The Gospel of John deepens one’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper by clarifying that union with Christ (John 6:56) by the Spirit (John 13–14) constitutes a reality of the Supper. Ignatius, drawing ideas that seem assumed by about 109 AD and so likely derive from much earlier, affirms the life-giving aspect of the Supper and its official nature in the church.
Christians today understand the Lord’s Supper by comparing common Reformation-era debates concerning the meal with the New Testament. The most important theological notions then become whether or not one holds to the real presence, spiritual presence, or memorial view of the Supper.
While such distinctions help us understand the Supper, we should not omit the wealth of historical and theological witnesses we have from the first and second century.
We have a number of writings that explain how the Lord’s Supper was understood and celebrated during the time of the apostles and while the New Testament still was being written. And we have additional witnesses that follow the apostolic age who adopted already established practices from the apostolic era.
Paul (d. c. 67 AD)
Paul wrote some of the earliest Christian documents that we know of. His early letters date to about 20 years after Jesus died. Hence, he gives insight into the earliest Christians. In his letter to the Corinthians, we can discern a basic pattern for the Supper.
First, Christians would celebrate the Supper according to Jesus’ words of institution. Paul cites the words of Jesus in ways approximating the later writing of the Gospel according to Luke. The meaning of the Supper then centres on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as well as the coming kingdom (1 Cor 11:23–36).
Second, the Lord’s Supper likely revolved around an actual meal since Paul advises, “when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (1 Cor 11:33). The meal would have happened somewhat regularly as Paul indicates (1 Cor 11:33). So the practice of the Supper included sharing a meal together semi-regularly in remembrance of the Lord’s death, resurrection, and kingdom.
Third, the purpose of the Supper (beyond remembering the Gospel) centred on participating in Christ through the bread and cup. Paul writes, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16). The cup participates in the blood and the blood in the body of Christ.
Due to this participation in Christ’s blood and body, his spiritual body (the church) becomes one: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17). So the Supper communicated the body and blood of Christ to his church to cement the unity of the body, that is, the church.
Acts of the Apostles (c. 80 AD)
Luke’s record of the apostolic acts appeared later than Paul’s writings but gives insight into the practice of the Supper during the time when Paul actively ministered the Gospel. After Pentecost, the church’s first instinct was to grow in the apostolic teaching, devote themselves to prayer, and break bread (Acts 2:42–46). While this meal may simply refer to a love feast (Jude 12), it seems reasonable to conclude that love feasts also included the eucharistic meal.
According to Acts 20:7, on the first day of the week, Paul broke bread with believers and preached until midnight. And he would do this again while shipwrecked on Crete (Acts 27:35). Yet here the text says that Paul “gave thanks” (eucharistesen) for the bread before eating it, which may signal the eucharistic meal (eucharist means “thanksgiving”; cf. 1 Cor 10:16)
The Gospels (c. 60–100 AD)
As noted above, the Gospel books record Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper. The key elements follow closely with Paul’s theology of the Supper in 1 Corinthians 10–11. During the Passover, Jesus broke bread and gave a cup of wine to his disciples to remember his broken body and his death that inaugurates the new covenant while hoping for his return and kingdom.
Since these narratives familiarly recount the words of institution, it may pay to focus on the Gospel according to John which does not record the institution (John 13:1, 36–38). Instead, during the Last Supper Jesus explains how he will be present with his disciples despite being bodily absent. His answer: the Holy Spirit who will testify of Jesus (John 14:26; 15:26).
This may explain how feasting on Jesus’s flesh and blood signifies union with Jesus (John 6:56). John, likely writing some 60 years after Jesus’s death and so in a place to define what happens at the Lord’s Supper, communicates that feasting on Christ’s flesh and blood means union with him and Christ becomes present through the Holy Spirit after he no longer remains present bodily on earth.
He would not have to detail the words of the institution since the earlier three Gospel books had done so, Paul had done so, and the church had done so for about sixty years. What the church needed was to put words to their worship. John supplied that need for the Supper as he had done for the worship of Jesus and God by calling Jesus the Word of God who was with God and was God (John 1:1).