Its Purpose and Significance

by Al Maxey

Although much can be said about the history and development of the Lord's Supper over the centuries since its establishment, and although many questions are raised as to form, observance, ritual, tradition, etc., the most important thing to understand with regard to the Lord's Supper is its purpose and significance. If the event is deprived of its true meaning it becomes little more than a hollow, pointless ritual kept alive merely by tradition.

It should also be pointed out that the Lord's Supper has a variety of purposes. It is multi-faceted and impacts every area of our Christian experience. "Representing the central action of Christianity it may radiate in the full circle of Christian experience. It may be gloriously joyful at a time of victory as worshippers give thanks for what God's sacrifice has achieved. It may be heavily sorrowful as in 'affliction of soul' saints find themselves guilty of sin and realize anew that this is what brought Jesus to the cross. It may be solemnly dedicatory as disciples find some new task for the Lord that is stretching and testing their faith, skill, and resources. The Lord's Supper should not be fenced off in a corner and separated from everything else that the church is interested in and doing. Rather, the Lord's Supper should be a part of all that is done" (Ted H. Waller, Worship That Leads Men Upward, p. 54).

It is also important that with an understanding of the purpose and significance of the Lord's Supper comes the putting of these understandings into action. The Lord's Supper is not a passive memorial, but rather an event that calls Christians to action! "To observe the rite of communion without living the purposes which this rite celebrates cannot avoid making our observance of the rite a pretense. Communing with Christ on Sunday cannot avoid giving the appearance to our young people of being a meaningless ritual if there has been no sharing with the cause of Christ during the week" (Waller, p. 45).

Jesus has always linked understanding with action. "Therefore everyone who hears (with understanding -- the Greek word akouo used with the Accusative Case) these words of Mine, and acts upon them, may be compared to a wise man....." (Matthew 7:24). Before we can act with wisdom we must first understand. Therefore, consider the following seven major purposes of the Lord's Supper as revealed in the sacred Scriptures:

#1 -- It is a Memorial of Christ Jesus

A "memorial" is "anything meant to help people remember some person or event" (Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language). God has given many memorials to His people throughout the ages to help them remember significant events and people in their history. The rainbow and Passover are just two such memorials. So also is the Lord's Supper, which was instituted during a Passover meal.

After instituting the Lord's Supper, Jesus told His disciples, "Do this in remembrance of Me" (Luke 22:19; I Corinthians 11:24-25). This memorial should ever keep alive in our hearts and minds what Jesus Christ has done, and continues to do, for each of us! It is an act of remembrance that continually keeps before us both who He was and what He did, and makes us appreciate anew our relationship with Him.

Barclay writes that the greatest significance of this time of remembering is that "the memory turns into an experience and an encounter." In a very real sense we encounter our Lord face to face in this memorial; a personal experience with our Lord and His sacrifice that should "end in renewed dedication." "No such experience can end in anything other than a renewed pledge to the One whom we have encountered" (William Barclay, The Lord's Supper, p. 112-113).

#2 -- It is an Occasion of Thanksgiving

The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word eucharisteo, which means, "to give thanks." On the night that our Lord established the Lord's Supper, Scripture says that He "gave thanks" before distributing the elements (Matthew 26:26-27; Mark 14:22-23; Luke 22:17-19; I Corinthians 11:24).

IGNATIUS (died about 110 A.D.), in writing about the Lord's Supper, says, "Seek, then, to come together more frequently to give thanks and glory to God" (Epistle to the Ephesians 13:1). The earliest recorded Eucharistic prayers (recorded in the Didache) are almost entirely prayers of thanksgiving. Thus, the Lord's Supper should be a time when we each give thanks to God and to Christ for the love and sacrifice that made our redemption possible. This is a memorial feast in which our expressions of heartfelt thanksgiving are very much appropriate, and which thus give glory to our Savior.

#3 -- It is a Public Proclamation

"For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes" (I Corinthians 11:26). The Lord's Supper is an opportunity to teach: Ourselves, our children, and those outside the faith who are seeking for truth. Jesus said that the cup represented His "blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:28). By partaking of the elements, we not only remind ourselves of His death, but also the significance of His death.....and in the process of reminding ourselves we also are proclaiming it (through our observance) to others.

It is also a proclamation of a NEW covenant or testament (Matthew 26:28; I Corinthians 11:25). In partaking of the Lord's Supper we declare to those around us that in Christ the OLD covenant has been displaced by a NEW covenant (see Colossians 2:13f). "He takes away the first in order to establish the second" (Hebrews 10:9). "So as the Lord's Supper is observed, it is a proclamation to the world that Jesus through His death fulfilled and took out of the way the Old Testament, sealed the New Testament with His blood and that is the one now in force" (A.G. Hobbs, The Lord's Supper: A Proclamation, p. 12). "It is the Word proclaimed in dramatic action" (Barclay, p. 110).

