The Lord’s Supper: Who & When?
Topic: Lord's Supper Passage: 1 Corinthians 10–11
We’ll be looking at a number of passages but refer to 1 Corinthians 10-11 the most. Next Sunday I’ll begin preaching through the book of Acts. Keep that in mind. Read through it this week. Get familiar with the turf. We’ll be in Acts for a good while. Every so often Ben will also lead us through the prophet Jonah. That’s what’s coming, Lord willing. Today, I’ll be finishing our series on the Lord’s Supper.
Reviewing Where, Why, & How
It’s been a couple of weeks so it might be good to review. We’ve already looked at the origin and purpose of the Lord’s Supper. We saw from the Gospels that the Lord’s Supper came from Jesus, and how Jesus fulfilled and transformed the Passover (Luke 22:15). Passover defined Israel as a community. As long as you identified with the lamb’s blood, you were delivered from death, freed from slavery, and in covenant with God. The meal shaped their identity.
Jesus’ death fulfilled all that the Passover pointed to. Through Jesus’ blood we experience the ultimate exodus. God delivers us from eternal death; God frees us from slavery to sin; God sets us apart as a people under a new covenant. The Lord’s Supper is the meal of the new covenant community. It shapes our identity around Christ’s death.
We then asked why we take the Lord’s Supper. There were four purposes. We take the Lord’s Supper to proclaim and remember God’s past deliverance in Christ (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:23-24, 26). We also take it to participate in the gospel’s benefits (1 Cor 10:16, 21). We also eat the Supper to renew our commitment to one another in Christ (1 Cor 10:17). And, we eat to anticipate Christ’s return in glory (1 Cor 11:26).
These purposes then shape how we come to the Supper. We come to the Lord’s Supper looking backwards to remember God’s past deliverance in Christ. We come looking upwards to receive the blessings of God’s new covenant. We come looking around at those people who share in Christ with us. We come looking forward in expectation of Jesus’ return. And, finally, we come looking within to see if our lives genuinely reflect the gospel. All of us are unworthy, but these five looks help us come in a worthy manner—with humility, repentance, deeper dependence on Christ, and with longing for his return.
So to this point we’ve asked where did the Lord’s Supper come from, why do we do it, and how should we participate? Today, we’re answering who and when: who should take the Lord’s Supper, and when should we do it?
A Few Considerations
Now, before answering those questions, let me say a few things. Many of you know that one reason we entered a series on the Supper is that the elders desired to serve you the Lord’s Supper more often. But as we talked with you, it seemed we all could benefit from further teaching on the Lord’s Supper before making any adjustments. We’re planning to talk with you further about this in the February members meeting. So please bring any further questions or input to that meeting.
Something else is that what we’ll cover today isn’t as explicitly laid out in Scripture. Meaning, there’s no direct command on who and when we should take the Supper. But we can draw inferences as multiple passages inform each other. So I’ll be drawing from a number of passages to make a point; and just prepare yourself to hold them in your mind all at the same time. The texts inform each other, and I think reveal some pretty clear patterns to imitate in our celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
One more thing. We’re addressing something very specific in the life of the church—the Lord’s Supper. And when you focus on something so specific for a while, it’s possible to lose sight of how it fits within the bigger picture. But consider for just a second how the Lord’s Supper affects discipleship, theology, life, and mission.
Celebrating the Lord’s Supper is a matter of basic discipleship, obedience to Christ. It’s a matter of following Christ’s words, “Do this in remembrance of me.” We do this to remember Christ. That remembrance isn’t a mere recollection of facts. Rather, the past re-enters our present, to shape our identity around Christ’s self-giving sacrifice.
The Lord’s Supper is also important for theology. Take the doctrine of Christ. One of the major concerns in church history was whether and how Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper. If Christ is present in the Supper, how should we say he’s present so that we don’t undermine his once-for-all, finished sacrifice?
Or take one’s doctrine of salvation? Is the Lord’s Supper something God uses to “infuse” grace to someone to maintain their state of justification, as Catholicism teaches? Or is it a sign by which our faith is strengthened as we keep looking to Christ in the gospel? One’s doctrine of the church is also affected. If the Supper is a new covenant meal, shouldn’t it belong only to the new covenant people? How does it connect with baptism, church membership, and church discipline?
