it prefigures the Messianic Banquet, is as timeless as the Banquet itself: “Even now God’s lost children may come home and sit down at their Father’s table.”37 Indeed, even today there are very few societies that do not view table fellowship as a rich expression of community.
B. The Primary Focus of the Lord’s Supper
R. P. Martin has identified three features of the Lord’s Supper in the early church: (1) a common meal; (2) the bread and wine; (3) an eschatological hope.38 This eschatological focus of the Lord’s Supper in the early Christian community can be seen in Acts 2:46 which speaks of the “gladness” (“Messianic joy”) with which the early Christians partook of their meals together. Cullman rightly sees this jubilation as incompatible with the idea of recalling the somber events of the Last Supper.39
Yet, as Higgins observes, this eschatological element of the Lord’s Supper has often been excluded in the modern church.40 Käsemann, too, discerns a shift in the focus of the Lord’s Supper from a primarily eschatological outlook (an anticipation of the Messianic Banquet) to an inter-advent ordinance “tied to the ‘time of the church’” which pertains only to the church while here on earth.41 This current focus has acted to “minimize…the believers’ present communion with one another and with the risen Lord and their anticipation of the messianic banquet at the second coming of the Lord.”42 This is unfortunate for the church and detrimental to the theology of the Lord’s Supper. Once the church abandons the outward expression of a NT practice, all too often the underlying theology of that practice is likewise abandoned. This is the case with the Supper as well. Since anything resembling the eschatological banquet is rarely to be found in the context of the Supper within the modern church, so too the accompanying eschatological joy is rarely to be found. Instead, the mood is much more that of a funeral. Rather than the early-church practice of “praying that the parousia may take place at that very moment”43 in an attempt to “speed His coming” (2 Pet 3:12), many (most?) churches today focus on the historical element of Christ’s death and the recalling of personal sin in the lives of the recipients. The eschatological element, it seems, can be found only within the ivory towers of the scholarly world; and, sadly, this is where it is likely to remain.
C. The Intended Frequency and Centrality of the Lord’s Supper
Since one of the primary foci of the Lord’s Supper is an eschatological plea for the eschaton, one might assume that its practice should be frequent. After all, if it is true that our Lord left His church with the means to remind Him to fulfill His covenant promises then it would seem that those who “love His appearing” (2 Tim 4:8) would want to use it often to remind Him often. Does the NT give us any indication as to the frequency with which the Lord’s Supper was—or, is to be—practiced?
Some have looked to Paul’s words in 1 Cor 11:25 for the answer: “do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Grosheide sees here an injunction of sorts to partake of the Lord’s Supper often: “Drink frequently the cup of the Lord and do so always in remembrance of me.”44 But this is to go beyond Paul’s intent. There is no injunction to “do this often” here, nor in Luke, nor anywhere else in the NT. The most that can be gleaned from these words is that Paul assumed there would be regular repetition of the Lord’s Supper.45 Just how frequent this repetition was or should be is not told us here.
But to ask whether there is an injunction that shows the frequency of the Lord’s Supper is perhaps to ask the wrong question. It seems evident that the early church partook of the Lord’s Supper on either a daily basis or a weekly basis.46 Luke records of the church: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46). This verse traditionally has been understood to mean that the early church partook of the Lord’s Supper on a daily basis, at least at the beginning and at least in Jerusalem. Kilpatrick, however, suggests an alternative way of taking this verse, according to which “daily” is not seen as applying to the verse as a whole but only to “meeting in the temple.”47 If we are to adopt this view we must then look elsewhere to ascertain how frequently the early church partook of the Supper.
