Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

191. The Breaking of Bread [2] (Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:15-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-25)*

The meal almost certainly began with "grace before meat"; and the hymn which was sung before they went out doubtless included something of the same. Yet, before giving the Bread to his disciples, Jesus "gave thanks". Every one of the records gives prominence to this, although Mark uses the word "blessed", whilst Matthew has "blessed it" (but the word "it" is not in the text). So "blessed" is equivalent to "gave thanks". Blessing God certainly includes thanking Him for His mercies: "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits"—and so in a score of places.

But a comparison of the narratives of the feeding of the five thousand adds to this idea:

Matthew, Mark: and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake...
Luke: and looking up to heaven, he blessed them, and brake...

The first two gospels seem to suggest that Jesus blessed (i.e. thanked) God. But Luke is explicit that he blessed the loaves. So, in considering the Last Supper, room must be found for both ideas. Doubtless the very act of thanking God brings a blessing in itself.

It is difficult to be more precise than this. "According to your faith be it unto you." But the Catholic dogma that by the blessing of the priest the bread is transformed into the very body of Christ is an outrage against Scripture, experience and common-sense.

Bread and Wine - a distinction

Thanks given for the bread, Jesus "brake it, and gave to the disciples." In Matthew's record the form of the verb "gave" (as found in the best manuscripts) is instructive. In the New Testament it is often important to distinguish between actions which are instantaneous and those which are continuous. A simple sentence illustrates the two: "I got out of bed (an instantaneous action), and read (continuously) my Bible for an hour." In Matthew the word "gave" is continuous (Greek imperfect)-Jesus was giving the Bread to his disciples. This suggests that Jesus broke off a piece for each disciple and handed it to him individually, thus making a marked distinction from his mode of administration of the Wine: "Take this, and divide it among yourselves".

The same feature distinguishes the verb in what was, in effect, the first Breaking of Bread after the resurrection, when at Emmaus Jesus "took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave (was giving it) to them" (Lk.24 :30).

The familiar words in Paul's record carry the same idea: "Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you." Here the word "broken" is continuous in form, and therefore can hardly have reference to "my body", especially since John's account of the piercing of the side of Jesus (Jn.19 :24-27) is emphatic by its personal witness, supported by inspired prophecy, that "not a bone of him was broken". The true reading must be: "this (bread) which is being broken for you is (i.e. represents) my body."

The essential idea, then, associated with the Bread is that of fellowship with Christ, this being symbolized by each at the table receiving his portion directly and personally from the Master himself. The Wine shared amongst themselves is now seen to have a similar but distinct meaning -fellowship with one another through the blood of the Lord shed for them all. In this distinction lies the answer to the difficulty which has often been present, though perhaps not clearly outlined, in the minds of many: Why did Jesus appoint that his death be remembered in two different symbols?-would it not have been sufficient to have appointed Bread or Wine? The meaning to be associated in the mind of the believer with each of the two elements is not precisely the same. Both have value, both are necessary.

Perhaps this is why Paul used the otherwise mystifying expression: "Whosoever shall eat this Bread or drink this Cup of the Lord unworthily shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord" (the RV here follows what is undoubtedly the best reading in the manuscripts). With the distinction in meaning just suggested it is possible to partake of the Bread worthily and of the Wine unworthily, or vice versa.

Modern practice with regard to the sharing of the Wine is, then, precisely as in the Upper Room, and the symbolism is appropriately preserved. But concerning the Bread a closer counterpart would be if each participant were to receive a portion directly from the hands of the presiding brother, he being regarded for the occasion as in the place of Christ. But there are not many assemblies where this would be practicable. However, if those participating emphasize in their minds the idea of receiving directly from Christ, and thus of having fellowship with him as constituents of his crucified body, this valuable symbolism is adequately preserved.

Another practice which has been known is this: After the word of thanksgiving each brother present would separately go to the Table and break off for himself a portion of the Bread. This may be considered by some to be a closer approximation to what actually happened at the Last Supper.

In all such matters however there is need for care lest concern for outward forms obtrude too much upon the inner realities.

"This is my body"

When Jesus said: "Take, eat; this is my body", there can be no manner of doubt that he meant the Bread to be received as a symbol of his body. Only a determined Roman dogmatism would insist that these words require the transformation of Bread into literal flesh. The parallel expression: "This cup is the new covenant in my blood" is adequate demonstration as to how the words should be interpreted, for clearly the cup cannot be a covenant. Very evidently the meaning here is "The wine in this cup is the token of the new covenant in my blood." Other familiar examples come readily to mind: "I am the true vine"; "That Rock was Christ" (i.e. typified Christ); "These bones are (i.e. represent) the whole house of Israel."

