The Ancient Faith
IS “BREAKING BREAD” IN ACTS 2:46 A COMMON MEAL OR THE LORD’S SUPPER?
The expression “breaking bread” in Acts 2:46 has been misconstrued by several scholarly men (Ellicott, Kelly, Meyer, Rawson Lumby, Lange, Spence, etc.) as a reference to the Lord’s Supper. Others like John Gill more diplomatically express their uncertainty as to the meaning of the phrase. The principle reason for some erroneously believing this verse to be a reference to the Lord’s Supper is expressed in the following quote from The Expositor’s Greek Testament,
The question has been raised as to whether this expression has the same meaning here as in Acts 2:42, or whether it is used here of merely ordinary meals. The additional words μετελάμβανον τροφῆς have been taken to support this latter view, but on the other hand if the two expressions are almost synonymous, it is difficult to see why the former κλῶντες ἄρτον should have been introduced here at all.
However, oftentimes phrases within a relative contextual proximity possess distinct meanings, one with a religious significance, the other a mundane. This is the case with Acts 20:7 in contrast with Acts 20:11. The entire congregation came together in Acts 20:7 to bread as a part of religious service, yet Acts 20:11 refers to Paul taking refreshment in preparation for journey on the morrow. As Albert Barnes keenly points out regarding verse 11, “As this is spoken of Paul only, it is evidently distinguished from the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.”
Before we begin a textual analysis of Acts 2:46, it is important to point out that “breaking bread” is often used in the Bible to mean “eating a meal,” E.W. Bullinger explains in Figures of Speech Used in the Bible,
“To break bread” (klasai arton) is the literal rendering of the Hebrew idiom (paras lechem), and it means to partake of food, and is used of eating as in a meal. The figure (or idiom) arose from the fact that among the Hebrews bread was made, not in loaves as with us, but with round cakes about as thick as the thumb. These were always broken, and not cut, hence the origin of the phrase “to break bread” (p.839).
It is used this way in numerous Biblical texts such as Jer.16:7, Lam.4:4; Matt.14:19; Luke 24:30,35; Acts 20:34-36, etc.).
On the other hand, the phrase is used in other places such as Acts 2:42; 1 Corinthians 10:16; Matthew 26:26, Acts 20:7 and other passages as meaning to partake of the Lord’s Supper.
In this study, we will examine that the phrase “breaking bread” in Acts 2:46 must refer to the eating of common meals for the following five reasons:
(1) The use of the definite article “the” prior to “breaking of bread” in Acts 2:42 in the Greek text seems to indicate a religious ritual rather than a common meal in that verse. In contrast, verse 46 is not speaking of “the breaking of bread,” but simply of “breaking bread.”
As many Greek scholars recognize, the inclusion of the article before “breaking” in verse 42 is indication of a religious observance, whereas in verse 46 no such article is found.
A Catholic writer, John McEvilly carefully explains in An Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles regarding the phrase “breaking bread” in Acts 2:46 thusly, “Here we have not the article ‘the’ prefixed ‘the bread’ as in v. 42, where it is commonly understood of the Eucharist. ‘From house to house’ [means] privately partaking of food in their own houses.” McEvilly explains, “They took their meat with gladness’ is a fuller explanation of ‘breaking bread,’ and shows that here there is not [a] question, as in v. 42, of the Blessed Sacrament, but only of social intercourse. It refers to their ordinary meals of which they partook in common” (p.34). (McEvilly’s reasoning is sound in this verse, although his terminology “Eucharist” and “Blessed Sacrament” are unscriptural terms.)
The use of the definite article to distinguish between two different actions can be illustrated in a Christian’s personal faith in Christ as distinguished from “the faith.” The first refers to one’s personal conviction whereas the latter to “the substance of Christian faith, what is believe by Christians” (Thayer, p.513). In like manner, merely breaking bread in verse 42 suggests a subjective meal whereas “the breaking of the bread” refers to a ceremony observed by the congregation as a whole.
