Statement of Belief
The Lord’s Supper was instituted by Christ on the evening of His arrest:
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it; and he gave to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”
And he took a cup, and gave thanks, and gave to them, saying, “Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is shed for many unto remission of sins. But I say unto you, I shall not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:26-29).
He desired that it should be done to commemorate His death:
For I received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, how that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was betrayed took bread; and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said,
“This is my body, which is for you: this do in remembrance of me.”
In like manner also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood: this do, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye proclaim the Lord’s death till he come (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
The Lord’s Supper should be observed weekly:
And upon the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul discoursed with them, intending to depart on the morrow; and prolonged his speech until midnight (Acts 20:7).
Sections on this Page
- The Need for the Lord’s Supper
- The Nature of the Emblems
- The Bread and the Fruit of the Vine
- When Should the Lord’s Supper Be Observed?
- The Number of Loaves and Cups
The Need for the Lord’s Supper
There are some denominations who teach that the Lord’s Supper is not a physical event, but is a “spiritual” communion, not requiring actual bread and fruit of the vine. Is the Lord’s Supper in the Scriptures a physical act or a uniquely “spiritual” one?
We can see that physical bread and fruit of the vine was taken by Christ in Luke 22:19-20:
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.”
And the cup in like manner after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, even that which is poured out for you.”
Paul confirms that the Lord revealed the same to him in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, and even speaks in detail concerning the nature of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29:
Wherefore whosoever shall eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself, and so let him eat of the bread, and drink of the cup. For he that eateth and drinketh, eateth and drinketh judgment unto himself, if he discern not the body.
If the Lord’s Supper does not involve physical elements, why does Paul speak of “eat[ing] the bread” and “drink[ing] the cup” of the Lord? If the Lord’s Supper is only a spiritual communion, why does Luke speak of the original Lord’s Supper in the context of the Passover meal? The Scriptures indicate clearly that the Lord’s Supper is most certainly a physical act that Christians ought to perform.
The Nature of the Emblems
There are many denominations that teach that the bread and the fruit of the vine are literally the body and blood of Christ. There are two streams of thought concerning how this comes about: transubstantiation and consubstantiation.
Transubstantiation is taught by some denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church and many in the Eastern Orthodox Church; it holds that the bread and the fruit of the vine literally turn into the body and blood of Christ after it is blessed and a Christian partakes of it. The metaphors used in the Gospels and by Paul in 1 Corinthians are essentially literalized. What do the Scriptures say concerning this?
The New Testament–in fact, the whole Word of God–teaches that the eating of literal blood is an abomination to God. This has been so from the beginning: when God first commanded man to eat the flesh of animals, after the flood in Genesis 9, the only stipulation He made was in verse 4:
“But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.”
This teaching is carried down through the Law of Moses (cf. Leviticus 3:17) and then in the covenant under Christ, when the Apostles proclaim it as part of their edict in Acts 15:29:
That ye abstain from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication; from which if ye keep yourselves, it shall be well with you. Fare ye well.
Therefore, we have seen that from the beginning and even through the time of the Apostles, it has been forbidden for man to drink of blood. If the early Christians understood the fruit of the vine to literally become the blood of Christ, why do we see no exception in the prohibition in Acts 15:29? All evidence, therefore, demonstrates that the emblems do not actually become flesh and blood.
Argument: Jesus says explicitly that we must eat His body and drink His blood if we want eternal life. Therefore, the elements of the Eucharist are literally His body and blood.
Answer: Jesus indeed says such things in John 6:53-57:
Jesus therefore said unto them, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, ye have not life in yourselves. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood abideth in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father; so he that eateth me, he also shall live because of me.”
This is said to the Jews long before Jesus establishes the Lord’s Supper, and yet He says that they must (presently) “eat His flesh” and “drink His blood”. Since He is physically alive at this moment, how can it be possible for them to eat His literal flesh and drink His literal blood?
These questions are easily understood when we consider how Jesus often teaches in the Gospel of John: He constantly uses physical elements to refer to spiritual things, and the people constantly do not understand. Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that she should have requested from Him “living water” (John 4:10), and she continues to think that He refers to physical water (John 4:11, 15). Yet we see the following in John 4:13-14:
Jesus answered and said unto her, “Every one that drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up unto eternal life.”