The symbolism, then, is to be interpreted in the light of the Lord's own words after the feeding of the five thousand: "If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh ... Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you" (Jn.6 :51,53).

"Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, Peter, but my Father which is in heaven" (Mt.16 :17): "I conferred not with flesh and blood: neither went I up to Jerusalem . . . ", wrote Paul (Gal.l :16,17). In these examples "flesh and blood" is a straight synonym for weak human nature, as also is the word "flesh" occurring alone in many familiar passages.

The nature of Jesus-his "flesh and blood"-was one in which human and divine (exemplified by his parentage) met and became reconciled by the complete yielding of the human to the divine.

Those truly in Christ have a like experience. Born of the flesh, they are also born "from above" (Jn.3 :3RV) to become sons of God with the same two conflicting natures which their Lord shared. And unless, through Christ, the outcome of the conflict be the same as in his experience, the sorry alternative is: "ye have no life in you."

It is at this point in the, record that the versions of Luke and Paul are (superficially) inconsistent. Luke has: "This is my body, which is given for you" where Paul has the word "broken".

The meaning to be attached to the latter word has already been discussed and the explanation offered there leads to a simple reconciliation of the two variants: "This (bread) which is being broken is (represents) my body which is being given for you."

This expression "being given for you" may be taken in two different ways: either as indicating that the betrayal of Christ was already in progress (if Judas had already left them), and his suffering already virtually begun (compare Lk.22 :44); or, as a well-known Hebraism, with many Old Testament parallels, signifying "appointed for you"-in which case, "Do this in remembrance of me" follows naturally enough.

Apart from the observance itself, there is something almost unique about this commandment of Jesus, which the believer does well to recognize. Normally the teaching of Jesus was expressed in principles, with the practical application of those principles in daily life left to each disciple according to his conscience. But here, most unusually, is an ordinance, a religious rite, an outward form to be followed. Perhaps the only comparable commandment is the one concerning baptism by which also "it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness" (Mt.3 :15).

Two co-related sacraments

It is important to grasp the relationship between these two sacraments. In baptism a man has sins washed away. At that moment he stands spotless before God, being clothed with the righteousness of Christ. Yet how long is it before that pure white robe of imputed righteousness has become soiled in the sight of heaven by the defilements of the world or of personal thoughts and deeds? Accordingly, in the Breaking of Bread service there is a renewal of the cleansing that all participants invariably need. It is a kind of spiritual laundry service.

Or, looking at the problem somewhat differently, in baptism a man is new-born in the sight of God. He is like a new baby in the family of heaven. But new babies have to be fed. Indeed, every reasonably healthy baby clamours for food, and must have its needs met regularly. The Breaking of Bread does precisely this, providing unfailing nourishment for the growing child.

So it follows that when Jesus said: "Do this, in remembrance of me", he meant just that. No true disciple will dream of neglecting this source of spiritual sustenance.

But whilst seemliness in outward details is important and a thing greatly to be desired, the main emphasis must be on the inner reality, a true and thankful "remembrance" in the mind of the believer, or else all is nugatory.

Even the Lord's simple phrase: "Do this", probably has its roots in the Old Testament, for the Passover commandment in Numbers 9 :2 (LXX) is: "Let the children of Israel do the passover in its season". And since the "season" for "this Passover" has always been weekly, on the first day of the week (Acts 20 :7; 2 Cor. 16 :2)-oreven more often? (Acts 2 :46)-all with a true appreciation of their Lord's sacrifice will be punctilious in their commemoration of it, and the more so because of the sharp contrast in both meaning and authority between Law and Gospel.

Under the Law there was "remembrance of sins made every year" (Heb.10 :3), but in this and every year of Grace there is a remembrance of the Saviour made every week.

This aspect of the Breaking of Bread is supremely important. Whilst mental contrast between the sinless Christ and the sinful disciple is inevitable, the emphasis should go on the sacrifice rather than the sin. Disciples are called to this fellowship to remember what Jesus so worthily did and does, not what they have unworthily done. On the other hand the believer who lets his mind dwell on the sensual pleasures of the life left behind (as did Israel; Num.11:5) has not really left them behind, and this invites disaster.

