In this article we will consider what is perhaps the most important (and, for many believers, the most precious) of all the church gatherings - the meeting to break bread, and remember the Lord Jesus. The New Testament describes it in two ways - it is the Breaking of Bread (e.g. Acts 20.7), and it is called the Lords Supper (1 Cor 11.20).1 The first of these titles gives us a hint of what actually happens in the gathering, and the second tells us of the dignity associated with it - it is not merely a group of people meeting together, but it is a supper provided by the King of kings and Lord of lords Himself. The New Testament teaching concerning this meeting can be viewed under three headings:
1. The purpose of the meeting.
2. The procedure of the meeting.
3. The principles governing the meeting.
The purpose of the meeting
The two-fold purpose of the meeting is clearly given in 1 Corinthians 11.24-25: it is firstly to remember the Lord Jesus, and secondly to proclaim ("show forth") His death.2 Although it is nowhere explicitly stated in the New Testament, the inevitable implication is that as we think of Him our hearts will rise up in worship, and we will be moved to give God thanks for His Son. Note that the Breaking of Bread is unique in that it is the only meeting the primary purpose of which is for us to give to God. In most other meetings we come to ask or receive something from God, but when we come to worship we come to give. This, of course, does not mean that we do not benefit from attending the meeting, but this is not the main reason for the gathering.
The procedure of the meeting
It is a wonderful example of the wisdom of God that no detailed instruction is given in the New Testament as to how a Breaking of Bread meeting should be conducted. This leaves local believers (in different ages and in different cultures) free to follow the leading of the Spirit of God in expressing their devotion to their Lord by remembering Him in the way that seems best in their particular circumstances. This does not mean that we have liberty to replace the Breaking of Bread with some other form of remembrance, but it means that there is no specified ritual that must be followed, no particular equipment (apart from a loaf and a cup) that is required. It is therefore within the means of all believers (no matter how poor) of every generation in every culture of the world to be obedient to the request of the Lord Jesus and remember Him. Having said all that, the usual format of the meeting that would be seen in New Testament assemblies in this country at present would be something like this:
The believers meet together, thinking about the life and death of the Lord Jesus. There is a loaf of bread and a cup of wine, perhaps on a table in the centre - these symbolise the body and blood of the Lord.
The men of the church will take it in turns to pray, giving God thanks for the Lord Jesus. From time to time one of them will suggest a hymn to be sung.
After some time, one of the men will pray, giving God thanks for the bread, which is then broken and passed to each of the believers in turn so that each of them may eat a little. Another prayer is then offered in thanks for the cup, and it too is passed around the company. In effect it is a symbolic meal, which shows forth the death of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor 11.26).
The principles governing the meeting
The principles governing the Lords Supper are to be found in three areas of the Bible.
First, in the gospels we are told of how the Breaking of Bread was established by the Lord Jesus on the night of His betrayal (Mt 26.26-30; Mk 14.22-26; Lk 22.14-20). We see from these verses that the purpose of the meeting is to remember Him (Lk 22.19) - not to think about our blessings, or what God has done for us, but to remember the Lord Himself. This does not mean that we are never to express our gratitude for what God has done for us, but it does mean that we are to be primarily taken up with the wonder and glory of His person - what He is, and what He has done, for God as well as for us.
Second, in the book of Acts we see the example of the early church. From this we learn that the Breaking of Bread ought to be kept:
Continually (Acts 2.42). It should be a constant feature of the life of every church.
Regularly (Acts 20.7). It was the habit of the disciples to meet on the first day of every week to break bread - we should do the same.
Communally (Acts 20.7). The believers came together to break bread. They did not do it as individuals elsewhere.
Third, in 1 Corinthians chs.10-11 we are given the explanation of what the Lords Supper means. In 1 Corinthians 10.16-17 it is shown to be a symbol of the unity of all believers. We all have a share in the Lord Jesus, and as such we all partake of the same bread and drink of the same cup. In 1 Corinthians 11.17-34, it is a declaration of the Lords death. The bread represents His body, which was broken for us; the wine represents His blood, which was shed for us. In this context, it is very important to understand that the bread and wine are only symbols. They never become anything other than bread and wine.3
Finally, let us notice two commands linked with the Lords Supper in 1 Corinthians 11. In v.24 the command is, "Remember me". If I am to do this, I must come to the meeting with my mind filled with thoughts of Him. It is too late to start thinking of Him when I get to the meeting. This means, of course, that I must make a habit of reading the Bible (and particularly the gospel accounts of the Lords life and death) if I am to have anything to offer to God each Sunday morning. This applies to sisters as well as brethren. Their contributions are no less valuable for being expressed silently, and they require every bit as much preparation. How much time does each of us spend in preparation for this most sacred of assembly gatherings?
Then in vv.27-29 we are told, "Let a man examine himself". This means that I must have no unconfessed sin when I come to the meeting. Before the High Priest of Israel could come into the presence of God he had to ensure that he was physically clean (Lev 16.4) - this same cleanliness should mark us in a spiritual sense. Note that the Apostle does not say that if I have committed sins I should stay away from the meeting. Rather the thought is that I examine myself, and put right what needs to be put right, so that I can join with my fellow believers in giving God thanks for His Son.
In conclusion, let each of us see to it that we give to the Breaking of Bread the same importance, the same value, that the Lord Himself gave to it. When He was within twenty-four hours of His death, He took the time to establish the ordinance of the Lords Supper. Since that death has been the means of our redemption, every one of us ought to count it our greatest privilege to be obedient to his command, and to remember Him each week in the Breaking of Bread.
To be continued.
1 Note that the Lords Supper is a totally different thing from the Lords Table (1 Cor 10.21). The Lords Supper is a meeting of believers on the first day of the week where we come to give to God; the Lords Table is His spiritual provision for me every day of my life. 1 Corinthians 10.21 is not teaching that I should avoid attending the Breaking of Bread if I live sinfully, but rather that if I engage in sinful activities I will miss out on the wonderful provision of daily spiritual good things that God has made for me.
2 Whether we proclaim His death to angels, or to the world, or even to God the Father is a question outside the scope of this article - readers are left to come to their own conclusions!
3 Although the Lord Jesus said things like, "This is my body" (Lk 22.19), it is clear that He was speaking figuratively. In the same way, a man might show us a photograph and say, "This is my wife" - he does not expect us to think that he is married to a piece of photographic paper! The bread and wine are symbols - nothing more, nothing less.