The First Lord’s supper

The First Lord’s supper

S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.

Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is a gifted Bible teacher at Believers Chapel, Dallas, Texas.

Not all of our readers will necessarily agree with Dr. Johnson’s strong Calvinistic position reflected in this article. While it is not the purpose of this publication to engage in controversy, the editor urges you to read this excellent and edifying study with an open Bible along with an open heart and mind. Questions and/or comments which may express a different point of view are welcome. However, no responses will be acknowledged or published which are not presented in a context of Christian love and courtesy.

Scripture Reading: Mark 14:22-25


We have said before that atonement may well be the most important word in Christian theology. Derived from the preposition at and the old Middle English word onement, meaning union, it is that which Jesus Christ did in His death. Through atonement He restored the shattered relationship between sinners and a holy God. The price of His death was the means for the accomplishment of this. Thus, the Saviour’s death as a sacrifice is of the essence of Christianity.

Liberal Christianity has always resented this and has sought to keep the word Christianity and the word redemptive, but eliminate the historic Christian conviction that Jesus Christ the Son of God, in His sacrificial death on the cross, wrought the reconciliation of men with God. For faith in a crucified Redeemer whose life is a ransom for sinners they have substituted a Christlike attitude, or a religious feeling, or even membership in “the redemptive community.” It has been said that Liberal Christianity lacks the power to originate a church and can only exist as a parasite, growing upon some sturdier stock.1 I believe this to be true, but whether it is true or not, there is no doubt but that Liberal Christianity is not Christianity at all. The man who believes that he is redeemed by the blood of a divine Saviour dying for him upon a cross is of a totally different character from the man who thinks that he may redeem himself by a Christ-like attitude wrought out from within his own being. “There is indeed no alternative,” Professor Warfield wrote, “The redeemed in the blood of Christ, after all is said, are a PEOPLE APART. Call them ‘Christians,’ or call them what you please, they are of a specifically different religion from those who know no such experience.”2

There are a number of passages that express very clearly Christ’s own teaching on His death, such as Matthew 20:28 (cf. Mark 20:45) and John 10:11, but none are clearer than the passage to which we now come in our study of the Lord’s Supper, Mark 14:22-25 (cf. Matt. 26:26-29). In Mark 10:45 He taught that His death was a voluntary propitiatory ransom price paid vicariously for culprits under judgment. With that important revelation He overthrew all so-called “Moral Influence” theories of the atonement. In this passage He contends that His death is the voluntary, penal sacrifice that established a covenant providing for its recipients the remission of sins (the remission of sins is specifically mentioned in the Matthaean parallel passage). There is church-founding and building power in these great truths.

The institution of the Lord’s Supper took place at the time of the observance of the last Passover by the Lord and His apostles. The Passover ritual involved a preliminary course, with a word of blessing by the Paterfamilias spoken over a first cup of wine. The preliminary dish consisted of green herbs, bitter herbs, and a sauce made of fruit puree, set on a table containing also a bowl of salt water to remind them of the tears shed while they were slaves in Egypt. Then the meal proper was served, but not yet eaten. A second cup of wine is put on the table, while the second part of the ritual, the explanation of the meaning of the Passover by the Paterfamilias, takes place. The first part of the Hallel, Psalms 113-14, is sung here. At that time the third feature of the ritual, the partaking of the dinner itself, takes place. Grace is spoken by the Paterfamilias over the unleavened bread, the aphikomen (half a cake of unleavened bread). It is probably at this point that our Lord instituted the Lord’s Supper. The meal itself consisted of the paschal lamb, the bread, bitter herbs dipped in sauce, the charoseth, and the lamb wrapped together. After prayer a third cup of wine was drunk. It is this third cup that is most likely the cup of the Lord’s Supper, for it was called by the Jews, just as Paul calls the Christian cup, “the cup of blessing” (cf. 1 Cor. 10:10). Finally, the service was closed over a fourth cup, amid praise and the singing of the remainder of the Hallel, Psalms 115-18. It is against this background that Mark gives his account of the last passover and the first Lord’s Supper, to which we turn now.3

The Ceremony of the Bread

Mark begins his account of the supper with, “And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, Take, eat; this is my body” (14:22). “Two lines meet in the guest chamber where Jesus is seated,” Schilder declares, “that of the Old and of the New Testament. Now the switch is thrown over. Fleshly Israel will no longer go up to celebrate the Passover according to the old law. Instead, spiritual Israel will rise from the table presently, will go out to celebrate a better Passover of fulfillment, the Holy Supper.”4 The altars of the Old Covenant ritual are now to be supplanted by the table of the New. The blood sacrifices will no longer be offered, for the blood sacrifice of the Lamb of God will be offered once and for all. Up to this time every believing eye looked forward to the coming of the Lamb of God. From now on believing eyes will look forward to the atoning work that shall shortly be accomplished.

