What actually happens at the Lord’s Supper? What practical benefits does it have for us?
51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
Cannibalism and drinking blood were strictly forbidden (Leviticus 17:10-11) by the Old Testament, so Jesus’s statement, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” must have caused a violent, visceral reaction against it.
But Jesus isn’t speaking literally here. Verse 54 says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” But recall John 6:40, which says, “everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Note the close parallel. The end result is the same: eternal life and resurrection at the last day, but the way we get there in verse 54 is by “feed[ing] on [Jesus’s] flesh and drink[ing] [his] blood” and in verse 40 is by “look[ing] on the Son and believ[ing] in Him.” Those are conceptual parallels. Feeding on Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood are metaphors for looking on the Son and believing in Him. That’s why Augustine, a fourth century theologian wrote, “Believe, and you have eaten.”
Well, then, does this passage have anything to do with the Lord’s Supper at all? Since John is writing to 1st century believers, after several decades of regular observance of the Lord’s Supper, the language of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus would no doubt evoke the Sacramental rite. John also seems intentionally to use language reminiscent of the rite. For example, earlier in John 6:11 when Jesus performed the miracle of multiplying the five loaves of bread, the miracle which led to this discourse, it says that Jesus “[gave] thanks” before distributing the bread to the people. The Greek for “giving thanks” is eucharistēsas, which is the word from which we get the English word “Eucharist,” a common name that Christians gave to the Lord’s Supper. This discourse also takes place during the Passover, which is the time when Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper with His disciples before His death on the cross.
So this passage isn’t primarily about the Lord’s Supper, but it does have secondary implications about the Lord’s Supper.
Since the primary meaning of eating the bread of life is to believe in the Son, we must always remember that, without faith, the Lord’s Supper does nothing for us. As we say in Trinity’s Communion liturgy, “we receive [the bread and wind] by faith, which is the hand and mouth of our souls.” The Lord’s Supper is not a magical rite that autonomously conveys God’s grace to us. The grace we receive in the Lord’s Supper is contingent on our faith.
Transubstantiation Is An Error
This is why the Catholic doctrine of “transubstantiation” is an error. The doctrine asserts that at the Lord’s Supper, the bread and wine are transubstantiated, or transformed, into the physical flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. Though the surface appearance, the accidents, of the bread and wine remains unchanged, the substance of the bread and wine, they argue, is changed to the actual, physical flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. But as we have seen, this is a misinterpretation of the passage.
Memorialism Is An Error
It does not follow from this, however, that the Lord’s Supper is merely a memorial, that there is nothing spiritual happening in our eating and drinking. This is the mistaken assumption of many Evangelicals. Sure, we’re not eating and drinking the physical body and blood of Jesus, but we are partaking in the spiritual body and blood of Jesus.
Notice the verb used in verse 54. Before, Jesus merely spoke of “eating His body,” but in verse 54, Jesus speaks of “feed[ing] on [His] flesh.” The word “feed” here is a translation of a Greek word that means to “munch on,” or “chew,” and the word “flesh,” similarly, shifts the focus from the more abstract concept of “body” to the concrete concept of “flesh.” As Theologian Lesslie Newbigin writes in his book The Light Has Come: An Exposition of the Fourth Gospel (pp. 84-85), these words intentionally draw attention to the physical dimension of our spiritual consumption at the Lord’s Supper.
If the preaching during our Sunday worship is the proclamation of Christ, then communion during our Sunday worship is the participation in Christ. At the Lord’s Supper, we enter into, partake in, commune with, the reality that we just heard proclaimed. What kind of participation is it?
(1) First, it is our participation in union with Christ,
(2) Second, it is our participation in the fellowship of the Triune God, and
(3) Third, it is our participation in the body of Christ, the Church.
When we eat and drink, the food enters our system and it becomes a part of us. It gets digested and provides energy for our body. Similarly, when we spiritually eat and drink Christ, He enters our system and we grow in our union with Him. So verse 56 says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” And through union with Christ, we enter into the fellowship of the church, which is the body of Christ. We grow into our unity with one another. And likewise, through union with Christ, we enter into the fellowship among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Symbol and Substance
The Lord’s Supper is not a hollow ritual, an empty reenactment. That’s why Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
Similarly, he warns in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29, “Whoever … eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” This kind of dire warning makes no sense if the Lord’s Supper is all symbol and no substance.
The New Birth and Spiritual Sustenance
You can think about it this way. When we are born, we have life. Now, this life is irreversible and permanent. But it does not follow from this, that we don’t need any more sustenance. We must continue to eat and drink in order to grow and mature in the life that we have. We already have life, but we continue to eat and drink to sustain life. Similarly, when we are born again by faith, we are united, once and for all, with Jesus Christ and possess eternal life. The Lord’s Supper, then, is, like eating and drinking, a way by which we sustain spiritual life. It is a means of grace that God has given to the church by which we grow and mature in our union with Christ.
We should, therefore, seek this spiritual food, as regularly and eagerly we seek physical food. We need it until that day when our union with Christ and our fellowship with the Triune God are consummated.