Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa. Previous article in this series: June 2007, p. 392.
Its Rich Symbolism he elements of the Lord’s Supper are very familiar to us. We understand that the bread and the wine symbolize Christ’s broken body and shed blood. He told us the same in the institution of the Lord’s Supper recorded inMatthew 26:26-27, the parallel accounts of Mark 14:22-24 and Luke 22:19-20, as well as I Corinthians 11:23-25.
But how often have we considered the rich symbolism of the sacrament?
We sometimes speak of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as “coming to the Lord’s table.”
At the Lord’s table we enter into fellowship with Jehovah our Redeemer.
In a broader sense, that is true of all the church’s worship. Whenever we enter God’s house truly to worship in spirit and truth, we enter into fellowship with God. Worship is fellowship with the Holy One. Especially in the preaching of the Word we enjoy God’s fellowship with us as He speaks, conversing with us and taking us into His own life of fellowship and love and telling to us His secrets (Ps. 25:14).
In the communion of saints we worship, expressing our oneness in the faith with the members of the congregation of which we are a part. In communion one with another, in the bond of love, as sinners alike redeemed by Christ, we are taken into the fellowship of God.
That fellowship with God and one another is richly expressed when we partake in faith of this Supper of our Lord.
But in the Lord’s Supper we confess emphatically that the only way we have such a blessed place in the covenant and church of God is by the broken body and shed blood of our Savior Jesus Christ.
So Christ has given us the elements of bread and wine as the essential elements of the Lord’s Supper.
What a beautiful sermon to our sight and taste is the proclamation of the broken bread and the poured out wine! Together they are heralds of God’s great love to us in Christ Jesus. They proclaim loudly “that, whereas you should otherwise have suffered eternal death, I have given My body to the death of the cross, and shed My blood for you.”¹
The bread signifies Christ as the Bread of life. Immediately after setting forth that truth in John 6:48, Jesus explains, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (John 6:51). “Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him” (John 6:53-56).
Bear in mind, it was a long road before that bread became bread.
First, the grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die. After that, the ears of grain must die when the fields of grain are cut. Then the grain must be pulverized in the mill, and the flour baked into bread in a hot oven. And finally that bread is once again broken before our eyes.
Think of the horrible sufferings that Christ suffered for us!
Then there is the element of wine.
The wine signifies the blood of Christ first of all. It signifies, therefore, the blood of Him who said (John 7:37), “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink.”
But in addition wine, according to Scripture, is a symbol of communion, prosperity, and joy, that which is extra. Notice, I don’t say that wine is the symbol of that which is excess. To consume excess wine is to abuse the very symbol given by God in that drink. It is to sin against God. But wine is the symbol of that which is extra.
For that reason, in the Lord’s Supper wine signifies the translation of our earthly life into the joy of God’s heavenly tabernacle. When Jesus delivers us from sin, He doesn’t simply lead us back to what we had in Adam. He leads us into the everlasting life of heavenly perfection and joy, covenant fellowship with God in Jesus Christ, where there are bounties forevermore.
Again, that wine did not come to be set before us without the berries having been crushed. Only afterwards is the wine poured out, even as the blood of Christ dripped to the ground from the wounds that He bore for our sakes. That brings us to an additional element of symbolism in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Also belonging to the symbolism of the sacrament is the breaking of the bread, and the pouring out of the wine. These symbolize the crucified body and shed blood of Christ. The minister, in the presence of the congregation during the administration of the sacrament, breaks the bread and pours the wine into the chalice.
This symbolism should be preserved, in harmony with the testimony of the Heidelberg Catechism in Question and Answer 75: “…that His body was offered and broken on the cross for me, and His blood shed for me, as certainly as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup communicated to me; and further, that He feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life with His crucified body and shed blood, as assuredly as I receive from the hands of the minister, and taste with my mouth, the bread and cup of the Lord, as certain signs of the body and blood of Christ.”
So the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, in conjunction with the Word, proclaim the gospel of the cross! The Lord’s Supper is the visible gospel. Not that it stands alone. The Lord’s Supper as the visible gospel is dependent upon the Word preached, and only supports that Word preached. But what a beautiful sermon to our sight and taste is the proclamation of the broken bread and poured out wine!
But there are other elements of symbolism in the sacrament that ought not be overlooked.
There is also the matter of eating and drinking. The signs of bread and wine are not merely to be observed, but appropriated by partaking of them. We don’t simply look on. Jesus said, “Take, eat; drink ye all of it. This do in remembrance of me.” We eat and we drink. By faith we eat and drink in the fellowship of believers and of God Himself. This eating and drinking symbolizes the appropriation of Christ and all His benefits by the spiritual activity of saving faith. By faith we appropriate Him and all His benefits by the spiritual activity of a true faith.
