Transubstantiation: Does the Eucharist Become the "Real Presence" - the Body and Blood
of Jesus Christ?
Introduction - Jesus' own statements
When Jesus instituted the Church ordinance of the Lord's Supper or Communion at His "Last Supper," He made some statements that the Roman Catholic Church has taken to be a literal saying.
And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me." And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood. (Luke 22:19-20)
This saying, or something similar to it, is given in three of the four gospels and in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians.2 In all accounts, Jesus is quoted as saying, "this is My body" referring to the unleavened bread and "this is My blood of the covenant" referring to the cup. However, it is obvious that from the situation that these words were not meant to be taken literally. How could Jesus, still present in His own body, say that bread and wine were His body and blood? Jesus told them to commemorate His sacrifice and New Covenant by using the bread and wine as symbols of His body and blood.
Passover - the origin of Communion
The use of the unleavened bread and wine did not originate with the Lord at the Last Supper. Jews had been celebrating Passover for thousands of years. The unleavened bread was a symbol of the bread that did not have time to rise, because of their haste in getting away from Pharaoh in their flight from Egypt. The Jews had a tradition regarding the unleavened bread (matzahs). Three matzahs are put together (for the Christian, representing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). The middle matzah is broken,3 wrapped in a white cloth, and hidden, representing the death and burial of Jesus.4 The matzah itself is designed to represent Jesus, since it is striped and pierced, which was prophesized by Isaiah,5 David,6 and Zechariah.7 Following the Seder meal, the "buried" matzah is "resurrected," which was foretold in the prophecies of David.8
It was during a Passover seder9 that Jesus proclaimed that the meal represented Himself and that He was instituting the New Covenant, which was foretold by Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah.10 The celebration of this covenant has become the ordinance of communion in the Christian Church. At the end of the meal, Jesus took the unleavened bread, broke it, and said that it represented His body.11 Then He took the cup of wine, which would have been the third cup of the Seder - the cup of redemption. He said that it was the new covenant in His blood "poured out for you."12 It is through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we are declared clean before God, allowing those of us who choose to accept the pardon, to commune with Him - both now and forevermore through the eternal life He offers.
John 6 - Jesus declares the Eucharist to be His body?
The primary passages cited to support the doctrine of transubstantiation are in John chapter 6. In this chapter, Jesus makes statements such as these:
Jesus therefore 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 yourselves. "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. "For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. (John 6:53-56)
Reading this verse out of context makes it look like Roman Catholics have a good point that Jesus indicated that you must eat His body and blood. However, we will find a different meaning when we examine the entire chapter in the context of what Jesus was saying. So, get out your Bible and follow along as we look at John 6 to determine if it really is literal or symbolic.
Where does this conversation start?
The chapter begins with the feeding of the 5,000 with bread and fish. It is not coincidence that this event, which takes place at the beginning of the chapter is referenced again at the point that Jesus declares Himself to be the bread of life. The crowd that had been fed real bread at the beginning of the chapter were back to get another free handout:
Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. (John 6:26)
You must believe in Me - Jesus' main message
The rabbis had quoted Psalms 72:16 to prove that the Messiah, when he came, would outdo Moses with manna from heaven. Jesus, claiming to be the Messiah, offered to give bread for eternal life (John 6:27). The crowd then asked Jesus, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" (John 6:28) Jesus' answer was:
Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." (John 6:29)
You will notice that He did not mention anything about eating, but only about believing.
Jesus declares the metaphor
Next, they talked about a miraculous sign and the manna God had given them in the desert (a references to what the rabbis had said about the Messiah). Jesus declared Himself to be the true bread out of heaven (John 6:32-33). The Jews asked for this bread, demonstrating that they did not understand that Jesus was giving them an earthly metaphor for a spiritual truth. Jesus' response was to define the metaphor:
Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:35)
It is obvious from this statement that Jesus is NOT referring to physical bread. All who eat physical bread will hunger again. Jesus is declaring Himself to be spiritual bread. Those who "eat" of the spiritual bread by believing in Him will not hunger again. Jesus has clearly defined the "eating" of Himself as "He who comes to me" and the drinking of Himself as "he who believes in me". In this verse, Jesus has defined the entire metaphor as being a symbolic representation of spiritual truth. One can find other examples of "eating" and "drinking" from Jesus' other sermons:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6)
If anyone believes in Jesus, his spiritual hunger will be satisfied. The Eucharist cannot satisfy one's physical hunger. Neither can it satisfy one's spiritual hunger. This hunger can only be satisfied by the living bread (John 6:51), which is the living Lord Himself.
You must believe in Me - How many times does Jesus need to say it?
