The Lord's Supper: Its Origin & Purpose
Topic: Lord's Supper Passage: Exodus 12–13, 1 Corinthians 10–11
Last year we had a members meeting in which the elders approached the congregation about moving to a weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. We so enjoy the blessings that come with eating together at the Lord’s Supper that we wanted your input on what it would look like to share in these blessings more often. We wanted to test our observations from Scripture with your observations from Scripture. As usual, your reception was patient and your input valuable.
At the same time, the more we discussed the Lord’s Supper with you, the more we realized that many of us have lacked direct teaching on the Lord’s Supper. After converting to Christ, some of us just went with the flow—we eat the bread and drink the cup but without really knowing why. Others of us came from religious backgrounds that differed on the Supper in significant ways and even fell prey to theological error. You understand the gospel of grace more clearly now, but you still wonder how that relates to the Lord’s Supper, which, over time has perhaps become for you ritualistic.
Being Baptist may not have helped you either. If your experience has been anything like mine, Baptists can spend so much time talking about what the Lord’s Supper is not that we wonder whether there’s any meaning left at all. Over time, we’ve tried more positively to fill the Supper with meaning from the Scriptures. On Lord’s Supper Sundays, whatever the sermon text, we try to link that biblical truth to the gospel and to how that truth in the gospel connects to the Lord’s Supper. Over the next few weeks, my goal is to show you how rich the Supper truly is.
Some of its richness we can discern in the diversity of titles given to the Lord’s Supper throughout church history. The Breaking of Bread—an allusion to Jesus revealing himself in breaking the bread for his disciples in Luke 24, and then to Acts and the early church’s table fellowship. The Eucharist—another word for thanksgiving, which we all owe to God for his great salvation. Communion—a word that reflects on our union with Christ and the Supper uniting the church in one body. The Lord’s Table—an image from 1 Corinthians 10:21, reminding us that we no longer fellowship with the demonic system of evil; we fellowship with the Lord; we eat at his table. All these terms highlight different facets of the Lord’s Supper; and I hope we come to grasp these riches more deeply.
Another historical note here—if you were to ask, “What components are essential to having a local church?” Protestants have often answered this way: there are three essentials, believers gathered, the gospel preached, and the ordinances rightly observed.[i] Certainly, there’s more to tease out in terms of building a healthy church, but at a minimum those three must be present. Without believers gathering, you don’t have a church. Without the gospel preached, you’re left with nothing but a social club and possibly even a cult. And without the ordinances rightly observed, you may have a Christian organization or a Bible study at best, but you don’t have a church. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper mark the visible church and keep her accountable to the gospel.
If godly men and women have read the Bible and noticed the Lord’s Supper playing such a central role in the church, it would be wise for us to make sure we’re getting it right, and even more, not missing out on something so great. But most importantly, our Lord Jesus commanded us to remember him by taking the Lord’s Supper. As disciples, we want to follow his command rightly. So let’s jump in?
The Origin: Where’d it come from?
We’re going to attempt this in three sermons. All I want to cover today is the origin of the Lord’s Supper and its purpose. We’re going to answer two simple questions: where’d it come from and why do we do it as a church? Let’s take the first question about the origin of the Lord’s Supper: where’d it come from?
Jesus Instituted the Lord’s Supper
Many of us know our Bibles well enough—or we’ve heard the words before the Lord’s Supper repeated enough—to say, “It came from Jesus.” That’s why I pointed us first to Luke 22. Jesus is at the table with his disciples in 22:15, and he says, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it until it is finished in the kingdom of God.” Jesus then explains the broken bread as his body given for them, and the cup as the new covenant in his blood (Luke 22:19-20).
Matthew and Mark provide similar accounts, but only Luke’s Gospel clarifies that Jesus expected his disciples to repeat what he had done with them. At the end of verse 19 he says, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Baptists have traditionally called the Lord’s Supper an ordinance. The main reason we call it an “ordinance” is to highlight that the Lord’s Supper was ordained, or commanded, by the Lord Jesus himself. The Lord’s Supper originated with Jesus Christ and the church was to obey his command until he came again (cf. also Matt 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25).[ii]
Jesus Sets the Last Supper in the Context of Passover
But we must say more, since Jesus himself set the Lord’s Supper within the broader storyline of the Old Testament, and in particular the Passover. Read any of the four Gospels, and you’ll notice a profound repetition of Passover surrounding the Last Supper. Just look at Luke 22: verse 1, “Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover;” verse 7, “Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed;” verse 8, “So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it;’” verse 15, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.”
