Many times visitors unacquainted with us wonder why we partake of the Lord's Supper each week--especially when most religious groups do so much less frequently. Also, it is the practice of some to have the Lord's Supper on some other day of the week, a practice we have historically said is unauthorized. How does the Bible deal with these issues; what has the Word bound, and what has it loosed? Where is the line between what we must do and what we are free to do?
Paul writes to the brethren at Corinth about an abuse of the Lord's Supper in which they were engaged. The problem was so critical that Paul begins by saying, ". . . you come together not for the better but for the worse" (1 Cor. 11:18). He makes clear in the following verse that this "coming together" is "as a church." In other words, the problem that existed with respect to the Lord's Supper in Corinth happened when the congregation met. There may have been other meetings when a portion of the church met (such as just the women, which the first part of chapter 11 may describe), but there is no evidence that the Lord's Supper was involved in those meetings.
Because of the severity of the problem Paul writes: "Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper" (1 Cor. 11:20). This statement only makes sense if their practice was to come together in one place in order to eat the Lord's Supper. They cannot be told they are failing to do something unless their intention is to succeed at doing it in the first place. Similarly, God instructs Hosea to name his son Lo-ammi, "for you are not my people" (1:9).
The people would be shocked by such a statement because as descendants of Abraham, they were God's people. But their actions proved them not to be His people. To make such a bold claim would certainly get the attention of the people, just as Jesus would later when he told the Jews that they were of their father the devil (John 8:42-44). In effect, Jesus was telling them, "God is not your Father!"
They thought God was their Father; it was certainly their intention to worship and serve Him, but their actions belied those intentions. Likewise, the Corinthians certainly intended to eat the Lord's Supper, but because of their incorrect handling of it, they were by their actions invalidating their intentions.
The point is, therefore, that their purpose in coming together was to eat the Lord's Supper. Not only does this principle not contradict any other New Testament passage of Scripture; it harmonizes perfectly with Acts 20:7, which also states that "the disciples came together to break bread." Obviously, the Lord's Supper was an important and integral part of worship in the church, when it was first established.
Someone might ask, "How do we know that 'breaking bread' does not refer to merely a common meal?" (which it can--Acts 2:46 and 20:11). The context usually indicates which one is which. Consider, for example, Acts 2:42: "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking bread, and in prayers." All of these are spiritual concepts; therefore, virtually all commentators understand "breaking of bread" here to be the Lord's Supper.
Acts 2:46, on the other hand, is obviously referring to the regular food we all eat daily, and thus do commentators agree on that point as well. In Acts 20 Paul, although he was in a hurry to get to Jerusalem (v. 16), waited seven days in Troas in order to meet with the church there. They met on the first day of the week to break bread (v. 7). Did they come together once a week for a common meal or for a spiritual purpose? Of course, it was to honor the Lord. [Please notice that the same verse that authorizes the church to come together for worship, period, uses a designation describing the Lord's Supper.]
But what about Acts 20:11, which appears to be a regular meal and not the Lord's Supper? This meal was evidently shared after the period of worship was over. Brethren frequently (perhaps due to the length of time they were together) brought and shared their food--which brings us back to the problem at Corinth.
Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper. For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you (1 Cor. 11:20-22).
Notice that there are two suppers here being intermingled--the secular and the sacred. To compound the problem, the members of the church were not acting like brethren; their selfishness is dealt with shortly in chapter 13, where a lack of love is cited as the root of most of their problems. They were not even sharing with one another (a lesson we try to teach to pre-schoolers).
The failure to make a distinction between the two meals caused the significance of the Lord's Supper to be downplayed, which defeated their purpose in coming together. Even worse, by partaking of the Lord's Supper unworthily, they were "guilty of the body and blood of the Lord" (v. 27). Paul reminds them of the true meaning of these symbols. They were not for the purpose of refreshing the body but to remind the soul of salvation.
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took break; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, "Take, eat; this is My body, which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me." In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes (1 Cor. 11:23-26).
Not only did Jesus instruct His disciples concerning this memorial to Himself; when Paul was chosen as an apostle ("one born out of due time"), Jesus also delivered to him this fundamental doctrine. It is important to remember that, like Christ, Paul did not originate the teachings and traditions he presented to the brethren.
All that is taught in the New Testament is from the Father. Jesus said: "For I have not spoken on My own authority; but the Father who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak" (John 12:49). Jesus also told the apostles that when the Holy Spirit guided them into all Truth, He would not "speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak" (John 16:13).