Perhaps the best place to look is Acts 20:7: “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread.” Several observations can be made about this passage. First, Luke likely intends to record more than mere historical narrative here. While it is true that Luke is recording the history of the church, he certainly does not include all that the church did. Instead, he is selective about what he records, including only those events that would best meet his redactional need of instructing the early churches in apostolic teaching. He makes a point to mention that it was on the “first day of the week” that they came together and that the activity included “breaking bread.” It is not so much the mere mention of this early-church practice that is significant here; rather, it is the way it is presented. True, Luke mentions the practice only once; but his one mention betrays an assumption that this was an ongoing practice. Luke’s point is not simply that the church met together, and incidentally this week it happened to be on Sunday. Rather, Luke’s statement is more accurately rendered as, “On the first day of the week, when [as normal] we assembled to break bread.”48
This passage has direct implications for the frequency of the Lord’s Supper. Luke does not tell us merely that the normal practice of the church is to meet on the first day of the week; he also tells us the purpose of that meeting—“to break bread.” The infinitive here is telic and is more accurately rendered, “in order to break bread.” This purpose for the meeting occurs also in Paul. In 1 Cor 11:17, Paul introduces his discussion about the Lord’s Supper. He begins by chiding the Corinthians because their “meetings” do more harm than good. That Paul has in mind the normal, regular meetings of the church is clear from v 18 where he speaks of the divisions that prevail when they “come together as a church.” In v 20 Paul picks up on that same idea, but this time connects it with the Supper: “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat.”49 What is significant here is that the telic infinitive is again used. The church was to come together—“in order to eat the Lord’s Supper.”
This purpose clause occurs once more at the end of this pericope, again showing that the purpose of the church meeting is to partake of the Lord’s Supper: “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other” (11:33). Interestingly, these three passages (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 11:20, 33) are the only places in the entire NT that use a purpose clause in relation to the meeting of the church. Whatever other purpose the church may have had for coming together (worship, mutual edification, etc.), no purpose clause is ever used for any activity except the Lord’s Supper.
The foregoing point is significant because it links (perhaps even inextricably) the Lord’s Supper with the meeting of the church. One cannot speak about the frequency of observance of the Lord’s Supper without also speaking of the frequency of the church meeting itself. Put another way, once we have determined that the purpose of the church meeting is to partake of the Lord’s Supper, then in order to determine the frequency of the Supper we need only determine the frequency of the church meeting. As Marshall notes: “In line with what appears to have been the practice of the early church in the New Testament the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated frequently in the church, and there is good reason for doing so on each Lord’s Day.”50
Indeed, that reason may very well be bound up in the similarity of titles for both the Supper and the Day. As we have already seen, the church adopted the first day of the week as the regular day of meeting for the church, even assigning it a specialized title—the “Lord’s Day.”51 While we do not know with certainty why this day was chosen, it is likely due to its association with the resurrection of Christ and His subsequent appearances to His disciples, as well as to the belief of the early church that the eschaton and the general resurrection would likewise occur on that day.52 Whatever the reason for the title, it remains clear that the word “the Lord’s Day” (Rev 1:10) is found in only one other place (1 Cor 11:20) where it is used in the title, “the Lord’s Supper.” It may very well be the case that the reason the same word is used for both the Supper and the Day—and never in any other context in the NT— is precisely because the Supper and the Day are inextricably linked to each other.53 The Lord’s Day is so called because it is the day that the Lord’s Supper—the precursor to the Messianic Banquet—is enjoyed. Conversely, the Lord’s Supper is so called because it is the supper that is celebrated on the Lord’s Day. The Lord’s Day commemorates the resurrection of Christ, whose resurrection guarantees the promise of the eschatological resurrection. The Lord’s Supper likewise anticipates the second coming and offers a plea toward that end. The Lord’s Day is the day the church comes together to petition Christ to return; the Lord’s Supper is the means to that petition. As Wainwright notes: “[The] link between the day and the meal is already made in the New Testament and is of importance for the eschatological content and bearing of the eucharist.”54 In light of this emphasis on the connection between the Lord’s Day and the Lord’s Supper—both in the practice of the apostolic church and in the practice of the post-apostolic church—Evangelicals should perhaps “rethink the order of worship toward…an increased use of the Lord’s Supper as the focal point of worship.”55
D. The Significance of the Church Setting for Community in the Lord’s Supper
One final consideration that should be mentioned here is the physical setting of the church when partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Perhaps one of the reasons that the modern church has largely abandoned the community aspect of the Lord’s Supper (a meal held in common) is because its structure is ill-conducive to such a practice. One must not underestimate the importance of size and structure when considering the feasibility of any practice of the early church. As Filson notes:
