For centuries, followers of Jesus have met together to partake in a meal commonly referred to as the Lord’s Supper. Some also refer to this meal as Communion or the Eucharist, which comes from the Greek eucharisteo, meaning "to give thanks.”
But why a meal? And why this meal? What is the point?
The Lord’s Supper is an invitation into life. And it’s an invitation that begins in the early pages of the Bible.
The First Meal
In the first pages of Genesis, God invites humanity to a meal.
God appoints humanity to be his representatives and invites them to use their own creative power and imagination to spread the order and beauty of the garden-temple to the rest of creation (Genesis 1:26-28). In the garden where humanity is placed, there are trees loaded with fruit for eating and cultivating, and the tree of life grows in the center of the garden (Genesis 2:9). This tree is an image of God’s ultimate gift to creation: the opportunity to share in and receive God’s own goodness and life.
Proximity to the tree means proximity to the author of life. And significantly, the tree of life is something meant for humanity to eat or consume. In fact, God’s first command is for humans to eat from all of the trees, including this one. This is an invitation to ingest God’s own life (Genesis 2:16)! This meal transforms the one who eats it, and in the words of the story, it leads to “eternal life” (Genesis 3:22).
Humanity is invited to trust and participate in the life and wisdom that God freely offers by receiving and eating this meal. However, humans forfeit access to this meal by choosing to define goodness and life on their own terms, and they are exiled from the garden (Genesis 3:22-24). How will they get back to goodness on God’s terms, which is symbolically represented by the tree of life?
As the story goes on, God continues to invite humanity to experience his life through meals.
After God rescues the Israelites from Egypt, he invites them to become a “kingdom of priests” and live and serve as his covenant partners (Exodus 19:6). This partnership will force them to make a choice. Will they define goodness and life on their own terms? Or will they receive the true life that God offers?
God establishes a cycle of feasts for them to observe throughout the year, creating habits and practices that structure Israel’s life together in at least two ways (e.g. Leviticus 23; Deuteronomy 16). First, these formative meals serve as a way to regularly participate in praise, thanksgiving, remembrance, and repentance. Through years of practice, the feasts help to form the people of Israel into a grateful, believing, and trusting community who shares in God’s goodness and life.
Second, God intends for these meals to continually remind his people of the covenant he established with them. And much more than a mere mental reminder, the feasts engage each of the human senses⏤taste, sound, smell, touch, sight⏤in order to help the whole person remember to stay faithful to the covenant promises made by God who alone gives true life.
But the Israelites are unfaithful to the covenant. They continually choose false trees of life that lead to self-destruction, exile, and death (2 Kings 21:1-7). And when confronting the Israelites with their false trees of life, God frequently spoke to them in terms of the covenant meals (Isaiah 1:4-6; Isaiah 1:11-14).
During this time, Israel’s prophets talked about a day when God would restore the broken covenant in spite of Israel’s failure (e.g., Jeremiah 31:31). The prophets called this the new covenant. And God promised that there would come a day when he would gather the nations to himself and fulfill his covenant promises. And guess what he would do? He’d invite them to a meal (Isaiah 25:6-9), and they’d enjoy this meal in his presence, feasting once again on true life.
When we get to the New Testament, we see this theme continue. Jesus invites people to a meal. But it’s not the type of feast they were expecting.
Around the time of Passover (the feast that retells the Exodus story with a symbolic meal of lamb, unleavened bread, and wine), Jesus miraculously provides food for a crowd of thousands. This results in people asking him for more bread, and Jesus responds by saying that he is the “true bread,” and that if they “eat from him” they will discover eternal life (e.g. John 6:53-59). This invitation to eat from him is an invitation to trust him and be transformed by his life (e.g. John 6:51).
Later on, Jesus claimed to be the vine that brings God’s life into the world (see John 15:1, 15:4-5). He says that his disciples are those who “abide” or “remain” in him, like branches connected to a vine. And this abiding will permeate a person’s life⏤healing, transforming, and making them new. Jesus is offering himself as a new tree of life.
Jesus and the Passover
On the evening before his death, Jesus observes a Passover meal with his disciples (see Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:15-20). At this meal, Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and distributes it to his disciples. And he takes a cup of wine, gives thanks (Grk. eucharisteo), and offers it to his disciples. He again connects the bread to his body and the wine to his blood. And he invites his disciples to eat and drink in remembrance of him. In this remembering and giving thanks is the invitation to receive life, just like eating of the tree of life.
At this meal, Jesus introduces a new covenant (e.g. Luke 22:20). Through this covenant, God’s eternal life would be made available once again, but this time, it would come through Jesus (e.g. Mark 1:15).
A New Covenant
Jesus was later led to the top of a hill, where Roman soldiers killed him on a different kind of tree⏤a wooden cross (see John 19:16-18). There they broke his body and poured out his blood, thinking they could destroy him with their tree of death. But they underestimated Jesus. They tried to take his life, but they did not realize that Jesus willfully gave it, like giving a sacrificial lamb, in order to cover the sins of the entire world. Rather than fighting against his enemies or protecting himself, he goes through death (e.g. Galatians 3:13-14) and is resurrected three days later! This is a new kind of sacrificial lamb that was slain for a new kind of covenant.
And now Jesus presents us with a new choice between life or death. A new tree of life stands before us all. We can eat and drink from it, but it will mean humbly passing through death like Jesus, allowing our old fighting-and-protecting way of being human to die. And it will also mean taking hold of true life, of faithful love toward all. Living in Jesus’ way means embracing God’s new covenant (e.g. Luke 22:20), and this new covenant is remembered and celebrated with a new kind of covenant meal.
This Meal Today
Followers of Jesus take part in the Lord’s Supper (or Communion/Eucharist) regularly to remember and participate in the power of Jesus’ life. The bread and cup celebrate a new covenant and connect us to a new life source. The power that brought Jesus back from the dead is the same power that can heal the corruption and false trees in our own lives, transforming us into people of truth, beauty, and goodness.
This meal looks different in various Christian traditions. Some dip the bread in the wine. Others drink from a shared cup. Some traditions use wafers instead of bread or juice instead of wine. The frequency of this meal also varies. It is offered weekly, monthly, or even once a year. There is more than one way to go about this, and that's okay. The key is to remember the humble gift that Jesus became in his sacrifice and the new life we receive from him. “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said (e.g. Luke 22:19).
This meal invites us to remember Jesus. It represents to the senses⏤just like the meals God established for the Israelites⏤the life and death of Jesus. This meal is not something we do for Jesus; rather, it reminds us of what Jesus has done for us. And it becomes something we do with Jesus. We participate with him in it.
The Future Meal
In the early pages of Genesis, humanity is invited to a meal that gives life.
Then, throughout the Bible, meals instructed by God both mark the covenant promises he makes with his people and invite his people to never forget his love and faithfulness toward them. They are to remember the fact that he alone is their true source of life.
And in the final pages of the biblical story, humanity is invited to another meal.
The ongoing and repeated participation in the Lord’s Supper reminds us that, wonderful as it is, this is not the final meal that Jesus has prepared for us. When he returns, Jesus will gather his people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. And they will once again have access to the tree of life (Revelation 22:2). He will bring them to the meal that he has prepared for them, and they will enjoy an eternally life-giving meal in his presence (Revelation 19:6-9).
The Lord’s Supper reminds us of the life and work of Jesus, and it marks us as people of his new covenant. And while doing all of this, it also anticipates that final glorious feast. The meal serves as a taste of what is to come—a taste of true life. As we practice this new covenant meal, may it stir within us hope for his return and thankfulness for who he is and what he has done.
This blog is the fifth post in our series, The Life of the Church.