And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.”—Luke 22:14–15
Google “last meals” and you’ll discover an online fascination with what people chose to eat when they knew it would be the last time they got to do so. You’ll get descriptions and analysis of the final feasts of everyone from Ted Bundy to Cleopatra. (Cleopatra washed down figs with asp venom to commit suicide. Bundy ordered steak and eggs before his execution but didn’t eat a single bite.) But the most significant last meal in history, still celebrated by hundreds of millions around the globe, is referenced in Luke’s text above. Yet many celebrants of the Lord’s Supper fail to approach it with the same fascination—not a morbid curiosity, but a holy wonder. Here I want to help us savor the Supper by looking at one key ingredient: that it was instituted by a sufferer for sufferers, and that it therefore can minister to sufferers in a unique way.
The Lord’s Supper Was Instituted in the Context of Suffering
We tend to think of Jesus’ suffering as beginning in the Garden of Gethsemane. But as Thomas à Kempis said in The Imitation of Christ, “The whole life of Christ was a cross and martyrdom.” Sin’s constant offense to his holy soul, Satan’s special hostility and temptations, unbelieving family and neighbors, the religious leaders’ hostility and slander, the defection of many disciples (John 6:66), and his remaining disciples’ persistent dullness. Jesus suffered much and long before his final Passover meal. Even then, it was far from over: Judas’ betrayal, Gethsemane’s agonies, his disciples’ abandonment, Peter’s denials, Jewish and Roman judicial injustice, beatings, mocking, flogging, and scourging—and added to all this, the unfathomable agonies of the cross, all loomed large in Jesus’ mind as he came to that table. Jesus knew his sufferings were fast approaching their terrible climax, and his history and prospect of suffering give special poignancy to his words of institution: “Before I suffer. . . . This is my body . . . given for you. . . . This cup . . . poured out for you is . . . my blood” (Luke 22:15, 19–20).
And the Man of Sorrows was not the only sufferer present that night. The disciples were dismayed by Jesus’ predictions that one of them would soon betray him (Luke 22:3–6, 21–22), that they would all abandon him (Mark 14:27, 50), and that Peter would shortly deny him three times (Luke 22:31–34). Jesus’ “Farewell Sermon,” or “Upper Room Discourse,” as John 14–16 is often called, was meant to assuage their distress concerning his imminent departure and their inability to go with him. As Acts and church history would record, the Upper Room was just the beginning of the disciples’ sufferings. So, the Lord’s Supper was instituted in the context of its founder’s and its participants’ profound suffering.
The Lord’s Supper Commemorates and Celebrates Christ’s
Sufferings and Communicates Their Benefits to Believers
The Synoptic Gospels all include Christ’s sacramental connection between the bread and wine and his body and blood (Matt. 26:26–29; Mark 14:22–25; Luke 22:14–20), but only Luke includes his command to “do this in remembrance of me” after he distributes the bread (22:19). In the New Testament’s fullest passage on the Lord’s Supper, however, Paul cites Christ’s call to celebrate the Supper in remembrance of him after the bread and after the wine, emphasizing the Supper’s commemorative function (1 Cor. 11:24–25). Paul reinforces this in verse 26: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death.”
While the Supper’s rich symbolism commemorates and celebrates Jesus’ suffering, this meal from the sufferer for sufferers does even more: it also communicates his suffering’s benefits to believers. Paul speaks suggestively of that reality in 1 Corinthians 10:16: “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?” Christians have disagreed about the exact nature of this participation, as discussed elsewhere in this issue. For my part, I’m convinced that the Westminster Standards handle this matter with admirable accuracy and brevity (WCF chapters 27–29; WLC 161–77; WSC 91–97).
The most concise Westminster statements on this subject are from the Shorter Catechism, especially question 96. I’ll highlight the phrases especially relevant (and encouraging) for our explorations here:
What is the Lord’s Supper?
The Lord’s supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace.
The Confession of Faith stresses that all this is the work of the Holy Spirit (27.3). The main point I want to draw out is that “worthy receivers”—that is, those who commune “by faith”—participate in the benefits of Christ’s suffering in such a way that the Supper provides “spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.” Along with the commemorative “showing forth” of Christ’s death, we cannot miss that this remembrance serves as an occasion for Jesus to accomplish the work of growing us in grace. Fellow sufferer, what do you need more than grace? At the Lord’s Table, believing sufferers are fed by the One who suffered for our sakes.
The Lord’s Supper Is, Therefore, an Especially Rich Means
of God’s Grace to Suffering Christians
Given this good news on display in the Supper, every one of us should make coming to the table a high priority. We should seek to be “worthy” receivers who trust in Christ’s righteousness rather than our own (see WSC 97). And as a result, we should expect to receive from him “spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.”
Even if you aren’t suffering in a particularly keen way in this season of your life, I encourage you to take comfort and encouragement in the fruits of Jesus’ sufferings. Your sin debt is paid in full. Through your faith in him, you are reconciled to God, justified, and adopted into his family—fully accepted and beloved, now and forever! So, come to the table and find soul refreshment and strength as you feed by faith on the true Passover Lamb.
But while Jesus intends this sacrament to bless every believer, there are some respects in which he ministers to suffering Christians in a special way, as the Bread of Life feeding broken people with his broken body at his humble table.
For one thing, the Supper is a caution or reminder not to be surprised or embittered by our sufferings. As followers of the “Suffering Servant,” we shouldn’t expect our lives to be pain free. Jesus himself labored to help his disciples grasp the true nature of his messianic ministry (they expected him to obtain his kingly crown the old-fashioned way, through power and politics). So immediately after Peter’s confession of Christ as Lord, Jesus began to teach them what victory would look like for him: to “go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16:21). Of course, Peter neither liked nor grasped this teaching, and Jesus’ disciples have struggled with it ever since. But every time we come to the table, we confess and believe that for our Lord the cross preceded the crown—and the order will be the same for us as we follow him.
