“Breaking Bread” on the “First Day” of the Week
As the apostle Paul was making his way toward Jerusalem near the end of his third missionary journey, he met with several disciples in the coastal city of Troas. Although he was “hurrying to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the Day of Pentecost” (Acts 20:16), he tarried in Troas for seven days with several other disciples (20:4-6). According to Acts 20:7, “[O]n 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.” Since Luke indicates that Paul did not break bread until after his lengthy lesson and the resurrection of Eutychus (20:11), many have questioned whether Paul and the disciples ate of the Lord’s Supper on Saturday, Sunday, or Monday? Others have wondered whether “to break bread” in Acts 20 even has anything to do with the Lord’s Supper. What can be said about such matters?
Admittedly, to “break bread” in Bible times often referred to the eating of common meals. God once warned His prophet Jeremiah not to “break bread for the mourner” (Jeremiah 16:7, RSV). Jesus “took bread...and broke it” with the disciples to whom He appeared on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:30,35). The early Christians are said to have continued daily “breaking bread from house to house” eating “food with gladness and simplicity of heart” (Acts 2:46). Paul once “took bread and...broke it” and instructed his 275 companions on board a ship to Italy to eat it for their “preservation” (Acts 27:34-35, NASB). In ancient times, to “break bread” was a figure of speech known as synecdoche where a part (to break bread) was put for the whole (to eat a common meal, regardless of the kind of food and drink consumed).
In New Testament times, however, the phrase “to break bread” was also used to describe the partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus instituted this special supper while celebrating the Feast of Unleavened Bread with His disciples shortly before His death.
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:26-29, emp. added).
In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, Paul addressed the subject of the Lord’s Supper with these words: “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? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread” (emp. added). Paul later reminded the Corinthians of the night in which Jesus first instituted this memorial feast, saying, “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’” (1 Corinthians 11:23-24, emp. added). Because part of this memorial supper that Christians are commanded to keep involves the actual breaking of bread, the expression “to break bread” was used in reference to the Lord’s Supper in the early church (cf. Behm, 1965, 3:730). Similar to how this phrase was used as a synecdoche in regard to common meals, it was also used to represent the Lord’s Supper (where consumption of both the bread and the fruit of the vine is referred to as simply “the breaking of bread”).
Because the phrase “to break bread” refers both to common meals and the Lord’s Supper, one must examine the context of passages in order to understand which one is being discussed. For example, since in Acts 2:42 “breaking bread” is listed with other religious activities carried out by the church such as teaching, praying, and fellowshipping (from the Greek koinonia, which may include several aspects of “joint participation,” including free-will offerings on the first day of the week—cf. Romans 15:26; 2 Corinthians 9:13; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2; see Jackson, 2005, p. 31), one may logically conclude that “the breaking of bread” is a reference to the early Christians partaking of the Lord’s Supper. [The use of the article in this verse also leaves the impression that a particular event is under consideration, rather than a common meal where “food” (Greek trophe, a word never used of the Lord’s Supper—Barnes, 1956, p. 59) is served for the purpose of gaining nourishment (e.g., Acts 2:46; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:33-34).]
But what about the use of the phrase “to break bread” in Acts 20:7? What textual indicators are present that warrant the phrase in this passage to be understood as the Lord’s Supper? First, the term “to break bread” is a first aorist active infinitive (Robertson, 1997). Since infinitives in Greek and English denote the objective or purpose of action for the principal verb (cf. Mounce, 1993, p. 298), one can know that Paul, Luke, and the disciples at Troas “gathered together” for the primary purpose of “breaking bread.” When this information is processed in light of the fact that Paul earlier had written to the church at Corinth and implied that the purpose for them coming together was to partake of the Lord’s Supper (in an orderly manner—1 Corinthians 11:20,33), then the passage in Acts 20 makes much better sense: “to break bread” was (or at least included) the eating of the Lord’s Supper. What’s more, Paul remained in Troas for seven days despite being in a hurry to get to Jerusalem before Pentecost (which was about 31 days, 10 stops, and 1,000 miles away—cf. Acts 20:6,13-16; 21:1,3,7,8,15). Why tarry in Troas for seven days? It was not simply to eat a common meal with the saints. Rather, Paul desired to worship with the church in Troas “on the first day of the week,” which included observing “communion” with them (1 Corinthians 10:16).
