Like baptism, communion is a sacrament that Jesus instructs his followers to partake in—but the frequency and meaning of the act vary across different Christian movements and denominations.
At its more basic level, communion is the worshipful practice of taking bread and wine (or in many cases grape juice) as memorial of what Jesus endured on the cross for mankind, of our present relationship with him, and of our future shared victory over sin and death.
It was first established by Jesus during a meal with his disciples on the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread or Passover.
While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.”—Matthew 26:26–29
Different names for communion
Across Christendom, it is known by different names:
Communion: This word comes from the Latin word communio which literally means “fellowship, mutual participation, sharing.” This term is a lot broader than the ceremony of “communion” would suggest. The “communion of the saints” speaks to the spiritual union shared by all Christians. And because Christians are united by the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus Christ, communion has come to represent the act of remembering Christ’s sacrifice through the drinking of wine and the breaking of bread.
Eucharist: In 1 Corinthians 11, we’re told that “on the night when [Jesus] was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it.” The Greek word for “thanks” is the verb form of εὐχαριστία (eucharistia). As early as the late first century, the act of remembering Christ’s sacrifice through eating bread and drinking wine was known as Eucharist—making it an act of thanksgiving.
The Lord’s Supper: Since communion was enacted during a meal with the disciples, it has become tied to this act of remembrance. To many, “the Lord’s supper” is synonymous with communion.
Should communion be open or closed?
One big issue separating churches in regards to communion is whether communion should be open or closed. This is basically a question of whether churches should allow all professed believers to partake of the sacrament or if they should limit involvement to those who are members of that particular church.
The argument for a closed communion lies in protecting the sacredness of the sacrament. As Paul warns, “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 11:27) By limiting participation to members in good standing, churches are able to ensure that partakers are believers without unconfessed sin.
On the other hand, churches that offer open communion believe that no one is truly “worthy” to share in his sacrifice, and it’s actually the broken body and blood of Christ that makes one worthy. In these churches, the responsibility is placed on those who partake to ensure that they are in alignment with their Lord.
What is an unworthy manner?
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.—1 Corinthians 11:27–32
This passage has caused a lot of consternation and misunderstanding. Many believers hold such a high standard for themselves when it comes to taking communion, that they’re afraid to take part.
Was it Paul’s intention to put people under this convicting and paralyzing sense of self reflection? Shouldn’t we rather celebrate that it is, in fact, Jesus’s blood that cleanses us from sin?
Let’s look at this passage in context:
Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you.—1 Corinthians 11:20–22
In the first century, the church celebrated the Lord’s Supper often with an actual meal. Unfortunately, their behavior created factions of haves and have-nots. This directly undermined the unity that’s the whole point of communion.
Paul isn’t just telling individual Corinthians to examine themselves as individuals, but in regards to their relationship with the body. Are you maintaining the solidarity that exists as members of one another?
Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.—1 Corinthians 10:17
The single loaf of bread is a symbol of our oneness in Christ. To forget that and celebrate communion as a purely individual sacrament is what puts us in danger of partaking in an unworthy manner. Through Christ’s broken body and shed blood, we become members of one another. Communion celebrates that unity just as much as it does our personal salvation.
Illuminating Communion: Jesus as The Bread of Life
Let’s take a look at some of the scriptural passages that not only talk about communion, but also help illuminate its significance by highlighting Jesus as the bread of life.
Communion remembers Jesus as life-giving bread
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem—Matthew 2:1
As we’ll see, the New Testament regularly associates Jesus with bread. In fact, Jesus calls himself the “bread of life.” This is in keeping with the first-century perspective as bread being synonymous with nourishment.
It’s particularly interesting to note that Jesus’s Bethlehem birth was prophesied by the prophet Micah:
But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.
His goings forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity.”—Micah 5:2
It hardly seems like an accident that the word Bethlehem comes from the Hebrew Bēth Lechem meaning “house of bread.”
Communion celebrates a bread which never perishes
Jesus answered them and said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.”—John 6:26–27
After Jesus miraculously feeds the five thousand, the crowd starts following him. He correctly points out that these people aren’t following him because the miracle he performed alerted them to the fact that he’s the Messiah. They’re following him because they want free food.
Jesus alludes to a bread from God that he will give them that will provide more than immediate nourishment—it will give them eternal life.
There is only one bread of heaven
Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread out of heaven to eat.’” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.” Then they said to Him, “Lord, always give us this bread.”—John 6:31–34
The crowds are understandably confused by Jesus words about this bread from God. They naturally make the only association they can, that this is somehow tied to manna. After all, didn’t manna fall from heaven to feed Israel in the wilderness?
Jesus reminds them that it wasn’t Moses that gave them this bread, it was God. And this same God is offering them true bread from heaven that will feed the entire world. Still confusing this as a discussion about food, the crowd requests this bread.
Communion celebrates the true bread of life
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen Me, and yet do not believe.—John 6:35–36
Here Jesus begins to spell it for the crowd a little more clearly. That is it he who is the bread of life, and those who come to him for sustenance will live forever.
Is communion about eating flesh and drinking blood
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.”
Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.”—John 6:47—58
The crowd is getting irritated now. Not only are they still confused by the metaphysical nature of the discussion, but they’re also frustrated with Jesus’s arrogance. Who’s this guy to say he’s come from heaven?
Once again, Jesus lays it out for them: “Yes, your forefathers ate a bread from heaven called manna, but they still died. I’m talking about bread from heaven which will give you life—and I am that bread.”
Now their confusion is turning to anger. Sarcastically they ask each other, “Oh, he’s the bread from heaven, huh? Is he expecting us to eat him?”
In what seems like an intentional act of obfuscation, Jesus builds upon their misunderstanding. He tells them that the only way to have life is to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood. This is a teaching that he commits to:
These things He said in the synagogue as He taught in Capernaum.—John 6:59
Not only does this teaching begin go to drive a wedge between Jesus and many of his followers, it helps to form the basis of an accusation of cannibalism that begins to spread about the church in the first century. This passage along with the very words of the Eucharist, “Take and eat, this is my body broken for you,¨ were misconstrued as literal cannibalistic acts.
It’s important to note that while Jesus is having this discussion with the crowd, he isn’t alluding to communion. He’s elevating the spiritual nourishment found in him above any other consideration. That said, there is a strong likelihood that communion was intended to remind his disciples of this discussion.