In Acts 2:42-47 we are given a glimpse into the life of the first century church, and this section begins with the simple phrase “they devoted themselves to.” And as the church’s story unfolds throughout the book of Acts it becomes apparent that their measurement of growth was not based on numbers but on one’s level of devotion to God. So, in this series of articles, we are exploring what the first century church devoted itself to so that we can determine whether or not we are devoting ourselves to the same things. According to Acts 2:42, the first century church “devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayers.” We have already explored their devotion to God’s Word (i.e. “the apostles teaching) and fellowship so now we turn our attention to “the breaking of bread.”
The phrase “breaking of bread” is an allusion to the fact that during the institution of the Lord’s Supper, “Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it” (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19). So, the phrase “breaking of bread” is a euphemism for the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 10:16). The first century church was devoted to the Lord’s Supper. But what does that mean?
First and foremost, it means that the Lord’s Supper was a consistent part of their weekly worship assembly. Scripture presents a pattern of observing the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week. In Acts 20:7 Luke informs us that Paul spoke to the church in Troas “on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread” (emphasis added). In this narrative detail, Luke draws a correlation between the Lord’s Supper and the first day of the week, indicating that the Lord’s Supper was observed during the Sunday worship assembly. Paul supports Luke’s association of the Lord’s Supper with the assembling of the church on the first day of the week in his letter to the Corinthians. Five times in 1 Corinthians 11 he used the phrase “when you come together” as he criticized their improper mindset toward the Lord’s Supper (11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34). Paul’s use of this phrase indicates that the assembling of this congregation and the observance of the Lord’s Supper coincided. When did the Corinthian congregation assemble? In 1 Corinthians 16:2, Paul wrote “on the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up.” The reason Paul associated these instructions with the first day of the week is because he knew they assembled as a congregation at that time. Therefore, when Paul addressed the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 and said “when you come together” we can conclude that he was referring to their Sunday assembly because he specified their assembling on the “first day of the week” in 1 Corinthians 16:2.
Second, it means that the Lord’s Supper was never treated as mundane, insignificant or as an afterthought. Returning to Acts 20:7, Luke says, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread” (emphasis added). Luke did not say “when we were gathered together to worship God” or “when we were gathered together to read the Scriptures” or “when we were gathered together to listen to the apostles teaching.” No, he said, “when we were gathered together to break bread” as if to indicate that “the central act of the weekly assemblies of the early church” was the Lord’s Supper (1). From the example of the first century church, we discover that the Lord’s Supper was not something they observed accidentally or spontaneously. Rather, they observed it regularly and purposefully. To them the Lord’s Supper was important and deserved to be prioritized to the point that it was synonymous with their congregational assembly.
Finally, it means that the Lord’s Supper is observed with the right attitude. The church in Corinth had its share of problems and one of the most obvious was a lack of unity. Paul criticized the divisiveness caused by “loyalty to different teachers” in 1 Corinthians 1:10-15 then he criticized divisiveness caused by “class-consciousness” in 1 Corinthians 11:17-22 (2). The situation in 1 Corinthians 11 apparently centered around a potluck meal, commonly referred to as a “love feast” in the first century (Jude 12). During these times when the church was gathering for a fellowship meal, divisions surfaced as a clear distinction between the “haves” and the “have nots” developed. Apparently the wealthy feasted sumptuously while the poor went without (1 Corinthians 11:21). This time of fellowship had lost its communal purpose and became an individualized pursuit of pleasure. So, the problem in Corinth was that they would “proclaim the oneness of the Lord and His people” by taking the Lord’s Supper then “divide themselves along socioeconomic lines during what was supposed to be a fellowship meal” (3). Their practice of divisive fellowship while gathered for a meal contradicted their proclamation of unity while gathered around the Lord’s table. As a result, “the Lord’s Supper at Corinth was becoming merely a ritual. The church seems to have assumed that their manner of taking the Lord’s Supper was unimportant” (4). The problem in this scenario was not the activity but the attitude. That is why Paul established an expectation of self-examination prior to partaking of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:28). If we are going to be devoted to the Lord’s Supper then we need to ensure that we do not take it in an “unworthy manner,” which could be defined as partaking of the Lord’s Supper with “any blatant disregard for Christian moral principles” in the same vein as the Corinthian church who blatantly ignored the principle of unity, and, as a result, were eating and drinking judgment on themselves (1 Corinthians 11:29).
So, the first century church’s devotion to the Lord’s Supper is evidenced in their practice of observing this memorial when they assembled on the first day of the week, in their prioritizing of this memorial as the central act of their assembly, and by examining themselves to ensure that they partook of it in a worthy manner. May we never forget the reason we devote ourselves to this memorial. We devote ourselves to the Lord’s Supper because “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
(1) Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 249.
(2) Duane Warden, 1 Corinthians. Truth for Today Commentary (Searcy, AR: Resource Publications, 2016): 316.
(3) Ibid., 325.
(4) Ibid., 319.