(2) The word “bread” in Acts 2:46 which is coupled with the eating “food” indicates that which would provide sustenance and bodily nourishment, whereas the bread referred to in Acts 2:42 is linked to acts of worship.
Consider this quote by J.W. McGarvey on Acts 2:46,
The “breaking bread,” klontes arton, mentioned in this sentence, is not the “breaking of the loaf,” e klasis touartou of Acts 2:42; but refers to common meals of which they partook “from house to house.” This is evident from the connection: “breaking bread from house to house, they received their food with gladness and singleness of heart.” It was that breaking of bread in which they “received their food,” which was not done in partaking of the emblematic loaf. There is no evidence that the emblematic loaf was ever broken in mere social gatherings. It belongs exclusively to the Lord’s day. [See Acts 20:7.]
Albert Barnes writes regarding the phrase “from house to house” in Acts 2:46,
The common interpretation, however, is, that they did it in their various houses, now in this and now in that, as might be convenient. If it refers to their ordinary meals, then it means that they partook in common of what they possessed, and the expression “did eat their meat” seems to imply that this refers to their common meals, and not to the Lord’s Supper.
Barnes goes on to say that “‘their meat’ refers to “all kinds of sustenance; what nourished them – τροφῆς trophēs – and the use of this word proves that it does not refer to the Lord’s Supper; for that ordinance is nowhere represented as designed for an ordinary meal, or to nourish the body. Compare 1 Corinthians 11:33-34.”
The way Luke joins the participial phrase “breaking bread from house to house” to modify “they ate their food” in Acts 2:46 shows that both phrases refer to the same act. For the first phrase to refer to a spiritual observance and the second to refer to an ordinary meal would be to blur the lines between the common and spiritual. Such would stand in contraposition the apostle Paul’s emphatic demand in 1 Corinthians 11:33, 34 that a distinct line be drawn between “eat at home” (v.34) and “come together to eat” the Lord’s Supper (v.33).
David Pratte makes the following excellent observation,
“If ‘break bread’ in Acts 2:46 did mean the Lord’s Supper and ‘ate food’ there refers to a common meal, then we would have Christians having the Lord’s Supper at home in conjunction with a common meal. But this would clearly violate what Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. He instructed us there to eat the Lord’s Supper when we come together in the church (verses 18,20,33), but to eat regular meals at home (i.e. elsewhere than in the worship assemblies of the church- verse 22,34)” (Commentary on the Book of Acts, p.61).
“They ate their food” according to Myers means “μετελάμβανον τροφῆς, they received their portion of food (comp. Acts 27:33 f.), partook of their sustenance.”
The eating of “their portion of food” shows moderation. As John Calvin clarifies regarding Acts 2:46, this was not a gluttonous feast, but “they used to eat together, and that thriftily. For, those which make sumptuous banquets do not eat their meat together so familiarly. Again, Luke addeth, in singleness of heart; which is also a token of temperance. In sum, his meaning is to declare, that their manner of living was brotherly and sober.”
Adam Clarke rightly associates “continuing daily with one accord in the temple” with being “present at all assemblies of worship, and joined together in prayers and praise to God.” In contrast, he states that “breaking bread from house to house” may signify that “select companies, who were contiguous to each other, frequently ate together at their respective lodgings on their return from public worship.”
To support his claim, Clarke goes on to write,
But κατ’ οικον, which we translate from house to house, is repeatedly used by the Greek writers for home, at home, for though they had all things in common, each person lived at his own table. Breaking bread is used to express the act of taking their meals. The bread of the Jews was thin, hard, and dry, and was never cut with the knife as ours is, but was simply broken by the hand.
As Jesus commanded his disciples to pray for their daily “bread”, so these first converts who had opened their homes to share their “bread” with those in need. As such, verse 46 addresses the physical as well as the spiritual nourishment of these new members of Christ’s body. In this way, they “continued daily in the temple” (fulfilling spiritual needs) and daily “breaking bread from house to house” (fulfilling physical needs).
