hroughout the years of my ministry I have participated many times in the rite of the Lord’s Supper. I have witnessed church members celebrating the ritual with a contrite heart and the hope for a new life in Christ. However, I have also observed some who did not participate. I have asked about the reasons for choosing not to participate, and some have expressed that they did not have enough preparation, while others suggested problems in the family or discrepancies with other church members. In the following article I would like to explore some of the important components of the rite—as well as the message Jesus shared during His farewell discourse and prayer—that may help us better understand this important ritual.
The Gospels mention that the disciples asked Jesus regarding the preparation of the Passover (Matt. 26:17-19; Mark 14:12-16; Luke 22:7-13). Jesus pointed them to a particular location (Mark 14:16), and John adds the description of the foot washing on that occasion (John 13:5). The washing symbolizes the cleansing that can be done only through Jesus Himself. Jesus said, “You are clean, though not every one of you” (John 13:10). “Though not every one of you” pointed to Judas, who was busy plotting the betrayal of Jesus (John 13:11). Foot washing not only teaches humility and service but also points to Christ’s mission as the suffering servant (Isa. 53:11) and, in consequence, to the cross and His victory over sin.
The celebration of the Passover reminded the Israelites of their deliverance from Egyptian bondage. Jesus introduced two important dimensions during that memorable evening: First, referring to the symbolism of bread and vine, He linked it symbolically to His own body and blood poured out for the people of the new covenant (Luke 22:20). Second, looking into the future, He declared that the next celebration of this Supper would be in the kingdom of God (verse 16)—by implication, after His coming in glory (verses 17, 18). Thus, the ritual contains an ecclesiastical dimension and at the same time an eschatological perspective (cf. 1 Cor. 11:23-26). Jesus looks into the eschatological tomorrow when the faithful believers will see Him face to face at the heavenly banquet (Rev. 19:9; Matt. 26:29; cf. Matt. 8:11).
Jesus Himself announced to His disciples, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20; cf. 1 Cor. 11:25). His pronouncement “indicates that the ‘new covenant’ promised to ancient Israel was renewed and established by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”1
The Lord’s Supper replaces the Passover ritual. In its celebration the church is to commemorate symbolically Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and also anticipate His coming in glory (Matt. 24:30).
Behold, the Lamb
At the meal, there is also an allusion to the significance of the Passover lamb that had to be sacrificed (Luke 22:7). Central to the ritual there is an indication that Jesus is speaking of His own suffering and sacrifice (verse 15). Indeed, Jesus was conscious about His sacrifice as He had earlier indicated to James and John (Mark 10:45; cf. 1 Cor. 5:7). Thus, Jesus is fulfilling typologically the reality of the sacrificial lamb. He uses the symbolism to illustrate His own sacrifice and invites the church to do so again and again as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
The apostle John includes some additional teachings of Jesus following the Passover meal as he details the dialogue between Jesus and His disciples. That conversation is another helpful teaching tool for us.
Jesus initiates the dialogue by announcing that He would be glorified (John 13:31), introducing the truth of the hope of His resurrection and ascension to heaven. “Where I am going, you cannot come” (verse 33), He says. He again repeats the same expression in answer to Peter’s question: “Where I am going, you cannot follow now” (verse 36). In between these two declarations the dialogue points to a new commandment, the commandment to love one another.
This command was introduced so that the disciples would remember the underlying principle of Jesus’ teaching. He wanted to make sure that they followed the same principle of love that He had shared with them by word and example. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (verse 34). The Lord’s Supper was significant not only for showing Jesus as fulfilling the reality of the suffering servant (Isa. 53) and the symbolism of the Passover lamb, but also for providing His disciples a lesson in the principle of love that was to govern all who call themselves His followers.
