96. The Lord’s Supper in the First Century

Richard Veach

Whether you refer to the Lord’s Supper as the Eucharist, Holy Communion, or the breaking of bread, and whether you partake of it monthly, weekly, or periodically depends on your religious background or affiliation. If you are a Protestant Christian, it is typically comprised of a tiny glass of grape juice (or wine) and a bite-sized wafer or cracker.1 The Lord’s Supper is almost always administered by a member of the clergy and is somewhat of a somber and serious occasion.

“In Christian churches today the Eucharist is a morsel of bread and a sip of wine as ritual memorial and sacramental participation in the Lord’s (last) Supper. First-century Christian Eucharist, however, involved that latter function within the context of a full meal, supper, or banquet (deipnon)”2(see definition below).

Is this the tradition that Jesus passed on to his Apostles that was to be passed on to the church? If this is not the tradition of the Lord’s Supper passed on by Jesus and the Apostles, from where did it come? If it has changed when did it change and why?

I maintain that the best model for the church can be found by examining the practices of the first century church. Those in the first century were disciples of Jesus and the Apostles; those who planted the first churches.

Let’s look at some examples of the Lord’s Supper found in the scriptures. 1 Corinthians 11:20 says, Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. The Greek word for supper is δειπνον, deipnon meaning a full meal. Vines definition is: “the chief meal of the day,” dinner or supper, taken at or towards evening; in the plural “feasts.” 1 1 Corinthians 11:21 also refers to a full meal; For in eating, each one takes his own supper (δειπνον, deipnon) ahead of [others]; and one is hungry and another is drunk.

Jude 12 refers to love (agape) feasts. These are spots in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving [only] themselves. [They are] clouds without water, carried about by the winds; late autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots.

The earliest references to the Lord’s Supper that are available are found in the New Testament and in the Didache (probably written prior to 70 A.D.). Chapters 9 and 10 of the Didache address the way in which the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) was celebrated in first century church.

“Now concerning Holy Communion, in this way give thanks. First the cup: We give thanks to you, our Father, for the holy vine of David, your servant, which you made known to us through your servant Jesus, yours forever.” “And concerning the bread: We give thanks to you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which was made known to us through Jesus your servant. Even as that broken bread was scattered among the hills and gathered, in this way gather your church from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. For yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ, forever,” Did. 9:1-9.

Notice that the cup precedes the bread as in Luke 22:17-19 and 1 Corinthians 10:16. This would have been the order that was followed at Passover meal that Jesus celebrated with His disciples (the Last Supper) where He instituted The Lord’s Supper. The Passover meal always began with the blessing of the first cup after which the Passover meal was eaten and this would have been a full meal. When the supper was ended the third cup, the cup of redemption, was drunk. This is the cup that Jesus drank when He said, this is the cup of the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.3

Did. 10:1 supports the idea of a full meal, “And after you are filled, in this way give thanks: We thank you holy Father for your name, which you have made to dwell in our hearts, and for knowledge, and faith, and immortality, which has been made known to us through your servant Jesus. Yours is the glory forever,” Did. 10:1-4.

The word Eucharist is a Greek word meaning thanksgiving. The first century church related the Lord’s Supper to the thanksgiving offerings of the Tabernacle and the Temple. An individual would offer a thanksgiving offering out of a grateful heart for favors or answered prayer from the Lord and would invite family and friends and members of the priesthood to share in the fellowship meal that the offering provided. This shared meal would be a banquet and a celebration, a time of fellowship.

The agape feast referred to in Jude 12 is very much like the thanksgiving offering feast of the Tabernacle era. The Lord’s Supper was an agape feast, a celebration of what the Lord Jesus had done for them; their sins where forgiven, the promise of the resurrection, Jesus’ return, the wedding banquet, and eternal life.

Tertullian’s Apology written around 198 A.D. addresses some issues surrounding the agape feast. “Our feast explains itself by its name. The Greeks call it agape, i.e., affection. Whatever it costs, our outlay in the name of piety is gain, since with the good things of the feast we benefit the needy; not as it is with you, do parasites aspire to the glory of satisfying their licentious propensities, selling themselves for a belly-feast to all disgraceful treatment,—but as it is with God himself, a peculiar respect is shown to the lowly. If the object of our feast be good, in the light of that consider its further regulations. As it is an act of religious service, it permits no vileness or immodesty. The participants, before reclining, taste first of the prayer to God. As much is eaten as satisfies the cravings of hunger; as much is drunk as befits the chaste. They say it is enough, as those who remember that even during the night they have to worship God; they talk as those who know that the Lord is one of their auditors. After manual ablution, and the bringing in of lights, each is asked to stand forth and sing, as he can, a hymn to God, either one from the holy Scriptures of one of his own composing, — a proof of the measure of our drinking. As the feast commenced with prayer, so with prayer it is closed.”4

