Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

192. A New Commandment - the Agape (John 13:31-35)

"A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; even as I have loved you, that ye also love one another." But this commandment was at least as old as Moses: "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Lev. 19 :18); and already earlier in his ministry Jesus had infused a fullness of meaning into these words which would have left its mark on the minds of his followers if he had never said another word about it.

It can now be shown that he was referring to the institution of the Bread and Wine, which in the other gospels, comes in at this point. In the synoptic gospels, "Do this in remembrance of me" was an explicit commandment, about the Breaking of Bread, which Christianity, for all its faults and failings, has never dared disregard. John also has left his record of the institution of this sacrament, but has expressed it in different terminology.

Remembering that Jesus and the apostles ate a normal evening meal in the upper room and consummated that fellowship with the first sharing of sacramental Bread and Wine, the early church aimed at a close imitation of the same procedure. They met after sunset and enjoyed a meal of fellowship together. This they called the Agape, the Greek word for Love. Then at the appropriate moment the presiding elder would direct them to the memorials of Christ's death. Thus the name Agape not only came to signify the Christian virtue of love, but it also became a specialised Christian word for the Breaking of Bread service. This usage went right back to the Lord himself. "Love one another" was his new commandment. The words mean: You are to observe this Love Feast, even as I have just shown you.

There is evidence that from the very earliest times (e.g. Ignatius, Tertullian) the primitive church was familiar with double meaning.

The fullest reference to the meal of fellowship is in 1 Corinthians 11 :

"When ye come together therefore into one place, it is not possible (RV) to eat the Lord's supper, for in gating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry and another is drunken" (v.20,21).

The Apostle's complaint was two-fold-cliquishness and unspiritual self-indulgence; class distinction between the wealthy and the slaves, and carousal without thought of the purpose of their coming together.

Let it be noted that Paul calls their assembly "the Lord's supper," a term utterly unsuited to the receiving of the mite of bread and sip of wine usual at present-day memorial services. These elements were of course included, but there was also the full-scale meal which was intended to be a meal of fellowship.

It is sometimes argued that in his reproof Paul required the Corinthians to desist henceforth from the Love Feast, whilst retaining the Bread and Wine as emblems of Christ. But this is a mistaken judgement, for the following reasons:

  1. Paul's words imply a reform, not an abolition: "When ye come together to eat, tarry one for another. And if any man hunger, let him eat at home . . ." (v.33,34), A continuance of their coming together to eat is implied, but a man is warned against coming with such eager appetite that the meal itself becomes his main concern.
  2. It is inconceivable that Paul, guided by the Spirit, should establish the Agape in the ecclesia at Corinth and then some ten years later find it necessary, by the Spirit, to cancel what he had already taught.
  3. Some time after Paul wrote these words he is found sharing the Love Feast at Troas (Acts 20 :7-ll). The words of verse 11: "When he therefore had broken the bread, and eaten . . ." are generally understood by the commentators as a reference to the Breaking of Bread and the meal of fellowship.
  4. The Love Feast continued as a normal part of church practice into the fourth century before falling into disfavour with the apostate church. It would be strange indeed if the apostle's injunction (if it were such!) to abandon the Love Feast should have been misunderstood or disregarded for so long until the council of Nicea (famous for its Trinitarian error!) brought enlightenment or a sense of duty! The Love Feast actually persisted in some localities to the seventh century, when those who practised it came under the ban of excommunication from the Catholic Church.
It should be noted, then, that Paul's method of dealing with an undoubted evil was to point a stern finger at the root of the trouble and then recommend appropriate remedies. But "cut it all out" was never his method, neither is it the pattern of wise administration in the ecclesia today.

That the Love Feast, like every other Christian practice, was open to grave abuse cannot be doubted. Other New Testament passages besides 1 Corinthians 11 stress this sad fact.

Peter denounced bluntly certain false prophets and their unspiritual disciples as "spots and blemishes, revelling in their Love Feast (agapai) while they feast with you" (2 Pet.2:13RV). Jude took up the same passage. His version is: "These are spots in your Love Feasts, when they feast with you, feeding themselves without fear" (Jude 11).

Apart from the plain hints of early deterioration, there is little to be learned from these passages about the character of the early Love Feasts. It may be that Ephesians 5 :18-21 was written about the same problem in another ecclesia. The references there to being "filled with the Spirit" and to "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" suggest formal gatherings of the ecclesia. "Giving thanks always" echoes the name Eucharist (thanksgiving) which from the earliest times was another title of the Breaking of Bread service (Study 197). And "be not drunk with wine" repeats Paul's reproach against Corinth (11 :2,22). "Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ" now becomes a reminiscence of the example of Jesus who at the Last Supper washed his disciples' feet and urged them to emulate such self-demeaning. This interpretation of the passage cannot be advanced with complete certainty, but it seems fairly likely.

