The Lord’s Supper is a unique Christian addition to corporate worship, though it finds roots in the Passover meal. The book of Acts describes the meal as “the breaking of bread” (2:42, 46; 20:7–11), and Paul says that he passed on what he calls “the Lord’s supper” (1 Cor 11:20) to the church, having received it from the Lord himself (v. 23). Based on the clear instructions in 1 Corinthians 11 and the accounts of the Last Supper in the synoptic gospels (Matt 26:17–30, Mark 14:12–26, Luke 22:7–39), the Lord’s Supper prescribed in 1 Corinthians 11 contains several elements: prayer of thanks (v. 24), breaking of the bread (v. 24), and eating and drinking of the bread (v. 24) and cup (v. 25). It appears to have originally been celebrated as part of a full meal (vv. 17–34), but eventually—perhaps because of the abuses mentioned in this passage—it was removed from the meal as a separate ritual observance within corporate worship. By the time Jude wrote his epistle, the meal was so closely associated with fellowship that it was called the “love feast” (Jude 12).
This meal is to be done “in remembrance” (anamnēsin) of Christ’s death for the sins of his people, the same kind of “memorial” God commanded of Israel in observing the Passover, an active reenactment of what God has done so that it shapes the worshiper. But it also serves another purpose. Earlier in chapter 10 of 1 Corinthians, Paul explains the significance of the ordinance:
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? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (vv. 16–17)
The word translated “participation” is the same word translated “fellowship” in Acts 2:42 (koinōnia)—a central devotion of the early church. It emphasizes the communion believers in the church have with one another because of their union with Christ himself. Participation in the Lord’s Table is fellowship with the sacrifice of Christ, and as believers share together and partake of the one bread and cup, they demonstrate together the unity and communion of the body. This is why the ordinance was given to the church and not just individuals—it is for the whole body to partake together. Members of the body of Christ, who have professed that membership through the sign of baptism (Acts 2:41), and who are living in unity with others in that body (1 Cor 11:28–34), renew their communion with Christ and with each other through this beautiful drama that Christ himself instituted.
We see each of these elements of the Lord’s Table as the liturgies of corporate worship develop and expand in the early church and Middle Ages:
- Prayer of thanks (eucharistéō)
- Breaking the bread (fraction)
- Distribution of the elements (“he gave it to his disciples”)
- “This is my body” and “This is my blood”
- Remembrance (anamnēsis)
- Communion (koinōnia)