The Lord’s Supper is also important for the Christian life. One of the big emphases we’ve noticed is what the Lord’s Supper says about our relationship to one another. First Corinthians 10:17, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” It’s the meal where the many become one. We’re reminded of how Christ’s death shapes our attitudes toward one another—how me must show grace and forgiveness and pursue unity with each other.
That becomes really crucial for mission as well. Think of Jesus’ words in John 17:23, “that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” When all kinds of ethnicities and cultures are rescued out of their various sins and come together as one people at the Supper: the world is shocked. The world is stumped over the depth of our unity. “We eat together? With thanksgiving and joy?” The only thing that makes sense of it all is Christ. Not political ideology, not shared interests, not present circumstances, not social status or ethnicity, but Christ.
When we eat together at the Supper, we become a visible testimony. We picture for the world that the cross saves sinners and the Spirit smashes our idols and pride and builds us up in love. The goal of Christian unity—which gets embodied at the Lord’s Supper—is world-wide witness. No wonder the Lord’s Supper is proclamation; it pictures the power of the gospel as we eat together. So, don’t miss the bigger picture. It’s all interconnected.
Who should take the Lord’s Supper?
Now, let’s get to our questions. Question number one: who should take the Lord’s Supper? You might notice that when we take the Lord’s Supper together, we usually “fence” the Table. We set up boundaries that we think reflect biblical patterns and which protect some from taking it in an unworthy manner. We usually say, “If you’re a member of Redeemer Church, or a baptized member in good standing with another gospel-preaching church, you’re welcome to partake of the Supper with us.” That statement summarizes our convictions on who should take the Supper.
Only believers in union with Christ
First of all, it seems most clear that only believers should take the Lord’s Supper. Part of this conviction comes from what the Lord’s Supper grew out of. The Passover meal was restricted to the old covenant community (Exod 12:43-45). It defined the old covenant community. So also the Lord’s Supper is restricted to the new covenant community. The Lord’s Supper defines the new covenant community.
If we ask who makes up the new covenant community? The answer is those who believe in the mediator of the new covenant, Jesus Christ. Those who’ve been cleansed by his blood. It’s those whose sins have been forgiven in Christ; those who have the Law of God written on the heart; those who know God, as the new covenant itself states in Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8.
This seems to be the working assumption whenever the Lord’s Supper comes up in the early church. Take 1 Corinthians 11:25 for example. Jesus himself made the Lord’s Supper a new covenant meal when he said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor 11:25). It’s a new covenant meal for a new covenant people, people who belong to that covenant. Or take 1 Corinthians 10:16, “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 Supper is for those who share in the benefits of Christ’s death.
Look also at 1 Corinthians 11:28-29. It says, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” Discerning the body is making sure our lives are genuine to Christ’s body given for us. Only believers can walk in that way; those freed from bondage to sin.
Another consideration is that the Lord’s Supper is for those who delight in proclaiming the Lord’s death and who can’t wait for Jesus to come back. That’s clear from 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.” The “you” is the church, the new covenant community who loves Christ.
Now, some have simply left it there—the Supper is open to all believers no matter what. Sometimes this is called “open communion.” But in doing so they’ve separated the new covenant meal, which is the Lord’s Supper, from the new covenant initiation, which is baptism.
Only believers who identify with Christ in baptism
That brings us to baptism. The Lord’s Supper is a meal for those who identify with Christ and his new covenant in baptism. That’s not just a Baptist conviction (e.g., Article VII in BF&M 2000), by the way. It’s something shared by most major denominations throughout church history. Even where convictions about baptism differ—like on whether to baptize infants—baptism is still a prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper.
The first consideration here is again to look at what the Lord’s Supper grew out of, the Passover. Exodus 12:48 said that “no uncircumcised person shall eat of [the Passover].” Under the old covenant, only those who were marked by physical circumcision were allowed to participate in the Passover. Circumcision was a one-time act that carried lasting significance—if you had it, then you (and your family) belonged to the covenant people. And then eating the Passover was done repeatedly to remind the people of the covenant they once entered and belonged to.
When we come to the New Testament, though, physical circumcision is no longer what marks God’s people. Galatians 6:15, “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but [this is what counts] a new creation.” Spiritual circumcision, the new creation marks God’s people through our union with Christ. But that union with Christ—it goes public through baptism.
