The Lord’s Supper: Reaching Some Conclusions, Part 2

“Cup” and “loaf” are parts of a meal

It helps, I think, to realize that a cup of wine and loaf of bread was standard for First Century meals, especially meals shared with guests. To us, “cup of wine” or “loaf of bread” sounds like something added to the meal or taken separately from the meal, whereas to First Century ears, these words sounded like courses of the meal — rather as “salad” and “dessert” would sound to us.

Imagine reading this —

(Mat 26:26-29)  While they were eating, Jesus took [the salad bowl], gave thanks and [divided it], and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” 27 Then he took the [after-dinner coffee dessert], gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not [eat this dessert] from now on until that day when I [eat] it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

(1 Cor 10:16-17)  Is not the [dessert] for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the [salad] a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one [salad bowl], we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one [bowl].

Okay. That sounds pretty silly, but it’s clear in both passages that the “elements” are part of a common meal when we understand that the elements are what people ate for dinner.  Obviously, you can could eat and drink bread and wine separate from the meal, but that’s not at all a natural reading. After all, First Century readers ate from a loaf and drank from a cup every day — at a meal.

We see “bread” and “cup” as elements of a religious ceremony because we have 2,000 years of using the words that way. But to the early church, those words referred to elements of supper.

And the Gospel writers plainly state that the cup and loaf were provided “while they were eating,” and yet this did not become a part of the “pattern.” Why not? Well, not because of the Patristic evidence! Rather, it was because there had been no common love feasts combined with communion since the Dark Ages. The 19th Century Restoration leaders read the passages through Reformation and Catholic eyes.

(1 Cor 10:18, 21)  Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? … You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.

Paul compares eating meat or drinking wine sold at the market after being sacrificed to an idol to participating in “the Lord’s table.” Paul sees the Lord’s table as comparable to a table at which a full meal is served. That’s the essence of the argument.

Now, I’m not saying that communion = love feast. That wouldn’t quite be right. But I am saying that it was surely typical for the communion to be taken as part of a meal. It plainly doesn’t have to be, as Paul states at the end of 1 Cor 11. But the ordinary practice was to take communion while eating together.

“Cup” and “loaf” are sensual

Imagine that you’re sitting with Jesus at the Last Supper. The “cup” isn’t a teeny, tiny plastic cup. It’s a cup large enough to share with 12 others at the table — 12 men who’ve come in from a dry, dusty climate to eat. It’s no surprise that the cup would have been passed several times during a traditional Passover!

And it was filled with wine. It may have been cut with water, but it was certainly a rich, flavorful drink.

The loaf would have been freshly cooked in a brick oven outdoors, with flour, oil, and salt. It would have served hot – fresh from the oven — and still soft. Each man would have torn off a large piece to eat and then passed the bread to the next man. And the aroma would have filled the room. For me, one the best smells in the world is freshly baked bread.

This changes the symbolism of bread and cup, body and blood, in dramatic ways. Rather than a spiritualized, abstract experience where the lesson comes from the speaker or our own meditation, the lesson comes from bread and the cup. If these symbolize Jesus, and if our eating and drinking symbolize our faith (per John 6, of course), then the flavor, odor, and texture tell us that Jesus is good and faith is delightful. Indeed, Jesus sustains us. He fills us. Very few words would be needed because the message would be in the elements.

But when the cup is too small to slake a thirst and the bread too tiny and dry to be enjoyed, then the unintended message is that Jesus is small and our faith leaves us thirsty and hungry, and so we quite naturally conclude that we must make up what’s lacking by our own efforts.

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10 Responses

  1. I’m curious if misreading 1 Corinthians 11 to think that Paul was arguing against a common meal came before or after the move to the practicality of smaller portions.

    I think we need to get back to the mentality of the table, the sharing together of a meal. Can you imagine a Thanksgiving meal where everyone sat in silence with head bowed and eyes closed? Can you imagine the same in a Passover meal in the first century?

