Towards the end of his comprehensive survey of the biblical teaching, I.H. Marshall draws the following conclusions about the the significance of the Lord’s Supper:-
1. The Old Testament Background
The language and concepts of the Lord’s Supper are to be understood in terms of the Old Testament – especially Exodus 24, Isa 53 and Jeremiah 31. There is a relationship between the acts of God as recorded in the Old Testament and those that are recorded in the New Testament, and this relationship is essentially one of promise and fulfilment.
2. The Death of Jesus
In the fulfilment of Old Testament promises there is a new act of redemption. As the Last Supper was a farewell meal in which Jesus looked forward to his death, so the Lord’s Supper is commemorative meal in which we look back to his death.
(a) The words of Jesus at the Supper indicate that in him the prophecy of the suffering Servant of Yahweh who poured out his life in death and bore the sin of many is fulfilled.
(b) It is likely the death of Jesus was seen as similar to the deaths of martyrs who were regarded as dying for the people so that God’s wrath against the nation might come to an end.
(c) The death of Jesus was associated with the Passover sacrifice (although 1 Cor 5:7 is the only express confirmation of this).
(d) The death of Jesus is compared to the sacrifice which inaugurated the Mosaic covenant and also inaugurates the new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah. This sacrifice is the token of God’s favour and blessing upon his new people, the church.
In all these ways, the Lord’s Supper is a memorial of the death of Jesus, and a proclamation that his death is the centre of the gospel.
There is nothing to suggest that in the Lord’s Supper the sacrifice of Jesus is repeated. Although some appeal to Hebrews 13 to support such a notion, the writer of that epistle would himself have repudiated the suggestion. There is nothing in the meal to suggest that we offer anything to God: it is all about what God offers to us.
The Lord’s Supper proclaims the universality of the offer of forgiveness through the death of Jesus. When his blood is said to be poured out ‘for many’, this does not indicate any restrictiveness, but rather the vast number for whom he died. Disciples may also be told that his blood was poured out ‘for you’, indicating the personal nature of the offer.
But the Lord’s Supper is not only about proclaiming; it is also about receiving. When we eat the bread and drink the cup we express our acceptance of all that has been achieved in Jesus’ death. And the fact that the eating and drinking are repeated indicates our continual dependence on Jesus and our continual need for forgiveness.
Then again, the Supper is also a means of us expressing our assurance that we are accepted into the people of God on the basis of the work of Christ.
In all of these ways, the Holy Spirit works by and with the sacrament to bring us into the reality and experience of salvation.
3. The Risen Lord
The Lord’s is not only a commemoration of Jesus’ death, but also a means of fellowship with the risen Lord. In the Emmaus road story, the risen Christ ‘was made known in the breaking of the bread.’ Although not made explicit in Acts, there are good reasons for thinking that there is the same underlying emphasis there. And something similar may be said of the teaching of Paul and of John.
But in what sense can it be said that we have fellowship with the risen Christ in the Lord’s Supper? Long-standing tradition identifies his presence with the bread and the wine, such that they are more than signs of his body and blood. But there is nothing of this in the New Testament. In the Emmaus story, Christ is made known both in the exposition of Scripture and in the breaking of bread. Christ is present with his people where two or three are gathered in his name. And we might say that Christ is especially present when his people gather to break bread. A Father’s love for his child might be real and constant, and yet especially so when he takes the child in his arms and expresses his love is a special way. Christ is ‘really present’ all the time, and yet especially so in the Lord’s Supper.
4. The Heavenly Banquet
Jesus said that the Last Supper would be the last meal that he would share with his disciples before he would eat and drink with them in the kingdom of God. The Lord’s Supper is therefore an anticipation of that heavenly meal. Believers eat and drink in celebration of Christ’s present triumph, even though the consummation is yet future. Even though there is a proper solemnity and reverence at the Lord’s Supper, there is also joy and thanksgiving.
5. The Church’s Meal
It is not as individuals, but as a gathered people, that we eat the Lord’s Supper. The imagery of the one loaf and the one cup expresses the unity of God’s people. It is right that the Lord’s Supper affords opportunities to express that unit, as in the sign of the peace. In the New Testament, it appears to have been a common meal, at which believers provides for one another’s needs. Hence Paul’s strong criticism of those who failed to discern the body and despised the church of God To fail to show love at the Lord’s Supper is to come under divine judgment. The question ‘Is it I?’ warns believers against their own temptation to deny or betray their Lord.
Based on I.H. Marshall, Last Supper and Lord’s Supper, 145-155