Paul makes this connection in Colossians 2:11-12: “In [Christ] also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.” That is to say, when Christ died, your old self died with him. Circumcision is not a pleasant thing to consider—it’s intimate; it’s gross; it’s bloody. And that was the point all along. Christ’s “cutting off” in death fulfills what every prior “cutting off” in circumcision pointed to. When Christ was ‘cut off,’ your old sinful flesh was cut off with him.[i]
Then Paul makes this connection in verse 12: “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” In other words, baptism points to our union with Christ, by which we get the blessing of a new heart. Baptism is the public, visible sign that identifies us with Jesus and his new covenant blessings.[ii]
In this way, baptism becomes the initiation, the oath we take, the public marker of entrance into Christ and his new covenant community.[iii] It’s part of becoming a Christian.[iv] Just like the Passover meal was limited to those who entered the covenant community through circumcision, so also the Lord’s Supper is limited to those who enter the new covenant community through baptism.
That’s not to confuse faith with baptism, or to say that baptism regenerates people. It’s only to say that baptism “initiates the Christian life in a public sense.”[v] People cannot see faith in Christ. People can’t see the new covenant bond that we share with Christ. But Christ did intend for those invisible realities to be pictured. He intended for them to go public. That’s why he gave us baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Baptism is where our faith in Christ first goes public. It’s where we say Goodbye to the old life of sin and Hello to the new life in Christ—Romans 6. The Lord’s Supper is then the meal we keep celebrating to remind us of the new life in Christ we entered when we got baptized. Baptism is like putting on the team jersey before coming to play.
A few other things come into play here as well. The paradigm in the New Testament is that there’s no such thing as an un-baptized Christian. The various accounts of water baptism in Acts following belief in the gospel stress its importance for all believers.[vi] When Paul and Peter write to the churches, the over-riding assumption is that Christians know the significance of their baptism (Rom 6:1-11; Col 2:11-12; 1 Pet 3:21). In Acts 18:8, we learn that many of the Corinthians not only believed Paul but were also baptized. Keep that in mind when you read his instructions about the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 10-11. It’s coming to those who were baptized (cf. 1 Cor 1:13-17).
On a more practical note, having only baptized believers take the Lord’s Supper goes hand-in-hand with the church discerning whether conversion is truly evident prior to a believer participating in the Lord’s Supper. Delaying participation in the Supper until after baptism serves the professing believer by protecting them from taking the Supper in vain should their profession of faith not be genuine. This goes hand-in-hand with Paul exhorting believers to examine themselves before participating in the Supper (1 Cor 11:27-29). Would not the call to self-examination also include examining whether one has truly submitted to Christ’s command to be baptized?
A father who was once letting his son take the Lord’s Supper apart from baptism once objected that making baptism a prerequisite was simply “legalism.” But I have to ask, is encouraging people to obey Jesus’ command to be baptized really legalism? We’re not asking them to do it in order to be saved; we’re asking them to do it because that’s what the saved do. If a parent discerns that their child is saved—enough to have them share in the new covenant meal—then they should also encourage the same child to follow through with baptism, one of the initial steps in making disciples.
When the people asked Peter how to respond to the gospel in Acts 2, he said, “Repent and be baptized…” That’s how the Lord added them to the new covenant community. We would be more than excited to walk with your child toward baptism and membership and celebrating the Lord’s Supper. We laid out a plan for this a year ago, and if you want me to send it to you again, email me.
And maybe a further note for us parents is this. I know how hard it may be for some not to allow your child to participate in the Lord’s Supper. But they need to see what not taking the Supper means—it means that they’re not yet part of the church. Use the Lord’s Supper as an occasion to instruct your children on what it means to be in Christ and what it means to belong to his people. Help them see that just because they attend Redeemer doesn’t mean they’re part of the redeemed. They too must repent and be baptized and make Jesus their own.
Same is true for any unbeliever who happens to gather with us. The Lord’s Supper powerfully illustrates how the benefits of Christ’s death are not yet theirs. When the plate passes by and they don’t take, it’s a sign of the Christ they are missing, the community they are missing. Then we call them to repent and be baptized and join the rest of us who don’t deserve to be united with Christ.
Only for those submitting to Christ in a local church
Moving on to one last point here: there’s also the question of being a member in good standing with a local church. In “good standing” basically means you’re not under a church’s discipline. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:11 not even to eat with someone who’s living in sin without repentance. It’s quite likely that Paul even has the Lord’s Supper in mind since he mentions Christ being the Passover lamb in 5:7. But even if it’s not, the point is clear that we cannot pretend to have fellowship at the Supper with someone refusing to follow Jesus even though he boasts about it with his mouth.
