First I would like to go through the Gospel of John Chapter 6, the bread of life discourse. In John 6:4 right before Jesus multiplied the fish and loaves, John states that the Jewish Passover was near, so we know around what religious festival this was taking place. After Jesus fed the 5,000 men (plus women and children), in John 6:30-33 the disciples ask Jesus what miraculous sign will he perform and they make a literal reference to when Moses fed their ancestors with the manna (the bread that fell from heaven). In Jn 6:32-35 Jesus says that his father gives true bread from heaven; the Jews ask Jesus to give them this bread and Jesus responds saying that he is the bread of life and that it is not Moses who gives them the bread but his father in heaven.
Now in verses 41-42 you can see that the Jews were taking what Jesus had said literal: “At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”
After this statement by the Jews, Jesus responds to this disbelief by repeating the reference to the literal Manna eaten in the time of Moses in verses 48-51. In verse 51 Jesus goes as far as to say that this bread is his flesh. The Jew’s respond to this statement in verse 52 by saying “ how can this man give us his flesh to eat”; it is clear that the Jews aren’t taking Jesus’ words figuratively or symbolically, they are asking a literal question (this parallels Jesus’ teaching on baptism to Nicodemus in Jn 3:4-5). Now if Jesus meant this figuratively he would have corrected them and let them know that he only meant it symbolically but he doesn’t, he just reinforces his previous statement. Jesus says in verses 53-54 that “truly I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” Jesus stresses in verse 53 that unless you eat his flesh and drink his blood you do not have life with in you, and then he goes on in verse 54 to say those who eat his flesh and drink his blood have eternal life (a reference to salvation), just from these words it is evident that eating and drinking of the Lord’s body and blood is extremely important.
In verse 55 Jesus elaborates on this statement that his flesh is food and his blood is drink, he says so boldly “55For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” Jesus stresses to the Jews that his flesh is real food and his blood is real drink, and to remain, or a better translation is to abide, in him they have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Again for the third time Jesus makes a reference to literal bread, the Manna from heaven, in verse 58. Verse 60 strongly supports that Jesus wasn’t talking figuratively or symbolically because after hearing this, the disciples told Jesus “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” if the disciples understood this teaching as merely symbolic, why would it be such a hard teaching to accept? After Jesus says this, the disciples in verse 61 were grumbling again and Jesus doesn’t say “don’t you know I meant it symbolically”, instead he says “Does this offend you?” Jesus asks a bold question and then he relates their disbelief with his ascending back to heaven (a sign one can see with his eyes), and he goes on to say that the spirit gives life (God’s spirit and divine revelation) but the flesh (their human reasoning) counts for nothing.
After this teaching by Jesus that he is truly the bread of life and that his disciples will have to eat his body and drink his blood, verse 66 says that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” Now let’s review what has taken place, up until this point thousands of Jew’s were following Jesus, they left their former lives in their Jewish communities (who shunned and despised the followers of Jesus) to follow the Messiah. After this teaching that you have to eat his flesh and drink his blood the multitudes dispersed and no longer followed him. These former followers of Jesus had to re-incorporate themselves into their former Jewish communities who by this time considered them outcasts and rebels.
If Jesus meant the eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood to be figurative then why would the thousands of his followers who faithfully followed him up to this point abruptly disperse and no longer follow him? Jesus would have been morally obligated as a teacher and their Shepard to explain that this teaching is only symbolic. But does Jesus do that? In the next verse, 67, Jesus turns to the apostles and asks the twelve if they would like to leave him too; there is no reasoning away or explanation otherwise; Jesus sticks to his teaching. Peter replies in verse 68 “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” The apostles can’t comprehend what Jesus means but they have faith in him and they believe he will give them the grace to accept and carry out his words.
