We have spent some time explaining what the Lord’s Supper is not. It is now time to show what it is. It is always good to know why we believe what we do as well as why we don’t believe certain things. Sometimes we can best understand certain biblical truths when we see them compared to other things. What then is the Lord’s Supper?
A sacrament is something Christ commanded the church to do. It is not up to us to decide or create. He commanded His disciples to do this in remembrance of Him. In addition, the early Christians celebrated the Lord’s Supper in obedience to Him. Though it was not done well, the church in Corinth observed it and fell into sin.
We have already seen that the Lord commanded us to do this. He also commanded us to baptize. We also have examples of this in the church. The sacrament of baptism is once again found in the Corinthian church (as well as in other places). Like the Lord’s Supper, baptism also became a “problem” for that church. They were quarreling among themselves about who baptized whom (1 Cor. 1:10-17).
There are only two sacraments. Some have said that we are to observe foot washing (Jn. 13:1ff.). The New Testament church never practiced it as a religious observance. Clearly the passage is teaching us to be servants (Jn. 14:14). Marriage, priesthood, etc. have also been called sacraments by some. But the New Testament does not command such things. Christ gave only two sacraments to the church and they are the Lord’s Supper and Baptism.
Theologians call the Lord’s Supper a sacrament, which means that it is something Christ commanded us to do and by which the benefits of the new covenant are represented and applied to believers (SC #92). This sacrament must be something “physical” (they used to say “sensible,” that is, it can be seen and touched by our “senses”) that represents the benefits Christ assigns to it and can convey what it represents by means of the Holy Spirit.
Something you can see and touch
Since sacraments have to be commanded by Christ, does that mean everything Christ commanded is a sacrament? No. A sacrament is also a physical thing that points to something spiritual. It is like a sign but something more than a sign. It is something you can see and touch. The Lord’s Supper points to Christ’s death, His body, blood, atonement, etc. If they don’t point, then they cannot be sacraments.
Baptism points to something beyond itself as well. Water represents our union with Christ, cleansing, benefits of being connected to Christ, etc. The Lord’s Supper represents Christ’s body and blood: “Take, eat; this is my body…Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt. 26:26ff.)
So sacraments point to something spiritual and beneficial. They have no power in themselves. It is like (again it is more than this) a simple sign that points you to something. For example, an “exit” sign tells you where to go so that you can get out of the building but it is neither the door nor the exit. It is only a sign pointing to the real exit.
Wouldn’t it be silly if people ran to the sign, read it, and tried to enter into the sign? That would be ridiculous. It would also be a useless sign if it cannot be read. If you cannot understand the sign, then it will not help you. For that reason, our Lord gives us the sign and tells us what it represents.
A Means of Grace
The “special” thing about sacraments is that they are a means of grace. We said it is like a sign but it is also something much more. It can convey what it represents. This means the Lord’s Supper can give the benefits of Christ to each believer who looks in faith to Him.
For example, a car is a means of taking us to the place we wish to go. We often say that a car is a “means of transportation.” It can actually take us to our desired place. The Lord’s Supper is a means of giving us grace.
The Lord’s Supper does not only point to what our Lord has done for us, it can also give us those things. You may wonder how that can be? How does eating bread and drinking wine give anything to our souls? That has been a question over which some of the greatest minds have debated. Sad to say, it should not have been that difficult to answer.
The simple answer (which we will unpack a bit more in our next lesson) is that the Lord’s Supper can affect communion with Christ. Paul teaches us that taking the cup is a means of “participating in the blood of Christ.” The bread that we break and eat is a means of “participating in the body of Christ.” (1 Cor. 10:16) The word “participating” is the word from which we also get “fellowship” or “communion.”
So, when we take the Lord’s Supper, Christ conveys to us by His Spirit His presence and we actually get to fellowship with Him at the Supper. In that way, it is a means of grace, a way of giving to us Christ’s person and benefits. It is a means of fellowshipping with Christ.
For the church
Since the Lord’s Supper is for Christians, it is only for the church. It is not for the world or for unbelievers. It is not something that is automatically given to every person that comes to the church. It is only for the church. Remember, our Lord said, “Drink of it, all of you.” (Mt. 26:27) All of whom? The answer is Jesus’ disciples. Jesus was addressing this to His disciples. He was not saying, “Drink it, it is for everybody.” He did not offer it to the Pharisees or to those who were not connected to Him.
Having said that, we also recognize that not all church members who receive the Lord’s Supper are genuine believers. As a result, unbelieving church members do not receive grace through the Supper. They in fact eat and drink to their own harm.
Represents what Christ did
As the Lord’s Supper is a sign, so it is a sign of what Christ did for us. Regarding the cup, Jesus says, “…for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt. 16:28) He is saying that the cup with the wine represented his sacrificial death. But the elements also represent Christ Himself. The bread represents his body as the wine in the cup represents his blood.
It does not represent the strength of my faith or the goodness of my heart. Too often, as we have mentioned before, we end up focusing only on ourselves. Because the Supper represents Christ, we by faith receive Christ at the Supper. If we focus on ourselves (and only on ourselves), then we will miss Jesus at the Supper. It is like eating with our heads down oblivious to the good company at the table. People have been known to do that, and similar things can happen at the Lord’s table. The Supper is about Him and we need Him at the Supper.
Represents our relationship to each other
The Supper also represents our relationship to one another. The Corinthians failed to recognize that. They were divided and looking out for their own interests in 1 Cor. 11. Paul says, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Cor. 10:17)
What does that mean? There is only one body of Christ. Christ does not have two or three bodies. All of us, Paul is saying, partake of that one body. We participate with one another since we participate with Christ. When we do that, we are, in effect, joined to one another because we have the same body inside of us. That is the imagery. The great John Calvin said this: “Now, since he [i.e. Jesus] has only one body, of which he makes us all partakers, it is necessary that all of us also be made one body by such participation. The bread shown in the Sacrament represents this unity.” (Institutes, 4.17.38)
The Lord’s Supper therefore points to the significance of our relationship to one another because of our relationship to Christ. One cannot have Jesus without His people and His people without Jesus. That is why we require that a person be a member of Christ’s church. Those who truly believe in Jesus and receive Him will receive His people. If the person won’t receive and join His people, then the person does not have Christ.
1. What is a sacrament?
2. What do we mean when we say that something is a means of grace?
3. What do we receive at the Supper? Is it just bread and wine?
4. Why can’t unbelievers or non-members of a church partake of the Lord’s Supper?
5. How does the Lord’s Supper represent our relationship with one another?