Besides strengthening us against shirking or being surprised by our suffering, the Supper also comforts suffering believers by reminding us that we are not alone. First and foremost, it says to us, “You have a great High Priest who can sympathize with your weaknesses,” and “because he has suffered and been tempted, he is able and willing to help you when you suffer” (Heb. 4:15; 2:14). Having suffered to redeem us, Jesus now has all authority in heaven and on earth. How does he exercise that authority? He prays for us in glory; he is ruling and overruling all things for our ultimate good; he sends his Spirit to be our comforter and helper especially in our “weakness” (Rom. 8:26); he has given us his word filled with precious and magnificent promises to comfort us. And he exercises his authority by nourishing his church week in and week out at his table. This table also bears witness to the “communion of the saints” (1 Cor. 10:17), telling us in our suffering (which so often feels like loneliness) that we’re surrounded by a host of fellow sufferers in our own congregation and beyond who can also (after the example of our Lord) sympathize with us, pray for us, encourage us, share Scripture with us, and help us in various other tangible ways.
The Lord’s Supper also encourages suffering Christians to persevere when we’re tempted to give up or when we despair of our suffering ever coming to an end. Jesus’ suffering lasted for thirty-three years, the worst for six hours (or maybe three), and then it ended. It was the worst suffering imaginable, far worse than we can comprehend, yet it did come to an end. Praise God, “It is finished.” Now Jesus has been enjoying incomprehensible glory at the Father’s right hand for more than two thousand years. You can see why the author of Hebrews said that Jesus endured the suffering of the cross “for the joy set before him” (Heb. 12:1–2). The apostles, the martyrs, and all other believers who have gone before you have trod the same path through temporary suffering to eternal glory. No matter how intense and terrible their sufferings may have been for a time, in the grand scheme of things, they were “momentary, light afflictions” and are over now. Sooner or later, in God’s timing, yours will be too, and you will know the joy of endurance. For now, continue to draw the nourishment you need for assurance and perseverance from the Lord’s Supper.
Furthermore, the Supper reminds us that our suffering is not meaningless. Jesus’ sufferings, especially on the cross but earlier too, brimmed with significance. They carried the wise and wonderful purpose of God in atoning for our sins once and for all, preparing Jesus to be our sympathetic and merciful high priest. The sufferings of Christ’s saints are likewise meaningful in him. They’re necessary to build the church, to deepen our knowledge of God and likeness to him, and to testify to the world of our faith in the gospel of God’s all-sufficient grace and power. God is leading you through suffering for many wise and wonderful purposes that you may not see, now or ever—until you get to heaven. But you will certainly discover that Romans 8:28 is true.
The Lord’s Supper also says, “Here are nourishment and strength to carry on.” Suffering, especially when protracted, is physically, spiritually, and emotionally exhausting. And suffering so as to please and glorify God, to grow in grace, and to minister to others can be especially draining. So like Elijah fleeing from Jezebel (1 Kings 19), godly sufferers often face exhaustion and the temptation to quit. Just as in the Passover, bread, wine, and lamb nourished and strengthened Israel for their journey out of Egypt, so the Bread of Life, the True Vine, the Lamb of God nourishes and strengthens those who feed upon him in the Supper on their journey to new Jerusalem. At his table, Christ says to his hard-pressed disciples, “Come, feed upon me, and find refreshment and renewal for your souls.” This is an important way in which he makes good his promise, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Finally, not only are your sufferings temporary and purposeful, but you will be rewarded for them. Christ’s exaltation and the church’s salvation are his suffering’s reward (Eph. 1:15–23; Phil. 2:9–11; Rev. 1, 5; etc.). The glorified saints have only begun to enjoy the rewards they will eventually receive, rewards out of all proportion to their sufferings: “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). So let this be another sweet word to you from Christ in the Supper: As you trust in him and persevere to the end, you will not be disappointed but more than compensated.
Thus while the Supper imparts blessing to every believing participant, it can minister in special ways to those who commune in the midst of suffering.
Until He Comes
The book of Esther describes a feast hosted by Ahasuerus, the Persian king who reigned over 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia. It lasted six months, and its guests were nobles, governors, and military commanders; the setting was lavish and lovely; the place settings and utensils were costly and beautiful; and the food and drink were abundant and delicious.
It’s sometimes disappointing to get a little bit of bread or cracker and barely more than a sip of wine or juice. But compared to this feast that Jesus instituted and still hosts for his people, Ahasuerus’s feast was dust and crumbs. Our host is infinitely more glorious. Our feast has lasted for over two thousand years. Its guests have been far more numerous and nobler in character. The fare is richer, though only a foretaste, and that small taste confers more abundant blessings than Ahasuerus’s bounty ever could.
Yet glorious as it is, our present feast is nothing to the one to which Paul alludes at the end of 1 Corinthians 11:26: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” The book of Revelation gives us a window into what the feasting will look like when he comes: “Hallelujah! . . . Rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready. . . . Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:6–9).
Our host will be the same, but we will see him in all the fullness of his glory. Although bread and wine are delicious now, they will be far richer then, when we eat and drink with Jesus not because we need sustenance but for no other goal than enjoying him with one another. Guests will be saints from every nation—no longer groaning fellow sufferers but glorified former sufferers! “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Until then, every time we suffering saints see the minister break the bread, we must trust and rejoice that it is our Lord himself, once broken but now glorified, who is feeding us.
J. D. “Skip” Dusenbury (DMin, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia) is a retired pastor who continues serving the Lord and his church through preaching, teaching, interim pastoring, and writing.