The New Testament Church would be better understood, if more attention were paid to the actual physical conditions under which the first Christians met and lived. In particular, the importance and function of the house church should be carefully considered.56
One of the reasons that the Lord’s Supper as a meal could be conducted with so little difficulty in the early church is because the physical setting lent itself to such activities: “Private homes provided the meeting places for the distinctive Christian acts of worship.”57 The NT portrays the church in terms of a family. The church collectively is the “household of God.”58 Individually, we are the “children of God” born into his family.59 Consequently, we are to relate to one another as brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers. No other setting can bear the theological implications of church as family like the home. Indeed, it might well be argued that “it was the hospitality of these homes which made possible the Christian worship, common meals, and courage-sustaining fellowship of the group.”60 It should come as no surprise then that the setting for the early church meeting was the simplicity of the homes of its members.61
Nor should it be of great surprise that the Lord’s Supper was a primary activity of these home meetings. Luke informs us that the early churches “broke bread in their homes” (Acts 2:46). The setting was small and intimate,62 which itself contributed to the fellowship of community around the Lord’s Table:
Thus the meal that they shared together not only reminded the members of their relationship with Christ and one another but actually deepened it, much as participation in a common meal by a family or group not only symbolizes but really cements the bond between them.63
While the modern evangelical church longs to emulate the NT church in its theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper, the community-aspect of the Supper remains conspicuously absent. No doubt the church setting plays a prominent role in this. Indeed, it would be exceedingly difficult and impractical—if not altogether impossible—to adopt the apostolic practice of the Lord’s Supper in the large church, for such a setting militates against the intimate community that was such an integral part of the Supper. Instead, the modern church has adapted the Lord’s Supper to fit the setting. This is unfortunate, for adaptation normally entails the loss of theological significance (whether intentional or not). For instance, the adaptation of the Supper to accommodate a large community requires that intimacy of table fellowship be sacrificed. Similarly, the singularity of the bread and cup which we have seen causes unity in the body has given way to bread that is already broken and wine that is poured beforehand; hence, the form of the bread and wine in the modern church is not only incapable of causing bodily unity, but is also incapable of symbolizing unity. The meal-aspect which prefigures the Messianic Banquet must be substituted with a token (or symbolic) meal. In short, theological significance has been displaced by logistics.
None of this is to lay blame on the modern church; to a very large extent the church today is merely a product of its forerunners. We have inherited the problem. Indeed, the theological shortcomings of the current practice of the Lord’s Supper can hardly be avoided given the setting of the modern church. The church has likely done its level best to faithfully carry out the practice of the NT church in the context in which it finds itself. Perhaps, though, the answer lies not in adapting the Lord’s Supper to accommodate the current setting of the church; perhaps instead it lies in adapting the current setting of the church to accommodate the theology of the Lord’s Supper.
This article has attempted to show how the community-aspect of the early church held significance and was operative in the context of the Lord’s Supper. Most of what we know about this aspect of the Supper comes from the pen of Paul who defines the Lord’s Supper in a number of very specific ways. At the very outset, the Supper must enjoy the voluntary unity of its participants, without which it ceases to be the Lord’s Supper. Yet voluntary unity is not enough. The Supper must also visibly express that unity through the singularity of the bread and cup.
When this visible expression is present, we find that the singularity of the bread and cup actually causes bodily unity. This unity aspect persists throughout the early existence of the church and finds support in a number of patristic sources as well.
Perhaps the most important aspect for community in the Lord’s Supper is the fact that the Supper was originally a full meal. Indeed, what Paul refers to when he coins the title “Lord’s Supper” is the meal, of which the bread and wine are prominent elements, and apart from which the Lord’s Supper cannot properly be called a “supper.” The separation of the meal from the elements occurred sometime after the apostolic age and, contrary to popular belief, was quite unintended by Paul. Whatever may have been the relationship between the bread and wine and the meal in a later age, “they belonged together in New Testament times.”64 This meal, also known as the Agape, is alluded to by both Jude and Peter, and was widely practiced by the early post-apostolic church. The fact that the Supper received no fewer than two specialized names argues strongly for its apostolic endorsement. These two names, in addition to other phrases assigned to the Supper (such as “breaking bread”), show the universal acceptance of the Supper in the early church, so that it will not do to postulate that the meal-aspect of the Supper was characteristic of Pauline churches only.
