THE REAL PRESENCE
One of the most important Catholic beliefs is the real presence of Jesus Christ in the bread and wine of Communion. Catholics refer to this as the Eucharist, which means ‘thanksgiving.' The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist means that the bread and wine in Communion are sacramentally changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Although the outward appearance of the bread and wine is not changed (i.e., the taste, color, and feel still has the quality of bread), the bread and wine actually become Christ’s body and blood. This change is made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit and the words of Jesus spoken by the priest. Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence because of human reasoning alone, rather they believe in it out of obedience to Jesus Christ. Protestants do not hold to this belief, but believe that Christ is only symbolically present in the bread and wine. There are three main Biblical themes used here to support the Catholic position. The first one is the promise of the Eucharist, the second is the institution of the Eucharist, and the third is the practice of the Eucharist.
The Catholic understanding of the Real Presence can be seen in John chapter 6 were Jesus promises the Eucharist. Starting in verse 32 Jesus says, "Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." Continuing with verse 50 Jesus says, "this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever." Jesus next statement is, "the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world" (John 6:51). This statement can be understood two ways: literally and symbolically. The people listening understand Jesus to be speaking literally, not symbolically, because they reply, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (John 6:52). This is an important point. Jesus says that the bread is his flesh and they understand him properly (literally) because they reply, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" Now if Jesus was really meaning that the bread was to be consumed symbolically, then it would be expected for him to say, "You misunderstood me about eating my actual flesh, I meant that you should eat a piece of bread that represents my body." He does not say that at all. In fact, he amplifies the argument by saying in the next verse, "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink" (John 6:53-55). In this verse, there was no attempt by Jesus to correct any misunderstanding about eating his actual flesh. He must have really meant to eat his flesh and drink his blood! In verse 60, many of the disciples who heard this found his teaching so outrageous that they reply, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?" This reply would not make much sense if Jesus was speaking symbolically or saying that belief in him was enough. Not even his followers could accept this teaching. In fact, they had such a problem with it that it says in verse 66, "As a result of this, many (of) his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him." They left him because of this! If Jesus, despite speaking in literal terms about eating his flesh, really had meant a symbolic understanding, would he not stop them from leaving and say, "Come back, this is really an easy teaching. All you have to do is believe in me and eat a piece of bread that symbolizes me?" In fact, Jesus lets them leave. In verse 67 he turns to his own twelve chosen apostles and says, "Do you also want to leave?" Peter replies in verse 68 saying, "Master, to whom shall we go?" This reply suggests that the Apostles also had difficulty with this teaching. If Jesus was speaking symbolically then why was it a difficult teaching? Although the Apostles did not fully understand, they put their trust in Jesus and continued in his company.
Looking back at verse 51 Jesus says, "and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world." Here, Jesus equates the bread to his flesh that he will give to the world at the crucifixion. If the bread we consume is meant only in a symbolic way, then so is the crucifixion. In fact, Protestant and Catholic Christians commonly understand that Jesus did not symbolically suffer during the crucifixion but he actually suffered. He was whipped, beaten, and nailed to the cross physically. By equating the bread with his crucifixion, Jesus is emphasizing his Real Presence in the Eucharist.
A common Protestant defense of the symbolic interpretation of Communion is based on John 6:63, "It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life." The assumption is that ‘spirit’ means ‘symbolic’. However, this interpretation is weakened because the concept of ‘spirit’ and ‘symbolic’ meaning the same thing is not present anywhere in the Bible. For instance, John 4:24 states, "God is spirit." Should it be assumed that God is symbolic? Of course not! When Jesus says, "It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail." he clearly does not mean hisflesh, for that would contradict his previous remarks about eating his flesh to have eternal life. What he means is not to count on only a carnal/fleshly understanding (like how can God make himself present in a piece of bread) but an understanding aided by the Holy Spirit. Remember also, Jesus uses the term "the flesh" in verse 63, but uses "my flesh" in verse 54 when talking about the Eucharist. Additionally, no true Christian really believes that Jesus’ flesh "counts for nothing." It is through his flesh (i.e. his sacrifice on the cross) that the world was redeemed. Also, the followers who leave Jesus leave him after verse 63. They would not have left if Jesus had assured them in verse 63 that he was speaking symbolically.
Take a minute to compare John 6 to Matthew 16:5-12. The passage in Matthew says, "In coming to the other side of the sea, the disciples had forgotten to bring bread. Jesus said to them, "Look out, and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees." They concluded among themselves, saying, "It is because we have brought no bread." When Jesus became aware of this he said, "You of little faith, why do you conclude among yourselves that it is because you have no bread? Do you not yet understand, and do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many wicker baskets you took up? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you took up? How do you not comprehend that I was not speaking to you about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in the bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees." In this passage, Jesus is speaking about bread and the disciples understand him literally. However, Jesus meant ‘bread’ in a symbolic way. Jesus corrects their misunderstanding and explains to them that he was only speaking symbolically. It is interesting that Jesus does not do this in John chapter 6 even though it meant the loss of many disciples!