On to Paul and his letter to the Church in Corinth……
In Cor 10: 16-17 Paul asks: Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 17Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. Paul asks the rhetorical question, isn’t the cup and bread a participation in the body and blood of Christ, and then goes on to say those who share in this bread are on body. This implies that the bread that they share unites them in the body of Christ. Paul doesn’t say is not the cup and bread symbolic of the body and blood of Christ? Paul teaches that by partaking of the cup and bread is a participation in the body of Christ. If the cup and bread just remained wine and bread then how could one would be participating in the Body of Christ?
Paul even makes this clearer in Cor 11, In verses 23 Paul tells the Church that the celebration of the last supper was received from the Lord and he is now passing it on to them, remember there was no completed Bible at the time (this happened at the end of the 4th century at the Council of Nicea), by Paul’s words one can see the importance of oral teachings as well as the written word (this is reflected if 2 Thessalonians 2:15). Paul goes on to restate the last supper Passover meal, this parallels the gospel accounts in Matt 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24 and Luke 22:15-20. Notice in verse 23 Jesus said this IS my body, not this symbolizes my body, but this IS my body, and then commands the apostles to do this in remembrance of him. In verse 25 Jesus refers to the cup as being the new covenant in his blood, this is the only time in the New Testament where Jesus uses the word covenant.
To fully understand the gravity of these words, one must understand what the covenant meant to the ancient Jews. Covenants create family bonds, between people and God. When a covenant is made persons are exchange as opposed to things, as in a contract; “I will be your God and you will be my People”, I am your husband and you are my wife, etc. Covenants are infinitely greater then contracts because you are dealing with people and the human person has infinite value. One can see various covenants and how they grew throughout the Bible: Adam and Eve (marriage, family is formed), Noah (household family), Abraham (tribal family), Moses (National Family, 12 tribes) and Jesus (new covenant, a world wide family). In all these covenants God releases grace (God’s own love) onto the people in the covenant and signified this family bond with an external symbol or sign (Rainbow with Noah, Circumcision with Moses, Baptism, etc). The signs of the covenant weren’t just external signs but actually signified what has been created and renewed between God and his people; by God’s grace the people in the covenant were changed from being creations of God to sons and daughters (children) of God. When a covenant is created an oath is sworn, or a promise with God is made, to be faithful to the covenant. If one is faithful to this oath they will be blessed but if one is unfaithful they will be cursed; perfect examples of this is Moses prohibition from the promise land for his unbelief (Num 20:7-12 and the death of King David’ son for his adultery and murder (2 Sam 11-12).
An example in the New Testament of an external sign that conveys internal grace can be seen very clearly in regards to Baptism (see: Mark 1:8-11, Luke 3:21-22, John 1:31-33, John 3:5, Acts 2:38, Acts 19:5-6, etc). Upon learning what the covenant meant to the Ancient Hebrews, the significance of Jesus’ using of the word covenant in the Last Supper comes to a great light.
On to 1Cor 11:26; Jesus goes on to say that “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” This verse implies by the term “whenever” that this meal should be done in repetition, also if the bread and wine were just symbols why then, when they are consumed would the death of the Lord be proclaimed? This view continues on into verses 27-30. In verse 27 Jesus says that anyone who eats or drinks unworthily will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Why would the eating and drinking of mere symbols unworthily cause one to sin against the body and blood of God? To sin against the body and the blood by taking the bread and wine unworthily would have to mean that he bread and wine ARE the body and blood of the Lord. In Paul’s conversion in the Book of Acts 9:1-5, Jesus asked Saul why are you persecuting me, Saul was persecuting Christians not Jesus himself, or was he? Jesus had already ascended into heaven; through Baptism our soul’s are spiritually infused and/or incorporated into the mystical body of Christ; we become part of Christ’s body (Rom 6:3-8). Jesus didn’t ask Saul why are you persecuting my children or my people, he asked why are you persecuting me. As Saul persecuted the mystical body of Christ (the Church) he literally persecuted Christ, just as when we eat the body and blood of the Lord (under the appearance of bread and wine) unworthily, we sin against the body and blood of Christ.
