Philip P Eapen
We are taught that the Lord Jesus Christ instituted the Eucharist as an ordinance. Jesus commanded His disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me.” What did Jesus mean? How must we remember Him?
The Eucharist is known by different names: the Holy Communion, Holy Mass, The Lord’s Table, The Lord’s Supper, et cetera. There are Christians who mistakenly think that the phrase “breaking of bread” refers to the Eucharist. The phrase is found in the Acts of the Apostles. After reading about how the early church “broke bread” every day, some zealous Christians insist that they should observe a ‘The Lord’s Table’ every day or, at least, whenever there is a Christian meeting.
In the Jewish context, praise offered to God at the beginning of any meal is known as the “breaking of bread.” The person at the head of a table lifts a loaf of bread and pronounces a blessing before breaking it, “Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam, hamotzi lehem min ha’aretz” (“Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth”). This particular blessing is called the Hamotzi.
In common parlance of the New Testament world, to “break bread” was to have a meal. Contrary to what some Christian teachers claim,1 it certainly was not the “Lord’s Table.” The early Church, after the day of Pentecost “continued to gather together by common consent in the temple courts, breaking bread from house to house, sharing their food with glad and humble hearts.”2 If “breaking bread” was indeed the Lord’s Table, why didn’t they observe it in the temple courts where they gathered for prayer? After their prayer meetings, those early Christians went home to “break bread,” that is, to have food. They also shared their food with one another. Isn’t it a lovely thing to make sure that our needy brethren – the immigrants, students, the unemployed, etc. – don’t go hungry after having worshipped with us?
Invariably, those in support of the view that “breaking bread” was Luke’s way of referring to the Lord’s Table will point out Acts 20:7. A group of Christians came together on the first day of the week to “break bread.” They even go to the extent of claiming that those early Christians came together on Sundays to observe the Lord’s Table. From there they jump to the conclusion that the Lord’s Table is at the “center” of Christian gatherings. The incident recorded in Acts 20:7ff did not happen on a Sunday. It was a Saturday evening. There is nothing in the passage to indicate that the “breaking of bread” was any different from the regular blessing pronounced over a meal. During Paul’s journey to Rome, the men who sailed with him had not eaten for days. To cheer them up, Paul broke bread with them. He took bread and gave thanks. He wasn’t conducting the Lord’s Table!
When the Eucharist or the Communion is observed, biblical passages related to the “ordinance” is read out in many Protestant and Evangelical churches. One such passage is taken from Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Church:
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, and after he had given thanks he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.”3
“Do this in remembrance of me,” said the Lord Jesus. The commandment appears to be straight-forward. Why should there be any room for ambiguity or a difference of opinion? Most Christian traditions observe the Eucharist in more or less the same manner even though they may have different views regarding its nature and significance. Therefore, in answer to the question, What are we supposed to do in remembrance of the Lord Jesus? Most Christians will say, “We should partake of the elements – bread and wine – of the Lord’s Table, after due introspection, remembering the sufferings of our Lord.”
What if Jesus never meant it that way in the first place? Wouldn’t it be careless and irreverent on our part to assume what Jesus meant by “Do this in remembrance of me?” What was the ‘this’ that Jesus referred to? Did He specifically say we should consume a little white bread (or some wafer) and some wine—as we do today? The Gospel accounts might make us believe that Jesus and His apostles had nothing more than some bread and wine for their Last Supper. This is where Christians should inquire about the historical and religious context of the Last Supper.
What exactly did Jesus and the Twelve observe that evening? Did Jesus invent and establish a new ‘Christian’ ritual that was unheard of among the Jews? No! Jesus and the Twelve observed the well-established annual Jewish Passover feast. The Gospel accounts are very clear.
“Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was approaching.”4
Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us to eat.”5
There are Christians who claim that Jesus and his disciples, after having come together for a Passover meal, departed from Jewish tradition to set up a brand new “Christian” ritual. Clearly, they are not well acquainted with the Passover meal.
Before I describe the Passover meal in detail I need to examine a claim by certain theologians6 that the Last Supper was not a Passover meal. Those who make such a claim base their argument on verses such as John 18:28 where John tells us why certain Jewish leaders refused to enter Pilate’s court during Jesus’s trial.
“Then they brought Jesus from Caiaphas to the Roman governor’s residence. (Now it was very early morning.) They did not go into the governor’s residence so they would not be ceremonially defiled, but could eat the Passover meal.”
