What is the meaning of the time we call communion? The answer I explain from Scripture might challenge some of your assumptions and change your perspective on the time of remembrance. The broader application should also radically affect every area of life for those who share in the benefits of Jesus’ death.
First, consider the fact that some form of Communion has consistently been practiced everywhere by all who claim the title “Christian.”
- Early Christianity
- Roman Catholicism
- Protestant Christianity
Strangely, even in liberal denominations where they deny essential doctrines about Christ (His deity and bodily resurrection), they continue to practice communion. They desire a form of godliness without the true power of it.
Secondly, the meaning of communion has been controversial throughout church history.
- An ordinance – most view it as an ordained practice for the Church
- A Sacrament – some view it as a means of grace (we do not believe this)
- Debate over Christ’s presence – Do the elements become the body and blood when the Catholic priest elevates and blesses them? Is Christ in or with the elements? Or, Are the elements meant to be symbolic of Christ’s body and blood as a memorial to His sacrificial death? (This is the view we hold).
Yet, in our way of understanding the elements, we do not want to talk of them as “just” or “merely” symbols. This is to risk reduction of participation at the table to something less than what Scripture reveals about it.
Deeper reflection on the meaning of the table of the Lord:
Two passages from I Corinthians 10 invite us to consider the profound meaning of gathering at the table:
1) 1 Corinthians 10:16-17: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.”
Here we see that communion is a special time of fellowship between those who share in the benefits of Christ’s death. From this we learn that communion is meant to be a time for believers. It’s a time for them to join in thanksgiving and deep fellowship (κοινωνία) in the blood and body of Christ (κοινωνίαἐστὶντοῦαἵματοςτοῦΧριστοῦ;κοινωνίατοῦσώματοςτοῦΧριστοῦἐστιν)
What is the nature of this participation or fellowship?
It’s more than a physical act of partaking elements together. It’s a spiritual communion of fellowship with the Lord and with His people with whom we are united as one body. It relates to our spiritual unity.
And our union as a body is an act of the Holy Spirit: “For we were all baptized byone Spirit so as to form one body— and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many” (I Corinthians 12:13-14).
A little later in I Corinthians 10, the apostle wrote about the exclusivity of devotion involved when we drink the cup of the Lord and take part in the Lord’s table. We must not come to this time of spiritual communion centered on the death of Jesus with divided allegiance. We do not want to arouse the all-consuming, protective, disciplinary love of God against a divided loyalty in our lives.
2) I Corinthians 10:21-22 “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?”
These verses stand as a witness to the deeper significance to participation in the communion of remembrance at the table of the Lord. While we do not accept a Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation (the elements become the body and blood of Christ sacrificed again), we cannot trivialize the spiritual nature of partaking together. God’s watchful guardianship over the table is itself a powerful reminder of the solemn nature of drinking the cup of the Lord.
Learning from a word of rebuke: (I Corinthians 11:17-34)
In I Corinthians 11, the apostle rebukes the believers for a specific abuse of the their fellowship at the Lord’s table. Unlike most modern gatherings, the Church during New Testament times centered their time of remembrance in a meal of fellowship. Some of the members were brining food to the meal and selfishly indulging in the presence of people who had nothing to eat. From this selfish insensitivity to the needs of others, they transitioned to a time of remembering the most self-giving act of love known to humanity: the death of Jesus for ungodly, unworthy rebels.
Approaching the time of remembrance this way made them “guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” (v. 27; cf. 2:8; rejecting and crucifying Christ, Hebrews 6:6). They disgraced the very meaning of Jesus self-giving love by their calloused insensitivity to those in need.
This is what occasioned the specific call for self-examination (“Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup” (v. 28). We must guard against taking this call for self-examination out of the context of the specific sin that occasioned it. Most application of it today fails to even consider the obvious context surrounding it.
Consider the opening and closing verses:
“So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? (I Corinthians 11:20-22).
“So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment (I Corinthians 11:33-34). This is the sin that occasioned the warning to the church at Corinth.
