Theme: Jesus is always in control.
This week’s lessons show us the first Lord’s Supper and the events surrounding it.
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”
Nothing anyone says today is likely to budge any one of these communions from positions they have held for centuries. But it is worth saying that there is no reason to take the words “This is my body” as a literal statement. The plain meaning of the words “This is my body” is: “This bread represents my body,” as also “This wine represents my shed blood.”
There are many reasons for insisting on this. For one thing, the disciples to whom Jesus gave the bread and wine were Jews, and Jews had been taught that it was sinful to eat flesh with the blood in it (Deuteronomy 12:23-25). If they had taken Christ’s words literally, they would have been startled or shocked by his words. There is nothing in the narratives to suggest this reaction. The disciples saw no change in the bread or wine, nor would they have expected to. They understood that Jesus’ words were figurative, just as many of his other sayings were. Second, we know that in any communion service (or even the mass) the bread remains bread and the wine remains wine. Our senses are indicators of what is true at this point. The distinction drawn from Aristotle between substance and accidents is artificial and an obvious last resort of persons unwilling to give up the literal sense of the word is.
Third, the doctrine of the incarnation teaches that the Son of God took upon himself a true human body, and it is the nature of bodies that they cannot be in more than one place or exist in more than one form at the same time. When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, he was before the disciples in true bodily form, and if he was present bodily, his body could not have been present in the bread or his blood be present in the wine.
Fourth, the statement “This is my body” is no different from numerous similar statements that occur throughout the Bible, such as: “The seven good cows are seven years” (Genesis 41:26); “You are that head of gold” (Daniel 2:38); “The field is the world” (Matthew 13:38); “That Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4); “The seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Revelation 1:20); and Jesus’ words, “I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10:7); “I am the true vine” (John 15:1) and so on. Clearly, it is a spiritual feeding on Christ and not a literal eating of his body and a literal drinking of his blood that is intended. We need to do this regularly and with faith.1
In some ways, it is a pity that debate about the literal or non-literal meaning of Christ’s words has been so fierce, since it has tended to obscure the equally important (probably far more important) teachings about Jesus’ death that we have here. Think how many important doctrines are taught by Jesus’ words and this Sacrament.
1. A vicarious atonement. This refers to Jesus dying in our place as our substitute, taking our guilt upon himself, and bearing the punishment for our sins. This was the meaning of the Passover, which was being observed that very week, and it is what is symbolized by the breaking of the bread. As the bread was broken, so would Jesus’ body be broken, but not for himself. It would be broken for those who would trust him as their Savior. We’ll look at the others tomorrow.
1 These four arguments are presented well in John Charles Ryle, St. Matthew, pp. 355-357, but they occur in various forms in most commentators.
How do the disciple’s reactions to Jesus’ words hint that it might not be Jesus’ actual body in the bread?
What do we know about the human body that contradicts transubstantiation?