At first reading, we may get the impression that the Passover meal happened after Jesus was tried and crucified. Why else would those Jews keep themselves ceremonially clean during the trial? Proponents of this view also say that Jesus’s death coincided with the sacrifice of the Passover lamb that afternoon. Sounds attractive. Wasn’t Jesus the “Lamb of God”? The notion that His death on the cross coincided with the sacrifice of the Passover lamb might give goosebumps to Christians.
If you subscribe to this view ― that Jesus’s Last Supper was not the Passover meal ― you will also have to admit that Luke the Evangelist got his chronology wrong. Luke was no careless writer. He set out to write an orderly account. You’ll have to deny the authenticity of his well-researched Gospel if you question his chronology. Didn’t Luke report Jesus as having said, “Go and prepare the Passover for us to eat”?
There’s a much more serious problem. How will these theologians sidestep Mark’s claim that the Passover lamb was slain on the day before the crucifixion—on the day that Jesus had his Last Supper with the Twelve?
“Now on the first day of the feast of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, Jesus’s disciples said to him, ‘Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover?’
“He sent two of his disciples and told them, ‘Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. Wherever he enters, tell the owner of the house, “The Teacher says, ‘Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’””7
Theologians and scholars can go wrong.8 But the scriptures are right all the time. Mark and Luke were not wrong.
In order to understand that there is no contradiction between John’s chronology and that of the Synoptic Gospels, we need to study the religious context of the Passover meal. The Jews sacrifice their Passover lamb in the afternoon of the fourteenth day of the first month. By sunset, their day is over. (The Jewish day is from dusk to dusk.). After sunset, in the early hours of the fifteenth day, they observe the Passover meal.
Before the sacrifice, every Jewish home would have been rid of yeast and food that contains yeast. God had commanded them to do so.9 No yeast was to be present in their homes on the Passover day and for seven days after that. They were to observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days after the Passover. Therefore, these eight days were often seen together as a single yeast-free season. The Feast of Unleavened Bread too was commonly referred to as the Passover. This is why Luke says,
“Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was approaching.”10
Therefore, the “Passover meal” for which the Jews kept themselves ceremonially clean was actually the first meal of the Festival of Unleavened Bread on the sixteenth day of the month. Jesus and the Twelve observed the Passover meal on the fifteenth day. He was arrested after the meal, at night. Very early the next morning (Roman business hours started very early), Jesus was taken to Pilate’s court. Since the Jews were to observe the Festival of Unleavened Bread later that evening, they could not afford to get themselves defiled. Jesus was buried at dusk, towards the end of the fifteenth day. The sixteenth day began after the sunset on the fifteenth day.
On this first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, Israel was supposed to hold a sacred assembly. No one was allowed to do any regular work.11 It was a sacred Sabbath. This Sabbath was on the day after Jesus was crucified. Every Sabbath day of rest requires a day of preparation. Therefore, the day on which Jesus was crucified was also known as the Day of Preparation.
“(Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover, about noon.) Pilate said to the Jewish leaders, ‘Look, here is your king!’” – John 19:14-15.
“Then, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies should not stay on the crosses on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was an especially important one), the Jewish leaders asked Pilate to have the victims’ legs broken and the bodies taken down.” – John 19:31.
“And so, because it was the Jewish day of preparation and the tomb was nearby, they placed Jesus’s body there.” – John 19:42.
On all those seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Israel was commanded to offer special sacrifices—“two young bulls, one ram, and seven lambs …”12 Now, this was in addition to the daily “burnt offering in the morning which is for a continual burnt offering.”13
Therefore, on the day the Jews took Jesus to Pilate’s court, the High Priest had a lot on his mind. He had to get a conviction at the earliest; keep himself ritually clean for the regular morning burnt offering and for the festive meal of Unleavened Bread in the evening; and prepare for the sacred assembly the following day. Neither he nor the other Jews could afford to get defiled before such an auspicious Sabbath. Even though these murderous wolves falsely claimed allegiance to Caesar (“We have no king other than Caesar!”) in order to get an innocent man murdered at the hands of Romans, they felt the need to remain “ritually clean”! John wanted to highlight this irony. Instead of noticing the irony, some theologians trip over the word “Passover.” There is no contradiction between John’s Gospel and Luke’s Gospel.14
The twenty-four hour period from the dusk after Jesus was buried was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. It was a sacred day of rest (a Sabbath). There would have a sacred assembly. In spite of the mandatory rest, the Jewish High Priest met with Pilate to request him to secure Jesus’s tomb.15
Jesus’s women disciples rested on that special annual Sabbath. They were unable to buy the aromatic spices required to anoint Jesus’s body. By the time the Sabbath ended at dusk, it was too late to do any shopping. They rested at night. The next day, “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought aromatic spices so that they might go and anoint him.”16 Please note that the day they bought the spices was not the first day of the week. By the time they prepared the spices, the day must have been ended. It was time for the weekly Sabbath to begin. By then, it was 48 hours after Jesus was buried.
