Monday, August 11, 2008

The Institution of the Lord's Supper

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
-Matthew 26:26-29

And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
-Mark 14:22-25

And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat the Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 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. But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” And they began to question one another, which of them it could be who was going to do this.
-Luke 22:14-23


In the ESV, these three excerpts from the Synoptic Gospels have at least one thing in common: each of them is inscribed beneath the subheading “Institution of the Lord’s Supper.” Of course, this is probably not unique to this translation. One would be hard-pressed to find an individual who would deny that “Institution of the Lord’s Supper” is a helpful summary. And as subheadings are a pretty prominent feature in modern Bibles, it’s probably a safe bet to say that most versions of the Bible would agree to such a subheading.

But there really is no question as to whether or not the subheadings are inspired – they simply aren’t. They are, for better or worse, impositions1 upon the text by modern day editors and publishers. Yet we don’t seem to object to them. Why is that?

Scanning down the page, when we read “Institution of the Lord’s Supper” we conclude at least two things about the text we are about to take in: firstly, that it describes an “institution”, an ‘ordinance’, a ‘rite’, a ‘sacrament’, a ‘memorial’ or whatever; and secondly, that it describes “the Lord’s Supper”, ‘the Holy Eucharist’, ‘the Sacrament’, ‘Communion’, ‘the Covenant Meal’ or however it is traditionally named. Interestingly, though, none of these things are explicitly named (at least, ‘as such’) in the passage. To a large extent, how we perceive the meaning of the passage depends upon our pre-understanding of it. The subheading, then, bears at least a little risk of obfuscation since each of the terms just listed, while certainly capturing elements of the passage, just as certainly omit some important aspect of it.

So these subheadings can fail us. On to reading the text, then – but not so fast. We all learn in the first day of hermeneutics that, second only to actually reading the text, the most important rule is reading the text in context. If we do this, we discover that there are even more important questions to ask.

In each reading we find that this “Institution…” is in the midst of a Passover observance.2 We see as well that this Passover observance takes place in the midst of betrayal,3 that there is a plot to kill Jesus.4 There is more, but with noting even these few facts, if we are sensitive to narrative flow, to the way that stories typically progress, we should find that it seems a rather awkward moment to be contriving new religious rituals. Yet this is how this passage is too often read: the chief priests collaborate with Judas to kill Jesus, Passover happens, and then Jesus decides it would be a good time to tell the disciples about a new ritual that he wants them to start doing – maybe because he figures he ought to let them know before he dies, and since he knows he’s about to die… you see.

Coming at this text in this way has resulted in reading Matthew 26:26-29 et al as, essentially, an instruction manual for the Church on “How to do Communion” which God happened to insert near the end of Jesus’ life. While I certainly believe that this text is vital to a proper understanding of Communion, I believe that the failure to read the text as narrative, reading it instead as didactic, has had the unfortunate effect of silencing much of what it actually does teach us. My intention, then, is not to draw together a full exegesis of this (these) text(s), but to suggest some first steps in rightly interpreting and applying it.


In truth, I have no objection to the subheading “Institution of the Lord’s Supper”. I believe that these are the primary texts which teach us about the practice of the Lord’s Supper and the subheading helpfully points us to that reality. My main concern is that the subheading will be misapplied as a sort of bracket which isolates the passage as the sole exemplar text for Communion5 – as if to the question, “What is the proper administration of the Lord’s Supper?” one could sufficiently answer, “Just look at Matthew 26:26-29.”

Ironically, few people actually draw upon the Lord’s Supper narratives as literal norms for ecclesial practice. Doing so would entail only practicing it during the season of Passover, while reclining,6 and in the midst of a larger meal, one which includes a slaughtered lamb. Additionally, the passage gives no indication that the rite is ‘liturgical’, in the sense that it is worked into a formal synagogue meeting of the people of God – rather, in the Gospels, the Lord’s Supper takes place at a friend’s house.7 Of course, it may be argued that institution does not begin until Jesus actually says “Do this…” – and again, this is not entirely off base – but such a position bears the burden of the ordinal “do” clause only appearing in the Lukan account, and must make the case that the “this” speaks only of certain elements in the narrative and not others, and then it must be shown positively which elements. When complications such as these arise so plentifully, it seems plain that one ought to wonder whether or not the text in question is being read correctly.


