Like the other ordinance instituted by Christ for observance by the church (baptism), communion has its roots deep in both Jewish and Christian history. Communion reminds us of the Passover meal, designed by God to celebrate the deliverance of out of and from their bondage under Pharaoh. God, in response to Pharaoh’s unwillingness to let His people go, promised a plague against all of ’s firstborn. To protect themselves against this plague, the last in a series designed by God to cause Pharaoh to free the Israelites, the Israelites took the blood of a slain lamb (by dipping hyssop in the blood of the sacrifice), and put it on the doorposts and lintels of their homes. Always faithful, God’s promise came to pass and the Israelites’ firstborn were spared. They then ate the roasted lamb along with unleavened bread and some bitter herbs, a meal that later became known as the “Passover meal” because the angel of death passed over the Israelites (Exodus 12:1-43).
As in those Old Testament times, Jews still celebrate the Passover feast today as a way of remembering the deliverance of their nation from bondage to the Egyptians. However, it is a much more wonderful and dramatic deliverance for which the Passover was a foreshadowing. According to the New Testament, Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life, is God’s perfect provision for man’s greatest need. Christ Himself is the Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7)! What comes into focus in the Lord’s Supper is Christ’s death on the cross¾the shedding of His blood on behalf of those whom God has chosen, the covering of their sin by that blood, and their ultimate deliverance from eternal death and damnation. Though the Jewish faith still celebrates Passover, many are unaware it is the precursor to this much greater and more significant event. Christ was the ultimate fulfillment of deliverance from sin and death when he submitted His body to be crucified and His blood to be shed. The Lord’s Supper (or communion as it is sometimes referred) is to be celebrated as a remembrance to His life and death.
The apostle Paul gives us the New Testament formula for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. It is to be celebrated just as Jesus Christ Himself both initiated and instituted during that final meal with His disciples in the upper room. In 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, he said, “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; 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.’ In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”
Like Passover, communion is the celebration of God’s chosen being delivered by the blood of a lamb, in this case the perfect Lamb, Jesus Christ. All sin deserves death (Romans 6:23), but because of Christ’s great sacrifice, all believers are “passed over” from their deserving death. Only believers are united in Christ and His sacrifice for their sin. It was this union with Christ in which we see the early church sharing in the Lord’s Table in love and obedience to Him. Believers practiced communion as the Lord’s prescribed way of honoring His sacrifice, deliverance, and soon return (Acts 2:42, 46). In direct response to His command to “do this in remembrance of Me,” Christians today, like these early believers, participate in communion as an act of obedience (Luke 22:17-19, 1 Corinthians 11:27-32). Christ’s comment to the disciples was that His body was given for them and His blood was poured out for them. In loving obedience and honor to Him and His command, Christians are to participate in the Lord’s Supper both regularly and reverently. Scripture leaves no doubt that not to participate in the Lord’s Supper both regularly and reverently is to sin.
Apparently, the church at Corinth was guilty of abusing this ordinance of the Lord. According to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32, the Lord judged some of the professing Christians in that community by causing them to be sick and others to die. This sober act by the Lord clearly communicates the seriousness God places on this ordinance. Paul said that to eat the bread and drink the cup in an unworthy manner was to be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:27). Understanding the context, what Paul is saying here is that to eat the bread or drink of the cup in an unworthy manner is to violate the very covenant of Christ. Without Christ, all are condemned. For if we don’t eat and drink to the “new” Passover, we are like unbelievers, celebrating a Passover that falls short of our need, the need for a Savior to save us from our sin. Without a Savior, we are still in our sins. And therefore, like those who unjustly crucified Him, we are guilty of His body and blood. And if we harbor secret sins and do not confess those sins before His Table, we are in danger of being judged ourselves.
