What Christians commonly call “communion” is an ordinance started by Jesus during the Last Supper with His disciples. Communion is a way for believers to outwardly show their love for and fellowship with Christ, to remember the atoning sacrifice that Jesus made for them, and to look forward to the time when He will partake with us in the kingdom. Communion is also known as the Lord’s supper or the Lord’s table.
The Last Supper
Just prior to Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus gathered His disciples in an upper room of a house to celebrate the Passover. It didn’t take long for the disciples to learn that there was another reason for their gathering. Matthew 26:26–29 says, “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. 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 from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’” What the disciples thought was going to be a celebration turned into a somber prediction of the death of their master and leader.
If the disciples were listening closely, these words should have seemed familiar to them. Earlier in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus had told a crowd, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me” (John 6:53–57). This prediction of the death of Jesus and the need to accept His sacrifice for redemption proved to be too difficult for some: “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’” (John 6:60). In fact, after hearing this, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66). The symbolism that Jesus used shouldn’t have been a surprise to His hearers; after all, He had been speaking in parables almost since the beginning of His ministry. However, the thought of consuming Jesus’ body was too much for many of them.
Early Church Communion
After the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the early church obeyed the words of Jesus and practiced the ordinance of communion, the eating of bread (symbolizing His body) and the drinking of wine (symbolizing His blood). Paul the apostle brought out the idea of fellowship during communion: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:16–17). Communion in the church not only meets Jesus’ commandment, but it also contributes to the unity of believers.
Paul also gave a warning to those who might approach communion flippantly or dishonorably: “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves” (1 Corinthians 11:26–29).
The practice of communion is one of two ordinances in the church. The Bible does not specify how often communion should be observed. Communion is a time for reflection, not only on an individual’s sin and need of forgiveness but on the grace and love that Christ exhibited on the cross (John 3:16). As Christians take communion together, they demonstrate their union with each other and with Christ. Christians are reminded of Christ’s sacrifice and remind each other that He is coming again as they partake of communion together. Communion is a “common sharing in the Spirit” (Philippians 2:1) and an answer to Jesus’ prayer “that they may be one as We are one—I in them and You in Me—that they may be perfectly united” (John 17:22–23).