The Last Supper is often thought to be the Passover meal, with a direct connection following between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper. However, this is not entirely clear. According to John, the Last Supper was on the night before Passover (John 18:28); while Jesus was on trial the Jews were preparing for the next day’s Passover. Paul’s reference to Jesus as “our Passover” (1 Cor. 5:7) is to his death, not the meal the previous night. The connection with the Passover is the cross, not the Supper as such.
The clearest Old Testament precursor to the Lord’s Supper is the covenant meal on Mount Sinai (Ex. 24:1–11). Moses sprinkled the sacrificial blood, saying, “behold the blood of the covenant.” Then Israel’s leaders climbed the mountain, saw God and ate and drank a fellowship meal with Him. Jesus’ words, “this is my blood of the new covenant,” reflect this scene, locating the Supper as the new covenant fellowship meal.
This sacrament is also called “the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42; 20:7), referring to His body broken for our salvation; “the table of the Lord” (1 Cor. 10:21), a rite belonging to Christ who instituted it and presides at it; similarly, “the Lord’s supper” (1 Cor. 11:20); a “participation or communion” in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16–17), where koinonia can mean “fellowship,” “participation in,” or “communion”; and “Eucharist,” deriving from Jesus’ giving thanks (eucharisteo) when breaking the bread.
What happens in the Eucharist, and what is it?
It is a memorial. Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me.” This refers to a permanent, continuing record of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In response, our minds focus on Jesus Christ. Most evangelicals and even many Reformed limit the Lord’s Supper to this, seeing it as purely symbolic. However, much more is involved.
It proclaims the gospel (1 Cor. 11:26). It is “a kind of visible word of God,” as Augustine described it. Whereas preaching brings the gospel to our ears, the sacraments portray it before our eyes. We see a loaf of bread torn to pieces; so Christ’s body was torn to shreds to make us whole. As wine is poured into a cup, so Christ’s blood was poured out that we might live. These are God’s visual aids reinforcing the word we hear.
The Eucharist is “communion” or “participation” in the body and blood of the Lord (1 Cor. 10:16–17; see also Rev. 3:20). We are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit as we eat and drink. Here we should consider John 6:47–58. While some deny that this passage has any sacramental meaning, several factors support the idea that there was sacramental meaning in Jesus’ words. There are two main objections that some have raised in their denial of sacramental meaning in Jesus’ words. The first objection is that some say since Jesus spoke these words before the Eucharist existed, His words would have made no sense. However, Jesus often mentions events before they occur, for example, His death and resurrection, the persecution of the church, and the destruction of Jerusalem. The preceding narrative of the feeding of the five thousand is linguistically similar to Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s descriptions of the Eucharist (John 6:11; see Matt. 26:26–27; Mark 14:22–23; Luke 22:19). Also, many erstwhile disciples apostatize in the light of this discourse (John 6:60–71). What is more, the only way to make sense of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking His blood is in the light of the Eucharist. The early church, for example, was accused of cannibalism since it spoke of eating Christ’s flesh and drinking His blood in the context of “love-feasts” (Christian social dinners followed by the Lord’s Supper). From this comes the second main objection of those who deny sacramental meaning in Jesus’ words, namely, that a sacramental interpretation of John 6 entails cannibalism. However, when we read the passage closely, we are able discern that this objection has no merit.
After feeding the multitudes, Jesus reflects on the miraculous feeding of the Israelites in the desert, asserting that He fulfills this event. He is the bread of life, given by the Father to sustain His people (John 6:25–40). God’s nourishment for us in Jesus is eternal (vv. 37–40). All the Father has given to Him will believe in Him (v. 37), and the Father will receive them, preserve them, and resurrect them.
Jesus, the Bread of Life, is received through faith (vv. 41–47). Like Israel in the desert, the Jews grumble. How can this man make such claims—He comes from Nazareth?! Jesus says faith is a gift of God (vv. 44–47)—only the Father can overcome our sinful resistance. Jesus the Bread of Life is received through faith; this is due to the Father’s grace.
Jesus, the Bread of Life, is eaten and drunk in the Lord’s Supper (vv. 48–58). The bread Jesus gives is His flesh, Himself offered upon the cross. His death was a human fleshly reality; thus, a figurative understanding of the cross is heretical. How scandalous! “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v. 52). The contempt is clear. Shock and revulsion follow. To drink blood was forbidden by the Law. Animal blood was to be drained before meat could be eaten (Lev. 3:17; Deut. 12:23). Still less was human blood acceptable!
However, Jesus refuses to ameliorate His language or explain it as figurative. He intensifies it. The crowd understood Him well. The eating and drinking is very physical indeed! From verse 54 there is a remarkable change of verb. John has used esthiō, “to eat.” Now he switches to trōgō, a crude word meaning to chew, gnaw, or bite audibly, using it throughout the rest of the passage (vv. 54, 56–57), denoting the physical process of chewing and swallowing, as well as its audible accompaniments. Far from appeasing His opponents He challenges them head on. See their reaction! These words are “a hard saying,” an unbearable one (vv. 60–66). Many abandon Jesus. Even the twelve waver.
What does it mean? Jesus does not advocate cannibalism; nor can we empty His language of its raw force, thereby retreating into memorialism. If He wanted to offset the hostility, He had every opportunity to do so. But the philosophy of Plato, that would have enabled these words to be seen in a purely spiritualized dimension, was alien to the Jews.
Yet the traditional Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper as espoused by John Calvin and the Westminster Confession of Faith joins the advocates of memorialism in rejecting a physical presence of Christ in the sacrament. For Him to be human entails His being restricted physically to one place at one time. He cannot be ubiquitous according to His human nature without ceasing to be human.
On the other hand, this viewpoint differs markedly from memorialism in claiming that Christ is indeed present in His Supper. More is involved than a remembrance on the part of the participants. With respect to what we have just seen in John 6, Christ gives Himself to be eaten and drunk in faith. This eating and drinking is not physical but is nonetheless real and true. Christ does not come down to us in His body and blood; rather, we are lifted up to Him by the Holy Spirit.
Now, being the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Trinity is of course everywhere. Moreover, He has permanently united Himself to the human nature assumed in the incarnation. In that sense, the person of Christ is present with us as we eat and drink. Yet, on earth, the Son of God was not restricted or confined to the humanity He assumed, but was simultaneously filling all things, directing the universe even as (according to the flesh) He walked the dusty roads of Palestine. So, at the right hand of God, the Son fills and directs the universe (Col. 1:15–20), now united to His assumed humanity, while in terms of that same humanity He is limited and in one place. Yet that humanity is never separate or apart form the divinity, the eternal Son of God with whom and in whom it is one undivided person.
Thus, in the sacrament, the Holy Spirit unites the faithful to the person of Christ as they eat and drink the signs, the physical elements of bread and wine. There is an inseparable joining together of sign and reality. As truly as we eat the bread and drink the wine, so we feed on Christ by faith.
Hence, there is both a real, objective communion in the Lord’s Supper and, at the same time, the condition of those who receive it is not incidental or superfluous. We feed on Christ through faith, just as He taught. Just as we need a mouth to receive bread and wine, so we need faith to receive Christ. As Robert Bruce put it, “As soon as you receive the bread in your mouth (if you are a faithful man or woman) you receive the body of Christ in your soul, and that by faith” (The Mystery of the Lord’s Supper, 44). The role of those who take the sacrament is, therefore, to be believing and receptive. The physical and the spiritual are not merged, nor are they separated. Instead, they are distinct but without separation. The physical can be a channel of grace, since God created all things, Christ assumed our human flesh, and our bodies will be raised (like His was) at the last day.