This meal remembers the past, empowers the present, and anticipates the future.
The habit of keeping the Passover (for well over a thousand years in the time of Jesus) had trained the hearts and minds of the Jewish people to think of themselves instinctively as God’s chosen and redeemed people. For them, the Exodus from Egypt was not just an event that had happened to their ancestors in the distant past; it was something in which they also participated, in the present.
In the same way that the Jews were commanded to commemorate their deliverance from Egypt (Exodus 13:3) by eating the Passover meal, we are commanded to re-enact the Lord’s Supper as our own special meal of salvation. Whenever we observe it, we are remembering what Jesus did for us, identifying ourselves with the disciples who were there with Him on that fateful night, and reminding ourselves of our complete dependence on Him for forgiveness and eternal life.
It is not a re-enactment, let alone a repetition, of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. (Like the very first Passover meal, the Last Supper was eaten before the actual act of deliverance had taken place). Rather, it is a memorial: “Do this in remembrance of Me.” (I Corinthians 11:24) It should focus our thoughts on the price paid for our forgiveness, and on the One who paid it. Whenever we celebrate it, we are reminding ourselves of what Jesus has done for us, and what we owe to Him. By its regular repetition, we are taught to think of ourselves always as God’s forgiven people, who are unable to rely on our own merits but depend utterly and completely on Jesus – not only for our initial redemption but also for our ongoing pilgrimage.
How often should we celebrate Communion? Jesus did not give a specific instruction on this point; He merely said, “Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” (I Corinthians 11:25) Consequently, different churches have developed different practices – some offer Communion every day, while at the other extreme some think it should be observed only once a year. The frequency is unimportant, so long as we do it!
In Old Testament worship, the sin offering (to obtain forgiveness) and burnt offering (to dedicate oneself to God) were followed by a `fellowship offering’, which was mainly eaten by the worshipper and his family (Leviticus 3 & 7). They would thus celebrate their relationship with God by sharing a meal with Him. When the old covenant was inaugurated, the Israelites were sprinkled with the blood of sacrifice in order to signify their participation (Exodus 24:8). Then they were able to approach God and have fellowship with Him, as guests at His table (symbolised by eating a meal in His presence). In the same way, sharing in Communion is a way of celebrating and cementing our relationship with God, on the basis of Jesus’ death for our sins.
Sharing food is a means of expressing friendship and intimacy. Many of Jesus’ resurrection appearances are linked with food and meals (e.g. Luke 24:30,31; John 21:10-14). In Holy Communion, Jesus continues to share fellowship with us. We feed on Him, just as the Israelites did in the wilderness (I Corinthians 10:3), and also eat with Him. In the early church, the Communion service proper was part of a larger meal, the ‘love feast’, which the whole church shared together. Communion is not to be celebrated on one’s own, but as part of a fellowship of believers. “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.” (I Corinthians 10:17)
The great error of the Corinthian church with regard to the Lord’s Supper was not any misunderstanding of the atonement, but a total failure to acknowledge this equality of all believers at the Lord’s Table (I Corinthians 11:20-22). Christ died for us all; but they were erecting social barriers and forming cliques. At Holy Communion, all of us must eat the same bread and drink the same wine. For we are all in exactly the same position with regard to God: all have sinned, none can contribute anything to our salvation, and all receive His forgiveness without cost.
“Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” (I Corinthians 11:26)
The Lord’s Supper also has an evangelistic function: any unbelievers who are present and observing will learn about Jesus’ death for our salvation. Since the bread and wine are reserved for believers, to receive them is an act of witness in itself.
For centuries, the Jews prayed that their Passover festival would be ‘next year in Jerusalem’. We have the same forward-looking hope: that we will eat and drink with Jesus and the rest of His people at “the wedding supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9). We are not yet at this feast, but we can participate `at a distance’ by taking Communion. Just as at a wedding, those guests who are unable to attend are sent a piece of wedding cake, so that they too can join in the banquet.