Acts 2:42 “They devoted themselves to . . . the breaking of bread.”
The thousands of people who repented and were baptized as new Christians on the day of Pentecost all shared four characteristics. They all devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, to breaking of bread and to prayer. These are the four mark of true and real Christian churches. We are examining those four elements that make up gospel life. We heard a fascinating account this week of front line evangelism in Albania from Trevor Baker as he showed us the situation in that country and the new Christians, the vast majority of them coming from a totally non-Christian Muslim background. What is expected of them when everything is new? Just four things, that they diligently go on in believing and obeying the teaching of the New Testament, that they continue is Christian fellowship, that they continue to break bread and finally to go on praying. It is just the same with us too.
Today we’re looking at this third mark of a gospel church which is the breaking of bread. Now the main commentators and expositors of the book of Acts such as F.F. Bruce, Alexander, Dr. Lloyd-Jones, John Stott, Howard Marshall, Dennis Johnson and James Montgomery Boice – are all persuaded that this refers to the Lord’s Supper as do the older commentators. One major commentator who rejects that is our Derek Thomas who takes it to refer to a kind of fellowship lunch. Meyer and some others take the same position. They think of it as a meal together which would end with the Lord’s Supper. I go along with the majority in this case. It is speaking of holy communion. Otherwise both the second and third characteristics are about fellowship.
The phrase in our text is literally ‘the breaking of the bread.’ There is a certain formality and specificity about those words. Here we are told that the new converts instantly began to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and that follows from their immediate submission to baptism. The Lord Jesus had told them to make disciples of all nations and to baptize them, and ten days later they did that very thing to all 3000 new converts. They didn’t say, “It’s too son . . . let’s wait a while.” The Lord Jesus had also taken bread and broken it and said, “This is my body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me,” and so at Pentecost they immediately introduced these new converts to this ordinance too. There are two ordinances. The ‘point’ ordinance – baptism. The ‘linear’ ordinance – the Lord’s Supper.
So the new converts were straight away drawn into new patterns of life in the structures of the Jerusalem Christian congregation, the Lord’s day, the preaching and teaching meetings, the special gatherings for prayer, the fellowship, the Lord’s Suppers and baptisms. They were baptized by men not by women, nor by novices but by the leaders. The same ministers, the apostles and elders, had to lead the Lord’s Supper. The Supper was set in the holy, spiritual organization that we know as the church, the local congregation, the pillar and ground of the truth, the body of Christ. At the end of the day of Pentecost there were between 3,000 to 4,000 members of the church, and people were in charge of how this Lord’s Supper had to take place. They had to organize it decently. Do you grasp the logistics of that? So many wineskins bursting with wine were needed to be purchased, and much bread had to be baked. If they were meeting in 12 groups then each needed to provide bread and wine for 300 people. The leaders also had to warn those who wouldn’t accept the teaching of the apostles that they were not welcome to the Table until they changed. The Table had to be fenced. So straight away these new Christians were made conscious that they belonged to a new carefully structured organization. Christ was showing them how he was going to build his church, and that belonging to his church was not a mere option. There were these four marks of belonging to the church and these new converts had to submit to all four for the rest of their lives.
We are not told how frequently the Jerusalem Christians (who were soon to number more than 8,000) celebrated the Lord’s Supper. The sheer logistics of organizing such an event was daunting. There is also the paucity of references to the feast in the New Testament – one Gospel does not mention the Lord’s Supper at all, and it is not often found all that often in the book of Acts. That encourage us to think it was not done every day, and not even every Lord’s Day. Maybe monthly or maybe at the same time as the great feasts in Jerusalem. No one knows how often they broke bread. Paul simply says “whenever” – “whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup” – whenever a congregation decides to do this. I would think a congregation would need to be very mature and holy and full of the Spirit of Jesus Christ in order to break bread every single Sunday. Otherwise it would become quite some peremptory, traditional occasion always threatened by a congregation’s barren familiarity with a ritual.