From Friday evening to Saturday evening, Jews observe their weekly Sabbath. The women rested on that Sabbath. By the time the Sabbath had ended, it was 72 hours after Jesus was buried. The women did not dare to venture out into the dark that evening. You may now understand why they were eager to rush to the tomb at the crack of dawn. “Now on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women went to the tomb, taking the aromatic spices they had prepared.”17 The women found the tomb empty. The stone had been removed. The Bible does not say Jesus rose again from the dead on Sunday morning. The women found the empty tomb on Sunday morning.
Therefore, it is absurd to say that Jesus was buried on a Friday evening just because a “Sabbath” began immediately after his burial. That special Sabbath was not the weekly Sabbath. The religious context of the Passover teaches us otherwise. There were two Sabbaths and a working day between them. Jesus must have been crucified and buried on a Wednesday. He remained in the tomb for three days and three nights, just as He had predicted.18
“Now when the hour came, Jesus took his place at the table and the apostles joined him. And he said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.’”19
Now that we know for sure that Jesus and the Twelve had observed the Passover meal, we can now get into the details of the meal. Did Jesus, like we do today, bless a loaf of bread initially? Please take careful note of Luke’s account.
And he said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’
Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’
Then he took bread, and after giving 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 supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’
There were more than one cup! There was a supper! After all, it wasn’t a basic fare with just a tiny piece of bread and some grape juice.
The Passover meal is an elaborate meal that progresses in an orderly fashion following a written liturgy. It is observed at home. The whole family gathers around the table. They remember and retell the story of God’s salvation that accompanied the first Passover meal Israel observed in Egypt. The narration of that story is called the Haggadah.
At the center of this ritual meal is the Seder plate. Seder means order. There are several symbolic foods on the plate. Parsely leaves, Horse radish, bitter herbs, charoseth (a mixture of sweet apple, nuts, cinnamon, and wine), a boiled egg, and the shankbone of a lamb. These (except the bone) are eaten according to the liturgical order in which they appear in the Haggadah.
There are four cups in a Passover feast. That is, participants fill their cups at four different times. They praise God before drinking from it each time. These four cups remind them of the four promises God gave Moses regarding Israel’s liberation from slavery (Exodus 6:6-7).
1. Kiddush: The Cup of Sanctification
The head of the family begins the Passover meal by lifting this first cup, saying, “Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh ha’olam, bo’re p’ri hagefen.” (Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.) The whole meal is thus set apart as holy (sanctified) unto God.
Each person then eats a sprig of Karpas (parsley), after dipping it into brine. This was to remember the tears their ancestors shed during the slavery in Egypt.
It is then time for Yachatz, the breaking of the middle Matzah.
The Matzah is a flat, unleavened bread. Flour is mixed with a little water and the dough is left for not more than 18 minutes. This is to ensure that the flour doesn’t ferment. It is rolled out and baked over a grill. The hot metal grill leaves lines on the bread. The bread is poked several times to ensure uniform cooking. Each matzah looks as if it were ploughed and pierced.
A special set of three such Matzahs are stacked on the table in a special bag with three compartments. The leader takes the middle Matzah and breaks it. He leaves one half in the Matzah bag. He wraps the other half in a piece of cloth and leaves it on the table or hides it somewhere else. That piece of Matzah that is thus “buried” somewhere is called the Afikoman (that which is to come later). The Passover meal will conclude only after the hidden Afikoman is brought back to the table at a later stage.
Why do the Jews prepare the Matzah in a special way? What does it represent? Why do they have three Matzahs in a bag? Why do they take the second one and break it? Why must a part of that second Matzah be hidden (or “buried”)? Most Jews do not have a clue. They may say that the three Matzahs represent the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Why then is the Matzah representing Isaac broken? Sadly, Jews are unable to see the Gospel that is hidden in these symbols and rituals. A discerning Christian, however, will know that the three Matzahs represent the Triune God - the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.
After the Yachatz, the family will retell the story of Exodus. This is known as the Maggid. They may read Exodus 12:1-15. The youngest child in the family is encouraged to ask four important questions (Ma nishtanah, ha-laylah ha-zeh …):
The father then answers these questions through the reading of the Haggadah.
