We cannot answer all the questions in this overview, but we can exegete the Lord’s Supper in its original context in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This post also looks very briefly at 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 and 11:23-34. Then, what do various churches teach about the Lord’s Supper (or Communion or Eucharist)? I am here to learn (and offer my own opinions at various times). I updated this post with information that startled me.
In the table, below, Jesus is about to accomplish his redemptive sacrifice which will launch his New Covenant community. The whole ethos is about to change—or begin to change. It will take at least two thousand years for the launch to reach us today. Jesus is about to fulfill the Exodus theology, which we saw in his temptation victory over Satan (Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). The angel said that Jesus’s name means that he will save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21), and Jesus said that he would give his life as a ransom for many (20:28). Here Jesus fulfills those two themes in the Gospels, particularly of Matthew.
This table is my translation. If you would like to see others, please go to biblegateway.com.
The Last Supper in Parallel Columns
For your convenience and for a clearer exegesis, here are the main passages, side by side.
|Matthew 26:26-30||Mark 14:22-26||Luke 22:14-20|
|26 As they were eating, Jesus, taking bread and blessing it, broke it, and giving it to the disciples, said, “Take, eat, this is my body.” 27 And taking the cup and giving thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, everyone, 28 for this is my blood of my covenant which has been poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you: from now on I will surely not drink from this produce of the vine until that day when I drink with you anew in the kingdom of my Father.” 30 And when they sang a hymn, they left for the Mount of Olives.||22 While they were eating, he, taking the bread and blessing it, broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” 23 Taking the cup, giving thanks, he gave it to them, and everyone drank from it. 24 Then he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which has been poured out for many. 25 I tell you the truth: I will no longer drink from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink this new wine in the kingdom of God. 26 After they sang a hymn, they left for the Mount of Olives.||14 And so when the hour came, he took his place, the apostles with him. 15 Then he said to them, “I have really wanted to eat this Passover with you before I suffered. 16 For I tell you that I shall certainly not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 And when he took up the cup and gave thanks, he said, “Take this and share it among yourselves. 18 For I tell you that I will certainly not drink from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 And taking the bread, he gave thanks and broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this for my remembrance.” 20 And after eating, likewise, he did so with the cup, saying, “This cup, which is poured out for you, is the New Covenant in my blood.|
Here is a summary of the evidence that the early disciples believed Jesus held a Passover Meal, and not a casual dinner:
1.. The meal was eaten in Jerusalem, a Passover requirement.
2.. Jesus and the disciples spent the night in the environs of Jerusalem (Gethsemane), a further requirement.
3.. They reclined on couches, which means it was a festive occasion.
4.. The meal was eaten after sunset, while other meals were in the late afternoon.
5.. The meal ended with a hymn (26:30), and Passover meals closed with the part of the Hallel (Pss. 115-118).
6.. The interpretation of the elements was part of the ritual (Exod 12:26-27).
7.. Giving to the poor was a custom (cf. Matt 26:9; John 13:29).
Source: Grant R. Osborne, Matthew: Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Zondervan, 2010), p. 961, who got the list from Robert J. Stein.
So we don’t need to be distracted by the hours of the day or which day (late Thursday on our calculation = Friday by Jewish reckoning) the meal was taken. All Gospels see it as a Passover meal and therefore very special and symbolic.
Old Testament Background
Very briefly, the OT background are found in these sample verses:
The lamb must be slaughtered for each household. The people must eat in haste, with the right clothing placement to symbolize the flight or exodus out of Egypt:
Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. … 7 Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. … 11 This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover. Exod. 12:3, 7, 11, NIV)
Then the bread must be specially prepared:
14 “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance. 15 For seven days you are to eat bread made without yeast. (Exod. 12:14-15)
In the next verse, Moses had already instituted the Sinai Covenant, and the Ten Commandments had been thundered down from on high, so he sprinkled blood to ratify the covenant:
And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exod. 24:8, ESV)
Next, Moses said about blood that no one may eat it:
For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. 12 Therefore I say to the Israelites, “None of you may eat blood, nor may any foreigner residing among you eat blood.” (Lev. 17:11-12, ESV)
Heb. 9:22 says that without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.
Finally, Jeremiah prophesied the New Covenant. The key clause is the forgiveness of iniquity and remembering our sins no more:
33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer. 31:33-34, ESV, emphasis added)
Hebrews 8 also quotes Jer. 31:31-34. And the Epistle to Hebrews says the Sinai covenant is obsolete. Jesus is now launching the cancellation of this old Sinai covenant, and he is doing it by taking over two elements of the Passover meal: bread and wine.
