26 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.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the[a] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” – Matthew 26:26-29
Introduction: The Importance of the Lord’s Supper
Taking the Lord’s Supper on a weekly basis for the past 5 years has changed my life. For in it, Christ has met with me, to remind me that my sins are forgiven and that it is his body and blood which is for me. It is a precious time of sweet communion with our risen Lord. In a word, the Lord’s Supper is important.
Unfortunately the Lord’s Supper is often met with flippancy in mainstream evangelicalism today, not just with people in general, but also by the ministers themselves. It would do us good to note the importance of the Lord’s Supper in church history. During the time of the reformation, one of the most heated debates was over the nature of the Lord’s Supper. It’s important to know that the reformation was not one united movement. There were different reformations going on in different parts of Europe. You had Luther’s Wittenburg Germany, Calvin’s Geneva, the Swiss reformation with Zwingli, England had its own reformation, and others. As you can imagine, the reformation leaders in these various regions would communicate with one another. We can look back and say, man they had so much unity in their disagreements with Rome on the gospel, justification, and other essentials; and today we see most all of them as brothers in the faith. Yet, they had heated disagreements with one another over the Lord’s Supper. Luther ended up breaking fellowship with Zwingli over the Lord’s Supper. It’s easy for us to look back and criticize them for being so divisive, if we view it that way, but one lesson we often miss in this is the fact that Lord’s Supper was so important in their view.
One of my favorite reformation stories, and there is a lot of them, is about John Calvin and the Lord’s Supper. There was a guy named Philibert Berthelier, who had been excommunicated, and rightly so. He was a libertine who had mistresses and physically assaulted someone. Berthelier, though he was excommunicated from the church, decided to appeal to the civil magistrates to try and be able to still take the Lord’s Supper. Calvin of course was furious about this and appeared before the council and declared that he would rather die a hundred deaths than subject Christ to the disgrace of unworthy participation in the Lord’s Supper. The council ended up telling Berthelier that he could not take the Lord’s Supper at the next communion service (they had it quarterly) but they would review it further. This compromise infuriated Calvin. So the next Lord’s Day he got up into his pulpit and denounced the decision of the council, and declared that at the communion service, if Berthelier were to show up, he would defend the Table of the Lord with his life. Basically he was saying, “over my dead body, will Berthelier take the Lord’s Supper here.” Well, Berthelier did not appear at the service. How many ministers would defend the Lord’s Table with their life today? Not many, because it’s just not that important to them. But we want to help make the Lord’s Supper important again, so that every elder at this church would be willing to protect the Lord’s table with their life, and all the members to have our backs.
Why the Elements Matter
Why do we not take milk and donuts for the Lord’s Supper (as, believe it or not, some churches do)? Because the elements matter. It doesn’t matter if we have good intentions or if we think in our hearts about Christ as we eat donuts and milk. That doesn’t make it right. Christ is not present in donuts and milk as an ordinance. They don’t show forth his body and blood.
The elements also matter because I believe it is an issue of the regulative principle of worship. The RPW teaching that we are to worship God only as he has revealed he wants to be worshiped. So when it comes to our corporate worship, if it’s not commanded of us, we don’t do it, and if it is, we do it. We are commanded to take the Lord’s Supper, so we do. Further, we are told what the elements of the Lord’s Supper are: bread and wine. Deviance, then, from the bread and wine is a violation of the regulative principle of worship and thus, we believe, disobedience to God.
The elements are important, but why leavened bread and why wine? First let’s consider why leavened bread.
Why Leavened Bread?
Communion is not a 1 to 1 of Passover. There is a lot of the same imagery and they both point to Christ, but they are not the same. So often people assume that since Passover used unleavened bread then that’s what we should use. That logic simply does not follow.
The unleavened bread in Passover had a specific purpose. The unleavened bread signified the haste with which the Israelites had to prepare the meal because of their quick exodus. They did not have time to make leavened bread. Certainly it is not sinful to eat leavened bread; Israel and other people eat it in other instances all throughout the Bible.
But now for us in the Lord’s Supper, we sit to eat, not in haste, eating a meal our hands have prepared in short notice; but we are eating a meal that has been prepared for us, the body and blood of our Lord. The work is complete. Something different is being signified in the bread of Passover and that of the Lord’s Supper.
The Passover in the Old Covenant of course did look forward to Christ, the substance that was not yet there. The Old Covenant was filled with shadows and empty vessels looking forward to the coming Messiah. But now in the New Covenant Lord’s Supper, the leavened bread signifies to us that the substance once longed for is now here. We look back and remember the cross, celebrating that the substance has now come and he is present with us as we eat and drink in faith. There is not anything that we lack, that we do not have in Christ, in the gospel, in the Word and sacraments.
While unleavened bread was used in Passover, it had a specific purpose. We indeed see leavened bread was used in other meals in the Old Covenant, (for example the peace offerings, which we certainly see pointing forward to Christ). Leviticus 7:13 tells us, “With the sacrifice of his peace offerings for thanksgiving he shall bring his offering with loaves of leavened bread.” There is a case to be made that peace offerings point forward to New Covenant realities just as much as Passover. In fact, I’ve seen some churches just plainly state that they use leavened bread because leavened bread was used in the Peace Offerings. I’m not basing our main reasoning on that, but it is something to consider.