This insistence on remembrance shows also the psychological insight of Jesus, for it is common experience that when principles of righteousness are clearly and firmly held in mind then, obedience becomes a comparatively-repeat, comparatively I-easy matter. When Peter remembered, he went out and wept bitterly, fiercely reproaching himself, doubtless, that by not remembering earlier he had failed to fortify himself against this worst temptation of his life. Remembrance of the Man Jesus and of Jesus as Master and Teacher is the best aid to successful overcoming.

From a different angle this remembrance is even more impressive. In the Old Testament the almost universal association of remembrance is with Jehovah —His mighty acts, His covenants, His longsuffering. His very Name is a memorial Name, a constant reminder of His progressive, unfailing, gracious Purpose. The number of times the words "remember", "memorial" and the Covenant Name occur in the same context is positively startling.

This Name which is above every name is now conferred by the Father upon Jesus (Phil.2 :9RV)-he is the Lord our Righteousness. But in addition to the Memorial Name of Jehovah he has also this other memorial-the eloquent symbols of the death by which he became the Lord our Righteousness.

Luke's record uses a word which might imply that someone passed the cup to Jesus before he gave thanks for it. Perhaps this detail is included to supply a link with the cup of suffering which was held out to him in his Gethsemane and from which his soul recoiled. But at the moment it was "with desire" that he received and gave it to his disciples for their good.

There is obvious value in such a repetition of the symbolic act, markedly similar in meaning, so soon after the Bread had been shared. Repetition is a method God Himself has used many times, and with good reason.


This repetition is, however, one of similarity, not identity. "Take this, and divide it among yourselves" was not said concerning the Bread. It has already been suggested that the sharing of the Bread was done by Jesus himself, to signify the disciple's fellowship with him, whereas the Wine, passed from one to the next, suitably emphasized fellowship with one another through him.

Without Jesus would those apostles have ever come together as a group unanimous in spirit and purpose? Or, having come together, how long would they have so continued, but for their Lord? And as the eye wanders round the typical ecclesia of the present day, the same questions flash through the mind and find the same sort of answer.

There is here, then, a perpetual rebuke of the man who thinks it possible to have fellowship with Christ and yet avoid or refuse fellowship with others who are Christ's brethren. The logic of the situation demands that those who are deemed unfit for fellowship at the Lord's Table be regarded as quite outside the pale of salvation.

And conversely, is there moral justification for refusing the tokens of Christ to those who are not so regarded? "He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?" (1 Jn.4:20).

In one's meditation at the Lord's Table the Wine calls for deliberate emphasis on fellowship with others who share redemption through the Blood of the Lamb. The figure of Vine and Branches, which Jesus used so powerfully within the same hour, has the same point. But alas, the Cup, which has union as its very idea, has far too often been made a symbol of separation (Lk. 12:52,53).

Individual cups?

The question often arises in modern times concerning the desirability or otherwise of the use of individual communion cups—this for hygenic reasons.

There are three main considerations here.

Did the apostles take the Wine from one cup, or did each have his own? The answer of the text of Scripture is clear. Those who have a desire to come in their observance as close as possible to the Supper as it was first observed will be ; guided accordingly.

Again, germs are only a discovery-not an I invention-of the nineteenth century. It is difficult to believe (indeed, to some it is quite inconceivable) that God Almighty would give the greatest of His blessings to His children and yet would allow the very act of receiving that gift to be a death trap. The greater includes the less, and faith in the greater will surely include faith in the less.

Yet always in Scripture there is scrupulous regard for the unshared scruples of others. In matters of this sort a willingness to consider another's point of view can usually lead to some practical concession or compromise agreeable to all concerned. But concessions are to be made to those who are weak, says Paul, not to those who are strong (Rom.14 :1; 15 :1).

The Lord's pointed and (as some might think) needless exhortation: "Drink ye all of it" (Mt.) is followed up in Mark by the emphatic and (as others might think) even less necessary words: "and they all drank of it". Each of these phrases serves to stress the importance of an actual partaking of this appointed symbol. In this there is wisdom, for a remembering of Jesus without the outward form would rapidly deteriorate into a feeble and altogether inadequate celebration of redemption.


But if, as might happen in an emergency, there is no wine available for this purpose, then perforce the remembering of Christ must proceed without the outward form, unless some sort of tolerable substitute is available, in which case it could surely be used with confidence, on the basis of the admirable example at Hezekiah's great Passover. Because of the hasty improvisation of that Feast, in no less than four ways the Passover precept was not properly observed (2 Chr. 30 :13,17,18,23), "but Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, The good Lord pardon every one that prepareth his heart to seek God, the Lord God of his fathers ... And the Lord hearkened to Hezekiah, and healed the people" (30:18,19).

