The Lord’s Supper: More than a Symbol

“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink…..the one who eats this bread will live forever” (Jn 6:53-55, 58 NRSV).

It bothers me that in most evangelical churches there seems to be a casual attitude towards how we regard the Lord’s Supper.  For example, in many such churches, the leaders are allowing parents of very young children to let them take the bread and wine.  This is especially so where the elements are taken around to every person in the building and offered to them; at which time, young children with no discernment are allowed to take the elements; and it is obvious, in observing them (as I have), that they think it is a game.

Another niggling concern for me is that, in most evangelical churches today, grape juice is substituted for the wine.  The justification given for this is that grape juice and wine are simply different forms of “the fruit of the vine”; that the use of wine could be a problem to those who suffer from alcoholism; and some congregational members don’t drink alcohol so prefer not to drink it even at the Lord’s Supper.   This troubles me because every account in the NT concerning the Lord’s Supper says or implies that wine is used, the “cup” being one of the four cups of wine in the Passover.  What gives anyone the right to change something that Jesus established for perpetual use in the Church?  He sanctioned wine as the drink in this sacrament, not unfermented grape juice.  But some are even willing to use tea and biscuits or some other common elements instead of bread or wine, particularly on the mission field, because it is supposedly more familiar or more understandable to the culture.

As I pondered this recently, I thought about the whole meaning of the Lord’s Supper – is it a memorial with the words of the institution of this sacrament to be taken figuratively; or is it a true sacrifice where the priest has the power and authority to change the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Jesus?  Is it symbol or sacrifice?

In my musings, I pondered the way the various denominations believe and practice it.  It was an eye-opener for me when I compared them all; I was aware that there are different practices and views but when I saw them all together, I realised how chaotic the situation has become.

A Cacophony of Voices

Just to illustrate how thoroughly confusing the issue is I’ve listed the various views below.

  • Catholic Church: The Eucharist (Thanksgiving) is a sacrament and conveys grace to all who receive it worthily.  It makes present Christ’s sacrifice on the cross in an unbloody manner, thus it is known as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  Through it, forgiveness of sin is obtained.  On consecration, the bread and the wine change completely into the actual body and blood, soul and divinity, of Christ, whilst maintaining the appearance and characteristics of bread and wine.  This change is known as Transubstantiation, and Christ’s presence in the elements is called the Real Presence.
  • Eastern Orthodoxy:  also accepts and teaches the doctrines of the Real Presence and the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist.  However, unlike Catholicism it makes no attempt to explain how this occurs, preferring to regard it as a divine mystery.
  • Lutheranism:  there is a sacramental union of the bread and the wine with the body and blood of Christ.  In other words, Christ’s body and blood are “in, with, and under” the forms of bread and wine (consubstantiation).  Luther explained his view using the analogy of an iron rod placed in the fire: both are united in the red-hot iron yet both are also distinct. 
  • Reformed and Presbyterian (Calvinism):  Christ is not present literally in the sacrament but he is spiritually present.  Those who receive the elements with faith receive the actual body and blood of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit which works through the sacrament (Receptionism).  That is, whenever the pious see the symbols of bread and wine, they are to “think and feel surely persuaded that the truth of the thing signified is also present….let us feel as much assured that the visible sign is given us in seal of an invisible gift as that his body itself is given us” (Institutes).
  • Baptist: derive their view from Zwingli who denied any form of physical or spiritual presence of Christ in the bread and wine.  The Lord’s Supper is rather a remembrance of Christ’s suffering and a reminder of his power to overcome sin and death (Memorialism).
  • Anglican:  generally and officially believe in the Spiritual Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  Article 28 denies Transubstantiation but insists “the body of Christ is given, taken and eaten in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner.  And the mean whereby the body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith”.  But the Anglo-Catholic part of the Church has the same belief and practice as the Catholic Church.
  • Methodist: Christ is truly present in the Holy Communion.  He is present through the community gathered in his name, through the Word proclaimed and enacted, and through the elements of bread and wine shared.  The divine presence is a living reality and can be experienced by participants.  Holy Communion is not a remembrance of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion only; it is a re-presentation of Jesus Christ.
  • Salvation Army: don’t observe the Eucharist at all.  It “believes that it is possible to live a holy life and receive the grace of God without the use of physical sacraments and that they should not be regarded as an essential part of becoming a Christian”.