Furthermore, the Bible nowhere commands us to use unleavened bread in the Lord’s Supper. We are just told bread. So again, if we’re following the Regulative Principle, we’re just using bread.
Calvin and most reformers at various times used ordinary leavened bread, although Calvin had no problem with using unleavened bread since the New Testament word (artos) for bread just means ordinary bread and could be leavened or unleavened. I would agree that I don’t have a problem with unleavened bread for that reason. We just have to choose whether we will use leavened or unleavened bread and we believe that leavened bread is more ordinary than unleavened bread and carries greater theological significance.
Some people say that there is a great theological significance in using unleavened bread, because when you break the bread, it really breaks and cracks. Whereas with the loaf of bread, it doesn’t break and crack, it is torn apart. However, we believe that actually shows that the greater theological significance is with the leavened bread, because Christ’s body wasn’t broken by cracking – there was not a bone in his body broken. Instead he was broken by being torn apart. His flesh literally ripped and torn off his back, like bread. So when we sit down at the Lord’s Table to eat the torn apart bread, we are reminded that it is through one of the most violent acts that we have been made at peace with God, as we take and eat our piece of the loaf.
Another way to look at the theological significance of leavened bread is to see the leaven as representative of our sin which Christ took and bore in his body which was broken for us on the cross, which we now partake of. 2 Cor. 5:21 tells us, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Here’s another way to look at it: the bread of the New Covenant Lord’s Supper signifies the curse for which we work the ground (remember Adam’s work was cursed at the fall – his work would now be hard and it would take hard work to get food from the ground. Bread comes from the hard work of the ground) – so it signifies how Christ bore the curse of sin in his body and was broken for us to be our true bread of heaven. Christ worked the ground without having or committing sin, then bore sin upon his body, died, and after three days rose again just as leavened bread rises after it is worked for with hands. The bread then reminds us that we are not working for our salvation, but it has already been worked and prepared for us, we simply receive it.
In the Lord’s Supper, wine is (by faith) the blood of the covenant, given for the forgiveness of sins.
Why wine, and not grape juice?
This goes back to the Regulative Principle of Worship. We are told to take the Lord’s Supper and we are told what the elements are: bread and wine; not grape juice.
Now, you might say, Jesus never said to use wine in the Lord’s Supper, he said to use “the fruit of the vine.” Indeed. And what is the fruit of the vine? It is wine. Indisputably so.
“Fruit of the vine” (v. 29) is wine. That is what the term has always been used for. The Jews would often use that term to describe the wine used in sacred rituals. Which makes sense as to why Jesus would use that term. Furthermore, grape juice was not invented until the 1800s; so the fruit of the vine could not be anything other than wine. As soon as you began the process of crushing the grapes into wine, the fermentation process begins, so there was simply no such thing as non-alcoholic wine. If they wanted to dilute the alcoholic content or make the wine go farther they would add water in with the wine. However, we do not do that in the Lord’s Supper, for it shows an adding and diluting to the blood of Christ.
It’s also proven by history since the historical practice is wine, and there is no record of grape juice at all in the history of the church, at least to my knowledge. Grape juice is a modern invention. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that grape juice was invented, and radical prohibitionists have wrongly influenced the church’s practice in the Lord’s Supper, and have wrongly influenced the church’s thinking about alcohol. Our practices and convictions ought to come from Scripture, and not the world.
The Theological Significance of Wine
Psalm 104:14-15: “You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart.”
Since God gave wine for nourishment and to gladden the heart, we see that wine signifies that we should be glad in taking the Lord’s Supper, because our sins are forgiven, we have peace with God, and our Risen Lord is meeting with us.
Calvin says: “When we see wine set forth as a symbol of blood, we must reflect on the benefits which wine imparts to the body, and so realize that the same are spiritually imparted to us by Christ’s blood. These benefits are to nourish, refresh, strengthen, and gladden.”
Sometimes wine is bitter and/or sweet. So it is that it is bitter to represent what Christ suffered for sin, and it is sweet to represent the sweetness of his atoning for sin, of his blood covering our sin.
Consider also the process of crushing grapes into wine. This signifies the wrath of God that crushes the Son so that his blood pours out for our sins.
You lose a lot of the symbolism of the blood of Christ with grape juice. When they make grape juice they have to go in and add a bunch of different flavorings and make all kinds of alterations to it. Grape juice is adding and/or subtracting from the blood of Christ. But in the wine we see it is by the blood of Christ alone, not our works added, or anything mixed in with the blood of Christ that atones for our sin.
As important as the elements are, the Lord’s Supper is not about the elements but about Christ. We eat and drink of his body and blood in faith and are partakers of his grace. Yet while it is not about the elements, it is the elements that are the sign that points us to those realities. Donuts and milk don’t point to those realities.
26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. – 1 Corinthians 11:26