On the night of his betrayal, Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. Jesus gave the bread and cup to his disciples so that they could remember Jesus because he was about to leave the world. Jesus explains, “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). So during the Last Supper, the Lord’s Supper became one of two institutions that Christ left the church. Given the importance of this meal, we need to turn to the Bible to learn what it says about the Lord’s Supper. Here’s an attempt to do just that by starting with the Gospels.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke highlight the night of the Passover when Jesus instituted the Last Supper (Matthew 26:26–29; Mark 14:22–25; Luke 22:14–23). In the accounts, Jesus takes bread, blesses it (eucharisteo), breaks it, gives it to his disciples, and renames it (“this is my body”). Likewise, Jesus also renames the cup: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20).
Jesus’ renaming of the bread and the cup as his body and blood respectively is important. The order of the Supper is also important. Jesus first blesses (eucharisteo) the bread, second breaks it, and then gives it to the disciples before he renames it. The symbolism works this way: Jesus blessed the bread, which symbolizes his body. Then he breaks his body and gives it to his disciples so that they feast on his body. Finally, he renames the bread to point to underscore the reality to which the symbol of the bread points: it is his body broken for them.
The cup too symbolizes Jesus’ blood poured out for many (Mark 14:24), for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28), and for the inauguration of a covenant. Luke identifies the covenant as the “new covenant” (Luke 22:20), which Matthew and Mark likely assume by using the word “covenant” without the adjective “new.”
Last, Jesus emphasizes his coming absence by saying that he will not celebrate the meal with the disciples again until the kingdom in Matthew and Mark (Matthew 26:29; Mark 14:25). Luke does not record Jesus saying this because Luke emphasizes Jesus’ absence and presence surrounding the meal in Luke 24.
Jesus appears to Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus. They lament that Jesus died and is gone. They do not perceive Christ’s presence; they do not recognize Jesus. Yet Jesus has a meal with them. And then Jesus takes bread, breaks it, and gives it to the disciples just as he did during the Last Supper: “When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed (eulogeo) and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight” (Luke 24:30–31). After Jesus serves the first Lord’s Supper to the two disciples, they immediately recognize him and he disappears.
The Lord Supper serves to open the eyes of the disciples to recognize Christ and at that moment he vanishes. What Luke teaches readers is what Matthew and Mark teach when they say that Jesus will leave and not celebrate the meal with them until the kingdom: the Lord’s Supper serves to bring Christ to mind, to make him recognizable even when he is absent bodily. The bread stands in place of his bodily presence, and it gives us access to knowing Christ.
John’s Gospel follows the same narrative of Jesus’ Passion, yet it uniquely does not record Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper during the Last Supper. Instead, John inserts a long discourse from Jesus in John 13–17. Why? For the same reason that the synoptic Gospels record the institution of the Lord’s Supper, namely, to show how Christ can be among his disciples while away from them bodily. Jesus tells his disciples that he will shortly leave them but send another comforter in his place, the Holy Spirit (John 15:26). In large part, the Holy Spirit “will bear witness about” Christ (John 15:26). The result is “you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:27). The Holy Spirit bears witness to Christ so that the disciples can also do the same.
Even when Christ is absent, the Holy Spirit testifies to Christ. In this sense, Christ can be among the disciples even while absent in body. The significance of John’s record of John 13–17 in place of the institution of the Lord’s Supper is to provide further insight into how Christ can be among the disciples. Put more simply, the Lord’s Supper and the Holy Spirit work together to accomplish this purpose.
I want to suggest that Jesus’ feeding miracles are preliminary signs that point towards the Lord’s Supper. And in John 6 we have the best example. Jesus feeds 5,000 people as well as subsequently teaching people that he is the bread from heaven. John Calvin explains of John 6, “there is nothing said here that is not figuratively represented, and actually bestowed on believers, in the Lord’s Supper; and Christ even intended that the holy Supper should be, as it were, a seal and confirmation of this sermon” (Comm. on John 6:54).”
John 6 is an extended teaching on what it means for Jesus to be the bread of life. Getting to the heart of the matter, Jesus says:
Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. (John 6:54–56).
Note the parallels to the Lord’s Supper. Jesus’s flesh (i.e., bread from heaven = John 6:58) and blood entail eternal life and resurrection. How does this happen? Jesus explains that feeding on his flesh and drinking his blood means abiding in him: “whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” In other words, feasting on Jesus means abiding in him.
It’s possible this is why John does not include the account of the Lord’s Supper institution. John 6 already defines the reality that the meal describes, and John 13-17 further explains how God can be among us while absent from us. Put simply, Christians abide in Christ by the Holy Spirit, and the Lord’s Supper is partly how one abides in Christ by the Holy Spirit.
On the basis of the Gospels, a number of things are clear. First, the Lord’s Supper follows a certain pattern: taking, blessing, breaking, giving, and renaming (i.e., “this is my body”). Second, Matthew and Mark make clear that the institution of the Lord’s Supper involves Christ’s coming absence because they all record that he will not celebrate the meal with the disciples until the kingdom.
Third, Luke’s Gospel makes the same point through Jesus’ encounter with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in which Jesus celebrates the first Lord’s Supper with them. Once he takes, blesses, breaks and gives the bread to them, they then recognize him and he immediately disappears bodily.
John does not record Jesus’ institution of the meal but answers the same question implicit in the other Gospels: how can Jesus be among us while absent from us? John answers that this happens through the Holy Spirit (chs. 13-16). John 6 highlights the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, namely, that feasting on Christ in the meal correlates to abiding in Christ. In contemporary terms, the Lord’s Supper is one way we experience our union with Christ.
No discussion is complete without discussing the New Testament letters and noting the Old Testament passages that provide the idiom to understand Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper. I plan to do the first and possibly the second in the coming weeks.