By Mike Willis
The Lord’s supper was instituted by Jesus Christ on the night of his betrayal and was designed to bring to our remembrance his beloved sacrifice for sin. Knowing ~hat he would soon depart this world, Jesus commanded his disciples to take unleavened bread and fruit of the vine to remind them of his death on the cross, the shedding of his blood for the remission of sins. The Scriptures read,
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. For I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom (Matt. 26:26-29).
When men partake of the Lord’s supper, they partake of a memorial feast (1 Cor. 11:24 – “This do in remembrance of me”), a communion with Christ and other disciples (1 Cor. 10:16,17). This solemn act of worship was instituted by the Lord as a part of the public worship of the church.
There are a number of divinely revealed memorials in the Bible, some of which ceased with the inauguration of the New Testament. The feast of Passover reminded the Israelites of the tenth plague in Egypt which destroyed the firstborn of every house which did not have the blood of a lamb sprinkled on its doorpost and lintels (Exod. 12). The sabbath reminded men of God’s rest after creation (Gen. 2:1-3; Exod. 20:11). The rainbow reminds us that God will never again destroy the earth with water (Gen. 9:8-15). The Lord’s supper reminds us an event more important than creation, the flood or the tenth plague in Egypt; it reminds us of the shedding of Jesus’ blood for the sins of the world.
How often is the Lord’s supper to be observed? The practice of observing the Lord’s supper varies from church to church. Catholics celebrate mass every day; most Protestant denominations celebrate the Lord’s Supper less frequently, some observing it once a month, others once every six months, and others once a year. The prevailing attitude toward the frequency of observing the Lord’s supper is this: how often one observes it is inconsequential. If that is the case, one might observe the Lord’s supper only once in his life and be done with it forever. If that is not true, then the Bible must reveal a pattern for the frequency of observing the Lord’s supper and that pattern is binding on men of every age.
Jesus commanded men to observe the Lord’s supper saying, “This do in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:24). If he did not reveal to us how to observe the Lord’s supper, his instructions for obeying the command “this do” are inadequate and incomplete. Unless Jesus told us how to observe the Lord’s supper, his command would be as incomplete as mine if I were to command my son to “play baseball” without telling him how.
How To Establish Bible Authority
The Bible reveals the will of God to us through express statements or commands, approved apostolic examples, and necessary inferences. The importance of following the examples of the apostles is seen by the role in which Jesus placed them. Jesus commissioned the Apostles to teach the disciples “to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you” (Matt. 28:18). These men began the proclamation of the Lord’s will, establishing local congregations in different cities. These men established churches which were to abide in the revealed will of Jesus. Whatever acts of religious worship the apostles taught in one congregation, they taught in all congregations (1 Cor. 4:17; 16:1-2). Consequently, they told congregations, “The things which ye both learned and received and heard and saw in me, these things do: and the God of peace shall be with you” (Phil. 4:9). “Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me” (1 Cor. 4:16).
We learn how to observe the Lord’s supper by noting how the first century church observed it with divine approval. What they did with the approval of God is a pattern for us today, having all of the binding authority as a specific precept. Let us turn to the Bible to see how the early church observed the Lord’s supper in order that we may know how God wants us to observe it today.
The Lord’s Day and the Lord’s Supper
The New Testament evidence is clear that the early church assembled on the first day of every week for a period of congregational worship. The congregational assembly for worship is discussed in 1 Corinthians 12-14, with explicit instructions for that worship to be conducted decently and in order (14:40). That period of worship was conducted upon the first day of every week (1 Cor. 16:1-2; see RSV or NIV translation). The church in Troas met upon the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). This day of worship for the church became known as “the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10). Saints were exhorted not to forsake this day of assembly (Heb. 10:25).
These are the only verses we can find which tell us to observe the first day of week as a day of worship. Yet, the very passages which are used to prove that the early church assembled on the first day of every week show that one of the main purposes the church had in assembling was to observe the Lord’s supper (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:20). If the prime object of the Lord’s day meeting was to celebrate the Lord’s supper, then all of the evidence we have of the custom of meeting every Lord’s day is equally conclusive in reference to the weekly observance of the Lord’s supper.