This is one reason why the last step in church discipline is sometimes called ex-communication. The church is publicly barring someone from participating in communion at the Lord’s Supper. It’s a very sobering and grievous action that we shouldn’t take lightly. This is why many in Baptist history often connected the Lord’s Supper to belonging and being accountable to a local church. Submission to Christ and his word took place within the local church.[vii] No such thing as lone ranger Christianity.
Even in 1 Corinthians 10:17 we saw that the Lord’s Supper is the place where the many become one. The visible ordinances identify and mark off the visible church from the world. It’s true that the Holy Spirit joins us to 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.
But whenever someone’s unrepentant lifestyle calls into question their conversion to Christ, the church must act accordingly to preserve the gospel and the church’s well-being.[viii] Though we hope it never comes for anyone, it may mean excommunication. Accountability to a local church and church discipline also find themselves linked to the Lord’s Supper. That answers who—only believers, only the baptized, only those submitting to Christ in a local church…
When should we take the Lord’s Supper?
Let’s now look at when—when should we take the Lord’s Supper? There’s not much evidence in the New Testament for answering this question. So we must be charitable in our judgments. But there seem to be a few pointers that suggest taking the Supper more often is better than relegating it to a forgotten meal tacked on the end of a Sunday evening service once a quarter.
Now, some point to Acts 2:42 and Acts 20:7. Acts 2:42, “And they devoted [or were continually devoting] themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of [the] bread and the prayers.” Then Acts 20:7, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread…”
A very common and also a very early interpretation—and by early I mean second-century-church early—is that “the breaking of [the] bread” must refer to the Lord’s Supper.[ix] It falls within a formal church gathering. It happens on the first day of the week, Sunday. It’s similar to the way Luke describes Jesus breaking bread at the Last Supper (cf. Luke 22:19 with 24:30, 35). It must be the Lord’s Supper; and so here are two examples of the early church taking the Supper at least weekly…
Perhaps. Perhaps. But it’s hard to tell for two reasons at least. One, Luke uses the same language to refer to other common meals, like he does in Acts 2:46 where they break bread daily in their homes (cf. also Luke 24:35). Two, the Lord’s Supper was usually celebrated in conjunction with a larger meal, much like the Last Supper was.[x] So, the Lord’s Supper could be included in “the breaking of bread”—and if so then this may be one pointer that it was something they celebrated weekly. But it’s not certain.
A better pointer is 1 Corinthians 11. The Lord’s Supper was celebrated by the church when they gathered as the church. So not something done one-on-one or in small groups, but when they gathered as the church. Paul repeats the same word throughout 1 Corinthians 11—“when you come together” (1 Cor 11:17); “when you come together as a church” (1 Cor 11:18; cf. 11:20, 33, 34). In 1 Corinthians 14:23 and 26 it’s when the whole church was gathered for worship and mutual edification.
That also fits with 10:16, where the Lord’s Supper is the meal where the many members become one. The many can’t become one unless the many are gathered. So there’s good indication that early church took the Supper whenever they gathered as the church. When did they gather as a whole church? Weekly, on the Lord’s Day.[xi]
But there’s one more pointer, maybe the most significant: the nature of the Supper determines the frequency. If it’s a mere symbol, if it’s just a casual reminder, then I can see how churches have moved to taking the Supper less and less often.
But what if it’s much more than that? What if the Lord’s Supper is what we’ve seen over the last few weeks the Bible says it is? It’s the meal that shapes the identity of the new covenant people. It’s the visible proclamation of the gospel that complements the verbal proclamation of the gospel. It’s the meal where we’re nourished by Christ as the gospel of Jesus’ body and blood are explained once again. It’s the place where Jesus’ invitation to sit at his table in the kingdom of God becomes tangible.
It’s the meal where the many become one, for we all partake of the one bread. It’s where we come together as a church and examine how much our own relationships can further reflect the gospel pattern of self-giving love. It’s not just a symbol; it stands as a prophetic sign that not only has Christ claimed victory over sin and death, but he’s coming again to reclaim the whole world for himself. When you put it like that, who wouldn’t want to celebrate it more often?!