Question: how deeply and far do we interpret the words of Jesus, as he takes over the Passover meal and reduces it to two elements with new symbolic meaning?
Given the above contexts, the Passover ritual had no place for the words “this is my body.” It must have shocked the twelve Jewish disciples when Jesus says the wine is his blood and to drink it, even though it is symbolically–not literally–his blood, and the disciples could see with their own eyes that it was wine. It was shocking, for they were not permitted by law to eat blood, let alone to drink it. For centuries later, people falsely accused Christians of cannibalism (France p. 993).
Streamlining it to its essence, Jesus raised up the Passover to a whole different level. He made it his own. It now speaks of intimacy and relationship with him (John 15). In Luke 22:19, he says it a memorial or remembrance of him (see below, Church Traditions, the fourth point, for the Greek phrase).
He had blessed God for bread before (Matt. 14:19). The typical Jewish prayer of thanksgiving: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth” (m.Ber. 6:1). In Greek the verb comes from eulogeō (pronounced eu-loh-geh-oh, and the “g” is hard, as in “get”), and it literally means to “speak well.” BDAG defines the term, depending on the context, as follows: (1) “to say something commendatory, speak well of, praise, extol”; (2) “to ask for bestowal of special favor, especially of calling down God’s gracious power, bless”; (3) “to bestow a favor, provide with benefits.” Here it is the second definition. Some translations have “he gave thanks.” Being grateful even for food shows gratitude and an acknowledgement that God is the source. This is a special meal.
The bread: In Luke’s version Jesus said of the bread, “This is my body.” In Matthew’s version he said, “Take, eat; this is my body” (26:26). In Mark’s version he said, “Take; this is my body” (14:22). So do these words permit a miraculous transformation under the appearance of the bread into the literal, glorified body of Jesus? Didn’t Jesus say, “This bread is my body”? Surely there is something mysterious going on. But what exactly?
The cup: it was a literal cup, but it stands in for the wine. It is used in a metaphorical sense, for wrath (Matt. 20:22-23 and Mark 10:38-39). But in Luke’s version, he said “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood.” He did not say “this is my blood.” Yes, he said in Matthew’s version of the wine: “Drink of it, everyone, for this is my blood of the covenant” (v. 28). And Mark says the same, but with a slight variation (v. 24). But Luke’s version has the intervening vessel instead of the direct statement. Therefore, we should not overread the words in Matthew and Mark.
Finally, many or all? In Matt. 20:28 and Mark 10:45, he announced that the Son of Man came to give his life a ransom for many. Here he is about to accomplish his purpose. In Matthew 26:28 and Mark 14:24, let’s not over-interpret the word “many.” France is spot on when he interprets 20:28:
That Jesus’s death is “in the place of many” should not be taken as a deliberate contrast to “a ransom for all” in 1 Tim. 2:6 (cf., e.g., 2 Cor 5:14-15). The use of “many” derives from the Isa. 53 background and sets up a contrast between the one who dies and the many who benefit. A theology of “limited atonement” is far from the intention of the passage and would be anachronistic in this context (p. 763)
In note 27, France says that Rom 5:12-19 has the play of “many” v. “all.” In vv. 12 and 18 “all” is used, yet in vv. 15 and 19 “many” appears. In other words, the two terms “many” and all” mean the same thing both in Rom. 5:12-19 and here in Matt. 20:28. In simpler terms: “Many” and “all” in contexts like these are synonyms, as the verses in Romans and Isaiah demonstrate.
Blomberg is right: it refers to all who accept Jesus’s call of forgiveness: “‘Many’ refers to all who accept Jesus’ offer of forgiveness, made possible by his death, and who commit their lives to him in discipleship” (comment on 20:28).
Grammarian Olmstead writes, referring to his comments at 20:28: “On the meaning of [many], see 20:28; as there, so here the word denotes not a large number, but instead all (p. 317, emphasis original).
Luke 22:20 says the cup, the new covenant in his blood, has been poured out for “you” (plural), meaning the twelve disciples at the Last Supper. Now that’s a limited atonement!
Therefore, making too much of the term “many,” literally, overworks the text and is a clunky interpretation. It is never a good idea to “limit” his atonement.
Now let me summarize this section by making my own observations about the three parallel passages.
I interpret the pronouncements about drinking the wine and eating the bread as symbolic and metaphorical. Originally, the entire Passover meal was symbolic because it taught the Israelites about the ancient escape or exodus from Egypt. Therefore, when Jesus said “this is my body,” he was simply transferring the original symbolism and meaning of the Passover bread over to him and his death on the cross and Lordship. The bread takes on new meaning in him and away from the symbolism of the original Passover. It is as if he were saying, “This unleavened flatbread which you have eaten since childhood and was about the escape from Egypt is now about my body and sacrifice on the cross. This bread is now about me. It takes on a new symbolism.”