We understand that the water of which Jesus speaks is the Gospel, the Word of life that leads to salvation. There is further evidence of the figurative use of this type of language earlier in John 6: the people seek physical bread, and Jesus explains their spiritual needs using the same image in John 6:33-35:
“For the bread of God is that which cometh down out of heaven, and giveth life unto the world.”
They said therefore unto him, “Lord, evermore give us this bread.”
Jesus said unto them, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall not hunger, and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.”
Would we say from this passage that Jesus is speaking any more “literally” than in John 4? By no means; from Jesus, the Word of God (John 1:1, 14), comes the Gospel and eternal life, and such is the “bread” and “water” of which Jesus speaks. Since Jesus teaches in this way in John 4:10-14 and 6:33-35, why should we expect anything different in John 6:53-57? The image of eating His flesh and drinking His blood is certainly visceral, but it communicates the essential spiritual message: those who seek eternal life must partake of the salvation that comes forth from Jesus. This is certainly symbolized in the Lord’s Supper, but it is an abuse of these passages to deduce that the Lord’s Supper is literally the body and blood of Jesus.
Others, including some Lutherans and Eastern Orthodox, accept the consubstantiation view. They affirm that the bread is the literal body of Christ and that the fruit of the vine is the literal blood of Christ, but yet the emblems physically remain as bread and as the fruit of the vine. This approach seems to take a “middle way” that is rather inconsistent: either the bread and fruit of the vine are literally Christ’s body and blood or they figuratively/symbolically are His body and blood. This doctrine seems to be an attempt to avoid any negative implications of a symbolic association between bread/fruit of the vine as body/blood while not going so far as the “Real Presence” belief of transubstantiation. Since it is either literal or symbolic, there is no room for the position of consubstantiation!
Furthermore, when we consider the Gospel accounts of the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-30, Mark 14:22-26, Luke 22:15-20), we see that it makes the most sense for Jesus to be speaking in figurative language; after all, how can He determine that bread is His body when He is physically present? How can the fruit of the vine be determined as His blood while the blood of Christ still runs through His veins? The bread and the fruit of the vine were to represent for the disciples His body and blood, and they are to represent the same for His disciples today. Representation and actualization, however, remain entirely different matters, and there is no good reason to accept the idea of the actualized body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.
The Bread and the Fruit of the Vine
Many denominations teach that the Lord’s Supper can be made up of leavened bread and wine. Is this what the New Testament shows?
We must remember that the Lord’s Supper was instituted during the Passover. When God commanded the Passover, He mandated that the bread be unleavened in Exodus 13:3:
And Moses said unto the people, “Remember this day, in which ye came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the LORD brought you out from this place: there shall no leavened bread be eaten.”
Thus, the bread that Jesus broke was unleavened, since it was eaten during the Passover. Concerning the “fruit of the vine,” the text itself shows what should be used: the fruit of the vine! In the Greek, the phrase used is genematos tes ampelou; this refers to grape juice, not wine (which is more consistently rendered in Greek by oinos). While some may deny that the ancients had the ability to stop fermentation, ancient literature does attest to the consumption of unfermented grape juice. Therefore, there is no reason to deny the New Testament example for the Lord’s Supper being unleavened bread and grape juice.
When Should the Lord’s Supper Be Observed?
Part A: Weekly
Many denominations teach that the Lord’s Supper ought to be observed four times yearly, or maybe monthly; some even believe it ought to be observed daily. How often do we see the Christians in the New Testament observing the Lord’s Supper?
We see the example of Paul and other Christians in Acts 20:6-7:
And we sailed away from Philippi after the days of unleavened bread, and came unto them to Troas in five days; where we tarried seven days. And upon the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul discoursed with them, intending to depart on the morrow; and prolonged his speech until midnight.
Let us consider what we can learn from this text:
1. Paul stayed for seven days; of those seven, the Christians gathered on the first day of the week. The stay of seven days is significant, for we read in verse 16 that Paul was hastening to return to Jerusalem.
2. This particular first day of the week does not seem to have any special connotations; it is a first day of the week that comes between the Passover and Pentecost (cf. Acts 20:6, 16).
