Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Frequency of the Lord's Supper

     They should have known better. Only a few years after the Lord's church had been established in Corinth, their assemblies had regressed into something the Lord never intended. Thus Paul issues a stern reprimand: “But in these instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse …. Therefore coming together in one place [epi to auto], it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor. 11:17, 20).1 The ESV renders v. 20, “When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat.” While communion was meant to be a recurrent reminder of Christ’s atoning death (vv. 23-29), their abuses and misbehavior had rendered it unrecognizable.
     The implication of this rebuke and the accompanying directives for restoring the Lord’s Supper is that the sacred memorial was to be kept on a regular basis (hosakis [“as often”] vv. 25, 26). But how often? These Christians were to keep it as often as they gathered for worship. So how often did the Corinth church assemble?

A Uniform Practice of First-Century Churches

     Later in the same epistle Paul writes: “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I ordered the churches of Galatia, so you do also. On the first day of every week [katá mían sabbátou], let each of you by himself store up whatever he is prospered, that there be no collections when I come” (16:1-2).2 Since the perí dé (“now concerning”) formula in 1 Corinthians draws attention to the apostle’s answers to their questions (7:1),3 the current response presupposes their previous knowledge of this collection. 
     These same directives had been communicated to the churches of Galatia (16:1c),4 and the Macedonian churches were also involved (v. 5).5 Paul goes on to reference the churches of Asia (v. 19), who apparently participated as well (Acts 20:4), plus all the churches in the province of Achaia (Rom. 15:26; 2 Cor. 1:1; 9:2).6 Throughout 1 Corinthians the readers have been consistently reminded of what is taught and practiced everywhere in all the churches (1:2; 4:17; 7:17; 11:16; 14:33).7
     “On the first day of every week” (katá mían sabbátou) indicates a regular occurrence on a specific day each week (16:2a). The implication is that the Corinth church and her sister congregations in various places were assembling weekly on this particular day.8 If the Corinthians were to observe the Lord’s Supper as often as they gathered for worship (11:20-29), and they were assembling each first day of the week (Sunday), the Lord’s Supper was to be observed every Sunday.9
     About a year after these instructions were penned, the apostle was passing through the Roman province of Asia (Acts 20:5 ff.). Although he was in a hurry to get to Jerusalem (v. 16), for some reason he stopped for a whole week in Troas (v. 6). Why? “But on the first day of the week [tē mia tōn sabbatōn], having come together to break bread [klasai arton], Paul spoke to them, ready to depart on the next day; and he continued the speech until midnight” (v. 7).10
     The expression “to break bread” is a customary idiom, used in two different senses in the NT. Sometimes it refers to a common meal (Matt. 14:19; 15:36; Mark 8:6, 19; Acts 2:46; 20:11; 27:35), whereas at other times it applies to the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 10:16; 11:24). Either way, seeing that both involve more than just literal bread breaking, the phrase is obviously idiomatic. The question is, how is it used in Acts 20:7? As a general rule of thumb, whenever a modifier such as “food” or “eating” is included, a normal meal is in view (cf. Acts 2:46; 20:11). When the expression occurs in conjunction with spiritual activities, the Lord’s Supper is in view (cf. Acts 2:42; 20:7). There is a clear distinction between these two actions (one common and the other sacred), and they are not to be commingled and confused (1 Cor. 11:17-34).
     It is highly unlikely that Paul would have postponed his journey to Jerusalem for seven days just to eat an ordinary meal with the Troas brethren. But if the church assembled each Sunday, like other first-century Christians (noted above), and if Paul and his traveling companions arrived on Monday, it would have been necessary to stay there a week in order to assemble with these saints to observe communion with them. The expressed purpose of this assembly was “to break bread,” and the specified day was “the first day of the week.” Immediately after this worship service, Paul ate food and resumed his hastened voyage (v. 11).