- WHAT DIDN’T JESUS MEAN WHEN HE SAID ‘THIS IS MY BODY’?
Should we interpret those words in a strictly literal way? You remember the occasion. It was the Last Supper in the Upper Room and after preaching and praying Jesus took the bread into his hands and then gave it to his disciples saying, “Take, eat; this is my body.” They were all looking at Jesus at his literal, physical body, and listening to his voice and seeing him holding the bread in his hands. It was not even the case that he had already risen from the dead when some might argue that the properties of his resurrection body were different from our bodies. No it was before he rose, and Jesus had just eaten a meal with them. He was made in all respects like us, sin only excepted, and he said to them “Take, eat, this bread is my body.”
Do you suppose that any of those disciples thought he was telling them that the bread had miraculously changed and had become a part of the very body they could see before them? Of course they didn’t suppose any such thing. They would understand him to be saying something like this, “This stands for my body; this represents my body.” As a matter of fact the little word ‘is’ is not in the original at all. Literally is it simply, ‘This . . . my body.’ It could just as easily be translated, “This represents my body.” Imagine my showing you a photo of one of my daughters and saying to you, “This is Eleri.” You would not imagine for a moment that I am saying that that photograph had literally become my daughter Eleri. It is a figure of speech.
Jesus used figures of speech all the time. “I am the door,” he said and no one tries to take this in a literal way. He means he is the entrance in the sheepfold of his sheep, but he is not talking about a literal sheepfold. He says, “I am the true vine,” and he is using pictures and illustrations to help us understand spiritual truths about who he is and what he is able to do. It is quite unwarrantable for us to be told that when he said, “This is my body” that he was claiming this in a strictly literal way.
Look at the context. He tells them that he is going away and that they would see him no more but in order to remember him they were to break the bread. He was giving them this reminder of himself and his death, the bread speaking of his body and the wine speaking of his shed blood. In other words the Lord’s Supper is a remembrance; the bread and the wine are memorials or reminders. But – think of this – you don’t need a memorial of someone if that person is actually there. If he is actually there in the bread and wine then you don’t need a remembrance of him. He is there! But if he is absent . . . if he is seated now in heaven at the right hand of God then we can understand that the bread and wine help us to remember him in all he did.
Then see what Jesus said next. “In the same manner also he took the cup after supper saying, ‘This cup is the new testament in my blood.’” Now if you are insisting that the words “This is my body” must be understood in a strictly literal way how are you to understand, “This cup is the new testament in my blood”? It is interesting that neither in the I Corinthians passage or in any of the Gospels in their description of the Last Supper is the word ‘wine’ found. It is the word ‘cup.’ If you are going to be very literalistic you will have to say that it is the receptacle, the clay cup, which is the important thing, but that is obviously absurd. If Jesus was intending us to understand that the wine actually changed into his haemoglobin he would sure have said, “This wine is my blood of the new covenant.” He didn’t; he said ‘cup’ and so we are very careful about understanding his words, ‘This is my body’ in a literal way.
Then Paul goes on to speak to the Christians in Corinth in Greece twenty years later about breaking bread, but he doesn’t say to them, “As often as you eat the body of Christ and drink his blood you show the Lord’s death until he come.” He writes to them about eating the bread and drinking the cup on several occasions. Paul understands the bread is still bread, and the wine is still wine. Then Jesus said that we are to continue to eat the bread and drink the cup until he come. But these men are claiming that his body is there now physically in the bread and wine. Then it is meaningless to say that we are to do this “till he comes.” He is there now – if the bread is really his body! We’re not waiting for him to come.
