This editorial by David Pharr, published in the March/April 2013 issue of the Carolina Messenger, gives some good pointers to remember about the Lord’s Supper.
Since I started this blog a few weeks ago, I’ve had some really good questions pop up in the comments to my various articles and in private e-mails to me. These questions are legitimate and deserve a biblical, logical answer (1 Pet. 3:15). That’s why I started a “Questions” category in my blog a few days ago. From time to time I’ll be posting articles which answer the questions people bring to my attention.
One reader gave me a great comment in response to my article about whether Christians should take communion every Sunday that deserves a biblical answer. I’ve cited the comment below, along with my responses to each of the points raised within it:
If you do not mind a bit of positive critique, I find it an eisegetical stretch to claim that the 3,000 new Christians observed communion on the Day of Pentecost, in Acts 2. They may have, but the text does not record it. Verses 42-47 appear to provide a general description of the ongoing, daily activity of the early Jerusalem church. They met together, at temple daily and in homes, enjoying meals together. Breaking bread — in this context, as verse 46 indicates clearly, and in general usage in that day, and today — does not refer solely and exclusively to communion. Your article does not allow this obvious point.
I understand the reasoning behind this point of view. Acts 2:42 mentions “the breaking of bread,” while Acts 2:46 uses the phrase “breaking bread.” Since the latter verse also says that the early disciples were “breaking bread in their homes” and then mentions receiving “their food,” it is clear that the term “breaking bread” as used in Acts 2:46 is referring to the first Christians eating a common meal in their homes. This conclusion is further strengthened when we see that the Greek word translated “food” (trophe) in Acts 2:46 is never used in the New Testament in any passages which talk about the Lord’s Supper.
However, it needs to be pointed out that just as we examined what the rest of Acts 2:46 brought out in order to arrive to the correct conclusion that “breaking bread” in that verse referred to an ordinary meal, we likewise need to examine what the rest of Acts 2:42 mentions in order to determine the proper usage of “breaking bread” in that verse. In this case, the phrase “breaking bread” is surrounded by descriptions of acts of worship. The verse records how the first disciples “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching,” a reference to the preaching of God’s Word (Acts 6:2). In addition, they also “devoted themselves” to “prayer,” another act of worship done during their assemblies.
Interestingly, notice also that they “devoted themselves” to “fellowship.” This word comes from the Greek word koinōnia, and is defined as “fellowship, association, community, communion, joint participation, intercourse.” Paul was inspired to use this same word in correlation with the notion of “breaking bread” in 1 Cor. 10:16 when he wrote, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” Notice that he is making an obvious reference to the Lord’s Supper in this passage (cf. 1 Cor. 11:23-25), and in doing so he uses the term “communion” (koinōnia, “fellowship” in Acts 2:42) and the idea of “breaking bread” interchangeably. In like manner, Luke in Acts 2:42 mentions both terms – “fellowship” (koinōnia, “communion” in 1 Cor. 10:16) and “the breaking of bread” – in the context of listing acts of worship. Thus, it is not an eisegetical error to conclude that he, like Paul, is using the terms interchangeably to refer to the Lord’s Supper.
Therefore, we see a distinct difference between Acts 2:42 and Acts 2:46 in how the two passages use the term “breaking bread.” The former uses it in the context of listing acts of worship, and uses it alongside a term which, when Paul used the same terms interchangeably, referred to the Lord’s Supper. The latter uses it in the context of the early Christians eating food in their homes. Therefore, the former refers to the Lord’s Supper, while the latter refers to a common meal. Some translators imply that they recognize this distinction by their adding the article “the” in Acts 2:42’s “breaking of bread,” thus making the verse say “the breaking of THE bread,” while failing to do the same in Acts 2:46. (Examples of this include Young’s Literal Translation and the Weymouth New Testament.)
Concerning why in my article I alluded to Acts 2:42 being evidence that the first Christians partook of the Lord’s Supper on the day of Pentecost, a Sunday, I came to that conclusion not because the text of Acts 2 specifically says so. The commenter is correct to say that it does not specifically say so, although it is definitely implied considering that the day of Pentecost is what is referred to the immediate preceding context (Acts 2:1-42). The main reason I stated that conclusion is given in the article, namely that Jesus had specifically mentioned partaking of the Lord’s Supper with his disciples in the kingdom on “that day” (Matt. 26:29; Mark 14:25) when “the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:18). The kingdom of God is the church of Christ (Col. 1:13), and the church came on the day of Pentecost, a Sunday (Acts 2:1-41). Thus, Jesus’ prophecy of partaking it with his disciples (in spirit – Matt. 18:20; Heb. 2:11-12) on “that day” when “the kingdom of God comes” would have to have been fulfilled on the day of Pentecost when the church began, which was the first day of the week. In order for it to have been fulfilled, those newly baptized Christians would have had to have observed communion on that very same day. The fact that Luke mentions these first disciples worshiping together (Acts 2:42) immediately after recording their conversion and the subsequent beginning of the church on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-41) lends credence to this view.