“The gifts presented reflected the gratitude and devotion of the community. The first fruits of all crops and earnings – ‘much or little’- were contributed even by those who had to suffer privation in order to give. The leader of the meeting received the gifts of fruit, fowl, flowers, grapes, wine and bread that each one brought to the table. Then they washed their hands. The festive elements for the Lord’s Supper were separated from the rest: the loaves were placed in three or five rows on the table and wine was poured into the cup. At times it was mixed with water. The food used at the common meal was a visible thanks-offering. Along with prayers from surrendered hearts, the bread and wine was a solemn crowning. During the meal believers partook of all foods, thanking and praising God for all they ate. In this manner the Lovemeal was originally linked with the Lord’s Supper of bread and wine. This ‘Meal of Thanksgiving’ or ‘Meal of Offerings’ where the gifts were immediately used to feed the poor, the prophets, and apostles, has no parallel in any other religion.”5

It seems that initially, according Acts 2:46-47, the Lord’s Supper (the breaking of bread) was celebrated daily. “So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”

The practice of meeting daily is affirmed by Schaff in his History of the Christian Church. “In the apostolic period the Eucharist was celebrated daily in connection with a simple meal of brotherly love (agape), in which the Christians, in communion with their common Redeemer, forgot all distinctions of rank, wealth, and culture, and felt themselves to be members of one family of God.”6 I would assume that breaking bread daily would have occurred prior to the famine spoken of below.

For many, especially the poor, this Love Feast was the only real meal they had for the entire week. During the first century there was a famine in the land during the time of the Roman emperor Claudius who reigned between 41 A.D. And 54 A.D. This famine was prophesied by Agabus in Acts 11:28. Those who were wealthy and did not have to work were coming early to the community Love Feasts, eating and drinking before those who were poor and worked for a living were able to come. When the less fortunate arrived much of the food and drink had been eaten. This is the reason for the admonishment for not discerning the Lord’s body in 1 Corinthians 11:20-34. There is ample evidence that the way in which we presently celebrate the Lord’s Supper in most of our fellowships has very little resemblance to the practice of the first century church. How, when, and why did we come to our present practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper?

Like most everything that has caused drastic changes there is no one simple answer, but the changes that came about were due to several different and varied events. After all of the Apostles died the churches began to experience several changes in physical structure because of an increase in numbers, in authority structure with the separation of clergy and laity, in liturgy, etc. Many of these changes were not founded on a solid scriptural foundation. The early church fathers coming from a Greco-Roman background did not have a firm foundational knowledge of the Old Testament scriptures as did the Jewish Apostles that were schooled in the Old Testament writings from an early age that continued on through adulthood. Many of the early church fathers were schooled in the philosophical teachings of Plato and Socrates and possessed very little of the not yet completed New Testament. They probably did have parts of the gospel of Matthew and some snippets of Paul’s letters to the churches. Because of the persecution and heavy taxation imposed on the Jews that arose in 70 A.D. and 135 A.D. the Gentiles began separating themselves from their Jewish brothers and sisters, therefore, losing access to the valuable knowledge base of the scripture they possessed.

“As late as A.D. 170, Celsus noted that the Christians had no altars. But by A.D. 200, the table was often called ‘the altar.’ The Lord’s Supper had already been separated from the Lovemeal after the middle of the second century. Originally an offering of thankful hearts and tangible gifts from all believers, it changed (at the end of the century) into the oblation of the Mass offered by the priest.”7 When the church moved out of their homes and into buildings where they became spectators instead of active participants it was no longer logistically convenient for them to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in conjunction with the full meal of the Love Feast.

“Whenever the believers found unity in their meetings, especially when they celebrated baptism and the Lord’s Supper and the ‘Lovemeal,’ the power of Christ’s presence was indisputable. Sick bodies were healed, demons driven out, sins forgiven. People were assured of life and resurrection because they were freed from all their burdens and turned away from their past wrongs.”8

I believe there is great value in exploring the old ways and ancient paths, but how can we change back to them after so many years of tradition? What do you think? In our own home study group (our Beit Midrash) we sit round our dining table. First the table is set for a shared meal which includes communion. Then we clear away the food for our body and study the Scriptures together, food for our Spirit as it were. We also celebrate with the Passover meal when the season comes round each year. It takes time and something of a change of our mindset to bring the Lord’s Supper back to the home as it was in the First Century, but we have found it to be an intimate time of fellowship with one another in the presence of the Lord.

(This article was first published in the third series of Tishrei Journals, Number 7, December 2009)



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