The Lord’s Supper: Meaning, Purpose, and Practice

The Lord’s Supper is a cornerstone of the Christian faith. Read on to understand its history, significance, purpose, benefits, and observance.

During the Lenten season, we remember Jesus’ final days which marked the pivotal foundations of our faith. The Lord’s Supper, traditionally celebrated every Maundy Thursday, celebrates the communion of God and man through the offering of Jesus’ flesh and blood.  

A key event in the Bible is the Lord’s Supper. Also known as the Eucharist or the Holy Communion, this commemorates Jesus Christ’s final night with His disciples. This is the definite institution of Jesus’ sacrifice of his body and blood for the sake of saving humanity. 

Starting from the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of St. Paul, Christians practiced this ritual commemoration to celebrate the Kingdom of God.

During the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Christians consume consecrated bread and wine as a community. This sacrament is a public banquet first told in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

What is the Lord’s Supper?

The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament honored by all Christians. A sacrament is a holy ordained rite that Jesus Christ instituted to signify and seal the covenant of grace and strengthen the faithful. In every sacrament, there is a tangible sign and an invisible spiritual reality. In the Eucharist, the tangible signs are the bread and cup whilst the spiritual reality is Jesus’ presence during the service.

This commemorates Jesus’ sacrificial death. The Lord’s Supper also represents the New Covenant where believers commune with each other and with God. To partake in the Eucharist is to deepen one’s relationship with God and fellow believers.

The Lord’s Supper showcases the spiritual nourishment of believers. In the act of Communion, you consecrate yourself to God while accepting Him in your heart, soul, and being.

What Happened During the Lord’s Supper?

The Lord’s Supper is rooted in the Passover meal of the Old Testament and realized in Jesus’ final meal with His disciples before His death on the cross.

The Passover tradition

The Lord’s Supper traces its roots from the Passover meal. Jesus and His disciples entered Jerusalem for the Passover feast. This eponymous feast commemorates the salvation of the Jews from the Egyptians.

Passover comes from the curse of death that passed over the ancient Israelites. This curse was the final plague of Egypt that Moses warned both Egyptians and Israelites about. That night, God sent His angel of death to kill every firstborn son in Egypt. But Moses, after hearing God’s message, told all Israelite families to slaughter lambs and paint the blood of the lamp upon the doorframes of their houses. The angel of death spared all the families with the blood of the lamb on their door.

The lambs died instead of the sons of Israelite families. After this plague, the Israelites ate unleavened bread and the lamb cooked in bitter herbs. The Passover meal was an annual reminder of God’s salvation of His people from the plague of death.

Jesus institutionalizing his sacrifice as the Sacrament of Communion

Jesus elevated the meaning of the Passover meal. From the slaughtered lamb in the Old Testament, he offered himself as the “Lamb of God”. The Lord’s Supper is his final meal with his disciples before Judas Iscariot betrayed him and led the Jewish temple leaders to arrest him. 

During the meal, Jesus took the unleavened bread, broke it and gave it to his disciples, and said, “This is my body.” Then he took the chalice, giving thanks, and gave the wine to his disciples and said, “This is my blood.” In this gesture, Jesus offered his flesh and blood as the ultimate sacrifice for human salvation.

During the Lord’s Supper, Jesus told his disciples about his death and resurrection. The bread broken symbolizes the torturous punishments Jesus’ body endured at the hands of his captors, the Jewish leaders, and the Romans. The cup of wine represents the bloodshed through this ordeal to his painful crucifixion on Calvary. 

Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper as the core meal of the New Covenant. The Passover was the core meal of God’s covenant with Israel during the Exodus from the tyranny of Egypt. This covenant was solely for the Israelites, the direct descendants of Abraham. The Lord’s Supper, on the other hand, founds the New Covenant wherein God saves all races of the earth. Jesus, the Lamb of God, gave His life for everyone’s redemption from sin.