The same is true of the wine. He makes a new symbolic meaning of the wine, saying in effect: “For centuries wine has been part of the Passover meal. But now the wine is about me. It’s about my sacrifice. I am the Passover lamb, which had shed its blood to save the ancient Israelites. Now my blood is shed for you. MY sacrificial blood, symbolized by the wine, launches the New Covenant.”
So Jesus changes and simplifies the ancient symbolism into his symbolism. The many food items in the Passover meal have been reduced to two: bread and wine. The direction is simplification, not complication.
So what about Paul’s writing? He agrees with the three Synoptic Gospels about the bread, “This is my body, which is for you” (1 Cor. 11:24). However, Paul agrees with Luke about the cup: “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood” (1 Cor. 11:25). For the Greek text, see the next section and the fourth point(Recall that Luke and Paul were traveling companions.)
So, once again, the cup interferes with the neat and tidy and direct correspondence between “This is my blood of the covenant.” If Paul had believed in a miraculous transformation under the appearance of the bread and wine or the Real Presence coming down from heaven, he would have made it clear in a teaching of some kind. Interpreters have to import this prior belief into a symbolic supper that includes bread and wine.
(Importing meaning into a text is called is called eisegesis [the prefix eis means “into’]. Exporting meaning from the text is called exegesis [the prefix ex means “out of’]. Exegesis is the better method.)
And the same goes for the Synoptic authors. Yet, something miraculous may be happening, since some partake unworthily and have died prematurely (1 Cor. 11:30), but let’s not make too much of this indirect evidence about premature death. Much too debatable.
Next, Paul states, however, that something very special goes on with the bread and the wine. What is it? He writes:
16 Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf. (1 Cor. 10:16-17, NIV)
The Greek noun here for participation is koinōnia, which simply means “communion” or “participation,” as the NIV translates it. To be more precise, Paul says that participating in eating bread symbolizes our unity. One Loaf = One Body of Christ = the Body of Believers. He is about to teach extensively the body metaphor in 12:12-27, saying that though we believers are many parts, we still belong to one body, the body of Christ. Paul does not say what participating in drinking the wine symbolizes, but presumably it also symbolizes our unity in Christ. I see no deeper symbolism here.
Circling back around, let’s ask one more time: Do these passages speak of a miraculous transformation of the substance under the appearance or of the Real Presence in, under, and around the elements coming down from heaven? Let’s see if we can answer this question in the next sections.
Unfortunately, I have to be too brief in this summary section also. My goal is not to offend, but to understand. I’m a life-long learner, though in this section I offer my opinion at the fourth church tradition.
Four views: (1) Catholic, (2) “High-Church” Protestants, (3) Spiritual Signs, (4) Symbolic Memorials
Another introductory item: sacraments are things that are made holy by prayer and consecration and have saving power in them or some level of power in them, like building one’s faith. The first three church traditions use the term sacrament for the bread and wine. In contrast, an ordinance is related to the word ordain, for Jesus ordained the Lord’s Supper. The elements are not sacred in themselves, but they represent the body and blood. The fourth church tradition typically uses the term ordinance.
One last introductory item: You can search online at youtube for professional theologians who offer more details about their article of faith on the Lord’s Supper. I have, and the videos are educational.
Or go to my post:
(1).. Roman Catholics call the miraculous transformation transubstantiation because the substance below the appearance is somehow, mysteriously, transformed. (Note the word “substance” in transubstantiation.) The appearance does not change, but the substance does. So the bread and wine are sacraments. Don’t ask me what the substance is, but the idea surely comes in from Aristotle and then through Thomas Aquinas, who incorporated the genius Aristotle’s views into Catholic theology. The bread and wine really are the glorified body and blood of Christ, but under the accidents (appearances).
So it works out like this, boiled down without complications (the arrow meaning “leads to,” “brings about” or “effectuates”):
Bread + Wine + Priestly Prayer of Consecration → Miraculous Transformation of the Substance under the Appearance
That equation is designed to clarify, not tear down people’s belief in the sacred.
(2).. In comparison, Lutherans (and perhaps Anglicans) believe that the presence of Christ is in, under, and around the bread, but the substance is not transformed. Lutherans do not like to call this article of faith consubstantiation, meaning the presence is “with” the substance (“con” means “with”). They want to take out the idea of a substance in their doctrine. (I don’t blame them for this.) But others say the label is right because Christ’s glorified body and blood enter the two sacraments.