(3) The connection between the sharing of possessions and goods in verse 45 cannot be extricated from the sharing of bread in verse 46.
The situation described in Acts 2:45 is inextricably connected to their “breaking bread from house to house” in verse 46. The goal of their selling “their possessions and goods” and parting “them to all men, as every man had need” was not to place every church member on an equal economic level (Acts 2:45). The liquidation of their possessions and subsequent distribution to those in need were made to alleviate those in need. J.W. McGarvey explains,
Poor brethren must not be allowed to suffer for the necessities of life, though it require us to divide with them the last loaf in our possession. 1 John 3:17 “He who has this world’s goods and sees his brother have need, and shuts up his compassion from him, how dwells the love of God in him?” The Church in Jerusalem was not the only one which engaged in this species of benevolence (Acts 11:27-30.20:2,3).
Thus, Matthew Poole’s comments regarding “from house to house” in this verse is very apropos. He writes, “Now here, now there, as they could conveniently; the richer also entertaining their poorer brethren at their tables.” To isolate verse 46 from preceding verse is an error. Taken in connection with verse 45, “breaking bread from house to house” must describe the opening of their homes and sharing of their food with other brethren, many of whom we know from the preceding verse were brethren in need. The love here demonstrated, in which the more affluent brethren did not look down on the poor brethren, but shared with them and even invited them to sit at their table “with gladness and simplicity of hearts.”
It is no wonder we read of the gladness they felt upon breaking bread from house to house. Without a doubt, the recently converted received great spiritual strength, cheer and comfort from sharing meals. As Matthew Poole correctly asserts that “the rich were more than recompensed with inward peace and satisfaction, for what they gave unto their poor brethren.”
(4) The contrast between their “continuing daily in the temple” and “breaking bread” in the houses indicates a contrast between the religious and the mundane, between perseverance in acts of worship in a place of worship (the temple) versus inviting brethren to sharing meals together in common households.
This contrast is emphasized the apostle by using the enclitic Greek participle τε . . . τε which Thayer equates it to the English “as . . . so”, saying that it “presents as parallel (or coordinate) the ideas or sentences which it connects” (p.617). For this reason, Young translates Acts 2:46 using “also…also” to emphasize that the two activities were separate, “Daily also continuing with one accord in the temple, breaking also at every house bread.” Lest anyone think they spent all day every day in the temple, he adds that they also spent time in private “breaking bread from house to house.”
This parallel structure seems to indicate that “daily” can be applied to both expressions. Hence, for “breaking bread” in Acts 2:46 to mean the Lord’s Supper, one would have to prove that the adverb “daily” only applies to the first phrase “continuing with one accord in the temple” and not to “breaking bread.” Zerr writes regarding Acts 2:46, “The continuing was to be done daily; hence we know the breaking of bread was not the Lord’s Supper, for that was done only on the first day of the week (chapter 20:7).” However, whether daily modifies both “breaking bread” as well as “continuing in the temple” or not, one thing is for certain: The daily assembling of Christians in the temple was a distinct, unrelated activity to “breaking bread from house to house.”
John Calvin regarding the phrase “breaking bread from house to house” in Acts 2:46, comments that, “For whereas some do think that in this place, by breaking of bread is meant the Holy Supper, it seemeth to me that Luke meant no such thing.” He notices the contrast between public (the temple) and private (house to house) in this way, “Luke signifieth unto us, that they did not only show some token of true godliness publicly, but that the course and tenor of their private life was alone in that respect.”
Jameson Faucet Brown comments that “house to house” indicates “in private, as contrasted with their temple-worship.”