You might be asking me why I’m going on and on about this. You say, “Does it matter very much if there are those who have this idea that such a change takes place in the bread and wine so that they are transformed into the body and blood of Christ? Does it really make any difference? Some people believe it and some don’t.” It does make a difference. There are first of all the sheer numbers of those who are taught this idea, twelve hundred million Roman Catholics who are given this. 483 million in south and mid-America, 277 million in Europe, 177 million in Africa, 137 million in Asia and 85 million in North America and they are all taught this interpretation of the Lord’s Supper. Twelve hundred million people are taught that they struggle with sin and fall each week. They need grace, and so they go to Mass, and they kneel at the altar and a wafer is put on their tongue and they get grace to face another week. This is a huge popular error and hundreds of people in this town believe it. But there are at least two other things that should be mentioned.
i] This idea is all an essential part of a view that sees the Mass (as they call the breaking of bread) as a sacrifice. Here is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which we are told is an international best-seller. We read on the cover that Pope John Paul II said about it that it’s, “A sure norm for teaching the faith.” This is what this official Roman book says about the breaking of bread: “In the Eucharist Christ gives us the very body which he gave us for us on the cross, the very blood which ‘he poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’ . . . In this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner” (pp. 380&381). According to this view the work of our redemption by Christ was not something finished once and forever when our Lord died and rose again, rather it is something which goes on in every mass, tens of thousands of times every day all over the world. Jesus Christ the Lamb of God is being re-offered on the altar by the priest.
But we are told very clearly a number of times in the New Testament that Jesus’ work was done perfectly and all sufficiently by him once and for all. For example, in the letter to the Hebrews, we read, “Such a high priest meets our need – one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” (Hebs 7:26&27). Or again we are told that Christ did not “enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Hebs 9:25-28). Or again “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy” (Hebs 10:10-14). What could be clearer than the once for all-ness of the achievement of Christ? We are invited to come to the reigning, living Christ as he offers himself to be our prophet and priest and king.
ii] This idea that the bread becomes the body of Christ results in the bread or wafer after the mass being kept in a little house, a box called a ‘tabernacle’ with a light above indicating that Jesus is inside the box, and there are chairs lined up before it. The same Catechism says that a Catholic church must “find a most worthy place with the greatest honour . . . to foster adoration, because the Lord is really present in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar” (p.335). When I was a boy I used to watch on the Sunday afternoon called ‘Corpus Christi’ when once a year the Roman Catholics marched in a special procession through Penydarreen and Dowlais. That host in its box was carried along the streets and worship was given to Christ in the sacrament in the little house.
So what do we have here? If you say that these views of the breaking of bread are unimportant then the consequence is a denial that the saving work of Jehovah Jesus on Calvary was unfinished, a denial that he did a good and decent job of the work his Father gave him to do. We are saying that our Lord didn’t do half a job in his death that needed to be repeated by men dressed in religious costumes for 2000 years. He didn’t fail to do work that now has been done for centuries in Purgatory purging people of their sin before they get to heave. He said “It is finished” and completed is his saving work. Finished means finished. Also these false beliefs lead to idolatry, for example, to men and women bowing before a little box in which a wafer is locked which they are told is the actual body of Jesus Christ.
If the bread we break remains bread still – we believe it is still bread, that it does not become the physical body of Christ, then worship is being directed at a piece of bread. This is bowing down to a created thing, and it must be described as a form of idolatry. You cannot say that this whole teaching doesn’t matter very much. The worship of God is a very serious and most important matter. On the one hand the mass leads to a denial of the finished work of Christ, and on the other hand it leads to idolatry.
When we abandon these four marks defining what the true church is, the teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer and we begin to bring into the church the sort of things we’ve been considering, then we begin to depart from the ways of God. We don’t need to define the church by our own ideas and traditions and link it with a city in southern Italy and a religious leader there who is claimed to be the vicar, the person in the place, of Christ. We don’t need to change the breaking of bread into a rite of ongoing sacrifice. We don’t need to worship God in our way. We judge everything by the apostles’ teaching. What I have described to you is an illustration of what happens when ceremony comes before the Saviour. When you forsake these four marks of a church this is bound to happen. But we may not tie the presence of Christ to a city like Rome, or make a religious man there the head of the whole church. We are not to tie Christ’s presence to a building, or to orchestrated ceremonies, or a little tabernacle with a light shining to show that Christ is there. Wherever we are we can come to Christ as the 3,000 did on the day of Pentecost by repentance and faith and then be baptized and become members of the real church. It is a spiritual relationship that counts, with ourselves seeing ourselves as sinners and Christ as a receiving and forgiving Saviour. It is this spiritual relationship that counts not the physical eating.