Thus the apostles' doctrine was not their own invention; the ultimate source of the message was the Father. Paul admonished the Corinthians to "keep the traditions as I delivered them to you" (1 Cor. 11:2). He also thanked God without ceasing for the brethren in Thessalonica because when they received the Word of God which Paul preached to them, they "welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God" (1 Thess. 2:13).
Paul (and the other apostles) preached the same Gospel everywhere; unity could be called for because there is only one faith, one body of New Testament teaching. "For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church" (1 Cor. 4:17). [Paul uses "my" in front of "ways" just as he does in front of "gospel" (2 Tim. 2:8), but he always makes it clear that it is God's Word that he is teaching, as shown in the passages above.]
Putting these truths together, we conclude that what Paul taught brethren in Corinth about the Lord's Supper is exactly the same doctrine he taught in all of the other churches. In other words, everywhere that Paul had preached he taught them to come together in one place to eat the Lord's supper.
The bread symbolizes Jesus' broken body; the blood represents the blood Jesus shed for our sins. Jesus commanded His followers to eat the bread and drink the cup in remembrance of Him. This remembrance is central to being a Christian. It was Jesus' last request of His disciples before they went out to the Mount of Olives where He was betrayed (Matt. 26:26-30).
Remembering His death and suffering is for our benefit, not His. Certainly He is worthy as the Lamb of God to receive glory and honor, but we are the ones who must continually be reminded that He died for our sins. If we do not have a continual reminder, it will be much easier to fall into various temptations and lusts. Furthermore, we proclaim the Lord's death until He returns, which serves as an additional reminder to us that we must remain faithful.
But someone will observe, "He didn't say how often we should do so." No, He did not. But there are a number of facts that the Scriptures provide that we need to put together. A list of these follows:
1. The Corinthians came together as a church to eat the Lord's supper (1 Cor. 11:20).
2. Paul taught the same doctrine in all the churches (1 Cor. 4:17).
3. In Troas the disciples met as the church on the first day of the week to break bread (eat the Lord's Supper--Acts 20:7).
4. Paul commanded the Corinthians to lay something aside on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:2) because, like the brethren at Troas, the first day of the week is the day the Corinthians came together, too. Notice that Paul had given this same order to the churches of Galatia (1 Cor. 16:1).
These conclusions fit the facts. But suppose someone wants to argue that the church only took the Lord's supper once a year. Is that the impression we receive from studying 1 Corinthians 11--that this abuse occurred there only annually? How silly! This transgression was an ongoing one--each and every week. Paul had previously admonished them: "You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord's table and of the table of demons' (1 Cor. 10:21). It is obvious that these problems were occurring with greater frequency than once a year or once a month.
Further confirmation of a weekly observance is seen by comments that Paul made which led up to the preceding statement.
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, being many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread (1 Cor. 10:16-17).
There is no way to deduce from comments like these that the Lord's Supper was some infrequent, sporadic observance. Consider this passage, also.
Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 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 the old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:6-8).
Notice the phrase, keep the feast. What feast?
Whereas Jews would keep the Passover, Christians would not. The feast Paul refers to is the Lord's supper, something they "kept" each Lord's day.
"Why can't the Lord's Supper be taken on other days of the week? After all, Jesus instituted it on Thursday night." Jesus did indeed show the disciples how they should observe His death on Thursday evening, but there were reasons for that particular occasion being selected. It was not only the last Passover that Jesus would celebrate with them; it afforded Him the opportunity to use the two elements present that were a part of that feast--the unleavened bread and the fruit of the vine. He did not at this time tell them about the frequency or the day of the observance.
The question of observing the Lord's Supper on some day other than the Lord's day becomes a matter of authority. Is there a command to do so at another time? No. Is there an example of the church doing so at another time? No, although they could have. The brethren at Troas did not do so; they waited until Sunday. Is there anything that implies any other day? No. Does it fall in the realm of expediency? No. Without any authorization for the practice, why would anyone want to suggest such a thing? We ought always to be content to stay within the boundaries set by the Scriptures. They do not authorize observing the Lord's Supper on any other day than the Lord's day; and they teach us that we ought to remember the death of our Savior on each Lord's day. Like Noah, let us do all according to all that God commands (Gen. 6:22).
*Send comments or questions concerning this article to Gary Summers. Please refer to this article as: "THE LORD'S SUPPER (7/13/97)."