Jesus also stressed that "by this shall all men know that ye are my disciples." So far as the exercise of Christian love between brethren goes, the world in general somehow remains astonishingly unaware that certain people among them are loving disciples of a crucified and risen Jesus. But the observance of the memorial Love Feast is a characteristic of true disciples which should not be hid. Pliny's letters to the emperor Trajan show that it was by this practice that the early disciples of Jesus were most readily identifiable. By it, wrote Paul, "ye do shew forth the Lord's death till he come." There is much to be said for making the Breaking of Bread service as public, and not as private, as possible.

Since the Greek words for "love" and "Love Feast" are identical, the possibility opens up that a number of passages, where the former, more usual, translation is given, should actually be read with reference to the Breaking of Bread.

Several places in John's gospel fall into this category:

  1. John 13 :1 : "When Jesus knew that his hour was come . . . having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end." If these words had been used with reference to the crucifixion, there would be no difficulty. But here, introducing the record about Jesus in the upper room, they read somewhat awkwardly; there is a certain inappropriateness-that is, until it is realised that they are saying: "his personal love for them culminated in the fellowship of the Love Feast." The next sentence begins: "And supper being ready ..." (the AV reading is definitely wrong here).
  2. John 15 :12-14: "This is my commandment, that ye love one another as I have loved you." The general meaning of the words is valuable. But how much more luminous do they become when read as the equivalent of: "Do this in remembrance of me"? The next verses continue: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (the Lord's sacrifice of his own life). Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you (regular observance of the memorial feast)." And the preceding words are a fitting introduction: "These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might be full"-in nearly all its occurrences the dominant idea behind this key word is: "the joy of fellowship," such as the Breaking of Bread ideally expresses.
  3. 2 John 5,7: "And now I beseech thee, lady (this "elect lady" was an ecclesia), not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another... For many deceivers are gone forth into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh." (Here the word "For" is all-important. It indicates the influence of false teachers and their doctrine as a strong reason for keeping the new commandment. If that commandment was the general exercise of Christian charity, the connection is hard to trace. But if it was the Lord's instruction to remember him at the Agape, then all is clear and consequential-for what better antidote to the "clean flesh" heresy (that Jesus did not truly share our nature) than the regular remembering of him in leavened bread and fermented wine, the symbols of his humanity?
  4. Perhaps also 1 John 3 :14: "We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death." Taken in a general sense regarding Christian love, the words are a wise reminder of true Christian character. But if 7. the reference is to the fellowship of brethren and the remembering of Christ at the Love Feast, how much more pointed their meaning! They then re-enunciate the long- recognized principle that a man's attitude to the weekly remembering of Christ is one of the best tests of the sincerity of his faith. It is true that regular attendance at the Lord's Table may cloak hypocrisy or empty formality, but regular absence is an undeniable sign of indifference. The passage continues: "And this is his commandment. That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment." That Greek aorist: "believe" refers to the initial act of baptism, and the continuous tense: "love one another" means the other sacrament, the Agape.
  5. In 1 John 4:7-21, the word "love" comes in nearly every verse, and in several places the context seems almost to require reference to the "Love Feast and Breaking of Bread; e.g. "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitation for our sins... We love him, because he first loved us. If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar; for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?" The words seem to be written for the benefit of the one who says: "I go to the Lord's Table to have fellowship with God—but not with So-and-so." Participation in the Love Feast is the perfect answer to all such. It is hardly possible to share a meal together in an atmosphere of holy remembrance and thanksgiving, and not relax from a spirit of dislike or cherished grudges.
  6. Is Paul making the same point in Romans 14 when he rounds off his counsel about an attitude of toleration towards those with different ideas about food and drink: "But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not in love (according to the Agape). Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died . . . For the kingdom o( God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit." How much more point there is to these words if they were written specially about differences of opinion concerning food set on the table of the Love Feast.
  7. In an earlier place Paul had written: "let love be without dissimulation,"(Rom. 12:9). Taken in a general sense, these words seem to have little connection with what comes before or after. They ought surely to be read as an exhortation to sincerity at the Love Feast. The preceding verses emphasize other aspects of ecclesial service-"prophesying" (the preaching of the Word); "ministering" (the steward or serving brother); "exhortation"; "he that giveth" (the ecclesial collection); "he that ruleth" (the presiding brother or ecclesial elder); "he that showeth mercy" (the welfare brother). In this context, "let the Agape be without dissimulation" is almost certainly the correct reading-an appropriate exhortation to sincerity and truth at the Breaking of Bread; cp. 1 Cor.ll :28,29.
  8. However it be read, Colossians 3:13, 14 is a fine practical exhortation; but perhaps it should be read as an allusion to the Love Feast: "Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things the Agape, which is the bond of perfectness."
  9. The closing greeting in Ephesians should possibly be read thus: "Grace be withal them that share the Love Feast of our lord Jesus Christ in uncorruptness (of doctrine! Tit.2 :7)" (6 :24). The epistle would be read at the weekly meeting for the remembrance of Jesus.
  10. 1 Peter 1:22 should be considered in the same light: "Seeing ye have purified your souls (by baptism) in obeying the truth . . unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye keep the Love Feast with a pure heart fervently." This is much to be preferred to the AV, which reads as a mere platitude, in effect saying: "seeing that ye love the brethren, see that ye love the brethren."
  11. 1 Peter 4 :8 also deserves a re-translation on the same lines: "Above all things being fervent in your Love Feast, for the Love Feast covereth a multitude of sins." Concerning the truth of this there can be no question; compare: "This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins." But no amount of love for one's fellows can bring the forgiveness of sins apart from faith in Christ and union with his sacrifice. (The context of 1 Pet.4 :8 concerns other details of ecclesial procedure but this is not the place to demonstrate it).
  12. A passage in Hebrews which is frequently used as exhortation to faithful attendance at the Breaking of Bread has another possible allusion to the Agape: "And having an high priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart... And let us consider one another to provoke unto love (the Agape?) and to good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is ... of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath. . .counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing?" (Heb. 10:21-29). The context is certainly right for such an allusion.
  13. In 1 Corinthians 5 :13 Paul's recommendation concerning the unworthy brother was: "Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person," i.e. withdraw fellowship. Evidently this drastic action had its due effect, so that later Paul was able to write (in 2 Cor.2 :6-8): "Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted by the many (majority vote of the ecclesia). So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him . . . Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm the Agape toward him" (i.e. restore him to your fellowship at the Lord's Table).
This list of passages is by no means comprehensive. Others are worth examining from this point of view. For instance, there is some evidence that an apostolic letter received by an ecclesia was read at the Agape, and the address: "Beloved" (agapetoi) was used with reference to this practice; e.g. 1 Jn.3 :2,21; 4 :1,7,11; Jude 3,17,20; Phil.2 :12; 1 Cor.10 :14; Rom.l :7; 16:24;cp. Col.3 :12; 1 Th.l :4; 2 Th.2 :13; Other passages worth considering are these: Jn.14 :15,21,24; 15 :9,10,13; 1 Cor.16 :20,22; 2 Cor.9 :7; Eph.l :6; 2 :4; 5 :2,18; 6 :24; 1 Th.4 :9; 2 Th.l :3; 1 Tim.l :5; 1 Pet.5 :14; 1 Jn.2 :5,10;3 :20-18; Jude 21; Rev.3 :20.