2. Makkot: The Cup of Plagues
During the Haggadah, when they remember the Ten Plagues, it is time to partake of the second cup. Before the second cup is blessed, the family remembers the ten plagues that God had sent on Egyptians. Their aim is not to rejoice over the sufferings of Egyptians but to express sorrow.
They dip a finger in their cup and place a drop of wine on their plate each time the name of a plague is mentioned. Ten drops of wine are thus removed from the cup, effectively “reducing their joy.”
As they come to the end of the first part of the Seder meal, the family eats the rest of the things on the plate. A piece of Matzah is eaten with bitter herbs and horse radish. The strong flavor of horse radish will cause them to tear up. This too is to remember the bitter sufferings of their ancestors in Egypt. After that, they eat a piece of Matzah with sweet Haroseth that reminds them of the mortar used by Israelite slaves.
The shankbone is a reminder of the first lamb that was sacrificed during the first Passover. In Hebrew, it is called Zeroah. The boiled egg on the Seder plate was included after AD 70. It reminds Jews of the sacrifices that ceased after the second Temple was destroyed by Romans.
After these ritual observances, the main meal is served. Special care is taken to avoid yeast in all foods prepared for the Passover feast.
The Last Supper too must have been an elaborate meal. Jesus’s disciples took time to prepare such a meal.
Tzafun: Finding and Eating the Afikoman. After the meal, the father asks his children to find the hidden Afikoman. It is usually kept in the same place every year. Everyone partakes of the Afikoman.
During that Passover, Jesus took the Afikoman and said, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” His disciples might have been shocked at hearing this. For centuries, the Jews broke the second bread, buried a part of it, and brought it back later to eat it. No one knew what it stood for. Even today, modern Jews do not know why they do what they do. Unbeknown to them, they declare the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.
Obviously, the Afikoman that Jesus distributed among His disciples did not turn into His flesh. By eating a piece of the Afikomen, the disciples did not consume the body or “presence” of Jesus in any sense. Jesus was still seated before them. He was still whole, and wholly apart from them! By saying, “This is my body which is given for you,” Jesus revealed to his disciples how the Afikoman had always been proclaiming the coming Lamb of God. Very soon, in less than twenty-four hours, Jesus was about to be sacrificed for the sins of the whole world. It was Jesus’s body – not the Afikoman – that was sacrificed! The Afikoman was a special reminder of the supreme sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Today, the Afikoman cannot signify anything other than what it meant or signified during the last Passover Jesus had with the Twelve..
Since Christians don’t come across details of the Passover meal in the Bible, most of them are unaware of the context of the broken Afikoman. If the Afikoman should signify the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, it must be understood in the context of a Passover meal. It should not be plucked out of context for the creation of a new ritual. Jesus did not create a new ritual. He just interpreted the centuries-old Passover meal. He then fulfilled it through His passion and resurrection.
3. HaGeulah: The Cup of Redemption
After the supper, everyone fills their cup a third time. This third Cup of Redemption was to celebrate God’s promise: “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.” After blessing God, each one drinks of this cup.
Jesus lifted this third cup of redemption and said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”20
Matthew records it thus:
“And after taking the cup and giving thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, that is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, from now on I will not drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’”21
The wine that Jesus’s disciples drank from the Cup of Redemption did not turn into the blood of Jesus. Nor did a part of Jesus or His presence enter into the disciples with every sip of wine. All of Jesus’s blood was still in His body! Jesus was seated right there with them. Why then did Jesus say, “This is my blood”? Jesus revealed to His disciples how the Cup of Redemption had always been proclaiming the New Covenant that would be ratified through the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. The Cup of Redemption would now be an annual reminder of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death. “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.”22
It is unfortunate that Christians take declarations such as “This is my body” or “This is my blood” literally. Consider this. Jewish elders who preside over a Passover meal lift up Matzah in their hands and say, This is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in the wilderness. Will anyone take those words literally? Do Jews eat the very bread that their ancestors ate on that night of Exodus? The Matzah the Jews eat every Passover do not even represent or symbolize the bread their ancestors ate while on their way out of Egypt. At best, the Matzah reminds Jews of their ancestors’ sufferings because the latter ate similar bread during the Exodus.
4. Hallel: The Cup of Praise
Before they drink of the fourth cup of praise, the family enters a season of praise. They sing Psalm 113 through Psalm 118.
