(Read Acts 2:41-47; Acts 20:6, 7:1 Corinthians 10:14-22; 1 Corinthians 11:20-34)
I spoke last week of the promise of the building of Christ's church upon that foundation which should never be shaken, and on that occasion we saw also that the building was commenced on the day of Pentecost. The distinguishing feature of the church is its union by the Holy Spirit with the Lord Jesus, Who has gone on high. The Lord proved His presence there, and His power, and the fulfilment of His promise to them, by sending the Holy Spirit. The fact of the Spirit's coming was demonstrated in Jerusalem by the effect upon Peter's audience. Three thousand were that day turned to the Lord, and were added to that new company which had been formed into a habitation of God through the Spirit.
Now we know that before our Lord went on high — when on the night of His betrayal He held, if we may so express it, His final private interview with His disciples He sought to ensure their remembrance of Him. He was about to leave them, but they must then remember Him in a particular way. That death, which He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem, must not be forgotten. And He thereupon instituted the breaking of bread for their continual observance.
The Lord was on high; they were here. He would not leave them nor forsake them. He would always be with them in the power of His Spirit, Whom He would send; but one great object of the Lord's Supper was that in His absence their affections should not wander away from Him, Who had passed through death for them. That which must necessarily touch the heart of a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ more than anything else is His love, which was unto death. His obedience to the One Who sent Him went as far as death, even the death of the cross. The Supper is a memorial of that death.
Now the remarkable fact that stands before us in the second chapter of the Acts is that there was an immediate response on the part of that newly-formed assembly in Jerusalem to this desire of our Lord that they should break bread in remembrance of Him. The church of God was entirely distinct from God's ancient people. The high priest, the Jewish council, had nothing whatever to say or do in connection with the arrangements of the assembly of God. The Spirit of God was there already in the midst of the disciples. He was not in the temple with all its architectural grandeur, but in and with those who love our Lord Jesus Christ.
And the Spirit of God records here that "they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers." These were the four things that were characteristic of these people. No longer is it the teaching of Moses; it is now the apostles' teaching. It is no longer the natural tribal fellowship which arose because the Jews were all the seed of Abraham according to the flesh, but there was a new fellowship entirely, a fellowship which was the consequence of their being indwelt by God the Holy Spirit, Who had united these disciples of the Lord, and made them one with the Christ of God. And this fellowship expressed itself in their having one heart and one soul, having all things common, being together for one purpose. There was one fellowship, the communion of saints, which is an abiding feature of the church.
The member of the body of Christ is not regarded as an isolated person, not as an individual. He is an individual so far as his reception of the gospel is concerned; he is an individual so far as his responsibilities are concerned. As a sinner before God a man is, and must be, an individual amenable to judgment, but when he comes to Christ he is thereupon brought into this unity, this holy association, this new place in the church of God, where all are one because the Holy Spirit is dwelling there. At the beginning, this oneness was expressed continuously in every form of spiritual activity.
But there was also the breaking of bread. This was what the Lord enjoined — the joint remembrance of Himself in eating of the loaf and in drinking of the wine. That He was absent, so far as the outward eye could see, they knew. But He was present with them to preside at this meeting, and to make the breaking of bread totally unlike those empty Jewish ceremonies which were still going on in Jerusalem. It was a living act on their part in the presence of the living Lord, of remembrance that He, the Son of the living God, went down into death on their behalf, for the glory of God.
There were the prayers which are mentioned also. These were the regular prayers of the church as the church. The disciples had the extraordinary privilege of being able to unite their hearts in earnest supplication at the throne of grace, the Spirit Himself interceding for them and in them. It was not one man praying for another, but it was the continuance of them all acting together in prayer. They each had their individual prayers in the privacy of their own circle, but what is spoken of here was true of them all when they were together. So they continued steadfastly in the prayers of the newly-formed assembly.
We ought not to overlook the importance of assembly prayer. Two or three may pray anywhere, and at any time, having some specific desire before them; but that is not necessarily assembly prayer. The assembly prayer is when members of the body of Christ come together with the united purpose of seeking the face of the Lord in earnest supplication; and, being together as such, the Holy Spirit makes intercession for them unitedly with groanings that cannot be uttered. Such prayers are fruitful in blessing.
You find that when the church was praying in Jerusalem, the whole place was shaken — a remarkable token that God hears and answers united prayer. And it is still so. In the present broken and scattered condition of the church it remains true that we may continue steadfastly, if we will, in the assembly prayers. Let us not forget to do so.
