The concept of sharing bread and drinking wine as a form of "communion" is an ancient concept that existed many years before Jesus was born (Judges 19:17-21; Ruth 2:14) and even before Moses wrote the laws (Genesis 14:16, 18:1-5, 19:1-3).
Even the non-Jew believers in the New Testament considered "breaking of bread" as "the fellowship":
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship to the breaking of bread and the prayers. -- Acts 2:42 (ESV)
"The Lord's Supper" as a ceremonial feast was not Jesus' idea. It was already commanded by Moses:
You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month Abib, for in the month Abib you came out from Egypt. -- Exodus 34:18 (ESV)
They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God. For they offer the Lord’s food offerings, the bread of their God; therefore they shall be holy. -- Leviticus 21:6 (ESV)
The very first "Lord's Supper" was originally called "the LORD’s Passover":
Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD’s Passover. -- Exodus 12:7-11 (ESV)
Unfortunately, modern churches changed the name of this feast to create the idea that the original feast had been replaced with a new sacrament supposedly instituted by Jesus. However, Jesus did not hold "the Lord's Supper" or "Holy Communion" or "The Mass" or any of these "sacraments" that some "churches" invented. Jesus was simply celebrating "the LORD's Passover" as instructed by Moses.
Also note that "LORD" of "the LORD's Passover" is written in capital letters which mean it was YHVH's feast. In other words, the feast was not Jesus' idea. Jesus celebrated an existing feast at that time.
Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the Passover?”
He said, “Go into the city to a certain man and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is at hand. I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’”
And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover.
When it was evening, he reclined at table with the twelve. And as they were eating...
-- Matthew 26:17-21 (ESV)
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. -- Matthew 26:26-28 (ESV)
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. -- Luke 22:17-20 (ESV)
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.” -- Mark 14:22-24 (ESV)
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, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
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. Take this, and divide it among yourselves.”
This means that as often as Jesus' disciples fellowship, they must remember:
- that the bread symbolizes Jesus' body (fellowship) which is about sharing and caring to each other
- that the wine symbolizes that Jesus paid an expensive price with his blood to install a covenant "for the forgiveness of sins".
Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me. And this is the will of Him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
-- John 6:32-40 (ESV)
In other words communion with the body of Christ is not an optional good idea, it is essential to salvation. On a physical level, when "the body of Christ" shares their food and drinks with each other, they "shall not hunger" and "shall never thirst", but on a spiritual level Jesus refers to the eternal life, while the rest of mankind would die.
These words were not understood by the Jews seeking rituals, laws and a system for their salvation:
So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”
They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?
How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me — not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father.”
-- John 6:41-46 (ESV)
In other words, God will not force anyone into salvation. No one will be saved unless he seeks to be saved ("draws him"). Jesus goes even further and explain such a person will be personally taught by God Himself.
Then Jesus repeats these words again to highlight how important it is to him:
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. -- John 6:47-51 (ESV)
In other words, if you serve a religious system like the Israelites in the wilderness, you will die like them, but if you "eat" from the bread of fellowship with Jesus's body, you will live eternally (get saved).
However, the Jews failed to understand what Jesus meant, which Jesus attempted to explain to them again:
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
So Jesus said to them,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.
- Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.
- Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died.
- Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” -- John 6:52-58 (ESV)
Paul warns against serving the Communion incorrectly.
When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. -- 1 Corinthians 11:20-22 (ESV)
Out of context, it would seem that Paul is implying with his question "Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?" That one should eat and drink at home before attending the Communion ceremony. To many Christians this ceremony is confused with the Eucharist or Mass of the Catholic Church, which is very impersonal and has very strict religious rules.
However, in Paul's case it seems like Paul implied that the church would humiliate the poor and cause them to despise the glutton and drunk Corinthians who consumed all the food and drinks in their presence. In other words, you cannot have fellowship when you are offending each other with the supper.
When we study the original Communion where Jesus was present, we notice that Jesus' disciples were "eating" while Jesus served the "Lord's Supper" (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22). John even go as far to record:
During supper... Jesus... rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. -- John 13:2-5 (ESV)
We don't see any priests do that!
Paul's concern was that his church was dishonouring God with their gluttony and drunkenness. When you dishonour God, you blaspheme which will not go unpunished.
So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another — if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home — so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. -- 1 Corinthians 11:33-34 (ESV)
Paul's issue was not the informal setting or the fact that the congregation did not thoroughly follow the religious rules of the church.
In the previous chapter Paul made the point:
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?