By dishonoring the Lord in communion, one acts as if he cares nothing about Christ’s body and blood, as if he counts “the blood of the covenant, by which all believers are sanctified, an unholy thing.” Anyone who does this profanes the ordinance, and in a manner, crucifies their Savior over again. Instead of being cleansed by His blood, they stand guilty of it (Hebrews 10:29). The argument might be made that only unbelievers could do this. If so, all the more reason unbelievers should not participate in the Lord’s Supper. Whether young children who are still unregenerate, those adults who profess Christ but who are living lives of disobedience, or anyone who does not fully obey Christ should not participate in this holy, sacred act of obedience. Paul follows his exhortation about unworthy conduct with words regarding worthy or appropriate conduct for communion¾that a man may examine himself, judging himself rightly. The Greek word for “examine” means to put to the test. A rigorous self-examination of our lives including our motives, attitudes, and actions toward the Lord, others, and His Supper is called for. As believers, we need to recognize we, though regenerate we are, are still sinful, and are therefore in constant need of God’s forgiveness. This special time of self-examination allows us to confess our sins and once again walk with Christ in an unhindered manner.
What Paul is not saying here (as is the understanding of some regarding this ordinance) is that the bread and the wine have somehow miraculously become Christ’s body and blood. Christ’s purpose in instituting communion the night before His death is the same as His desire is for us today: to remember Him—His life and subsequent death on the cross. Like other figurative or illustrative language used when referring to Himself (the Door, Light of the World, etc.), Jesus refers here to the bread as representative of His physical body and the wine as representative of His blood (the Greek word “is” frequently means “represents”). He is teaching His disciples by way of a very graphic, visual illustration that His body would be given (not “broken,” as some suggest, in perfect fulfillment of Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:1; cf. also John 19:33, 36) like the bread is given out at a Passover meal, and His blood would be poured out like the wine. The obvious question then, is this: How could the bread literally be His body? At that Passover meal in the upper room, His body was physically there before His disciples for all to see. How could the wine literally be His blood? His blood was still pouring through His veins when He makes these statements in the disciples’ presence.
The Lord’s Supper is a sacred memorial to the One who lived and died for believers, a time of Holy Communion with Him, a proclamation of the meaning of His death, and a sign of anticipation of His return. The sacred and comprehensive nature of communion requires that we treat it with the honor and respect He deserves. To remember in the way that Christ commands us to, is to recapture as much as possible the reality and significance of His life and death on our behalf.
On Children Receiving the Lord’s Supper
When the topic of the partaking of the Lord’s Supper is discussed, the question of whether young children ought to receive communion is often asked. If parents are encouraged to teach their children to pray, read the Bible, serve in ministry, give money to the Lord, etc., why wouldn’t they encourage their children to experience the joy of partaking in the Lord’s Table? Surely, this is a tangible way for young children to be reminded again and again of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ upon the cross, isn’t it?
Upon further reflection, however, we believe it is wise to advise parents to be very circumspect in this matter of their children partaking of the Lord’s Supper. The reason for this caution is straightforward. The Bible teaches that these ordinances are only for believers. While parents ought to train their young children in prayer, Bible reading, serving, and giving (among other spiritually oriented endeavors), children, who are as yet unregenerate, ought not be encouraged to partake of the church’s two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In the same manner that a young person should not be prematurely baptized—that is, before their parents and the leaders of the church have had the opportunity to examine the fruit of their profession of Christ—a child’s partaking of communion should be encouraged only after their parents and church leaders see what they perceive to be true evidences of spiritual life and that they understand the sobering significance of this spiritual duty. Indeed, Paul himself reminded the Corinthians of the need for their careful self-examination. This would especially hold true for a child’s obvious need to mature beyond their childishness: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:27).
It is often difficult to discern precisely when a young person has been converted. If a young person isn’t outwardly rebellious, obeys his parents in the home, and attends church services, it can appear as though they have become Christians. Conformance to an external standard of conduct does not necessarily mean they have been delivered from their sins. The parents and shepherds of the flock ought to work in concert to determine (to the best of their ability) the true nature of spirituality in these young men and women. If, after careful examination—which may involve a protracted time frame—the parents and church leaders believe there is manifest evidence of the Spirit’s calling, they certainly should encourage those children to be both baptized (Matthew 28:18-20), and to obey the command of the Lord “to do this [communion] in remembrance of [Him]” (1 Corinthians 11:24).