The Bread represents two essential aspects of the Lord’s Supper: The substitutionary broken body of Christ, and the unity of the Body of Christ (the people of God). The New Testament articulates both vertical and horizontal aspects to the bread.
Let’s start with the vertical aspect of the bread—the sacrificial atoning work of Christ on the cross.
In the Last Supper, Jesus made it clear that the bread He broke was a symbol of His body broken. He took the bread, He blessed it, He broke it, He gave it to His disciples and He said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”
Luke records Jesus saying it this way,
“And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19)
The disciples didn’t understand this at the time, but this bread was to become a symbol of Christ’s sacrificial, substitutionary atonement for their sins. His death became the expiation of their guilt, and the propitiation of God’s right wrath against sin. The Father’s righteous and holy wrath against sin, evil, and injustice, was poured out upon Christ. In my place condemned He stood. It was a vicarious death for undeserving sinners. Every time a redeemed sinner eats this bread and partakes in this meal, they are remembering that Christ’s body was broken as a substitute for condemned, hell-bound sinners. All that to say, the bread symbolizes Christ’s physical body.
The Bread of Life
Another aspect, or illusion to the vertical aspect of the bread of the fact that Jesus describes Himself as the “bread of life.” (John 6:35). We feast on Him. Our sustenance comes from Him. Just think about the nature of eating. It’s a silent declaration that we are needy. We are not independent or self-sufficient. We were literally designed and created to need. And Jesus takes that basic knowledge and applies it spiritually to Himself. We need Him like our bodies need food. The Supper isn’t so much about what we bring to Christ, but what He gives to us; namely, Himself. He is our Bread. He is our life. Without Him, we are spiritually dead.
When believers gather together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, this truth is central and foundational: Christ’s body was broken for you. Bread is the symbol of that.
This aspect of the bread is essential, but the bread also symbolizes another important theological reality…
There is also a horizontal aspect to the Supper. The Apostle Paul makes this very clear in 1 Corinthians 10:17 where he says, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Paul uses this language of unity because believers are “in Christ.” We are “in Christ” and therefore partake in the same loaf.
The loaf isn’t symbolic of the people of God, but the loaf (Christ) is symbolic of our unity as the people of God. We may be “many” but we are “one” because Christ is one.
New Testament scholar, Anthony Thiselton summarizes this point well, “The “vertical” dimension of communal participation in the Lord’s Supper…naturally spills over into the “horizontal” dimension of lifestyle.” (NIGTC).
The Apostle makes the connection that the one loaf is symbolic of our unity and connectedness, in Christ. There is only one Body of Christ. We are one Body, and this one loaf illustrates that. The implication is that the gospel changes how we relate to one another. This, of course, was Paul’s initial rebuke of the Corinthians. Some went hungry, others got drunk. They didn’t understand that the gospel changes how we relate to one another.
This aspect of symbolism from the bread has never been more needed. In a world that is increasingly private. In a world where people can pop in and out of the church, and not know anyone, this apostolic teaching is ripe for revival. The Supper is the antidote to anonymous Christianity.
One of the amazing attributes of the gospel is that it’s the only thing that can truly bring different races together. The gospel is not only the antidote to private, anonymous Christianity, it’s also the only antidote to racism.
The Unifying Nature of the Gospel
This was one of the most striking aspects of the New Testament Church. Immediately, you had Jews and Gentiles together. There was a unity that Christ brought and produced. The Lord’s Table brought them together. People you would have never put in the same room, are now enjoying a meal together.
Years ago, Christianity Today published an article on a popular Christian author who started a small church with his friends. He remarked how they all got along, and how they fly-fished together and spent time together as families, etc. A picture of them showed they were all pretty much the same age and the same color. At first glance, it seemed great, but then it occurred to me; that’s not a great picture of the Church. The Church is not homogenous. It is not merely a bunch of my friends who decided to do a Bible study together.
Instead, the Church is a bunch of people you would never put in the same room, all dissimilar, but all together, eating a meal with Jesus and with one another. The church is a gathering of people very different from one another but unified and together because of what Jesus did. I love that.
As Christians, we should be the first ones to despise racism. The Lord’s Supper is the opposite of racism. The Lord’s Supper is for broken people who gather around a table to thank their Savior who was broken to save the broken. The Gospel of Jesus is good news for a broken world. God’s grace flows to us through the gospel, and that grace spreads around the table to one another.
