Chapter 12 -- The Institution Op The Supper

“They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” (Acts 2:42.) Such is the sacred historian’s brief account of the ways of the first converts to Christianity after the day of Pentecost. The company in which they were found, and the teaching to which they were subject, these are classed together. Then, as a consequence, we learn of the religious exercises which characterized them; viz., the breaking of bread, and prayers; for by the omission of the conjunction and before “breaking of bread” in accordance with the reading of the best MSS., that and prayer are stated as characteristic actions of the Christian community. Here, then, for the first time after the institution of the supper, do we read of the Christians meeting to break bread together in remembrance of the Lord’s death; and from henceforth this peculiar Christian service is called the breaking of bread (Acts 20:7, 11) as well as the Lord’s Supper. (1 Cor. 11:20.) By the latter term we are reminded by whom it was instituted, by the former is expressed the action of those who partake of it.

Yet the action in itself was nothing new. With the simple meaning of the term the Jews were certainly familiar (Matt. 14:19; 15:36; Mark 8:6, 19; Lam. 4:4); nor were they strangers to the custom of breaking bread and drinking wine with mourners to comfort them. Of this Jeremiah writes (16:7); but, it is the marginal reading of the authorised version that conveys, what the Hebrew original expresses. What, however, was new, and peculiar too, was the interpretation the Lord gave to His act of breaking bread,

To comfort mourners for the dead, their friends, we learn, would break bread for them, and give them the cup of consolation for their father or their mother. It was all that friendship could do when death had entered the family, and bereavement pressed heavily on the sorrowing ones. Sweet, doubtless, such sympathy had often proved itself to be, as the loving care of friends thus displayed itself in the house, and on the day of sorrow; but sweet as it might be, the heart’s ache could not thereby be removed, nor the void which death had caused be thereby filled. But who could comfort the disciples for the death of their Master and Lord? No friends could be found to do it ] and worse than that, the world’s enmity they were about to experience in a way they had never felt it before. Yet a comfort, but far more than a comfort, would they find in breaking bread together in remembrance of the Lord’s death; for whilst friends might give to bereaved ones the cup of consolation, the disciples received from the hands of Christ Himself the cup of blessing. And yet more; for His death was their gain, how great soever was their sorrow in losing Him. Now indeed the thought was new, that the death of one could be productive of real, everlasting gain to others; yet so it was in the case of the Lord’s death, though in His only. This the disciples were to remember, and in the presence of the memorials of it to give thanks as they acknowledged it.

Of the institution of the Lord’s Supper we have four inspired accounts. Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us about it; and St. Paul, addressing the Corinthians, acquaints them with that which he had received direct from the Lord in glory concerning it. (1 Cor. 11:23.) When, and where the apostle of the Gentiles received it we are not told; but the fact that he did receive it direct from the Lord, years after He had ascended to the right hand of the Majesty on high, testifies of the desire that all His people, whether gathered out from Jews or from Gentiles, should equally, and in the same manner, announce His death till He come. Of these four accounts, one only is from the pen of an eyewitness, and a recipient of the elements from the Lord in person. As, however, we examine the four accounts, we have to confess that we should have lost something had any one of them been missing.

Had Matthew’s account been lost, we should not have known that the Lord, in giving the cup, said, “Drink ye all of it;” had that of Mark not survived to our day, we should not have known that they did all drink of it. (Mark 14:23.) Communion in one kind was not practised in the Lord’s presence, nor sustained by anything that fell from His lips. Again, Matthew, the eye-witness, has also recorded other words not met with elsewhere. For the remission of sins,” is an addition only found in this connection in his gospel. Now, comparing Jeremiah 31:31-34 with the four accounts of the Supper, we trace an important connection. Of all the Old Testament writers, Jeremiah is the only one who mentions the new covenant, though other prophets describe blessings to be enjoyed under it. The Lord is the first person in the New Testament who speaks of it, and He supplies an important link with reference to it. Jeremiah predicted the new covenant, and the blessings to be enjoyed under it; viz., the knowledge of God, and the forgiveness of sins; but he did not state on what sacrifice this covenant would be based. This the Lord did when He uttered the words, “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” (Matt. 26:28.) Thus His words, when giving the cup to His disciples, naturally recall to our mind the passage in Jeremiah, and show us that He revealed what the prophet could not; and when we remember the dispensational character of Matthew’s gospel, presenting as it does the Lord as Son of David, and Son of Abraham., is there not a propriety in the fullest reference to that covenant which concerns directly God’s earthly people, being found in the gospel, which more than any of the others presents the Lord in His special relation to them? Forgiveness of sins we enjoy now, and they will by-and-by; but they will only know it as part of the blessings of the new covenant, and when that covenant shall have been made with them. We who believe know it now, because the blood on which it will rest has been shed; so the blessing, based on the atoning work of the Lord, can be shared in by us whilst the Lord is in heaven.

