The Lord's Supper is the covenant meal of the new covenant.
Partaking of Communion or the Lord's Supper is something that Christians do on a regular basis. For this reason it is important that we have a proper biblical understanding of what Communion is so that we might receive the full benefits offered to us in this sacrament. So what is Communion?
Communion is a meal. We eat and drink. This is why this sacrament is sometimes referred to as a supper. However, this meal is no ordinary meal. It is the Lord's meal for he instituted or established it (1 Cor. 11:23). He is the host and we are his guests. Thus the cup is called the "Lord's cup" and the table "the Lord's table" (1 Cor. 10:21).
Communion is a sacrificial meal. It is not a sacrifice. Christ is not re-sacrificed during this sacrament. He is not offering himself up on our behalf over and over again. The Scriptures expressly declare that Christ sacrificed himself once and for all (Heb. 7:27; 9:28). Communion takes place at a table, not at an altar.
Although this sacrament is not a sacrifice, it is a meal in relation to a sacrifice. In 1 Cor. 10:18, the apostle Paul associates Communion with the sacrificial meals in the Old Testament. One chapter later we are told that the bread represents Christ's body and the wine the blood of Christ, which was shed for the remission of sins. Furthermore, we are to eat and drink in remembrance of Christ's sacrifice on the cross, and as we do so we proclaim (announce or declare) the Lord's death until he comes. Therefore, when we eat and drink this meal we are declaring that Christ died for us and of our need of his sacrifice.
Communion is a fellowship meal. Paul tells us by means of two rhetorical questions that a communion takes place through this meal. The word 'communion' (koinonia) means to share in, fellowship in, participate in or to commune with. Specifically, it is communion or participation in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16-17). Therefore, when we eat and drink of this meal we are participating or sharing in the body and blood of the Lord.
Paul explains this with an illustration in vs. 18. In OT worship, the priest and the worshipper would eat of the sacrifice. In so doing, Paul says that they partook of the altar, that is, all that the altar stood for. In other words, in eating of the sacrificed animal, they received or participated in the benefits of the sacrifice, such as the forgiveness of sins. Likewise, when we eat of the Lord's sacrificial meal we share in the benefits of the blood and body of Christ.
Consequently, the Lord's Supper is no mere memorial. True communion with Christ takes place; to be sure, this communion is not automatic. Faith is required. Moreover, it is not physical. Grace is not contained in the bread or wine and the bread and wine do not change into Christ's body and blood. Rather, the benefits of Christ's body and blood are conveyed spiritually as we eat and drink. The Westminster Confession of Faith says, "Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive, and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses" (29.7).
Communion with the body and blood of the Lord is necessary for sustaining us in our salvation. Jesus said: "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me" (John 6:53-57).
This is not to say that we cannot be saved without eating the Lord's Supper. Jesus is using sacrificial language to teach that we need to partake of his sacrifice in order to be saved. And one means by which we partake of Christ's sacrifice is through partaking of the Lord's Supper. For at his Table Christ offers the benefits of his once and for all sacrifice to us.
Communion is a covenantal meal. Jesus said that the cup is the new covenant in his blood. His shed blood is the blood of the new covenant even as the blood of animals was the blood of the old covenant (Ex. 24:1-8). And it is by the shedding of blood that we receive the forgiveness of sins, which is required for a covenant relationship with God. The Lord's Supper is the covenant meal of the new covenant. It signifies, represents and communicates the blessings and benefits of the new covenant.
What is Communion? It is a meal. It is the Lord's meal. It is a sacrificial meal. It is a fellowship meal. And it is a covenantal meal.
TE D. Patrick Ramsey is pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in London, Ky.
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