July 29, 2013
i. Our Lord Jesus, in the night wherein He was betrayed, instituted the sacrament of His body and blood, called the Lord's Supper, to be observed in His Church, unto the end of the world for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of Himself in His death, the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment and growth in Him, their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto Him; and, to be a bond and pledge of their communion with Him, and with each other, as members of His mystical body.
One reason for the particular poignancy of the Lord's supper in the life of the Christian church is its birthdate: this sacrament came into being the night Jesus was betrayed. The gospel histories highlight this fact. The Apostle Paul recalls this context again in his letter to the Corinthians. And Paul in turn was only delivering what he had received from the Lord himself. Here, in a paragraph which paraphrases a passage from Paul's epistle to the Corinthians, the Westminster assembly brings us back once again to the night of the betrayal. In returning to that scene, we are reminded of all the cardinal truths about this supper and what it represents.
First, it was our Lord Jesus who instituted this new sacrament. No one less than Jesus could and did replace the Passover meal with another meal. No one less than Jesus could and did command the Christian church to celebrate a meal that centered completely on himself. As Paul explained to the Corinthians, this meal is 'the table of the Lord' and 'the cup of the Lord'; it is 'the Lord's supper' and we are to observe the meal as he requires (1Cor. 10:21; 11:20).
Second, it was on that night that Jesus instituted a sacrament of 'his body and blood'. This is a striking phrase, not popular in Protestant churches today, but historically very accurate in its emphasis. When Jesus instituted the Lord's supper he showed, he ate, and he drank the elements of bread and wine. But his words emphasized not the elements of the supper, but the reality they represented. For what did Jesus say? 'This is my body which is for you.' 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood' (1 Cor. 11:24-25; c.f., Matt. 26:26-28; Mk 14:2-24; Lk. 22:19-20).
Third, the sacrament of Christ's body and blood is 'to be observed in his church'. This is a point which paragraph three will take up in greater detail, but it is evident enough in the very context in which the Lord's supper was originally delivered. This meal was not given to Peter, James, and John - a few favourite friends of Jesus. It was given to all the disciples (Matt. 26:20; Mk 14:17; Lk. 22:14-15). It is be observed, or performed, in the church.
Fourth, this supper is to be observed until 'the end of the world'. Christians have always understood that when Jesus twice told his disciples to remember him, that he intended a 'perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of Himself in His death'. This is why the Apostle Paul repeated both of Jesus's calls to remembrance, and then concluded by saying that 'as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes' (1 Cor. 11:24-26). It is unthinkable that Christians would forget Christ's sacrifice. On the contrary, we proclaim his death until he returns, not only with our words, but also with his supper.
Fifth, a return to the events of that dark night helps us to see that Jesus was promising benefits to true believers. We celebrate the supper not only in remembrance of Christ's sacrifice of himself, but also in remembrance that Jesus promised his body for us, and that his bloody covenant is with us (1 Cor. 11:24-25). Jesus gave himself in our place, and for our sake, and the supper was designed to keep this glorious fact before our eyes. It's because the supper serves as a seal of the benefits and treasures of redemption that Paul refers to the wine as 'the cup of blessing' (1 Cor. 10:16; for 'sealing' see WCF 27.1).
Sixth, this supper is to be observed for our 'spiritual nourishment and growth' in Christ. We can see from the gospels that the Lord's supper was, at least in part, a ceremonial addition to an existing meal. It was not a normal meal. It was not intended for bodily nourishment and growth. Paul had to remind the Corinthians of this because they were hurrying to serve themselves so that they would have enough to eat (1 Cor. 11:17-22). That is one reason why we need to remember that Jesus took the symbolic cup and used it as an emblem of his own sacrifice 'after supper' (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). The Lord's supper is like a good sermon: it is intended as food for the soul.
Seventh, we are to celebrate the Lord's supper for our 'further engagement in, and to, all duties' which we owe to him. In saying this the Westminster assembly is not drawing on a particular passage in Scripture. The gathering is simply noting the gratitude that guilty Christians show in response to grace. In realizing that Jesus not only gave us himself, but also gave us this abiding reminder of his gospel, we are moved to thought and action. We are renewed in our commitment to Christ and in the service that we owe him. These are reasons enough to observe the supper, nonetheless, participation in this meal is also a profession of exclusive loyalty to Jesus Christ that implies submission to his lordship alone. After all, as Paul warned the Corinthians, 'You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons' (1 Cor. 10:21).
Eighth, the Lord's supper is to be observed in the church as a powerful symbol of our communion with Christ, by his Holy Spirit. We can see that this meal is communal by thinking about its first participants: the disciples were there communing with Jesus. Naturally, Jesus was there with those disciples in a way that he is not with later disciples. Nonetheless, Jesus Christ is present with us by his Spirit in this supper (see WCF 29.7), a fact which is central to one of the proof-texts proffered by the authors of this confession. In fact the Apostle Paul speaks of Christians partaking of the cup as those who 'drink of one Spirit' (1 Cor. 10:13). He also refers to the act of drinking the cup as 'a participation' or 'fellowship in the blood of Christ', and the act of breaking bread as 'a participation' or 'fellowship in the body of Christ' (1 Cor. 10:16).
Ninth, recollection of that first supper and reflection on 1 Corinthians 10 is clearly calculated by God to underscore the closeness of our communion not only with Christ, but with Christians. The disciples communed with Christ at the Last Supper, but they also communed with one another. And while 1 Corinthians 10:16 stresses our union with Christ in this supper, 1 Corinthians 10:17 stresses our union with other believers in this same supper: 'Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread'. This unity with one another in Christ, reinforced in this supper, is also a unity with one another in the Spirit. Just as 'in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body' so also, now thinking of the Lord's supper, 'all were made to drink of one Spirit' (1 Cor. 12:13). No wonder that the assembly concluded that the sacrament of Christ's body and blood is to be observed as 'a bond and pledge of their communion with Him, and with each other, as members of His mystical body'. The meal so often called the Last Supper was really the first supper.
Dr. Chad B. Van Dixhoorn is Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. and associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. This article is taken from his forthcoming commentary on the Confession, published by the Banner of Truth Trust.