For a moment think of the thoughts that crossed the minds of those who participated in this ritual. For the apostles, as they took the lamb, they reflected upon the deliverance that Israel experienced from the bondage to Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Perhaps they also reflected upon the bondage to sin and the freedom from its penalty they would enjoy by the suffering of the Antitype, although there is no clear evidence that they, as yet, understood very well what He would do. They, however, did reflect upon freedom from bondage. In our Lord’s case, however, all was different. When He took the lamb, He knew that it pointed to His soon death. In fact, the lamb condemned Him to death as the condition for the purchase of their freedom. They reflected upon freedom and life, He upon the bondage of their sin and His death for them.

The opening words, “Jesus took bread,” are significant. The bread is taken first since the bread represents the body of Christ, and the body was the necessary means to the incarnation and the work He was to do (cf. Heb. 10:5). The bread is normally broken before it is eaten, and the breaking of it points to His death.

After taking the bread, blessing it, and breaking it, Jesus gave it to the disciples. The actions of our Lord indicate in themselves the divine initiative in all the saving work. He “gave it to them.” Like a good surveyor, who must place his transit-compass at the right point, or all of his measurements will be askew, so in all the discussion of spiritual things we must begin with God. Sin has brought disorder and chaos in the world, and, if we are to find the right place to begin in the matter of salvation, we must begin with God. Even H. G. Wells said, “Until man finds God, and is found of God, he begins at no beginning and comes to no ending.” In the Bible, theology begins with God, and salvation begins with his initiative in His provision of atonement and application of it to elect sinners. Jesus took bread, and Jesus gave it to them. We are not saved because we want God, but because He wants us and comes to us by the Son and the Spirit.

In the expression, “this is my body,” we have that which has been a theological battleground for centuries, as any student of the Reformation will know. We shall not have time to discuss the doctrines of transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and of the spiritual presence of Christ in the elements. There is much that can be said for the view that Christ is spiritually present in the elements, but the overriding force of the words of our Lord to Paul has to do with the remembrance of Him in the supper. A memorial view, providing it does not suggest that the benefits of the supper are traceable to our work of remembering apart from the divine activity of enabling us to remember and receive the blessing from that remembering, appears to be most congenial with the Old Testament teaching and Paul’s New Testament exposition. One thing is certain: Our Lord did not teach that the bread was literally His body. In the Council of Trent it is said, “if anyone shall say that in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist there remains the substance of bread and wine together with the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and shall deny that marvelous and unique conversion of the entire substance of wine into His Blood, while the species of bread and wine alone remain, a conversion which the Catholic Church most fittingly terms transubstantiation, let him be anathema.” It is the conviction of this church that, while the appearances, or accidents (to use the technical terms), remain, such as the shape, size, color, and taste of bread remain, the senses are to be denied. “Judge not by the taste, but by faith,” Cyril of Jerusalem affirmed.

The copula, “is,” is not that of identity, but of symbolic relationship, — a common usage, both in Greek and in English. It is the usage found in Matthew 13:38, “the field is the world.” That is, “is” is used in the sense of represents (cf. John 8:12; 10:9; 1 Cor. 10:4; Rev. 1:20). “How could it mean anything else when Christ sat there in His body, and His blood was in in His veins?”5 MacLaren asks.

Very interesting questions are raised by transubstantiation, some arising out of the fact that the Sacrament of the Eucharist was often celebrated in old cathedrals plentiful with rats and mice. The question inevitably arose, “If a mouse should come out while the service was in progress and eat of the bread, did the mouse eat the body of Christ?” When asked about this, Thomas Aquinas, the theologian of the Roman Church, was very consistent. He said that they did eat His body!

