The meaning of the Lord’s Supper is abundantly clear with the bread and wine representing the body and blood of Christ, but there is more than meets the eye in the rich tapestry of biblical theology woven in and around the sacrament. One can use the various names given to the Lord’s Supper to recall its rich meaning.
“Lord’s Supper”: New Covenant
Paul speaks of “the Lord’s Table” (1 Cor. 10:21) or “the Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor. 11:20), highlighting Christ’s presiding lordship over the table and the incongruity of partaking simultaneously in the Lord’s table and the sacrifices offered to idols (1 Cor. 10:1-22). This nature of the Lord’s Supper reminds us of our New Covenant in the blood of Christ. Jesus refers to the wine of the sacrament as “my blood of the covenant” (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24). Luke’s recollection is even more explicit, where Jesus says that it is the “the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20; cf. 1 Cor. 11:25). The author of Hebrews directly connects Christ’s atoning death to Moses’s sprinkling of the Israelites with “the blood of the covenant” (Heb. 9:19-21; cf. Exod. 24:6-8).
Every covenant-making ceremony involved a visual demonstration of the curse of the covenant should it be violated, and because Christ bore this curse of the covenant once and for all with His death, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1-4). As the first instance of “poured-out” blood re-established the covenant between God and His people, pouring our of Christ’s blood establishes the covenant between God and His people once and for all. We belong to our covenant Lord, Jesus Christ, and to no other, and each time we participate in the Lord’s Supper we rehearse our exclusive allegiance to God.
“Breaking of Bread”: Passover and Exodus
The New Testament frequently refers to the rite as “the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42; 20:7), and this terminology recalls the Passover and the Exodus. Even those who do not believe that the Last Supper was a Passover meal must admit that it occurred during the week-long celebration of the Passover, and that Paul refers to Christ as “our Passover lamb, [who] has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). The broken body and poured-out blood represented by the bread and wine are a visual, tactile, olfactory, and savorous parable of Jesus’s death, and as surely as the bread and wine sustain and nurture physical life, the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper nurture and sustain spiritual life.
In all four Gospels, the Last Supper is preceded by Mary’s anointing of Jesus in preparation for his burial, and punctuated with expectation of Jesus’s impending betrayal and death (Matt. 26:1-29; Mark 14:1-31; Luke 22:1-23; John 6:22-71; 12:1-18; 13:1-30). Christ is our Passover Lamb on whose account God “passes over” our sins (1 Cor. 5:6-8; Rom. 3:21-26), and who redeems us from slavery to sin and death (Rom. 8:1-17; Gal. 5:1).
Furthermore, all four Gospels draw textual connections between the Last Supper and Jesus’s miraculous feeding of the multitude in the wilderness, and Matthew, Mark, and John pair the account of Jesus’s feeding of the multitude with the water-crossing episode, thus making the Exodus tie even more explicit (Matt. 14:13-33; Mark 6:30-52; Luke 9:10-17; John 6). Unlike Moses’s bread from heaven that provided temporal nourishment for the Israelites in the wilderness, Jesus is the “Bread of Life” that imparts eternal life (John 6). Thus the Lord’s Supper represents the Second Passover and Exodus.
It is important to note, however, we are not sacrificing Christ all over again at the Lord’s Supper. Christ was sacrificed to secure our eternal redemption “once for all” (Heb. 9:12; cf. Rom. 9:28). It demeans Christ’s once for all sacrifice on the Cross to call the Lord’s Supper a “sacrifice.”
“Eucharist”: Marriage Supper of the Lamb
The Lord’s Supper, however, is a sacrifice in another sense. It is “a sacrifice of praise to God,” as Hebrews puts it in 13:15-16. This is related to the word “Eucharist,” which comes from the Greek word meaning to “give thanks,” a language that all four Gospels closely relate to the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 15:36; 26:26-27; Mark 8:6; 14:22-23; Luke 22:17-19; John 6:11, 23; cf. Acts 27:35; 1 For. 11:23-24).
We give thanks for the meal before us, the body and blood of Christ given for us, but also for meal that is coming, because it “proclaim[s] the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26) and is joined to Christ’s promise, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:54). Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include Jesus’s statement, “I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29; cf. Mark 14:25; Luke 22:15-18).
The meal points to the Kingdom of God that is already inaugurated, but which will later be consummated. Christ’s death and resurrection anticipate the day when God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). It points to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, where we shall be the bride of Christ—all those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7:14; 19:7-8). So we give thanks for the meal before us, which guarantees the meal that is to come (cf. Matt. 8:11-12; Luke 13:28-30; 22:28-30).
“Holy Communion”: Family Formation
The Jewish Passover meal was traditionally a family affair, with the head of the household presiding over it. Jesus breaks this paradigm by calling out His disciples from their families and communing with them instead. In doing so, He radically redefines “family,” “for whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:50).
This is the meaning behind Paul’s teaching that the Lord’s Supper is a “participation” or “communion.” In partaking in the Lord’s Supper, we commune with the body and blood of Christ, we are united with Him, and through Him with the rest of His body, the church. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:16-17). In the Lord’s Supper, we acknowledge our new kinship in the family of God, united not by the blood of our fathers, but by the blood of Jesus Christ.
Because it depicts and dispenses the promise of the eternal gospel (Rev. 14:6) itself, the Lord’s Supper is inexhaustible in its spiritual value and theological meaning, and hardly the monotonous ritual void of power and meaning it is too often made out to be.