In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul refers to the occasion of the Corinthians “coming together as a church.”8 While criticizing their manifold divisions, he comments, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.”9 This chapter is extremely interesting as it reveals a couple important features of the apostolic understanding of the Lord’s Supper. First, it indicates that “coming together as a church” is coextensive with practicing the Lord’s Supper. This, in itself, implies all sorts of provocative things, not least that, for Paul, if you are not practicing the Lord’s Supper, then you are not “coming together as a church.”

Second, in criticizing the gluttonous behavior of some in the Lord’s supper, Paul writes, “Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?”10 In v. 34 he recommends, “if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home…” This indicates that the apostolic practice of the Lord’s Supper takes place outside of one’s home.

In Acts 2 we read that, following Pentecost, new converts “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”11 This single comment is richly significant for a right understanding of the apostolic church, but here I only reference it to contextualize v. 46, which says that these new converts were breaking bread “day by day,” indicating that the apostolic practice of the Lord’s Supper was not reserved for Passover, but seemed to occur with some frequency.12

These few examples illustrate the important point that when the early Church observed the Lord’s Supper, much of their understanding of what was actually instituted was shaped by something besides a prima facie reading (or hearing) of Christ’s actual words of institution. Unfortunately, I do not feel qualified (both in terms of knowledge and in terms of time) to give a full account of the apostolic doctrine of Communion or to provide an exhaustive study of the patristic exegeses of these three “Institution…” passages. This is a topic that I would be interested in exploring in more depth later, but for now, so as to stay within the scope of this paper and its intentions, I would like to suggest several redemptive-historical themes which I believe these passages fully encapsulate. In doing so, I hope to provide a much richer reading of the “Institution of the Lord’s Supper” that lends itself to have clearer and more necessary implications for present day liturgical practice.13


On PaschaO strange and ineffable mystery!
The slaughter of the sheep was Israel’s salvation,
and the death of the sheep was life for the people,
and the blood averted the angel.

Tell me angel, what turned you away?
The slaughter of the sheep or the life of the Lord?
The death of the sheep or the type of the Lord?
The blood of the sheep or the spirit of the Lord?

It is clear that you turned away
seeing the mystery of the Lord in the sheep
and the life of the Lord in the slaughter of the sheep
and the type of the Lord in the death of the sheep.
-Melito of Sardis, On Pascha (31-34)14

As to the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, there can be no doubt that, just as much as Christ is the fulfillment of every covenant promise15 and just as much as Baptism is the fulfillment of circumcision,16 so do the Gospels indicate that what Christ is doing in Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, and Luke 22:14-23 fulfills the Passover feast. This is why the Synoptics pointedly cast the “Institution…” passage between Passover and the Passion.

This point hardly needs to be made as the apostles frequently employ Paschal imagery when speaking of the Supper. In 1 Corinthians Paul explicitly identifies Christ as “our Passover lamb.”17 Peter, as well, sees Christ’s blood to be "like that of a lamb without blemish or spot."18 The author of Hebrews believes that Christ brought us out of slavery,19 and Revelation is literally flooded with identification of Christ as a Lamb.20 Indeed, the Lord’s Supper is the true anti-type of the Passover feast.