We do not under-value the breaking of bread. That ordinance is set in the context of spiritual worship. The great thing, the vital thing, is our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Do we trust him? Do we believe right into Jesus? If so then he has saved us from this crooked generation. We have been redeemed, and as his redeemed people we can do what he has given us to do at his Supper, remember him, and proclaim his finished work, and go on doing that until he come.
- WHY DID JESUS ASK US TO OBSERVE THE LORD’S SUPPER?
i] The breaking of bread was instituted by our Lord. Christ did not institute marriage. That is a creation ordinance and so marriage is not a sacrament. But our Lord set all his authority behind the breaking of bread saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.” He did not say, “Sacrifice this!” So the breaking of bread was not a human tradition like Christmas and Easter observances. He requires us to do this. So we do it because it is our privilege to obey our Master. If our Lord Jesus instituted it then it is not useless – like many of the ordinances of men are useless – Halloween and Hogmanay. Communion is for our eternal good because Christ thought of it and told us to do it. Where two or three are gathered together in his name, and in his name they break the bread, then let them remember that the Lord Jesus is there in the Feast. In fact he is our host at the table. All I do in the Lord’s Supper I am doing in his name, and we all come responding to his invitation to be his guests. Breaking bread is a privilege, and a duty, and a benefit, and a gift to us from our Lord.
ii] The breaking of bread was instituted at the Passover. At the Lord’s Supper we are being taken back to Egypt in the book of Exodus to the redemption of God’s people from their bondage. We are being told that what was happening way back then was actually a type and pre-figurement of what we are doing now. The Passover Lamb in the Upper Room was pointing to the Lamb of God. Our God is a God of redemption. He is touched by his people and delivers them, and the breaking of bread and the drinking of the cup reenacted the Passover meal that had taken place on the eve of the people’s liberation from sin and death.
iii] The breaking of bread commemorates the atoning death of the Lord Christ. His body had to be broken in a terrible death; his blood had to be shed in order to accomplish our salvation. The breaking of bread declares the gospel. Our Lord didn’t offer his sufferings alone to God; he didn’t offer his blood only; he didn’t offer his obedience only; he didn’t offer his human nature only . . . he offered himself without spot to God. He was the ransom price paid. He himself was the propitiation of God’s anger. He appeased the wrath of God by his death, and now God is reconciled and we are welcome. He did it willingly; he did it in love. He did so as Jehovah Jesus. We’re not dealing merely with an historical figure, a crucified prophet. This is the Creator of the universe who gave himself sovereignly and stayed sovereignly in the blackness of the divine rejection, and was raised sovereignly. The Early Church called the breaking of bread the ‘Thanksgiving” – the Eucharist. It was a feast of gratitude for our liberation. He who had died to be our Saviour had risen to be our Shepherd King. It is a feast of joy and we sing in it such hymns as,
Come let us join our cheerful songs with angels round the throne.
Ten thousand thousand are their tongues but all their joys are one.
iv] The breaking of bread is participating in a meal. The wine and bread are not simply respectively poured out or broken. The Lord proceeds to give them to us to eat and drink. What is Jesus saying? We must take him into our lives – imbibe his blood and take in his body. “This is my body . . . take and eat!” In other words, we are saying that Christ himself is our necessary food. For us to live is Christ. The Christian life cannot begin without his work in our souls, and it cannot go on without him. Christ is our life. He is the bread of life. He is our continuing nourishment and strength. “Bread of heaven, feed me now and evermore! Feed me till I want no more!”
