Do you think that Acts 20:7 was talking of a common meal? Why or why not?
The text in question states, "Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight" (Acts 20:7).
From this passage, we learn that the disciples came together for the purpose of breaking bread. The phrase "break bread" is an idiom referring to the partaking of a meal. It can be seen in the Old Testament in Jeremiah 16:7 when Jeremiah predicted that people would stop eating meals because of their deep sorrow. It is also seen in the New Testament in Acts 2:46, "Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart."
The confusion arises from the Lord's Supper. It is a memorial meal that is partaken by the disciples to remember the Lord's death. "For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; 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." For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes" (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). Since it is a "supper" that features the breaking of bread, the same idiom that refers to a common meal can refer to the Lord's Supper. This is seen in I Corinthian 10:16, "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?"
So how do we distinguish a common meal from the Lord's Supper? The answer lies in the context in which the idiom is used. Look once again at Acts 2:46. Here we find:
- It was done daily
- It was done in individual homes
- It was for nourishment, as this is what "meals" means in Greek.
I Corinthians 11:22 and 34 tell us that the Lord's Supper was not a common meal to be eaten individually in people's homes. Compare this to Acts 2:42, "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers." Here the breaking of bread is listed among items of worship: Learning God's word, assembling, and praying. In Acts 2:42, the phrase refers to the Lord's Supper.
Now, concerning Acts 20:7, what do we learn from the context? First, it was done on Sundays when the disciples came together for the purpose of breaking bread. Whatever the meal was, it was something that only occurred once a week. If it was a common meal, you would not expect it to be restricted to a single day of the week. After all, in Acts 2:46 we see that sharing meals was sometimes a daily event. But this particular meal made Sundays an important day of the week. Second, it required the disciples to come together to partake of this breaking of bread. This calls to mind Paul's discussion of the Lord's Supper in I Corinthians 11. Notice how often the phrase "come together" appears in this discussion (I Corinthians 11:17, 18, 20, 33). Third, while some early churches meet in a disciple's home, the group in Troas meet in an upper room (Acts 20:8). Once again, we see that this is a special gathering, separate from the home.
The conclusion can only be that Acts 20:7 is referring to the partaking of the Lord's Supper.
Even with this answer, it is sometimes asked whether Acts 20:11 refers to this same meal or another. Here the verse states, "Now when he had come up, had broken bread and eaten, and talked a long while, even till daybreak, he departed." Notice the additional qualification to the breaking of break is that Paul had eaten. This indicates it was a regular meal used to satisfy the appetite. Hence, it would not be the Lord's Supper given Paul's statements in I Corinthians 11:22 and 34. Also, notice that only Paul is mentioned as having eaten. The Lord's Supper is something that is done by a congregation together (I Corinthians 10:16-17). Hence, we conclude that Acts 20:11 is referring to a common meal.