The Christian community is almost unanimous in admitting that the first day of every week is to be set aside to worship God. However, they are unwilling to let these same verses speak to tell us how to worship God. Why appeal to these verses to show when to worship unless we are also willing to let them speak on how to worship. Those who stand opposed to observing the Lord’s supper on the first day of every week tell us that these verses are inconclusive to prove that the early church observed the Lord’s supper on the first day of every week. If they are inconclusive to prove the one (observing the Lord’s supper every week), they are inconclusive to prove the other (to assemble for public worship on the first day of every week). Those who practice worship on the first day of every week but do not observe the Lord’s supper when they assemble should tell us what Bible verses teach them to assemble for worship every Lord’s day.
How The Early Church Observed The Lord’s Supper
Not only did the early church assemble for worship every Lord’s day, they, also commemorated the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord in the Lord’s supper on the first day of every week. Look at the Bible evidence supporting this conclusion.
1. The early church continued steadfastly in the observance of the Lord’s supper. Acts 2 tells of the establishment of the early church when Peter preached the gospel on the day of Pentecost. Three thousand souls responded in obedience to Christ in baptism. These believers in Christ “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). The words “continue steadfastly” (proskarteren) mean “to give constant attention to a thing.” The phrase would have little meaning if it pointed to a memorial feast which was observed once a year or once every six months. Its meaning, in the light of the early practice of the church, points to a regular and habitual observance of the Lord’s supper.
That in which the early church persevered was “the apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers.” The phrase “breaking of bread” may be used of a common meal (cf. Acts 2:46; 20:11), although that is not its meaning in this context. These men had been “breaking bread” in the sense of eating a common meal for years before Peter preached Christ to them. The phrase also can refer to the “breaking of bread” in the Lord’s supper (cf. Matt. 26:26), a memorial feast of the death of the Christ, which had become meaningful to those who had just obeyed the gospel which Peter preached on Pentecost. This is the view adopted by Marvin Vincent (457), F.F. Bruce (79), A.C. Hervey in Pulpit Commentary (55), etc. This verse shows that the early church persisted in observing the Lord’s supper.
2. The Lord’s supper was one of the primary reasonsfor the church to assemble on the first day of the week. Acts 20 records Paul’s trip to Jerusalem to bring funds collected from Gentile brethren to relieve the suffering of the Jewish saints. On his journey to Jerusalem, he stopped to worship with the saints at Troas. He arrived late on Sunday night or early on Monday morning and tarried seven days. The Sabbath passed without the church at Troas assembling, for the church did not worship on the Sabbath day. Luke records, “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight” (Acts 20:7).
We see these facts about the early church from this verse: (1) The early church met on the first day of the week, not on the Sabbath. (2) They assembled for the purpose of breaking bread, partaking of the Lord’s supper. Hence, Acts 20:7 demonstrates that the church at Troas came together on the first day of the week to break bread (see Marvin Vincent , A.T. Robertson [3391, Alford , Gotthard V. Lechler in Lang’s Commentary , A.C. Hervey in Pulpit Commentary , etc.).
3. The church at Corinth assembled on the first day of every week to break bread. I Corinthians 16:1-2 indicates that the churches at Corinth and Galatia assembled on the first day of the week. In writing regarding the collection for the poor saints at Jerusalem, Paul said,
Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come (1 Cor. 16:1-2).
The phrase “upon the first day of the week” (kata mian sabbatou) of the KJV is translated “upon the first day of every week” in the RSV and NIV translations. (The preposition kata is distributive in meaning, justifying this translation.) From these verses, we learn (1) that the churches in Corinth and the region of Galatia assembled on the first day of every week, (2) that a collection was to be taken at this assembly.
The purpose of the assembly at Corinth is given in 1 Corinthians 11:20. Writing to a church which was failing to do what God commanded, Paul said, “When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper.” They were. failing to do what they were assembled to do – to eat the Lord’s supper. This verse shows the purpose for which the church should have assembled. The construction is similar to what a teacher might say to a class of misbehaving children – “When ye come together, this is not to learn.” The phrase shows that the children should have gathered to learn but were misbehaving. Similarly, this passage shows that the church should have assembled to observe the Lord’s supper, but were not doing what God commanded.
The Lord’s supper was to be taken at the general assembly of the church (1 Cor. 11:20,33). Paul’s statements show that this assembly was gathered to observe the Lord’s supper in obedience to the Lord’s instruction when he instituted the Lord’s supper, as shown by 1 Corinthians 11:23-25. Hence, the church at Corinth assembled on the first day of every week to eat the Lord’s supper in obedience to the Lord’s instructions when he instituted the feast.
Where Is Bible Authority?