Breaking of Bread Established
We find that the breaking of bread was an established practice among these new church-members. The practice was there so fully and so definitely established that we are told in the 46th verse that they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple and breaking bread at home, did eat their meat, or food, with gladness. Here a distinction is drawn between eating their food and breaking bread because elsewhere we do find breaking of bread used with reference to an ordinary meal — in the last chapter of Luke (Luke 24:35), for instance. Here the breaking of bread was not the ordinary meal; it was the remembrance of the Lord Jesus according to His own appointment before He went on high; and the Holy Spirit, to prevent confusion, joins it with the ordinary partaking of food. They ate their food with gladness, but they broke bread at home, not in the temple. And they did so daily. Their hearts were in continual touch with Him Who had so recently gone from their midst. It was a real thing to them too, because not so many days, very few weeks, had passed since some of them actually saw Him when He said to them in the upper room, "This do in remembrance of Me."
They may have recalled the very tone of His words in the upper room, when He looked into the faces of the eleven, and said, "This do in remembrance of Me." Could they refuse obedience to Him? Was it a hardship for them to do this day by day in remembrance of Him? It was real to them in Jerusalem, but we ought not to forget that though many centuries have passed since the Lord. uttered those words, the Holy Spirit can still make them vivid and real to us also, if we will. If we are together, sensible of the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in the midst and waiting upon the Holy Spirit to act among us as He will, will you tell me that He cannot make the voice of the Lord and the presence of the Lord a reality to our hearts?
Then why is it not always so? Is it not because we lack faith? Because we come into the presence of the Lord in a way that we should not come into His holy presence? We come in perhaps as if we are going into our dining-rooms to sit down to a meal, forgetting that the Lord is there, in His assembly. The breaking of bread was a real memorial to those persons in Jerusalem, and it can also be real to us now. The Lord is in our midst; the Holy Spirit also is there; and in spite of all our weakness and failure His presence becomes a real thing to our hearts in so far as we grasp the truth of it.
So it was then at the very beginning in Jerusalem. And so we find later in Acts 20 at Troas. There, in that town, the disciples met together in accordance with their practice on the first day of the week, the day of the Lord's resurrection. And we know it was a weekly practice because the apostle, who was on a journey to Jerusalem, and anxious to get there as quickly as possible, tarried at Troas seven days expressly (so we may gather from the scripture) that he might break bread with them, and also use the occasion of their being together to discourse to them concerning the things of Jesus Christ.
And it was not, as the ordinary text might seem to imply, that the disciples came together to break bread and that Paul came in amongst them as a stranger; but the correct rendering is, "when we came together." It was the joint act of them all, Paul and his companions as well as the local brethren.
They met together as the assembly, and the express purpose of their coming together was to break bread in remembrance of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul's discourse to them was a secondary matter; breaking of bread was put first, as it always should be by the assembly of God, the reason being that the breaking of bread is the express wish of the Head of the church. The Lord Jesus in His supremacy, in His authority, as being Head over all things to the church, has signified what His will is in this respect, and we delight to respond to that request of His.
Breaking of Bread in Practice
I pass on to notice what the apostle says in 1 Corinthians with regard to the breaking of bread from a doctrinal point of view. In the Acts we have the historical references to the practice which are all the more forcible because they are introduced incidentally in the course of the narrative. Luke, in writing the Acts, does not draw particular attention to the breaking of bread, but he mentions the custom as he proceeds with his history, showing that it was a part of the church's regular procedure. So in this unobtrusive way, its established observance in Jerusalem and at Troas is noted.
Because the Lord Jesus laid down so few particulars about this ceremony — if I may use this rather cold word — the saints of God are in danger of abusing it. Let me put it in the first person; we are in danger of abusing this precious privilege of remembering our Lord Jesus Christ in the breaking of bread.
The apostle in his Epistle to the Corinthians, in the two chapters that we all know, the tenth and the eleventh, makes two distinct references to this subject, each having its particular teaching for them and us.
Looking at the tenth chapter very cursorily, we see that the breaking of bread is spoken of in contrast with idolatrous feasts. These saints of God were for the most part recent converts from idolatry, and were accustomed to the orgies that accompanied the worship of false gods. And we know it is still an easy thing and a common failure to bring into the church the habits of unconverted days.
In our unconverted days we served ourselves. In our case, it may not have been in the worship of stupid idols, but it certainly was in following the desires of our own mind, and in having our own way, and in listening to the voice of men like ourselves. Hence the truth that was spoken to correct the Corinthians applies in principle to ourselves.