Jesus and the Twelve praised God in a similar manner after the meal. “After singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”23
If only Christians knew the true nature of the Passover Seder meal! Is it just ignorance or is it also because of their derision towards Jewish rituals that they distance themselves from observing the Passover? The Church in the second or third century, out of their desire to distance themselves from Judaism, might have shunned the Passover. What excuse do we have today for our shoddiness?
The Church plucked a tiny bit of the Passover meal out of its original context, convincing themselves that that was the way to obey Jesus’s command, “Do this in remembrance of me.” If Jesus and his apostles observed the Passover, unveiling the hidden Christian meaning in it, we as Christians must observe a Christ-centered Passover every year. That would be the real “Lord’s Table.” We don’t have to sacrifice a lamb. Christ is our Passover Lamb who was sacrificed once for all. But that does not mean that we should shun the Passover meal which is uniquely fitted to remind us of God’s redemption through Jesus Christ.
The Church plucked a tiny bit of the Passover meal out of its original context. If Jesus observed the Passover, unveiling its hidden Christian meaning, we must observe a Christ-centered Passover every year.
The Passover meal was an annual memorial meal.
This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.24
The Christian Passover too should be an annual memorial meal. The Jews used to eat unleavened bread only during Passover and the festival of unleavened bread. This is why the Lord’s Table should be an annual observance.
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 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.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.25
God’s Israel, before the Cross, looked back to the exodus from Egypt. God’s Israel, after the Cross, looks back to the exodus that Messiah Jesus wrought through his death and resurrection. There are Messianic Jews who observe a Christ-centered Passover every year. (You can download their liturgy for free.)
Instead of observing a Christ-centered Passover, we claim to obey the Lord by eating bread made of fermented dough. During a Christian “communion service,” you may hear the pastor say, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all share the one bread.” But I have never heard a pastor say, “Just as this bread is free of yeast, let our lives be free from sin.” How can a pastor exhort his flock to lead a holy life by using a regular loaf of bread as an illustration of “yeast-free” life? Why do we squander the imagery God incorporated into the Lord’s Table? As for our “wine,” the less said the better. We have created a caricature of what the Lord intended for us to observe.
As for “love feasts,” Christians can partake of as many love feasts as they can afford to host. But those are not the “Lord’s Table.” Anyone can participate in Christian love feasts. But the Lord’s Table is for those who are members of the Body of Christ through repentance, faith, and baptism. No “foreigner” has anything to do with it.26 The apostle Paul wrote at length to the Corinthian church about abuses prevalent during their observance of the Lord’s Table. His primary concern was regarding those who participated in the Lord’s Table as well as in the devil’s table (by eating food offered to idols).27
As for the Festival of Unleavened Bread, a Christian’s entire life is supposed to be that festival, free from the leaven of sin.
“Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch of dough - you are, in fact, without yeast. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. So then, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of vice and evil, but with the bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.28
Just as the Jews observe the Passover meal in their homes, the Christ-centered Passover too must be had at home. There is no need for an ordained clergy! The head of the family is more than qualified to lead the Lord’s table.
Just as it was important to understand the religious and historical context of the Passover meal to understand the true nature of the Lord’s table, it is important to understand Jesus’s teaching on being “born again” in its Jewish context. (Listen to my teaching on what it means to be “born again.”)
The Christian “communion service” does not have its roots in the Hebrew scriptures. This is one reason why Christians from a Jewish background might find the “communion service” a bit odd.29 This should also disturb Christians because every aspect of the Gospel of Jesus has its roots in the Hebrew scriptures. Nothing totally foreign to the Scriptures was ever introduced either by Jesus or His apostles.
You might ask me, ‘If Jesus indeed never introduced a totally new idea, why were the Jewish disciples of Jesus shocked and offended when He said that they should eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to get life eternal? Wasn’t that something out of the blue? Didn’t all those disciples desert Jesus? Only the Twelve remained.’
Indeed, a day after multiplying the loaves and fish, Jesus gave a lengthy discourse, as found in John 6, to those who came seeking after Him. The statements that offended the Jews are cited below.
“Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you the solemn truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves. The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.’”30
“For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood resides in me, and I in him.”31
“Then many of his disciples, when they heard these things, said, ‘This is a difficult saying! Who can understand it?’”32
“After this many of his disciples quit following him and did not accompany him any longer.”33
Here, Jesus did not introduce a totally new non-Jewish idea. He was, in all likelihood, speaking to Jews in the language of their kabbalistic literature.34 In this specific instance, after having declared that He is the Bread of Life, Jesus alluded to a passage from the Tanya.