In verses 28 through 30 Paul says “28A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. 29For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.” In verse 28 Paul refers to the bread and cup and goes on to say that one should examine himself. In verse 29 Paul goes on to say that those who drink of the cup and eat of the bread without recognizing the body and blood pass judgment on themselves. Why would one first have to examine himself and then recognize the body and blood of the Lord when partaking merely in a symbolic memorial meal? And greater yet, why would not recognizing the body and blood pass judgment on oneself if the bread and wine are just symbols? Since the partaking of the body and blood is a covenantal act (renewing our covenant as God’s family by taking on his flesh and blood), the faithfulness and disposition of the partakers will result in a positive or negative outcome. If the participants are faithful to the covenant they will reap the benefits, but those who are unfaithful will be cursed, this is seen in verse 30, Paul goes on to say that many of the people are dying because they have eaten the body and drank the blood of the Lord in an unworthily manner.
Notice how from verse 23-30 Paul uses the terms ‘bread and cup’ and ‘body and blood’ interchangeably, he doesn’t differentiate, also it is seen that partaking in the Lord’s Supper has to be something much greater then a symbolic memorial meal to be able cause the participants to have judgment passed on them, a judgment so great that it can even result in death if they do not examine themselves and partake in a worthy manner. What Paul is teaching perfectly parallels Jesus’ shocking teaching which caused almost all of his followers to leave him in John 6 when he said “”I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. 57Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.”” An interesting side note to this is how the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the only Christian denominations that can factually trace their origin from Jesus and the Apostles, have taught consistently and indefinitely for almost 2,000 years the true and literal presence of Jesus’ body, blood, soul and divinity in The Holy Eucharist.
The contextual history of these biblical passages are extremely important; what did the early Christian writers have to say about this shocking teaching? Below are citations from the writings of the Early Church Fathers. The Fathers are recognized as the disciples of Jesus’ Apostles in the 1st century, all the way up until the 8th century. Eight centuries of Christian theologians, doctors, bishops and teachers, etc; these men were responsible, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, for the arbitration and closing of the Canon of the Holy Bible in the 4th century, particularly at the Synod of Hippo in 393AD and the 3rd Council of Carthage in 397AD. Below I have included the link to the writings of the early Church Fathers regarding their belief in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This is from a Catholic Apologetics site and can be easily verified with any secular or non-catholic scholarly authority. The following link contains only a handful of the writings of the Early Church Fathers and the various Church Councils on this topic: https://www.catholic.com/library/Real_Presence.asp.
The last topic I would like to bring up is the understanding of sacrifice in Judaism and its fulfillment in Christianity. Christ came to the world not to abolish the old but to fulfill it in the new, so one can see much foreshadowing in the Old Testament that is fulfilled in the New. This can be seen in many places through out the Bible; a good example is in 1Peter 19-21 where peter makes a reference to Noah being saved through water in the Ark and actually says this prefigured Baptism which now saves you. Noah and his family’s physical lives were saved though water, but now your soul is saved through baptism. Now regarding animal sacrifice, this practice of the Ancient Jew’s wasn’t just empty, bloody ritual. Sin deserves death, so God implemented a system were an unblemished lamb could take the place and serve the penalty for the sins of the persons performing and participating in the sacrifice. A problem with animal sacrifice is that the animal that was slain wasn’t able to atone for the sins of a household so the sacrifice had to be repeated over and over again. Since Christ is our new and perfect victim, his death atoned for the sins of the world once and for all, he became the perfect sacrificial lamb.