The Lord’s Supper Display’s Our Unity
The Supper makes us look around. “With Jesus in our midst, We gather round the board; Though many, we are one in Christ, One body in the Lord.” R.C. Chapman
It is fellowship with believers. It is one loaf, symbolizing our unity. New Testament scholar, Gordon Fee, makes the suggestion that the sharing in the cup is the vertical aspect, while the sharing of the loaf is horizontal, implying the fellowship and unity we have in Christ, as Christ’s body.
The Lord’s Supper is a visible reminder that we are family. We are one body. When you hurt, we all hurt. When you rejoice, we all rejoice. If your Christianity doesn’t make room for being with other Christians and loving them, caring for them, praying for them, then it’s not New Testament Christianity. The Church is a family, and everything in the Church should look like a family. This isn’t up for debate! This is why part of me kind of likes it when a baby cries during the Supper. We are family, not a concert. We are a Body, not a program. This is family. The Lord’s Supper proclaims this. The Bread proclaims this. We share a meal together with Jesus. There is one body. There is one loaf.
Everything in New Testament Christianity Goes Against Privatism
This is what our culture has become. Gone are the days of Norman Rockwell neighborhood ice cream socials. Today, people are more comfortable in front of their smartphones. Being anonymous is so much easier. Live-streaming a church service is so much more convenient. This is also why mega-churches are culturally attractive. Slip in and slip out without a peep. Culturally, this comes so naturally to us. We like our space.
The Church’s Failure to Look Around
A friend of mine took a sabbatical from teaching at a seminary. He visited seventeen different churches during his time off. He told me, only one church he visited was he greeted and had a conversation. One might ask, “Is that Jesus had in mind?” We need to have contexts where we have the opportunity to love another and be loved. Meals provide that. The Supper is that.
The Lord’s Supper helps us fight against the urge to be anonymous, private Christians. The Lord’s Supper forces us to look around. It causes us to consider the body. We pass the bread and cup to one another, we pray for one another, we sing with one another, we laugh with one another, we confess sins to one another, we eat with one another, and we share the burdens of one another. That’s New Testament body life! And it’s totally counter-culture!
David Peterson makes an acute observation about this aspect of the loaf.
“It is the ‘horizontal’ significance of the Lord’s Supper that is so often played down in contemporary practice. Many churches need to reassess the way in which they celebrate the Supper, to recover something of this essential dimension. According to Paul, those who disregard their responsibility to welcome and care for fellow believers in this context cannot be worshipping or serving God acceptably.” (Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship, pg. 218.)
Reconciliation Before Worship
Another aspect of looking around has to do with our relationships with other believers. I think there is a principle from Matthew 5:23 that applies here. Jesus says,
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
The Scriptures teach that reconciliation (horizontal) needs to take place before worship (vertical). Unity and care and reconciliation among the body of Christ is of utmost importance to Paul (and the Lord!).
Practically, in the church assembly, this might mean that you make announcements and have a special prayer for people. Where are their needs? How can we show love? Where can I forgive? After all, we are one loaf…
Sam Emadi’s Helpful Illustration:
“It’s a typical Sunday at First Baptist Church for Dustin. Pastor Jon had just finished his sermon and announced that after the closing hymn he is going to baptize Thomas, a college student who, after wrestling with doubts over the resurrection for years, has finally believed the gospel. Dustin’s wife ducks out during the first verse of the hymn to retrieve their children from the nursery. When she arrives back at the pew with their gaggle of children, Dustin is noticeably flustered by their raucous behavior. As the final verse ends he decides to sneak out with his family before the baptism. His conscience is troubled at leaving early, but he decides to go ahead anyway. After all, Thomas’ baptism doesn’t really have anything to do with him, does it? Isn’t it just about Thomas’s personal profession of faith? He can do that just as well without Dustin and his family.
Dustin’s attitude toward Thomas’ baptism represents the way many evangelicals think about the ordinances. For many, baptism is essentially about my personal profession of faith, an expression of my obedience to Jesus. Regrettably, this individualism characterizes how many Christians even think about the more obviously communal ordinance, the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is purely about my remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice, my confession of sin, or my hope in the Lord’s return. So with eyes tightly shut and hearts pretty well indifferent to who may or may not be in the room, the Lord’s Supper becomes nothing more than an act of private devotion—just one we do in proximity to a lot of other Christians. The Bible, however, paints a very different portrait for how the ordinances function in the life of the church.”
He’s right. The Lord’s Supper is a rebuke to Lone Ranger, privatized, living room, individualistic Christianity. If you don’t believe me, just look at the one loaf.
David Anderson is a pastor/elder at Littleton Bible Chapel in Littleton, CO where he lives with his wife and three kids. David also serves Biblical Eldership Resources in many areas, including hosting their new podcast.