Following the statement of John 6:35, Jesus again makes the claim that they must believe in Him:
But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. (John 6:36)
For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." (John 6:40)
Jesus has already told the unbelievers four times that they must believe in Him, yet they still don't get it! The Jews started complaining again that Jesus claimed to be bread from heaven (John 6:42-43). Obviously, real bread does not come from heaven. It comes from grain grown on the earth. Jesus could only be referring to spiritual bread. The analogy is quite clear that Jesus is the spiritual bread from heaven that gives spiritual (eternal) life. Physical bread gives physical life. Spiritual bread gives spiritual life. Jesus talked twice more about believing in Him:
"No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:44)
I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. (John 6:47-48)
You will notice that I have combined verses 47 and 48. This is the natural flow of the original Greek. All the verse notation in our modern Bibles is NOT in the original Greek and was artificially added. If you read the Bible using verse and chapter breaks as indication of context, you can get into real trouble. Jesus clearly states that those who believe have everlasting life and that He is the "bread" that gives that life. It has nothing to do with the Eucharist and nothing to do with eating. It is an earthly example comparing physical bread for physical life with heavenly bread (Jesus Himself) for eternal life. The symbolism is quite clear. Jesus continues to pound away at the difference between physical bread and spiritual bread:
Your forefathers ate the manna [physical bread] in the desert, yet they died. (John 6:49)
But here is the bread that comes down from heaven [spiritual bread - Jesus], which a man may eat and not die. (John 6:50)
If you eat the Eucharist, you will still die. It is only by belief that one will live forever.
"Bread of heaven" for the world vs. Eucharist for the believer
However, if you "eat" the Bread of Life, you will live forever:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." (John 6:51)
Jesus declares that this spiritual bread is His body, which He gives for the life of the world. This is not a vague reference to the Eucharist, but a reference to the sacrifice of His body and blood, which He gave at the cross of Calvary. The Eucharist is not given for the world, but is given to the believer. However, Jesus' body was given as a sacrifice for the sins of the entire world (John 1:29, John 3:16, 2 Corinthians 5:19, 1 John 2:2, 1 John 4:14).
The Jews still did not understand that Jesus was giving them spiritual truth and they said:
Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (John 6:52)
This is an obvious giveaway that the Jews had no spiritual discernment and weren't "getting it." The whole time, Jesus had been comparing Himself as spiritual food for eternal life and they are still thinking about their stomachs! It was like Nicodemas asking how He could be born again by entering into his mother's womb a second time. The parallel is obvious. You are born physically in the first birth. You must be born spiritually in the second birth to gain eternal life. Likewise, you eat physical bread to live physically, but you must "eat" (i.e., believe) spiritual bread (Jesus) to live eternally.
If we interpret the verses that you must literally eat Jesus' body and blood, we run into some obvious problems. First, the verses claim that you must eat His body and drink His blood to have eternal life. Over and over again in this chapter, Jesus made it clear that eternal life came from believing in Him. We "eat" Jesus only in a spiritual sense. Eating is not a spiritual act - only believing. The thief on the cross did not eat Jesus' body or drink His blood, so Jesus lied when He told him that He would be with Him in heaven that very day. Of course Jesus did not lie! The man believed in Jesus and was given eternal life without eating His body and drinking His blood. In John chapter 6, Jesus was illustrating spiritual truths with earthly examples. Eternal life comes from belief, not eating the Eucharist. To test whether Jesus was referring to the Eucharist, substitute the word "Eucharist" in every instance where Jesus uses the term "bread." You will soon find that this interpretation makes Jesus proclaim heretical ideas. The second problem is that if one were to interpret the entire discourse in terms of the Eucharist, Jesus would have been talking utter nonsense to the Jews. Why would Jesus be telling the unsaved Jews about the Eucharist, which was to be given to the church, but had not even been instituted yet (not until the Passover on the eve before Jesus was crucified)? He wasn't! Jesus was trying to make them understand that belief in Him (the bread from heaven) was the only way gain eternal (spiritual) life. Third, the Bible prohibits the eating of blood:
As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality." (Acts 21:25)
If the Eucharist really becomes the blood of Christ, then we are sinning by eating it! A fourth problem is that the Catholic Catechism claims that the Eucarist is a sacrifice at every Mass,13 while the Bible claims that Jesus' one sacrifice was sufficient:
- When Jesus therefore had received the sour wine, He said, "It is finished!" And He bowed His head, and gave up His spirit. (John 19:30)
- For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. (Romans 6:10)
- For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins, and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. (Hebrews 7:26-27)
- But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. (Hebrews 9:11-12)
- Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of Himself. (Hebrews 9:26)
- so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and He will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him. (Hebrews 9:28)
- By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Hebrews 10:10)
- But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God. (Hebrews 10:12)
- For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. (Hebrews 10:14)
- For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; (1 Peter 3:18)
What did Jesus say He was talking about?
Jesus ends the discourse by telling them that He was talking about spiritual truths:
The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. (John 6:63)
Jesus establishes the metaphor He will use throughout the sermon that coming, believing, eating, drinking - all of these lead to eternal life. They are not different things but the same thing. Jesus is directing those who were seeking merely physical benefits from Him to the fact that He does not promise such things: He promises spiritual nourishment to all who come to Him as their source.
Other physical examples to illustrate spiritual truths
Bread was not the only earthly example Jesus gave to try to make people understand that they must come to Him. Jesus said that He was the light of the world:
When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (John 8:12)
Does this mean that Jesus was composed of fire? He also said that He was the gate:
Therefore Jesus said again, "I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. (John 10:7)
I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. (John 10:9)
Does this mean that He was made out of wood and that He would give them grass? Jesus claimed to be the good shepherd of sheep:
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:11)
Jesus never was a "real" shepherd, but was a carpenter by trade. Jesus claimed to be a vine:
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. (John 15:1)
"I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)
Does this mean that Jesus was part plant? Jesus also claimed to be able to give "living water:"
Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water." (John 4:10)
Does this mean that we should institute a church ordinance in which water is given to people in order to be saved? This is the most obvious example that Jesus was talking about the same thing in John 4 as John 6. In both instances, He used the term "living." Jesus is the "living bread" and the "living water." Neither example was referring to a physical reality, but to spiritual truth. Like the Jews in John 6, this Samaritan woman had no clue about what Jesus was talking about. As bread is required for physical life, so water is also required for physical life. Jesus provides the living (spiritual) water that is required for eternal life:
Jesus answered, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (John 4:13-14)
Jesus used many different physical, earthly examples of physical life in order to convey the reality of how to achieve spiritual (eternal) life. The bread, given in John 6, is just one of those examples of using an earthly example to convey spiritual truth. Jesus Himself defined His terms quite clearly as symbolic spiritual truth.
Regarding the church fathers, Roman Catholics have also stated that all of them believed that the Eucharist is the real Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. However, this is not true. Augustine, in commenting on this very passage said:
Let them then who eat, eat on, and them that drink, drink; let them hunger and thirst; eat Life, drink Life. That eating, is to be refreshed; but you are in such wise refreshed, as that that whereby you are refreshed, does not fail. That drinking, what is it but to live? Eat Life, drink Life; you will have life, and the Life is Entire. But then this shall be, that is, the Body and Blood of Christ shall be each man's Life; if what is taken in the Sacrament visibly is in truth itself eaten spiritually, drunk spiritually. For we have heard the Lord Himself saying, It is the Spirit that gives life, but the flesh profits nothing. The words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life."
Augustine also indicated that the sacrament was to be commemorated, but not relived:
Augustine (Faustus 20.18, 20): "Before the coming of Christ, the flesh and blood of this sacrifice were foreshadowed in the animals slain; in the passion of Christ the types were fulfilled by the true sacrifice; after the ascension of Christ, this sacrifice is commemorated in the sacrament.
Real Presence only at communion?
Roman Catholics take comfort in the idea that Jesus is with them at communion. However, before He left Earth, Jesus promised to be with us always, until He returns in glory:
"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28:19-20)
Jesus is with each believer at all times, not just when we take communion. I find that very reassuring and trust that it is true.
If you are a Roman Catholic, my intent is not to discourage your faith or call into question your belief as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Nor do I want to minimize the significance of communion. Communion is a special time in which we celebrate the sacrifice Jesus gave so that we come into the presence of God as a holy people, cleansed by the blood of the New Covenant. May the presence of the Lord lead you always, through His Holy Spirit.
- How the Passover Reveals Jesus Christ - The real significance of the Eucharist as the promise given the Jews when God saved them from the plagues in Egypt
- Did Jesus Command Baptism in Order to be Saved? A commentary on John 3:5-7
- Is the Roman Catholic Church's Condom Policy Responsible For the Spread of HIV and the AIDS Crisis in Africa?
- "The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring: "Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation." (Catechism p. 384, paragraph 1376)
- And while they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and
after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said,
"Take, eat; this is My body." (Matthew 26:26)
And while they were eating, He took some bread, and after a blessing He broke it; and gave it to them, and said, "Take it; this is My body." (Mark 14:22)
And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me." (Luke 22:19)
and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, "This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me." (1 Corinthians 11:24)
- 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." (1 Corinthians 11:24)
- And so they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. (John 19:40)
- But he was pierced through for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and by his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)
- For dogs have surrounded me; A band of evildoers has encompassed me; They pierced my hands and my feet. (Psalm 22:16)
- "And I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him, like the bitter weeping over a first-born. (Zechariah 12:10)
- For Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Sheol; Neither wilt Thou allow Thy
Holy One to undergo decay. (Psalm 16:10)
O LORD, Thou hast brought up my soul from Sheol; Thou hast kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit. (Psalm 30:3)
But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol; for He will receive me. Selah. (Psalm 49:15)
I shall not die, but live, And tell of the works of the LORD. (Psalm 118:17)
- And He said to them, "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; (Luke 22:15)
- "Behold, days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will
make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of
Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I
took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant
which they broke, although I was a husband to them," declares the LORD.
"But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel
after those days," declares the LORD, "I will put My law within
them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they
shall be My people. (Jeremiah 31:31-33)
"And I shall give them one heart, and shall put a new spirit within them. And I shall take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances, and do them. Then they will be My people, and I shall be their God. (Ezekiel 11:19-20)
"I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I will also hold you by the hand and watch over you, And I will appoint you as a covenant to the people, As a light to the nations, (Isaiah 42:6)
- While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body." Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." (Matthew 26:26-28)
- In the same way, after the supper He took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is poured out for you. (Luke 22:20)
- "Because it is the memorial of Christ's Passover, the Eucharist is also a sacrifice. In the Eucharist Christ gives us the very body which he gave up for us on the cross, the very blood which he "poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit. In this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner." (Catechism pp. 380-381, paragraphs 1365-1367)
We are what we think.
- 04/14/2015 02:11 AM
What Is Biblical Inerrancy? (Part 1)
Last month, I discussed canonicity and how we got the Protestant Bible (see part 1, part 2, and part 3). This week, RTB editor Maureen Moser rejoins me for a conversation about biblical inerrancy—a topic of much debate and importance … Continue reading
- 04/07/2015 02:12 AM
World Religions: The Buddha and the Christ
Among the world’s great religious leaders, only two had such a profound impact that contemporaries inquired as to the very nature of their being.1 People wondered whether Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) and Jesus of Nazareth (the Christ) were more than … Continue reading
- 03/31/2015 05:56 PM
God Incarnate: Jesus Christ’s Unique Identity
There’s no denying that Jesus Christ ranks high among the most controversial figures in human history. Orthodox Christians believe that Jesus Christ is both true God (the second Person of the Trinity) and true man (the Incarnate Son of God). … Continue reading
- 03/24/2015 02:27 AM
The Resurrection: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Idea
Originally published in Reasons to Believe’s ezine, New Reasons to Believe, vol. 2, no. 3 (2010) “Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”1 This line—from my favorite book in … Continue reading
- 03/17/2015 02:55 AM
More Deaths in the Name of God—or No Gods?
Originally published in Reasons to Believe’s ezine, New Reasons to Believe, vol. 2, no. 1 (2010) Great evil has been done in the name of Christ. This charge, a frequent objection to historic Christianity raised especially by the new atheist … Continue reading
- 03/10/2015 02:02 AM
God as the Source of Knowledge
Originally published in RTB’s ezine, New Reasons to Believe, vol. 1, no. 1 (2009) Does the Bible indicate where knowledge comes from? Since evolutionary processes can’t guarantee true beliefs naturalism as a worldview faces insurmountable problems. For its part, the … Continue reading
- 03/03/2015 02:08 AM
World Religions: The Sage and the Savior
Among the world’s great religious leaders, two became far-reaching moral instructors of humanity. Confucius (the sage) laid down the ethical foundation for much of Asian civilization. Jesus of Nazareth (the Savior) taught moral lessons that distinctly shaped the ethical nature … Continue reading
- 02/24/2015 02:31 AM
How We Got the Bible, Part 3
This week we’ll be finishing up a series on the biblical canon, a topic that has been a source of discussion, debate, and controversy since the beginning of Christianity. We’ve covered the doctrine of divine inspiration and standards for recognizing … Continue reading
- 02/18/2015 12:07 PM
How We Got the Bible, Part 2
Last week RTB editor Maureen Moser and I began a discussion of the biblical canon, including the doctrine of inspiration and the criteria for recognizing canon, particularly for the New Testament. But as we noted, the branches of Christendom view … Continue reading
- 02/10/2015 02:22 AM
How We Got the Bible, Part 1
Earlier this year, scholars announced the discovery of what might be the oldest known copy of the Gospel of Mark (see here and here). A fragment of Mark’s book was found on ancient papyrus used to create a mummy mask. … Continue reading
Last Modified May 16, 2008