The Weekly Observance of the Lord’s Supper
There is much disagreement in the religious community of “Christendom” as to when the Lord’s Supper, commanded by Jesus, should be observed (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20). Several theoretical views may be entertained.
(1) Some allege that the communion need not be observed at all; they contend it was a cultural phenomenon of the first century, and thus not binding today.
(2) Many argue that the time element is inconsequential. Thus the supper might be served at any time—daily, weekly, monthly, or even annually.
(3) Members of the church of Christ generally have maintained that the Lord’s supper ought to be eaten each Sunday, and that the communion is restricted to that day.
What does the New Testament evidence suggest?
The Cultural Argument
The notion that the Lord’s supper was merely a cultural circumstance of the early church, and so was never intended to be an abiding obligation upon Christians for all time, is refuted by the explicit testimony of the New Testament. Paul instructed the saints in Corinth that as long as they ate the elements of the sacred supper, they would proclaim the Savior’s death “till he come” (1 Corinthians 11:26). The apostle clearly anticipated that Christians would be honoring the Lord, by partaking of the communion, until the very end of time. This view, therefore, can hardly be given serious consideration.
The Any-Time Position
A vastly greater segment of those who profess an allegiance to Christianity maintains that the time factor is irrelevant. These folks, though obviously sincere, overlook, we believe, two important matters:
(1) The issue of authority—what does the New Testament actually authorize?
(2) The spiritual connection between the Lord’s supper and the Lord’s day.
Let us explore the matter of authority. We will assume, for the moment, that the concept of authority is important to most people. Some argue, therefore, that there is authority for observing the Lord’s supper on days other than Sunday. The main passage advanced in support of this position is Acts 2:46.
And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat [food] with gladness and singleness of heart.
Not a few writers contend that “breaking bread” in this passage is an allusion to the Lord’s supper, and that the communion therefore was being observed daily. The argument is flawed in two particulars:
(1) The term “daily” denotes the frequency with which the disciples were meeting in the temple. Grammatically, “daily” does not modify “breaking bread.” There is no support for “daily . . . breaking of bread” here, regardless of what “bread” signifies in the text.
(2) The “breaking bread” of this passage is not a reference to the Lord’s supper. This is evidenced by the fact that the phrase is paralleled with “eat their food” in the same clause.
“Food” translates the Greek term
trophe, which essentially means “nourishment”(Arndt and Gingrich 1967, 835). The word is employed sixteen times in the Greek Testament, and never is it used of the communion, for such was not designed as a nourishment for the body.
Note the comment of Presbyterian commentator Albert Barnes:
Here [“meat” (KJV)] it means all kinds of sustenance; that which nourished them—
trophes—and the use of this word proves that it does not refer to the Lord’s supper; for that ordinance is nowhere represented as designed for an ordinary meal, or to nourish the body(1956, 59).
A. T. Robertson, a prominent Baptist scholar, observed that the language is “clearly referring to the regular meals at home” (1930, 3.39).
Aside from the considerations discussed above, there is no historical evidence from the post-apostolic period that Christians partook of the Lord’s supper on occasions other than Sunday. One historian notes: “The Lord’s supper was a constant feature of the Sunday service. There is no second-century evidence for the celebration of a daily eucharist” (Ferguson 1971, 96).
Finally, this factor should be taken into consideration: there is a spiritual connection between the Lord’s supper and the Lord’s day that is severed when the communion is attempted at other times within the week. The supper consists of two elements—the bread and the fruit of the vine, which symbolize the Savior’s body and blood, i.e., his death.
At the time of his death, Jesus’ flesh was broken open (his bones were not broken), and his blood was poured out. This was to pay the price for human redemption (Matthew 26:26-28; Acts 20:28; Ephesians 1:7). On the first day of the week, three days after his death, Christ came out of the grave (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:1; John 20:1).
When, therefore, the communion is eaten on Sunday, there is a vital link between the Savior’s death and his resurrection—a connection that does not exist at any other time. This point, taken with other supporting evidence, is compelling indeed.
The only authoritative case that can be made for the frequency of the Lord’s supper is this: it was observed each Lord’s day by the early Christians, and, so far as the evidence reveals, on that day only.
