The Breaking of Bread – 1 Corinthians 11:23-2915 min read
For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
Of all meetings of an assembly none shine quite so brightly in our minds as the Breaking of Bread, or the Lord’s Supper – and rightly so, since it is the meeting most specifically spoken of in Scripture, as well since it is a time focused wholly on the Saviour. This is a subject, then, that demands a fair treatment and accurate development from Scripture; God affirms this by pronouncing judgement on the one who comes to the Supper without proper discernment of it.
There is nothing quite so profound as revelation from God and a sanction from His authority. In Isaiah, the Lord said “to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.” God sets the bar very high when it comes to obedience to His Word, for His Word is the expression of His mind. And when God expresses His mind, He affirms His deep interest in the subject He addresses. God is not arbitrary when He speaks. He is not an advisor who we take into account when our mind has reached the end of its organization skills. On the contrary, God will have His Word obeyed. So then, we see a massive profundity attached to the Lord’s Supper when Paul says “I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you.” Earlier in the chapter he said “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the traditions, as I delivered them to you.” There was no room for either addition or subtraction. This is how we must approach the subject of the Breaking of Bread. God has spoken: we must bow. No wonder we love hymns like “According to Thy Gracious Word” or “Assembled, Lord, at Thy Behest.” We have a divine sanction for what we do, and we should hold it as being of infinite value.
And while we appreciate the sanction, we are not left without personal incentive to keep the observance. After all, nothing warms our hearts quite like the grace of God revealed in His Son! One cannot rise higher than to worship with God’s people in Christ’s presence, remembering and praising the Lord Jesus for Who He is and what He has accomplished. We are told in 1 Corinthians 10 that we participate in the blood and body of Christ by keeping the Lord’s Supper. It is not for salvation, but for continual enjoyment. And so, we cannot appropriately consider this topic without understanding that it needs to be near and dear to our hearts. It should be the climax of our week. It should be the anticipation of our hearts. It should be a concern when we see Scripture’s pattern of it substituted for man’s conveniences. When we have been committed with the deep things of God, a superficial response cannot do. Such should be our passion!
In light of such a great weight being attached to this ordinance, it is vital that we understand what the Breaking of Bread should look like from Scripture’s perspective, which is not really a perspective at all, but unchanging truth. God has set a pattern down for this meeting, and we will see it firstly in what it is marked by, secondly by what it includes.
Firstly, it is important to know that the Breaking of Bread is inseparably linked to a permanent local assembly. Paul, as he rebuked Corinth for their false pattern, said to the believers “When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper.” In other words, what they should have been doing together and in one place was fulfilling the Lord’s Supper, rather than using the time to do what they should have done at home. This discussion can’t exist outside of local assembly context. Breaking bread is not “on the spot” between a few believers; it is a regular assembly meeting and is to remain so. Not only is this ordinance linked with an assembly, but it is linked with the Christian era: “You show forth the Lord’s death till He come.” Thus we are both looking back as well as looking forward every time we meet to break bread. So then, the question remains, how often is an assembly to meet for this purpose? Is once a year good enough? Perhaps once a month? Some would say that “as often as ye eat this bread” means we meet according to the time frame we choose. But Scripture is actually very clear when it says the Lord’s Supper is to be held once a week every week. Acts 20:7 says “And upon the first day of the week [Jn. 20:19,26], when the disciples came together to break bread [according to their regular habit], Paul preached unto them…”
Secondly, this meeting includes four main components that we see in Scripture. The first is, of course, the actual participation in the bread and the wine. The second is prayer: not only did the Lord bless the cup, but 1 Corinthians 10 makes it clear that we bless the cup too. The third is teaching, which we can see from the Upper Room discourse, as well as from Acts 20:7. The fourth is congregational singing. Before the Lord went to Gethsemane with his disciples, “they sang a hymn.” This could be categorized as both praise and as teaching, as Colossians makes clear: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” The highlight, then, is obviously not a sermon, nor a “worship service.” Scripture’s pattern is much simpler than that: Christ is the focus. But He will not remain the focus for long should we taint the simplicity of Scripture with our own additions.