Jesus wants us to understand the Lord’s Supper in light of Passover.[iii] If we fail to grasp what Passover was and how it functioned in Israel, we’ll miss very significant aspects of the Lord’s Supper, and even more, what it means to be a Christian. So let’s spend some time on Passover and then connect it to the Lord’s Supper.
Passover was one of the most significant feasts that defined God’s covenant people and shaped their identity. If you recall, there was a problem. God’s people were enslaved to Pharaoh and the Egyptians. They couldn’t escape on their own. But God chose to rescue his people. He made himself a Father to Israel, and as a good Father, he came to rescue his son. God sent nine plagues of judgment, but it’s not until the tenth plague that Israel experienced freedom. The tenth plague was the death of all the firstborn in Egypt.
As part of freeing his people in relation to this final plague of death, God instituted the Passover. He didn’t institute anything with the other plagues, but only the last plague, the plague of death that would also serve as the decisive judgment whereby the Lord rescues his people from slavery.
Exodus 12 and 13 tell us about the Passover. Each household was to take an unblemished lamb and sacrifice that lamb, being sure not to break any of its bones (Exod 12:46). They were to take the lamb’s blood and paint it on the doorposts of their homes (Exod 12:7). When God passed through the land of Egypt to kill the firstborn, if he saw the blood of the lamb on the doorposts, he would pass-over your household (Exod 12:23).
Everyone under the protection of the lamb’s blood wouldn’t suffer God’s judgment in death. The reason families under the lamb’s blood wouldn’t suffer God’s judgment was that the Passover lamb made atonement for the people inside. No participation in Passover meant you remained in your sins; and if you remained in your sin, you died (Num 9:13; cf. John 8:24).
But if you were under the blood, you escaped death. And if you escaped death, guess what happened the next day? The Lord liberated you from slavery. So, being connected to the Passover lamb meant deliverance from death and freedom from slavery.
But that’s not all. The Passover also set Israel apart for God’s service (Exod 11:7; 12:31). The whole point of the Lord breaking the yoke of slavery was so that Israel could be freed to serve him and worship him and to enjoy a covenant relationship with him (Exod 5:3; 6:7-8; 7:16). That was the primary goal from the get go (Exod 4:22-23). It’s also why he consecrates the firstborn to himself through the Passover. The firstborn represented the type of people Israel as a whole was meant to be, a people set apart for God’s service (Exod 13:2, 11-16; 19:16; Num 3:13) under his covenant at Sinai.
You can very well see how such a meal shaped the identity of God’s people. Every year Israel was supposed to observe the Passover to remember God delivering them from death, freeing them from slavery, and setting them apart for himself under his covenant. In fact, Passover was so significant that it began their calendar year. All their lives were built around how God’s past deliverance shaped their present status and determined their future as a nation. And whenever a new generation asked, “What makes this Passover night so special,” the parents were to say, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt” (Exod 13:8).
Every time they ate, the Lord was teaching them to look to his past deliverance in the exodus, and that past deliverance shaped how they viewed themselves in the present. Even if they weren’t part of the actual generation that came out of Egypt—because they were linked to prior generations through the covenant, the Lord’s past deliverance became their own. They too were God’s covenant people; they too were freed from their bondage; they too could abide by his covenant; and since he delivered them before, he would be faithful to deliver them again and again and again in the future.
The exodus was so crucial to Israel’s salvation that the prophets even speak of their future and final deliverance in terms of a new and greater exodus with a better lamb and a better covenant.
Jesus’ Death Fulfills & Transforms Passover
Eventually, we come to Jesus eating the Passover with his disciples. All along the way in the Gospels we’re given hints that Jesus will die a sacrificial death. Like a lamb, his life will be given to ransom sinners. His blood will atone for sins. Then Jesus eats the Passover with his disciples and interprets the elements of that Passover meal in light of his pending death on the cross. Luke 22:15, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” Luke 22:19, “This [bread] is my body, which is given for you.” Luke 22:20, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Matthew 26:28, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” What’s going on?