Leo Boles writes regarding this verse, “The disciples were still worshipping in the temple, as no wide separation had as yet come between the Christians and the Jews. They broke their bread at home, and rejoiced in all the temporal blessings that God had given them.” Joe Hisle in A Commentary on the Book of Acts also sees this contrast, namely that “the Jewish temple is an assembling for the disciples” and “The breaking of bread is not in reference to communion service as is verse 42, but to a common meal.” James Burton Coffman likewise connects “breaking bread at home” in verse 46 with the Christian generosity of the previous verse, stating, “There is no reference here to the Lord’s Supper.”
Lenski comments that “breaking of bread” refers to “all the meals, not merely such as should precede the Sacrament as an agape. ‘House by house’ is like ‘day by day’. It does not mean ‘at home’ but in each home. Wherever there was a Christian home its residents partook of their food ‘in exultation of heart.’”
Robertson writes, “They were still worshipping in the temple for no breach had yet come between Christians and Jews. Daily they were here and daily breaking bread at home (κατ οικον — kat’ oikon) which looks like the regular meal.”
(5) The phrase “singleness of heart” most appropriately refers to an attitude of unity which was prevalent not only on the first day of the week but every day.
Calvin emphasizes that “simplicity of heart” and “gladness” are phrases which here do not refer to corporate worship but to eating common meals with other Christians. He states that “there can be no singleness of heart in praising God, unless the stone be also in all parts of the life.” Calvin uses “stone” in reference to the root meaning of the Greek word translated “simplicity,” a noun “derived from the adjective which means ‘without a stone,’ hence, perfectly smooth and even, metaphorically, a condition that is undisturbed by anything contrary” (Lenski’s comments on Acts 2:46). J.W. McGarvey defines it thusly, “By the expression “singleness of heart” is meant the concentration of their affections and desires upon a single subject.” The affluent and the poor brethren ate together, since they were brought together in Christ, with singleness of purpose and heart.
Just as the verse speaks of how this early Jerusalem converts persevered in the temple in public worship, they also leave us an example that we might have “a thrifty fellowship in our manner of living, and in all our whole life to embrace singleness, to enjoy the spiritual joy, and to exercise ourselves in the praises of God. Furthermore, the singleness of heart reacheth far; but if you join it in this place with breaking of bread, it shall signify as much as sincere love, where one man dealeth plainly with another, neither doth any man craftily hunt after his own profit” (Calvin’s Commentary on Acts 2:46).
There is no redundancy in the use of “breaking of bread” and then referring to the same act by saying “they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart.” As John Chrysostom (349-407 A.D.) wrote over a millennium ago concerning this verse,
It seems to me that in mentioning “bread,” he here signifies fasting and hard life; for they “took their portion of food,” not of dainty fare. “With gladness,” he says. . . . Do you see that the words of Peter contain this also, namely, the regulation of life? “And singleness of heart.” For no gladness can exist where there is no simplicity.
APPLICATION OF THIS TRUTH
Having considered five indications from the text and context that “breaking bread” in verse 46 of necessity refers to a common meal, let us consider two questions which naturally arise in the pensive disciple.
Question 1 – Since Acts 2:46 does not refer to “the breaking of the loaf” mentioned in verse 42, where did the Christians eat the Lord’s Supper if not in their houses?
Just because about 3000 were baptized on the Day of Pentecost does not necessarily indicate that approximately all three thousand people met daily meeting in the temple for time without end (although it was certainly large enough to accommodate this number). Such an assumption is unreasonable, since the temple controlled by the Jewish leaders would not have permitted the Christians to congregate there for an extended period of time.
“With one accord” signifies “their unity in spirit, love and truth, and does not necessarily indicate an enormous assembly of the entire approximately “three thousand souls.”
In addition, the Bible does not indicate the duration of time for which the Jerusalem church had these daily assemblies of worship. It appears that they met for the next several days following Pentecost (v.46, 47). During the time, it would have been necessary for the converts who lived in Jerusalem to open their homes and extend hospitality to those who did not live there. However, it is presumptuous to conclude every new convert took up residence in Jerusalem indefinitely.