The stewards come to us with the elements in their hand and they offer it to us. Do we take it confessing, “I the chief of sinners am but Jesus died for me”? Do we receive him again, for as many as receive him to them he gave the right to be called the children of God? We may feel unstirred, and unmoved, and uninspired, and un-warm but we know that none of those things saves us. Salvation is of the Lord. Christ in us is our hope of glory. It is not our warmth or our assurance that is our hope of glory. It is Christ on the cross; Christ risen and exalted; Christ praying for us, and Christ with us as we gather in his name. Our faith is in him alone; we dare not trust the sweetest frame. We do something as simple as take a morsel of bread and drink a single swallow of wine and we do so because Jesus told us it symbolizes his saving work for us. When we break the bread we are acknowledging we go hungry without Christ, we go on guilty and condemned without Christ, we go on defiled and unclean without Christ. “We have to have him,” we are saying, and we stretch out our hand and we again take the bread and wine.
v] The breaking of bread is a communion meal. It’s not an individual snack, a personal picnic which you take when you feel hungry. It is a designated meal you eat with all the family of God to which you are invited and constrained to attend. We call it ‘communion’, ‘holy communion.’ Jesus invites his saints to all gather round the table and break bread together. It is one of the means of fellowship that we have with the Father, and with his Son our Saviour, and with one another our brothers and sisters. You remember Dr. Lloyd-Jones coming out of the Leicester Square theatre where he and Bethan and some friends had attended a play that ‘everyone had to see.’ As they came outside the Doctor heard a Salvation Army band playing some hymns, and an event of recognition took place and he knew that these were his people. He did not belong to the fashionable world of London society but he belong to the people whose God was the Lord Jesus. The breaking of bread is one of those special occasions when Christ gathers his people to himself. It is always joined to the teaching of the apostle – word and ordinance are always linked together. In the Upper Room he preaches at length the greatest sermon every preached, and then there is his mighty prayer, and then he institutes the Lord’s Supper. Other thoughts and other things are left far behind, and we know the Lord is with us in a special way as we do what he has taught us. We do it together. We do it with renewed love for one another and renewed determination to serve one another and pray for one another and help one another.
vi] The breaking of bread look to our blessed futures. What are my last words at the breaking of bread? ‘Until he come.’ We look back at Christ’s finished work of redemption. We look around at Christ’s ongoing work of building his church by saving all the people gathered at the Table. We look ahead to the final act of salvation, his return and the resurrection of the body and the marriage feast of the Lamb in the new heavens and the new earth. Then and there the breaking of bread will end.
So the Christ who is the host at the table who leads us besides the green pastures and still waters is the Lord who will come again with all his holy angels. He will come as King and Saviour, and the supper is a pledge of this event, a foretaste and an anticipation of what will one day come. So we take the bread and wine in hope, not the hoping-against-hope of this world, but the sure and certain hope of one who has won the decisive victory over sin, the world and the devil. We are not whistling in the dark at the Lord’s Supper we end with a suitable hymn of thanksgiving like, ‘By Christ redeemed; in Christ restored’ where we sing,
Until the trump of God be heard,
Until the ancient graves be stirred,
And with the great commanding word
The Lord shall come. (George Rawson)
At the breaking of bread we meet reality. We look away from the illusory hopes and transitory anticipations of the world. We lift up our heads; we know that our redemption cannot be long delayed. All things are from him and through him, yes, and there we affirm that all things are also to him. He who is the only hope of the future is with us in the Feast. He has given us this bread, indistinguishable from a million loaves eaten over the week-end everywhere in the U.K. so insignificant and slight in the eyes of secular man, but eloquent to believers of what has been done in order for God to be reconciled to sinners like ourselves, and what is now the inward witness of Christ in our hearts, and the joyful things that are yet to come. The breaking of bread renews our hope in the Lord. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for giving us the breaking of bread.
10th May 2015 GEOFF THOMAS