“Since, in the case of knowledge of the Torah, the Torah is clothed in the soul and intellect of a person, and is absorbed in them, it is called “bread” and “food” of the soul. For just as physical bread nourishes the body as it is absorbed internally, in his very inner self, where it is transformed into blood and flesh of his flesh, whereby he lives and exists— so, too, it is with the knowledge of the Torah and its comprehension by the soul of the person who studies it well, with a concentration of his intellect, until the Torah is absorbed by his intellect and is united with it and they become one. This becomes nourishment for the soul, and its inner life from the Giver of life, the blessed En Sof, Who is clothed in His wisdom and in His Torah that are [absorbed] in it [the soul].
“This is the meaning of the verse, ‘Yea, Thy Torah is within my inward parts.’”35
The Jews refer to the first five books (the Pentateuch) of the Hebrew Scriptures as the Torah. It is clear from the above passage that Jews looked upon God’s Word as true nourishment for the soul. When a person internalizes God’s Word through careful, intensive study, the Word gets integrated into his constitution, claims the Tanya.
Jesus is the Torah (the Word of God) in human flesh. He is the Bread of Life that came from heaven. By encouraging his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood, Jesus was asking them to internalize the Word of God through faith in the Son of God. A literal interpretation of flesh and blood was out of question. He certainly intended to offer his flesh “for the life of the world”36 but that was a reference to His sacrificial death on a cross. He wasn’t asking people to literally eat His flesh or to drink His blood.
When His Jewish listeners began to argue with one another – “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” – Jesus reiterated his position. When they were about to leave, Jesus spoke to them in plain language for their benefit.
“Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.”37
But those Jews had already made up their mind to leave Jesus. The Twelve, especially Peter, grasped Jesus’s point. They understood that Jesus was encouraging people to internalize His word through faith. Surely, this time the Twelve got it right.
Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”38
As children, we often wondered why the apostles were so dim-witted that they couldn’t understand Jesus’s parables. Why did they argue about who was the greatest among them? Why did ‘loud-mouthed’ and ‘impulsive’ Peter deny his Master? But now, look at us! Christians who failed to get Jesus’s point kept inventing theories about how consuming a consecrated piece of bread and a little wine amounts to consuming the flesh and blood of Jesus! The theories we came up with!
There are Christians – Roman Catholics, Orthodox churches, Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, Methodists, etc. – who believe that Christ is really present in the bread and the wine.39 The Baptists, Pentecostals, and most non-denominational Christians reject the “Real Presence” theory; they take the “communion” as an ordinance of “remembrance.” Among the former group, the Catholics believe in transubstantiation.40 Lutherans rejected transubstantiation in favor of consubstantiation.41 Christians who followed the Reformed Tradition of John Calvin believed in “Real Presence” of Jesus Christ – not physically but in a spiritual way – with the bread and wine. The Methodists would rather not explain the “Real Presence;” they like it to remain a “Holy Mystery.”42
For goodness sake, Jesus was not talking about the literal or metaphorical eating of His flesh or the drinking of His blood. He was talking about internalising God’s Word – the eternal Logos – through faith and obedience.
Jesus was not talking about the literal or metaphorical eating of His flesh or the drinking of His blood. He was talking about internalising God’s Word – the eternal Logos – through faith and obedience.
The New Testament does not teach us that the Lord’s Table is a sacrifice. Still, the “Mass” in Roman Catholic (and similar churches) is considered a sacrifice. On one hand they say that the Mass is related to the perfect sacrifice of Jesus on the cross of Calvary. But that sacrifice, they claim, is perpetuated in the Mass in order for us “to appropriate the merits He gained on the Cross.”43 Worse still, Roman Catholic teachers claim that their Mass is a “true sacrifice” of “propitiation and petition.”44 The bread on the ‘altar’ is considered to be the very body of Jesus, and the wine, His blood. They offer the Son of God on their altars as “a pure victim, a spotless victim, a holy victim.”45 The body and blood thus offered becomes their food.
A careful study will reveal that these teachers invariably based their views on a faulty understanding of Jesus’ teachings in John 6. Probably, John foresaw the danger of Christians getting caught up with rituals that involved the consumption of Jesus’s “flesh and blood.” Unlike the other three evangelists, John did not include the “institution of the Lord’s Supper” in his Gospel. But he chose to include Jesus’s lengthy discourse on the Bread of Life in chapter 6. It appears that John wished to emphasize the true meaning of Jesus’s words that were spoken in Galilee (John 6), after the miraculous multiplication of loaves.