The Cup of Blessing
These people had imported some of their former idolatrous ways into the assembly in connection with the simple remembrance of the Lord Jesus Christ; and the apostle warns them to flee from idolatry (1 Cor. 10:14), because the evil power of Satan was behind all idolatry, and would defile the saints. He said, if I may try to paraphrase the words to help a little, "This new feast, this breaking of bread, brings you into the closest and most intimate association with one another as well as with the Christ of God. What does the loaf set forth? What does the cup set forth? It is association with Christ and the fellowship of the whole assembly." "The cup of blessing", the apostle says, "which we bless, is it not the communion (or fellowship) of the blood of Christ?" The closest and most intimate fellowship with Christ was expressed by the cup. And the apostle, in the earlier verses, had reminded them of how such association in the things of God was regarded in Old Testament times.
He refers back, as you will remember, to incidents in the history of the people of Israel when they went through the wilderness. Then they all ate of the same spiritual meat; they all drank of the same spiritual drink; and he adds one thing in connection with the drinking of the water, miraculously supplied from the rock; he says, "And that rock was Christ." The Israelites all outwardly partook of the benefits of the smitten rock — Christ. They all drank of the cup of blessing that the smitten rock in the wilderness had provided. But how many of them fell in the wilderness because of their association with idols? God smote them, and most of them failed to reach the promised land. And these things, the apostle says, were "written for our admonition." They are solemn warnings against defiling association.
The remembrance of the Lord Jesus Christ is a most holy occupation. We then come into close contact with Christ, and in a particularly solemn way: in connection with His blood. "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?" And therefore this service is so holy. We are touching what is holy, and therefore, since we touch what is holy in the remembrance of the Lord Jesus Christ, what manner of persons ought we to be! What godliness there should be in us! What separation from all that is defiling and contrary to the Christ of God!
We are apt to consider only the fact that we are called to take the cup of blessing. We think of it mainly as the cup of blessing. We bless God for it. Our hearts rise to Him in thankfulness because of the privilege which is ours to be at the Table, and to share one with another that cup of blessing.
But let us go a step further. Let us not forget that holiness becomes the house of God, His habitation through the Spirit. And this question of holy behaviour is so serious because on these occasions we are all so closely and intimately connected with the Lord Jesus Christ. This, I suppose, is one reason why in this passage we have the cup mentioned first: a reversion of the usual order. We might suppose that the apostle would speak first of the bread, and then of the cup, but instead of the historical sequence, he speaks of the cup first, and then the bread. He speaks of the blood before he speaks of the body. Now the blood of Christ is that which cleanses us from all sin, and removes it finally; it makes atonement; it is the ground of fellowship in the light of God; and therefore we are forcibly reminded by it first of all that in participating in these extraordinary and unparalleled privileges we are engaged in a most holy occupation. Communion with the blood of Christ behoves us to maintain separation from everything that is inconsistent with the holiness of the name of Christ Jesus our Lord.
The Symbolic Loaf
The loaf which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? Here, we have communion, or fellowship, named again. This time it is in connection with the body of Christ. Now, the body of Christ, we gather from this passage, has a twofold signification. First, the loaf represents the body of Christ, which was given for us, that holy body in which He bore our sins upon the tree. "This is My body", the Lord said, referring to that sacrifice which He made of Himself in order that our sins might be purged.
But there is more. In the second aspect the body of Christ signifies the whole company of believers, forming His church or assembly. "As the body is one", the apostle, speaking of the natural body, says in the twelfth chapter, "As the body is one, and hath many members . . . so also is Christ." What does he mean? He means there that Christ is the name of that new man, the mystical man, consisting of the heavenly Head, Christ, and the church, His members; they are together looked upon as one.
The body of Christ then includes all those that are His, all those who are associated with Him as the Head. Accordingly, the apostle says in this place, "For we", many though we are, "for we being many are one bread, and one body." He does not mean here the body of Christ as that sacrifice which was given for us, but that body which by the Holy Spirit is formed of those that belong to the Lord Jesus Christ. These are the body of Christ.
And therefore we have this remarkable fact that two or three gathered together in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ for the remembrance of the Lord in His death see before them in the loaf a symbol of that one perfect body which is the church of God for which Christ gave Himself. There may be but two or three members present, but there before the Lord they are entitled to behold in the one loaf, the one body united to Him by the Holy Spirit; and we ought not to forget this side of the truth. The manifold extension of the church of God, throughout the centuries so far as time is concerned, is there represented in its unity at the Lord's table every time that we are together for the breaking of bread.
The Lord would not have us to forget, however feeble, and few, we may be, however scattered the saints of God may be, however ruined the condition of the church at large may be, He would not have us to forget that He died for the whole church, the one church. The thought before Him was that they, however many and diverse, should be one; and He intends them to be one now. They are therefore one by the Holy Spirit; and they will be one in glory throughout all eternity.