Jesus brings the patterns set in place by the Passover to their intended goal, to their fulfillment. We needed a lamb that wouldn’t just deliver from the temporary plague of death; we needed a lamb that would deliver from the eternal plague of death. We needed a lamb that would undo death altogether. We needed a lamb that would rescue us, not just from bondage to oppressive human rulers; we needed a lamb that would deliver us from the tyranny of sin itself. We needed a lamb that would ratify a new covenant for the forgiveness of sins and create a new people set apart for God’s service, who had the law written on the heart. That lamb is Jesus Christ.
So, now, with the Passover being fulfilled in Christ, the Passover meal gets transformed into a meal that revolves around Christ. We get a new meal with a new meaning bound up with Jesus’ death. No more lambs are necessary, since the one true Lamb to whom they all pointed has been sacrificed. In the same manner that Passover defined God’s old covenant community, the Lord’s Supper now defines the church, God’s new covenant community.
The great deliverance that shapes the church is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through Jesus’ death we experience the ultimate exodus deliverance, deliverance from bondage to sin and set apart as God’s new community and headed for a homeland and inheritance in Christ’s forever-kingdom. Everything we are and will become revolves around the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God’s past deliverance in Christ shapes how we view ourselves in the present and how we continue trusting God to deliver us in the future.
The Purpose: Why do we do it?
That leads us to the purpose of the Lord’s Supper and to answering our second question: why do we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Why eat and drink again today?
A very basic answer would be that Jesus said so. He is Lord. We do what he says or we perish. If he said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” it’s rebellion to ignore his commandment. But we also know that every command from the Lord is good for us. It has a purpose to bless us. It’s not just a bare command, but a command that comes from a loving Lord who blesses his people. His commands have purposes behind them for our good. I want to mention four of those purposes for the Lord’s Supper…
To proclaim & remember God’s past deliverance in Christ
First, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper to proclaim and remember God’s past deliverance in Christ. The Lord’s Supper is proclamation. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:26, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” In the Lord’s Supper we’re reminded that we need to hear the gospel just as much as the rest of the world needs to hear the gospel.
Each time you eat the bread and drink the cup, it’s as if each of you get up in this pulpit and declare to the others in this room what God has done for you in Christ. You are broadcasting the finished work of Jesus that crushed the Serpent’s head, broke the power of sin, and secured for you a home in glory. The Lord’s Supper does not announce what we have done to get ourselves ready for the Table. It announces everything Christ has done to fit us for his Table.
When that proclamation goes forth in our eating the bread and drinking the cup, it helps us remember God’s finished work in Christ and what that means for our lives. Remembrance is a key part of the Supper, and something the visible proclamation produces in the community. In Luke 22:19 Jesus says, “This is my body, which is given for you [So he’s talking about his substitutionary death; and then he adds…] “Do this in remembrance of me.” Paul repeats the same words in 1 Corinthians 11:23-24.
We may not often think of it, but memory has a powerful effect on our lives. I can smell a fresh apple-crumb pie coming from the oven, and I’m taken back some 30 years to my mother’s kitchen and the comforts of our home. It’s as if the past is brought into the present in a very tangible way—and then shapes the future when I ask Rachel to make an apple-crumb pie for me and I eat it.
There are decisions we make every day based on remembering the past—something we learned or experienced; something someone else experienced; something that happened in history that we weren’t even there for, but still live our lives according to the realities those events created. We make judgments based on what we know from the past, and that shapes our present and our future. In other words, remembering isn’t always just a mere recollection of facts with no effect. Remembering is often life-transforming. The past re-enters our present so as to have an effect on our future.
When Peter told Paul, “remember” the poor, he didn’t mean that Paul just recall the fact that they’re out there. He meant for that remembering to move him to compassion and action. The past was to play an active role in his present and shape his future plans for the poor. So also with the Supper. When we see the gospel proclaimed as the saints take the Supper together, remembering Christ’s finished work transforms us, moves us to action. It shapes our identity and purpose in life.
As we noted earlier, the Passover functioned this way in Israel. The Passover reminded Israel of God’s past deliverance; that past deliverance defined who they were in the present—a redeemed people for God; and then that past deliverance also reassured them that God would continue to act for their good in the future. They could trust him and live for him and do his will, because they belonged to him and he’d care for them.
