Why We Eat the Lord's Supper, Part 1

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

There are two ordinances that the Lord Jesus commanded for his church to perform. One is baptism, the other the Lord's Supper. I was convicted a few weeks ago, while reading a book on baptism, that for many years I have not preached on the meaning of the Lord's Supper. I preached four messages on baptism in 1997. But I have never done anything comparable on the Lord's Supper. So my intention is to devote this Sunday and the next to unfolding the meaning of the Lord's Supper from the New Testament.

Focus with History

A little history might help us focus here. On March 20, 1531 in the Netherlands a Baptist named Sicke Snyder (proper name, Freerks) was beheaded for being baptized as a believer. In the Criminal Sentence Book of the Court of Friesland, it reads: "Sicke Freerks, on this 20th of March, 1531, is condemned by the Court to be executed with the sword; his body shall be laid on the wheel, and his head set upon a stake, because he has been rebaptized, and perseveres in that baptism."1

Twenty years later across the English Channel from 1555 to 1558 (the reign of bloody Queen Mary), 288 Protestant Reformers were burned at the stake. Of these, 1 was an archbishop, 4 were bishops, 21 were clergymen, 55 were women, and 4 were children.2 They included John Rogers, John Hooper, Rowland Taylor, Robert Ferrar, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, John Philpot, and Thomas Cranmer. Why were they burned by the Roman Catholic Queen? There was one central issue: the meaning of the Lord's Supper.

Here are the words of John Charles Ryle to explain:

The doctrine in question was the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the consecrated elements of bread and wine in the Lord's Supper. Did they, or did they not believe that the body and blood of Christ were really, that is corporally, literally, locally, and materially, present under the forms of bread and wine after the words of consecration were pronounced? Did they or did they not believe that the real body of Christ, which was born of the Virgin Mary, was present on the so-called altar so soon as the mystical words had passed the lips of the priest? Did they or did they not? That was the simple question. If they did not believe and admit it, they were burned.3

I mention these two facts - the martyrdom of those who held that only believers shall be baptized, and the martyrdom of those who denied that the physical body of Christ was really there in the form of bread and wine - to show that there was once a time when the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper carried meanings that were very important - worth dying for, and some thought, worth killing for.

One of the happy things about being a Baptist - and I only mention it in passing, because it is good to remember it in these volatile days of controversy around the world - is that during the history of our existence, we have never been on the killing side of that transaction.

What Was at Stake?

Perhaps I should give just a brief word about why so much was at stake. With regard to baptism one crucial issue in the 16th century was the relationship between church and state. They were so interwoven that anything which threatened to distinguish between church and population also threatened the secular-religious authority over the population. If baptism was a voluntary act of a believer, then church would become a free and voluntary assembly. And that would compromise the rule of secular-religious authority over the population as a whole. When Felix Manz was drowned in 1527 in Switzerland for being a Baptist, the court records said, "They do not allow Infant Baptism. In this way they will put an end to secular authority."4 In other words, being a Baptist was a capital crime because it was seen as treason against the secular authority.

With regard to the Lord's Supper, the issue was more directly theological, but also political. Would England be a Catholic or a Protestant nation? Both used the sword against the other. So when the Catholics ruled, any serious attack on Roman Catholic doctrine was an attack on the crown. And there was no more serious attack than the rejection of the heart of the Catholic Mass. The heart of the Mass was the real physical, material presence of the incarnate body of Christ in the form of bread and wine. This was essential, not peripheral, because in the consecrating words of the priest another crucial sacrifice happened with this body. This is what the Protestant Reformers saw. And this is what they believed undermined the gospel of Christ crucified once for all for our sins.

Listen to Bishop J. C. Ryle express the Protestant conviction:

Grant for a moment that the Lord's Supper is a sacrifice, and not a sacrament . . . You spoil the blessed doctrine of Christ's finished work when he died on the cross. A sacrifice that needs to be repeated is not a perfect and complete thing. You spoil the priestly office of Christ. If there are priests that can offer an acceptable sacrifice to God besides Him, the great High Priest is robbed of His glory. . . . You overthrow the true doctrine of Christ's human nature. If the body born of the virgin Mary can be in more places than one at the same time, it is not a body like our own, and Jesus was not the "last Adam" in the truth of our nature.5

So, as we spend two weeks on this doctrine of the Lord's Supper, let no one say, "What's the big deal?" Rather let us humble ourselves and realize that while we may enjoy freedom of religion in this country, so that no one is burned or beheaded for religious reasons, we may also have lost all sense of the weight and wonder of what Christ has given us in the ordinances of his church. It would do us well to admit that if their age was marked by brutality, ours is marked by superficiality. They may have weighed things differently than we would, but it may be that we have lost the capacity to feel weighty truth at all.

Today I want to go to the heart of what Jesus meant by "This is my body" (1 Corinthians 11:24) and "This cup is the new covenant in my blood" (1 Corinthians 11:25; see Luke 22:20), or "This is my blood of the covenant" (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24). Let's read again 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 where Paul passes on the tradition that he received from the Lord:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Four Reasons Why "This Is My Body" Does Not Mean Jesus' Physical Body Materializes in the Bread

First, I give four reasons why "This is my body" (v. 24) does not mean: the physical body of the incarnate Christ materializes in or under the bread through priestly consecration. Then I will give three positive meanings of "This is my body" and "This is my blood." First, then, why doesn't, "This is my body" mean, this bread has become the physical, material, incarnate body of Jesus?

1. The Natural Understanding: Representation

The most natural way to understand someone who picks up a thing and says that it is a person's body, is that he means it represents their body, not that it has turned into their body. For example, we show someone a picture of our family and say, "This is my family." They know we don't mean that this picture has mystically or physically turned into my family. Or we point to an actor on the stage of a Civil War reenactment and say, "That's Abraham Lincoln." Or we read the Chronicles of Narnia and point to Aslan and say, "That's Jesus Christ."