In similar situations today, Christ's people have one greater than Hezekiah to intercede for them.

It is difficult to guess what the eleven themselves understood at the time by their sharing of the Cup. The fact that Mark gives the explanatory words of Jesus after his mention of the actual drinking may perhaps suggest that they drank it as wine and understood its meaning as a symbol afterwards-vaguely at first, when with the benefit of their Master's explanation, then more pointedly next day when they saw him crucified and pierced, and most vividly of all when they shared his fellowship during the forty days.

Similarly, a baptism received (say) in one's teens never ceases to be a valid baptsim, even though the fuller realisation of its meaning in later years makes the earlier comprehension seem so inadequate. So also with this sacrament, not only in the experience of the eleven but also with all who have sought to follow their faith in later years. God does not expect the children of His New Creation to be new-born fully mature.

The new covenant

"This is my blood of the new covenant (see Study 195), which is shed for many." The explanatory words of Jesus take this form in Matthew and Mark. But Luke, supported by Paul, has: "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for you."

The difference of phrasing raises in pointed fashion the problem: What were the actual words used by Jesus? It is the problem, in its most acute form, of the verbal accuracy of the gospels. Did Jesus make both statements in the course of a protracted explanation? Or will a conflation of the two suffice as : "This cup is the blood of the new covenant in my blood which is shed for you and for many"? Or are both versions to be regarded as adequate and accurate paraphrases of what was said, the difference in wording supplying a difference of emphasis according to the outlook or purpose of each evangelist?

A definitive solution to questions of this sort is not easily come by. However the problem be resolved, the authority of the words is unquestioned. And, strangely enough, this has also been the attitude of many a modernist critic for whom the gospels are neither inspired nor authoritative; but simply documents and "sources." These scholars none the less reason learnedly and minutely about the smallest details, even though on the same page they may be questioning the dependability of the record and doubting whether Matthew or Mark or Luke or any other first century disciple wrote it. A strange inconsistency!

When Jesus spoke of his blood as ''shed for many", he doubtless had in mind the familiar prophecy about the suffering Servant of Jehovah which must have dominated much of his thinking about this time: "By his knowledge shall my Righteous Servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities ... and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors" (ls.53 :11,12). And Paul, also: ~s "Seeing that there is one bread, we-the many-are one body" (1 Cor.10 :17; the AV reading here is unintelligible).

Far more directly Jesus was taking his .disciples back to Jeremiah's matchless prophecy of the "New Covenant" when God will "forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more" (Jer.31 :31-34).

Without any doubt he was now setting aside the Old Covenant made at Sinai. Instead of it, he now substituted himself both as sacrifice and mediator. The massiveness of this claim is easily lost on the disciple of today. Familiarity impedes the proper impact of the words. Instead of the multitude of animal sacrifices there was himself-crucified I Instead of the sprinkling of blood he required the drinking of it-his own. Instead of a covenant of obedience and due rewards he offered a new covenant of full and free forgiveness. And instead of the revered Moses as mediator, there was himself I

It says much for the loyalty of the eleven that even at this late hour they did not react in horror from the very magnitude of the claim their Master was making. Perhaps it was the dimness of their comprehension which saved them. But ever since then it is discernment, appreciation, faith, and thankfulness which save the one who shares this symbol of the death of Christ.

For such a partaker it brings forgiveness of sins. It is for this reason perhaps that Paul writes of "the cup of blessing which we bless" (1 Cor. 10:16), using the word "bless" in a double sense as that for which thanks is given and that which brings forgiveness of sins (consider Gen.22 :17; Acts 3 :25,26; Gal.3 :8,9; Lk.6 :28;Mt.25:34; Ps.72:17and 24:5).

"In my Father's kingdom"

The problem of the verbal accuracy of the gospels-mentioned earlier-crops up again with regard to the next words of Jesus: "I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom." This is Matthew. Mark has "in the kingdom of God", and Luke: "until the kingdom of God shall come."

All the records represent accurately the sense of what Jesus said, but it is highly unlikely that the Lord actually used all these various phrases.

He had used similar words concerning the Bread (Lk.22 .-16), and although during the forty days he ate repeatedly with his disciples, it was never in the formal sacramental sense that he partook with them-how could he, since it was appointed "in remembrance of me?"

