Christians had the Lord’s Supper before they had the New Testament. This is indisputably true so long as by “New Testament” you mean the books of the bible. Jesus’ resurrection gathered Christians from Jerusalem to Judea to the edges of the Roman Empire for nearly two decades without a single word of it being written down.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that they did not have the New Testament as the Bible defines it. This only means that they did not have a set of documents recording it. But they certainly had the substance of a better and newer covenant established between God and man in the body of the one man Jesus Christ.
Long before anything was written down, whether coming from the mouth of Peter or Paul, James or Apollos, these unified Words from Jesus, about Jesus, rang forth. Everything that he had taught his Apostles was carried forward in clear and memorable words, a sound and sufficient pattern of “teaching,” or διδαχή (“di-da-kay”). This was the Church’s doctrine, what the first Christians knew to be True, even without having it written.
Even more important is that not all of this διδαχή was created equal. Yes, it was all true. But not all of it held the same place in the lives of the Christians who were instructed in it. All of it was confessed and believed with equal dedication, but not with equal repetition. As Christians came together to receive and remember the Words of the Lord, some Words were spoken more often than others.
We’ve already acknowledged this in previous chapters, but what is important to add to it now is that of all the Words which were repeated, and then repeated again, and then eventually written down, very few of them actually contain the terms “New Testament.” In all the New Testament documents which we’ve received, the phrase not only shows up merely a handful of times, but only shows up once in the mouth of Jesus himself.
Is it only an accident that the only recorded moment in which Jesus mentions the “New Testament” also happens to be the single most quoted and celebrated set of Words in all the Words he ever said? From the day of Pentecost onward, his Words about “the New Testament in [his] blood”, spoken around and with bread and wine in remembrance of him was the event which called Christians out of their homes, into streets and catacombs, away from the Hebrew Temple and out of the synagogues. There were many other things which Jesus said, much διδαχή spoken and passed on, but the words of “the New Testament” were the glue that bound everyone together into the present thing called “Church.”
This is dynamic. Before there was the Bible to hold us together, there was our Lord’s Supper. The Church of Jesus Christ existed for decades without New Testament Scriptures, but we did not exist for a single week without the New Testament of the Jesus’ holy supper. This institutional meal was so effective, so powerful, that the Apostles managed to go on for decades trusting in its sufficiency alone, never feeling a wit of pressure to bother writing any of it down!
That day did come. By then the churches had spread to so far that they existed in places so far off it was humanly impossible for an actual Apostle to be present at all times. It was in such places, during such absences, that some no-doubt-well-meaning Christians began teaching a word or two of their own. They began teaching things which Jesus had not quite said, or, without realizing it, they misconstrued the Words which he had said. These were the events that finally compelled the Apostles to take up pens and clarify Jesus’ Words.
Every letter which today we call the “New Testament” comes about in order to deal with the divisive threat of false teaching. Yet even here it is rather marvelous how little the meal of the New Testament in Jesus blood needs to be mentioned as a result. We see “different doctrines” or ἑτερο-διδαχή, (“heh-ter-o-di-da-kay”), later known as “heterodoxy”, arising on all manner of points, from the humanity of Jesus to the validity of sexual relationships in marriage. These were each unsound conflicts connected to false gospels.
From the least to the greatest, each white lie was a threat to the faith of the Christians deceived by it. But the ὀρθό-διδαχή (“or-thoe-di-da-kay”), the “orthodoxy” or “straight doctrine” of Jesus Words about the New Testament were already so established in their tradition of being repeated and obeyed every Lord’s Day that even the most rank of heretics never seemed to have the gumption to dispute them openly. The only reason we have any text on the matter at all is because one eclectic little congregation, in the midst of all sorts of other nonsense, did us the favor of failing to pay attention to the deep and abiding meaning of the Words.