However, Christ as Passover does not exhaust the apostolic understanding of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. This is not only clear because it is described differently elsewhere, but also because there is a certain exegetical awkwardness in reading Christ’s words as a mere recapitulation of the original Passover supper. Indeed, if the Lord’s Supper is only a new Passover, then it involves many peculiar innovations upon the original rite.21 Failure to recognize this stems from a failure to understand that historical typology is neither linear, nor circular – rather, as James B. Jordan illustrates in his ever-so-helpful volume, Through New EyesThrough New Eyes,22 typologically speaking, history is a spiral, continually moving inward towards Christ, the telos of the entire cosmos.23 Practically speaking, this means that types do not have eternal one-to-one correspondence with their anti-types, but instead, the anti-type consists of collections of analogical identities more perfectly combined into more distinct realities. In other words, the Lord’s Supper collects a number of practices and themes from the history of Israel into a single rite. This is why, for example, Jude can call it a “love feast,”24 Luke can refer to it as “the breaking of bread,”25 and Paul can (within a single chapter) refer to it both as the spiritual food of Israel26 and as a sacrifice upon an altar.27

I suggest that the only way the apostles could conclude such things about the “Institution of the Lord’s Supper” derives from a conviction that the language employed therein is intended to be understood within the greater context of Jesus own ministry and sayings. Additionally, as any sound reading of the Gospels will show, since Jesus’ life embodies the entire history of the covenant people,28 the things written of the covenant people throughout history (namely, that which is written in the Old Testament) should be given their due consideration when interpreting such a significant passage.

Accepting that this was the sort of exegesis employed by the apostles, we would be wise to imitate their doctrine and practice. Indeed, we are required to.29 But the burden of doing so is a freeing one, for it opens our ears to the manifold subtleties that so often accompany ancient literature (which is what the Bible is). It allows us to see, for example, that even the feeding of the five thousand in Mark 6 has something significant to tell us about the Lord’s Supper, even though it precedes it both in narrative and historical time.30 Further, it allows us to see eucharistic realities as far back as Genesis 1, redressed in Revelation 2.31 Having said this, I would like to highlight several themes that I find embodied in the “Institution of the Lord’s Supper.”


In Through New Eyes,32 Jordan identifies a five-fold structure in the creation narrative of Genesis:
  1. God takes hold of creation. (“And God said…”; God’s Word is his power)
  2. God restructures the creation. (Separation of elements in the first three days)
  3. God distributes His work. (Giving domains to creatures in the next three days)
  4. God evaluates His work. (“God saw… it was good.”)
  5. God enjoys His work. (Sabbath rest on the seventh day)

This pattern is communicated to unfallen Adam, adding, of course, a sixth element: the giving of thanks. The humility of thanksgiving acknowledges the sovereign work of another. Thus, after being given the creation ordinance (“be fruitful and multiply”), Adam was to respond in faith, thus acknowledging the lordship of God. Had he done this, all his work would have been for glory upon glory. Instead, he arrogantly disregarded the command of God, thus resulting in great frustration, suffering, and ultimately death – “Vapor” as Qoheleth would have it.

In the Lord’s Supper, we see a reinstitution of this rite:
  1. Jesus took bread and wine.
  2. Jesus gave thanks.
  3. Jesus restructured the bread both by breaking it and renaming it His body. He restructured the wine by renaming it His blood.
  4. Jesus distributed the bread and wine to those present.
  5. The disciples tasted it. (Only Judas thought it was bad.)
  6. The disciples remained and enjoyed the fellowship and teaching of their Lord.

And so in the “Institution…,” Jesus re-instates man to his created role as God’s vice-regent. Baptism both purifies us for priestly labor33 and resituates us as prophetic kings under the blessing of the Spirit.34 The Lord’s Supper, though, is the constitution of that priest-kingship. It’s what we are saved unto: making offerings to God and feasting in his presence. The Lord’s Supper is frequently referred to in Reformed circles as a “means of grace” – and this is appropriate, I think, so long as we keep in mind what we mean by that. Through performing the act instituted, the Lord (through us, his hands) graciously restructures the world into new creation, transforming it from glory to glory.

