Q. What is the Lord’s Supper?
A. The Lord's supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine according to Christ's appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.
Luke 22:19–20 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
Due to the size of this subject, I've decided to break this question up into two blog entries. Part one will focus more on the Old Testament background of the Lord's Supper, and part 2 will focus on the theology of this sacrament.
The subject of the Lord's Supper is a topic that, in our day, seems less controversial than infant baptism. But it has, in the history of the Church, caused probably more division among the people of God than any other issue. Which, considering what the Lord's Supper is; what it does, what it means, and what it represents, is quite an ironic tragedy. But, as J. Gresham Machen wrote once, the bigger tragedy would be to simply say, "it doesn't matter". What we believe about the sacraments, be it baptism or the Lord's Supper, does, indeed matter. It is instrumental to the life of God's people and to their discipleship.
As we saw with baptism, the New Testament sacraments don't exist in a bubble. They don't come out of nowhere. They aren't "new inventions". They have their grounding and backing in the Old Testament. And when dealing with the theology of the Lord's Supper, there are two main Old Testament ceremonies that can help us understand this sacrament; the feast of Passover, and the peace (sometimes called "fellowship") offering, which was part of the sacrificial system of the Tabernacle/Temple.
Passover, of course, is the most obvious connection since it was at a Passover meal where Christ instituted the sacrament. Passover served as a remembrance celebration of the faithfulness of God in keeping his promise that, if the Israelites would kill a lamb without blemish and spread his blood over the doors of their houses, God would indeed deliver his people out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt. It was the moment that sparked the exodus of God's people out of slavery and began their journey to the Promise Land. The exodus out of Egypt was Israel's "Easter". It was the central theme of redemption in the Old Testament. And it is fitting that on the eve of Christ's crucifixion, on the eve of the day when the truly pure and spotless Lamb of God would spill his own blood to cover his people so that we would be delivered from the bondage of slavery to sin, death, and the devil, on the eve of the central act of redemption not only in the New Testament but in the whole of Scripture itself, Christ would give us our own remembrance meal. During Proclamation's sermon series on the book of Mark, Troy went into the connection of the Lord's Supper and Passover. I encourage you to listen to that sermon (LINK) to hear a great summary and explanation of this connection.
But Passover is only one side of understanding the Old Testament roots of the Lord's Supper. Another aspect of understanding this sacrament is understanding the Old Testament peace/fellowship offering. This, as I said earlier, was part of the Tabernacle/Temple sacrificial system. Now, perhaps too often we tend to think about the Old Testament sacrificial system in broad terms. We can forget that when we read through Leviticus, there are many different types of sacrifices and offerings made and these offerings signified different things. The burnt offering, for example, is quite different than the grain, sin, or peace offerings. In the burnt offering, God consumes the entire sacrifice in the fire on the altar. It is based in the acknowledgement of sin and the need for atonement, that because of sin we deserve death, but unlike the various sin offerings that are later described in Leviticus, it is not offered up for any specific sin. Rather, it symbolizes a complete consecration of the worshiper to the service of the LORD. If we had to compare it to anything in our modern liturgy, we might compare this to an invocation or a call to worship. The grain offering, which is the next offering described in Leviticus, is where the priests threw a handful of grain on the altar and then would consume the rest. This was not only a way for priests to receive nourishment, but it also reminded God's people of their need for a mediator between themselves and God. God consumes part of the grain, the priest, serving as a go-between between God and the people, consumes the rest of the offering. The priest gets to, this time, participate in the offering by consuming part of it, but the laypeople of Israel do not eat. Following the grain offering, we read about the peace offering in Leviticus 3. This is a unique offering where the entrails and the fat of the animal were consumed on the altar, and the lay people consumed the meat of the animal. This is the only offering that the community at large would get to eat of, and by doing so the offering showed something very special to God's people. By God consuming part of the sacrifice and the people consuming part of the sacrifice, it showed the people of God that they now had peace, shalom, fellowship with God and with each other as they ate of this communal meal. And this is what the Lord's Supper shows us too. Jesus Christ, the spotless Lamb of God, was offered up on the altar of the cross where God would consume of the whole sacrifice. There, on the cross, our sins were completely and finally atoned for when the perfect sacrifice was offered up once and for all time. But now we get to eat of the sacrifice! We, when we eat of the bread and drink the cup, are participating in the body and blood of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 10:16). We are participating in this peace/fellowship offering. We are showing in a real, tangible way that we, as the people of God, as the covenant community of God, are now at peace with God because of the the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. It shows restored communion and fellowship with God and with each other as the covenant people.
One last note on the Old Testament background of the Lord's Supper. I want to address an idea that the shorter catechism doesn't go into, but is addressed in the Westminster Confession, and that is the idea of private communion services. The Lord's Supper, having it's roots in Passover and in the peace/fellowship offering, is by it's very nature a communal meal. Passover was a communal meal, the peace offerings were communal meals and these were not things that were done apart from a gathering of God's people. These meals expressed the reality of the covenant relationship, and we know that the reality of our covenant relationship with God is not only that we as individuals are brought back into fellowship, but we as his people are at peace with God and brought back into fellowship with him and each other. We have to remember what was lost in the Fall. It wasn't just peace with God that was lost, but also peace between ourselves and our fellow human beings. But the reality of Christ's redemption is that Christ is restoring all that was lost in the Fall. Redemption, as Isaac Watts put it, is "as far as the curse is found". These covenant meals, be it Passover, be it the peace/fellowship offerings, or be it the Lord's Supper, are reminders of the completeness of Christ's redemption. They are reminders that we have been saved as individuals to be part of a people. To participate in the covenant meal, the Lord's Supper, apart from the covenant community contradicts the reality that the meal is supposed to show us. If we are united to Christ, then we are also united to each other as the body of Christ. Or, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:17, "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread."