“The breaking of bread”
To “break bread” was a common idiom for a shared meal, the emphasis being on the sharing. The host would take the bread, break it into pieces, and distribute the bread among the participants. A close analogy would be the ceremonial carving of the turkey at Thanksgiving, where the father carves the meat and distributes it.
Thus, to “break bread” is to exercise hospitality, inviting guests to your table to share food and fellowship.
But in Luke-Acts, Luke gives a nearly sacramental sense to the phrase, seeing the breaking of bread of symbolic of something even deeper and richer.
(Luke 9:16 ESV) And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing over them. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd.
The feeding of the 5,000 is one of only three events recorded in all four Gospels — the other two being the baptism of Jesus and the Passion (death, burial, resurrection). The symbolism of Jesus as giver of food takes us back to the Exodus and God as giver of manna. It also anticipates the coming of the Kingdom, as a common image of the Kingdom is a share table —
(Isa 25:6-9 ESV) 6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. 7 And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. 8 He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. 9 It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
(Isa 55:1-2 ESV) “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”
(Jer 31:13-14 ESV) 13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. 14 I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance, and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness, declares the LORD.”
(Luke 14:12-24 ESV) 12 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. 13 But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
15 When one of those who reclined at table with him heard these things, he said to him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 But he said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. 17 And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ 19 And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ 20 And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ 22 And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ 23 And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.'”
(Rev 19:9 ESV) 9 And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.”
Thus, we have a narrative winding through the scriptures. God feeds Israel in the desert. God promises that in the Kingdom, his people will be well fed. Jesus then feeds the 5,000 — based on the shared gift of a single meal. He takes an inadequate supply of food and makes it more than adequate.
In Acts 2, the disciples all share their meals. “All things in common” includes eating together and sharing food. They were well provided for, on God’s mountain, by virtue of the generosity of God’s people.
This sharing of food anticipates the great wedding feast at the end of time, when God will feed us all. You see, eating together — by sharing resources — anticipates heaven itself.
But there’s more.
(Luk 22:19 ESV) And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
(Luk 24:30 ESV) When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them.
(Luk 24:35 ESV) Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
(Act 2:46-47 ESV) 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
(Act 20:7 ESV) 7 On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.
(Act 20:11 ESV) 11 And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed.
(Act 27:34-36 ESV) 34 Therefore I urge you to take some food. For it will give you strength, for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.” 35 And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat. 36 Then they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves.
It’s regularly assumed that “break bread” in Acts 20 is a reference to the Lord’s Supper, as Paul’s missionary group waited until Sunday to break bread. And yet Acts 2:46-47 appears to refer to a meal, since the breaking of bread involved receiving food with generous hearts. That would hardly make sense for a token, symbolic meal. Just so, “break bread” in Acts 27 is a reference to a meal: “ate some food.” Acts 20:11 refers to Paul breaking bread and eating — hardly the language of a mere symbolic meal of grape juice and matzos crackers.
Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper at a Passover meal, which was, of course, a meal. The old argument that we can’t “add fried chicken to the Lord’s Supper” assumes that the Lord’s Supper was originally celebrated as we do — as a symbolic meal. But the early church took the Lord’s Supper as part of a common meal, which later came to be called the ἀγάπη (agapē) or love feast (1 Pet 2:13; Jude 12).
We have to remember that bread and wine were standard elements of a First Century Palestinian meal. Jesus didn’t so much call for a symbolic meal in his honor as a common meal in which the central elements were taken in remembrance of him.
Thus, the practice of many house churches and small groups of taking a common meal in which bread and wine (or grape juice) are served in memory of Jesus comes very close to the original practice.
Indeed, we see in Acts 2:46 that the disciples broke bread in their homes — that is, they had a 30 or fewer fellow believers into their homes to eat a meal in honor of Jesus, in which the bread and wine carried particular significance — not only the death of Jesus but also the anticipation of a life together with Jesus after he returns in which we’d all eat together and with Jesus — where Jesus himself breaks the bread.
First Century Jews and Greeks lived in very modest homes. A house might hold at most 30 people — and often far fewer. Often meals had to be taken outdoors, to accommodate the numbers.
Archaeologists have found Second Century Christian homes modified to accommodate a group of up to 70. But shortly following Pentecost, the 3,000 members would have met in no fewer than 100 houses, and likely more.
That means over 100 families would have to clean house and host visitors for a meal. Six days of the week were work days. Assuming they met in houses at least weekly, on a Sunday (but Luke doesn’t say), they hosted the evening meal, after work. Sunday was a work day!
Then teachers moved from house to house to offer instructions about Jesus. And because they met together in homes, they grew together and formed an intense love for each other — a love that led to the sharing with those in need.
- How do this view of the Lord’s Supper differ from the conventional view?
- What would happen if we took the Lord’s Supper as part of a common meal? Would it be better? How would the impact differ?
- Is this something that should be done through small groups? What if we did it in small groups instead of the assembly? What if we did both? Any problem with two eucharists in one day?
- What if we take the Lord’s Supper on Saturday night? Sunday evening? Depending on whether you follow the Jewish calendar (day begins at sundown) or Greek (day begins at midnight), Saturday night could be considered the first day, but if it is, Sunday night is not! Is that a problem?
- How often do you suppose the Jerusalem church took bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus?
- What are some practical ways to replicate the First Century meaning of the Lord’s Supper today?
- Does it bother you that the early church took communion with a meal? Could we do that? Would it be better?
- What does a meal symbolize? Why a meal?