Understanding the Lord’s Supper in its Historical Context.
As the hour approached for Jesus to be delivered up to the chief priests and scribes, He longed to share one last meal with His disciples. His desire was to leave with them a deep-seated, personal experience that would be brought to their memory with every meal they shared together from that time forward. “Do this in remembrance of Me.” (Luke 22:19)
It is hard for modern man to distance himself from hundreds of years of celebrating “Communion” with a wafer and a sip of juice, but we must peel off the traditions of men in order to encounter one of the most meaningful acts of Jesus’ earthly ministry!
One thing is certain: the intimate fellowship Jesus had with His disciples at the table spilled out into the early church as “love feasts”. (Jude 12) Tragically, just a few hundred years later, as the persecuted network of house churches (Rom 16) experienced their fresh freedom and excesses under Constantine, breaking bread became an institutionalized event. It evolved into a “liturgical and symbolic act”, with or without fellowship.
Thankfully we do have a few clues to the common practice know in the scriptures as “breaking bread” from the book of Acts. There we see that the apostle Paul (who was en-route to Rome to be questioned by Caesar) and the ship he was sailing on had been blown off course and driven aimlessly by the wind for two weeks. He told the huge crowd on board (276 people), who had not eaten in days, to eat and be strengthen for the upcoming ordeal:
Having said this, he took bread and gave thanks to God in the presence of all, and he broke it and began to eat. All of them were encouraged and they themselves also took food. (Acts 27:33-36)
In the culture of Paul’s day the head of the household would break bread and pass it out to all seated around the table BEFORE they actually started to eat the meal. It was the “opening act” before eating, expressing thanksgiving to God for provision and protection.
Jesus did a similar act when He feed the 5000 with bread and fish:
Ordering the people to sit down on the grass, He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward heaven, He blessed the food, and breaking the loaves He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds, and they all ate and were satisfied. (Mtt 14:19-20)
I want to state the case again clearly:
In the New Testament culture there was no concept of “breaking bread” without eating. Jesus left His church an example at the Last Supper of combining an ordinary meal with a ceremony that would bring the believers together in unity and in solemnity. “For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body [of the Lord] rightly.” (I Cor 11:29)
In his commentary on The Acts of the Apostles, Thomas Page offers us this realistic glimpse into the setting of breaking bread at mealtime.
At a meal he who presided first blessed and then broke bread. This act Jesus had performed during the Last Supper, and had by a solemn command added to it a special significance. Thenceforth with the disciples that special significance attached to the ‘breaking of bread’ at their common meals. To simply explain ‘BREAKING BREAD’ AS ‘The Holy Communion’, is to pervert the plain meaning of words, and to mar the picture of family life, which the text places before us as the ideal of the early believers.
Gathered Together to Break Bread
On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight.. (Acts 20:7)
Please note that this was not a farewell meeting for Paul, for then the day of the week would not have been mentioned, but the regular weekly assemblage of the saints. They came together, according to the text, primarily to break bread, and would now include the Lord’s Supper, which the Lord established on the night of His betrayal.
My hope and prayer for the church is that we would rediscover our dynamic New Testament roots and once again gather together on the first day of the week to break bread.
- We would share our food with each other and our spiritual gifts.
- We would linger long at the table and celebrate the Lord’s goodness in our lives and together “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” (I Cor 11:26)
I close with a passage from I Corinthians which offers us a unique, momentary glance into the inner workings of the early church as they assembled together.
“What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.” (I Cor 14:26)
Yours for the Coming King,