And so Lutherans believe that somehow, mysteriously, the presence of Christ is in, within, under the bread and wine, but without a miraculous transformation of the substance. Christ’s presence comes down from heaven and blesses the bread and wine. Therefore, the bread and wine are sacraments–holy things, holy in themselves.
Here is the equation:
Bread + Wine + Consecrated Prayer → Glorified Body and Blood = Presence in, under, around the Sacraments
(3).. Calvinism (Reformed) says that the bread and wine are really bread and wine, but they are also the glorified body and blood and Christ in a spiritual sense. The bread and wine are spiritual signs (or symbols) and seals and sacraments. The elements are for the eyes, and the preaching of God’s word is for the ears. The word brings us to Christ, but the sacraments build our faith. So the elements are superior or equal to the word. The Spirit communicates or is the means of grace and power to the participants.
Bread + Wine = Body and Blood in a Spiritual Sense → Building Your Faith through the Sacraments
This is the best I can do for the Reformed view in my brief survey.
(4).. The next equation is typical of Protestants like Baptists and Calvary Chapel and various Evangelical churches and independent Charismatic churches and Pentecostals. Recall that Luke’s version says that drinking the wine is done in remembrance of Jesus (v. 19). So mere Memorialism cannot be ruled out.
Bread + Wine = Symbolic Memorials + Partaking of Them by Faith → Miraculous Transformation in the Person by the Spirit
The latter part of the equation looks like Calvinism (Reformed), but the first part looks like Zwingli’s view (Memorialism). This is my view, too. I expect the Holy Spirit to move in my heart as I partake of the bread and wine. Deep activity of the Spirit can happen when we remember his death on the cross and take the elements by faith. The activity goes directly from the Spirit to my own heart, without the intervening elements being transformed or sacramentalized. They are not sacraments but ordinances because Jesus ordained this supper, though I see that some memorialists now advocate calling them sacraments. However, if we redefine sacrament as an item that is set apart for special service or use without containing any power in it, then and only then am I open to calling the bread and wine sacraments.
I just heard a youtube Baptist theologian and pastor call this Memorialism doctrine “low-grade” Evangelicalism. However, the Greek supports Memorialism, as follows:
τοῦτο ποιεῖτε εἰς τὴν ἐμὴν ἀνάμνησιν (touto poieite eis tēn emēn anamnēsin)
“Do this for my remembrance”
The noun anamnēsin (accusative) comes from anamnēsis (nominative), which means “reminder, remembrance, memory” (Shorter Lexicon). It is used only four times in the Greek NT: Heb. 10:3; here in v. 19, and 1 Cor. 11:24-25 (twice). The latter two occurrences are in the context of the Lord’s Table, and the wording in Greek in 1 Cor. 11:24 is exactly what is seen in Luke 22:19, duplicated just above. Exactly. It startled me. (Recall that Luke and Paul were traveling companions at various times.) Therefore, Memorialism is not “low-grade” Evangelicalism. It is perfectly biblical.
The main point of the fourth view is that life in the Spirit is the whole project and new way that God grants to people in the New Covenant (Luke 24:49; John 20:22; entire book of Acts; Rom. 8; Gal. 5). People of the Old Covenant did not have life in the Spirit, in the same way, as do people of the New. So the Spirit is involved in our partaking of the two elements. Thus, hopefully these verses take away the objection that importing the Spirit into the passages about Lord’s Supper, which do not bring up the Spirit in the Synoptics, is eisegesis.
The Four Churches’ Views in Light of Scripture
Now we combine the exegesis of the parallel passages and Paul’s view and the churches’ interpretations. Let’s call it a biblical critique of the four views–from my point of view.
So do those parallel passages argue for a literal transformation of the substance of the elements below the appearance, or do they argue for the Real Presence in some way? I say no to both, unless one imports this belief into those verses. But I freely and gladly admit that something special is going on when we partake of the two elements. The Passover meal was originally symbolic on some level and to some degree. For a Renewalist like me, I say the Spirit in my heart makes them special and holy, subjectively in me.
Why? My guess is that Luke’s version about the cup determines the interpretation. If he really believed in a miraculous transformation or the Real Presence around the wine, he would have indicated this by saying what Matthew and Mark said about it. “This is my blood of the covenant” (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24). Instead, Luke wrote, “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood.” (And so does Paul.) So there is an interfering or intervening vessel between the words and the miraculous transformation, for it is not likely that the cup is transformed under the appearance of an ordinary cup.