The six-fold structure is significant to the Supper in another way. Consider the elements of bread and wine. Both of these things are artificial – that is, they are the fruit of our hands. Bread is harvested wheat, ground into flour, mixed into water and oil, left to expand a while, and then baked for eating. Wine is the product of crushed grapes, slowly fermented in a cool dark atmosphere until reaching a desirable fullness of flavor and strength. Both elements are the product of patience and maturity, qualities pleasing to the Lord.35

Blessed Are the HungryCiting Genesis 1:29, Leithart notes that hunger is essential to being human.36 In the garden, before the Fall, Adam was presented with every tree (save one) for food. This is significant as it indicates that, in introducing the Lord’s Supper, a ritual of eating (and drinking), we see yet again that we experience “redemption of Creation; not redemption from Creation.” That is, the problem of man is not that he is a mass of atoms. Rather, the problem is that man is a mass of sinful atoms (as it were). The Supper is inescapably physical and depends upon our finitude and need in order to even be administered, let alone efficacious.

Among the many things that can be said about the significance of the bread, it at least signifies the providential love of God. Indeed, this aspect of providence seems to be at the forefront of Jesus various interactions with and allusions to bread throughout the Gospels. In eating the bread, we remember that our God is good, that he feeds us both physically and spiritually, and he does so because he loves us. Much more, we see in the provision of bread a hint that we will never not hunger for more. It is God’s joy to bless us.37 It glorifies his name to do so, and his glory can have no end.

Interestingly, the wine in the Supper is named in two different ways: “cup” and “fruit of the vine.” In referring to the “cup,” several themes are evoked. First consider that “the cup of the Lord” is a drink of judgment. Drinking from it unworthily is damning,38 but for the faithful it is a blessing.39 But note as well that partaking of such a cup is equal to communing with its representative,40 thus, even in blessing, we are sharing in Christ’s death.41

Some point to an alleged ambiguity in the terminology “fruit of the vine” in order to cast doubt on the fact that the Lord’s Supper is employed with wine. Such a claim, it seems to me, is incredible. Every eucharistic type found in Scripture, insofar as it references drink, references either water or wine. Since no one (to my knowledge) suggests that “fruit of the vine” indicates water, it seems to naturally follow that it refers to wine. But this grammatico-historical question sidesteps the theological import of the passage.

The point I intend to make here requires a much more extensive account of the relevant literature than I offer in these few verses, but I suggest that Isaiah 32:9-20, Ezekiel 19:10-14, and Hosea 14:4-7 make a great place to start understanding the intention behind Jesus’ phrase “fruit of the vine.” In the Isaiah passage, Israel is threatened with a weighty judgment. God is going to remove his providential hand from them unless they repent of their endless idolatry, symbolized in the death of their crops and the abandonment of their cities. Isaiah writes that “the grape harvest fails, the fruit harvest will not come.” The women are exhorted to beat their breasts in frustration as “the pleasant fields,… the fruitful vine” will be gone. The threat of Ezekiel is similar: “…Fire has gone out from the stems of its shoots, has consumed its fruit.” What should be clear in both of these passages is that judgment does not merely entail a suffering of crop growth. What is at stake here is the threat of exile. That’s why in the Isaiah passage we read about the city being laid low and the people dwelling once again in the wilderness. According to Ezekiel 19:14, the death of the vine means that there is “no scepter for ruling.” Thus to be fruitful, to be in possession of “the fruit of the vine” implies a restoration of kingship. Hosea is the most hopeful of the three, having YHWH claim that he “will heal their apostasy,” consequently restoring their fruitfulness. This return from exile will bring Israel back under YHWH’s “shadow,” causing them to “flourish like the grain.” Hosea says that restored Israel will “blossom like the vine; their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.”42 In drinking the “fruit of the vine” we proclaim just this: that God has brought his chosen people out of exile and that he has blessed us richly in doing so, such that we are more famous than Lebanese wine (which I presume is somewhat famous).