#4 -- It is an Expression of Confident Expectation

"For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes" (I Corinthians 11:26). In the gospel records Jesus says that He will not drink again of the cup until He "drinks it new with you in My Father's kingdom" (Matthew 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:16, 18), which most scholars feel refers to the end of time when He will sit down with His disciples at the great banquet in Heaven (Isaiah 25:6; Matthew 8:11; Luke 22:29-30; Revelation 19:9).

Christians are a people with a glorious future -- a future in Heaven! In the Lord's Supper we proclaim His death until He comes, which says that He is alive and He intends to return for His people! "Here in ringing tones there is expressed the eschatological hope of the Christian. In the Lord's Supper we at one and the same time remember the past sacrifice of our Lord and affirm our certainty of His coming triumph. There is nothing in the Christian worship which so looks to the past, the present, and the future, as the Lord's Supper does" (William Barclay, p. 110).

#5 -- It is a Time of Self-Examination

Paul tells the brethren in Corinth that many of them are spiritually ill (I Corinthians 11:30) because they have behaved in an unChristlike manner toward one another. It had become so bad that even though they partook of the elements of the Lord's Supper, it was not truly the Lord's Supper they were eating (I Corinthians 11:20). They were "coming together not for the better but for the worse" (I Corinthians 11:17), and Paul warns them: "Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord" (I Corinthians 11:27). "For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly" (I Corinthians 11:29).

In light of the numerous abuses that were occurring, Paul says, "But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (I Corinthians 11:28). "If we judged ourselves rightly, we should not be judged" (I Corinthians 11:31). When we examine ourselves in light of Christ and His teachings, and when we discover sin in our lives, we must make the effort to rid ourselves of this. During the Passover all the leaven had to be cleaned out of the house. Now, "Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (I Corinthians 5:7-8).

#6 -- It is a Time of Sharing With Christ

"Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?" (I Corinthians 10:16). Some translations have participation (NIV, RSV), or communion (KJV, NKJV, ASV, Lamsa), or fellowship (Berkeley Version), but most translations use "sharing" here. This is the Greek word koinonia, which means "association, fellowship, close relationship; the common possession or enjoyment of something; a sign or proof of brotherly unity" (Arndt & Gengrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 438-439).

By partaking of the elements you enter into a close relationship with the One the elements represent.....i.e.: Jesus Christ. In keeping with this thought, Paul warns the Corinthian brethren (I Corinthians 10:20) that in offering sacrifices to idols one becomes associated with demons. "You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons" (I Corinthians 10:21). There is a very real sense in which the Lord's Supper is a visible sign of our relationship and fellowship with Jesus Christ.

When one "suffers as a Christian" and is "reviled for the name of Christ," then "you share the sufferings of Christ" (I Peter 4:12-16). Through baptism we are "united with Him in the likeness of" His death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:1-11). In the same way, when we partake of the elements of the Lord's Supper we become sharers in His body and blood (His sacrifice on the cross). What most commentators believe this means is that we share or participate in the benefits that He confers through that sacrifice, of which these elements are symbolic. Just as we receive benefits from His death, burial, and resurrection through baptism.....just as we share His sufferings when suffering for His do we participate spiritually in His sacrifice through the observance of the Lord's Supper.

#7 -- It is a Demonstration of Unity

On the night of our Lord's betrayal and arrest He prayed that His people might be united (John 17). He suffered and died on the cross to break down the barriers of division, and put to death enmity and strife, to bring peace, and to reconcile all men "in one body to God through the cross" (Ephesians 2:13-18). Jesus died in order to create a unified body of believers!! Therefore, one of the major messages of the Lord's Supper, in which we remember that sacrifice, must be: UNITY!!

The Didache (which was written somewhere between 70 - 110 A.D.) points out that in the 1st century the idea of unity was well understood to be a vital part of the Lord's Supper. Notice a couple of the prayers that were given at the Lord's Table:

"As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains,
but was brought together and became one,
so let Thy church be gathered together
from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom,
for Thine is the glory and the power
through Jesus Christ forever."
Didache 9:4

"Remember, Lord, Thy church, to deliver it from all evil
and to make it perfect in Thy love,
and gather it together in its holiness from the four winds
to Thy kingdom which Thou hast prepared for it.
For Thine is the power and the glory forever."
Didache 10:5

The apostle Paul pointed out the significance of unity as it relates to the Lord's Supper in the following statement: "Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread" (I Corinthians 10:17). Even vs. 16 (which was examined under #6 above), which speaks of the Lord's Supper being a "sharing in the body of Christ," can have the additional meaning of fellowship with one another. Although our fellowship is first of all with God through Christ Jesus, nevertheless, as a result of that primary fellowship, we additionally have fellowship with one another! "What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ" (I John 1:3). In I Corinthians 1:9 Paul points out that we are "called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord." He then immediately stresses that as a result of the primary fellowship we must be united and not divided!

