Merely Symbols

Every first Sunday of the month, the church I am a member of observes the Lord’s Supper, which at least for this month, coincides with the passage I am studying in morning devotions. It is a wonderful, sobering, yet amazing part of a fellowship of local Christians, something we should not take for granted.

However, there is often some confusion about this ordinance in the church. Some observe it as families, some take it as a whole congregation, some hold it as one of many sacraments as a way grace is transferred to a person. Still others claim that the bread and the juice/wine become the body and blood of Jesus. There is a lot of debate regarding the issue of frequency to observe it, but I want to really zero-in on this last issue about the Lord’s Supper: Transubstantiation.

That’s not a word you hear every day, but it is the theological term used to describe the phenomenon the Catholic church claim occurs when the Lord’s Supper is observed (the Lutheran church holds a similar view, but it is not quite the same). The belief is that when the minister blesses the bread and wine, they are actually turned into the body and blood of Christ. The reason they claim this comes from Jesus’ own words which are cited in 1 Corinthians 11—

“The Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me’.”

1 Corinthians 11:23-25

Now at first glance, these verses seem to teach this idea of actually eating and drinking Christ. Jesus said that the bread was His body and the wine was His blood, right? While it may appear so, we need to understand the Biblical background to what He was saying that night. There are also some linguistic considerations we must take into account.

Believe it or not, that night of Jesus’ betrayal was not the first time He told people they had to eat/drink Him. Actually, it was part of a major confrontation in the Gospel According To John. The setting for that event is The Feeding Of The Five Thousand with just five loaves and two fish. The crowds come back to Jesus the next day, looking for more bread, just like Moses and the Israelites ate bread from God for forty years (John 6:30, 31).

Jesus corrects their false desire, showing that physical bread was not the sign they should be looking for, neither would it give them eternal life. There was another Bread that God was giving, and it would be theirs’ if they would receive it. When the Jews cry out for that bread, Jesus boldly stated, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:34, 35). What followed was a lengthy argument between the Jews and Him about what this meant. During that dialog, Jesus grows more firm in what He has said, saying, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life” (John 6:53, 54). The Jews might have had an unsettled feeling before, but when Jesus said that, they could no longer listen, and John notes that many withdrew from Him and left Him with only a handful of followers compared to the previous multitudes (John 6:60-67).

As unsettling as those words might sound to you and me, they were abominable sounding to many of the Jews’ of Jesus’ day. To them, He was basically advocating a blatant breaking of the Law. Yahweh had strictly forbidden the Israelites from eating anything with blood; even the foreigners dwelling among them were not exempt (Leviticus 17:10-14; 19:26). So when Jesus told them, “If you want eternal life, eat Me,” it was unthinkable to them.

But when we look at what Jesus was saying, we realize that He was using a metaphor to get to their hearts to show whether they were just following the letter of the Law or if they were truly devoted to following the Lord. To an outward observer, Jesus’ words prevented them from following Him any longer. Yet they missed what He was really saying. Throughout the confrontation in John 6, Jesus uses parallel phrases of “eat My flesh and drink My blood” with “believe in Me” (John 6:35, 47-51, 57, 58). Also consider that “eternal life” is described as being given to those who believe in Him as well as those who eat/drink Him (John 6:37-40, 47, 51, 54, 58).

When we compare this terminology, we realize that the two phrases are in truth synonymous. “Eating” and “drinking” are merely pictures for the intimate, life-giving relationship Jesus desires with us and that is essential for eternal life. On the last day, His condemnation of unbelievers is this: “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-23). It is the relationship and belief that count. We do not actually eat Him, but we believe in Him, receive Him, and are given eternal life, just like physical food gives us physical life here on earth.

So now let’s tie this in with what we started with. Jesus was not saying that the bread and wine (or grape juice) transforms into His body and blood, but it is representative. It is a metaphor, something we use every day. Just consider the phrase, “You’re such a pig!” We don’t mean that the person actually turned into a hog, but is demonstrating qualities similar to that of swine.  It is an insult, not an actual description of the biological makeup of the person.

Here’s another piece of evidence: the New Covenant. Jesus said that the wine was “the new covenant in My blood” (1 Corinthians 11:25). This has reference back to Jeremiah 31:31-34, which is God’s promise of bringing His people into “a new covenant…not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke” (Jeremiah 31:31, 32). Instead of having the Law written “on tablets of stone,” it would now be written on men’s hearts (Jeremiah 31:33, 34; 2 Corinthians 3:1-8). We have been discussing this in seminary, and our professor has noted that this writing of the Law on the hearts of God’s people and the universal knowledge that results is truly what is “new” about this covenant.

Notice anything absent in it? There is no mention of drinking any blood. The New Covenant is entered into because God brings a person into it by doing a work in their heart and placing His Spirit within them (see also Ezekiel 36:22-27). Therefore,, when Jesus said that we drink the cup which “is the new covenant in [His] blood,” He was not saying that participating in the Lord’s Supper brings us into that covenant (1 Corinthians 11:25). Rather, He was calling to mind the Biblical context, showing that it was belief in Him as Messiah that brings someone into the New Covenant, which all Christians are a part of through the Spirit.

Now bringing this all together, the Biblical context of eating/drinking Jesus’ flesh and blood along with the New Covenant make it clear that the bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper are merely symbols, pictures that have similar characteristics to belief in His broken body and shed blood. They do not change substance at all, but call our minds to recognize the truths they represent and “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). This is the background of the elements of the Lord’s Supper, and when we bare these truths in mind, it should stir our hearts to give thanks all the more to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

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