Summary: Is communion symbolic, an ordinance, a sacrament, a memorial or all of the above? Does it even matter?

Is communion symbolic, an ordinance, a sacrament, a memorial or all of the above? Does it even matter?


The argument begins with a simple word, “is.” Those who remember the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal may remember that famous line, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” What did Jesus mean by the word “is” when He introduced communion?

“As they were eating, Jesus took some bread and blessed it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, ‘Take this and eat it, for this is my body.’ And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to them and said, ‘Each of you drink from it, for this is my blood, which confirms the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of many.’ ” (Matthew 26:26-28 NLT)

A common explanation for saying this is only symbolic is that Jesus also said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12), “I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7, 9), “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14), “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and “I am the true vine” (John 15:1, 5).

This is a reasonable explanation, but can it be both symbolic and a sacrament? What about theories that go way beyond what the Bible actually teaches? Is Jesus somehow present in the bread and wine, or do they transubstantiate into His literal body and blood? Does symbolism exclude us from also receiving a sacred blessing or divine grace as we partake of the bread and cup?


If we understand the simple meaning of the word sacrament, rather than overly complicate the idea, then we can open our hearts to include God’s spiritual blessing along with the physical elements of communion. Some Protestants may be offended by other doctrines associated with the word sacrament. Can we examine the word sacrament in isolation for a moment?

The word sacrament is not preferred by some Protestants basically because of different understandings of what the word means. It is not a biblical word, but the concept of a sacred act that God blesses spiritually is certainly biblical. The origin of the word is in the eastern church, referring to the mystery of the Gospel and God’s mysterious involvement in physical acts.

“Pray also for me, that the message may be given to me when I open my mouth to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel.” (Ephesians 6:19 HCSB)

The western church more often uses the word sacrament rather than mystery. An early understanding of a sacrament was a physical act through which God imparted a divine blessing. Some say therefore that all of life is a sacrament.

The formal number of sacraments was gradually reduced to seven in the western church. Protestants usually only accept two, baptism and communion. Some Protestants prefer to call these ordinances rather than sacraments. Others suggest that footwashing ought to be included as a sacrament because Jesus commanded it. This reveals the flaw of a narrow definition of a sacrament, as something Jesus directly or indirectly commanded. Discussion has basically ceased, respective positions have hardened and very few are open to thinking outside these man-made doctrinal walls.

So, some Protestants are comfortable with the word sacrament and others are not. It all depends on definition. Though baptism and communion are universally recognized as essentials of our common faith, the word sacrament is probably a non-essential. All would accept the idea behind it, of receiving a divine blessing while performing physical acts in obedience to Christ. Is baptism symbolic or sacramental? Depending on definition, it can be both.

Quakers and Salvation Army have not traditionally partaken of the bread and cup, though that is possibly changing. Is this, their traditional stance potentially disobedient to Jesus? Was this command to the disciples also by extension a command to us?

“... Do this in memory of me.” (Luke 22:19 WEB cf. 1 Corinthians 11:24-25)

What did Jesus say?

“and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ ” (1 Corinthians 11:24-25 NKJV)

As we examine these words we notice several things:

Jesus gave thanks, so calling communion the Eucharist [thanksgiving] is appropriate. It is appropriately called the Great Thanksgiving.

It’s a mystery. What does the word “is” mean? Is it just symbolic or that and more?

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