This issue of who participates in the Lord’s Supper is a tremendously important one, for it affects the assembly as well as the individual in very particular ways. It’s important that we understand both the individual’s responsibility as well as the assembly’s responsibility when it comes to this issue.
When it comes to the individual, we should understand the deep privilege associated with remembering the Lord. After all, we are meeting together with the people we love on a regular basis to remember the Lord we love. This expresses our fellowship. This provides an atmosphere for collective worship. How cold our hearts would be if we didn’t have this! We fool ourselves to think that we would be fine without such frequent reminding of where our focus should be. Left to ourselves, we would be in cold despair. Accountability is a must in the Christian’s life, and it is difficult to find more accountability than with the Breaking of Bread, in which we are each responsible to God to worship intelligently, even at the beginning of every week.
This kind of responsibility cannot go without certain obligations. Scripture speaks of our obligation to discern the meaning of the meeting: “For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.” We are to worship in spirit and in truth; should we neglect to understand the truth around which our worship centers, we will not have real worship – only unsubstantiated emotion. To keep from ignorance at the Lord’s Supper, we are called to examine ourselves and then participate in it. Now, to be clear, this doesn’t mean we take part some Sundays and neglect other Sundays, based on how “worthy” we feel; rather, we examine ourselves that we may go every Sunday and consistently remember the Lord, with sin confessed and a spiritual focus renewed. And in case any would think this examination is for Sundays only, allowing for a hypocritical lifestyle during the week, chapter 10 speaks very loudly on this issue: “Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.”
So then, having dealt with the issue of personal obligation in the Breaking of Bread, we come to a subject which much controversy revolves around: should the assembly keep an “open table policy” or a “closed table policy”? The open table model says that the only requirement for one to participate in the Supper is salvation; thus it is membership in the Body of Christ that qualifies. The closed table model says assembly fellowship is required for one to participate in the Supper; thus it is membership both in the Body as well as a local assembly that matters. (Now, just to be clear, “closed table” is a general term that some apply different ways. Some prefer the term “guarded table” since guests are invited, just on a more discerning basis than “open table” proponents.) Which one does Scripture outline? There are a few factors we need to take into consideration:
- The Lord’s Supper is seen to be exclusively an assembly activity. Thus, it follows that reception to the assembly is necessary to partake of the Lord’s table.
- First Corinthians 10 and 11 make it very clear that improper and unworthy participation in the Lord’s supper is a very serious matter. Thus the assembly should not be flippant about reception to those who partake of the bread and wine, just as it would not be flippant as to receiving unknown teachers.
- The assembly has a clear inside and outside to it that is based on an individual’s reception, and not just salvation. 1 Corinthians 5 shows this in terms of excommunication. Chapter 14 shows this in terms of an unlearned man, that is, a man who is may be saved but is not instructed yet as to the truth of the local assembly: he is seen being present in the Corinthian assembly and yet looking objectively at it, as if he was not personally a member. Further, Acts 2:41-42 show that reception to a local body of Christians follows baptism and salvation, thus being separate from the two.
- Letters of commendation are ranked very high in the New Testament; thus in the first century (as it should be now), people weren’t received on the basis of profession alone, but on the testimony of another and their affirmed fellowship in another Biblical assembly.
- The order of Acts 2:41-42 is not arbitrary: there is a reason why reception, doctrine, and fellowship come before the Breaking of Bread.
In light of all these factors, Scripture clearly supports the so-called “closed table” or “guarded table” model, though it is not meant to be an exclusive table. This is a tremendous preservative both to individuals and the assembly. As well, it is in line with chapter 14, which says “Let all things be done decently and in order.” Whether in terms of personal worship or collective assembly matters, we exist to glorify God, not to please ourselves. So then, when it comes to administration that pertains to the Lord’s Supper, our standard is not preference, but what will be decent and orderly – that which will edify and encourage and establish.