Understanding the meaning of what Jesus said in John 6, I believe, gives us the key to understand what happened during the Passover meal in the Upper Room. Scholars like Leon Morris might discount the importance of John 6 in understanding that Passover.46 But I prefer to take note of John’s introductory statement in 6:4 as a vital clue – “It was near the time of the Jewish Festival of the Passover.” The Passover season—that’s what was common between the multiplication of the loaves and the Last Supper. In Galilee, Jesus expounded himself as the Bread of Life to the thousands of people who sought Him. The following year, in the privacy of the Upper Room, Jesus expounded the true meaning of the Yachatz and the Afikoman. The breaking of the middle Matzah, and the hiding and return of the Afikoman during the Passover is an annual reminder of the broken body of the Lamb of God. The Cup of Redemption, the third of the four cups, is a reminder of the New Covenant in Jesus’s shed blood.
Were Christians in the early Church tempted to participate in “sacrificial meals” to obtain “grace”—like the Christians of today who stage a “sacrifice” of the Son of God and consume consecreated bread and wine in order to receive the benefits of Christ’s atoning sacrifice? The Epistle to the Hebrews gives me the impression that early Christians were tempted to do so.
“Do not be carried away by all sorts of strange teachings. For it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not ritual meals, which have never benefited those who participated in them.”47
Participation in ritual sacrificial meals is useless, says the author of Hebrews. He must have been referring to sacrificial meals because he refers to a sacrifice in the verse that immediately follows the above verse. It could have been Jewish sacrificial meals, as pointed out by William Lane.48 It is highly unlikely that Christians of the first century conducted “Mass” in which the Son of God was crucified repeatedly everyday. The very thought of subjecting Christ to repeated “deaths” (even if He is beyond human suffering now) must have been so abhorrent to them. The only way Christ suffers repeated humiliation – as if through repeated crucifixion – is when rebellious apostates heap insult on Him.49 And to think that a majority of so-called Christians “sacrifice” Jesus daily with the intention of deriving “grace” from it! How utterly revolting!
If Christ was offered once for all, why should He be sacrificed daily on a “Christian altar”? How did Christians even come up with the idea of eating the “flesh” of Jesus Christ and drinking His “blood” except through a gross misinterpreation of John 6:53-56? There’s another possibility. This whole notion of offering “sacrifices” and of eating the flesh of the victim might have crept in to the Church from “omophagia.” Omophagia was a Greek ritual of sacred communion in which participants ate the flesh of human or animal sacrificial victims. The communicants were so mad with frenzy that they tore into raw flesh in the belief that their ‘god’ resided in the flesh of the offering.50
The flesh and blood of Jesus Christ are not to be consumed—literally or metaphorically or symbolically. Why? Because, unlike sacrificial meals eaten by people of other religions,
“We have an altar that those who serve in the tabernacle have no right to eat from.”51
“For the bodies of those animals whose blood the high priest brings into the sanctuary as an offering for sin are burned outside the camp. Therefore, to sanctify the people by his own blood, Jesus also suffered outside the camp. We must go out to him, then, outside the camp, bearing the abuse he experienced.”52
The author of Hebrews is referring to the altar on which Jesus was sacrificed! Jesus’s sacrifice is comparable to the special burnt offering, the blood of which was taken into the Holy of Holies to be sprinkled on the mercy seat. No one was permitted to eat the carcass of that sacrificial victim! It had to be burnt outside the camp.
Instead of participating in ritual sacrificial meals, Hebrew Christians were encouraged by the writer of Hebrews to offer “sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips” offered through Jesus Christ. They were also encouraged to give sacrificially to those in need.
“Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, acknowledging his name.
“And do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for God is pleased with such sacrifices.”53
On what basis, then, do the Catholics “sacrifice” Jesus every day and then consume his “flesh and blood”? Why then do Christians in other camps, even though they do not offer the Mass, imagine that they eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus Christ – either literally or “spiritually” – in their “Communion service”? I am inclined to think that this so-called “communion service,” which lacks scriptural warrant, crept in to the Christian Church from pagan practices such as omophagia.