The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
-- 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 (ESV)
The English word "participation" comes from the Greek word "koinōnía" (communion) which actually means:
- social intercourse
Jesus could have chosen to serve Communion in the temple, but he chose a house (Matthew 26:18). It is very likely that the first disciples continued the tradition in houses (Acts 20:7-11) and not temples or church buildings.
John did not even bother to record the exact words Jesus spoke and what he did with the bread and wine. To him, it was just "supper".
Therefore, we can conclude that Communion is supposed to be an informal feast potentially at someone's house. Believers should at least wait for each other so that they could share the food and drinks and have social intercourse and fellowship without despising each other. Perhaps not even a formal ceremony.
Without any formal ceremonial rules or traditions, how do one use Communion without dishonouring God?
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.
Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another — if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home — so that when you come together it will not be for judgment.
-- 1 Corinthians 11:23-34 (ESV)
Some understand this means that if they do participate in Communion, but follow the ritual incorrectly, God will punish them with weakness, sickness or even death. Sadly this belief causes people to avoid Communion in fear of the "curse".
Other understand this means that if they do not participate in Communion, they will not be under God's protection and as a result they could become weak, ill and die. These people strictly follow the church's rituals to the letter to avoid being "cursed".
Paul's real concern is rather that Communion should not be an offence but a fellowship with other believers (body) and with God (1 Corinthians 1:9; 2 Corinthians 13:14)
Some badly translated English bibles read:
For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. -- 1 Corinthians 11:30 (ESV)
Commonly Christians belief that body mean "the church" and out of context one could easily make the mistake to think that one should discern other church members or that one ought not to participate Communion outside a church.
However, in big churches with hundreds of members, it would be impossible and unfair from the Lord to expect us to judge other church members' hidden sin or intentions to participate in Communion. If this was true, then Jesus himself would be in trouble because he participated in Communion with Judas Iscariot who betrayed him that very same night (1 Corinthians 11:23) even when Jesus knew he would do it (Matthew 26:21-25).
In the context of self-examination, Paul more likely meant you need to discern your own body ("flesh") which means sinful nature so that you do not defile the body (of other believers) by causing offense. You cannot be intimate or have fellowship with someone if you are not in good standing with the person and this include God as well.
Only after self-examination and good standing with the Christ, one can enjoy fellowship.
Because this ceremony was never intended to be instituted as a religious ritual, it was never officially named in any scripture. The disciples simply referred to the fellowship as "the fellowship to the breaking of bread":
So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Acts 2:41-42 (ESV)
In other words, Communion is a very intimate act with the Son of Man as it touches his flesh and his blood. You cannot be intimate with someone if you did not examine yourself and if you are not in good standing with the person.
The is because Jesus identified himself as:
Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. -- John 6:27 (ESV)
The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
-- 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 (ESV)
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”
Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
-- John 7:37-39 (ESV)
“This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” -- Luke 22:20 (ESV)
Under the new covenant you need to:
... so that you could enjoy eternal life
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. ... -- John 15:1-8 (ESV)
In other words, you become part of God's Son's body if you "abide in" (stay in a close relationship with) Jesus. The Greek word translated as "abide" in the English bible is "meinate" which means:
remain, stay, wait
If you cannot even "wait" for fellow believers, how can you "wait" for the "Lord until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26)?
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? -- 1 Corinthians 10:16 (ESV)
Communion is not a party without Jesus.
This is an opportunity to explain the meaning of the death of the Christ to potential visitors or children:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed:
- took bread, and when he had given thanks,
- he broke it [the bread], and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
- In the same way also he took the cup, after supper,
- saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
-- 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (ESV)
The "Lord's death" would not make sense unless all visitors understand the Gospel of Jesus the Christ.
The word for "remembrance" in Greek is "anamnésis" which means:
a recalling, remembrance, memory
self-prompted recollection especially as a memorial
In other words, by participating in Communion, believers ought to testify to each other what the Lord's death meant to them like we do at a memorial service.
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. -- John 13:1-5 (ESV)
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” -- John 13:12-17 (ESV)
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” -- John 13:20 (ESV)
Note, that in John's version of the "Lord's Supper" (Communion), he did not even mention the bread and wine. He simply wrote "during supper" he referred to the same event.
To John, the highlight of the Communion was not the food or drinks, but the act of Jesus when he unexpectedly served them. Therefore, unlike the selfish glutton drunk Corinthians Paul had warned against, believers also ought to "serve" each other and communion should be an opportunity to remind us of that calling and to build relationship so that we can serve each other more effectively.