Somewhere between the Old Testament ordinance of Passover and the post-Biblical practice known as Communion can be found God’s thought on the Lord’s Supper. But, many will respond, “Isn’t that what Communion is all about?” Men with good intentions may have intended the traditional practice of Communion to honor the Lord’s Supper, however, God’s purpose for the Lord’s Supper may not have been intended to be expressed in our traditional practice of Communion. This in no way suggests that those who faithfully participate in this common practice, as have many generations, have not been able to give legitimate and acceptable honor to the Lord. Rather, because we desire to honor Him, we seek a fuller and more accurate understanding concerning His Mind and Heart. In so doing, we honor Him in a greater way as we express His glory according to His thought, and not our own. This in turn brings God the greater glory, and this should always serve as the motivation of any quest. Having this in mind, let us begin that quest.
The seed of the Lord’s Supper springs forth out of the first Passover instituted by God and recorded in Exodus 12. We must keep in mind that God’s end is always present in His beginnings, and therefore, we can expect to find all of the essential elements present. First of all, it is referred to as the Lord’s Passover. Now, beyond the more familiar element of the application of the blood upon the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses, notice it does not say the Israelites’ Passover. It is the Lord’s Passover (v. 11), meaning that as Lord of all, this ordinance was ultimately intended for the participation of all those, who by blood atonement, would become partakers of the commonwealth of Israel. It was not intended to be forever contained within the exclusive domain of the Israelites.
In fact, God, through the Passover, began to reveal His provision for foreigners who desired to join themselves with the House of Israel. (V. 43-49). Only those who willfully submitted to circumcision were eligible to be partakers along with the Israelites; otherwise, they were forbidden to participate. The fulfillment of this thought would be revealed centuries later in Eph. 2:11-22, whereby, having been circumcised in heart through Christ, the dividing wall would be broken down, with the two groups being fused into one new man. And it was intended to be celebrated as a permanent ordinance as a memorial unto the Lord (v. 14), or in other words, as often as they did, they did it in remembrance of the Lord. Therefore, it was a solemn duty for the Passover Story to be told to each succeeding generation so that it would not only be perpetuated, but that it would be approached with the proper understanding and reverence. It is not coincidental then, that King Hezekiah and King Josiah commanded Israel to celebrate the Passover to the Lord as a tangible fruit of repentance and revival in the land (II Chron. 30 and 35).
Another important aspect of the Passover was that it involved a roasted lamb to be eaten within each household. In any language and culture, this was to be a significant meal. Moreover, it was to be eaten along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (v. 8). It was a feast which involved the breaking of bread and fellowship amidst an attitude of great joy and humble appreciation of God’s faithfulness, tempered with an overwhelming sense of the holiness and awesomeness of God. Decency and order were inherent to the occasion, as we will explore in greater detail later on in our discussion.
Now, when applying New Testament revelation to the Old Testament, among other things, we must be mindful of Christ’s statement, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill.” There is no question that the curse of the Law was once and for all nailed to the Cross. However, we must also beware of well-intended New Testament zeal which indiscriminately divorces itself from any and all Old Testament statutes and ordinances. Some have, in fact, been abolished as a direct result of fulfillment, while others have truly been enhanced by virtue of the Holy Spirit’s work in providing a greater revelation as to their significance in light of God’s purposes. As Jesus shared the principle concerning the “tares and the wheat,” so too are we challenged to be more discerning as to what does and does not apply, as well as how things should be applied. God exhorted Jeremiah to “extract the precious from the worthless.” We must be careful then, “not to throw the baby out with the bath water,” but as Paul admonished, “to examine everything carefully.” With these things in view, let us now turn to Jesus as He celebrated His “Last Supper” with his disciples.