In defense of the symbolic interpretation, Protestants also turn to John 6:35 , "Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst." The belief here is that to "come to him" is to "eat" and to "believe in him" is to "drink". Therefore, Christ’s command to eat his flesh and drink is blood is meant to be understood figuratively. There are two problems with this interpretation. First, the figurative phase "to eat the flesh" or "drink the blood" was a phrase commonly used by the Jews during that time to mean "to betray and persecute" (for example, see Isaiah 49:26, Micah 3:3, and Rev 17:6,16). For the listeners to understand Christ figuratively, they would have understood him to say, "He who betrays and persecutes me has eternal life." This interpretation, of course, reduces John chapter 6 to complete nonsense. Secondly, if all Jesus meant was to believe in him, why did many of his disciples leave him (John 6:66)? These are people who had accepted everything so far. In verse 67, Jesus asks the twelve, "Do you also want to leave?" Peter’s reply in verse 68 implies that they might but, "to whom shall we go?" As stated earlier, this reply suggests that they had difficulty with this teaching. If all he meant was believing in him as the Messiah, why does Peter say in the next sentence (verse 69), "We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God." Peter’s belief in Jesus as the messiah was already solid which is evident in his reply. If Jesus’ message was simply to believe in him Peter should have no problem with it. But yet, Peter makes a statement suggesting that he would almost leave.
Some Protestants oppose the Catholic belief in the Eucharist because of the prohibition of drinking blood prescribed in the Old Testament (Lev 17:10-12). This is not a valid argument for three main reasons.
- It was probably this same misunderstanding that led the disciples in John chapter 6 to reject Jesus when he said they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. The disciples who remained after this teaching were rewarded for their faith during the Last Supper.
- Jesus revealed to the apostles (during the Last Supper) that they would receive his body and blood in a special way through bread and wine, not in the cannibalistic, bloody manner the unbelievers had imagined.
- To be obedient to Levitical law, then one must also perform animal sacrifices using lambs, pigeons, and turtle-doves in accordance with Leviticus 12:8. However, Christians are not bound by Levitical law. In addition, how many Protestants are there that abstain from eating juicy red steaks?
A summary of John 6 reveals that Jesus clearly describes himself as bread at least seven times (verses 33, 35, 48, 50, twice in 51, and 58) and says that you must eat/feed on his flesh at least seven times (verse 50, 51, twice in 53, 56, 57, and 58). All of this without any hint of a symbolic meaning. Clearly the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist is supported in John 6.
Jesus makes the statement clearly in John 6 that his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood. At the Last Supper, Jesus completes his promise by instituting the Eucharist. Two main reasons will be described in this section to support the Catholic belief that the bread and wine consumed at the Last Supper were the actual body and blood of Jesus. The first reason is the words of Jesus himself. In Matthew 26:26-28, "While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, "Take and eat; this is my body." Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sin." Jesus clearly uses the word ‘is’ when describing the bread and wine as his body and blood. He does not say, "This represents my body" or "This is a symbol of my blood." In fact in all four recorded accounts of the Last Supper (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, and 1 Cor 11) the author uses the same word 'is .' In many other events which are recorded in more than one book it can be found that one author gives more of a descriptive account of the same event. In this case, however, all three accounts use the word ‘is’ and not one of the accounts expand on any meaning as symbolic. Many Protestants avoid the obvious by saying that the language which Jesus spoke, Aramaic, was so limited that there was no word that meant ‘represents’. But linguistic scholars affirm the fact that in the Aramaic language there are at least 20 words that mean ‘represent.’ Therefore, to assert that Jesus meant ‘represents’ requires one to believe that Jesus deliberately chose, and the Holy Spirit inspired not one but four scripture authors to record a word which does not convey the Lord’s intended meaning even though there were other words available. Another interpretation offered by Protestants to support the symbolic meaning is that Jesus often spoke in metaphors; for instance, describing himself as a vine in John 15:1-5. A Protestant might ask, "Surely Jesus did not mean that he is really present in a vine did he?" This argument is invalid for two main reasons:
1. The entire context about the vine is symbolic. Jesus uses fruit as a metaphor to describe a persons works and he uses a gardener as a metaphor to describe the Father. The context in which Jesus said the bread was his body was during the most sacred event for the Jewish people (the Passover). In addition, Jesus was not holding a vine in his hands when he said, "I am the vine" . In fact, he was holding the bread in his hands when he said, "this is my body." The Catholic church recognizes that Jesus used many symbolic words and phrases during his ministry. The Last Supper accounts and John chapter 6, however, are not symbolic examples.