Is it possible to add any other view to this doctrine?  Could anything be greater cause for confusion than this?  How can Jesus’ words be torn in so many different directions?  And how can I know which view is the right one? 

Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Fathers

It makes sense that the best way to find out the truth among so many conflicting views is to go back to the earliest days of the Church’s existence and see what those first Christians believed.  After all, if anyone should know, it would be them.

Ignatius of Antioch (50-108 AD)

Of the heretics, he writes: “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ….Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death” (Epistle to the Smyrneans chap 6).

And in the Epistle to Ephesians chap xx, he calls the Eucharist the medicine of immortality and the antidote to prevent us from dying.

These words from St Ignatius are significant because he was a disciple of the Apostle John (who died about 100 AD), and St Peter himself appointed him as bishop of Antioch.  If Jesus’ words in chap 6 of John’s gospel were meant to be taken symbolically, then surely John or Peter would have told Ignatius so.  But no.  Ignatius states clearly that the bread in the Eucharist is the flesh of Christ, and that to disbelieve it is to incur death.  Not only this, but if Ignatius was teaching heresy after John died, the Church would have taken him to task because even at that time the Church was combating heresies and stating the correct teaching.  Ignatius would not have gotten away with such teaching as this if it was false.  But as it is, Ignatius was describing the belief and practice of the Church i.e. that the bread in the Eucharist is the flesh of the Lord and the wine is his blood.

Given this direct connection with the apostles, is any further proof needed?

Justin Martyr (110-165 AD) writes of the Eucharist:

For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which has been blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.  For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, said, ‘This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body’; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, ‘This is My blood’; and gave it to them alone (“The First Apology of Justin Martyr” chap LXVI).

Accordingly, God, anticipating all the sacrifices which we offer through this name, and which Jesus Christ enjoined us to offer, i.e. in the Eucharist of the bread and the cup, and which are presented by Christians in all places throughout the world (Mal 1:10-12), bears witness that they are pleasing to Him (Dialogue With Trypho chap CXVII)

Irenaeus (120-202 AD) wrote against the Gnostic heresies.  Here he says:

But how can they be consistent with themselves, (when they say) that the bread over which thanks have been given is the body of their Lord, and the cup His blood, if they do not call Himself the Son of the Creator of the world, that is, His Word…..Then, again, how can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord, and with His blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life?  Let them, therefore, either alter their opinion, or cease from offering the things just mentioned….  For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of resurrection to eternity (‘Against Heresies’ chap XVII, 4 and 5).

For the first millennium and a half the whole Church believed that the bread in the Eucharist became the actual flesh of Christ, and the wine became the actual blood of Christ, and that the Eucharist was a sacrifice.  Differences between East and West developed as the West attempted to define how the change in the elements took place while the East accepted that the change did take place, thinking it not wise to delve into it but just accept that it is a divine mystery.  But they agree with the early Church that the Eucharist is a sacrifice and that the bread and wine become the flesh and blood of Christ at the consecration of the elements.

So what do we Protestants do with this?  Were the Fathers right?  And if they were, does that mean the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are therefore right?  Or might the Fathers have been right but the Catholic Church, with its doctrine of Transubstantiation be wrong because it is taking the teaching too far, having introduced Aristotelian logic into the equation?  Were the Reformers wrong?  Or was only one of them right?  If so, which one did have it right? 


Although there had been minimal dissenting voices here and there, it wasn’t until the Reformation that this belief and practice was challenged and changed.  The three leading Reformers (Calvin, Luther and Zwingli) each had different ideas about the Eucharist; they each claimed authority for their views from scripture and condemned the others for their “wrong” views.  And the dispute between Luther and Zwingli was so heated that Luther hurled anathemas at Zwingli; and when the latter was later killed on the battlefield, Luther expressed his satisfaction.

But where did they get this authority to change what the universal ancient Church, East and West, had believed and practiced for one and a half thousand years?    One of Protestantism’s catch-cries is sola scriptura (scripture alone).  Evangelicals (especially) claim to take everything they believe from scripture.  Yet they deny the literal interpretation of Jesus’ words that the bread and wine become his body and blood in the Eucharist.  And having done this, they are forced to find an alternative interpretation of Jesus’ words.  The result is the confusion of voices listed above.  And their legacy to their churches today is division and confusion. 

