Throughout Christian history, believers have used various sacraments, such as communion, as a way of expressing their faith and other related truths. I decided to research the meaning behind communion.
Why do Christians take communion? Christians take communion as a means of honoring the atoning sacrifice Jesus made on the cross for our sins. Communion today is taken the same way Jesus did during the Last Supper. Communion is taken to remember the blood of Jesus that was spilled on the cross and his beaten body which was hung upon a cross.
My goal in this post is to help you better understand what communion is, where it comes from, and why we continue to participate in this sacrament today.
Origins of Communion
Communion, at its beginning, is connected with the feast of Passover. Passover was one of the most important celebrations observed by the people of Israel. Jews would come from all over the world to meet in Jerusalem and celebrate their deliverance from Egypt many years prior.
While Israel was enslaved in Egypt, God sent plagues upon the Egyptian people through Moses because Pharaoh refused to let them go. The tenth and final plague was the only plague that effected both Egypt and Israel and would cost each family the life of their firstborn son.
However, God gave his people the opportunity to be saved by putting the blood of a lamb on their doorposts. Then, when the Angel of Death came it would pass over their homes. After this final plague had run its course, Pharaoh finally relented and let Israel go free.
Every year following their deliverance, the Israelites would celebrate the Feast of Passover as a way of honoring God for sparing them and freeing them from Egypt.
These events are highly symbolic, and come to fulfillment with Jesus, which he expresses through communion at the Last Supper.
The Last Supper
During the Last Supper, Jesus initiates the first communion in response to his fulfillment of the events foreshadowed by Passover.
Everyone is born a sinner and deserves death. However, God extended grace towards Israel in Egypt through the blood of a lamb. In the same way, Jesus, the Lamb of God, would bleed and die, and his blood would cover the sins of God’s people.
This sacrificial act would spare them from death and instead bring eternal life for all who believed.
At that Last Supper, Jesus rehearsed his pending sacrifice for his disciples. The broken bread representing his body which would be broken for us, and the wine his blood which would be poured out for us. Jesus then commands his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me,” which we do to this day in the form of communion.
While Christians no longer celebrate the Passover meal, we do continue to participate in communion today in remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice which God had been foreshadowing since the beginning. However, it has evolved to look different over the years.
There are a few notable differences in how we participate in communion now, compared to how it was illustrated then by Jesus.
First, their communion was celebrated in a close-knit gathering of Jesus and his disciples. However, today most people’s experience is limited to communion at church. This is not necessarily bad or wrong, it is good to take communion with the body of Christ.
However, we can recognize that the church is not the only place for taking communion. What is necessary is a body of committed believers doing it for the right reasons.
Second, the elements of communion have changed over time. While Jesus probably used a bread called matza, which was used at a traditional Passover, and wine, most people today use a small cracker and grape juice.
In fact, I once took communion with bread and grapes. However, Jesus makes it very clear that it is not about what goes into your body but the contents of your heart. If your heart is in the right place, it doesn’t really matter what elements you use.
Even though the way we take communion has changed over the years, the reason hasn’t changed. We continue to take communion as a way of honoring the sacrifice that Jesus made to redeem us from our sinful state and bring us into right relationship with Him.
Just as Passover honored God for sparing Israel and delivering them from Egypt, so also communion honors God for sparing our lives and delivering us from the power of sin and death so that we might have a personal relationship with Him.
Biblical Basis for Communion
Communion is noted in several places throughout the Bible, most notably in the Gospels, but in several other places as well. Each account gives us more insight into the first communion and how it it was carried out in the early church
Communion in the Gospels
Only the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, provide an account of this moment at the Last Supper before Jesus went to pray in the garden. Each one depicts these final moments with Jesus’ disciples before he would go to the garden and be betrayed.
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.”
And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for 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 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 ESV
And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said,
“Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them,
“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”Mark 14:22-25 ESV
And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them,
“I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”
And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”Luke 22:14-20 ESV
Communion in the Early Church
We also see examples of communion in the Early Church as Acts 2 describes. It reveals the core activities of the early church and how they were in community together, including the communal “breaking of bread.”
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.Acts 2:42-47 ESV
Warning from Paul
Paul reminds us in his letter to the Corinthian church to be careful how we take communion. Communion is a time to honor and remember God for what he has done, and you need to be careful that your heart is in the right place.
The church in Corinth was not taking communion the way it was intended. They would take it by themselves, or feast when someone else went hungry.
Paul warns them that they should check their heart first. Take communion as a group, and don’t use it to fill up on food, do that at home beforehand.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.1 Corinthians 11:27-29 ESV
As I explained previously, communion has its roots in the Passover meal. If you want to learn more about how this important Jewish feast came to be, check out Exodus 12 which recounts the final plague and Israel’s release from Egypt.
Communion has very significant meaning to the Christian church and it is wonderful to be able to be part of this tradition. Just don’t forget to examine your heart. Don’t take communion lightly but truly consider the sacrifice it represents.