To consider the subject of the Breaking of Bread without considering the focal point of the meeting – the actual taking of the bread and wine – our study would be quite incomplete. When the Lord instituted the Supper, he commanded that the bread and wine serve as memorials of His Person and work. In the Christian dispensation we are not left with many physical reminders as was Israel, yet we are left with simple emblems that point to the Person in the midst. To uphold the simplicity of these emblems is to acknowledge the supremacy of Him Whom they symbolize. Thus transubstantiation has no place in theology. The emblems are only bread and only wine, yet their meaning holds all the weight. What meaning do these physical symbols have, then? Well they signify a few things: (1) the proclamation of the Lord’s death, until He come, “For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” (2) a practical feeding on Christ, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the participation of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the participation of the body of Christ?” Feeding on Him is no frivolous business; this calls for discernment of the highest order. We must understand and must delight in our remembrance. (3) that God’s people are sold-out to Christ with nothing left for darkness to use, “Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils.” (4) a practical expression of our unity, “For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.” Everywhere Scripture speaks of the bread and wine, both are fully and emphatically singular. The idea of individual cups or wafers has no place in a Biblical assembly: Christ said “Drink ye all [plural] of it [singular].” We partake together. And how wonderfully so!
So then, when it comes to the emblems specifically, we find ourselves with a loaf of bread and a cup of wine. We could dwell on various themes accompanied with the bread: the corn of wheat that fell into the ground and died, that “sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You have prepared Me,” or a body yielded in full service to God, a body that did not retaliate to the beatings of man, a body that was given for you and me. Or with the wine, we can dwell on the precious blood of Christ, that “the life of the flesh is in the blood,” that “without the shedding of blood is no remission,” the “new covenant in my blood [as opposed to the old covenant in the blood of bulls and goats],” or blood of a lamb without blemish and without spot. The more we study Scripture the more these emblems bring to mind. But we must never separate them from their immediate meaning: His body given, His blood shed. If we should go so far in our thoughts that the simple proclamation of His death is lost, we have gone too far. Let us hold both the great depth of their symbolism and the great simplicity of their message in balance. This way we neither lose sight of the centrality of Christ, nor the profundity of what we are remembering.
A word, then, should be left with each one of us that Corinth should have taken to heart. The night of the first Lord’s Supper was a night of betrayal, and the irony is that the Corinthians betrayed Him in the succeeding suppers, for they lost sight of Christ’s worth. Will we do the same? We could do the same by adding so-called human wisdom. We could do the same by allowing this feast to become mere ritual. We could do the same by allowing competition to come into our remembrance. We could do the same by neglecting this weekly observance as being an “option” rather than “necessity.” Is the Lord betrayed in our assemblies when He offers us the bread and wine? “Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” Solemn words!
O Lord, it is Thyself to meet
To this sweet feast we come;
Like Mary resting at Thy feet
We learn of Thee alone:
We well remember Thou hast said,
This do, remembering Me;
So thus we take the wine, the bread,
In memory of Thee.
O Lord, we come, not for our need,
Nor with our grief to Thee;
But on the bread and wine to feed,
And to remember Thee:
Yes, to remember all Thy love,
Remember all Thy woe,
Remember Thou art now above,
Yet in our midst below.
O Lord, from Thee the bread we take,
From Thy pierced hand the win;
In rest – accepted for our sake –
Our meetness, Lord, is Thine:
We praise Thee for this quiet hour
Spent with Thyself alone,
In which we feel the Spirit’s power
And all His teachings own.
O Lord, we come, for Thou art here;
Enrich each memory;
Thy faithful promise brings Thee near
And gathers us to Thee:
O body broken! poured out blood!
Blest memories ever dear;
Thou Son of man! Thou Lamb of God!
How good to meet Thee here!