Before the bread is eaten, the loaf is broken, of course. It is passed to all, that all may partake. But the thought of unity is prominent in this chapter. This intimate association between the saints of God is, beloved friends, what God calls us to maintain, in this day of brokenness. We ought never to give up this testimony. As we look about us, and see conflicting parties on every hand in Christendom, the Lord reminds us that His own are still one, one body. We belong to that one body for which He gave Himself. "The gates of hell [hades] shall never prevail against it." He said, "I will build My church", and He will do so. And because He said it, we believe and rejoice in it. The reason for our assurance lies in the fact that He died, and overcame death by His own mighty power, and is now risen on, high.
So we see that the question of association comes out specially in this tenth chapter; we are all partakers of the one loaf. And great responsibilities devolve upon us because of this truth, though we cannot pursue them further at present.
I want now to say a few words on the following chapter with special reference to this memorial service of the church.
Lord and Christ
In the eleventh chapter, as we know very well, a different view of the breaking of bread is taken. Here the question before the apostle is the proper behaviour of the individuals present to eat the Lord's supper. They are there, each having a separate responsibility. It is not a question of their all being one and all being merged in a spiritual unity; but individual conduct is here considered. It is a matter of one and another person being judged and chastened of the Lord. Responsibility comes in, and this is why the title of the Lord is different in the eleventh chapter from the tenth. In the tenth chapter, as we saw, it is Christ — "the blood of Christ"; "the body of Christ." This is the official title of the Lord as the One to Whom the church in its unity belongs; "Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for it." But His Lordship is brought in when the connection is specially with the truth of our responsibility to Him, Who is our Lord (see Luke 6:46).
The apostle makes it manifest that it is possible for persons to come together and participate in the Lord's supper and yet not to eat the Lord's supper at all. The Corinthians came together, and the result was that they ate their own supper. They brought their own food and their wretched selves with them. "Self" was prominent in their minds all the time they were together. And though they made the usual motions with their mouths the hearts of many were far from the Lord.
The Solemnities of the Gathering
The Lord looks upon this assembly with sadness, and in His authority and power He judges those who are present to remember Him in His death, but who forget His living presence. He still walks as the Lord in the midst of the assembly, and we ought to remember this when we are together. Because, when we consider it, can there be a more solemn engagement for us on this earth? Is anything more solemn than being together to remember the Lord Jesus Christ when He died? — when He died! We may have seen our dear ones pass from us. Oh, such a solemn fact, is it not, when those we love most dearly leave us, and we see their faces no more? But, after all, what is the death of our dearest ones in comparison with the death of the Lord Jesus Christ? The Lord of life, the One Who had fullest power over death, that He Himself should go down into death, and such a death, the death of the cross!
When we gather together for the breaking of bread, and look by faith again and again to Calvary, recalling those incidents of shame and suffering, they become almost familiar to us, but yet fresher and fuller every time they are before our hearts. Surely this is so. We know it is the most solemn occupation of the saints of God in this world. And therefore there is the constant need for circumspection in approaching to take part in the remembrance of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The apostle assumes that the Corinthian saints understood that the Lord is there, at His supper. He is spoken of as supervising, so to speak, what is proceeding at the remembrance of His death.
The apostle had delivered to them what he himself received of the Lord. As we think of the fact of this special revelation it adds to the seriousness of the subject. The apostle could tell them that the Lord in glory had spoken directly and specially to himself with regard to His supper. Paul, the chiefest of the apostles, was not present with the eleven in the supper-room before the crucifixion; but the Lord spoke directly from heaven to him that he might have it from His own lips in glory that this supper was to be observed by those who loved Him.
Paul speaks of the supper being instituted on the night of His betrayal. "For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which He was betrayed took bread: and when He had given thanks, He brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is My body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of Me. 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." "My body;" "My blood;" "Me;" there was the fact of His own personal presence behind (not in) the bread and the wine.
The supper was a memorial of Him in His death, but it was a memorial of Him, the living One. It sent their hearts back to Calvary, but He was present; this was the point. They had houses to eat and drink in, if it was a question of satisfying hunger and thirst; let them eat their necessary food at home. But at the Supper the Lord was there, while His death and the manner of His death occupied their hearts.
And if they realised by the Holy Spirit that He was present, they would automatically, so to speak, fall into their proper posture of adoration before Him, as they remembered that He, the One before their hearts, had veritably been crucified. When Thomas saw His hands and His side, his ejaculation was, "My Lord and my God." And it will be so with us too when we are before Him and His hands and His side come into our view, that from our hearts will spring involuntarily, by the influence of the Holy Spirit, the cry of worship, "Our Lord and our God."