The hallmark of the Christian community is love. That principle calls for tolerance, compassion, and a spirit of reconciliation within the community of believers. This commandment focuses on witnessing by example. The church proclaims the message of Jesus in the context of a loving and caring Christian community. When we internalize this divine principle, church unity is preserved, and we are ready to share Jesus with the world outside of our churches (John 17:23).
Three Key Questions
The narrative of the institution of the Lord’s Supper contains three particular questions that focus on Jesus’ ministry and mission. First, there is Peter asking Jesus: “Lord, where are you going?” (John 13:36)—a question related to Jesus’ declaration that “where I am going, you cannot come” (verse 33). Jesus’ answer confirmed that Peter could not follow now, but later (verse 36). Besides warning of Peter’s denial (verse 38), Jesus introduced the promise of hope and His return as He prepared the way for a splendid new heavenly abode (John 14:1-3). He would come again! The answer to troubled hearts focuses upon the returning Master. They would have to trust Him!
The second question comes from Thomas: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (verse 5). Jesus’ answer represents one of His most remarkable teachings. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (verse 6). Jesus encompasses the fullness of salvation—He is the only way to be reconciled with God, the Father. The Lord’s Supper reminds us that salvation can be found only in Jesus (cf. Acts 4:12).
Finally, Philip inquires, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us” (John 14:8). Jesus emphasizes His oneness with the Father in His answer, thus showing His divine nature: “Anyone who has seen me [Jesus] has seen the Father” (verse 9; cf.
John 8:58). This is followed by His invitation to believe in Him (John 14:11).
In the context of the Last Supper, Jesus’ three answers give us a triple assurance: assurance of His mission as the suffering servant, assurance of the hope of His coming, and assurance of His human and divine nature as the one who came as the Son of man but was also the creative Word.
Yet the Lord’s Supper not only commemorates Jesus’ sacrifice but also points to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Jesus promises the divine “advocate” who will be “forever” with His disciples (John 14:16). He is the “Spirit of truth” who actually lives with the disciples and will continue to work with them—an important reminder for the church today that the Holy Spirit must be part of God’s equation in the life of God’s people (verse 17).
Jesus indicates that the Holy Spirit will be the one who will teach His disciples all things and will remind them of everything Jesus told them (verse 26). As followers of Christ we can still claim that promise, asking for illumination as we search the Scriptures. “Christ has promised the gift of the Holy Spirit to His church, and the promise belongs to us as much as to the first disciples.”2
In John 15 Jesus repeats a number of times the word “abide” in the context of deep spiritual communion with Him, illustrated by the connection between the vine and the branches. Branches must remain in the vine so they can bear fruit (verse 5). Following that metaphor, Jesus exhorts His disciples, “Abide in Me and I in you” (John 15:4, NKJV; cf. John 15:7, 9).3 The idea of abiding permeates the entire chapter. One who truly abides in Jesus can ask nothing contrary to God’s will. The Lord’s Supper teaches us the importance of full commitment to Jesus, and acceptance of not only His teaching, but of Jesus Himself.
Finally, in John 17 Jesus prays for Himself, for His disciples, and for His church. He completes His Passover dialogues by interceding for His disciples, and for those who will believe after them (verse 20). That prayer is still valid today, and identifies us as the disciples who hold on to His messages by believing and practicing them.
Through the Lord’s Supper the Gospel of John teaches important lessons on spiritual healing and church unity. The service is an important reminder of His sacrifice and a moment for reconciliation and forgiveness. It is an opportunity for renewed commitment and claiming the promise of the Holy Spirit. As we come together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, its ritual symbolism highlights the reality of Jesus and the fullness of the promise of the Spirit. The next time your church announces this special rite, be ready to participate and renew your spiritual life.
1 Hans K. LaRondelle, Our Creator Redeemer: An Introduction to Biblical Covenant Theology (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2005), p. 84.
2 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), p. 672.
3 Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Miguel Luna is dean of the Faculty of Religious Studies at the Asia-Pacific International University in Muak Lek, Thailand. This article was published November 8, 2012.