In the same way, the Lord’s Supper brings the past into our present in order to transform us. When you eat this bread and drink this cup, you engage in actively remembering God’s past salvation and what it means for you in the present. God loves you in that he gave up his only Son. You’re no longer in Adam, but in Christ. When he died, your old self died with him. When he rose from the dead, your new self was raised with him. You’re a new creation, the old has passed away and the new has come. You’re no longer enslaved to sin, but freed to obey God and love others. You are no longer the master, the Lord is your master…
That remembrance of Christ’s death shapes your identity in the present and the kinds of decisions you make for your future. It also gives us hope for the future. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”—Romans 8:32. The past deliverance in Christ gives us assurance for the future in the present. Whatever we will face—tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword—God’s past deliverance reassures that he will keep working for our salvation until the end. That moves us to spend and be spent for Christ’s sake until the Lord comes again.
To participate in the gospel’s benefits & submit to the gospel’s demands
A second purpose we celebrate the Lord’s Supper is this—to participate in the gospel’s benefits and submit to the gospel’s demands. This is from 1 Corinthians 10:16. It says, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” The implied answer is, “Yes, of course it’s a participation in the blood and body of Christ.”
That’s not to say we eat Jesus’ physical body or drink his physical blood. Verse 18 later clarifies the kind of relationship in mind: “Consider the people of Israel,” he says, “are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar.” When someone offered a sacrifice and ate of it and “participated” in the altar, that participation meant that he shared in the benefits of God’s provision through the altar—whether that was God passing over sins, or making peace, or keeping the people in fellowship with himself (Lev 7; 10; Deut 16).
The same is meant when Paul speaks of us participating in the blood and body of Christ. To participate in the blood and body of Christ means that we share in the benefits of what God has achieved through the death of his Son: benefits like propitiation, forgiveness, reconciliation, justification, victory over sin and death, peace with God, adoption, new birth, eternal life, and so forth. In the context of the Lord’s Supper we should also include the benefits of the new covenant: the law written on our hearts; the Holy Spirit dwelling within us; everybody knowing God (Jer 31).
But these benefits also produce a particular kind of life-style that proves Jesus’ lordship over our lives. As Paul further explains our participation in Christ, he says this in 1 Corinthians 10:21: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.” In particular, he’s referring to idolatry and the demonic influences behind idolatry. Idolatry is demonic and part of the evil world system in rebellion against God. Don’t just think in terms of statues of gold; think also in terms like this: any time we love the created things above God and in place of God, we surrender to that evil world system.
The Lord’s Supper is a continual reminder that we no longer belong to that evil world system. Just like the Passover reminded Israel that they were no longer slaves to Pharaoh, the Lord’s Supper reminds us that we’re no longer slaves to sin and the devil. Jesus is our Lord. The benefits of his death have rescued us and made us a new people. Therefore, by participating in the Lord’s Supper, we’re visibly recommitting ourselves to Jesus’ lordship. We’re publicly saying that our love-affair with the world and its idolatry has ended and we are now followers of Jesus—not because of anything we’ve done, but because of everything he did for us. We will not bow to the gods of sex, money, and power. Rather, all our loyalties belong to Jesus.
To renew our commitment to one another in Christ
A third purpose for the Lord’s Supper: to renew our commitment to one another in Christ. Table fellowship is some of the closest fellowship. Why do you think we’re commanded to show hospitality (e.g., Rom 12:13)? It’s family fellowship. How fitting that the Lord gave us a Supper to eat with one another. We come to the Table as one family. Look again at 1 Corinthians 10:16-17.
It says, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? [So the Lord’s Supper is in view. Then he reasons this way in verse 17.] Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
Main assertion: “we who are many are one body.” Paul grounds that assertion first in the fact that there’s only one bread—the one bread representing Jesus’ body given for us. The second ground is the fact that we all partake of that one bread. We’ll talk about this more in a couple weeks, but one reason why we break one piece of bread is to maintain what the Lord’s Supper signifies, namely, we all have one Savior, one body that was given for all of us. That’s the point Paul is reflecting on here.
