The Lord’s Supper

The early Christians met on the first day of the week for the breaking of bread and instruction in the Scriptures (Acts 20:7; cf. Justin Martyr 1 Apol. 67). This breaking of bread was in obedience to the instruction of the Lord Jesus, who told his disciples to do so in remembrance of him.

Celebrating the Passover meal at the Last Supper (Mark 14:14), Jesus had taken the unleavened bread that commemorated Israel’s hasty departure from Egypt and declared that it no longer represented the exodus from Egypt but now symbolized his body. This took place “on the night when he was betrayed” (1 Cor 11:23). He would be crucified the next day, and that reality informed his breaking of the bread and saying the words, “This is my body which is for you” (11:24).

Jeremiah had prophesied that God would save his people in the future in a way that would make them stop identifying Yahweh as the God who brought them out of Egypt. Instead, they would identify Yahweh as the God who had accomplished for them this new, definitive salvation that would bring them into the land of promise (Jer 16:14–15; 23:7–8). The authors of the New Testament present Jesus accomplishing that definitive new-exodus salvation by his death and resurrection, which will return his people from exile that they might inhabit a new heavens and new earth forever. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus transformed the feast that commemorated the exodus from Egypt into a feast that celebrated the exodus he would accomplish in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31).

When Paul wrote the words, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you” (1 Cor 11:23), he established the point that the celebration of the Supper was given by Jesus to him as an Apostle with the intention that he and the other Apostles would institute this tradition wherever followers of Jesus met to worship him. The bread that Jesus took (11:23) would have been the unleavened bread that symbolized Israel’s hasty departure from Egypt (cf. Exod 12:7–12). The giving of thanks Paul mentions (11:24) was likely one of the traditional prayers that accompanied the Passover meal.

Read from this perspective, when Jesus says, “This is my body which is for you,” he means something like this: eating the unleavened Passover bread helped us remember and celebrate our hasty departure from Egypt when God delivered us from slavery, but I am instituting a new feast that replaces the old one; in this new feast the broken bread is to help you remember and celebrate my broken body by which God delivers you from slavery to sin. Thus when Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11:24), he means for his disciples to remember his death on their behalf. Further supporting this view is Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 11:26, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” The bread is a symbol of the broken body of Jesus. He who eats the bread does so to remember the death of Jesus in his place. He who eats the bread proclaims that death to others.

Paul presents Jesus taking up what commemorated the exodus from Egypt and turning it into a commemoration of his death on behalf of his people: “Do this in remembrance of me” (11:24). No longer would the people of God celebrate the Passover to remember the exodus. They would now celebrate the Lord’s Supper to remember the cross, where the exodus type was fulfilled.

Just as Old Testament Israel was instructed to celebrate the Passover to commemorate the exodus from Egypt, Jesus instructed his followers to “do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11:24). Just as the exodus from Egypt was accompanied by Yahweh’s initiation of the Mosaic covenant with his people at Sinai, the new exodus Jesus accomplished was accompanied by the initiation of the new covenant, as can be seen from what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:25, “In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” The cup, of course, is not literally the covenant (nor does the cup somehow become the covenant). Rather, the fruit of the vine in the cup symbolized the blood of Jesus shed on the cross: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (11:25). Just as the old covenant was inaugurated with blood (e.g., Exod 24:8), Jesus announced that the new covenant in his own blood would be inaugurated by his death on the cross (cf. Heb 9:11–28). Those who quaff the cup relish the fellowship of new covenant anticipation of the return of Christ and the consummation of his kingdom (Luke 22:18).

In his comments on the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians, Paul teaches that the Supper reflects the unity of believers with Christ and one another, demanding their separation from idolatry (1 Cor 10:14–22), destroying socio-economic dividers (11:17–22), rehearsing the self-giving redemptive sacrifice of Christ (11:23–26), and thereby urging believers to follow Christ in laying down their lives for others (1 Cor 11:27–34).

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