The “this” of “this is my body” includes the idea of the breaking of the bread. In other words, the full meaning of “this” is “this (broken) bread) is my body.” It, therefore, contains a reference to the sufferings and death of our Lord, and, as M’Neile says, “virtually includes the to huper humon (lit., which is for you) of S. Paul.”6

In the Lukan account the Lord adds the words, “this do in remembrance of me” (22:19), It is my opinion that this is implied in the other accounts. He says, “this is MY body.” What is most remarkable about the words is the fact that He was telling these young Jewish men that they should no longer celebrate the God-appointed festival of the Passover and substitute in its place a remembrance of Him! Do not think of Moses; think of Mel It must have been a staggering thing to them, if they thought upon the transformation of the ceremony, from Passover to Lord’s Supper. And, the fact that He made this significant demand of them, and the fact that they accepted this startling change of ceremony tell us much of the authority and dignity of the King. It was a plain statement to the effect that He was the true passover lamb, that His death is the real atoning sacrifice, and that His blood is the genuine spiritual safety of the believer. Marvelous indeed!

The Ceremony of the Cup

The background of this part of the ceremony is Exodus twenty-four and the ratification of the Old Covenant, a conditional covenant that had to do with the responsibility of the nation to obey the Mosaic Law. The ratification of the covenant was by means of a blood sacrifice. When Moses took the blood of the sacrifice and sprinkled it upon the people, he said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words” (Exod. 24:8). It is the statement that our Lord alludes to in His ratification of the New Covenant here.

The opening words of verse four, “This is my blood of the new testament,” are probably the most important statement of the section on the doctrine of the atonement. The word, “blood,” is important and stresses the fact that the death He would die was a violent death by sacrifice (cf. Num. 35:33). “Blood” means more than simply death; it signifies violent death. It was that kind of death that Jesus must die. It must be a sacrificial death.7

The term, “new covenant,” is, of course, a reference to Jeremiah 31:31-34, referring to the promise of the Lord to provide the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the forgiveness of sins. It was an unconditional covenant, that is, the promises contained within it were unilaterally to be fulfilled by God. They had no work to do to inherit them. It was wholly of grace. This covenant included within it not only the true believing national seed of Abraham, the remnant according to the election of grace, but also all of the believing Gentile seed of Abraham, for the latter were also included in the covenantal program (cf. Gen. 12:1-3; Rom. 4:9-25; 11:1-36; Gal. 3:1-29, etc.).

Covenants were concluded by sacrifices, so the statement of our Lord is to be understood as referring to a New Covenant grounded upon a new and final sacrifice.

The term, “shed,” is also important. First, notice that it is “shed,” not “spilled.” The reference is to the shedding of the blood of a sacrifice. A violent death is again in the foreground. It could hardly be stressed more that there can be no special relationship between God and His chosen people apart from an atoning, substitutionary shedding of the blood of a sacrifice (cf. Heb. 9:22). And in this case the price of our redemption is the highest price ever paid for anything in this universe. Not one drop of it can be wasted, an incidental reason why the death of our Lord and the intent of the sacrifice was directed toward a particular people, His elect. It is for them that the blood was shed. Universal redemption founders at this point, for ultimately, if it does not fail by crashing against the Scylla of universalism, it is swallowed up in the Charybdis of its doctrine of a frustrated deity. Sovereignty, thus, becomes a mockery, as one of the poets put it:

The universe He fain would save,
But longs for what He cannot have;
We therefore worship, praise, and laud

The words, “for many” (Gr., huper pollon), include all the elect, being taken from Isaiah 53:11-12 and, thus, are inclusive of elect Israel and all who form part of the Abrahamic Covenant. As the Apostle Paul indicates in Romans eleven, we elect Gentiles partake of the covenant promises by grace. Thus, the words refer to the definite company of God’s elect, but we should note that He says, “many.” We are not to think of the elect as a small company, as if our God is a little God. The number of the redeemed is innumerable (cf. Rev. 7:9-17). If, as many believe, the term “many” is a Hebraic way of saying all — and there is good support for this view —then, of course, the reference is to all without distinction, not all without exception.

