In Nephi’s vision of apostasy and restoration, an angel told Nephi, “They have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away.” (1 Ne. 13:26.)
In recent centuries, rationalism rather than changes in manuscripts has led the attack on Christ’s gospel and divinity. Although there certainly were changes in documents, as Nephi pointed out in his prophecy (see 1 Ne. 13:28), the greater losses came as the gospel and its ceremonies were changed. By ignoring major parts of the scriptures, various Christian theologies have either explained away or changed vital covenants and rites still mentioned in the Bible.1
One central covenant, the sacrament, has particularly suffered. Historical records show that the sacrament covenant of remembrance and recommitment was changed to include elaborate practices that tended to produce awed onlookers. Such changes forced individual repentance into nonscriptural channels like scheduled penance and the last rites. The Protestant Reformation tried to recapture the personal promises of the sacrament that Christ and Paul emphasized, but the Bible gives only general principles and selective details about early Christian ordinances. Thus, it was not until the ancient American consecration prayer came to light through the Book of Mormon, and the authority to administer the ordinance was restored, that Christ’s followers could once again enter into the full sacrament covenant.
Does the Book of Mormon sacrament prayer fit the ceremony of the first generations of Mediterranean Christians? The answer is an impressive yes.
Though first-century worship is thinly documented, the New Testament and the first post-apostolic sources give us clues to the nature of the ceremony. For example, through Paul’s efforts to correct the Corinthian Saints, we can actually part the curtain on a first-century “sacrament meeting.” Discovering that the Corinthians’ selfish feasting had merged with the partaking of the sacred symbols, Paul reminded these Greco-Romans of Jesus’ words at the first sacrament. Then he concisely discussed what the Christian ceremony should accomplish (see 1 Cor. 11:19–34), warning the careless Corinthians not to eat and drink “unworthily.”
In connection with eating and drinking, Paul warned, “Let a man examine himself” (1 Cor. 11:28) adding that the thoughtless eat, “not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Cor. 11:29).2 The same Greek verb Paul used (diakríno) also introduced his final warning on the sacrament: “For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.” (1 Cor. 11:31; italics added.) In those two places, Paul used this verb indicating critical reflection. He first asserted that the unworthy do not discern the Lord’s body; then he repeated the verb to say that the faithful should discern themselves. Thus, parallel processes should occur while one is taking the sacred symbols—as one thinks on the Lord, he evaluates himself in relation to the Lord.
In teaching the meaning of Christianity, Paul “reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come.” (Acts 24:25.) This was precisely his logic at the end of his teaching the Corinthians regarding the sacrament:
“For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.
“But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.” (1 Cor. 11:31–32.)
Such self-judgment in preparation for the sacrament implies the same attitude while partaking of it. The worldly Corinthians would be condemned with the world unless they truly repented through remembering Christ in the sacrament. So Paul’s reasoning suggests a double purpose for partaking of the sacrament—remembrance, and resolve to live a righteous life.
Paul gave the same perspective in his teachings recorded in the previous chapter. He pointed out the inconsistency of social eating in pagan temples (1 Cor. 10:18–20), saying that one cannot “be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils” (1 Cor. 10:21). But here many readers miss Paul’s emphasis on the larger scope of the sacrament. This oversight comes mainly from failing to see the parallel that begins chapter 10, in which Paul used examples from ancient Israel to warn Corinthian converts. Trained by Jewish scholars to use patterns and types, Paul compared Christian baptism to Israel’s figurative immersion in the sea and under the cloud of God’s presence during the Exodus. (1 Cor. 10:1–2.) Then he added a reference to the symbolic spiritual food of the manna and the spiritual drink that Jehovah gave miraculously to quench their thirst. (See 1 Cor. 10:3–4; 1 Ne. 17:29.)
