What is communion?

The Elements of Communion

First, we need to focus on the elements of communion—bread and wine. These physical components are sensible signs; that is, they appeal to our senses (touch, taste, smell), and remind us of spiritual truths. The bread represents Jesus’ body (Matt. 26:26). Communion, therefore, directs our attention to the incarnation—the profound mystery that, in Christ, God became man, a true man, a human with a body and soul like you and me. The wine represents Jesus’ blood (Matt. 26:27–28), the blood of the new covenant, the means by which the covenant was secured and sealed for us. When we celebrate this sacrament, therefore, we recall the awful–yet–glorious truth that the Savior’s life ended in death, a sacrificial death on the cross for our sins.

When Christ instituted this ordinance and said, “This is my body…this is my blood,” he clearly did not mean for his disciples to take those words in an overly literalistic way. As he sat before them and handed them the bread and wine; his body was intact and his blood flowed through his veins. The components of this meal signify his body and blood in much the same manner as the bitter herbs of the Passover meal, which the disciples had just celebrated, symbolized the harsh toil Israel had experienced in Egypt. 

The Presence of Christ

The symbolic nature of these elements does not mean, however, that Christ is absent and merely represented in the sacrament. The Lord Jesus is spiritually and really present when believers celebrate communion. The spiritual presence of Christ in the Supper is part and parcel of His promise to be with His people wherever they may be. Indeed, Jesus’ presence will be with His people until the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, Christ dwells within His people (Gal. 2:20; cf. 1 Pet. 1:11). Jesus’ presence isn’t just a theological concept, a thought that is with us for as long as we think it. The Lord is really with His people. Perhaps the best way to understand the real presence of Christ is to look at the third aspect of this sacrament.

The Participation of Believers

What actually happens when a Christian takes the Lord’s Supper? We can summarize the answer with two biblical terms: memory and communion. On the evening before His crucifixion, when Jesus gave the bread and wine to his disciples, He said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). This statement has led some branches of Christianity to identify this sacrament merely as a memorial. The scriptural concept of memory, however, is far richer than simple mental recall. I may remember that George Washington was born on February 22, but that memory is nothing more than information that passes through my brain. A particular event occurred on a particular day. In the Bible, however, memory is a deliberate, thoughtful, and meditative act of faith.

When we remember Christ in His Supper, we do not just recollect the story we read in the Bible. We think about the significance of His death. We believe with renewed faith that His body was broken for us and His blood shed for us. When that occurs, we are actively receiving grace from God, grace which grants us spiritual sustenance and strength to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God (Rom. 6:11).

The second important term is communion. We call this sacrament communion because it is the means by which we actually participate in the reality of Christ’s presence. The apostle Paul wrote, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 10:16)? The term communion or participation (the Greek word is koinonia) signifies what occurs when we, with believing memory, eat the bread and drink the wine at the Lord’s Table. We participate or share in the benefits of Jesus’ body and blood. These benefits are truly and really present to us by faith because the Holy Spirit uses the physical elements to enliven our faith and engage our souls with the risen Christ.