The Supper held a wide range of purposes. First, it served as an expression of concern for the poor in the believing community. In all likelihood, the Supper was a potluck of sorts provided by the rich to show their love for less fortunate Christians. It is probably this purpose that resulted in the adoption of the title Agape. A second dimension of the Supper is that it compelled the Christian community to live out the theology of equality of status in Christ, violating the Hellenistic societal norm to hold homogenous banquets where class distinctions were acutely recognized. Closely related to this, the Supper also erased ethnic divisions between Jew and Gentile, forcing the Jewish Christians to regard as “clean” what God himself has declared clean.
Another very important, yet oft-missed aspect of the Supper is its eschatological focus. The Lord’s Supper prefigures the Messianic Banquet and acts as a means to petition Messiah to come again. The Supper is to be repeated on a regular basis in order to sound this petition and to give the participants the opportunity to proclaim with one voice, Maranatha! This is not far different from the practice of Israel during the hallel of the Passover Haggadah to petition God to send the Messiah the first time.
This focus has direct implications for the form, frequency, and centrality of the Supper. If the Supper is to prefigure the abundance of food in the Messianic Banquet, then the Supper itself must have the form of an actual meal. Moreover, if the focus of the Supper is to sound a plea for the parousia, then it is natural to suppose that the church practiced it whenever it met together. As it turns out, the regular gathering of the church in the NT seems to be on a weekly basis, and on the first day of the week. We also find that the very purpose of the regular meeting of the church was to partake of the Supper, and this leads us to believe that the Supper, too, was practiced on a weekly basis. This is not surprising, however, given that both the Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s Day have very similar titles, perhaps even by design.
Finally, we found that the physical setting of the church played a significant role in the early practice of the Lord’s Supper:
The Lord’s Supper in the New Testament is a meal. The appropriate setting for the sacrament is a table…The linking of the Supper with a meal may offer a form of fellowship that could contribute to the edification of the church today.65
The house church was conducive to the kind of intimate table fellowship demanded by the Supper. Because this setting is absent in most evangelical churches today, the intended theology of community at the Supper is also conspicuously absent. What is needed is not more adaptation of the Supper to accommodate our contemporary settings; what is needed is more of a willingness to conform our structures to accommodate the Lord’s Supper. Until we do, much of the theology of the Supper will remain lost to us—and with it, its benefits for community.
1 Editor’s note: This article was part of a booklet written by the author in 1996. It was published by the New Testament Restoration Foundation in Atlanta, GA. The first two parts were printed in the last two editions of the JOTGES. This is the final part. Due to length constraints, some sentences and sections are omitted or shortened. Some explanations found in footnotes are also omitted. There are also format changes, such as the numbering of sections and the transliteration of Greek words. The full booklet, in its original format, can be found at: https://comingintheclouds.org/wpclouds7/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/the_table_of_lord_communion_Lords_supper.pdf. Used by permission.
2 R. P. Martin, Worship in the Early Church (Westwood, NJ: Revell, 1964), 122; I. Howard Marshall, Last Supper and Lord’s Supper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 130.
3 Editor’s note: Omitted here is Svendsen’s discussion of Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7, 11; 27:35. He argued that Luke means the same thing as Paul does with his use of the phrase in 1 Cor 10:16. All occurrences refer to a full meal.
4 Editor’s note: Omitted here is Svendsen pointing out differences in how the Gospels, Paul, and Luke deal with the Lord’s Supper.
5 Marshall, Last Supper, 41.
6 A. J. B. Higgins, The Lord’s Supper in the New Testament, SBT 6 (London: SCM, 1952), 24.
7 Marshall, Last Supper, 154.
8 Gerd Theissen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1982), 146.
9 G. D. Kilpatrick, The Eucharist in Bible and Liturgy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 63-64. Editor’s note: Svendsen points out that in 1 Cor 5:9-11, to be excommunicated meant not being able to take part in the Lord’s Supper.
10 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians. NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 544.
11 J. Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (London: SCM, 1966), 36. Editor’s note: Svendsen says that Isa 25:6 also prefigures the Messianic banquet.
12 D. A. “Matthew,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Vol. 8. ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), 202. Editor’s note: Svendsen points out the emphasis in the writings at Qumran concerning the Messianic banquet when the Christ comes.