    1 Corinthians 10 and 11 emphasize the togetherness of the Lord’s Supper. We’ve turned it into an individual act, and a big part of that is the “pinch and sip” ritual.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  2. Paul’s conclusion in 1 Cor 11 is decidedly NOT against the common meal.

    His concluding command is to wait for one another.

    His argument, I think, goes as follows:

    if you’re coming to the meal primarily to eat,
    and if you have a house to eat in,
    then fill yourself there.
    Regardless, wait for one another.

    His words about houses to eat in are a rhetorical thrust rather than a command, esp. since regardless, they’re going to be meeting in SOMEONE’S house.

  3. John Mark’s blog today is serendipitous.

    The Practice of the Table in 20th Century Churches of Christ

  4. I can see that the Lord’s Supper was more like a meal than what we practice today. But what is the connection to the love feast? There are passages about the L.S. and passages about a love feast, why do many people say they are the same thing? Jay, I know you don’t, but what about those who do. How is the connection made?

  5. “It helps, I think, to realize that a cup of wine and loaf of bread was standard for First Century meals, especially meals shared with guests.”

    They’re just as much standard parts of modern meals as of ancient ones. That doesn’t prove the Lord’s Supper is just part of a smaller meal.

    “Imagine that you’re sitting with Jesus at the Last Supper. The cup isn’t a teeny, tiny plastic cup. It’s a cup large enough to share with 12 others at the table” — Why are you sounding like a one-cupper all of the sudden?

  6. Bob,

    Jesus used a single cup. A single cup was used by the church until the late 19th Century. But that doesn’t make it a law.

    I’m just suggesting that we remove our modern innovations and imagine what it was like in that upper room — or in any house where Christians met and ate and worshiped together. That’s how it was.

    I’ve occasionally participated in one-cup services, in non-one cup congregations. They’ve been some of the most moving communions of my life. That doesn’t make it a law.

    I’m not a one-cupper because I don’t buy the argument that examples are binding. If I did, I’d be hard pressed to rationalize why I disregard the one-cup examples, which are quite clearly exemplified, and insist on a cappella music, which is not.

    But neither is a law.

  7. Where do you get the idea that Jesus wanted the communion to be “sensual”? [deleted]

  8. Bob,

    I can approve moderated comments via iPhone during the day. I can’t edit them except on the computer, which means I have to wait until night time to let them post.

    In response to your question:

    1. The fact that Jesus chose elements that in the First Century appealed to the senses in terms of fragrance, texture, and flavor. He offered bread from a meal and a cup of wine, not a thimblefull of wine and a crust of bread.

    2. Paul’s condemnation of those who falsely command,

    (Col 2:21) “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”?

    3. The fact that the church transformed itself from its original Jewishness to a Grecian worldview after the second century — so that the material and pleasurable was seen as evil and only the spiritual was seen as holy. Thus, by the 5th Century, Christian writers were urging married couples to become virgins within their marriages so that they wouldn’t sin by engaging in marital sex! The Post-Nicene church became highly ascetic, and it’s easy to see how the Lord’s Supper was transformed from a part of a meal to merely symbolic food.

    The Jewish worldview properly united the spiritual with the physical, so that God becoming incarnate was entirely conceivable to the Jews, whereas the Greeks considered that a contradiction in terms. They couldn’t imagine how a perfectly holy being could be in the flesh, and certainly couldn’t imagine him eating.

  9. 1. Jesus chose the elements he chose because he was reinterpreted Passover elements. He didn’t choose them because of their smell or texture.

    2. When you observe the Lord’s Supper by itself without a big meal are you commanding “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? No.

    3. Perhaps this change in worldview is from Jesus, since the OT gives only carnal promises (long life, lots of children, increase of corn and wine, land flowing with milk and honey) and the NT gives spiritual ones (peace and joy not in the world but in God with persecution in the world, a home in heaven in the future). It comes from Paul also “set your affections on things above, not things of the earth” and “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking but peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.” There is nothing “Grecian” about this worldview. The Grecians were as carnal as the Jews. This worldview is simply Christian. It comes also from Peter “seeing everything on this earth will be burned up, what sort of holy people ought we to be in all manner of conduct!”