“The point of these illustrations is clear,” wrote one commentator. “The reception of sacraments will not by itself save anyone. Paul emphasizes the fact that all of the Israelites had these benefits, yet most of them were destroyed. Despite their sacraments at the present time, the Corinthians may likewise be destroyed.”3
The Jews of the Exodus had made a solemn covenant to obey and then had rebelled through idolatry, adultery, and criticism of Moses. Paul began his warning with ancient types of baptism and the sacrament, showing clearly that Christian converts were likewise obligated to avoid idolatry, immorality, and speaking against Church leaders. Thus, Paul treated baptism and the sacrament as Christian covenants because they carried specific obligations of righteousness similar to the covenants ancient Israel had made.
Other apostolic writings give us further insight into the New Testament sacrament service. In the decade after A.D. 96, in Asia Minor, the Apostle John wrote his Gospel and letters, addressing the problem of how Christians could be faithful in the midst of worldly evils and major Christian apostasy.4 These issues are more obvious in John’s letters. (See 1 Jn. 2:18–19; 1 Jn. 4:1–3.) But John’s Gospel combats the same problems by detailing what Christ said about loyalty and living the gospel after establishing the sacrament at the Lord’s Supper. The Apostle stresses what was taught “from the beginning.” John repeatedly used this phrase to underline two specific doctrines of Christ’s Last Supper discourse. One is the command to love one another, given by Christ at the meal and afterward. (See 1 Jn. 3:11; 2 Jn. 1:5.) The other is the challenge: “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15.) John returned to this theme throughout his first letter. He said that we as Christians know that we are truly born of God “when we love God, and keep his commandments.” (1 Jn. 5:1–2.)
John related this theme to the Last Supper when he wrote his Gospel. In John 6, he tells that the Lord went to the synagogue in Capernaum and there compared receiving spiritual nourishment to eating and drinking his flesh and blood. Jesus regularly communicated to the Jewish culture in their striking metaphors, one of which was eating and drinking as symbols of accepting great teachers and digesting their teachings. Jesus began by offering eternal nourishment, not merely earthly food. (See John 6:27.) Then he declared that he would be their food, for he would give his flesh and blood “for the life of the world.” (John 6:51.) Those who took his flesh and blood would have intimate fellowship with him. (John 6:56.)
These statements form a double prophecy: Jesus would give his life, and its significance would be commemorated by eating and drinking. By introducing this concept, John foreshadowed events and helped the reader understand Jesus’ later establishment of the sacrament. In Capernaum, Christ predicted not only the sacrament symbols, but the full meaning of the future ceremony: “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.” (John 6:56.) That is, the symbols of eating and drinking indicate total acceptance of Christ and his way of life. In that sermon, Jesus taught that the measure of our loyalty is the quality of his own loyalty, which rises to action: “For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.” (John 6:38.)
Early in the second century, shortly after John wrote his Gospel and letters, Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, traveled across Asia Minor toward martyrdom in Rome. Midway in this journey, Ignatius wrote seven letters exposing the apostate sects he had encountered. Four of his letters mention the bread or wine of the sacrament, emphasizing particularly that true sacrament administration required true authority: “Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints.”5 Ignatius called the broken bread “the medicine of immortality,”6 a phrase alluding to eternal life with God, as Jesus stressed in his bread-of-life sermon that foreshadowed the sacrament. (See John 6:48–51.) In the same letter, Ignatius encourages more meetings for “thanksgiving” (in Greek, “Eucharist”—one early Christian term for the sacrament). And right afterward, this bishop adds: “They who profess to be of Christ shall be seen by their deeds.”7
The Roman governor Pliny confirmed this picture about A.D. 110 after investigating the question of whether Christian assemblies were subversive. In reporting to the Emperor Trajan, he described how pagan worship had fallen off, blaming the vigorous Christian movement for the decline. During his investigation, Pliny had carefully questioned Christians about their meetings:
“They had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it. After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind. But they had in fact given up this practice since my edict, issued on your instructions, which banned all political societies.”8
From this report, some have envisioned prayer and reading in the morning, with a later gathering to eat and partake of the sacrament. But that does not fit Pliny’s description. The reassembly did not partake of sacred food, but of “food of an ordinary, harmless kind.” This coincides with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, which directed that the sacrament be separate from the fellowship meal. Pliny’s Christians easily gave up eating together; it was, after all, not an essential part of their worship. Their early meeting would have been another matter, however, for it was there that they took an “oath” to avoid all evil. No weekly Christian practice fits such language except the sacrament, and this was done while they gave honor to Christ.