But did Paul and the church at Troas really observe the Lord’s Supper on Sunday? First, it is possible that the bread Paul broke after spending all night preaching and talking was part of a common meal that he would have gladly received before beginning his extended journey to Jerusalem. Nevertheless, when Luke’s terminology in Acts 20:11 is carefully examined, it appears that Paul ate two separate meals with the disciples: the Lord’s Supper first (“had broken bread”), followed by a common meal (“and eaten”). This latter expression (“and eaten,” Greek geusamenos) “is nowhere used of the celebration of the Supper, whereas in Acts 10:10 it is applied to taking a common meal” (Jamieson, 1997). The former expression (“had broken bread”) has the Greek article before “bread” (lit., “had broken the bread,” ASV, emp. added) and “seems plainly to denote the celebration of the Lord’s Supper; their intention to do so being expressed in Acts 20:7, but their actually doing it nowhere if not here” (Jamieson, 1997; cf. Robertson, 1997; Woods, 1976, pp. 67-70; Wycliffe, 1985).
If Paul, then, waited to “break bread” until after midnight (20:7,11), would this not have been a Monday-morning observance of the Lord’s Supper? Regardless of whether the memorial feast was observed before or after midnight, one can be assured that it took place on Sunday, because it was “on the first day of the week” that the disciples met “to break bread.” The reason that eating the Lord’s Supper after midnight would have been acceptable conduct for many Christians is because the Jewish method of counting time was still widely acknowledged. The Jews and the Romans used different standards for calculating the hours of the day, and although both systems split the day into two periods of twelve hours, a new day for the Romans began at midnight (cf. Pliny, n.d., 2:79), whereas a new day for the Jews began in the evening at sundown and lasted until sundown the following day. Luke, like Matthew and Mark, used the Jewish method of reckoning time in both his gospel account and in the book of Acts (cf. Luke 23:44; Acts 2:15; 23:23; cf. also John 19:14; 20:1,19). Thus, Paul’s pre-midnight preaching corresponded to our Saturday evening, but was the beginning of their “first day.” Regardless of whether they observed the Lord’s Supper on the evening of the first day or the morning of the first day, it was observed on the proper day, the day on which Jesus rose from the grave (Luke 24:1)—the first day of the week.
Christians should count it a privilege and honor to observe the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:22), and commune with the Lord and His people (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). Sadly, some in the twenty-first century may attempt to justify observing this sacred supper on some occasion other than the first day by alleging that the early Christians observed it on Saturday night or Monday morning. The important thing to remember in this discussion, however, is that the early disciples came together on the first day of the week to observe this memorial feast. In the first century, when the Jewish method of reckoning time was still widely accepted, the first day began on what we call Saturday evening and ended Sunday evening. In the twenty-first century, most (if not all) people count time from midnight to midnight. Since God did not specify which method of time to use, but did specify the numerical day of the week in which the supper of the Lord is to be kept, Christians should abide by the standards of time wherever they reside.
[For discussion on whether or not Christians should partake of the Lord’s Supper every first day of the week, see Miller, 2003]
Barnes, Albert (1956), Notes on the Old and New Testaments: Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Behm, Johannes (1965), “klao, klasis, klasma,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Jackson, Wayne (2005), The Acts of the Apostles: From Jerusalem to Rome (Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications).
Jamieson, Robert, et al. (1997), Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Bible Commentary (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Miller, Dave (2003), “Sunday and the Lord’s Supper,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2304.
Mounce, William D. (1993), Basics of Biblical Greek (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, trans. Bostock and H.T. Riley, [On-line], URL: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Plin.+Nat.+2.79.
Robertson, A.T. (1997), Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Woods, Guy N. (1976 reprint), Questions and Answers (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman College).
Wycliffe Bible Commentary (1985), Electronic Database: Biblesoft.