One can see that the rituals of the Passover weren’t just symbolic, in Exodus 12:1-47 God instituted the Passover meal and gave Moses specific instructions on how this should be celebrated. According to the above verses, God reveals that the sacrifice needed to be a male lamb, 1 year of age, un-blemished, it had to be slaughtered during the evening twilight, its blood had to smeared on the door posts with a hyssop branch, the flesh had to be roasted and eaten; any left over meat had to be burned. If the above prescription wasn’t followed exactly out, your first born son would be dead the next morning; one can see the supernatural hand of God working through natural ritual. In verse 14 and 24 God says that this Passover would be a perpetual institution. Now to atone for the sins of the whole world humanity needed a supernatural, perfect sacrifice. In John 1:29 John the Baptist refers to Jesus as the “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”. Now one can see the perfect transcendence from the old into the new; in the Old Testament the lamb imperfectly took the human penalty for sin, but now in the fulfillment of the old, a lamb has been brought up, not just to cover our sins, but to take them away.
We can see that Jesus perfectly followed the Law of Moses when it came to the Passover sacrifice. Jesus was a male, young, unblemished (without sin). When Jesus celebrated the Passover meal he said “do this in remembrance of me”, just as God told Moses in Ex 12:14,24, the sacrifice would be perpetual. In Matt 27:45-50 it is stated that Jesus died in darkness “from the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land”, just how the lamb had to be sacrificed at twilight according to Ex 12:6. One other thing I would like to point out is that during the Passover sacrifice 4 cups of wine were drunk and the Psalms were sung. In the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper, Jesus didn’t finish the Passover, he didn’t drink of the forth cup, he said “I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.” Jesus drinks of the fourth cup In John 19:24 when a sponge soaked in wine was brought to his mouth using a hyssop branch, the very same type of branch that was used to smear the blood of the sacrificial lamb on the door posts in Ex 12. After drinking the wine Jesus says in verse 30, “it is finished” and he gave up his spirit. When Jesus said it is finished he was referring to the now perfect Passover sacrifice. The four cups of wine had been drunk, the sacrificial lamb had been slain and his flesh had been eaten, the Passover sacrifice was finished (just as a side note in all 3 gospel accounts of the Last Supper there is no mention of an animal lamb being present because Jesus took its place).
In John 6 Jesus’ stresses to his followers that you had to eat his flesh and drinks his blood (because he is the Lamb of God), one can see that the followers understood Jesus meant this literally (by how they responded) but they couldn’t comprehend it, so many of them returned to their former ways of life. Jesus fulfilled and perfected the sacrificial death and atonement of sins in the new covenant; something that couldn’t be done in the old covenant. Jesus gave us a way to continue the now fulfilled perpetual sacrificial meal of Ex 12 through the Eucharist. “23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”25 In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.”
Through Holy Communion the Lord has given us the ability to partake in his body and blood until he comes, to fulfill his command to do this in remembrance of him, and to renew his covenant with us as the family of God by sharing true flesh and true blood. In this Divine Liturgy or Holy Mass of the Church, the sacrifice of Calvary is represented (not re-sacrificed) so we, the children of God, can partake in the body and blood of the Lord in an un-bloody manner, we can renew our covenant as God’s family and truly abide in him (Jn 6:56). Just how the eyes of the Apostles were opened to the truth of Jesus and the Holy Scriptures in the breaking of the bread in the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:30-32), Christ opens our eyes to truth and understanding though his real presence in the Holy Eucharist. One can see how this teaching of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches (the only Churches with historical roots that trace to Jesus and the Apostles) is in perfect sync with these passages and with all the teachings of the early Church.
In light of the meaning and rubrics of Jewish sacrifice, the foreshadowing in the old and fulfillment in the new, Jesus direct teaching on the Eucharist and the reaction of his followers and the unanimous belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist of the Early Church Fathers (who were taught by the Apostles), one can concluded that a merely symbolic interpretation of the Lords Supper would make no sense at all, nor is this a valid, historical teaching. Even early protestant reformers such as Martin Luther and John Wesley believed in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist (though they believe different things regarding this), not until the mid 16th century was this widely denied due to the influence or Reformers such as John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli, etc. I haven’t even scratched the surface on this subject; there is much more to go over on covenant, sacrifice, details, etc, but I was trying to keep this paper as short as possible. I hope you find this interesting and insightful.