Having provided Bible authority for the church to assemble together on the first day of every week to break bread, I ask where is Bible authority for the church to assemble once a year to break bread? Where is Bible authority for the church to assemble once a month to break bread? Where is Bible authority for the church to assemble once every six months to break bread? Where is Bible authority for the church to assemble on some day of the week other than the first day of the week to break bread? There is no Bible authority for any of these practices. The church which partakes of the Lord’s supper once a year, once every six months, once a month, or every day acts without Bible authority. Their worship is of their own devising and origin and without divine approval.
Reasons Given For Not Observing The Lord’s Supper Every Week
When these materials are presented, some reject them using various objections. I want to notice some of those objections and reply to them.
1. “It does not say every first day of the week. ” This is the usual reply given when the evidence of Acts 20:7 is cited. The Corinthian evidence (1 Cor. 16:1-2; 11:20) does say on the first day of every week in the more recent translations (NASB, NIV). It is interesting to notice the inconsistency of those who make this argument. These very same people will use the very passages which I have used to show that Christians are to worship on the first day of every week rather than on the Sabbath. These passages are thought to be conclusive in establishing that the first century church worshipped on the first day of every week, although the express purpose of those assemblies was to “break bread” (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:20). If they prove that we ought to worship on the first day of every week because the early church worshipped on the first day of every week, they also prove that we ought to “break bread” on the first day of every week since they broke on the first day of every week.
2. “1 Corinthians 11:26 says ‘as often as you eat this bread leaving man free to choose how often to partake of the Lord’s supper. ” The text reads:
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 (1 Cor. 11:25-26).
The words “as often as” (hosakis) do not describe the frequency of the observance but point to the manner of the observance. The NIV translates the word “whenever” “whenever you drink it . . . For whenever you eat this.” This verse does not discuss the frequency of the observance of the Lord’s supper; rather, it tells men how to observe the supper whenever it is observed.
If the argument (man is free to choose how often to partake of the Lord’s supper) which is being made is true, then one man’s choice is just as good as any other man’s choice. If a man chooses to partake of the Lord’s supper once in his life and be done with it, that would be just as approved of God as the choice to observe it annually, semi-annually, monthly, or weekly. What about the man who chose not to observe it all? Could a man chose to observe it one time a year but not zero times a year?
3. “If we partake of the Lord’s supper every week, it loses its significance.” I suppose the conclusion should be that the less frequently we observe the Lord’s supper, the more hallowed it will become. Therefore, let us partake of it only once in our lifetime. If this is true with the Lord’s supper, would this apply to the other items of worship? If we pray every day, does prayer lose its significance? If we give every week, does giving lose its significance? If we listen to the word of God being preached every week, does the word of God lost its significance?
The ridiculousness of this can also be demonstrated by illustration. Suppose a man said to his wife, “If I tell you I love you every day, that will lose its significance. Consequently, once a year I will tell you that I love you.” What do you think she would have to say about that?
4. “The New Testament is not a blueprint or pattern which should be followed today. ” Those who believe that the approved apostolic examples of the early church are not binding on us today ridicule the idea that the New Testament is a blueprint. If approved apostolic examples are not binding, how would we know? There is no commandment or explicit statement in Scripture which tells us they are not binding. Hence, if one is to learn that approved apostolic examples are not binding, he must learn that through approved apostolic examples or necessary inference. He must contradict his own premise to reach his conclusion; hence, the conclusion and premise are false. If he can learn through approved apostolic examples that the New Testament is not a blueprint or pattern which should be followed today, can he learn anything else in the same way?
Those Christians who contend that the New Testament is not a blueprint always contradict themselves. They can never be consistent. Is the New Testament a blueprint for telling us what we should believe about Jesus? Is the New Testament a blueprint for telling us how to be saved? Is the New Testament a blueprint for legislating morals? Those Christians who do not believe that the New Testament is a blueprint for observing the Lord’s supper always turn to that blueprint to answer these questions. Their own inconsistency proves that the New Testament is a blueprint to be followed.
How can I walk by faith in observing the Lord’s supper? The only way in which anyone can do by faith that which is taught in the Bible is to obey a precept, follow an approved apostolic example, or act in accordance with a necessary inference. If nothing more had been said than “this do in remembrance of me,” then congregations would have been at liberty to select their own time for observing the supper; but since we have an example of the practice of the early church, with apostolic approval, we know that we can do by faith that which they did. And it is equally certain that no one can celebrate the feast by faith on any other day than the first day of the week or any other frequency than weekly.
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 14, pp. 418, 437-439
July 16, 1987