“Paul’s warnings against profaning the Lord’s Supper and incurring God’s judgment are consistently applied to all the wrong situations. People are made to feel they should abstain if they have not felt close to God recently, or if they have been particularly disobedient, or if they have not achieved a certain level of Christian maturity, no matter how much they are prepared to repent or grow. Instead, pastors should caution their congregations against partaking if they are unwilling to be generous in helping the poor in their midst, or if they remain unreconciled with a fellow-Christian over some interpersonal dispute or squabble…”
“The closest analogy to the Corinthian problem, of course, rests with those who are the most factious. These are the believers who are least qualified to partake of the table. Ironically, these are the persons who when they refuse to change their ways should be most vulnerable to excommunication (Tit. 3:10). Yet today the most factious people in many congregations are also the power brokers, who intimidate or run-off dissenting members rather than being properly disciplined themselves.” (Caig Blomberg, NIV Application Commentary, I Corinthians, pp. 238-239).
But the sin itself is identified in a way that offers broader application. It’s labeled as: “despising the Church of God” (v.22) and partaking in an “unworthy manner” characterized as failing to “discern the body of Christ” (vv. 27-29). These designations are summaries of the primary problem with the Church at Corinth. Their sin (rebuked throughout I Corinthians) was a failure to respect what it meant to be God’s people, the body of Christ. It was found in their divisiveness (1:10-13; 3:1-5); in their failure to deal with blatant sin (5); in taking each other to court (6); etc…
As a matter of rebuke, related to this concern, Paul asked them: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple (3:16-17). He also reminded them of how “God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it (I Corinthians 12:24-26).
It was a sin against the body of the Lord that aroused the disciplinary love of God (“many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep” (v.30)).
“The threat of God’s judgment as a response to inconsiderate behavior among his people is unusual even within the New Testament and is rarely acknowledged as an option when sickness and death occur within the church. Perhaps if we were more open to the possibility that personal or corporate suffering was a response to Christian lovelessness, we would see the link more often. But God is gracious and usually does not respond in a tit-for-tat fashion.”
“The question most believers of most eras tend to ask is “Why does God treat his people this harshly, even if only rarely? Verse 32, of course, provides Paul’s answer in this context: they are being disciplined. But the question itself is misguided. All human beings deserve discipline for all of their sins. What Christians ought instead to ask is “Why aren’t we punished more directly more often?” In so doing, God’s grace—his undeserved favor lavished on his people—becomes greatly magnified.” (Craig Blomberg, p. 236, NIV Application Commentary).
Self-examination leading to self-discipline (in keeping with the loving sacrifice of Jesus) is set out as a means of preservation against coming under God’s discipline.
“But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world” (I Corinthians 11:31-34)
Ethical imperative of Christ’s death:
The warning to the believers in Corinth stands as a powerful reminder to us of the fact that the death of Jesus is an ethical imperative over the behavior of those who share in its benefits. Other examples of the same kind of sin against the ethical claim of the loving sacrifice of Jesus are found in a number of places:
Favoritism to the rich
“My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:1-5)
“When Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas (Peter) in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.”(Galatians 2:11-16)
Lack of love:
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 4:32; 5:1-2, 25)
The institution of remembrance:
Embedded in a context of rebuke, we find the clearest New Testament statement of the ordinance of remembrance:
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night 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, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”(I Corinthians 11:23-26)
We do this, not “in remorse of me,” Not, “in remembrance of our sins” but “in remembrance of me.” Let nothing take the focus off of Jesus and our share in the benefits of His death!
It should be a joyous occasion when our memories are refreshed and our gratitude enlarged over all Christ did for us. Because of Christ’s death for us, we are:
- sinners who find mercy with God
- enemies who are reconciled to God
- offenders who are forgiven by God
- orphans who have been adopted by God
The disciples didn’t get this at the time Jesus instituted it! Consider:
“Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32 He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; 33 they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.” 34 The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about” (Luke 18:31-34).
But the meaning did not remain hidden. Consider Peter’s words regarding the meaning that at the time Jesus announced it he didn’t understand (see: 1 Peter 1:18-21; 2:21-24; 3:18).
The Holy Spirit opened their eyes to understand! They proclaimed the Lord’s death from that time on (see: Acts 2:22-24; 3:14-15; 4:27-28)
When we gather at the table of the Lord, “…we should revel in our present fellowship with each other and with the risen Lord (see under 10:16-17) and seek to incorporate ever larger numbers into that fellowship by the evangelistic function of the Lord’s Table. Verse 26b makes an explicit message of explanation and evangelism accompanying Communion very appropriate. But the word of proclamation need not be verbalized all the time. Paul’s language suggests that the ritual itself “proclaims the Lord’s death” (Craig Blomberg, p. 236, NIV Application Commentary).