Likewise, the Biblical text in Acts 2 does not state that the Jerusalem church met on Sunday in one massive assembly consisting of nearly 3000 people. To make that assumption is to “think above what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6). Many of the Jews who were temporarily visiting Jerusalem from various parts of Israel and other nations most certainly returned home after a short time. To conclude that the every new convert simply abandoned their homes permanently is an unreasonable assumption.
The text does not say they met in one massive assembly on the first day of the week in Jerusalem. As Alfred Newberry points out,
Many today object to the use of one cup and one loaf in the Lord’s Supper, saying that is impractical to serve a large audience with only a single loaf. Some argue that the 3,000 believers on Pentecost all observed the Lord’s Supper that day in the assembly, and this proves it is permissible to use more than one loaf. It is a human assumption that 3,000 met for worship, because the Bible says that 3,000 were baptized. (p.15)
He goes on to compare the Bible requirement in Passover to take “a lamb for a house” (Ex.12:3), which is similar to what the Lord commands of Christians, to take “one loaf” per congregation (1 Cor.10:17). He answers Bro. Dearman’s over-assumptive argument thusly,
Regarding the Passover, the Lord said, “And if the household be too little for the lamb, let him and his neighbor next unto his house take it according to the number of the souls” (Exodus 12:4). The Lord told the Jews to make the house fit the pattern, which was “one lamb for each house.” They were not to make the pattern fit the house. Likewise today, the congregation must be made to fit the pattern. . . Bro.Dearman conveniently ignores the fact that it is unscriptural to have as many congregations as are needed. It is scriptural to have 1,1000 or 1,000 congregations in a city. Yet men violate the pattern in order to have “mega churches” where “talents are buried”, people are strangers, and elders haven’t a chance of keeping watch over member’s souls.
Bible authority exists for establishing several congregations of a reasonable size. God chose not to tell us how long the believers who were from other nations and cities stayed in Jerusalem nor how large the congregation there was. However, we can safely assume, based on the non-contradictory nature of the Sacred Scriptures, that they did not meet in a “mega church” to partake of the Lord’s Supper. After an unspecified time, those visiting from other provinces must have returned home, carrying with them the good news of salvation, and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38,39). The gift of the Holy Spirit which they had received upon conversion would have equipped them to impart God’s word in their hometowns when they returned.
Question 2 – We know from other places the entire congregations of Christ in some cities met in the houses of members. Does not Acts 2:46 indicate that the brethren in Jerusalem established “temporary house churches”?
Absolutely not. As we have demonstrated in great detail above, Acts 2:46 is not a reference to “temporary house churches.” Such a phenomenon is foreign to Scripture.
On the contrary, in other parts of the New Testament congregations were established as enduring congregations in which the entire membership forming that local body meet in a brother’s house. For example, “the church in Philemon’s house” (Philemon 1:2), or “the church that met in Aquila and Pricilla’s house” (Romans 16:5) or “the church which is in Nymphas’ house” were established congregation and the entire body of believers in that area met in the same house owned by the brothers specified.
In contrast, the act of “breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and singleness of heart” in Acts 2:46 in contrast has nothing to do with the worship assembly of the church.
Let us be carefully to never confuse these private day-to-day gatherings for the purpose of sharing a common meal as were practiced in Acts 2:46 with the public Lord’s Day assembly ordained by God for the purpose of eating the Lord’s Supper. The worship assemblies of the church involve teaching that is “public” (Acts 20:20), and are assemblies to which the public is invited, as is indicated in 1 Co.14:23. The routine amenity of breaking bread in Acts 2:46 in which those who had houses invited their new brothers and sisters (many of which were in need) into their homes to share a meal has nothing to do with the public gatherings of the church each first day of the week for the purpose of breaking bread in memory of Jesus (Acts 20:7; 1 Co.10:16).
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