The practical importance of the doctrine of unconditional election and of particular redemption is emphasized by George Whitefield in one of his characteristic statements,” This is one reason, among many others, why I admire the doctrine of election, and am convinced that it should have a place in gospel ministrations, and should be insisted on with faithfulness and care. It has a natural tendency to rouse the soul out of its carnal security, and therefore many carnal men cry out against it; whereas universal redemption is a notion sadly adapted to keep the soul in its lethargic, sleepy condition; and therefore so many natural men admire and applaud it.”9

The preposition, “for,” probably indicates substitution, the sense of the passage apparently demanding it (cf. Matt. 26:28).10

The phrase, “for the remission of sins,” is found in Matthew 26:28, but omitted here. It refers to the goal of the sacrifice. The covenant blood is shed for the oblivion of the sins of His people. The end of the death is pardon, extended on the ground of the death. Remission is the remitting of merited punishment and, therefore, it is a judicial term. His death is a penal sacrifice; it is a payment for the penalty of sin. The “many” bear the penalty in their substitute and go free. Thus, in this passage, as in Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45, there is a reference to the voluntary, penal substitutionary death of the Lamb of God. We are sometimes told that Christ did not teach the doctrine of the atonement but, if He established the Lord’s Supper (and no one denies it), then what did He mean by these symbols but that His death was an atonement for sin?

The Lord’s Supper and the Great Supper

The exaltation of Christ (Mark 14:25). This saying converts the memorial into a prophecy of the second coming and the Messianic Kingdom. The New Covenant is to issue in a new day. And the first implication of His words is that He shall survive His death and reach by resurrection His exalted state and position of King (cf. Luke 22:16, 18, 19: cf. Mark 14:9).

The consummation of the Kingdom (14:25). Luke uses the term, “fulfilled” (22:16), stressing that the program of redemption climaxes in the Kingdom festival. He said that they were to never forget His death, implying that the power of His death had eternal meaning. The Supper, would, therefore, be a standing expression of His mistaken estimate of Himself and His work, if it were not to find its full perfecting in the life beyond the grave.

The convention of the redeemed (14:25). The phrase “with you” is added to “drink it” of this verse in the Matthaean version, and it marks the participation of the redeemed in the fulfillment of His work’s purpose. The cross and the communion lead on to the coming and kingdom. Good Friday via Easter leads on to Epiphany. In the meantime we meet often and feed on the bread and wine of our salvation.


First, there is written unmistakably on the Supper, then, the teaching of Jesus Christ on His death. He not only wishes it to be kept in thankful remembrance, rather than His life, His miracles, and His ethics, but He desires one aspect of it to be held high above everything else. It is this: He is the true passover lamb, whose blood sacrifice under punishment establishes a New Covenant with the forgiveness of sins for His people (cf. Matt. 1:21). He put aside the ancient festival and substituted His own, an act either of extreme arrogance and rebellion or of the calm consciousness that He was the one to whom it pointed. A genuine believer can have no doubt about the right answer to that question.

Second, Christ’s teaching was given to believers, men who had found virtue in His blood that was to be shed, in the full atonement that would be made. They, like you who believe, had come to admire His justice in the demand that there be a full payment for sin, and to love Him for His love in the provision of the payment, the costly sacrifice of the Son of God’s love, the Lord Jesus Christ. May that be the response of all who hear or read of Him.

1 Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Essence of Christianity and the Cross of Christ,” The Person and Work of Christ, ed. by Samuel G. Craig (Philadelphia, 1950), p. 530.

2 Ibid.

3 Cf. Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (London, 1966), pp. 57-60; Edersheim, II, 490-512.

4 Schilder, p. 157.

5 Maclaren, II, 176.

6 Alan Hugh M’Neile, The Gospel According to St. Mattew (London, 1952), p. 382.

7 Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids, 1955), p. 114.

8 Peter H. Elersveld, “The Divine Initiative,” If I Had Only One Sermon to Preach, ed. by Ralph G. Turnbull (Grand Rapids, 1966), p. 51.

9 George Whitefield, “Why Preach Electing Grace?,” a letter from George Whitefield to John Wesley, December 24, 1740 (Eldon College, N.C., n.d.), p. 8.

10 William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes (Grand Rapids, 1974), p. 507. Speaking of “many,” Lane writes, “The ‘many’ are the redeemed community who have experienced the remission of their sins in and through Jesus’ sacrifice and so are enabled to participate in the salvation provided under the new covenant” (ibid.).