    As to the unrelated point about Gnostic docetism many Gnostics actual were Jewish and there was just as much of an issue about the Incarnation with literalist Jewish Christians as with Gnostic Jewish Christians and Gnostic Gentile Christians. The Jewish sects like Ebionites said Jesus was born by Joseph and Mary copulating together and that he was a mere man until baptized by John and then and only then did he become the Son of God. The Jewish mind was as opposed to the notion of Jesus’ Divinity that we hold today as was the Gentile. In fact Gnosticism derived from Jewish Kabbalh, Jewish metaphyiscal and cosmogonic speculations apparently inherited from the Babylonian captivity. The Gnostic concept of the heavenly man corresponds exactly to the Jewish Kabbalistic concept of the first angel called Adam haKadmoni or Adam Cadmon who is understood in Jewish Kabbalah as being the image that En Sof (the first principle) created and upon which a lower manifestation of God based the creation of fleshly Adam. The Gnostics follow the same concept of having a Heavenly Man, Adamas, who somehow derives from the Supreme Father and who is seen by the lower god the Demiurge who attempt to copy the image thus making Adam. The comic book version of Gnosticism says they rejected the notion of Jesus being in real flesh and blood because they didn’t think God could mix with matter, but that is only true of Manicheanism. Prior to that it was based solidly on JEWISH metaphysical philosophy derived from their stay in Babylon. It was based on the notion of a supreme and unknown unrevealed aspect of God, En Sof, versus various lower manifestations of God, and the concept was that the world was created and governed by lower manifestation and yet finally in Jesus the En Sof was revealed. In much of the original docetism Jesus’ flesh was not actually even denied, only his birth, and this seems to have been not as a way to separate God from ‘dirty’ flesh but as a way for the Kabbalist Jewish Christians sects to guard Jesus’ Divinity against the claims of the literalist Jewish Christian sects (like Ebionites) who said Jesus started off as a mere man and then became Son of God when baptized–to guard against this they dropped his birth altogether and had him descend straight out of heaven bring some sort of body of ‘celestial’ flesh with him.

  10. Also on the passage “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle” in Colossians 2, I see good reason to understand it as follows (since in context he is talking about how we should NOT return to ceremonialism along the lines of the Old Testament):

    If you died with Christ to the elements of the world, then why as though living in the world are you subject to [their] ordinances? Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle [those ordinances] which perish with usage after the nature of human commands and teachings, which have an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, false humility, and neglect of the body, but they are of no value in checking indulgence of the flesh.

    Rather than responding to ordinances that say not to touch or taste or handle he appears to me to be telling us not to touch or taste or handle ordinances of men which correspond to the elements of the world from which Christ has set us free, for if we died with Christ we are no longer in bondage to the beggarly elements of the world. In other words, he is condemning religious ceremonialism such as Sabbaths and New Moons and such, which he has mentioned in context back in verses 14-18. All the ordinances of the Old Testament that made us to rest on this day, fast on this day, have a big dinner (Passover) on this day—they accomplished nothing as far as checking or stopping sin. To continue such things or make up new ceremonies along the same lines (like Lent, Easter, Christmas) must be understood to be of no actual value but as only seeming to be wise, for it makes no impact on the conscience but its observance only brings forth false humility and self-imposed religion, and in certain cases (Lent for example) neglect of the body.

    He isn’t talking about his own prohibition against drunkeness and sexual immorality. He is not condemning the precept “do not touch your neighbor’s wife’s behind.” He is telling us not to touch manmade ceremonies, and not to touch, taste, or handle the the OT ceremonies which were part of the handwritings of ordinances that was against us which was nailed to the cross.

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