After the meal, Jesus also gave core principles for his disciples to live by. Chief of these is the designation of the servant-leader. Jesus himself knelt to all his disciples and washed their feet. When Peter balked at his leader lowering himself to the role of a servant, Jesus said to them that to be a leader, you must learn how to serve.

After the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Apostles followed Jesus’ instructions. They took the Lord’s Supper into a regular communion with believers. Since the Holy Spirit descended on Pentecost, Christianity grew in the holy fellowship that commemorates Jesus’ sacrifice for the salvation of humanity. 

The Significance of the Lord’s Supper

While all Christian denominations hold the Lord’s Supper as integral to their faith, they differ in the significant nature of the banquet. There are contrasting views about what happens every time the sacrament of Communion takes place:

Roman Catholic View

The Roman Catholic view of the Lord’s Supper is the miracle of the bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ. During the mass, these elements become Jesus’ body. This happens because of Jesus’ presence during the liturgy of the Eucharist. In a sense, Jesus continually offers himself up for the Catholic believers to partake of his sacrifice.

In Roman Catholic theology, what happens during the Eucharist is “transubstantiation” – the transformation of bread and wine to the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.

In the sacrament of Communion, God’s grace is present. The sacrament infuses God’s grace upon everyone who participates in the meal. This grace helps people to live righteously. 

Lutheran

For Martin Luther and his followers, the bread and wine do not become Christ come again. But Jesus Christ is still present spiritually during the sacrament. This is called “consubstantial” or existing within the elements of communion.

Baptist

For Baptists and Evangelicals, the Lord’s Supper is a memorial sacrament. The bread and wine do not turn into flesh and blood. Rather, they are figurative symbols of Jesus’ sacrifice at the cross. Jesus already saved us when he died on Calvary and that is already enough to save humanity.

For Baptists, the Lord’s Supper is a church ordinance. It is the way the community expresses its faith but not where you receive God’s grace.

So Jesus is not spiritually present at the Lord’s Supper. Instead, Evangelicals believe that Jesus lives with his people. Christ’s death and resurrection already fulfilled their purpose. He redeemed us by his sacrificial death. God’s grace makes the believer righteous, not what the latter does.

Calvinist

Founded by John Calvin, Calvinism has a similar belief on the significance of the Lord’s Supper. as the Baptist and Evangelical Christian denominations. The Calvinists are more commonly known as the Reformers.

The Reformed view of the sacrament of communion is that the bread and wine are pure symbolic elements. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is all about the truth of the sacrificial death of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins. Christ dwells within His people as they remember faithfully His sacrifice and practice their faith as a community. This presence not only exists during the Lord’s Supper but for all time. The whole church participates and enlivens their faith with the benefits of Jesus’ flesh and blood.

When the Reformers celebrate the Lord’s Supper, they live with the significance of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice. They believe that they actively receive God’s grace which grants the forgiveness of sins and spiritual food that enables them to die from a sinful life and live again with God (Romans 6:11).

Why Do We Celebrate the Lord’s Supper?

The Lord’s Supper serves many purposes. It is a memorial to Christ’s sacrificial death. It is where we commit our whole being to Him and commune with fellow believers. Above all, in the sacrament of Communion, we prayerfully look forward to the time when Jesus Christ comes again.

To commemorate the sacrifice of Christ

God loved the world so much that He sent His only begotten son, Jesus, to die on the cross for the forgiveness of sins eternally. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper to remember and cherish this unconditional gift of life.

In the memorial of Jesus’ death during the Lord’s Supper, we thank God and rejoice because He saved us. We exalt Jesus as he died and rose again on the third day. He set us free as He triumphed over sin and death. He proved that we are no longer slaves to sin and death. The communion is about our joy from the saving power of Christ – eternal life with Him.

To consecrate ourselves to Christ

The Lord’s Supper represents the New Covenant wherein Christ promises salvation and we consecrate our whole being to Him.

