X Close Menu

What Happens in the Eucharist? - Part I

Reflections on 1 Corinthians 11:23-34

Let’s admit it: Protestants aren’t the most knowledgeable about the Eucharist and are actually somewhat uncomfortable with my use of the word because of its association with Roman Catholicism. Don’t be afraid. It comes from the Greek verb eucharisteo and simply means “to give thanks”. The noun form, eucharistia, means “thankfulness,” “gratitude,” “thanksgiving,” and the adjective eucharistos means “thankful.”

The verb is used in 1 Corinthians 11:24 in connection with the words of institution: “and when he [Jesus] had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” Perhaps I’ve grown to appreciate it more than others because I spent the last four years as an active member of an Anglican congregation in Wheaton, Illinois, where the Eucharist was celebrated every Sunday. If you prefer “Lord’s Supper” or “communion” (1 Cor. 10:16) or even the “Lord’s Table” (1 Cor. 10:21), that’s fine. But let’s move beyond the label to the meaning of it all.

Paul’s account of the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11 is important for at least two reasons.

First, many believe that 1 Corinthians was written before the synoptic gospels and is therefore the earliest canonical record we have of this sacrament. I. Howard Marshall comments:

“If Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth had not survived, and if that church had not needed to be admonished about the behavior of some of its members at the meal, we should know next to nothing about how the meal was celebrated in the early church. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 is the one biblical account of any length which discusses the actual conduct of the Lord’s Supper in the church” (Last Supper and Lord’s Supper [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980], 16).

Second, we read in v. 23 – “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you . . .” There are two ways of taking this reference to the divine origin of the Supper. Paul may simply be saying that Jesus originally instituted the sacrament and was thus the first link in a chain reaching from him to Paul. “Eyewitnesses reported to others what the Lord had said and done, these repeated it to others again, and so in due course the tradition reached Paul, who thus had it ‘from the Lord’ not immediately but by unbroken transmission” (C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians [New York: Harper & Row, 1968], 265).

On the other hand, Paul may mean that he received his information concerning the Supper directly from Jesus (note the emphatic “I”, possibly his way of saying that his knowledge came to him unmediated by others). Recall Galatians 1:11-12 where Paul says he received the gospel, not from men, but “through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” Perhaps he gained his knowledge of the Eucharist in the same manner.

A possible compromise solution, writes Barrett, “is that Paul received the factual tradition by human means, but received the interpretation of it directly from the Lord” (265). The point of interest, however, is that the sacrament is, in a sense, a “trust” that Paul first “received” from Jesus Christ and then solemnly “delivered” to us. It is a sacred institution entrusted to us by him for perpetual observance and reverential protection.

The Meaning of the Eucharist

A careful reading of the passage reveals that the sacrament is designed to accomplish one primary goal: to elicit remembrance of the person and work of Christ. [This is not meant to deny that the Eucharist is also a sacrament and serves to mediate the sanctifying (not saving) grace of Christ. On this, see my two articles on the Sacraments in Miscellaneous Topics of the Theological Studies section at www.SamStorms.com.]. Some have said the Eucharist has two ends, (1) to remember, and (2) to proclaim his death. Although there is no great error in this, it isn’t textually accurate. There is only one command, literally, “this be doing unto my remembrance.” The proclamation of Christ’s death till he comes is not a second command but a consequence of fulfilling the first. As we are partaking, and by partaking remembering, we will be proclaiming his death. The proclaiming is wrapped up in the remembering as an inevitable corollary. This is substantiated by the word “for” with which v. 26 begins. That is, what we find in v. 26 is a consequence or product of our rightly observing the command to “remember” in vv. 24-25. We should also note that “you proclaim” in v. 26 is a statement of fact (present tense indicative), not a command.

Before proceeding I want to mention an alternative, but unlikely, interpretation that comes from Joachim Jeremias (The Eucharistic Words of Jesus [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966). He argues that it is not we, but God, who does the “remembering.” He explains:

“’In remembrance of me’ can . . . scarcely mean ‘that you may remember me’, but most probably ‘that God may remember me’. This means that the command to repeat the rite is not a summons to the disciples to preserve the memory of Jesus and be vigilant (‘repeat the breaking of bread so that you may not forget me’), but it is an eschatologically oriented instruction: ‘Keep joining yourselves together as the redeemed community by the table rite, that in this way God may be daily implored to bring about the consummation in the parousia.’ By coming together daily for table fellowship in the short period of time before the parousia and by confessing in this way Jesus as their Lord, the disciples represent the initiated salvation work before God and they pray for its consummation” (255; for the full argument see 237-55).

That aside, let’s consider what “remembering” Christ entails.