Now, it’s true that some people fear that by taking the Supper more often, it can become rote and routine. But we could say the same thing for the preaching of the word and singing hymns and praying together every week and showing up. Any habit of grace can become routine—and when they do, it’s a matter of the heart that needs evaluation not necessarily the practice. We need to be praying for God to protect us from dullness of heart in everything we do often. We need to be crying out for God to fill us with the joy of the Holy Spirit every week, no matter what components may be added to or taken from our gatherings from week to week.
Here’s what the elders are thinking. It’s not that taking the Supper monthly as we have is sinful. If we do end up celebrating the Supper more often, we’d see it as moving from good to better. So what we’ll propose in the February meeting is—as a first step—taking the Lord’s Supper twice a month. That may be a good first step to take, and we’ll see how it goes. Our concern is not neglecting to give you something that’s meant to bless you and strengthen your faith. Taking it twice a month will also give those who served in nursery on the first Sunday or missed due to illness another opportunity to participate on the third Sunday. We can talk more about it in February. In the meantime, be praying for us and for the body to be united, however we move forward.
And also consider how the Lord’s Supper will begin to shape your identity each time you take it together. Or better, how will the gospel the Lord’s Supper proclaims shape your identity further? How will you continue identifying with Christ’s cross? How will you pursue attitudes that picture Christ’s reconciliation of his people into one body? How will the proclamation in the Supper compel you to proclaim the death of Christ to your neighbors and the nations? What kind of witness will our gatherings offer the world? Will we be the alternative community where self-righteousness and racism and pride were crucified with Christ, and where Christ becomes preeminent and his love transforms us?
At the end of the day, what the Lord’s Supper tells the world is that we’re a gospel people. We’re a Christ people. We’re not a Republican people. We’re not a Democratic people. We’re not a Libertarian people. We’re not an ethnocentric people. We’re not a people gravitating toward a favorite hobby or sport or research interest. We belong to Christ’s kingdom. We’re gospel people; and may we never forget it. For the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.
[i]Cf. discussion in Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, WBC 44 (Dallas: Word, 2000), 114-18.
[ii]For a fuller treatment of baptism and its connection to the new covenant and the Lord’s Supper, see Bobby Jamieson, Going Public (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 55-135.
[iii]In Acts 2:41-42, those who break bread together in the temple—which is likely an early expression for taking the Lord’s Supper (cf. Acts 20:7)—are those who believed the gospel and were baptized into the church.
[iv]See R. H. Stein, “Baptism and Becoming a Christian in the New Testament,” SBJT (Spring 1998): 6-17.
[v]R. Michael Allen, Justification and the Gospel (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 67. See also Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 268.
[vi]Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12, 13, 36, 38; 9:18; 10:47-48; 16:15, 33; 19:5; 22:16.
[vii]The discipline practiced by an identifiable assembly of believers, the leadership given over definable congregations, the submission offered to particular elders, the interdependence expressed by each body member, and the corporate nature of the Christian life together make membership to a local church crucial (Matt 18:17-20; Acts 20:28; Rom 12:4-16; 16:1-5; 1 Cor 5:1-13; 12:12-31; 1 Thess 5:12-13; 1 Tim 5:9-18; Heb 10:25; 13:17; 1 Pet 5:2-3).
[viii]That doesn’t mean that only members of our local church are allowed at the Supper? At this point in our study, we have said no. Some say yes, and that would mean they hold to a closed view of the Lord’s Supper—it’s closed to members only. I can even see the pastoral wisdom behind this. But Acts 20:7 keeps us from going there, since Paul seems to “break bread” together with Luke and others in Troas. So we practice what’s called “close” communion—it’s not “open” or “closed” but “close.”
[ix]Cf. Didache 9:3, 4; 14:1; Ignatius, To the Ephesians 20:2; Justin Martyr, The First Apology, 67. Others who associate “the breaking of bread” with the Lord’s Supper include John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, LCC (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 4.17.44; F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 73; Craig S. Keener, Acts, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 1003-04. However, others are more cautious about drawing such a conclusion: Darrell L. Bock, Acts, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 150-51; David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 161, 507.
[x]See the phrase “after supper” in 1 Corinthians 11:25 (cf. Luke 22:20; Acts 2:46; 20:7).
[xi]It’s also possible that the phrase “as often as you drink it” and “as often as you eat…” in 1 Corinthians 11:25-26 hints that the church took the Supper often.
More in The Lord's Supper
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January 1, 2017The Lord's Supper: Its Origin & Purpose