And He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer: for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.” This heartfelt statement reveals several things concerning Jesus’ thought as He approached this feast. First, he expressed a real passion toward participating with His disciples in the meal. It was extremely meaningful to the Lord because now, for the first time, His presence, life, ministry, and death, would finally bring fulfillment to the feast initiated from the time of Moses. Preceding generations who had celebrated the symbolism in the shadows by faith would now be able to approach the Passover Feast in the light and revelation of the fulfillment brought about by Christ. It was also meaningful because in the human sense, it would be a very long time before He would partake of this special meal again. Therefore, it was equally meaningful for Him to partake of the meal with those closest and dearest to Himself. It meant everything to the Lord and it should be quite clear that His intent was not to abolish this feast, but to fulfill and enhance it with new life and greater revelation, for the purpose of perpetuating His memory. This was to be a legacy to all succeeding generations until His return to reign over all the earth.
And while they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” Clearly, Jesus and the disciples were in the midst of partaking in a meal, the prescribed Passover meal as the phrase would indicate, while they were eating. The bread Jesus took, broke, and gave to His disciples was not just everyday bread, but unleavened bread. “And in the same way. He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” This was not just any cup of wine, but what had probably by this time in Jewish custom had come to be known as the “fourth cup” of the Passover Seder (order).
This is significant in that you have in sequential order the Passover meal: “The Cup of Sanctification,” “The Cup of Judgment," "The Cup
of Salvation,” and “The Cup of the Covenant.” The “fourth cup” would no longer commemorate the Old Covenant. But as Jesus described, “the new covenant in My blood.” The use of the bread and the wine had for generations been an integral part of the Passover meal. They did not suddenly become something newly instituted to be added to the Passover, nor to supplant that which had come to be normal practice during the traditional Passover meal. Neither were they to be extracted and implemented outside of the Biblical context of Passover. What was new and what was added was the revelation and fulfillment brought about in Jesus of these symbolic elements inherent to the Passover Feast. From this time forth, Passover celebrations could no longer be properly carried out apart from the recognition of Jesus as the fulfillment of the feast. By the same token, neither was the fulfillment ever intended to become a separate practice ripped out from their Biblical Jewish roots. Is there evidence of such claims found within the recorded history of the first century Church, and within an increasingly predominant Gentile Church at that? Let us take a look.
In his first letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul reveals even deeper insight as to the significance of the Passover, otherwise referred to as the Lord’s Supper. It is important then to recognize a key influence fundamental to the foundation of this Church. First, Paul was a Jew, as were most of the workers who assisted in establishing the Church there; namely, Aquila and Priscilla, along with Silas and Timothy. It is also mentioned that a Jew named Crispus became one of the first believers there. Paul himself remained in Corinth for a year and a half, and no doubt they all brought their Biblical Jewishness with them. Since we know Paul was there for that length of time, as well as the others at other various lengths, we can be assured that at least two Passovers occurred during his initial stay there. As we read the letter to the Corinthians, we see Paul making numerous references to Old Testament passages and symbolism. It should be apparent that Paul would not have spoken in these terms had not the believers in Corinth been sufficiently familiar with them.
This letter primarily focuses on the perils of ignored sin in the Church, the sanctity and attributes of a healthy and maturing Church, and the meaning of Christ as her head. In dealing with sin in their midst, Paul expresses himself in this way, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sanctified. Let us therefore celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (I Cor. 5b-8). Paul is undoubtedly using terms derived from Passover in driving home his point, but he is also taking the application to a deeper level. The terms take on a new meaning as they are now used to describe Christ, and the Church as His Body. Paul also makes the following statement which might come as a surprise to some: “Let us therefore celebrate the feast...” What feast? The Passover feast, of course. But, this is a predominantly Gentile Church at this time, yet, Paul is exhorting them to celebrate Passover. Why? Because as part of the commonwealth of Israel, they were now privileged to be fellow-partakers of a common heritage as was first glimpsed back in Exodus 12. “The same law shall apply to the native as well as to the stranger who sojourns among you.”
In Chapter 10:16 we read, “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ?” What cup? The “fourth cup” of the Passover; the cup representing the blood of the new covenant. “Is not the bread which we break a sharing of the body of Christ?” What bread? The unleavened bread used at Passover representing the Body of Christ. “Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread” (v. 17). Paul is revealing to the Corinthians that we have an even more intimate relationship to Christ than as His Church, but recognizing that we are truly His very Body here on earth. His Body and the corporate Body are one and the same. This in turn should provide a far reaching influence on our thinking since, as a man thinks in his heart, so is he. Paul knew that having a right understanding of whom we are in Christ had a direct impact on our conduct within and without the Church.
