The three synoptic Gospels record Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper (Mark 14:22–25; Luke 22:14–23; Matthew 26:26–30). They underscore the obvious import of the institution. Yet curiously John’s Gospel does not. Why is this?
The answer is that John’s Gospel shows how Christ can both be absent from the disciples and abide among them. Put simply, John answers the question, “How can Christ be among us after he ascends to heaven?”
John’s Gospel presents John 13–17 where the synoptics present the Last Supper
Each of the three synoptic Gospels tells the same story. Judas plans to betray Jesus, Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper during the Passover, and then he prays in the garden. In John’s Gospel, Judas likewise is noted as being the betrayer, and Jesus celebrates the Passover with his disciples.
Yet John does not record Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper. Instead, John records Jesus’ teaching in John 13–17 at the same part of the story where the synoptic Gospels present the institution of the Lord’s Supper.
And in John 13, Jesus comforts his disciples in light of his coming departure. He says, “Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come,’” and, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward” (John 13:33, 36).
Jesus explains that although he will be absent, the Holy Spirit would be present with the disciples: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever” (John 14:16). He continues, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:18–19). And this seems to be tied to the Holy Spirit’s presence as “another Helper”—another Helper because Christ was the first Helper.
Christ explains how the Holy Spirit will make up for his absence by saying, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me” (John 15:26). In other words, the Holy Spirit points back to Jesus. And so the Helper’s ministry among believers is to bear witness to Jesus.
But losing Jesus’s direct presence and gaining the Holy Spirit’s immediate presence is not a disadvantage; just the opposite. Jesus explains, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). Jesus thus shows how the Holy Spirit advantages us by his mediating presence, which Jesus ties to the Spirit’s testifying work in the world (John 16:8–11). And this must happen in part because “I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer” (John 16:10).
John 18 returns to the same storyline as the syntopic Gospels
Soon after (John 18), John’s Gospel returns to the narrative that the three synoptic Gospels do. Jesus is betrayed in the garden. The fascinating thing here is that Jesus’ dialogue in John 13–16 (and perhaps John 17) replaces the slot in which the Lord’s Supper institution fits within the three synoptic Gospels (on this, see James Arcadi, 2018: 48–51).
Why? Because all four Gospels aim to explain how Jesus can remain among his disciples while being absent. James Arcadi writes of John 13–16:
This Johannine context of the Last Supper highlights the presence/absence concerns of Christ and the disciples better than the Synoptics do. John’s focus in this scene centres on the impending giving of the Holy Spirit. Undoubtedly, one of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to bring it about that Christ is still present. In fact, this is the same work of the Eucharist does as Christ instituted it on this night. Let us hold the idea that just prior to the institution Christ was concerned to convey to his disciples the idea that he would be present with them and let us turn to an event just after Christ’s resurrection (2018: 51).
John’s Gospel highlights the disciples’ concerns about Jesus’ coming absence. And the Holy Spirit’s presence comforts them by becoming the means by which Christ still abides with them (see also Matthew 28:20).
Luke 24 also underscores Christ’s presence and absence
Certainly, the synoptic Gospels also convey the presence/absence concerns as well. James Arcadi points to Luke 24:13–35 as also speaking to the same concern. When Jesus appears to certain disciples, they cannot discern his identity. But once they break bread together, Christ’s presence is known to him and he vanishes (Arcadi, 2018: 51–56).
Luke 24:30, in particular, is telling because it parallels the order of events that the Last Supper narrative: “When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them” (on this, see Arcadi, 2018: 53–54). Immediately after he blessed and broke the bread, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight” (Luke 24:31).
Thus, Luke also portrays the first Lord’s Supper after the Last Supper. And this happens when Jesus blesses and breaks bread together with two disciples. The moment that happens, he vanishes. For his token is there on the table, his body, the bread.
Why this matters
Within the storyline of the Gospels, John 13–17 appears where the Lord’s Supper appears in the synoptic Gospels. John does this in order to show readers how Christ can be among them even though he is absent in heaven. Likewise, Luke speaks to the same concern by highlighting the institution of the Lord’s Supper (see esp. Luke 22:19) as well as the Emmaus road narrative.
But John uniquely gives us the metaphysical grounding for how Christ is among us. And this happens through the giving of the Holy Spirit. John also clarifies the intent of the Lord’s Supper. the Supper serves to bring Christ to mind by the Holy Spirit’s testifying work.
Even in the Lord’s Supper, it’s not as if the bread and cup somehow transubstantiate into the body of Christ. By faith and by the Spirit, we feast on Christ. As Christ says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:56). To feast on Christ metaphorically describes our abiding in him, and we do so spiritually through faith in him and through the Holy Spirit’s work in us.