A Special Day

     Sunday marks the historical juncture when our Lord Jesus conquered death (Mark 16:9), providing the cornerstone of the Christian faith (Rom. 1:4; 6:4-11; 1 Cor. 15:1-4, 12-22; 1 Pet. 3:21). Thereafter it was this day of the week on which the Lord’s church was established (Acts 2:1; cf. Lev. 23:15-16; John 19:31) and early Christians assembled together to commemorate Christ’s atoning sacrifice (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:17-26; 16:1-2).11
     While Jesus instituted this sacred memorial on a Thursday evening (Matt. 26:26-29), the NT gives no special meaning to the fifth day of the week. It was another couple of days before the enormous significance of Sunday became a reality (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:9). Even though baptism was an integral part of the ministries of John the baptizer and Jesus and his disciples (John 3:22-23), it wasn’t until Christ’s resurrection that its full connotation was established (Rom. 6:3-11). The day of the Lord’s resurrection was to be the day his church was built and his spiritual kingdom realized (Matt. 16:18-19; Acts 1:3-8; 2:1-47),12 and ultimately the memorial day of his death (cf. Matt. 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:16, 18; Acts 2:42; 20:7).

Conclusion

     For all who are committed to restoring the NT church, we have clear directives concerning the Lord’s Supper with respect to what, how, and when. If the early Christians assembled every Sunday to observe communion in remembrance of the Lord’s sacrificial death, what should we be doing?

--Kevin L. Moore

Endnotes:
     1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
     2 See The Sunday Collection <Link>.
     3 See also 1 Cor. 7:25; 8:1, 4; 12:1; 16:1, 12.
     4 Cf. Acts 16:6; 18:23; Gal. 1:2. These are probably the churches in the southern region of the Roman province of Galatia, including Pisidian Antioch, Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium (Acts 13, 14, 16). Note that Gaius of Derbe and Timothy of Lystra were part of the delegation that carried the funds to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4). 
     5 Cf. Rom. 15:26; 2 Cor. 8:1–9:7. Macedonian cities where churches had been planted were Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea (Acts 16:9–17:14). Representatives of the Thessalonica and Berea congregations helped deliver the funds (Acts 20:4), and Luke may have represented the church at Philippi (Acts 16:12; 20:6).
     6 The province of Achaia included Corinth, Cenchrea, and Athens (Acts 17:24; 18:18, 27; 19:21; Rom. 16:1).
     7 While the churches of Jerusalem and Judea were on the receiving end of this benevolent aid, they too participated in funding the Lord’s work through free-will offerings collected in a common treasury (cf. Acts 2:42, 44, 45; 4:32, 34-37; 5:1-2; 6:1-4). Consider also the generosity of the Syrian Antioch congregation (Acts 11:29-30). Providing for the physical needs of destitute brethren is not the only work first-century churches supported (cf. 1 Cor. 9:11-14; 16:6; 2 Cor. 11:7-9; 12:13; Gal. 6:6; Phil. 4:15-20).
     8 These verses constitute an apostolic command issued to multiple congregations in various locations to be regularly observed on a specified day each week. While “each of you by himself” (v. 2b) describes a personal responsibility, the expression “let him store up” (thēsaurízōn) (v. 2c) means to treasure up or store up in a common treasury (= the single “gift” of v. 3). Just as the contribution involves both individual and collective components, so too does the observance of the Lord’s Supper (11:20, 26, 28).
     9 What if the church also met on Wednesdays or other days of the week? The bottom line is, Paul is addressing what the church in mid-first-century Corinth was actually doing (assembling every Sunday), not other possible scenarios that would have required qualifying directives.
     10 The term mesonúktion (“midnight”) applies to the second of four watches of the night (Mark 13:35; cf. 6:48), equivalent to 9 pm–12 am.
     11 John’s allusion to “the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10) employs the adjective kuriakos, and the only other occurrence of this word in the NT is in reference to “the Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor. 11:20), commemorated as regularly as these Christians assembled together (vv. 20-34), viz. every Sunday (16:2).
     12 Cf. Mark 9:1; John 3:5; Acts 1:3; 2:30-38, 47; 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31; Col. 1:13. See The Kingdom of God Part 3 <Link>.


Related articles: Wayne Jackson's Weekly Observance; Dave Miller's Sunday and the Lord's Supper; Ben Giselbach's Protecting the Lord's Supper; Neal Pollard's Keeping Our Thoughts on the Lord's Supper

Image credit: http://oneyearbibleimages.com/passover_bread.jpg

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