The most profoundly distinct doctrine of the Christian faith, alongside that of spiritual regeneration, would probably be that of the covenental communion of the body and blood of Christ.
No other christian teaching has stirred up so much confusion and arguing, from the time it was tought by Christ even up until this day. The Lord’s supper, the Eucharist, or communion as we call it, is first proclaimed by Christ as a means of grace with a heavily emphasized salvific function.
At the initial mentioning of the concept of communion Jesus went so far in explaining the literal aspect of the eating of his body and drinking of his blood that scores of people were offended to the point of leaving him, because they just couldn’t stand hearing it.
The series of biblical events is of utmost importance for the bible examiner to conclude the correct teaching on the aspects and functions of this doctrine. Jesus becomes aware that people, even many of his followers, quit following him for the provocative nature of what his words entail. When he is made aware, he neither expounds it further to the multitude, nor (as sometimes was his custom) privately to the apostles. Rather, he goes on to re-emphazise what he has just said and confronts the apostles by asking them whether they will also leave him over this teaching. To claim that the language Jesus is using here is symbolic, is to apply a different standard of interpreting scripture as a Bible believer than what is otherwise the practise since Scripture itself does not in any grammatical way seem to leave room for allegorical meanings.
Let us take a look at the text in question, in the gospel of John chapter 6 (KJV).
“48 I am that bread of life.
49 Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead.
50 This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die.
51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Jesus is here blatantly clearly identifying himself (his body) as bread of life, and directly goes on to tie it allegoricaly to the manna in the desert by saying that as they survived physically in the desert by eating the God given bread, so shall men live forever (not die) by eating of his body, this eating is thus directly associated to spiritual salvation and eternal life.
“52 The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
According to Old Testament dietary law, consuming human flesh is of course prohibited. This teaching of Jesus is shocking, but this is a spiritual matter and not a matter of physical food nor physical salvation as in the case of the manna in the desert.
“53 Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.
54 Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Here Christ again directly ties the consuming of his communion with spiritual salvation and eternal life, in complete accordance with his previous statements of his blood being the New Testament, thus consuming this communion meal, the Lord’s supper, is taking part in the salvific sacrificial grace of Christ on the cross.
“55 For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.”
Again emphasizing the actuality of the bread (Jesus himself as allegorical manna) being actual meat (flesh).
“56 He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.
57 As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me.
58 This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever.“
Again Christ is attributing the communion meal salvific grace and abilities.
“59 These things said he in the synagogue, as he taught in Capernaum.
60 Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, This is an hard saying; who can hear it?
61 When Jesus knew in himself that his disciples murmured at it, he said unto them, Doth this offend you?
66 From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.
67 Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?”
Here Christ has the opportunity to explain himself if his strong speech was actually symbolic, instead of further provoking the unbelieving jews and even his own audience. Yet he does not.
“68 Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.”
To say that the Lord’s supper is the actual real body and blood of Christ is not an obscure interpretation, the entire body of teaching of Christ on this matter not only is not using a symbolic language, but is continuously emphasizing and reiterating the same plain points even when it is clear that it if provoking and is causing confusion not only among the unbelieving jews, but as well among Christ’s own followers.
Let us also consider the institution of the Lord’s supper in Matthew 26.
“26 And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.
27 And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it;
28 For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”
These verses contain the same teaching as Christ previously tought publicly, as we read above in the gospel of John. In conclusion, Jesus is taking bread and wine and blessing it, commanding his disciples to drink it for the reason that it is the New Testament (covenant) blood which is the same blood of Christ as was shed for the remission of our sins on the cross. Thus, as we saw in the John account, it has to be a means of salvific grace.
At a later occasion Paul reiterated in the words of institution what Christ had previously tought. It is clear that Paul interprets Christ’s teaching on the substance of the eucharistic elements in a literal sense.
Let’s examine the text of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians to distinguish some details about the Lord’s supper, chapter 11, verses 23-29.
“23 For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread:
24 And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.”
Here we see that as Jesus takes the bread and gives thanks, although still remaining bread it is also called his body.
“25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.
26 For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.”
Here we see the same procedure, as common wine is declared to be the blood of Christ and the New Testament. At the same time it is wine, there is no ambiguity about that, as it simultaneously at the declaration of Christ somehow becomes his blood. Christ does not say that it symbolizes his blood, but that it is a meal of body and blood which in fact is the New Testament.
How can wine be the New Testament? The blood is the New Testament because it is the blood from the body of Christ that was shed for the remission of our sins by our Saviour Jesus Christ on the cross, thus instituting the new covenant, or testament. This also explains the authentic salvific, actually redeeming grace of the New Covenant contained in not only the blood of Christ as it was shed for our sins on the cross, but as well as it administers the same grace by miraculously still being the actual blood of Christ. That is, the cup of wine contains the same blood of Christ as was shed for our sins on the cross – the life giving redeeming blood of Jesus the saviour.
“27 Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.”
Again, there is no sign of any symbolism used. Christ is equating the bread and wine of the communion meal with his actual body and blood.
“28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.
29 For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.”
Again Christ is plainly stating the authenticity of the communion meal being his literal body.
To willfully and strategically apply a different practise of interpreting scripture in these specific instances is to allow one self to construct doctrine from ones own preexisting notions without biblical evidence for it, likely solely out of an anti-catholic pathos.
However, if one would read the verses of scripture that deal with the Lord’s supper without any theologial lences or preconceived denominational ideas, it would not be possible to reach the conclusion that the body and blood are strictly symbolic, since the language does not allow for it, neither does it make any theologial sense for Christ to teach so extensively on this matter if it in fact does not have any salvific significance whatsoever, let alone being merely symbolic.
In history, Christians have always understood the bible to mean what it says and to say what it means, and these verses cannot be assumed to be an exception, especially considering how the parttaking in the Lord’s supper is equated to salvation itself.
The conclusion therefore has to be that the bread and the wine remains bread and wine as both Christ and Paul speak of it as such, as well as actually being body and blood as it is repeatedly stressed by Christ that it is so.
There has to be a symbiosis of hearing and believing the gospel and parttaking in the Lord’s supper as means of salvation. There can, from the language of Christ himself, be no contradiction. Salvation is being saved by God’s grace though faith in Christ, and salvation is likewise parttaking in the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ. Both are salvific grace being administered by God through Christ, and both are trusting in that salvific work of Christ on the cross.