Thus, Paul, John, Ignatius, and Pliny all provided information about the early sacrament and its purpose, which was to serve both as remembrance of the Lord’s sacrifice and as commitment to live his commandments.
Historians of every Christian persuasion document the radical alterations of the original sacrament ceremony in the centuries following the deaths of the Apostles. Though scholars’ judgments on the meaning of these changes are quite different, there is little disagreement on the highlights. One Catholic theologian’s summary provides a commonly accepted checklist of changes:
“After 312 A.D., when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the size of the communities increased rapidly and the celebration of the Eucharist took on a more official character. … More ceremonies and rituals were added to these eucharistic celebrations. … As the celebration of the Eucharist became enlarged and more official, it lost some of the intimacy experienced in this sacrament in earlier times. …
“The celebration of the Mass, however, became locked into the Latin language for many centuries. … This sense of all the people participating in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper began to be lost in the sixth century, when priests started saying Masses by themselves. Their original intention was to pray for special needs, but this practice detracted greatly from the original purpose of the Eucharist. …
“During the Dark Ages (eighth through eleventh centuries) the private character of the Mass began influencing community Eucharists. We see in the old missals the Mass prayers change from the use of ‘we’ to ‘I,’ and gradually almost all the prayers were said silently by the priest alone. … Since the people in the community were no longer actively participating in the eucharistic celebration, their main action became worshipping the sacred objects of the Mass. … This led to … less frequent reception of communion.
“Communion began to be received on the tongue while kneeling. Drinking from the cup was eliminated altogether. … The bread and wine once shared as a symbol of unity, sacrifice and commitment gradually became objects too ‘sacred’ for the community to receive. With these developments the sacrament of the Eucharist lost much of its original meaning. We can also see in these developments the origins [of] the Benediction and processions with the sacred bread. The main action of the people had become adoration rather than communal sharing.”9
As the above survey shows, Roman Catholics have led out in self-criticism of the older Mass. In past decades, Roman Catholics have debated about how worship could better conform to Christ’s concerns, and the papacy, priesthood, and scholars have united to effect radical reforms. The Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) sought to restore personal involvement in the sacrament: “The general objectives were to make the liturgy more simple, more participatory, more intelligible and more dynamic.”10 Specific changes included “celebrating the liturgy in the language of the people, moving the altar to a more central place, giving more emphasis to the reading of scripture, encouraging more frequent reception of communion, eliminating the many unnecessary signs and gestures that accumulated during the Middle Ages, and restoring the action of drinking from the cup.”11 These are major efforts to return to essentials, but the ritual remains lengthy and elaborate—unfocused on the simple priorities Christ taught in the Upper Room.
How successful has Protestantism been in reestablishing the personal sacrament? The answer contains a paradox. The traditional Reformation mainly stands for renewing the individual’s relationship with God; yet major Protestant churches of the sixteenth century were surprisingly conservative in modifying worship. Basically, the stages of the Mass were retained by the main Protestant groups. The result was a ceremony that typically mixed promises to be loyal to Christ with devotional practices that carried over from medieval times. The real issue of the sacrament covenant—how to remember Christ—was invariably addressed by incorporating Paul’s or Luke’s passages on remembrance. However, since reformers stressed justification through faith alone, even ceremonial words of loyalty to Christ were not necessarily understood by the people as an obligation to keep his commandments.
Of the main Protestant groups, those with the most structured communion (sacrament) services are Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Presbyterians. At the other end of the spectrum are the less-formal services of Baptists and Congregationalists. Their present worship service principally consists of expressions of praise and gratitude for forgiveness.