First, it is a remembrance that is commanded. “When we . . . gather, we gather not on our own impulse, nor at our own inclination, but because it is ordained that we should do so. Woe to the Christian who neglects the Lord’s Table. Unless there are right reasons for being absent, woe to us if we just walk out when the Lord’s Table is set” (Ernest F. Kevan, The Lord’s Supper [London: Evangelical Press, 1973], 14).

This command also reveals the weakness of the flesh even in those who have been born again, for it is remarkable that we who have been redeemed by Christ should need to be urged to remember him.

Second, it is a remembrance which takes a tangible, visible form. The elements are designed to prick our spiritual sense by physical means. It’s not sufficient simply to say, “Remember.” We must go on to present to the eye and to the touch this tangible representation of the truth about which we are speaking. And again, it is surely an act of merciful condescension to our weakness as sinners that the Lord has established the sacrament in this way.

Third, it is a strengthening remembrance. The Eucharist serves to intensify and increase our understanding of and love for Christ’s death. Again, for more on this dimension of the sacrament, see the two articles I noted earlier.

Fourth, it is a personal remembrance. We are not told to remember the night on which the sacrament was instituted. Neither the betrayal nor the trial nor even the crucifixion itself is the focus of our attention. Rather it is a remembrance of Jesus himself betrayed, tried, and crucified. Remember “ME”, we are commanded. “Recall and be strengthened and encouraged by all that I have been, am, and forever will be to you. My person, my work, all that is yours by grace,” says Jesus, “let it take root in your souls and feed on Me.”

Fifth, S. Lewis Johnson makes this observation:

“He says, ‘This is MY body.’ What is most remarkable about the words is the fact that He was telling these young Jewish men that they should no longer celebrate the God-appointed festival of the Passover and substitute in its place remembrance of Him! Do not think of Moses; think of Me! It must have been a staggering thing to them, if they thought upon the transformation of the ceremony, from Passover to Lord’s Supper. And, the fact that He made this significant demand of them, and the fact that they accepted this startling change of ceremony tell us much of the authority and dignity of the King. It was a plain statement to the effect that He was the true Passover lamb, that His death is the real atoning sacrifice, and that His blood is the genuine spiritual safety of the believer. Marvelous indeed!” (“The First Lord’s Supper,” Believers Bible Bulletin [October 11, 1981], 4).

Sixth, in this activity of remembering there is more than simply commemoration: there is also confession. Whoever comes to the Lord’s Table not only commemorates the death of Christ for sinners but also confesses, “Christ died for me.” Note v. 24 – “This is my body which is for you.” What happened to Christ’s body was for me, and in my participating in the sacrament I thereby make confession to that effect.

Seventh, the inevitable corollary to remembrance is proclamation. John Murray put it this way:

“In the Lord’s Supper we are commemorating the death of Christ. This is remarkable. Do we commemorate the death of loved ones? Scarcely! We remember the death and the date. But we do not commemorate. However, it is not merely a commemoration. It is a celebration. ‘As often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come’ (1 Cor. 11:26). We are proclaiming the Lord’s death and therefore go on proclaiming. We do not go on proclaiming the death of any other person. A death is announced, and if we went on perpetually announcing, not to speak of proclaiming, we would be properly regarded as insane. But Jesus’ death we proclaim” (Collected Writings [Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1982], III:284).

Some argue that “proclaiming” the Lord’s death by partaking of the elements is to be viewed as “an acted sermon, an acted proclamation of the death which it commemorates” (A. Robertson and A. Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1971], 249). However, the word translated “proclaim” means to announce by word of mouth, and in the NT is often used of proclaiming the gospel. Although the nature of Christ’s death is silently portrayed by the action of partaking of the elements, it is also appropriate that a verbal explanation be given. Every observance of the Eucharist ought in some sense to be a lesson on the atonement. “To eat and drink at the Supper is to proclaim the death of the Lord. The Supper is a memorial of Jesus in that each time it takes place it transforms the participants into preachers” (Marshall, 113).

In conclusion, we should also note that the Eucharist is prospective in nature as well as retrospective. It is a service of hope, for it constantly reminds us that one day he who is now only represented in the bread and wine will be with us in person, and the fellowship which is now incomplete will at that time be consummated in perfection. “We celebrate the death, but not the death of a dead Savior. He is going to come again and therefore he is alive. ‘Fear not: I am the first and the last, and the living one, and I became dead and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of death and of hell’ (Rev. 1:17,18). If he were not alive we would not be celebrating, because then the death would be bereft of its virtue and power” (Murray, III:284-85).

In summary, we both look back to his death and remember, and forward to his coming and hope. The Eucharist is “charged with perpetual anticipation” (Murray, III:285). I pray that each time you receive the elements with thanksgiving you will both commemorate and celebrate. Even so, come Lord Jesus!