Also, Jesus had turned the water into wine (John 2:1-12), so Jesus could have taught the disciples clearly about a miraculous transformation. Instead, he said “this cup” and not “this blood” in Luke’s version, which tones down and clarifies the other two versions.
But there are other reasons than Luke’s wording for mere Memorialism.
In John 6:35-59, Jesus clearly spells out the blood and the body as something to feed on, but this imagery has to be metaphorical or symbolic, speaking of intimacy and connectedness with Jesus. It cannot be literal cannibalism, and there is no direct and clear teaching about the miraculous transformation of his blood and flesh under the appearance or the presence of Christ coming down from heaven to be in, around, or underneath the elements. It is in this Gospel that he turned the water into wine, yet he offers no explanation of this change in John 6. But I admit something profoundly symbolic is going on. But how far do we push the symbolism? Not too far, culturally speaking in first-century Israel.
In the word study on “bless” in the Quick Exegesis section, I cannot find that Jesus’s blessing of the bread leads to a miraculous transformation of the substance, under the appearances or the calling down of the Presence of Christ from heaven and coming inside or around the elements. One has to import this article of faith into the parallel Synoptic passages (and into Paul’s view).
I believe that the first two church traditions overinterpret the original context. Some reformers seemed to be in a competition to come as close to Catholic doctrine of substance as they could without actually teaching it or crossing a line. They allowed this Medieval doctrine to influence them too much. They were not careful exegetes, in this case. The latter two theologies (Reformed and Memorialism) come much closer to the original context and Jesus’s intention.
Bottom line for this section: in the three parallel passages and Paul’s theology, there is no context for a miraculous transformation of the substance of the bread and wine or the presence of Christ in, under, or around the sacraments. This interpretation takes the original context of the Passover too far. Therefore, the bread and wine are not sacraments with saving power in themselves. They represent and symbolize Christ’s body and blood. And in the New Covenant and after Pentecost, the Spirit makes Communion or the Eucharist supernatural in the hearts of the participants. Faith is important to receive the operation of the Spirit, while the participants eat the bread and drink the wine.
The main goal of Christ in instituting the Lord’s Supper is to demonstrate that the New Covenant is superior and better than the Old Sinai Covenant, as the epistle of Hebrews teaches. Just before the exodus, the blood of the lamb was spread on the doorframe (Exod. 12:1-29, 43-51), and Jesus is keying off of this practice and replacing the lamb’s blood with his own blood. His sacrifice is once and for all (Heb. 9:26) and eternal (Heb. 9:12). Wine now symbolically replaces the blood. His sacrifice does not have to be done every year or every time we take Communion. The unleavened flatbread symbolizes eating in haste because the exodus from Egypt is about to happen–soon–now! The bread now symbolizes his body.
I believe that Jesus was simply taking over the Passover meal when he held up the bread and cup. In effect he was saying: “This unleavened flatbread right here which I am holding up before your eyes is now my body, and it no longer symbolizes what Moses had said about it. It symbolizes something new: my body. And the wine which is used for celebration is now my blood. I am the Passover lamb, which had shed its blood for the ancient Israelites. Remember this meal in this new way, from now on. Everyone, converted Jew and converted Gentile living in my New Covenant, must take it regularly, not once a year. When you do, remember me and my sacrifice.”
Therefore, I see no room for the belief in a miraculous transformation of the bread and wine under the appearance, and for the belief that the presence of Jesus comes down from heaven to surround and enter the two sacraments yet without a miraculous transformation. None of these beliefs can be proven empirically (by the five senses) or from the original cultural context.
Catholic theology and “high-church” Lutheranism and perhaps Anglicanism seem the most eisegetical and further removed from the original context of the Passover meal, while Reformed theology and Memorialism seem more exegetical and closer to the original context.
I personally am attracted to simplicity and to not overreading biblical texts, but streamlining them, so the fourth view is best for me.
Throughout the centuries people have killed each other over these articles of faith. I say: let everyone have their belief. In the final analysis (“at the end of the day”) we are analyzing two physical objects (bread and wine) and calling them symbols and then taking the symbolic meaning to various degrees of sacramental transformation or just memorials and anything in between. None of these views can overtake the others and shut them out in the hearts of people.
Whatever your belief about the sacraments / elements might be, let’s not quarrel or break our deeper unity of love over it, for the Lord’s Supper expresses the New Covenant of love and unity. One loaf, one body. We are one people–his people.
Offsite: James M. Arcadi. “‘This Is My Body’ Broken into Three Views of Communion.” Christianity Today, 9 Mar. 2022. Excellent brief overview. If the link goes dead, just copy and paste the author’s name and key words in a search engine.