At this week’s worship services of Mercy Hill Church, we will be observing one of the most unique and important practices of the church—communion (or the Lord’s Supper). Most of us know Jesus started it and commanded us to do it. We probably have some idea that it connects to his dying on the cross and thus, to the gospel. But what exactly is the purpose of this practice, and why did Jesus tell us to do it?
There’s a major passage of Scripture that deals with the Lord’s Supper that I want to explore. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 that the Corinthian church is not doing a good job in its observance of the Lord’s Supper. In doing so, he gives probably the clearest single explanation in Scripture of the meanings and purposes of communion.
“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 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.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor. 11:23-26)
Using this passage as a base, we can start to pull out a few points on what communion is and why it is so important.
1. Communion Is a Memorial
Twice, Jesus is quoted as saying, “Do this in remembrance of me,” (vv. 24-25). Each of the elements is to be taken specifically as an act of remembering Jesus’ sacrificing himself for us. The bread is meant to bring to mind the damage to his body, and the cup is meant to remind us of his blood being shed. In Scripture, blood is a sign of life, and even today, we use the term “spilling blood” to refer to killing. The blood of sacrifices would be used in the making of covenants. Now the “new covenant” (v. 25) of salvation in Christ has been instituted by the death of Jesus.
In the eating of the bread (body) and the drinking of the cup (blood), we are remembering that Jesus has given His all to save us, suffering and dying to buy our way to eternal life. But it is not enough for us to remember what Jesus has done for us. We are called to share it. That brings us to our second truth.
2. Communion Is a Proclamation
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (v. 26).
When we come together for communion, as we remember Jesus’ death, we proclaim the truth of the gospel to one another in the taking of the bread and the juice. But more than that, we proclaim it to those who have not yet trusted Christ and observe the act of us taking the Lord’s Supper. Communion is meant to preach (“proclaim”) the gospel to them as well, to draw them to place their trust in the death of the risen Savior. This is one reason we restrict the taking of the Lord’s Supper only to believers, lest anyone think it is merely the act of eating that saves. In fact, eating and drinking the communion elements without faith is a dangerous thing indeed, as our next point demonstrates.
3. Communion Is a Reflection
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor. 11:27-32).
In taking communion, we are to examine our standing with Christ and whether or not we are worthy to take it, lest we be found “guilty.” That means, before taking the elements, one must be certain he or she is in right relationship with Christ, trusting in him for salvation and living a life of obedience to him. Believers should reflect on whether they have any sins that need confessing, so that they will not be subject to discipline by God. It’s such a serious matter, that Paul says some people have even died because they did not examine their own hearts in taking communion!
4. Communion Is Unity
Paul’s major complaint about the way the Corinthians take the Lord’s Supper is that there are “divisions among” them (v. 18). They are not united in one fellowship as the church, but each is only thinking of him or herself. It’s so bad that, “One goes hungry, another gets drunk” (v.21). People are eating and drinking it all for themselves without regard for others. But the Lord’s Supper is meant to identify us as those who are trusting Christ’s sacrificial death, and in so doing, unify us as believers in him. It is for this reason that we call it “communion.” We are taking part in community with Christ and with each other. So, the act of taking communion is done together in the worship service, not privately, and it is done with the mindset of serving one another rather than merely our own needs and desires.
And beyond these four points, of course, communion is something Jesus commanded us to take part in, so we do it.
-Barry Evans (Grace Alive Launch Team Member)