The dilemma of the Reformation is how to end reform. Some Protestant founders brought personal promises back into the communion service, but many recent revisions delete specific commitments of personal righteousness and obedience. The believer’s response to Christ becomes very general. For instance, in one handbook giving ceremonial options for less-formal Protestant worship, eight consecration prayers are proposed, but only half include any commitment to keep the commandments. The essence of one is the request: “Hear us as each in his own way seeks personal communion with Thee through Jesus Christ.”12
The Book of Mormon bluntly prophesies that churches will add ritual without authority and will produce ceremony that does not promote Christlike lives. The history of Christian worship validates that prophecy. In America the Savior twice identified the twin dangers of teaching and practicing either more or less than he intended (see 3 Ne. 11:39–40; 3 Ne. 18:13)—and historic communion services illustrate both trends.
Christ spoke of Satan sowing tares to spoil the wheat, and Nephi saw that process in vision as the spoiling of the sacred biblical revelations. Nephi foresaw a Jewish record containing the Old and New Testaments. That book contained “the covenants of the Lord” from the prophets and from Christ’s Apostles. (See 1 Ne. 13:23–24.) The book passed through the hands of a “church,” which in context includes both Western and Eastern churches previous to the Restoration. The plainness of the Bible was lost after it passed through this worldly “church,” and afterward that book went to “all the nations of the Gentiles,” including those “across the many waters.” (1 Ne. 13:29.)
At first glance it seems that the “many plain and precious things” that were “taken away from … the book of the Lamb of God” (1 Ne. 13:28) were deleted by scribal mutilation. Yet a second process was at work, as we mentioned earlier. Extant New Testament manuscripts do contain thousands of minor changes in spelling, synonyms, transpositions, and accidental omissions. Known lost letters of Apostles might well have been suppressed, but what survives is generally authenticated by a broad range of manuscripts, many of them relatively early. This picture fits what Nephi saw, for the “records of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” were to stand side by side with other revealed records in latter days. (1 Ne. 13:41.) These “last records”—modern revelation and the Book of Mormon—would “establish the truth of the first, which are of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” (1 Ne. 13:40.) Clearly the latter-day Bible would have a great degree of historical accuracy, though doctrinal confusion would still reign.
This is particularly true of the sacrament service. Although the Nephite sacrament was instituted independently of the Bible, its every purpose corresponds to Christ’s intent as recorded in the New Testament. By contrast, though “remembrance” and “communion” are common denominators of Christian rites, traditional Christian ceremonies have well over nine parts appreciation to one part determination to live the gospel. Yet Christ evenly balanced these purposes.
After administering the first sacrament, Jesus fully explained what communion, or fellowship, with him meant. The Apostles’ relationship of branch to stem of the vine would be maintained, the Savior explained, “if ye keep my commandments.” (John 15:10.) Their divine friendship had a firm condition: “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.” (John 15:14.) These words repeated the same challenges given right after the Savior administered the sacrament. (See John 14:15, 21, 23.) Thus, the Book of Mormon prayer contains the same full purposes stated by Christ in that founding hour. He broke bread and shared the cup while commanding remembrance. Then, while the taste lingered, he emphasized that commitment must be coupled with righteous living.
This fits the teachings in Christ’s fullest biblical statement of discipleship—the Sermon on the Mount. There he unfolded the meaning of righteousness, ending with the challenge that hearing must be followed by doing. (See Matt. 7:24, 26.) The Savior later closed his ministry with this double emphasis in the sacrament covenant. While still in the Upper Room, he explained mutual promises:
“If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever.” (John 14:15–16.)
The ancient American prayer contains the above essentials given by Jesus: “Always remember him, and keep his commandments … , that they may always have his Spirit to be with them.” (Moro. 4:3.) This blessing on the sacrament, restored through the Book of Mormon, states the Lord’s views simply, without elaboration. The Son of God never over-explained, and the Book of Mormon prayers bear his stamp. The baptized believer partakes of the sacrament with the double purpose of remembrance and resolve.
Christ’s words on both hemispheres illuminate each other. Together they establish the covenant we make as we partake of the sacrament—to remember Jesus and to be faithful to him. As we keep the covenants of the sacrament in our hearts and in our lives, the sweet Spirit of the Lord attends us. It is a companionship that is beyond all price and beyond all purchase.
To be continued.