The argument over whether holy communion elements – the bread and the wine actually turn into the flesh and blood of Jesus has been going on for over a thousand years now. It is littered with big grammar. Those who believe in it call it transubstantiation. It was one of the sticking points in Martin Luther’s reformation, and he promptly came up with his own version of the doctrine. He called it consubstantiation. One of the leaders of the reformation, Huldrych Zwingli disagreed with Luther, arguing that the elements were symbolic and the word Zywinglianism suddenly cropped up for his set of beliefs.
Luther tried to show the absurdity of transubstantiation pointing out that if indeed the bread and wine become the literal body and blood of Jesus, it must be subject to normal digestive processes, passing through the intestines and being excreted through defecation. That idea was labeled the heresy of stercoranism. And so you can see the argument is full of big words. For what it’s worth stercoranism derives from Latin stercorarius meaning “belonging to dung.” And consubstantiation? It simply means the substance of the bread and wine coexist with rather than transmute into the body and blood of Jesus. Now let’s examine the doctrine of transubstantiation.
According to the dogma, transubstantiation is actually the PROCESS of the bread and the wine turning into flesh and blood; yet they somehow maintain the properties of bread and wine such that even when subjected to scientific enquiry they still maintain the attributes of bread and wine! We’re not told exactly how this occurs. It’s not mentioned in scriptures either. Those who have tried to explain it have had to resort to Aristotelian postulation, which is kind of strange since Aristotle was an empiricist and never commented on the subject of transubstantiation. He died in 322 BC, long before Jesus came along. How did the doctrine of transubstantiation come about?
Transubstantiation is based on a super-literal reading of certain passages of scripture. The key passage is John 6:32-58. Others are Matthew 26:26, Luke 22:17-23 and 1 Corinthians 11:24-25. In John 6:53-57 Jesus had said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you. But anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.” The critical question is, do we take this literally or is it a figurative expression? Clearly Jesus could not have been suggesting cannibalism. If he did, the apostles didn’t pick up his offer. It would be a violation of Mosaic commandment not to eat blood. (Leviticus 17:14) In order to know where Jesus was coming from we need to back up John 6. It gives us context and context matters in understanding scriptures.
Wherever Jesus went the crowds followed. The crowd had come to listen to his teaching. But it was nearly Passover so Jesus asked poor Phillip, “Where can we buy bread to feed all these people?” You do Passover with bread. Phillip was of course perplexed. It was at this event Jesus famously fed five thousand people with five loaves and two fishes. And at the next Passover Jesus inaugurated the communion. Bread has always been a critical feature of Passover. It featured prominently in the first and original Passover too. Passover is the yearly commemoration of the liberation of Israelites from Egyptian oppression in 1300 BC.
Concerning the first Passover feast God gave instruction to the Israelites that each family must kill a lamb (or young goat) for sacrifice at twilight. The animal must have no defects. The animal was therefore a pointer to Jesus the spotless (sinless) Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world. (John 1:29) God instructed the animal must be eaten with bitter herbs and unleavened bread (bread without yeast). The bitter herbs would of course signify the agony and bitterness of the crucifixion of Jesus. The Passover was a commemoration of salvation, and it was looking forward to the sacrifice of Jesus the Christ.
But why unleavened bread? Leaven is used in scriptures to signify sin, corruption or corrupting influence. Jesus told his disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees. (Matthew 16:12) Paul said a little leaven would affect the whole dough. (Galatians 5:9) And so the unleavened bread which would come to signify the body of Jesus was pointing to his sinless state. It’s what made him the perfect sacrifice.
