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What Is Communion?
The Sacraments, Lesson 6
Over the last 5 weeks, we’ve looked at the historical background and symbolic meaning and significance of baptism. Over the next 5 weeks, we’ll do the same for communion.
Like baptism, communion is another one of those practices that churches generally agree is an important practice, but they disagree in how to carry out that practice. Some churches practice communion every week; others practice communion once a month, once a quarter, or on some other schedule. Some churches use bread and grape juice; others use bread and wine. Some insist on the bread being unleavened, and others don’t. Some churches allow all Christians to participate; others only provide communion for church members. Some churches believe that the bread turns into the actual physical body of Christ and the wine turns into the actual physical blood of Jesus, and others believe the bread and juice/wine are symbolic only.
Whatever practices you follow, this study is not here to discount them or to convince you to practice communion a different way. The important thing is that you understand the importance of communion and why we practice it.
This first lesson on communion is intended to provide a general overview of communion and the heart that we should bring to the practice of communion. We’ll look at the historical background and deeper meaning further in subsequent lessons.
What is Communion?
For those who are unfamiliar with the practice of communion, communion involves remembering Christ’s sacrifice through eating a small piece of bread and drinking a small amount of grape juice or wine (the bread and juice/wine are called the “elements”). This practice looks back on the Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples before his crucifixion, focusing on the sacrifice that Jesus would make on the cross the next day. This passage from 1 Corinthians is often read along with the distribution of the elements:
1 Corinthians 11:23-26: 23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
This passage pretty clearly spells out the practice and meaning of communion. We remember the way that Christ’s body was beaten and killed during his trial and crucifixion. We remember the pain that he endured to become the perfect sacrifice to pay the penalty for our sins. We remember the blood that he shed to cover our sins. When we practice communion, we remember the sacrifice he made because we would never be worthy on our own. It is a practice of humility and thankfulness.
The Heart of Communion
Communion shouldn’t be something that we do just because it is offered or because it is tradition. Each time we take communion, we need to come before God with right hearts. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul addressed several problems that the Corinthians were having with the practice of communion. These verses help teach us what kind of heart we need to bring to communion.
1. We must be faithful to only God in order to practice communion.
The people of Corinth were trying to have the best of both worlds. They were offering sacrifices to idols one day, and then the next they were participating in communion. Paul addressed this wrongful practice:
1 Corinthians 10:14-22: 14 Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 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? 17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.
18 Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? 19 Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. 22 Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
We see throughout Scripture that God is a jealous God, and he does not tolerate his people worshipping other gods or idols. When people participate in communion with a split heart—partially following God and partially following idols—God finds this to be insulting and foolish. It arouses God’s jealousy and anger. If we are not faithful to God only, we should not have any participation in communion. Therefore, the first requirement for taking communion is that we are faithful to God only. We do not tarnish that faithfulness by worshipping other gods.
2. We must be unselfish in our sharing of communion with other believers.
A second issue that Paul had with the Corinthians’ practice of communion is that some people were consuming all the food, leaving nothing for others. During this time, communion was a larger meal than what we practice today. Some people would come for the meal early and eat all the food and drink all the wine, and those who came later would be left with nothing.
1 Corinthians 11:20-22: 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!
The Corinthians were being selfish in their practice of communion, so much so that Paul couldn’t even call it communion (or the Lord’s Supper). Selfishness is not in the heart of communion. Communion is about the work that Christ did equally for everyone, so some people should not be left with nothing when communion is shared.
This brings up another point, though. Communion is meant to be shared. It is meant to be practiced as a body of believers, not as individuals. In Corinth, some people were having private suppers, making communion more about them than about a shared practice of remembrance. Based on this, Paul gave the following direction:
1 Corinthians 11:33-34: 33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.
When practicing communion, it should be done in fellowship with other believers. The bread and juice/wine of communion are not meant to be a meal for some and nothing for others. It is for all believers to share in equally, and the practice should be done when everyone can participate.
3. We must be right with God before we practice communion.
The third issue that Paul addressed related to the Corinthians’ practice of communion is that many of them were practicing communion without having their hearts right with God. Paul called them “unworthy”:
1 Corinthians 11:27-29: 27 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. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.
What does it mean to be unworthy before God? The only thing that makes us unworthy before God is sin. And the only way we can be free from that sin is to confess, ask for forgiveness, and repent, or turn from our sin (see Bible Essentials lessons on confession and repentance). We must accept Christ’s death on the cross as the payment for our sins, and we must believe in Jesus and faithfully follow him. If we cannot do these things, but we still want to participate in communion, we are participating in an “unworthy manner,” which is considered another sin and will only bring judgment.
So before you participate in communion, make sure you examine your life. See if there are any unconfessed sins in your life or anything that you need to make right before God. Take time to confess and repent, making sure that your heart is aligned to God’s. This right heart is essential to the practice of communion.
Communion is a time to remember Christ’s sacrifice on the cross—his body that was broken and his blood that was shed to pay the penalty for our sins. This isn’t a practice to be taken lightly, and it’s not for everyone to practice. It is only for believers, for those who are following God faithfully and who have their hearts right before God. It is meant to be shared in fellowship with other believers. Each time you practice communion, examine your heart to make sure that you are right before God. This is the heart of communion.