Interpreting “Lord’s Supper” Texts: More There Than Meets the Eye

Alan Streett kicks off his work Subversive Meals: An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper under Roman Domination during the First Century with the following questions:

What actually took place when a first-century church gathered to eat the Lord’s Supper?  Did its members, like their twenty-first century counterparts, take a bite of bread and a sip of wine, in memory of their Lord?  In recent times, scholars have taken a fresh look at how and why the early church met around the Lord’s Table.

I have been on a personal quest to understand the central biblical ideas behind the Lord’s Supper and to analyze the manner in which the vast majority of churches in my own time and place have participated in the Supper.

It seems like everywhere I turn, I come upon texts which stop me cold in my tracks, calling me to question my hidden assumptions and my open presuppositions.

The “breaking bread” texts in Acts 20 and Acts 27 are the latest to do so.

Here is the first text (Acts 20:7-12, Holman Christian Standard Bible)

Acts 20:7 ¶ On the first day of the week, we assembled to break bread. Paul spoke to them, and since he was about to depart the next day, he extended his message until midnight. 

Acts 20:8 There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were assembled, 

Acts 20:9 and a young man named Eutychus was sitting on a window sill and sank into a deep sleep as Paul kept on speaking. When he was overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was picked up dead. 

Acts 20:10 But Paul went down, fell on him, embraced him, and said, “Don’t be alarmed, for his life is in him!”

Acts 20:11 After going upstairs, breaking the bread, and eating, Paul conversed a considerable time until dawn. Then he left. 

Acts 20:12 They brought the boy home alive and were greatly comforted. 

And the second (Acts 27:30-35, Holman Christian Standard Bible):

Acts 27:30 ¶ Some sailors tried to escape from the ship; they had let down the skiff into the sea, pretending that they were going to put out anchors from the bow. 

Acts 27:31 Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” 

Acts 27:32 Then the soldiers cut the ropes holding the skiff and let it drop away. 

Acts 27:33 ¶ When it was about daylight, Paul urged them all to take food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have been waiting and going without food, having eaten nothing. 

Acts 27:34 Therefore I urge you to take some food. For this has to do with your survival, since none of you will lose a hair from your head.”

Acts 27:35 After he said these things and had taken some bread, he gave thanks to God in the presence of all of them, and when he broke it, he began to eat.

Acts 27:36 They all became encouraged and took food themselves. 

Acts 27:37 In all there were 276 of us on the ship.

Four simple observations on these two passages, both of which describe the “breaking” of “bread”:

  1. The gathering of the disciples in Acts 20 to break bread contains no clear so-called “liturgical” language, while Acts 27 does contain such language.  I am understanding liturgical language to be words which appear to be patterned after the “words of institution” by Jesus in the Gospels: e.g. “taking” bread and “giving thanks” for it.  Acts 20 speaks of an assembly of disciples “to break bread” and of Paul “breaking bread”, but that is the extent of the detail.  However, Acts 27, the shipwreck passage, has Paul “taking” bread, “giving thanks” to God, and “breaking” the bread, followed by a corporate partaking of food.
  2. Acts 20 describes a gathering of followers of Christ, while there are no explicit references to any believers in Acts 27 other than the apostle Paul and his two companions, the author of Acts and Aristarchus, a Thessalonian.  In Acts 20, there is a time marker (“first day of the week”) and Paul himself gives a message to those gathered.  Acts 27 presents no details that confirm the presence of other believers onboard than Paul and his two companions, Aristarchus (of Thessalonica) and the author of Acts (probably Luke).
  3. Both passages have a resurrection, one literal (Eutychus in Acts 20) and the other figurative (the revitalization of the 276 passengers from the brink of death to being encouraged to go on in their struggle for survival).
  4. Many, if not most, scholars see Acts 20 as a Christian gathering to observe the Lord’s Supper, while Acts 27 is rarely, if ever, considered a partaking of it.  

What conclusions can be drawn?

  1. The use of “liturgical” language is not determinative for whether a certain passage describes an observance of the Lord’s Supper.  Acts 20 is most likely descriptive of the Supper without explicit citation of “words of institution.”  Interesting, but if Acts 20 is not a gathering to observe the Lord’s Supper, is there any passage in Acts that describes such a gathering?
  2. The Lord’s Supper was probably at this point in church history observed on a weekly basis.
  3. The presence of “liturgical” language in Acts 27 is intentional and meaningful.
    1. The wording matches “words of institution” so closely that this usage is not happenstance.
    2. There is much “salvation” language here: “saved” (verse 31), destitution of being without food (verse 33), “survival” (verse 34).
    3. While one may consider it a stretch for this passage to describe the Lord’s Supper, let me echo the following intention on the part of the author (an intention I first heard proposed by John Mark Hicks):
      1. The Lord’s Supper is eschatological in orientation.  It is focused on the hope of salvation.
      2. The Lord’s Supper is part of an inclusivist trajectory in the Acts of the Apostles as the Gospel goes forth from “Jerusalem” to “Judea and Samaria” and finally “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  Salvation is available to all; it is not restricted to the Christ-following Jewish remnant.  This has implications for how we view questions surrounding the qualifications to participate in the Supper (more on that later).
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