But these words about "the fruit of the vine" are so emphatic as to exclude any drinking of wine at all during that period, or since. There is point in this. A priest on duty was expressly forbidden all wine or strong drink (Lev. 10 :9). Jesus, then, was asserting to his disciples his own active priesthood on their behalf from this time forward.

Is there also special meaning in the words: "When I drink it new with you?" Whereas the wine at the Last Supper was certainly fermented grape juice (congruent with leavened bread as a symbol of the true human nature of Christ), these words may mean that in his kingdom it will be used sacramentally in an unfermented condition-again the symbolism is fitting, for those so partaking will be completely and for ever free from the taint of sin.

There will also be then a difference of emphasis since faith in the Lord's coming again in a kingdom will have given place to sight. In the age to come the Breaking of Bread will be altogether backward looking—to a deliverance better than that from Egypt. And indeed those in the Millenium who see Jesus in their midst as an Immortal King will doubtless be all the better for having some reminder that this King of Glory was once the Suffering Servant of Jehovah.

With one final instruction Jesus now concluded the solemn occasion: "This do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me."

Some have taken the words to mean that every glass of wine ever drunk by a disciple of Jesus should be received in this spirit of thanksgiving and remembrance. Certainly if this were done it would lift all wine-bibbing to a spiritual level such as rarely dignifies it.

But there is here probably another Old Testament association of these elements. Jeremiah alludes to the funeral custom of breaking bread and drinking wine in memory of the one who has died: "Neither shall men break bread (RV) for them in mourning, to comfort them for the dead; neither shall men give them the cup of consolation to drink" (Jer.16 :7).

Was there ever such a cup of consolation as this? And how those remembering Jesus are "comforted for the dead" by the sure and certain knowledge of his resurrection!

Meal ended

The time was come for Jesus to rally his own spiritual forces against the taxing ordeal now before him. The Last Supper had been primarily for his disciples. Gethsemane was for himself: "Arise, let us go hence."

Jesus must have known that Judas, having left the company in the middle of a meal, would bring the soldiers back to the house to take him. Yet it would be wrong to interpret this move to Gethsemane as an attempt at evasion, a kind of active expression of "let this cup pass from me."

Before the onset of battle a wise commander disposes of his forces in the most advantageous positions available. Jesus did precisely this when he betook himself, with the eleven, to the place of prayer.

The hymn

But first they sang a hymn. Because of the common assumption that the meal just eaten was a Jewish Passover celebration, this hymn is often taken to be the Paschal Hallel-Psalms 113-118. In any case this may well have been so, because of the extremely close association the Last Supper had with the normal Passover (see Study 181). The full Hallel would make a hymn of fairly considerable length, and the singing of it must have taken up a good deal of time. But more likely it was just a short "grace" at the end of the meal, or possibly the concluding portion of the Hallel-Psalms 117 and 118only.

There is something specially attractive about this last suggestion because of the remarkable links between Psalm 118 and Exodus 15, the triumph-song of the Israelites after the crossing of the Red Sea (Compare Ps.118 :5,14,16,28,21 with Ex.15:2,6).

Nor should the marvellous aptness of Psalm 118 to the experience of Jesus be overlooked.

"I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord. The Lord hath chastened me sore: but he hath not given me over unto death" (v. 17,18). The words explain themselves.

"The stone which the builders refused is become the head of the corner" (v.12). Here "head" not in the sense of top-stone (a very common error), but in the sense of "chief", that is, a foundation stone (as in 1 Pet.2 :4,7; Eph.2 :20). Jesus, as reported by all the synoptists (and also Peter; Acts 4:11), applied the words to himself.

"Save now, I beseech thee, O Lord" (v.25) was the "Hosanna" cry of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem-a cry to be echoed when the Lord returns in glory.

"Bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar" (v.27). In the light of Psalm 116 :3), this is a prophecy of Messiah's sacrificial death: "The cords (RV) of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me."

It would be difficult to find any hymn more apposite to the Last Supper than this. And yet the hymn book with its many paraphrases of Psalms and other Old Testament Scriptures does not have one of Psalm 118.

When the hymn was ended they all quietly gathered their outer garments and went out through the cold night air (Jn.18 :18) "over the brook Kidron." In these simple words there is a deliberate reminiscence of David's experience of rejection and ultimate return in glory to his royal city (2 Sam.15 :23).

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