Such worship is not something that can be arranged beforehand. It is not something that we can concoct in the privacy of our own homes. Worship springs unprompted from our hearts by the working of the Holy Spirit when we are together. Only we are to be careful that our hearts, when we do come, are in such a state that the Holy Spirit will freely act within us.
And what state is this? The right state is that of having the Lord Himself before our hearts. I have come to remember Him. No, put it in another way. I say beforehand, "I am coming at eleven o'clock to remember Him," And this thought will surely set me right. If there is anything upon my heart and conscience that ought not to be there, the very thought, the very assurance and confidence that I am about to be in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, will cause me before I arrive to confess my sin to Him. If it be the sin of forgetfulness or of unpreparedness, I should confess it to Him. And He will faithfully forgive my sin, and cleanse me from all unrighteousness, so that I may come there a clean person, a pure vessel, cleansed by water, the word, prepared to be used by the Holy Spirit. Then the Holy Spirit will bring before me fresh thoughts of our Lord, fresh views of His person and His work, fresh memories and fresh joys; and the heart will leap up gladly in praise and adoration to Him. Let us not take everything for granted; as if there were no need for serious exercise of heart, when we come together to show the Lord's death.
This passage in 1 Corinthians 11 is often read partially. We read the verses (20-26) that bear directly upon the Lord's supper, but when we reach those (27-34) that speak of eating this bread and drinking this cup of the Lord unworthily, there is a shrinking from these words because of their solemnity. "Whosoever shall eat of this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord." Whereupon some say at once, "I cannot come; for I am sure that I am not worthy to come." But on examining the scripture we find that it is not a question of my worthiness to come. The unworthiness is in connection with my behaviour when I am there. "Whosoever shall eat and drink unworthily"; clearly, it is the way in which the thing is done. It must not be done improperly.
The sin at Corinth was the allowance of self at the Lord's table. One was drunken, one took his own supper before another; it was self clamouring for the upper hand and the foremost place. And self can be indulged in many ways. There may be a contest as to who shall be first in giving out a hymn, or who shall read a scripture. There may be a display of self in all sorts of ways. If a person reads a scripture, I may say, "Well, I am not going to follow that." A certain person prays or gives thanks, and I may inwardly say, "Well, I shall not say Amen to that." And who is speaking thus? I myself, that wretched self for which Christ died. There it is raising its shameful head in that very holy presence.
Then it is that I eat and drink, unworthily. Then it is that I am in danger of being guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. I forget the solemn meaning of these emblems I forget the sacred presence of my Lord I ignore the guidance of God the Holy Spirit. And what is such conduct but sacrilege in the house of God? What can I expect but discipline, the exercise of the serious discipline from the Lord, of which warning is given here?
Oh, beloved friends, these grave words are not placed in close conjunction with the Lord's supper for no purpose. It is not for us to suppose that they apply only to persons who lived long ago, and not to ourselves. No, they apply to each one of us. Every one of us, I am grieved to say, is in danger at the Lord's supper of eating and drinking unworthily, in an unworthy manner. If you think you are not in such danger I am not able to agree with you. Though I can only speak for myself, all the members of the body of Christ sprang from the same fallen race they all have the same fallen nature within them. Christ has condemned that old self, that evil nature, by His sacrifice upon the cross and, beloved friends, if we do not keep it in the place where He has put it, under His feet, then it will make its appearance even on this exceptionally holy occasion of remembering the Lord in His death.
Let us see to it that we judge ourselves, because the Lord is holy. "Be ye holy, for I am holy." Without this we cannot acquire a condition of practical holiness that is fit for His presence. Without this we cannot "see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14). There is a practical holiness which the Lord enjoins on us, and we are in danger of forgetting our responsibility in this respect. There is the greater danger of this for the simple reason that when we come together from time to time there is no recognised organisation, no outward ceremonial, no agreed constitution or procedure designed to guide our own thoughts and to prevent any unwarrantable intrusion by those who are not entitled to speak.
Therefore there is a constant risk of our falling into some kind of improper behaviour, in thought if not in deed, and so of our losing the sweetness of the remembrance in the scriptural way of the Lord Jesus in His death. And, beloved friends, it is there, most surely, that we learn more of the love of our Lord Jesus Christ than we do anywhere else, because in His sufferings, in the darkness through which He passed, in all that terrible time on the cross, we are led by the Holy Spirit to see the love and glory of God shining out even in that dark hour. We remember Him in His death, and our hearts rise in worship and thankfulness to God the Father, Who sent Him, and to God the Son, Who gave Himself to go obediently even unto death, the death of the cross.