In some regards, I feel as though I haven’t really said enough, that I’ve only scratched the surface of these texts. On the other hand, I feel I may have said too much, bitten off more than I can chew, and so regressed to making vague and unqualified statements about a good many important things. What I hope this paper contributes is twofold:
  1. I sincerely hope that I have demonstrated in a helpful way the limits of mere grammatico-historical approaches to the text;
  2. Conversely, I hope that I have shown the value and apostolic necessity of employing a typologically-informed, redemptive-historical reading of the text.

I am increasingly convinced that refusal to engage the biblical text in this way silences great and many relevant portions of what the Lord has revealed to us in his own Word, thus ultimately impeding our obedience.

1 And of course, imposition is not the same as violence.
2 Matthew 26:17-25; Mark 14:12-19; Luke 22:7-13.
3 Matthew 26:14-16; Mark 14:10-11; Luke 22:3-6.
4 Matthew 26:1-5; Mark 14:1-2; Luke 22:1-2.
5 Paul’s directives in the Corinthian correspondence (1 Corinthians 11:17-33) are usually also taken as a principle text for understanding the normative practice of Communion, but this paper is attending mostly to the accounts of the Synoptic Gospels.
6 Luke 22:14.
7 Matthew 26:17-19; Mark 14:12-16; Luke 22:7-13.
8 1 Corinthians 11:18.
9 1 Corinthians 11:20.
10 1 Corinthians 11:22.
11 Acts 2:42.
12 Of course, this verse does present a couple of problems for my argument since A) it must be demonstrated that this “breaking of bread” refers to the Lord’s Supper and not the mere sharing of a meal; and B) if “breaking of bread” refers to the Lord’s Supper, then my previous point is complicated by the fact that v. 46 says that the breaking of bread did in fact take place at home. These issues can be dealt with in a number of ways.

As for the first question, Luke-Acts describes the breaking (klaw) of bread in more than a few places. (Luke 22:19, 24:30; Acts 2:46, 20:7, 20:11, and 27:35). The first occurrence (Luke 22:19) is in the “Institution…” passage itself. Each subsequent passage seems to repeat some significant element of that original passage, sometimes even mimicking the language used in the institution itself. Luke 24:30 tells of Jesus meeting with the disciples after the Resurrection, “(reclining)…, took (taking)…, blessed (blessing)…, broke (breaking)…, and gave (giving)…” Apparently, this is not only supposed to remind us of the Lord’s Supper, as it stirred the memory of the disciples as well. (Luke 24:31-35) Acts 20:7 seems to indicate an intentionality and (some) structure about the breaking of bread, noting that the breaking (here) was planned for the first day of the week and that it was the intention of their coming together. Acts 20:11 even seems to suggest that “breaking of bread” and eating a meal are two separate acts. Acts 27:35 is less clear since the breaking does not seem to be in the context of the church gathered, but it does borrow again from the language of the institution, “took (taking)…, giving thanks (blessing)…, broke (breaking)… eat(-ing).” On this basis, then, it seems safe to assume that Acts 2:46 refers to the Lord’s Supper as well.

Still, there does seem to be a connection between “the breaking of bread” as rite and sharing meals in a more common setting. After all, the “Institution…” takes place in the midst of a larger meal (namely, Passover), and the language elsewhere seems to hint at a like situation (e.g., in 1 Corinthians 11, the setting for the Lord’s Supper seems to be such that one could conceivably gorge oneself or become drunk with wine). If such a connection really is present, then this implies, at the very least, that practice of communal rite should be contiguous with the common life of the members of the Church. That is, the Lord’s Supper should represent a supper, not just because we call it that, but because believers should be eating together as fellow believers.