Likewise, with the Troas church setting, in Acts 20, lends itself to three views on the breaking of bread. First, the reference could be to communion, as verse 7 seems to indicate. Breaking bread, however, could refer to a common meal, as verse 11 seems to indicate. A third option is that two bread breakings took place, the first being communion and the latter a common meal. The wording of the text itself allows these possibilities; however, I tend to accept the third option, so we seem to agree fairly well here. Of course, the inspired Luke is not writing liturgical instruction in the text. His focus is on Paul’s preaching and the miracle performed, as he references the church’s practice of meeting on the first day of the week, or Sunday, with an emphasis on communion. Luke does not intend in this text, however, to imply that communion or a worship gathering is restricted to the first day of the week only. If so, then worship and communion are both restricted to Sunday only.
Prov. 30:5 says that every word of God is “tested.” In other words, the inspired writers had a reason for every word that they wrote. Therefore, we should not be so quick to imply that Luke’s intention was to focus solely on the miracle and the discourse.
With this in mind, a careful reading of Acts 20:7 and Acts 20:11 brings out several notable points, some of which are similar to the distinction between Acts 2:42 and Acts 2:46. For one, examine the phrase “we were gathered together” in Acts 20:7. The personal pronoun “we” shows that Luke was present on this occasion. However, what is even more interesting is the expression “were gathered together.” It comes from the Greek verb synagō, and Luke used this verb in a passive voice form. Grammatically, this means that Luke was stating that he and his fellow disciples did not gather or assemble themselves together on the first day of the week not by their own authority, idea, or suggestion; rather, they “were gathered together” by an extraneous or external directive. From what source did this extraneous directive come? The only other specific scriptural evidence we have comes from 1 Cor. 16:1-2, which has Paul – under inspiration (1 Cor. 14:37; 2 Pet. 1:20-21; Eph. 3:3-5) – directing the Corinthian and Galatian churches (and implicitly, all other churches – 1 Cor. 4:17) to take up a collection for needy saints “on the first day of every week.” Therefore, God was the source of the extraneous directive which gathered together Luke and his fellow disciples on the first day of the week, and Paul’s inspired usage of the Greek term kata in 1 Cor. 16:2 combined with what we read in Acts 20:7 shows that God directed the early Christians to assemble together “on the first day of every week.”
Keeping this in our thoughts, let’s examine the phrase “to break” in Acts 20:7. It comes from the Greek verb klaō, and Luke used this verb in an infinitive tense. Grammatically, this means Luke was stating that the purpose for the disciples being called together on the first day of the week was “to break bread.” Was the specific purpose they assembled together on the first day of the week to eat a common meal together…or was the specific purpose to partake of communion? The scriptural evidence shown in the preceding paragraph and compiled in my article suggests the latter. Would God have called them together on the first day of every week simply to eat a meal together? Or would he have called them together to memorialize his Son’s death through observance of communion, and to do so on the day his Son had referred to while instituting the Supper?
Now, look at Acts 20:11. A careful reading of the verse shows that the only one who had “broken bread”at this point was Paul, rather than the entire group. Furthermore, the word “eaten”comes from the Greek word geuomai and has among its definitions, “to taste” and “to take nourishment.” Geuomai is never used in any passages which mention the Lord’s Supper, thus giving support to the conclusion that Acts 20:11 is referring to Paul eating an ordinary meal after the entire assembly of disciples had earlier observed the Lord’s Supper in Acts 20:7.
Concerning the commentor’s inference from my article that communion and worship could only be done on Sunday, he is partly right. Of the five acts of worship described in the New Testament (singing, hearing a message from God’s Word, prayer, communion, and giving of our means), only communion and the giving of our means have any sort of specific day assigned to them (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). On the contrary, Christians are told to sing praises whenever they are cheerful (James 5:13), which would take place not only in the assembly (Heb. 2:12) but also throughout the week (Phil. 4:4). Likewise, Christians are told to continually devote themselves to prayer (Col. 4:2; 1 Thess. 5:17-18) and to the Word (1 Pet. 2:2; 1 Tim. 4:13, 15-16). Thus, we are to worship God through receiving instruction from his Word, prayer, and song throughout the week, either publicly or privately…but the observance of the Lord’s Supper and the giving of our means are limited to only Sundays.