Turning to Luke’s account, we learn what the other two evangelists do not make plain—how distinct was the Lord’s Supper from the paschal feast, though both were partaken of by the disciples at the same table, and on the same night. His account of the paschal feast is given us in chap. 22:15-18; his account of the institution of the supper follows in verses 19, 20. At the paschal feast the Lord had His place as one with them; at the supper He was, as it were, the host, dispensing that which He had provided to those who were the guests. How much surely we should have lost had Luke’s account not seen the light, or had it perished by the carelessness or hostility of man to the truth! for the beloved Physician it is, who has given us to understand that the Lord prized the opportunity of observing the passover— “With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer.” Matthew, who must have heard these words, has not repeated them. Luke, who certainly was not present, alone records them; and fitly does he do it, since the manhood of the Lord Jesus Christ comes out especially in his gospel. How the Lord Jesus then, as one of Israel, viewed the passover these words show us, and surely afford us instruction as to the light in which we should view the privilege, and the opportunity of now commemorating His death, which, when Israel shall enjoy the fruits of it, will cause them to relegate to a second place God’s memorable intervention in the past. (Jer. 23:7, 8.) God’s intervention was in the Lord’s eyes no light thing. How we who sit at His table view redemption by His blood may well be a question, when His words above quoted come before us.

Further, we learn from Luke’s account of what passed in that upper room, that though the Lord partook of the passover, He did not drink of the paschal cup, which it would seem had been handed to Him; for the historian wrote, “Having received a cup,”1 not “having taken it,” as our English translation would intimate. Now, in the original regulations about the passover there is no mention of a cup, and, as Deut. 16:3-8 shows us, there was originally no room for it; for the character of the feast in the month of Abib, as that chapter teaches us, was not one of joy; and no joy is mentioned as characteristic of a Jewish festival till the time arrived for keeping the feast of weeks, when, in the possession of the fruits of resurrection in the land, they were to rejoice. (Deut. 16:11.) What then God had instituted, to that the Lord conformed. Of that which man had added the Lord did not partake. He did not, however, condemn the introduction of the cup as wrong; but the time for joy in connection with full redemption not having come, He did not drink of it Himself, though, when He had given thanks, He handed it to His disciples to divide amongst themselves, saying, “I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come.” Thus far we have Luke’s account of the paschal feast. What follows is that of the supper.

This is an entirely new service, quite distinct from any of which Israel as such had been allowed to partake; but one in which all the children of God, of whatever nationality, are privileged to have part. What then is the character of this service? and what the meaning of it? Both these questions are answered by the Lord Himself. His action tells us of the one, His words teach us about the other. “He gave thanks.” Then the service is eucharistic indeed; for that was all that we are told that He did before He brake the bread, and gave it to the disciples. And a second time He gave thanks before He handed to them the cup of which they were to drink. That He gave thanks before handing the cup St. Luke and St. Paul imply; but Matthew and Mark expressly state it. Agreeing in this, they agree also in stating that He blessed (eujloghvsa") before He broke the bread, whereas St. Luke and St. Paul affirm He gave thanks (eujcaristhvsa"). The difference is not great, and admits probably of this explanation, that whilst the two latter give the character of His utterance, the others express the form in which it came forth. A eucharistic service then is that of the breaking of bread. He gave thanks, but in what terms we know not. Matthew, who must have heard it, is silent upon it; neither Mark, nor Luke, nor Paul have supplied the omission. It must have been a wonderful thanksgiving when the Lord gave thanks to God for the results of His atoning death, so soon to be an accomplished fact. Who on earth could enter into them as He could? Who knew like Him what the judgment of God was? Who could then understand but Himself what are the joys of the Father’s love, and the Father’s house? Full and perfect then must that thanksgiving have been, yet not a syllable of it has been preserved in God’s book. And rightly so; for since the Spirit of God is to direct us in our worship, the words of the Lord on that occasion have been carefully kept from us; and nowhere have we even the thanksgiving utterances of an apostle when breaking bread at the Lord’s table. Had it been otherwise, would not such have been used as a form? and no service at the Lord’s table would have been thought complete without them. But then dependence on the Holy Spirit’s guidance would have been really surrendered. Wisely, therefore, have the terms of the Lord’s thanksgiving been omitted from the account of His institution of the supper.

Are we on this account placed at a disadvantage? No; for we know what the character of the service is to be, and we know too, from the Lord’s action, how perfect in His eyes is His atoning work; for as He gave thanks, and that only, at the institution of the supper, we are taught that nothing needed to be, nothing could be, added to the value of His sacrificial work, and that nothing more would be wanted, than what He was about to do, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. No word have we here of prayer. What room could there be to ask for anything in the contemplation of accomplished atonement? Prayer may come in after the breaking of bread has taken place, as those gathered together think of saints unable to be present, or of souls still unsaved, or of anything else in connection with the Lord’s work or God’s purposes; but prayer in the place of thanksgiving, when met to break bread, is assuredly not in harmony with the Lord’s ways at His table; for the work is a perfect work, a finished work, as Scripture affirms (Heb. 10:14-18), and the Lord’s own action of giving thanks abundantly confirms.

The character of the service thus expressed, its meaning too was explained by Him, when He handed to His disciples first the bread, and then the wine— “This is my body, which is given for you;” “this cup is the new covenant in my “blood, which is shed for you.” What grace is expressed in these words, “My body given for you!” None could have lawfully demanded His death. “He made Himself,” said the Jews when delivering Him to Pilate, “the Son of God, and by our law He ought to die.” But He was, and is, the Son of God. None then could lawfully have demanded His death, though the Jews condemned Him as guilty of blasphemy, and accused Him of high treason to Pilate the governor. His statement about His person was true, and Pilate acquitted Him of any charge of which he could take cognizance. Yet He died. His body was given for us. He surrendered Himself. His blood was shed for us. Did God keep back anything that was for man’s good? The devil had persuaded Adam and Eve that He did. Now what an answer has God given to that! an answer such as no man could have expected, and one of which the devil then could have had no foreknowledge. For the death of His Son on the cross, not for man merely, but for sinners, was to be the overwhelming, the touching proof that God would withhold nothing of which we had need. “He spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all,” writes St. Paul to believers at Rome. (Rom. 8:32.) “He sent His Son,” writes John, “to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10.) Nor this only. The Son gave Himself, as Paul has taught us (Gal. 1:4; 2:20; 1 Tim. 2:6; Titus 2:14); but the apostle was not the first who declared that. The Son Himself announced it. (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; John 6:51.) The joy was His of declaring in plain words that He would surrender Himself to die, to glorify God and to save sinners.

In Matthew and Mark we read of His blood shed “for many.” In Luke it is “for you.” This makes the announcement more personal and pointed; and he is the only one of the four who tells us that the Lord spake thus, both at the giving of the bread and at the giving of the cup. Were the eleven then distressed at the prospect of His death? How fully would He comfort them by the institution of the supper. They were never to forget His death, yet their remembrance of it would have no tinge of sadness in it. It would give joy to their hearts; for atonement and redemption were effected by it, and forgiveness and justification flowed from it, all of which they would learn after that the Holy Ghost should have come to set forth its blessed results, and to teach them, and us of what the Lord’s presence on high is the witness.

Learning then, as they must have done from the Lord’s lips, what He thought of atonement by His blood, they also were taught how He would have them remember Him. “This do in remembrance of me.” Here again we are reminded that God’s thoughts are not as our thoughts. Men love to dwell on great and noble deeds of others done in their life. The Lord’s people were especially to remember Him in His death, and as dead; for the bread and the wine recall Him as actually dead, the former being the symbol of His body, and the latter of His blood, which in the supper is viewed as distinct from His body. Hence communion in one kind is a denial of the Lord’s death, for it regards the blood as not shed. It virtually presents Him to us as alive before death, in which case atonement has not been wrought: there is no forgiveness for our sins (Heb. 9:22), and the Lord abides alone. (John 12:24.)

But not only were those who had been with Him on earth thus to remember Him. All His people, from that day till the Church shall be taken, are in the same manner to remember Him. His enemies in the world would rejoice that He was dead (John 16:20), hoping thereby to have got rid for ever of Him whom they contemptuously called that deceiver,” oJ plavno" (Matt. 27:63), little knowing that they had, by their rejection of the Christ, paved the way for the appearance by-and-by of “the deceiver” indeed, oJ plavno", the antichrist. (2 John 7.) All the Lord’s people too would rejoice that He had died after He had risen again, reaping as they would the abiding fruits of His atoning death—sanctification, forgiveness, justification, and entrance into the holiest by His blood.

But when, and how often they were thus to remember Him the Lord does not specify in His word. We gather however from it when they met for that purpose; viz., on the first day of the week. (Acts 20:7.) At first it may have been that each day they broke bread together. Afterwards it certainly was done on the first day of the week, and for that special purpose did they at Troas assemble together. Prayer, preaching, teaching, are all useful and needful, but they do not supersede the necessity of meeting to break bread. When thus met there may be room for teaching. The Lord, after the breaking of bread, spoke what we have in John 14, if not also what is stated in chaps, 15, 16. And St. Paul at Troas discoursed for a long time when the company were assembled for the breaking of bread. Yet the purpose for which they came together was not to hear Paul, but to show the Lord’s death. Bearing this in mind, we shall not go to the Lord’s table to hear some gifted teacher, but to break bread in remembrance of the Lord Jesus Christ. Gift or no gift; will make no difference as to the motive which will take us to that meeting. We shall go to remember Him who once entered into death to save us. Edification by gift all should be thankful for, but the absence of it will keep none away from the table who know for what reason we are to assemble.

And how often can we thus meet? No limit is placed to this; and a word of the Lord, only preserved by St. Paul, makes this clear: “This do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.”2 At what period of the day should we break bread? some may ask. This too is left an open question. The supper was instituted in the evening. They met on that occasion at Troas at night. Probably the Corinthians too came together when the day had declined (1 Cor. 11:21); for the term dei'pnon, translated there supper, is not used in the New Testament of a morning meal. In Luke. 14:12 it is clearly used of the meal which succeeded dinner. But no rule is laid down as to the hour when we are to break bread, though the first day of the week is marked out as the one specially suited for that, on grounds which all can readily understand. But, how often besides Christians may break bread, is left to the Lord’s people to decide as they may be guided.

And now, ere concluding this article, a little verse, found only in Matt. (26:30) and Mark (14:26), but word for word the same in both, must receive a moment’s attention: “And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives.” If ever there was an occasion on which common sorrow might have outweighed common joy at the remembrance of the shelter from divine judgment by blood, it would have been on that evening when the Lord ate the last passover with His disciples. But instead of that, ere they left the upper-room they sung together to God; a hint for us, that no sorrow of whatever character is to override the heart’s joy, which flows from the remembrance of redemption. Their sorrow on losing the Lord was great (John 16:6), and He knew it; but their joy, as they recalled God’s interposition on behalf of Israel, was nevertheless to be expressed. So surely should it be with us. Troubles and sorrows, whether individual or otherwise, are not to be allowed to outweigh the common joy, when we meet to show the Lord’s death.

Thus far we have been considering Scriptures which tell us why we should break bread, and how we should do it. Other Scriptures give us practical teaching in connection with it. A consideration of these must be reserved for the following paper.

1 dexavmeno", “having received,” is the word used by Luke of the paschal cup; lambavnw is the verb used by all of the supper.

2 eij" thVn ejmhVn ajnavmnhsin. The word translated remembrance has an active signification of ‘recalling,’ or ‘calling to mind,’ as a memorial. ‘For the calling me to mind.’”—Note in New Translation of the New Testament. Published by G. Morrish, London.