The Meaning & Significance of Communion
Among the rites of Christianity, communion (or the Lord’s Supper) stand out, together with baptism, as signs that signify the New Covenant. Whereas baptism symbolizes the entry of a person into new life in Christ (Romans 6:3-4) and serves as the symbol of initiation for a Christian, communion serves as a continuing symbol of remembrance of the atoning death of Christ to purchase His bride.
In the following text, written by the apostle Paul to the somewhat problematic church in Corinth, we find many priceless lessons of what it means to take part of communion, and what it means to be a part of the Body of Christ, both in its universal and local manifestations.
17 But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part,19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.
After commending them earlier for remembering Paul and maintaining certain practices he taught to them (v.2), Paul now rebukes them over their actions and attitude. What should have been a solemn act of remembrance and worship has become a farcical act that only showed arrogance and disunity.
These words may seem strange to the 21st century believer, whose idea of communion may revolve around a symbolic ritual involving bread and wine, so a little background is necessary. In the ancient church, it was a practice for believers to gather for a fellowship meal, where the commemoration of the Lord’s Supper was made, either as a distinct rite, or as part of the meal itself. Yet from the apostle’s words, one may discern that the whole fellowship meal itself was the rite itself, hence their actions during the meal nullified the Lord’s Supper itself (v.20)
In the ancient fellowship meal, the local church would gather, with people bringing food and drink, to be shared by all the believers. In that table, there was no Jew or Gentile, no rich or poor, man or woman, slave or freeman, Roman citizen or foreigner: all were one as equals, fellow redeemed sinners remembering their Savior and Lord. Partaking this, they would remember He who has “broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14), because “now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
This display of unity, of equality, was unheard of in the highly stratified society of their day, which would have been a powerful testimony of what Christ has done for His people.
Yet now, Paul’s words point out the degeneration that has occurred: those with means, affluence and power eat ahead, and some even get drunk (v.21). The rest, perhaps the poorest of the poor for whom the fellowship meal could have very well been their only full meal for the week, were left hungry and humiliated (v.21-22).
Such actions showed more than that, but were a direct affront to God, for by behaving in this manner, the abusive ones showed that they despised the church of God (v.22), and therefore the God who called her into existence.
23 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.
Paul moves on to reminding them what they already know, for such a thing was not new to them – in fact, Paul himself taught it before to them (v.23)! Recalling the words of Christ, and the remembrance meal He himself instituted one Passover evening with His disciples, Paul takes them back to the very beginning.
As Christ broke the bread, He showed how it symbolized His own body, which, in a couple more days would be broken by the scourge of the jailors and the Roman cross – broken for those He came to save as He took upon Himself the sins of those who could not save themselves (cf. Romans 5:8).
As He took the wine, He told them how it represented His blood, shed in suffering and death, for an undeserving and sinful people, cleansing them of sin (1 John 1:7) purchasing for them entry to the very presence of God (Hebrews 10:19), and bringing them together from every tribe and tongue to become His people (Ephesians 2:13, Revelation 1:5-6)
When believers partake of the elements, bread and wine (or biscuits and grape juice for some churches), they, with one heart, “proclaim the Lords’ death until he comes.” (v.26) This means both recalling Who saved them and how they have been saved, but more than that, by this joint witness, they proclaim that Jesus is the only way to God (John 14:6), and that there is forgiveness and redemption to all who would repent of their sins and believe their message (Acts 20:21).
Such an irony it is then, such travesty, to see how the Corinthian congregation was behaving antithetically to the very essence of why they were gathered in the first place.
27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
Thus Paul gives them a stern warning, of how eating the bread and drinking the cup of the Lord in an “unworthy” manner” (v.27) is to be guilty “concerning the body and blood of the Lord, and can bring judgment to themselves (v.30). To do so would be blasphemous, since it wantonly sets aside God’s work of salvation through Christ.
To prepare themselves and guard against such irreverence, the believer is to “examine himself” (v.28). The word “examine” literally means to test, and scrutinize, and therefore prove the worthiness and genuineness of something or someone. This would naturally involve confession and repentance (cf. 1 John 1;9) from known sin and reconciliation with brethren (cf. Matthew 5:23-24), and recognizing that ultimately, our worthiness emanates not from our own righteousness but from Christ’s imparted righteousness (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21).
But beyond that, Paul talks in v.29 about “discerning the body,” without which one faces judgment. But what does this mean?
Some say it is discerning that the bread and wine have turned into the literal body and blood of Jesus, but this would violate the contextual discussion of Paul. We are then left with two options, both of which are valid.
The first is discerning the value and importance of the commemoration of the Lord’s supper, understanding the gravity of Christ’s atoning sacrifice in behalf of the believers. It is seeing the memorial not as just any meal, but the continuing sign of the New Covenant Christ has instituted with His death.
We see ourselves truly when the Holy Spirit exposes to us our own sins, drawing us to repentance and renewed dependence on the Lord.
Yet a second meaning is also possible: to discern the body is to recognize the identity of the gathered church: as blood-bought brothers and sisters whose bond transcend even mortal life itself, and who are bound by no less than the sacrifice of the Son of God Himself. This makes sense in the light of Paul’s rebuke about the Corinthians’ factionalism and disunity.
I suspect that both meanings are intended, being the individual and corporate application of Paul’s admonition.
31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged.32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
We escape judgment by “judging ourselves truly,” seeing ourselves as worthless and undeserving apart from the mercy and righteousness of Christ. We see ourselves truly when the Holy Spirit exposes to us our own sins, drawing us to repentance and renewed dependence on the Lord. And even when He judges and disciplines His children, it is not the act of condemnation but that of fatherly love. As Hebrews reminds us:
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.”For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”
“It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” (Hebrews 12:5-8)
So – and Paul calls them to application by telling them to demonstrate brotherly and sisterly love by being considerate with one another in actions as well as words (v.33).
Fast forward twenty-one centuries, we can see how today’s church can benefit from this ancient, divinely inspired record.
Do we, as believers, understand the gravity of the Lord’s supper? That it bears His title is significant: it is His institution, His commemoration, and His symbol of the sacrifice that enables us to be forgiven. Do we truly believe that Christ died for us?
Individually, do we, as believers, understand the gravity of the Lord’s supper? That it bears His title is significant: it is His institution, His commemoration, and His symbol of the sacrifice that enables us to be forgiven. Do we truly believe that Christ died for us?
Corporately, do we “discern the body” by loving and caring for our brethren the way Christ loves us? Are we compassionate, considerate, not only during communion, but in our daily interactions with them. Do we show unity as one body, bound in self-sacrificial love? Are we ready to abandon rhetoric and lip-service for a genuine, dying-to-self kind of love?
Let me add one more thing, since the text also says that communion is to “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” To proclaim here is to announce and declare, make public and make known something. But to whom? This cannot merely be to each other, for to think that way is to embrace a distorted, myopic and elitist way of thinking.
This leaves one last option: we are called to declare to the world still lost in sin that Jesus is the only way to God (John 14:6) and that there is eternal life and forgiveness to all who would repent of their sins and turn to Christ in faith (Acts 16:31, 20:21, 1 John 5:11-13). We are ready to stop merely talking about it and start acting, to bring this hope that we have in our hearts to others who are lost without it?