I was surprised not to find a reference to 1 Cor. 11:23-26 in your article. There, Paul states:
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
“Do this . . . .” “. . . whenever you drink it . . . .” “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup . . . .” Paul, here, gives inspired leeway as to when the Lord’s Supper is observed. It is “whenever.” The immediate context is “when you come together as a church” (vs. 18, 33), which appears to be at least on the first day of the week, or Sunday (1 Cor. 16:2). The Jerusalem church, however, came together daily (Acts 2:46). (Could the Corinthian church have gathered daily as well?) From this, shall we not conclude that a “whenever” observance of the Lord’s Supper could be daily, on Sundays, or at any time?
This is an understandable conclusion to come to after a casual reading of the passages under consideration; yet, in light of what is shown above and in the article under discussion, it is found to be erroneous. The “breaking of bread” in Acts 2:46 is shown conclusively to refer to an ordinary meal eaten in one’s home, and is the only usage of the term in correlation with the record of the first disciples meeting daily in the temple. The “breaking of bread” in Acts 2:42 is used in correlation with acts of worship done immediately upon coming of the kingdom on the first day of the week which was Pentecost (Acts 2:1-41), thus showing that it’s a reference to communion and making it fall under the significance of the singular “day” mentioned by Christ when he instituted the Supper (Matt. 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18; cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2), that day being the first day of the week. Therefore, we can conclude that the first disciples worshiped in the temple through instruction of God’s Word, prayer, and song and ate together on a daily basis, but the only time they observed communion and gave of their means would be on the first day of every week. The fact that church history shows that the early Christians did this, as cited in the commentor’s point below as well as in my article, gives more credence to this conclusion.
You do well in citing the so-called Church Fathers to buttress your view on weekly communion. I prefer weekly observance as well, based on the Troas text in Acts and early church history. I will not, however, condemn other believers on the basis of their Lord’s Supper observance frequency, whether it is daily, on Sunday, once a quarter, on Passover, on Christmas Eve, etc. – since Paul’s inspired citation of Jesus indicates that we may observe communion “whenever,” of course with the proper spiritual mindset. To do otherwise, is to speak where scripture has not spoken and to go beyond what is written, or intended, in scripture.
Ps. 119:160 brings out how “the sum”or “entirety”of God’s Word is truth, meaning that we have to take all of what Scripture says about a certain matter into account in order to know the whole truth about that subject. For example, many say that all one has to do in order to be saved is to believe in Jesus and cite John 3:16…all while ignoring other passages which stress the necessity of confession of that faith in Jesus (Rom. 10:9-10), repentance of sins (2 Cor. 7:9-10), baptism (1 Pet. 3:21; Mark 16:16), and obedience (Heb. 5:9; Matt. 7:21-23). In like manner, Paul did use the seemingly general term “as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup” in 1 Cor. 11:26, but that is not the only thing Scripture has to say about when and how often to observe communion. Paul was among those who “were gathered together” by the extraneous divine directive on the first day of the week to observe communion (Acts 20:7). He himself was inspired to single out the first day of every week in his command for Christians to give of their means (1 Cor. 16:2). His Lord and Master mentioned a singular “day” in which he would spiritually observe communion with his disciples, that day being when the kingdom came (Matt. 26:29; Mark 14:15; Luke 22:18; cf. Matt. 18:20; Heb. 2:11-12). The kingdom – the church – came on the day of Pentecost, the first day of the week (Acts 2:1-42; cf. Lev. 23:15-16). Taking all of that scriptural data into account alongside of Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 11:26 shows that Paul only had in mind Sundays when he wrote, “For as often as you…”
Paul and other inspired writers also wrote the very thing the commenter alluded to above: how imperative it is to not go beyond what is written in Scripture (1 Cor. 4:6; Rev. 22:18-19; Gal. 1:6-9; Deut. 4:2; Prov. 30:6). Those who decide to partake of communion on days other than Sunday are doing exactly that, regardless of their sincerity (Matt. 7:21-23). In doing so, their worship is based on the traditions of men rather than on the commandments of God, and is thus vain (Matt. 15:7-9). It is my prayer and hope that what is shown here helps all who read it to know and obey the truth about these matters.
Sunday is a very special day for those in the Lord’s church. It is the first day of the week. It is also the day we assemble together to worship our God in spirit and truth (John 4:24) and encourage each other to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24-25). However, it is also the day we partake of communion, also known as the Lord’s Supper. The majority of denominations in Christendom have not realized this. This is why many visitors from other religious bodies have seen the observance of communion each Sunday when they visit the Lord’s church and wonder why those in Christ’s church partake of communion every first day of the week, when they choose to partake of it once a month, once every few months, or even once or twice a year. Christians must “always be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15). Therefore, it is proper that those in the Lord’s church know exactly why we practice what we do, including our practice of observing the Lord’s Supper every first day of the week.
First of all, God commands us, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus…” (Col. 3:17). God expects us to have authority from his Son on what we do concerning the Lord’s Supper. Jesus speaks to us today through the inspired writings of the New Testament (Heb. 1:1-2; 2:1-4; 1 Cor. 14:37; 2 Pet. 1:20-21). Therefore, we must go to the New Testament and the New Testament alone in order to find the authority on how and when to partake of communion.
While Instituting The Supper, Jesus Mentioned A Day And A Kingdom
In studying the New Testament, we find that our Lord instituted the Lord’s Supper on the night he was betrayed (1 Cor. 11:23), which was a Thursday night. It needs to be pointed out that the reason Christians don’t partake of the Lord’s Supper on Thursday nights is because the church was not in existence yet at the time Jesus instituted communion.
On that night, Jesus said to the apostles, “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until THAT DAY when I drink it new with you IN MY FATHER’S KINGDOM” (Matt. 26:29; cf. Mark 14:25).
Luke records, “…for I say to you, I shall never again eat it UNTIL IT IS FULFILLED IN THE KINGDOM OF GOD…for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on UNTIL THE KINGDOM OF GOD COMES'” (Luke 22:16, 18).
After instituting the Lord’s Supper, he told them, “…just as my Father has granted Me a kingdom, I grant you that YOU MAY EAT AND DRINK AT MY TABLE IN MY KINGDOM…” (Luke 22:29-30).
Notice that he promised them he would not partake of the Lord’s Supper with them until that day when he drinks it with them in His Father’s kingdom, that it would be fulfilled in the kingdom of God, and that he promised them that they would eat and drink at His table in His kingdom. Why is this significant?
What Is The Kingdom?
First, we must remember that the Bible teaches that the church of Christ is described in the New Testament as the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of God. To see how this is true, let’s first examine the four gospels. In them, both Jesus and John the Immerser preached that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” and “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; Mark 1:15), i.e., that it was coming soon. In teaching the disciples to pray, he told them to pray to God that his kingdom would come (Matt. 6:10; Luke 11:2). Later, Christ promised Peter he would build “his church” upon the rock of Peter’s confession, and then promised to give Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 16:15-19). He told the crowd with his disciples, “there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power” (Mark 9:1). What we can learn from these passages is that the terms church, kingdom of God, and kingdom of heaven are used interchangeably by Christ, thereby proving they are the same thing. All three terms are always talked about in these passages in the future tense, signifying that at the time Christ was living here on earth they were not in existence but would be in existence soon, and that they would come with power.
Keeping this in mind, we should note that he told the disciples before his ascension, “…you will receive POWER when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…” (Acts 1:8). That promise was fulfilled when the Holy Spirit came upon his disciples on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), which was also the day three thousand souls were added by the Lord to the church (Acts 2:41, 47). Starting at Acts 2’s record of the conversion of the three thousand on the day of Pentecost, the rest of the New Testament would always interchangeably refer to the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Christ, and the church of Christ as having already come and presently existing (Rom. 14:17; 16:16; 1 Cor. 1:2; Col. 1:13; 1 Thess. 2:12; Rev. 1:4, 6, 9).
Since we have found that before the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 the church was always described as not having come yet, and afterward Pentecost it is always described as having come and presently existing, then the conclusion is that the church of Christ began its existence on the day of Pentecost. This was a Jewish holiday referred to as the Feast of Weeks in Lev. 23:15-16. From this passage, we learn that the day of Pentecost (a Greek term which means “fiftieth day”) would always be “fifty days to the day after the seventh sabbath.” Since sabbath in the Old Testament refers to the day of rest which was commanded on the seventh day, we know that the day after the seventh day would be the first day of the week, the day Pentecost was to be observed. Therefore, we learn that the kingdom of God came on a Sunday. The church Christ promised he would build began on a Sunday.
