Right before Jesus’ death, he instituted a special meal for his church to observe. Historically, this meal was called the Eucharist, which means “thanksgiving.” Often today we call it communion or the Lord’s Supper. Although churches differ on how frequently we should take communion, the universal consensus among Christians is that this meal is an important part of our faith.
When Jesus was reclining with his disciples, after breaking some bread and distributing it to them he said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Lk. 22:19) Many Christians have taken this to mean that during communion, we are to do our best to recollect the story of Christ’s death. We remember the gospel, and as we’re reminded, the gospel stirs our hearts in worship. This is, without a doubt, a good thing, but is it what Jesus was really getting at when he said, “Do this in remembrance of me”?
What is the significance of remembering?
Memorial language was not uncommon in Palestinian Judaism. In the Old Testament, especially in contexts relating to the service of the temple, there were “memorial” offerings (Lev. 2:2, 9, 16). In these passages, where the context is the people of God at worship, typically it was not the Israelite worshiper who was remembering; it was God remembering.
For example, God says to the Israelites, “On the day of your gladness also, and at your appointed feast and at the beginning of your months, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings. They shall be a reminder of you before your God: I am the LORD your God” (Numbers 10:10). In the context of God’s covenant faithfulness to his people, he would often give them signs that didn’t just serve as reminders for them but for him!
This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and he earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and ever living creature… (Gen. 9:12-16)
The rainbow served as a covenant sign that displayed front and center God’s promise to never flood the earth. It reminded God of his promise. Communion is a covenant sign, too. Jesus called the cup of the Lord’s Supper the cup of the “new covenant” in his blood (Lk. 22:20).
When he told his disciples to observe the meal for his memorial, it wasn’t simply so that they’d be reminded of the gospel but that they would re-present, or convey it through the tangible sign before God. In fact, the phrase “in remembrance” is used elsewhere in the New Testament to refer to God’s remembrance, when Peter told Cornelius, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.” (Acts 10:4)
What is the significance of this for our worship?
When the church takes communion, it’s not primarily a time for our individual, subjective recollection of Jesus’ life and death. It is the objective transmission of the gospel through ordinary signs like bread and wine. The sacrifice of Jesus two thousand years ago is being set forth now, before God, as a memorial. This, to be sure, is not a “re-sacrificing” of Christ (Hebrews 10:12 makes clear that Christ could only be sacrificed once), but by faith it is the application of the benefits of Christ’s once-for-all death.
When the church gathers together to “do this in remembrance of me [Jesus]” she is proclaiming Christ’s death (1 Cor 11:26) as a memorial before God, who sees the sign and blesses us, nourishing us with Christ’s body and blood by the Holy Spirit. In communion, God remembers, and we receive! He remembers his promises to us, his people, and he sets these promises before us on the table. Christ’s body was given for you; his blood poured out for you. Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me”!