THE LORD’S SUPPER
T. PIERCE BROWN
In recent months we have seen articles by those who claim membership in the Lord’s family that deny the necessity of taking the Lord’s Supper only on the first day of the week, and on every first day. Although we are getting accustomed to seeing evidences of apostasy in all sorts of ways, we are still shocked by it. This article may be of some value to those who are still honest, but may be in danger of being led astray by the false teachers.
First, let us point out that there are a number of persons who are apparently members of the Lord’s church who refer to it as “the sacraments.” The classic definition of a `sacrament’ is “An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” In common language “sacrament” is a theological term meaning “a religious act by and through which Divine grace is conferred upon the recipient.” There may be a sense in which any God-ordained religious act is a means by which Divine grace is bestowed on us (that is, when we do anything God asks, in the way He wants it done, but His authority, we receive his favor), but the theological concept is that through the outward observance of some ritual, God confers grace on the participant. Baptism, for example, is thought by some to be a “sacrament” by which the person (baby or drunkard, or whoever) is thought to be “regenerated” by the act of baptism. This concept is foreign to the teachings of the New Testament. Those who are now teaching that a person does not need to know that baptism is for the remission of sins are very close to making baptism a “sacramental act,” if they are not already doing so.
What is the significance of the institution of the Lord’s Supper? First, it is a memorial service (Luke22:19, 1 Cor.11:24) with a symbolic meaning (Matthew 26:26-29). It symbolizes or represents his body and blood. He did not bite off a piece of his finger and say, “This is my body,” nor open a vein and say, “This is my blood,” but took bread and fruit of the vine and spoke those words.
The time of the institution seems to have been on Thursday night during the observance of the Passover meal. The question may be raised, “Since Jesus did it then, if we are true followers of Jesus, should we not do it as he did?”
There are two things we need to realize as we seek a Bible answer to those questions. First, since Jesus lived and died under the Law of Moses, he always obeyed it. We are not ever to follow his example in obedience to a law which ended when he died (Romans 7:4,6; Ephesians2:15-16). Second, we do not follow Jesus by duplicating his specific action. If we did, we would ride intoJerusalemon an ass, go into an upper room with only 12 disciples, recline at the table as we partook, sing a hymn and go out to a brook after the supper. We follow Jesus by following his teaching as revealed by the inspired Apostles and practiced by the early church under their direction. We follow Jesus and his examples by having the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5) and doing always the things that please God. When Jesus said to the Israelites in John8:39, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do what Abraham did,” he did not mean, “you will offer your son on the altar as Abraham did,” (specific actions) but you will obey God and walk in faith as Abraham did (general principles).
So the Lord’s Supper is not to be observed on Thursday night, once a year. He instituted a new feast, and said to his disciples that His feast was to be eaten new in his Father’s kingdom (Matthew 26:29). There it was to be taken on the Lord’s day, every week — not once a quarter or once a year.
The question may be raised, “How do you know? Acts 20:7 is not a command! Can you prove that `breaking bread’ referred to the Lord’s Supper instead of a common meal, and that they took it every first day?” Those are good questions and deserve better answers than are usually given when comments are made at the Lord’s Supper each Sunday. I do not mean we need to preach an expository sermon on each such occasion, but I do mean that we need to make more precise comments than, “We are gathered here as commanded in Acts 20:7 to take the Lord’s Supper.”
We are happy to find that secular history, religious history, and the Bible all give testimony to the same things at this point. As far as we know, all the testimony of church historians, of whatever religious persuasion they may be, is uniform in the fact that the early Christians met every first of the week for this memorial feast. Justin Martyr refers to “the day called Sunday (on which) all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memories of the apostle or the writings of the prophets are read –.” Then he mentions taking the Lord’s Supper and the deacons taking it to those who are absent. Justin lived about 110 to 165. Iranaeus, Clement and other “church Fathers” not only mention the Lord’s Supper, but quote such passages as 1 Cor. 11:27, 28 showing their awareness. As far as I know, none of them mentioned taking it each Lord’s day. However, this is not negative evidence, for it was evidently such a common practice, universally accepted, that it would have been unusual for them to mention it unless they were writing for pagans. We have checked through every writing we can find of the “Ante-Nicene Fathers” and the “Post-Nicene Fathers,” and we find no evidence that the Lord’s Supper was observed in the early church except on each Lord’s Day. Not until the council of Agatha, in 506 do we find indications of the corruption of the practice of taking it three times a year, and even then it was on the first day of the week.
But the question may be asked, “Does the expression `to break bread’ always mean `to take the Lord’s Supper’?” If not, how do we know this was not a common meal? Certainly Jesus and his disciples broke bread at other times than in the Lord’s Supper. But when one reads Acts 2:41-42 thoughtfully, he cannot but recognize the breaking of bread is a spiritual feast and not a common meal. The context requires it. They continued steadfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine, the fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayers. These are all spiritual — religious activities.
The context of Acts 20:7 indicates the same. Note that Paul was in a hurry to get toJerusalemso he could be there by Pentecost (Acts20:16). When he got toTroas, it was on a Monday. He was, do doubt, meeting and eating with the disciples every day. He had to eat somewhere! But the record does not mention that, for there was no particular religious significance to it. But it does mention that “On the first day of the week the disciples came together to break bread.” This was the specific purpose of their coming together. When we realize that Paul, in a hurry, stayed over 7 days for something, and we find that something was the breaking of bread, and we find that in 1 Corinthians 16 that the meeting of Christians on the first day of the week was a fixed custom, and when we read in Hebrews 10:25 that they were forbidden to forsake the assembly, and when we view the events in the context of all historical testimony that the early church met on the first day of the week to take the Lord’s Supper, we are driven to the logical conclusion that the breaking of bread there was not a common meal. They ate the common meal from house to house (Acts2:46), but here they came together, as disciples, to break bread. And it was the formal assembly where Paul preached.
Putting several things together, we come to these conclusions: 1. Jesus commanded the memorial feast to be done as oft as they did it (1 Cor.11:26) to proclaim the Lord’s Death. 2. All testimony of which we are aware, from both friends and enemies, both in and out of the Bible, indicates that they did it the first day of the week. 3. If one asks, “Which first day of the week,” a simple answer can be given: “The only one it has.” If one ever found a week without a first day, or with two, he might have a problem. As long as he finds a week with only one first day, if he wants to follow the Apostle’s example and teaching, he would have no more problem than the Jews who heard Moses say, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” We never heard of a sincere Jew who inquired, “Which one?” Whenever they found one, that was it.
One may sincerely reply, “But this was not a command in Acts 20:7. We admit that they took the Lord’s Supper on the first day, but we still want to know: Is every practice they engaged in binding on us?”
For a scholarly and more complete answer, a whole book might be used. But for a simple answer we may say, any time we find an inspired Apostle or the early church under their direction making a special effort to do a certain thing at a certain time or a certain way, and thus putting special emphasis on that time or way, we may rest assured that we can not go wrong to put the same emphasis on it.
To use a simple illustration: If all secular history and the Bible — or even the Bible alone — indicated that they always sought out an upper room, though they could have more easily found a lower one, I would necessarily conclude that there was some significance in an upper room, and would urge its use. If I found that they always sought out moving water in which to baptize, even when still water was more readily available, I would necessarily conclude that there was some significance in moving water, and would urge its use. The least we could say about it is: “It cannot be wrong to do it that way, and there can be no division or disunity among God’s people when we do what the Apostles taught us to do, and emphasized as important in word or deed!”
Conclusion: I find no exception to the teaching that the early church under the direction of the inspired Apostles did the following: 1. They met on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7, 1 Cor. 16:2). It is interesting to note that the meaning of the Greek text in that reference is “every first day of the week”. 2. They broke bread, having come together for that specific purpose (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11;20). 3. They used the expression “breaking bread” to describe the partaking of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor.11:24). 4. They were following the teachings of Jesus, being led by the Holy Spirit (John14:26). 5. We cannot go wrong to do the same things, placing the emphasis where they did. If one is more concerned with pleasing God than in developing a reputation for being a deep thinker who understands new hermeneutics, he can do so.