With this in mind, let us go back to Christ’s promises to his apostles on the night he instituted the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:16, 18). Notice he promised he would not drink it again with them until “that day.” When was “that day”? Taking all of the passages into consideration, “that day” would be the day his disciples would be in his Father’s kingdom, the day it would be fulfilled in God’s kingdom, and the day God’s kingdom came. We have seen that God’s kingdom came and began its existence on a Sunday, the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. Therefore, after its institution the Lord’s Supper was first observed by Christ’s disciples on Sunday, the day of Pentecost, the day the kingdom of God came.
This fits with Luke’s account of the very first activities of the newly converted three thousand on that day of Pentecost, a Sunday: “So then, those who had received his word were baptized, and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:41-42). “The breaking of bread” is a reference to the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 10:16-17; cf. 11:23-25). Therefore, we see that the apostles directed the Jerusalem church to observe communion on the day the church began, which was the first day of the week. The fact that they were “continually” doing so suggests by definition that it was a fixed habit. Further evidence that this is so is found in Luke’s account of the church at Troas (Acts 20:7). As with the Jerusalem church, these Christians gathered together for the purpose to partake of communion on Sunday, and did so with the apostle Paul’s approval. More evidence that it was a fixed habit of the early church is found in Paul’s directions to both the churches of Galatia and the church at Corinth to take up collections every first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:1-2), implying that he knew they had the habit of assembling together every Sunday. Since he taught the same thing at every congregation (1 Cor. 4:17; cf. 1 Cor. 16:1), we can be confident that all the early churches gathered together to observe communion on Sundays under his direction. And just as the Jews under the Old Law knew that God’s command to observe the Sabbath applied to every Sabbath (Ex. 20:8-11; Num. 15:32-36), we can learn from their example (1 Cor. 10:11) and know that the New Testament teaching concerning communion applies to every Sunday.
As a sidenote, extra-biblical history proves this to be true also. Around the close of the first century A.D., at about the same time Revelation was being written, some Jewish Christians put together a book which was kind of a descriptive manual about Christianity. They called it the Didache (Greek for “teaching.”) The Didache says, “But every Lord’s day do ye gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure” (14:1). As mentioned earlier, the term “breaking bread” is a scriptural reference to communion (1 Cor. 10:16-17). The term “Lord’s Day” is also mentioned in Scripture (Rev. 1:10), and extra-biblical writings from that time period confirm it to refer to Sundays.
Around fifty years after Revelation was written, a Christian by the name of Justin Martyr wrote a defense of Christianity to the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, appealing to the emperor to repeal laws which prescribed the death penalty for being a Christian. While doing so, he described Christian worship to the emperor in order to assure him that the rumors of there being evil orgies in Christian worship were false. In chapter 67 of his letter, he wrote: “The day of the Sun is the day on which we all gather together in a common meeting, because it is the first day, the day on which God, changing darkness and matter, created the world, and it is the day on which Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead.” The “day of the Sun” is where the English term “Sunday” comes from, and this Christian who lived very close to biblical times clearly referred to it both as the first day of the week and the day in which Christians gathered together to worship.
Thus, historical accounts from the time period in which the New Testament was written back up the scriptural evidence that the early Christians assembled together to worship and partake of communion on the first day of every week.
To review, Christians are to have authority from Christ on everything we do. We find that authority in the New Testament, which records Jesus promising not to partake of communion with his disciples after instituting it until the day the kingdom came, which was on a Sunday. The New Testament records the early Christians observing the Lord’s Supper only on Sunday. Since the New Testament is the only place we find authority from Christ, then we must follow the example of those in the New Testament in order to observe communion in the name of Jesus. Therefore, we must observe the Lord’s Supper every Sunday in the name of Christ, and we can be confident that Jesus is with us when we do so, just as he promised (Matt. 18:20; 26:29; cf. Heb. 2:11-12). Many profess to be followers of Christ and observe communion only a few times a year, or during special occasions like weddings. They do so undoubtedly out of sincerity, but their practices nonetheless are traditions of men (Matt. 15:7-9). May all of us go back to the Bible and do things the way God said, without adding to it or taking away from it! (Deut. 4:2; Prov. 30:6; 1 Cor. 4:6; Rev. 22:18-19)