3. Their purpose for gathering was to break bread.
“Breaking bread” is metonymy for an entire meal; while it can refer to a common meal (cf. discussion of Acts 2:46 below), it also can refer to the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 10:16). The purpose of this assembly, as we have seen, was to have this meal. Furthermore, we see that after Paul preaches, he “breaks bread” in Acts 20:11:
And when he was gone up, and had broken the bread, and eaten, and had talked with them a long while, even till break of day, so he departed.
There is no reason to assume that anyone else is eating except for Paul, and that this breaking of bread is not the purposed meal of verse 7. Based on all of this evidence, the best conclusion is that the “breaking of bread” in Acts 20:7 refers to the Lord’s Supper, and not a common meal. Likewise, since there is no evidence that this particular first day of the week had any special meaning, we can deduce that the disciples were in the habit of partaking of the Lord’s Supper on each first day of the week.
Argument: In Acts 2:46, we see the first disciples breaking the bread daily. This validates the need of partaking on a daily basis.
Answer: First, the text:
And day by day, continuing stedfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they did take their food with gladness and singleness of heart.
Context is the best way of deciding whether “breaking bread” refers to the Lord’s Supper or a common meal. In this context, the wording shows that these Christians were not partaking the Lord’s Supper daily, but eating their meals together daily: “breaking bread…, they did take their food…”. The Lord’s Supper is most probably in view in Acts 2:42, where the discussion focuses on more spiritual events.
Argument: Paul establishes that the Lord’s Supper can be partaken at any time based on 1 Corinthians 11:26.
For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye proclaim the Lord’s death till he come (1 Corinthians 11:26).
Paul is not here telling the Corinthians how often to partake; instead, he is telling them what happens when they partake. “As often as” does not determine how often one actually partakes: it simply establishes that whenever the Lord’s Supper is taken, the death of the Lord is proclaimed. We have to look elsewhere to determine how often is “as often as”, and the best evidence comes from Acts 20: they met on the first day of the week, which by all evidence seems to be their normal assembly time (Acts 20:7, cf. 1 Corinthians 16:1-3), and by all accounts they assembled weekly for that purpose. 1 Corinthians 11:26 complements, and does not contradict, the message from Acts 20.
Part B: On the First Day of the Week
In many churches of Christ today, there is some controversy over how often the Lord’s Supper ought to be observed during the first day of the week. There is agreement that it is not a question of when the Lord’s Supper should be taken on Sunday; the question is over whether or not it should be offered more than once during the same day. The arguments on both sides have some merit, so let us present them:
Argument for only one observance: The Christians of the New Testament gathered for the purpose of partaking of the Lord’s Supper as we see in Acts 20:7. They were to do this “together,” signifying unity. If most partake in the morning and merely sit and observe in the evening, the unity is lost. Nowhere in the Scriptures is there any evidence for a “second serving”.
Argument for more than one observance: Yes, the Christians met to partake on the first day of the week; however, if one person does not partake, the unity that is sought is not existent. The Lord’s Supper is manifestly an individual action done collectively, else why is there a command to “prove” oneself before partaking (1 Corinthians 11:27-28)? One could, conceivably, judge oneself not worthy to partake at a given assembly. Where do we see in the New Testament any regulations concerning what percentage of members is necessary to achieve “unity?” Is there a quorum for observance in the New Testament? If the focus is on the unity, where do we see how “unified” the church must be? If all meditate on spiritual things while some partake in the morning and while some partake in the evening, the unity is still in mind, especially when it cannot be in body. This is further established in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, where Paul speaks in the first person plural (“we”) when he is in Ephesus (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:8) and they are in Corinth. How can they partake of the “one bread” when they are in different places unless the communion is spiritual? If one assembles with the purpose to partake of the Lord’s Supper, who are we to hinder such a one (Acts 20:7)?
It is up to each individual Christian to weigh out the evidence on either side and to be convinced of what he ought to do (Hebrews 11:1, Romans 14:23).
The Number of Loaves and Cups
There are some groups that believe that Christians only have authority to partake of the Lord’s Supper with one loaf and one cup. The Scriptures certainly allow this belief; there is no sin in partaking with only one loaf and one cup. Unfortunately, however, many of these groups wish to bind this idea, and condemn any who would partake of the Lord’s Supper with more than one loaf and using multiple cups as sinning. What do the Scriptures say about this?
All of the Scriptures concerning the bread and the cup in the Lord’s Supper can be viewed in a literal or a metaphorical way. As good Bible students, we realize that we should interpret literally unless there is a compelling reason otherwise. In terms of the elements of the Lord’s Supper, the main reason why “the bread” and “the cup” are to be seen as accommodative or metonymical is based in the example of Acts 2:41-47:
They then that received his word were baptized: and there were added unto them in that day about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as any man had need. And day by day, continuing stedfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they did take their food with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to them day by day those that were being saved.
This shows that the first Christians did all things together, and thus they would have partaken of the Lord’s Supper together. How can one loaf and one cup be used to feed over 3,000 people?
Argument: You are making an assertion the text never makes.
Answer: This text does show that the first Christians used more than one loaf of the unleavened bread and one cup of the fruit of the vine by necessary inference on account of the fact that they devoted themselves to the “breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42) used in Acts 20:7 to denote the Lord’s Supper, and they did all things together (Acts 2:44). Therefore, if they did all things together, then they would have all broken bread together. If they all partook of the Lord’s Supper together, how would they all have partaken of one loaf and one cup? This idea remains inconsistent with the text.
Argument: The first Christians would have met in smaller groups in households on the Lord’s Day.
Answer: This is an assertion not borne out by the text. In three places, once in verse 44 (“all those who had believed were together”) and twice in verse 46 (“continuing with one mind in the temple…taking their meals together”), Luke demonstrates the togetherness of the first Christians. To say that the first Christians did not partake of the Lord’s Supper together is to brand Luke a liar and make the Scriptures void; for if they partook in separate houses, how could Luke say that all those who believed were together?
Again, I want to reiterate that it is not wrong to partake of the Lord’s Supper with one loaf and one cup, but to bind such practice when the Scriptures allow for the liberty is sin. However, those who know that we are allowed to partake with multiple cups must not offend those who do not see this liberty, and we must bend not to cause offense if the need arises (Romans 14:13-23).
Argument: The Scriptures show that Jesus used one loaf and one cup. Thus, we must also.
Answer: The Scriptures shed some doubt on this idea in Luke 22:17:
And he received a cup, and when he had given thanks, He said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves.”
The cup was divided before the Lord’s Supper was instituted. The Gospels then show that the cup was “divided”; therefore, Christ and His disciples may have used more than one cup. Furthermore, the usage of the term “cup” is most certainly metaphorical, being metonymy, as shown below.
Argument: As seen in 1 Corinthians 11:23-34 and in other places, the “cup” is used. Where is their authority for more than one cup when the text says “cup?”
Answer: Let us consider how the cup is described in 1 Corinthians 11:25-26:
In like manner also the cup, after supper, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood: this do, as often as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye proclaim the Lord’s death till he come.
The term “cup” cannot be used literally here because no one literally drinks a cup. One drinks the contents of the cup; the cup is used to describe its contents, a commonly used figure known as metonymy. Would any consider the new covenant in the blood of Christ to be a literal cup? If so, we ought to go and seek the Holy Grail! Most recognize, however, that the blood of Christ represents this new covenant, and thus it is the contents of the cup, not the cup itself, which signifies the new covenant. Therefore, the nature of the container is of no relevance to the Lord’s Supper; only its contents matter.
Argument: 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 show the need for one loaf and one cup: unity amongst Christians.
Answer: The text in question:
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a communion of the body of Christ? Seeing that we, who are many, are one bread, one body: for we are all partake of the one bread.
Nowhere in this text is the bread limited to one loaf, nor is the fruit of the vine limited to one cup. As we have seen above, Paul is in Ephesus and the Corinthians in Corinth, and yet Paul includes himself in the discussion: how can it be that they all share one loaf and one cup when they are separated by the Aegean Sea? We all partake of the “one bread”, just not the same loaf; the “one cup”, just not in the same cup. The emblems themselves, not the containers, are the thrust of the Lord’s Supper, and the fact that we partake of the same type of emblems across the world is the basis of the communion in Christ.
We can see, therefore, that there is no Scriptural basis by which to bind one loaf and one cup for the Lord’s Supper. God has established the number of loaves and cups as a liberty for His disciples.
- Dickinson/Longhenry Debate on the Communion
- Acts of the Assembly: The Lord’s Supper
- A Response to “The Bread in the Lord’s Supper”
- Acts of the Assembly: The Lord’s Supper