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Encyclopedia of The Bible – Communion

COMMUNION (κοινωνία, G3126, participation, communion, fellowship, and a contribution). The word “communion” does not appear in the RSV except in marginal notes, but the idea is prevalent in the NT. The Gr. koinonia and its cognates are used many times; however, modern trs. prefer “fellowship,” “participation,” and “sharing,” to “communion.” The concept of communion in its traditional sense primarily bears a Christian connotation, beginning with Jesus and the Twelve. Its precursors may be seen, however, in the family life, tribal life, and religious life of Israel, particularly in feasts like the Passover. Among early Christians there were many acts of communion, most of which became cherished heritage in the church.

1. Festal communion. Feasting is an age old and universal function of fellowship, from primitive boards to palatial banquets. To dine with family and friends, to partake of the same bread, meat, and beverage, is man’s most intimate means of promoting fellowship. Also dreams, experiences, emotions, hopes, and news, are shared, and personalities nurtured.

In tribal custom an invitation to dine was a gesture of good will, and the eating of a meal together was an act of fellowship. At times social intercourse alone was the objective; at other times matters of great importance were discussed. When Abraham in customary hospitality invited three strangers to dinner, he “entertained angels unawares” (Gen 18:1-8; Heb 13:2). Moreover, they were on the serious mission of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, and had stopped by to share the matter with Abraham.

The Passover was of unique origin, born out of an emergency for necessary nutrition. Soon afterward Moses converted it into an institution of communal activity whereby a great act of God was memorialized (Exod 23:15). The act of delivering Israel from Egyp. bondage was also prophetic of Jesus’ delivering man from the bondage of sin; therefore, the full significance of the Passover was completed in the redemptive act. Logically, the Lord’s Supper, the Communion, superseded the Passover, and is permanent in Christendom.

The Essenes at Qumran ritually ate communal meals, which could be partaken of only by full members who had successfully completed three years of probation. The communal meals did not require the assembly of the whole community, but could be held wherever ten members were gathered, provided one of them was a priest who must say grace, and provided that one member be continuously reading the holy law.

Also, among early Christians there was a common meal, which came to be known as agapē, or Love Feast. It took place in connection with the Lord’s Supper and eventually became a source of degrading it. True Christian fellowship and sacred communion were thereby disrupted. Both Paul and Jude doubtless in this connection pointed out abuses sometimes made of the Lord’s Supper by heretics or unscrupulous Christians with gluttonous appetites (1 Cor 11:20-22; Jude 12). Eventually, the love feasts were discontinued in deference to the Lord’s Supper.

To most Christians the Lord’s Supper and Communion are synonymous. It was instituted by Jesus while eating His last Passover supper with His disciples. “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matt 26:26-28; cf. Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:14-19). Paul reports in essence the same incident, which he “received from the Lord.” To this he adds Jesus’ command and purpose: “‘Do this, as oft as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:23-26). This then is “a living sermon,” containing both memorial and prophecy. It is a dramatic means of keeping alive the sacred memory of Jesus’ supreme love on the cross and the blessed hope of His glorious return. It is a beautiful act in which Christians are drawn together and in common partake of the essence of Christ. “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation (communion) in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation (communion) in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:16f.).

2. Fiscal communion. Common hardship and common purpose encourage pooling of financial resources.

Poverty was a major factor in compelling the Essene community at Qumran to practice communal support, and the Early Church to practice it temporarily. The Essenes had a communal fund into which all property and earnings of full members went. It was mandatory, and any deception relating thereto was considered a serious matter and dealt with by stern measures. The communal fund of the Jerusalem church was spontaneous and voluntary, prompted by a common urge to care for the poor saints. Following Pentecost, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44f.). Barnabas “sold a field which belonged to him, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (4:37). Contrarily, “A man named Ananias with his wife Sapphira sold a piece of property...and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 5:1f.); and because of their deception both were miraculously stricken dead.

These early Christians experienced the joy of giving. Not only were the poor and needy helped, but all were drawn closer together. Giving to a common cause enhanced common interest (see Matt 6:21). Voluntary almsgiving, tithes, and offerings, were all an essential part of early Christian fellowship. Paul himself raised great collections among the Gentile converts for the poor saints at Jerusalem (Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:4; 9:13). From the start Paul was eager to do this (Gal 2:10), and he instructed his churches to “Contribute to the needs of the saints” (Rom 12:13). From the infancy of the Church the voluntary offering has been an important part of worship. The active Christian gives, and in turn enjoys Christian communion.

3. Church communion. The Church expresses its fellowship through many avenues, assembling, offering, praying, praising, and working together.

An essential nature of the Church is growth, breaking over old boundaries and founding new missions and churches, which is done by cooperative effort. Paul explained the means of bringing former aliens into the church fellowship. “When they perceived the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised; only they would have us remember the poor, which very thing I was eager to do” (Gal 2:9, 10). Each new church became a partner in promoting the kingdom. To the Philippians Paul wrote, I am “thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil 1:5).

Whether mother church or mission church, the life and effectiveness of the local church is dependent on the strength of its fellowship. It is said of the Early Church in Jerusalem that those who had separated themselves “from this crooked generation”; and who “were baptized” and “were added” to the Church, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:40-42).

The fellowship of the Church is exclusive, admitting only the regenerated. Long ago a psalmist sang, “I am a companion of all who fear thee, of those who keep thy precepts” (Ps 119:63). Another grieved over the alienation of a friend: “We used to hold sweet converse together; within God’s house we walked in fellowship” (Ps 55:14). Paul warned, “Do not be mismated with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial?...What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” (2 Cor 6:14f.). And, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph 5:11).

4. Spiritual communion. The heart of Christian communion is spiritual. By the Spirit man communes with God and Christ, and saints.

The mystical tie of the Spirit permeates and unifies the Church. Jesus said to His disciples, “you have one teacher, and you are all brethren” (Matt 23:8). Just as disciples are fellow students, those who partake of the Communion are fellow worshipers. “Consider the practice of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar?” (1 Cor 10:18). Paul admonished worthiness of fellowship, “with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” to which he adds, “one body and one Spirit...one hope...one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all” (Eph 4:1-6). Leaders of the new church continually encouraged fellowship, spelling out practical means of doing so: “Teach and admonish one another in all wisdom,” and sing together with thanksgiving (Col 3:16). “Comfort one another...” (1 Thess 4:18); “Encourage one another and build one another up....Be at peace among yourselves....admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (5:11-14). “Exhort one another every day....stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Heb 3:13; 10:24f.). “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another” (Jas 5:16).

Spiritual fellowship originates with God and Christ. “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). In the allegory of the vine, Jesus portrayed the mystical union between Himself and God and His disciples: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser....you are the branches” (John 15:1, 5). By this union one bears much fruit.

Finally, the Holy Spirit is the mediator of communion in the present dispensation. Through Him man communes with God and sustains universal fellowship with the saints. Jesus’ consoling promise to His disciples was, “I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you” (14:16f.). Paul said, “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts” (Gal 4:6). Then he writes to the Philippians about Christ, love, joy, and “participation (communion) in the Spirit” (Phil 2:1f.). Paul summarizes man’s triune relations in his benediction: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship (communion) of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor 13:14).

Bibliography E. S. Jones, “The Christ of the American Road” (1934), 190-200; F. F. Bruce, “Second Thoughts on the Dead Sea Scrolls” (1956), 104-116; “Oxford Annotated Bible” (1962) Notes, 1234; 1277f.; 1307-1310; 1322f.; 1384-1390; 1406f.; E. W. K. Mould, “Essentials of Bible History” (1966), 630-640.