Also belonging to the administration of the sacrament are the words of institution spoken by the minister. These also belong to the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper.
Those words that we hear, the words of Scripture, are not simply the words of a command that we must obey. It is that, to be sure. “This do in remembrance of me.” That is a command to the church. And failure to obey is a grievous act of disobedience to God! But it is more than a command.
The words of institution given by our Lord also signify that Christ speaks His powerful, efficacious Word through the minister to His people when they celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Else we would not have a sacrament. Without the presence of Christ by His Spirit, the Lord’s Supper cannot be a means of grace for the strengthening of our faith. Without the presence of Christ and the power of His Word, we would have nothing but empty form. But as Christ Himself speaks through His Word and by His Spirit, the Lord’s Supper becomes to the church a means of grace, nourishing and strengthening all who partake in faith.
Finally, there is one more element of symbolism that we should consider. That is the communion table. The communion table symbolizes the table of God’s everlasting covenant, a sign of His fellowship and love, the fellowship of God through Christ with His people. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we do so as an expression of love. We have been taken into the very covenant fellowship of God. We have been taken into that fellowship together with all His people in the congregation where the sacrament is administered.
Lord’s Day 28 of the Heidelberg Catechism expresses that in several ways.
It does so, in the first place, by pointing out that “Christ has commanded me and all believers (my emphasis) to eat…and to drink.”
It emphasizes this communion of saints, secondly, by its repeated reference to “we.” Webecome one with Christ, “flesh of His flesh, and bone of His bone,” so that together “we live, and are governed forever by one spirit, as members of the same body are by one soul.”
And in Question and Answer 77 we are pointed to the very institution of the Lord’s Supper, where the conclusion recorded in I Corinthians 10:17 is this: “For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.”
And so when we partake of His Supper at the table of His covenant fellowship, we express our love— our love for our Redeemer. But as Scripture makes clear, we can’t love Him except we also love one another. So that must be our confession, lest we eat and drink damnation to ourselves, not discerning the Lord’s body.
Participation Not Optional
One final consideration in this article. Christ has commanded all believers to partake of His holy Supper.
We shall have opportunity, the Lord willing, in a later article to discuss the question of who are proper partakers of this Supper. But immediately the emphasis falls upon the fact that all who confess faith in Christ are commanded to partake of this sacrament that is to be administered in the church.
Christ says, “This do.” There is no option. We must partake properly. We must partake in faith. But partake we must.
The law of the Old Testament with respect to the observance of the Passover holds true now with reference to the table of the covenant. God said to Israel inNumbers 9:12-13 that all were obligated to keep the Passover. “But the man that is clean, and is not in a journey”—in other words, this man is healthy; he is not away on a journey—” and forbeareth to keep the passover,” that is, he doesn’t observe that ordinance of God, “even the same soul shall be cut off from among his people: because he brought not the offering of the LORD in his appointed season, that man shall bear his sin.”
What applied to Israel in connection with the observance of the Passover is just as applicable today to our partaking of the Lord’s Supper. So we read in John 6:53, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.”
To claim to be members of Christ’s church, and not to partake of the Lord’s Supper, is a monstrosity, a deformity in the church. It is a misrepresentation of all truth concerning what it is to belong to Christ.
One cannot belong to Christ and ignore His fellowship at the table of the covenant.
There is a rather constant danger that we fall into the sin of a self-willed religion. We like to do things “when we feel like it” or “the way we feel like it.” That is to put self before God.
The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is not a matter of our pleasure or our feelings; but it is the command of the Lord of lords to His church.
Our young people must understand their obligation in this connection. I don’t mean that our young people must make confession of faith just for the sake of taking communion at a certain age. That must never be the case. To say in that confession that you love Christ in the truth as taught in this Christian church, when you don’t, is to speak a lie of profound proportions. Confession of faith must be made spiritually, as a matter of one’s knowledge, experience, and spiritual desire. But we must understand that to belong to Christ compels us to make that confession.
Under normal circumstances a man or woman in his or her youth will confess faith and partake freely of the fellowship of Christ’s body. We must. A young person ought to be able to take that stand before making such significant life decisions as further education, employment, or marriage. Nothing is of greater significance or priority than taking the stand of confession of faith and thus becoming a spiritual partaker of the Lord’s Supper. To neglect that, or to postpone it unnecessarily, is to walk in disobedience against the Lord Christ.
Still more, if I contemplate skipping the sacrament because things are not right in my own life, or because things are not in order with a fellow church member, the Lord’s command stands. In such a case He tells me that I had better take care to put my house in order and to make things right so that I can partake properly of His holy Supper.
“This do in remembrance of me.”
¹ The Psalter, Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper.