Lord’s Supper

Having considered the sacrament of baptism, now let’s turn to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. As we have already noted, there are two parts of a sacrament: the outward and visible sign, and the inward and spiritual grace thereby signified (WLC 163). In the Lord’s Supper, the outward visible signs are bread and wine—consecrated, broken, poured, distributed, and received.[1] The inward spiritual grace signified is Christ crucified for us and all of His benefits for us—including union with Him, the indwelling of the Spirit, adoption by the Father, regeneration, justification, sanctification, and future glorification.[2]

On the night He was betrayed, Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, as St Matthew records, he “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.’ Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins’” (Mt. 26:26-28, cf. Mk. 14:26, Lk. 22:14-20). Here Jesus, the true sacrificial Lamb (1 Cor. 5:7), is taking the Old Covenant Passover meal and giving it a new consecration and meaning.[3]

There are many types and shadows of this New Covenant sacrament in the Old Testament, such as the bread from heaven in the wilderness (Ex. 16), the blood of the covenant and sacrificial meal at Mount Sinai (Ex. 24), and the peace offering in Leviticus (Lev. 3, 7). But for our purposes, we will focus on just one given its immediate contextual relevance in the institution of the Supper—the Passover in Exodus 12. 

Four hundred years after the death of Joseph, the discarded descendent of Abraham who became Pharaoh’s trusted vizier, a new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph (Ex. 1:8). This new Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites and forced them to build his cities (Ex. 1:9-14). God then raised up Moses to free the Israelites, as He inflicted judgment on the Egyptians through a series of plagues. In preparation of the final plague—death for every firstborn Egyptian—God instituted the Passover ceremony for the Israelites, which protected them from His wrath and would stand as a memorial of His faithfulness toward them in leading them out of Egypt.

In Exodus 12 the Lord speaks to Moses and Aaron saying, “This month shall be your beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you” (Ex. 12:1-2). Here we see that the Passover marks a new beginning for the Israelites. The Israelite households are then commanded to take a male lamb without blemish to slaughter and eat, and if the household is too small for a whole lamb, to join together with their neighbors (Ex. 12:3-4). The Passover is a communal ceremony, a family feast, a sacrificial meal, that all of God’s people partake in together. The blood of the lamb is to be sprinkled with hyssop on the doorposts and lintel of their homes so that the Lord will pass over His people and not strike them (Ex. 12:7, 13, 22). This shows that the Passover is a blessing for God’s people, distinguishing them from those who are outside the covenant and purifying them (hyssop being connected to purification rituals, see Lev. 14:49-52, Num. 19:18-19, Ps. 51:7). Lastly, the Lord declares that the Passover ceremony is a memorial that the Israelites should keep as a feast throughout their generations (Ex. 12:14). The Hebrew word for ‘memorial’ here comes from the verb meaning ‘to remember.’[4] The Israelites are to remember the goodness of the Lord in His act of redemption, freeing them from bondage. 

This quick overview of the institution of the Passover under the Old Covenant is helpful in understanding the Lord’s Supper in the New Covenant, for it was the shadow pointing to the reality of the Eucharist. Like the Passover meal, the Lord’s Supper marks a new beginning for God’s people, in which Christ’s death and resurrection frees us from the bondage of sin—a new exodus. Likewise, the Supper is a communal meal uniting all Christians, as St. Paul says, “when you gather to eat, you should all eat together” (1 Cor. 11:33) for “there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:17). It is also a sacrificial meal, with the Jesus as the final Lamb, offering Himself on the cross for our sins. In the Supper, we partake of Christ’s blood, which was poured out for our redemption (Eph. 1:7), cleansing (Heb. 9:14), holiness (Heb. 13:12), and purification (1 John 1:7).  Lastly, the Supper is a new memorial and a sacrifice of thanksgiving in which we remember and proclaim Christ’s death until His return (1 Cor. 11:26).

Christ’s Presence in the Supper

During the Reformation, many doctrines were hotly debated, but the most discussed topic of all was the Eucharist.[5] Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and the Reformers all confessed that the Lord’s Supper was a means of grace and that Christ was truly present in the sacrament. But they disagreed on the way in which Christ was present.

Roman Catholics argued for what is called transubstantiation. In this view, when the priest utters ‘hoc est corpus meum,’ the substance of the elements change from bread and wine to Christ’s literal body and blood, while their properties remain the same. The Lutherans put forward an alternative to transubstantiation with the doctrine of consubstantiation. For Martin Luther, while the bread and wine remain what they are, during the Eucharist Christ’s whole person is mysteriously and locally present—body and blood—in, under, and around the elements. Huldrych Zwingli and his followers rejected both of these views, believing that the sacrament was a memorial or commemoration of Christ’s work, a mere sign, and that He is present in the Supper only in a spiritual manner in the faith of the communicants.

On the other hand, John Calvin and the majority of Reformers believed that while Christ was not locally present in the Supper, in receiving the elements communicants truly and mystically partake of His body and blood. This is in a spiritual sense, mediated by the Holy Spirit and conditioned on the faith of the communicants.[6] Calvin maintained that the Eucharist was a “heavenly act” in which Christ remains spatially in heaven and is yet given to us, “for the way in which He imparts Himself to us is by the secret power of the Holy Spirit” which is able to join together that which is separated by a great distance.[8] The breaking of the bread remains a symbol for Calvin, but in this symbol “the thing itself” is truly shown, “for unless a man means to call God a deceiver, he would never dare assert that an empty symbol is set forth by him.”[9]

Therefore for Calvin, “in His Sacred Supper [Christ] bids [us] take, eat, and drink His body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine” and we should “not doubt that He Himself truly presents them, and that [we] receive them.”[10]

In the next installment we will consider the topic of paedocommunion.

Find other posts in this series here.

[1] A.A. Hodge. The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (UK: The Banner of Truth Trust), 329.
[2] Ibid.
[3] A.A. Hodge. The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (UK: The Banner of Truth Trust), 336.
[4] Keith Mathison, Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing), 186.
[5] Keith Mathison. Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing), xv.
[6] Louis Berkhof. Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) 654.
[7] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.), 4.17.32.
[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.), 4.17.10.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid. 4.17.32.

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