"The Lord's Supper, then, is understood to witness to the fact that Christians belong to a special family which includes the Son and the Father (cf. I John 1:3) and is marked by unity and love. It is a communion which required the death of Christ to create, and which is so close that it is as though believers were one body" (Zondervan's Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 3, p. 985). "The Lord's Supper was designed to draw us together. It reminds us of the one thing we all have in common: A Savior who prayed for the unity of His followers on the night before His agonizing death. He died that men might be united as one body" (Dick Blackford, The Lord's Supper, p. 64).

The fact that Paul even discusses the Lord's Supper at all in the letter to the Corinthians is due to their lack of understanding on this one point of unity. The Christians in Corinth were divided; they were fighting with one another; there was strife, malice, envy, backbiting, hatred. They had become a group that was fragmented because they had focused on issues and personalities and one another's faults and failings, instead of focusing on Christ! "Therefore (as a result of this divisiveness) when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper" (I Corinthians 11:20). They were indeed consuming the elements, but they were not communing; they were not partaking of the Lord's special feast---that can only be done when there is unity and sweet fellowship between brethren!!

"This ought to have been a fraternal gathering, a bond of unity," but the conduct of some individuals "led to divisions. Groups were formed, and the general spirit of fraternity was broken" (Hasting's Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, Vol. 3, p. 374). Instead of symbolizing the oneness of the body of which each person was a vital part, the Lord's Supper was an occasion for manifesting just the opposite. Thus, their sin of eating and drinking "in an unworthy manner" (I Corinthians 11:27), and "not discerning the body rightly" (I Corinthians 11:29), "may have meant for Paul: Partaking of the Lord's Supper while holding each other in contempt and neither party striving to live up to the unity which took the Lord's death to bring about; and failing to understand the oneness of the body of which each person was a part" (Zondervan's Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 3, p. 985).

"What Paul condemns here is the very fact that the Corinthian Christians, when they come to the Lord's Supper, have divisions and factions through which all true fellowship is destroyed. It is in fact these divisions and factions which have moved Paul to write about the Lord's Supper at all. The further proof is that in the next chapter Paul goes on to write the famous passage about the Church as the body of Christ and the essential place of unity in it. Paul's whole point is that to dare to partake of the Lord's Supper while there are factions and sections and divisions in the Church, to dare to partake of the Lord's Supper unaware or forgetful of the fact that we are a body and the body of Christ, is nothing less than a blasphemy. And this leaves us facing the terrifying fact that it may well be that so long as the Church is divided at the table of her Lord every celebration of the Lord's Supper is a crime against her Lord!" (William Barclay, The Lord's Supper, p. 109).

"It seems impossible for one to eat the Lord's Supper in the right attitude and at the same time put the wheels in motion to split the church" (Olin Kern, The Lord's Supper, p. 8). "How can one proclaim His death 'till He comes (by eating the Supper) while at the same time encouraging religious division contrary to the unity for which our Savior prayed and died?! This is why the meaning of the Supper is contradicted when eaten in disunity! No church at any time or any place will ever be ripped apart by division when each member comes to fully appreciate the divine love and unity which our Savior intended in instituting this unity feast" (Dick Blackford, p. 64-65).

"Our Lord has given us a weekly lesson on UNITY when we, as one body, partake of the one bread. Unity is not limited to a few external acts that brethren may agree on! For if we do not see in our Lord's reminder (the Supper) the very epitome of love, then we are engaged in mockery. A couple may have a marriage license, ride in the same car, and eat at the same table. But if they continually fuss and fight, there is no unity ("You come together not for the better, but for the worse" -- I Corinthians 11:17). And if brethren meet in the same building and go through the proper motions of a worship service and then turn on each other and 'bite and devour one another,' do they really appreciate what our Lord sought to accomplish through His death (of which the Supper is a reminder)? Our candle becomes hidden under a bushel. The world will not even suspect that we are His disciples ("By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" -- John 13:35). There must be true care and concern and love for each other! Think of this the next time you gather around the Lord's Table!!!" (Dick Blackford, p. 68).

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