13 Jeremias, Eucharistic Words, 217.
14 D. R. Jones, “’Anamnhvsi” in the LXX and the Interpretation of 1 Cor 11:25,” Journal of Theological Studies 6 (1955): 191.
15 Peter K. Nelson, Leadership and Discipleship: A Study of Luke 22:24-30. SBL Dissertation Series 138 (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1994), 229.
16 Marshall, Last Supper, 113.
17 Church meetings were in private homes.
18 C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, HNTC (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1968), 270.
19 David Wenham, “How Jesus Understood the Last Supper: A Parable in Action,” Themelios 20 (1995): 14.
20 Jeremias, Eucharistic Words, 253.
22 Geoffrey Wainwright, Eucharist and Eschatology (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1981), 67.
23 Jeremias, Eucharistic Words, 255.
24 Higgins, The Lord’s Supper, 60. So also F. F. Bruce, First and Second Corinthians, NCB (London: Oliphants, 1971), 114; Barrett, Corinthians, 271; H. Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Herm. ed. G. W. Macrae, trans. J. W. Leitch (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1975), 202.
25 Wainwright, Eucharist, 70.
26 Wainwright, Eucharist, 70. See also Wilhelm Mundle, “Maranatha,” NIDNTT, 896.
27 Although later church writings almost uniformly take it in the perfect sense (Mundle, 896).
28 Chaps. 9, 10 & 14, J.B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harner, eds. The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984), 232-34.
29 M. Goguel, The Primitive Church. trans. H. C. Snape (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1964), 346.
31 J.A. Motyer, “Hosanna,” NIDNTT, 100.
32 The Lord’s Supper “anticipates the heavenly banquet of God’s eternal realm,” Sharon H. Ringe, “Hospitality, Justice, and Community: Paul’s Teaching on the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34,” Prism 1 (1986): 59.
33 Walter Kasper, “The Unity and Multiplicity of Aspects in the Eucharist,” Communio 12 (1985): 136.
34 Frank Stagg, “The Lord’s Supper in the New Testament,” Review and Expositor 66 (1969): 7.
35 Wainwright, Eucharist and Eschatology, 18.
36 G. S. Sloyan, “The Holy Eucharist as an Eschatological Meal,” Worship 36 (1962): 450.
37 Jeremias, Eucharistic Words, 262.
38 Martin, Worship, 122.
39 Oscar Cullmann, “The Meaning of the Lord’s Supper in Primitive Christianity,” in Essays on the Lord’s Supper, eds. J. G. Davies and A. R. George, trans. J. G. Davies (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1958), 9.
40 Higgins, The Lord’s Supper, 54.
41 Käsemann, E. “The Pauline Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper,” in Essays on New Testament Themes. Studies in Biblical Theology (Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson, 1964), 122.
42 John Newport, “The Purpose of the Church,” in The People of God: Essays on the Believers’ Church, eds. Paul Basden and David S. Dockery (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1991), 26.
43 Wainwright, Eucharist and Eschatology, 67.
44 F. W. Grosheide, Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1953), 272.
45 Fee, Corinthians, 555.
46 Jeremias, Eucharistic Words, 62.
47 Kilpatrick, The Eucharist, 37.
48 A. T. Lincoln, “From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical and Theological Perspective,” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), 383.
49 Ervin Bishop, “The Assembly,” Restoration Quarterly 18 (1975): 225.
50 Marshall, Last Supper, 155.
51 Bauckham, “The Lord’s Day,” 222-245.
52 Ibid., 240-245.
53 Lightfoot and Harmer, Apostolic Fathers, 223.
54 Wainwright, Eucharist and Eschatology, 75.
55 Newport, “The Purpose of the Church,” 26-27.
56 F. V. Filson, “The Significance of the Early House Churches,” JBL 58 (1939): 105-106.
57 G.E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 349.
58 Ephesians 2:19; cf. Gal 6:10.
59 John 1:12-13; 1 Tim 5:1-2; Rom 16:13.
60 Filson, “House Churches,” 109.
61 Acts 2:46; 5:42; 16:40; 20:20; Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Phlm 1-2; 2 John 10.
62 Ladd, 349. Cf. also Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Historical Setting (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 41-42.
63 Banks, Paul’s Idea, 86.
64 Marshall, Last Supper, 145.