One would think that the Reformers would have got it right – after all, they “exposed” the errors of the Catholic Church and started the Reformation.  But they’ve left us with a dilemma because we each follow the teaching of the founder of our denomination; and if each of the Reformers claims to have derived their teaching from the Bible, it shows the perils of sola scriptura.

What Does the Bible Say?

The passages in scripture which describe this sacrament, record Jesus as saying “This is my body….this is my blood” (Matt 26:26-28; Mk 14:23-24) and “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:20, 19; 1 Cor 11:24-25).  John (6:30-69) doesn’t deal with the institution of it but does record Jesus’ discussion of it with the Jews, where he very pointedly says that the bread that he gives us to eat is his flesh (Jn 6:51).  The astonished Jews ask “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:52).    

At this point Jesus could have cleared the matter up for them and for all future readers of this passage simply by saying “The bread symbolises my body”.  But he didn’t.  He reiterated and strengthened what he said by replying “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink…..the one who eats this bread will live forever” (Jn 6:53-55, 58).

These words give no indication that they’re meant to be taken as symbols.  In fact, when Jesus said to the Jews that his flesh was food and his blood was drink, “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This is difficult; who can accept it? …..Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (Jn 6:60, 66).

Why would these disciples have walked away and followed him no more if they knew he was speaking symbolically?  Why would Jesus let them walk away when he could have cleared the confusion up there and then?  If eating his flesh and drinking his blood is a matter of eternal life or death, why are there so many different interpretations of his words? 

The Apostle Paul regarded Jesus’ words in the institution of the Eucharist as literal.  In his instructions to the church at Corinth, and thus to all churches for all time, he wrote: “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves…..If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation” (1 Cor 11:29, 34).  Clearly, Paul is talking about the real presence of Christ in the sacrament, for nobody can be justly condemned for not discerning the Lord’s body if the bread and the wine are merely symbols.

In effect, Protestants have imposed their theology over the scripture, coming to these passages with the idea that they can’t be taken literally because of one of their other catch-cries, sola fides (faith alone).  They start with the idea that salvation is obtained through faith alone, and reason that if this is true, then Jesus couldn’t have meant that it is essential for eternal life that we eat his flesh and drink his blood.  But when Jesus said “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him, may have eternal life…” (Jn 6:40), couldn’t this mean that to believe in him means not only to believe in and put our trust in him as our Saviour, as Protestants say, but also that faith in him includes belief in his words that we have eternal life by eating his flesh and drinking his blood?  The early Christians thought so.  The whole of Christendom for the first 1,500 years thought so.  The Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglo-Catholics think so.  Why shouldn’t we?  The only thing the Reformers could agree on was that the Pope is the antichrist – and even that is no longer held universally among Protestants.  But on doctrines where the scripture is clear e.g. baptism and the Eucharist, they differed wildly.

Does faith have to exclude the literal interpretation of these words?  If anything, it requires faith to take them literally.  If Jesus said “This is my body….this is my blood”, why do I have to explain that to be symbolic?  And if I do take them to be symbolic I’m left with having to find an interpretation – and the various views outlined above show the difficulty of such a course.  When Jesus said that the bread is his body and the wine is his blood, he didn’t explain how this could be; he just said it is so.  Isn’t that enough? 

In his teaching in John 6, Jesus equates his flesh to be eaten to the flesh he would offer up on the cross (6:51).  So if we regard it spiritually when he says we have to eat his flesh then we also have to regard his flesh on the cross as spiritual.

There are two Greek words used in this passage which Jesus uses for “eat” – they both mean “eat” but the one used in John (6:54-58) means “to gnaw, chew, eat” (A Critical Lexicon and Concordance by EW Bullinger) – so Jesus could only have meant we are to literally eat his flesh and drink his blood; in the Institution of the Lord’s Supper he demonstrated how we do this.

“This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day” (Jn 6:40).

“The Scripture quotations contained herein are made from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition copyright 1993 and 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.”  “Published by Catholic Bible Press, a division of Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, Tennessee 37214.