The second question is, in fact, more difficult. Given the explanation of klaw above, it seems that there is no question as to whether or not the “breaking bread” within homes is actually the Lord’s Supper – it is. Also, the text is pretty clear: they attended the temple together (presumably for worship) and took Communion in their homes. Yet, Paul seems very clear (at least, implicitly so) that the Lord’s Supper is something that takes place, not within the home, but in the presence of the church gathered. (1 Corinthians 11:22, 34) There is plainly a different understanding of appropriate practice here, but this is not really insurmountable. Contextually, it is fairly obvious that Acts 2:46 takes place very early in the life of the Church. In terms of the Acts narrative, it follows Pentecost. In fact, the devotees of 2:42 seem to be the “three thousand souls” just added, or least the three thousand are a large part of the constituency. An Introduction to the New TestamentIn 1 Corinthians, on the other hand, accepting Carson and Moo’s date of A.D. 55 (D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), p. 448), we’re looking at more than two decades of church development by the time Paul is writing. This means that the apostles’ understanding of some things were flexible and maturing (which makes a lot of sense if you consider the strenuous and complicating effects that the birth of the Christian Church had upon intra-Jewish and extra-Jewish relationships during the first century).

My initial point is unchanged. The apostles did not interpret the “this” of the “do this” to entail a one-to-one correspondence between practicing the Lord’s Supper and keeping Passover.
13 It should be mentioned that much of what follows likely stems from reading through Peter J. Leithart’s own discussion of the Lord’s Supper, Blessed are the Hungry: Meditations on the Lord’s Supper. (Moscow: Canon Press, 2000). The book itself is far from exegetical (at least, in terms of precision and thoroughness) and is written almost as a devotional, having some twenty-eight brief chapters of reflection on small passages of Scripture which Leithart assumes to be a type of Communion passage – but since when are thoroughness and precision necessary for insight? I cannot recommend this book enough. Its points are delivered with a perfect combination of wit, clarity, and profundity, making it exceedingly accessible, perennially enjoyable, and potently persuasive. And for those who enjoy Leithart’s more scholarly discourse, the book closes with a fine piece called “The Way Things Really Ought to Be: Eucharist, Eschatology, and Culture” which was originally published in the Westminster Theological Journal, 59 (1997).
14 Melito of Sardis. On Pascha: With the Fragments of Melito and Other Material Related to the Quartodecimans. trans. Alistair Stewart-Sykes. (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), p. 45.
15 2 Corinthians 1:20.
16 Colossians 2:11-12.
17 1 Corinthians 5:7.
18 1 Peter 1:19.
19 Hebrews 2:15.
20 Revelation 5, 6, 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 19, 21, and 22.
21 Read Exodus 12. Where’s the wine?
22 Jordan, James B. Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World. (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2000)
23 I owe this observation to a brief article written by a blogger named Dennis Hou. It is viewable here: (Last accessed May 17, 2007).
24 Jude 1:12.
25 See above note regarding Acts 2:46.
26 1 Corinthians 10:3-4.
27 1 Corinthians 10:18.
28 See Peter J. Leithart’s unpublished paper “Jesus as Israel: The Typological Structure of Matthew’s Gospel” for an excellent example of how this can be so: (Last accessed May 17, 2007).
29 2 Thessalonians 3:6-7.
30 Cf. v.39 “sat down (reclining)…”and v. 41, “taking…, blessing…, broke (breaking)…, gave (giving)…”
31 Cf. Genesis 1:9 with Revelation 2:7.
32 Ibid.
33 Revelation 1:4-6.
34 1 John 2:27. It is significant that in Matthew and Mark, the Passover narrative follows shortly after the anointing of Jesus. Communion follows Baptism. Luke omits this passage, likely to maintain narrative continuity.
35 This has been noted by blogger Alastair Roberts in his article, “Wine in Communion”: (Last accessed May 18, 2007).
36 Blessed are the Hungry, p. 17.
37 Psalm 149:4.
38 1 Corinthians 11:27; Revelation 14:10 and 16:19.
39 1 Corinthians 10:16.
40 1 Corinthians 10:21.
41 Ibid.
42 Hosea 14:7.