In Chapter 11:2, Paul says, Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. Yes, Paul said, “traditions.” Not all traditions nullify the Word of God, as Jesus expressed it. We must also be able to discern between the traditions of man as opposed to the traditions of God. In verses 17-34, when read in its proper context, it is apparent that the Corinthians were attempting to celebrate the Lord’s Supper or Passover Seder. Remember, the word “Seder” means “order,” and the way the Church was approaching the feast was anything but in order. They were, in fact, quite out of order. That is why Paul reproved them by saying, “Therefore when you meet together, it is not the Lord’s Supper (You may think it is, but you are fooling yourselves), for in your eating one takes his own supper first. One is hungry and another drunk...” This is what Paul was referring to when partaking of the Lord’s Supper “in an unworthy manner.” The entire passage deals with how the believers were treating one another in the Church, tangibly and practically; not in some mystical, invisible way. As the Body of Christ, they we not
“judging the Body (themselves) rightly.”
Paul goes on to say, “For as often as you eat this bread . . . ” What bread? The unleavened bread. “And as often as you drink this cup . . . ” What cup? The Cup of the New Covenant, “you proclaim the Lord’s death until. He comes.” And how often? Well, when do you celebrate with these particular elements? At Passover. And how often do you celebrate Passover? Once a year. Now, in the Middle and Far East, the breaking of bread as a primary means of fellowship is considered a veritable spiritual event, and can and should be approached with this same attitude, especially amongst believers, but Paul is being very specific in this case in regard to Passover.
Paul concludes by saying, “For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. So then my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home. “Seder” means “order,” therefore, “when you come together” for Passover, it must be done in decency and order, and not disorder, so that you may not come together for judgment.” The warning is given, “Therefore whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord.” What would be considered approaching the Passover meal in an “unworthy manner?” Well, as we have just mentioned, meeting in irreverence and disregard for fellow believers in the Lord. But, another way of meeting in an “unworthy manner” would be to celebrate the Passover without the proper recognition of whom Christ is, making right judgment of the Body a virtual impossibility. The severity of such translates into being “guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord.” Therefore, it may well be that we should take special care in having unbelievers partake in a Passover Seder in the same way the post-Reformation Church has done in regard to what has come to be known as Communion.
So, how did we come to inherit the practice commonly known as Communion? It is not too difficult to figure out. As the gospel and the Church spread into the predominately Gentile regions, the percentage of Jews in the Church rapidly began to shrink. By sheer weight of numbers, coupled with latent and sometimes blatant anti-Jewish sentiment amongst Church leaders, Jewish influence began to vanish. By the 4th century, with Constantine’s conversion, a mixture of Roman paganism and Christianity produced the foundation of the Holy Roman Empire and the roots of Roman Catholicism, giving rise to many revised or more accurately termed, tainted Church rituals. Eventually, the practice and belief of Transubstantiation, whereby the bread and the wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, came into being.
Centuries later, Martin Luther would be the catalyst of what we call the Protestant Reformation. However, upon closer examination, it was a rather incomplete reformation at best, causing Protestant denominations to inherit more residuals of Catholicism than most could ever realize. Communion is one of those practices that Luther diligently sought to keep with relative little difference in doctrinal view. In The Torch of the Testimony by John W. Kennedy it states, “Luther held that the words, ‘This is My body,’ must be taken literally, and although he disagreed with the Roman view of Transubstantiation, he held that Christ was physically present in the elements, or the doctrine of Consubstantiation as it has come to be known.”
For the sake of man’s traditions, whether it be Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or some other, flesh is more than capable of “nullifying the Word of God,” even and especially with the best of intentions. When examining these things we must ask, “What did God have in mind from the beginning? Are these things in line with His purposes? Have we been “led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ?” We must be careful neither to add nor take away from what from what God has already ordained in His Word. As to Passover, it is the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is Passover, and it is the Lord’s Passover. Jesus knew this. Paul knew this, and so did much of the first century Church. So should we!
And He said to me, “Write, ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ And He said to me, “These are the true words of God.”