Author: Ron Graham
—an important distinction
The New Testament uses the term “breaking bread” for the Lord’s Supper. It also uses the same term for a common meal. The term "to break bread" can have two different meanings. Scripture makes a clear distinction between the two as separate activities.
1 The Congregation at Jerusalem
The members of the first congregation of Christ "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship and in the breaking of bread and in prayers" (Acts 2:42). This "breaking of bread" is included with the teaching and the prayers. It's an activity of faith and worship to which they "devoted themselves". It is clear that "breaking of bread" in that context is a reference to the memorial supper that Jesus instituted the night he was betrayed (Matthew 26:26-30).
Further down, however, we find what appears to be another breaking of bread. "And breaking bread from house to house they were eating their meals with gladness and simplicity of heart" (Acts 2:46). Here the disciples "breaking bread" is defined as eating meals together.
So in the Jerusalem congregation we find disciples "breaking bread" in two distinct activities:
- (1) Breaking bread in observance of the memorial supper,
- (2) breaking bread in eating meals together.
The distinction is made clearer in this case because, as it happened, the Lord’s Supper was observed in gatherings at the temple, whilst the gatherings for meals were at various homes. That was probably just a matter of convenience and practicality for them, but it does show that they did not combine the Lord’s Supper with the sharing of meals, even though they referred to them both as "breaking bread".
2 The Congregation at Corinth
The Important Principle
What is the important principle behind the distinction we have noted? To answer that, we turn our attention to the congregation at Corinth and what Paul said to them.
Paul expressed the principle to the Corinthians in a terse and colourful proverb... "Foods for the stomach, and the stomach for foods; but God will destroy both the stomach and foods" (1Corinthians 6:13a).
Foods for the stomach should be kept separate from the Lord’s Supper. The bread and the fruit of the vine that we eat at the Lord’s Supper might go into the stomach, but they are not for the stomach or bodily nourishment. They are for remembrance of Christ and the fellowship of his blood and body sacrificed for us.
Paul said to the Corinthians, "The cup of blessing which we bless is it not the communion [or fellowship or sharing] of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion [or fellowship or sharing] of the body of Christ?" (1Corinthians 10:16).
The memorial supper is not about food for the fleshly body. It is about symbolising and remembering the flesh and blood of Jesus as the sacrifice for our sins. Unfortunately the Corinthians had lost this distinction, and introduced the feeding of the stomach into the observance of our Lord’s memorial supper.
Paul writes to the Corinthians about how they have turned the Lord’s Supper into something else, namely a common meal, and even that was done contrary to the spirit of sharing or fellowship. Paul’s response was sharp: "What! Don't you have houses to eat and drink in?" (1Corinthians 11:17-22).
Paul insisted that when the congregation comes together for the Lord’s Supper, they "break bread" according to the Lord’s instructions when he instituted the Lord’s Supper. They were not to bring foods for the stomach to the Lord’s Supper. When they did, it was no longer the Lord’s Supper they were observing. If they were "hungry" and wanted to "break bread" in the form of a common meal, they should do that at a separate place or time, not when they came together to eat the Lord’s Supper (1Corinthians 11:22-34).
Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians shows that he sees a clear distinction between partaking of the Lord’s Supper and eating common food. Both might be called "breaking bread", and both might be done in fellowship, but they are separate activities with quite different purposes.
3 The Congregation at Troas
The disciples in Troas "came together on the first day of the week to break bread" (Acts 20:7). At that gathering Paul, ready to depart "the next day", preached until midnight. Euytchus fell out the window and Paul healed him. Then, after Paul "had broken bread and eaten", he talked until daybreak when he departed (Acts 20:11).
Here again the use of the term "break bread" appears to refer to both the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7), and an ordinary eating of food (Acts 20:11).
I say that, because it seems very unlikely that the Lord’s Supper would be postponed till after midnight —even if it were still the first day of the week. (Some say "the next day" (Acts 20:7) just means "in the morning" and the story is told in Jewish time. That is to say "the first day of the week" started at sundown and continued through midnight and daybreak).
In these events at Troas, even though Paul ate his food in the same place where he had observed the Lord’s Supper, there is no suggestion that he was mixing the two or blurring the distinction we've seen him make to the Corinthians.
There are many situations where we might need to worship together observing the Lord’s Supper and later eat a meal together in the same place. But there is no need to do so in a confusing manner that blurs the distinction we have discussed in these notes. We will manage to keep the Lord’s Supper distinct from food for the stomach, if that distinction is clear in our minds.