2. In the passage about the vine, no one asks, "How can this man claim to be a plant?" In other words, no one understood him literally like the disciples did in John chapter 6.
Many opposed to the Real Presence site Luke 22:19 where it says, "do this in memory of me," thus equating the words ‘memory’ and ‘symbolic.’ However, nowhere in the Bible does the word ‘memory’ mean ‘symbolic.’ To try and equate remembrance to symbolic is very difficult. Look how the Webster's Dictionary defines remember and symbol.
Remember - To think of again
Symbol - An object used to represent something abstract
These two definitions are clearly not the same. The point here is that ‘remembrance’ does not mean ‘symbolic’ and should not be used to wash out all the evidence supporting the Eucharist Yes, Christians are called to remember Christ during Communion but they are also called to receive his actual body and blood in the form of bread and wine. Take a closer look at the passage in Luke. The passage states, "do THIS in memory of me." There are two parts to this statement. Do THIS and MEMORY. Some people focus too much on the remembrance. What about the THIS ? What is the THIS? It means to do what Jesus just did, to distribute his body and blood in the form of bread and wine. The remembrance comes in when the partakers remember that Christ died for them as they eat his body and drink his blood. The Catholic position fulfills both of Jesus’ commands. By partaking in the actual body and blood Catholics are doing what the THIS means. Additionally, they REMEMBER Christ’s sacrifice while receiving Communion. In the Protestant practice, only the REMEMBER part is obeyed not the THIS part. In summary, the word memory in itself does not equate to symbolic. Rather, it points to what should be remembered. Either the real presence needs to be remembered or the symbolic presence needs to remembered. The last supper accounts and other supporting scriptures prove that Christ intended that Christians remember and receive his body and blood during Communion.
The second reason discussed here to support the Eucharist is the Passover fulfillment. Catholics believe that the Eucharist is the perfected Passover meal. There is no doubt that the Last Supper was a Passover meal. This can be supported by Mark 14:12, "On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb?" Similar statements are present in Matthew 26:17-18, 19, Luke 22:7-8,11,13,14, and Mark 14:14 and 16. Additionally, there is no doubt that Jesus is the lamb of God which is seen in John 1:29, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 5:7) it states, "For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed."
The Passover was the most important and sacred event in the Old Testament. It was the day in which the Lord delivered his people from the bondage of Pharaoh. The Lord told the people to take a lamb without blemish (Exodus 12:5), slaughter it (Exodus 12:6), and apply the lamb’s blood to the doorposts and lintel of the house (Exodus 12:7). That night the Lord sent ‘the destroyer’ through
One note should be mentioned here. Many readers may not believe in this teaching because it is so outrageous that God is present in a piece of bread and a cup of wine. This can only be expected. It takes a child-like faith to believe in the Real Presence. This has been the case since the beginning of Christianity. In John 6 when Jesus is talking about the Eucharist, many of his disciples said in verse 60, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?" Should Christians take God at his word or are they going to rely on their own understanding? To be true Christians, there needs to be complete obedience to God even though his commands contradict our own understanding. God’s command is clear: Christians must eat his body and drink his blood during Communion. The Bible says in 1 John 2:4, "Whoever says, "I know him," but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him." People must accept God on his terms not theirs. Should anyone tell God that he can not or should not be present in a piece of bread or a cup of wine? This divine miracle should be accepted with the same faith used to accept the resurrection and the incarnation. All of these concepts are difficult to understand, nevertheless, God asks us to trust his word.
To fully understand the true meaning of John chapter 6 and the Last Supper, it is critical to see how the New Testament church understood them. Certainly, the Apostles themselves, and those who would have learned their faith directly from them, would have preserved the meaning of Jesus’ words and actions accurately. If Jesus was speaking symbolically, Paul is certainly no help clarifying the issue when he says in 1 Cor 10:16, "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?" Paul goes on to say, "Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. (1 Cor 11:27)" How can a person be guilty of the body and blood of Christ if all they did was eat bread and drink wine as a representation of the Christ's body and blood? This would be like being found guilty of a violent crime by simply harming a photograph of someone. Paul continues in verse 28, "A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself." There are two main points to Paul’s statement. First, he says that Christians must discern or recognize the bread and wine as the body and blood of the Lord. Again, there is nothing symbolic in this statement. The second point are the consequences for not recognizing the Real Presence. Paul says that those who do not recognize the body have called down judgement on themselves. To understand more fully these words, let's consider the following hypothetical case. Let’s say you were going to make of list of 10 of the most critical words involving consequences in the English language. The list would probably include such words as Hell, condemnation, suffering, etc. In addition, the word ‘judgment’ would most likely make the list. In other words, judgment is a very critical word. People who hold to the symbolic interpretation, believe that what Paul is saying is that if someone were to eat and drink the symbolic bread and the symbolic wine unworthily then the consequences will be described by one of the ten most critical words in the English language (judgment). Does this really make sense? This example is given to emphasize the importance Paul places on receiving communion. The fact is that judgment is no small word. Relating judgment to something merely symbolic is not compatible. Paul continues in the same passage (verse 30), "That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying." Once again, Paul makes it very clear that Communion is very serious thing, and that it has a supernatural nature, with supernatural consequences. None of his statements are compatible with the symbolic belief. The only truth to Paul’s statement is that the bread and wine are actually the body and blood of Christ.