There are, as might be expected, allusions to the Love Feast without specific mention of its name.

The first disciples "continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, the Breaking of Bread and the prayers (of thanksgiving) (here the third and fourth terms define the second). .. and breaking bread from house to house they did eat their food with gladness and singleness of heart" (Acts 2:42,46).

When Paul, after his conversion, "received food, he was strengthened." This first meal, on the first day of the week (as can be shown) would be the meal of fellowship. Otherwise why should Luke trouble to mention it? And of course by this Holy Meal Paul would be strengthened.

At Troas Paul, short of time in his journey to Jerusalem, waited a week so as to meet the brethren at the memorial service: "When he therefore . . .had broken the Bread and had eaten (sharing the Love Feast), and talked a long while (the word of exhortation) . . .so he departed" (Acts 20:11).

A catalogue of passages such as this helps to resolve what has been a difficulty to some-the sparse mention in the New Testament of the Breaking of Bread, the central feature of the Christian's religious life (three occurrences outside the gospels). The answer to that problem now is: The references are there but in less direct phraseology, albeit in a terminology which would be readily understood by a first-century reader.

And what of the twentieth century? Since the early days of the gospel, fellowship has found its highest expression in the sharing of a meal-a meal characterized neither by grim austerity nor by convivial jollity, but by religious sincerity, wholesome talk, and cheerful friendliness; and since neither human nature nor the gospel have changed over the years, it would seem that present-day life in Christ can gain much from a similar activity.

And it does! For it can hardly be accident that a feature of Christadelphian fellowship meetings ("Fraternal Gatherings") is a shared meal. Yet how much more could that meal bring blessing to all if only it had become traditional to consecrate meal-time conversation to the Lord instead of to the gods of health, holidays, shopping, or gossip.

But the early church's Agape was a love Feast only by virtue of its climax and conclusion-the poignant yet confident remembering of Jesus in Bread and Wine "until he come." The Love Feast was the Holy Place by which access might be had to the Mercy Seat beyond the veil.

How much is being lost in these days by the omission of the Love Feast? It is impossible to say. But is there any reason why ecclesias, especially small ecclesias, should not resuscitate this long-forgotten observance? To make it a weekly function would probably be undesirable, even if it were possible. But to convene a meeting on such lines once or twice a year, with the ecclesia forewarned and suitably prepared, could hardly fail to bring a rich spiritual reward.

Those who have been members of some small ecclesia where local circumstances have dictated the holding of a simple communal meal between Sunday services will know how much can be gained from good table-talk about Holy Scripture and the suffering and glory of Christ. From such a practice to the Agape itself is only a short step.

In the Love Feast neither time nor place nor form are commanded, only unanimity of spirit, All that is forbidden is unseemliness; and its rules and regulations are summed up in its name Love, Charity.
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