We commune with Jesus and live in Him. Every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we participate in His life (1 Corinthians 10:16). He is in us, and we are in Him. The Roman Catholics say during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, “Through Him, with Him and in Him…”

The Lord’s Supper inspires us to live in Christ. We open up our lives to Him so He can dwell and cleanse us of sin. We surrender our being to Him and grow spiritually mature in Him.

To commune with fellow believers

In the Lord’s Supper, we are all equal. God knows what is inside our hearts. He treats us equally. No one is above or below another. Jesus commands us to serve one another, to love without asking for anything. He instructs His church to treat one another as brothers and sisters. 

In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul criticizes the way those early Christians treat each other in the communion meal. He exhorts the wealthy to share with the poor. Because each one has a mutual responsibility to each other. We are a community of God’s children. We are all one body in Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 10:1). 

When we receive God’s grace during the Lord’s Supper, we should share this with all the people we meet in our lives. We should act righteously towards all we encounter, no matter their background. Our communion with Christ also urges us to live thankfully and kindly with others. All in all, it is about practicing Christian love and charity in everything we do.

To anticipate the coming of Christ

The Lord’s Supper is Jesus’ promise of salvation and His return. We celebrate it because we anticipate with steadfast prayer the great messianic banquet. He will come again to judge the living and the dead says the Apostles’ Creed. Indeed, St. Paul affirms in his theology that whenever we conduct the rite of Holy Communion, we proclaim Jesus until he comes again in glory (1 Corinthians 11:26). 

Benefits of Holy Communion

The Holy Communion offers many benefits to believers. It is not just the food that feeds our soul, akin to the manna of the Old Testament. We receive God’s grace. God grants us forgiveness of our sins. And most significantly, we are molded into godliness.

Spiritual sustenance

During the Communion, we partake of the bread and wine. These are the symbols of Jesus’ flesh and blood that give life eternal. They are different from the food that we eat every day to nourish the body. The Lord’s Supper offers food that sustains the soul.

The Lord’s Supper reminds us that man lives not on bread alone (Matthew 4:4). We depend on God’s creation for our daily sustenance. We live in a complex system in which everything we have comes from beyond us. At the heart of this system is God who is the provider of all. 

We partake of Jesus’ flesh and blood. For He is the bread of life. All who come to Him shall not hunger. But enjoy everlasting life (John 6:54). We cannot save ourselves. God saves us from our sinful selves.

God’s grace

Just as the Word of God graces us with His invigorating presence, the Communion gives us God’s grace that fuels us in spirit and soul. We find strength in God and He blesses us to overcome all temptations and trials we face every day.

Forgiveness of sins

In the Lord’s Supper, we commemorate Jesus’ death on the cross. He suffered so much, gave up so much, and took all the burden of our sins. 

Every time we participate in the sacrament of Communion, we offer up our sinfulness to God. We humble ourselves before Him. God forgives us and cleanses our hearts, mind, and soul.

We become godly characters

Ultimately, the Lord’s Supper calls us to “examine ourselves” (1 Corinthians 11:28). Before we participate in this sacrament, we need to discern our mindset. This involves meditative prayer and prostration of humility. We need to listen to God and open up our hearts and souls to Him. 

Hence, masses allot a few minutes for churchgoers to pray. This time enables each one to understand what communion is and to prepare oneself to receive Jesus into the soul.

Here’s a popular Catholic hymn before communion: “Lord, I may feel unworthy that you enter under my roof, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

After receiving communion, God calls us to live in Him. He urges us to live a Christian life with love, faith, and charity. We are to share God’s blessings with the whole world.

How is the Lord’s Supper Observed?

All Christians celebrate The Lord’s Supper. But each denomination has different ways of observing this sacred rite.

Common Observances

Church service leaders, from ordained priests to laypeople, lead the congregation to celebrate the banquet of communion. But they also have strict rules in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. This is called “fencing of the table”. Here, service leaders encourage the church members to participate while also preventing non-believers from participating.

