John 6:48-51 (NIV): “I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. 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.”
When Jesus spoke these words, the people who heard them did not get what He was saying to them. They didn’t understand, because they took His words too literally. They did not understand how they could literally eat the flesh of Jesus; they found the whole idea repugnant, and closed their ears to what He was actually telling them.
Even today Christians who take these words too literally believe that this is just a teaching that Jesus was giving about the ritual of Holy Communion. And various understandings have arisen – transubstantiation, consubstantiation, the real presence, etc. But Jesus was not talking here about the ritual of communion (which He wouldn’t actually establish as a ritual for almost 2 years). He is talking about the sacrifice of Himself, the reality which the ritual merely symbolizes.
Just as God provided manna in the desert so that His people would have all the food that they needed to keep them alive and healthy, so He sent Jesus from heaven to provide all of the spiritual nourishment that His people need to keep us spiritually alive and healthy. Jesus is the LIVING bread that came down from heaven.
When Jesus told the people that they had to eat this bread that God provided, He was talking about the spiritual experience of receiving the sacrifice of Jesus for ourselves. Jesus gave His body to be crucified and killed to pay the death sentence that our sins had earned for us. When we acknowledge that we are sinners who deserve death and separation from God’s presence, when we acknowledge that Jesus’ death was necessitated by OUR sins and that only through Jesus’ giving of His body to death can we be saved, then, and only then, do we become partakers in the life that He came to bring. Only then do we “eat His flesh,” receive within ourselves His sacrificed life laid down on our behalf.
Communion, the Lord’s Supper, is a commemoration of that sacrifice; a way to remember what Jesus has done for us, and the price that He has paid. (“Do this in remembrance of Me.” – Luke 22:19b) When we eat the bread, we are prompted to remember this gift of the Bread of Life that God sent from heavenly glory into our dark world, to bring us light and life. We are prompted to remember that Jesus had no sin of His own that He had to die for (Hebrews 4:15) (symbolized by the unleavened bread), so that His death could pay the price for our sins. When we eat the bread, we symbolize again our reception of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf – the symbolic eating of His sinless flesh – to remind us of the depth of God’s love for us, and of all that we have to be thankful for.
When we drink the cup, we are prompted to remember that Jesus, the spotless lamb of God, poured out His blood to pay for our sins, because without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22). The precious blood of Jesus He poured out to the very last drop to not just cover over our sins, but to wash them away completely. And when we drink the juice or the wine, the symbolic drinking of Jesus’ blood, we symbolize again that washing away of our sins, so that we can be restored to fellowship with our Holy God.
Father, those are amazing, miraculous symbols that You have given to us. Thank You for the symbols, but thank You also for the reality that lies behind them. Thank You for the sinless life of Jesus, the bread from heaven, who took our sins on Himself so that we can now live in Your presence forever. And thank You for His precious blood, poured out to wash away our sins. Amen.