This is the most natural way to understand the words, "This is my body." This represents my body. It's very telling that in the modern Catholic Catechism the word "represents" is used but it is regularly hyphenated: re-presents. The implication seems to be: there is a real physical re-presenting of Christ. His physical body is presented again. I think that is an unnatural way of reading these words.

2. The Parallelism Between Bread/Body and Cup/New Covenant

If the words, "This [bread] is my body" was intended to mean, "This [bread] has turned into my physical body," then we would expect the same meaning to hold for the statement about the cup. In verse 25 he says, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood." Here the words "This cup is the new covenant" are not forced to mean: The cup has turned into a covenant. Everyone agrees that the cup stands for its contents, and the blood secures or purchases or guarantees the blessings of the covenant. So if we are willing to let "This cup is the new covenant" mean something more natural than "This cup has turned into the new covenant," we should be willing to let "This bread is my body" mean something more natural than "This bread has turned into my body."

3. Jesus Explains That He Is Speaking Figuratively (John 6:63)

John 6:63 points away from seeing Christ's physical body in the bread of the Lord's Supper. Those who believe that Christ's physical body is there materially in the form of bread often base this on John 6:48-63. There Jesus foreshadows the meaning of the Lord's Supper and says publicly in the synagogue (v. 48), "I am the bread of life." Then he talks about eating this bread. He says in verse 51, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." This sounds shocking and the Jews question how he might give them his flesh to eat (v. 52). Jesus responds (v. 53), "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you."

Then he realizes that his own disciples were confused about what he was saying (v. 60): "When many of his disciples heard it, they said, 'This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?'" So Jesus says to them the key interpreting word in verse 63 to help them avoid the very mistake that the synagogue was making: "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life." I take this to mean: Don't get hung up on my references to my flesh being eaten and my blood being drunk. I am speaking figuratively. I am referring to a spiritual action, not a physical one. So verse 63 protects the disciples from the very misunderstanding that I am warning against this morning.

4. Jesus Says That Eating and Drinking Are Spiritual Acts (John 6:35)

Finally, John 6:35 points us to the positive meaning of eating and drinking Christ. Jesus says, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst." Here he gives himself to us to be received by eating and drinking. Hunger and thirst will be quenched by this Christ. And what is this eating and drinking? It is coming and believing. "Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst." In other words, the eating and drinking refer to spiritual acts of the soul drawing near to Christ, and receiving him, and trusting him, and having the hunger and thirst of our souls be satisfied.

What Does "This Is My Body" Mean?

So if the words, "This is my body," does not mean, "the physical body of Jesus materializes in this bread," what then is the positive meaning of "This is my body" and "This is my blood"?

Here are three things the words mean (and there are more).

1. Proclamation (1 Corinthians 11:26)

1 Corinthians 11:26, "As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." "This is my body" means: By this representation of my broken body you proclaim my death for sinners until I come. You proclaim the gospel. The bread and cup proclaim the saving death AND resurrection of Christ (because "until he comes" implies the resurrection). (We will see next week how the triumph of the resurrection is implicit in the Lord's Supper.)

2. Remembrance (1 Corinthians 11:24, 25)

1 Corinthians 11:24 and 25, "Do this in remembrance of me." "This is my body" means: Let this representation of my body and blood remind you of me. First, the death of Christ is proclaimed. And then by this proclamation we are reminded of Christ. Remember me, Jesus says, sitting with you in fellowship. Remember me being betrayed - and knowing all along. Remember me giving thanks to the God who ordained it all. Remember me breaking the bread just as I willingly gave my own body to be broken. Remember me shedding my blood for you so that you might live because I died. Remember me suffering to obtain for you all the blessings of the new covenant. Remember me promising that I would drink this fruit of the vine new in the kingdom (Mark 14:25). Let the memories of me, in all the fullness of my love and power, flood your soul at this table. Which leads to the third and final meaning of the words, "This is my body."

3. Feast by Faith (John 6:35)

John 6:35, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst." "This is my body," means, as you eat this bread and drink this cup come to me and believe on me. That is, sit with me at table and trust me to be your life-sustaining food and drink. Let the proclamation of my death and remembrance of all that I am for you awaken faith and draw you into deeper communion with me. "This is my body," and "This is my blood," mean eat spiritually, that is, eat by faith. That is, feed your soul on all that I am for you. Nourish your heart on all the blessings that I bought for you with my body and blood (see 1 Corinthians 10:16). That is what faith is: faith is a being satisfied in all that God is for us in Christ. Christ has given us the Lord's Supper to feed us spiritually with himself.

So, even though I think it is dangerously wrong to say that the bread and the blood turn into the physical, incarnate body of Jesus, nevertheless, I am not saying that what happens in the Lord's Supper is mere, intellectual recall of facts. The supper proclaims. And faith comes by hearing and seeing and tasting that proclamation. And faith is a spiritual feasting on the risen, living Christ so that all that God is for us in him satisfies our soul, and sweetens our love for him, and breaks the power of sin in our lives.

Let's love the Lord's Supper together. And let's love Christ more and more as we meet him there together.

1 http://www.reformedreader.org/history/cramp/s05ch05.htm

2 John Charles Ryle, Light from Old Times (Moscow, Idaho: Charles Nolan Publishers, 2000, first published 1890), p. 36.

3 Ibid., p. 55. See pages 55-58 for the actual words of the martyrs to support this.

4 Donald Bridge and David Phypers, The Water That Divides (Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 1998), p. 75.

5 John Charles Ryle, Light from Old Times, pp. 58-59.

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John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including A Peculiar Glory.

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