In our partaking of the one bread, we visibly enact the reality signified by the one bread that we are truly one people—that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). It’s true that the Holy Spirit baptizes us into the universal body of Christ at conversion (1 Cor 12:13). But it’s also true that we become one local body of Christ through eating the Lord’s Supper together. The Lord’s Supper not only represents our unity, it effects and embodies our unity.[iv]
Part of that unity comes through remembering Jesus words in Matthew 26:28, “for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” He didn’t just pour out his blood for you as an individual; he poured out his blood for many. Part of taking the Supper together is so that we’re visibly reminded that Jesus died for that brother over there and this sister over here. If all we do is stair at our navels while taking the Supper, we risk missing one of the most beautiful aspects of the Supper, namely, the very embodiment of the many becoming one.
As we observed earlier, the Lord’s Supper also signals that a new covenant is in place. Being united to Jesus means that we participate in a new covenant. The new covenant community celebrates a new covenant meal. And do you know what that new covenant teaches? To love one another as God in Christ has loved you. You cannot commit yourself to the Lord of that covenant if you’re not willing to follow his covenant of love. You cannot have Jesus and despise his people. By renewing our commitment to the new covenant in the Lord’s Supper, we renew our commitment to each other. This is part of the reason we read our church covenant at the Lord’s Supper every so often, to redouble our efforts in committing to each other’s care.
To anticipate Christ’s return in glory
Lastly, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper to anticipate Christ’s return in glory. It was Jesus himself who said in Luke 22:18, “For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Likewise, after the Last Supper in Matthew 26:29 Jesus says, “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” Paul repeats the same idea in 1 Corinthians 11:26—“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
In that sense, the Lord’s Supper is a prophetic sign. Each time we enjoy the Supper together we’re reassured that Jesus is coming again. He already ratified the new covenant in his blood; soon he will bring the new covenant promises to their appointed end in a new kingdom that transforms the earth into a cosmic garden sanctuary for all nations to heal and for all nations to worship Christ. In that day, Revelation 19:9 says, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”
That passage in Revelation builds on all the other passages in Scripture that characterize the coming kingdom in terms of a great wedding banquet (Luke 22:28-30) and seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts (Zech 8:19). People will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God—Luke 22:29 says. Isaiah 25:6-8 says that “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.”
This is the day the church waits and prays for. It’s the day Jesus will bring for us when he returns. Not everybody will get to participate in that final, glorious feast. Jesus said that some will be cast into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Revelation 19 says that Jesus will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God against the nations who despised him. But for all of those trusting in Christ, the day of his return will be our salvation. The Lord’s Supper reminds us that Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath, so that we might drink the cup of his blessings. Those blessings reach their climax when he comes again for us; and that’s a day worth singing about.
But before we sing, let's do this. With these four purposes in mind as you come to the Supper today, look backwards and remember God’s past deliverance of you in Christ; look upwards to receive the blessings of God’s new covenant in Christ; look around at those people given to you in Christ; and look forward in expectation of Jesus’ sure and final return.
[i]E.g., “Wherever we see the Word of God preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists” (John Calvin, 1536); “The marks by which the true church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure doctrine of the word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only head of the church” (Belgic Confession, 1561); “The local church is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by his laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by his word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth” (Baptist Faith & Message, 2000).
[ii]First Corinthians 11:23 also shows that such a command wasn’t limited to the initial twelve disciples, but for all of Jesus’ churches to practice until he comes again. Paul writes, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you…”
[iii]Some have more recently questioned whether we can properly say the Last Supper was a Passover meal. However, ample evidence exists to view the Last Supper as a Passover meal whether one’s synthesis of the four Gospels views Jesus eating the Passover on Thursday evening (e.g., Andreas Köstenberger, “Was the Lord’s Supper a Passover Meal?” in The Lord’s Supper: Remembering and Proclaiming Christ’s Death Until He Comes, eds. Thomas R. Schreiner and Matthew R. Crawford [Nashville: B&H, 2000], 6-30), or as a deliberately earlier Passover on Wednesday evening (e.g., Jonathan T. Pennington, “The Lord’s Last Supper in the Fourfold Witness of the Gospels,” in The Lord’s Supper, 31-34). See also the discussion in Anthony Thistleton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 871-74.
[iv]For further discussion, see Bobby Jamieson, Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 120-24. Also, see Article XXX of the Baptist London Confession of 1644 in William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1969), 165.
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