There is the suggestion in the inspired record that after the Lord was resurrected, the disciples began meeting together on the first day of the week. For example, John 20:26 indicates that “after eight days,” i.e., on Sunday, the Master’s men were assembled again. Robertson says this passage “seems to mean that from the very start the disciples began to meet on the first (or eighth) day” (5.336).
Some fifty days following Jesus’ death, the church was established on the day of Pentecost, which always occurred on a Sunday (Leviticus 23:15-16). Noted historian John Mosheim wrote:
All Christians were unanimous in setting apart the first day of the week, on which the triumphant Savior arose from the dead, for the solemn celebration of public worship (1959, 35).
From that first Lord’s day the members of Christ’s church were observing the communion in a regular fashion. Luke records that they “continued steadfastly [the imperfect tense form suggests a sustained practice] . . . in the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42).
Scholars are almost wholly agreed that “the breaking of bread” is a reference to the communion supper.
Luke is speaking of the greatest things done in this first congregation and characterizes the celebration of the Lord’s Supper by use of the expression that was common at that time: “breaking the bread” (Lenski 1961, 116).
But the evidence gets even stronger!
Near the conclusion of his third missionary campaign, Paul departed from Philippi just after “the days of unleavened bread” (which followed the Jewish Passover [cf. Acts 20:6]). He was hurriedly making his way toward Jerusalem, where he hoped to arrive by Pentecost, slightly more than a month away (cf. 20:16). In spite of the fact that he still had a journey of several hundred miles remaining, he took the time to “tarry” seven days in Troas, the port city of Mysia.
Why this delay in view of his urgent mission? The most reasonable answer is this: the apostle wanted to meet with the whole church in Troas, and he knew the brethren would be assembled on the Lord’s day. Note Luke’s use of a conjunction to mark the transition between verses six and seven of chapter twenty.
Certain texts, as reflected by the King James Version, simply state that the “disciples came together.” Most others have “we were gathered together”—which is another of those references indicating Luke’s presence with Paul. But the expression, “were gathered together,” is a passive voice form, signifying to “bring or call together, gather a number of persons” (Arndt and Gingrich, 790).
The suggestion is this: this assembly was convened by an extraneous directive—the most logical inference being by divine authority. Sunday worship was not an arbitrary decision of the first-century church.
The primary design of the meeting was “to break bread.” In the grammar of the Greek Testament, this reflects an infinitive of purpose. In other words, the prime purpose of the Lord’s day meeting was to observe the supper.
The implication is clear: if the communion is not observed, there really is no authority, certainly no necessity, for even meeting every Sunday!
There is, however, convincing evidence that the primitive church did assemble every Lord’s day. In his first Corinthian epistle, Paul commanded those Christians to contribute into the church treasury “on the first day of every week” (16:2, NASB).
While the term “every” (Greek
kata) is not brought into the English rendition by either the KJV or the ASV, it is present in the original text. J. H. Thayer translated the phrase: “on the first day of every week” (1958, 328).
When one draws these points together, here is the irresistible conclusion:
(1) The early church, under the oversight of inspired apostles, met regularly—upon the first day of each week.
(2) The primary purpose of their Sunday meeting was to observe the Lord’s Supper.
(3) The communion supper, therefore, was observed each Lord’s day by the apostolic church.
What clearer evidence could be desired for those who wish to replicate the practice of the ancient church in their own lives? Where is the authority for doing otherwise?
Christians must urge their contemporaries to return to the apostolic pattern of worship. Worship must be according to divine truth (John 4:24), not mere human inclination.
- Arndt, William and F. W. Gingrich. 1967. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
- Barnes, Albert. 1956. Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Ferguson, Everett. 1971. Early Christians Speak. Austin, TX: Sweet.
- Lenski, R. C. H. 1961. The Interpretation of Acts of the Apostles. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.
- Mosheim, John. 1959. Ecclesiastical History. Vol. 1. Rosemead, CA: Old Paths.
- Robertson, A. T. 1930. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Nashville, TN: Broadman.
- Thayer, J. H. 1958. Greek-English Lexicon. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.