To conduct the Lord’s Supper in a wise administration, service leaders should invite their flock to prayerful introspection. Those who are unrepentant in their sinfulness should not be allowed. The church needs to guard the sacred rite only from those who do not live in faith, love, and kind harmony with God and His people. 

As for the congregation who participate in the Lord’s Supper, we are to look with faith during the service. We look towards Jesus, giving Him thanks for His immeasurable sacrifice (1 Corinthians 11:24). Then we look around our flock, our fellow believers with whom we commune. We must look at each other as a community. As we share the bread of life, we must unite and take care of each other as one family under God. Lastly, we look up to heaven, where God reigns forever with Jesus Christ as his right hand in union with the Holy Spirit. We consume the Lord’s Supper in steadfast, vigilant, anticipation of Jesus’ return on Judgement Day.

Roman Catholic

For Roman Catholics, the Lord’s Supper is a regular celebration within the mass. They range from weekly to daily masses. Priests preside at the Liturgy of the Eucharist as they do with the celebration of the Holy Mass. Only ordained priests administer the Lord’s Supper because of the miracle of transubstantiation. 

The broken bread and consecrated wine during the Lord’s Supper transform into the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. Since the 19th Century, the Roman Catholic Church emphasized the need to partake in communion frequently. This is because Christ is present in the Eucharist itself. 

Eastern Orthodox

While still believing in transubstantiation and Christ’s spiritual presence within the mass, the Eastern Orthodox church focuses on piety and liturgy rather than strict dogma.

Eastern Orthodox theology teaches its believers that the coming of the Holy Spirit and its infusion upon the bread and wine is an integral aspect of the Eucharist. It is more than the priest reciting Jesus’ words during the Lord’s Supper. The Holy Spirit goes into the souls of the believers as they consume the Holy Host.

Another significant difference is the kind of bread Eastern Orthodox Christians consume. They use leavened bread, instead of unleavened bread.

Western Protestants

Protestantism comes from the Religious Reformation, the breakup of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. Protestants, in particular, veering away from the transubstantiation significance of the Lord’s Supper. They believe that the bread and wine remain as they are and we honor Jesus’ sacrifice as we accept God who alone saves.

When it comes to the frequency of observing the Lord’s Supper, most Protestants conduct a monthly service. Some Protestant denominations let laypeople lead the Communion. Others, like the Baptists and Calvinists, maintain that church leaders such as pastors administer the service. They do this to ensure the proper and orderly conduct of the service, and to tie it to the preaching of the Word of God. So preachers and pastors lead the Supper and lead the congregation to understand the sacrament with Biblical understanding.

The Baptist and Reformed church also believe that the Lord’s Supper should be restricted to those who are worthy. For Baptists, the people who can partake of the Holy Communion are those who are baptized. On the other hand, John Calvin decreed that only those who are humble and acknowledge their wicked, unworthy nature can consume the Holy Host. God lifts us to Him and justifies our existence in Him.

In Summary

The Lord’s Supper is the sacrament that honors our salvation through Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice. It is a holy rite rooted in the Old Testament tradition of Passover. Jesus instituted the Sacrament of Communion as the core of God’s New Covenant. With this, God saves not just Israel, but all the races of the Earth.

Every time you participate in the Lord’s Supper, always remember to thank God for his unconditional love for us. Consecrate your life to Him by treating everyone with charitable love, sharing the Word of God in word and deed. Look forward prayerfully to Jesus’ return. Feed upon the flesh and blood of Christ as you receive God’s grace and forgiveness of your sins.

Alex Shute
AUTHOR
Alex Shute
Alex is a family man and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. His passion is to serve the global Church and bring people of diverse backgrounds together to learn & grow. In his free time, he enjoys perfecting pour-over coffee, smoking meats, and discovering new cycling routes around Southern California.