As seen in all of these passages, the Catholic position of the Real Presence is supported in the Bible. In all the passages that speak of Communion or the Lord’s Supper, not once is the word ‘symbolic’ used. Consider, with an open mind, all the relevant passages of Scripture. The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is strongly supported there.
As a final note, it should be important to consider what the early church (defined as the church immediately after the church recorded in the New Testament) believed about Communion. Protestants and Catholics may disagree over interpretations of various passages in the Bible. However, there is one thing that they can not disagree on regarding Communion. That is, historically all early Christians taught and practiced the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This is not a Catholic interpretation, this is historical fact! This can easily be verified by obtaining early Christian literature. Any Christian writer who wrote about Communion believed in the Real Presence. In fact, you can not find any Christian writing in the first eight centuries of Christianity opposing the Real Presence. In 110 AD (less than 90 years after the death and resurrection of Christ and about 20 years after the death of the Apostle John), Ignatius of Antioch wrote, "They hold aloof from the Eucharist and from services of prayer because they refuse to admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior, Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again" (Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle of Ignatius to the Smytneans). Irenaeus (around the end of the second century) wrote, "The Eucharist becomes the body of Christ" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies). The interesting thing about Irenaeus is that he was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John the Apostle. The same Apostle who walked with Jesus and was present at the Last Supper! Polycarp learned first hand from John and passed on this teaching to Irenaeus. It is unlikely that Irenaeus was taught an incorrect doctrine by someone who spent time with John the Apostle? In 150 AD, Justin Martyr wrote, "For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food for which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished, is both the blood of that incarnate Jesus" (Justin Martyr, First Apology). These are just a few of the many examples of early Christian writers expressing their belief in the Real Presence. It is unreasonable to assume that these people were in error so soon after Christ’s death and resurrection. A brief study of Christian history will reveal that the early Christians believed in the Eucharist presence of Christ. Early Christians who were taught by apostles. Early Christians who were martyred for their faith during the persecutions of the first few centuries. Early Christians who authoritatively decided which books would make up the New Testament. All of these Christians believed in the Real Presence.
This text was written to present the Biblical and historical Christian teaching on the Eucharist. It is by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and by studying of the points brought up in this text that one will believe in the Real Presence. Unfortunately, despite all the Biblical and historical evidence supporting the Real Presence, many people will insist that Christ is only symbolically presence during Communion. They will not reject the Real Presence based on the biblical explanations stated above or the distrust in the early Christians. They will reject the Real Presence based on their unbelief that Christ’s body and blood can be present under the forms of bread and wine. In other words, some people will refuse the doctrine based on their inability to intellectually understand or explain the Real Presence. The rejection of a belief should never be made entirely on a lack of human understanding. Just because the human mind can not understand something does not make it false. Often, this is the same reason why Atheists believe there is no God. Atheists often do not believe in God because they can not ‘figure it out’ or they can not grasp the whole concept of God. That is why Atheists ask Christians questions like, "If God created you, then who created God?" The truth is that God (just like the Eucharist) can not be intellectually explained. The belief is based on faith in God not on human intellect. Just think of all the incredible things Christians believe. Take a step back and think of how awesome the bodily resurrection of Jesus is or how difficult it is to grasp the concept of the Trinity. These are very difficult doctrines to intellectually understand. Furthermore, what about the nature of Christ? Christians believe that Christ was both 100% divine and 100% human. All of these examples transcend the human intellect and require a tremendous amount of faith. The Catholic church simply asks each person to use that same faith to believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Protestant Reformers believed in the mystery of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, but they stopped there. They did not believe in the mystery of the Real Presence. Proverbs 3:5 tells us to, "Trust in the LORD with all your heart, on your own intelligence rely not." The question is not, "Why do Catholics believe in the Real Presence?," but "Why do Protestants not believe in the Real Presence?" Jesus promised the Eucharist, the Apostles taught about the Eucharist, and the early Christians practiced the Eucharist. For the Protestant, the Real Presence of Christ in Communion must be prayerfully studied with an open mind. With this approach and through the grace of God, Protestants can accept this belief and truly say , "Thy will be done."