Comments and Feedback
J. C. Laansma, “LORD’S DAY”, Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Development, Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1997.↩︎
Acts 2:46 NET.↩︎
1 Cor 11:23-25↩︎
R. T. France, et. al.↩︎
Reputed theologians like R. T. France, Jeremias, et. al., are among those who pitch for John’s chronology at the expense of the Synoptic Gospels.↩︎
“For seven days yeast must not be found in your houses, for whoever eats what is made with yeast - that person will be cut off from the community of Israel, whether a foreigner or one born in the land. You will not eat anything made with yeast; in all the places where you live you must eat bread made without yeast.” — Exodus 12:19-20 NET↩︎
Luke 22:1 NET↩︎
“But you must offer to the LORD an offering made by fire, a burnt offering of two young bulls, one ram, and seven lambs one year old; they must all be unblemished. And their grain offering is to be of finely ground flour mixed with olive oil. For each bull you must offer three-tenths of an ephah, and two-tenths for the ram. For each of the seven lambs you are to offer one-tenth of an ephah, as well as one goat for a purification offering, to make atonement for you.” – Numbers 28:19-22 NET↩︎
Numbers 28:23 NET↩︎
I agree with Carson in this matter although he gets the rest of the chronology - regarding Jesus’s death and resurrection - wrong. D. A. Carson. The Gospel According to John. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Leister: Apollos, 1991.↩︎
“For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.” – Matthew 12:40 NET.↩︎
1 Corinthians 11:25 NET.↩︎
1 Corinthians 11:23-26↩︎
“When a foreigner lives with you and wants to observe the Passover to the LORD, all his males must be circumcised, and then he may approach and observe it, and he will be like one who is born in the land - but no uncircumcised person may eat of it.” – Exodus 12:48
What matters in God’s sight is the circumcision of the heart, that is, repentance. – Jeremiah 9:26; Romans 2:29.↩︎
“No, I mean that what the pagans sacrifice is to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot take part in the table of the Lord and the table of demons.” – 1 Cor 10:20-21↩︎
1 Corinthians 5:7-8. Emphasis added.↩︎
The other reason? The Roman Catholic Church persecuted Jews, from the 13th century, for “descrating the host” (the bread used for communion). After noticing some red color on the host, some Catholics assumed that the “Lord’s body” was “bleeding.” They accused certain Jews of trying to torment Jesus even at that time not having been satisfied by all that their ancestors had done to Him! Accusations of “Host Descration” continued all the way to the nineteenth century. It led to the killing of many Jews. It is not easy for Jews to forget such hate crimes. “Desecration of Host,” Jewish Virtual Library.↩︎
Jewish Kabbalah is a set of esoteric teachings meant to explain the relationship between the unchanging, eternal God and the finite universe. These teachings existed in the oral tradition before they were written down.↩︎
Chapter 5 of The Tanya (Likutei Amarim). (online) Chabad.org.↩︎
Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, the Church of the East, the Moravian Church, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Methodism, Irvingism and Reformed Christianity believe that Christ is present in the Eucharist - not merely symbolically or metaphorically - but in a “true, real, and substantial way.” They may disagree regarding “the mode of Christ’s presence” in the Eucharist.↩︎
The Roman Catholic view: “the change of the whole substance of bread into the substance of the Body of Christ and of the whole substance of wine into the substance of the Blood of Christ”↩︎
Those who hold this view don’t believe that the bread and wine get changed into the body and blood of Jesus. Instead, they believe that “during the sacrament, the substance of the body and blood of Christ are present alongside the substance of the bread and wine, which remain present.”↩︎
Christ is here - Experiencing the Mystery.↩︎
“No less than He did on Calvary, in the Mass Jesus continues to offer Himself to the heavenly Father … in an unbloody manner.” John A. Hardon, S.J. Pocket Catholic Catechism,Published by Doubleday, 1989. Online.↩︎
John A. Hardon, S.J. Pocket Catholic Catechism,Published by Doubleday, 1989.↩︎
The Missal: Canon of the Mass↩︎
“Jesus was there talking primarily about the eucharist is not firmly based.” Leon Morris. The Gospel According to John. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.↩︎
Hebrews 13:9 NET↩︎
William Lane. Hebrews 9-13. Word Biblical Commentary Vol 47B. David A. Hubbard et. al. (Editors). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.↩︎
“For it is impossible in the case of those who have … committed apostasy, to renew them again to repentance, since they are crucifying the Son of God for themselves all over again and holding him up to contempt. – Hebrews 6:4-6 NET.↩︎
Preserved Smith. Christian Theophagy: An Historical Sketch. The Monist, Vol. 28, No. 2 (APRIL, 1918), pp. 161-208↩︎
Philip Eapen, an environmental scientist by training, devoted his life to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ ever since he realized that the world needs Jesus Christ more than anyone or anything else. Apart from sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, Philip teaches Christians in order to equip them for service. He is supported by donations from readers; he also runs a small ‘tent-making’ business. Philip is married to Dr. Jessimol and they are blessed with three sons and a daughter.
Date: Jan 4, 2023