The Israelites were specifically instructed to smear the blood of the animal on their doorposts so when God saw the blood he would “pass over” them. (Exodus 12:13) That’s how we got the word Passover. The plague of death did not touch them because of the blood. Just as the blood of the lamb smeared on the Israeli doorposts saved the people from certain death, so the blood of Jesus saves us from the second death, spiritual death. Jesus used wine to signify that blood in the New Testament. And so communion was founded on the Passover and inaugurated at a Passover feast. Just as the lamb and the herbs and the bread were symbolic in the Old Testament so the bread and the wine are symbolic in the New Testament. The elements pointed to one person – Jesus the Christ. It’s why Jesus said communion should be commemorated IN REMEMBERANCE of him. (Luke 22:19) The Aramaic Bible in Plain English says, “You shall be doing this to commemorate me.” Jesus broke the bread because they broke his body. They tore into it with whips, gashed it with a spear. “He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds, crushed because of our sins; he endured punishment that made us well; because of his wounds we have been healed.” (Isaiah 53:5) It was necessary therefore that Jesus break the bread at communion. Even when he was going to feed the five thousand he broke the bread. (Matthew 14:19, Mark 6:41) It’s always been about symbolism. Communion is a ritual of remembrance, an in-memoriam. It’s why Paul wrote, “Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you REENACT in your words and actions the death of the Master.” (1 Corinthians 11:26)
After being fed at Passover the people showed up again the next day. They had come to be fed with bread again. And that was how all the bread talk began. They missed the significance of the miracle. They didn’t understand it. (John 6:26 NLT) Jesus had to devote a considerable amount of time and energy to try and explain to them the difference between the bread they ate and spiritual bread before them. One is perishable, the other eternal. He told them, “Don’t be so concerned about perishable things like food. Spend your energy seeking the eternal life that the Son of Man can give you. For God has given me the seal of approval.” (John 6:27) To which they replied that they too want to perform God’s works! If they can conjure bread they won’t be hungry after all! Jesus responded that the only work God required of them was faith in him, the one God had sent. They asked him for proof God had sent him, and the only proof they wanted was dinner. (John 6:30-31) Again Jesus sought to steer them in a spiritual direction. “The true bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” And that was when Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life.” (John 6:35) “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna bread in the desert and died. But now here is Bread that truly comes down out of heaven. Anyone eating this bread will not die, ever. I am the Bread – living Bread! – who came out of heaven. (John 6:47-51 MSG)
Jesus called himself bread to illustrate his point that “anyone who eats this bread will live – and forever! The bread that I present to the world so that it can eat and live is myself, this flesh–and–blood self.” (John 6:47-51 MSG) Being carnal his audience wondered, “How can this man serve up his flesh for a meal?” (John 6:52) They were literal in their understanding. But Jesus was arching back to his temptation in the wilderness: “Man shall not live and be sustained by bread alone but by every word and expression of God.” (Luke 4:4, Deuteronomy 8:3 AMP) I am the Word of God, Jesus was saying. I am the express image of his person. (John1:14)
At the Lord’s Supper, the two types of bread were present – the physical and spiritual, the physical designated symbolism of the Spiritual. Which is why Jesus said, when you eat the bread and drink the cup you do so “TO REMEMBER ME.” (1 Corinthians 11:25 MSG) He broke the bread as a symbolic presage of how his body would be broken. He had not yet gone to the cross. We cannot break the body of Jesus all over again, which is what we would be doing if indeed the bread were his body and not mere symbolism. We can only REENACT HOW his body was broken by breaking the bread. It’s spiritual symbolism. If the bread were indeed the body of Christ and we break it, we would be crucifying Christ all over again and God forbid. It is spiritual anathema. (Hebrews 6:4)
But there’s another contradiction transubstantiation has to overcome. If indeed the bread and the wine transmute into the body and blood of Christ, then Jesus and the communion elements cannot exist together at the same time. The bread afterall has become the body. Yet after his resurrection Jesus broke the bread. (Luke 24:30) If the bread were the body of Jesus then who broke the bread? How come the bread existed at the same time as him? Surely the bread and wine are nothing but commemorative elements, symbolic proclamations of the historic death of Jesus. (1 Corinthians 11:26)
Then there’s the issue of which body the bread and the wine transmute into. Is it the crucified body of Jesus or the resurrection body? Jesus broke bread with both bodies.
Jesus often used figurative expressions to typify his spiritual significance. He once called himself a door. He also called us sheep. (John 10:7, 9) Everyone will agree that the Saviour is no more a plank of wood any more than we are bleating woolen creatures. Or are we?
If you will like to give your life to Christ, please pray this prayer: Father I acknowledge that I am a sinner, that Jesus Christ died for me, that you raised him from the dead. Please forgive me. I accept Jesus today as my Lord and my Saviour. Amen.
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© #illuminare Leke Alder | firstname.lastname@example.org