Suppose I show you a picture of Abraham Lincoln from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, then I say, "This is Abraham Lincoln, President of the USA." How would you react?
Most would understand that I meant this is a statue of Abraham Lincoln that serves as a memorial that reminds us of him. But suppose someone responds, "You said, 'This is Abraham Lincoln.' You mean Abraham Lincoln is a statue? How can you say our president is made of stone?"
That illustrates the issue in this study.
Consider the following quotations from a Catholic Catechism:
1. What is the Holy Eucharist? The Holy Eucharist is the Sacrament in which Jesus Christ is really and physically present under the appearances of bread and wine...
5. Did the bread and wine change their appearance? No, the appearances of the bread and wine (taste, smell, color, size, shape, weight) did not change, even though the bread and wine were actually changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus. The substance of the bread and wine are changed into the substance of the Body and Blood of Jesus. This change is called transubstantiation...
10. When does the priest change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus? At Mass, when he says, "This is My Body. This is My Blood."...
1. What is the Mass? The sacrifice of the cross, the sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ offered in an unbloody manner...
9. Who offered the first Mass? Jesus offered the first Mass at the Last Supper when He changed bread and wine into His Body and Blood...
11. Is the sacrifice of the Mass the same as the sacrifice of the cross? Yes they are the same in that the victim and the priest are the same, Jesus Christ.
12. What is the difference between the two sacrifices? The difference is that the Sacrifice of the Cross was a bloody sacrifice, while the Sacrifice of the Mass is an unbloody one..."
- A Catechism for Adults, 1975, pp. 69-75
So according to Catholic teaching, when the priest says, "This is my Body. This is My Blood," a miracle occurs and the bread and cup turn into the literal, physical, actual flesh and blood of Jesus that people eat and drink in communion. However, to the physical senses the elements still seem in every way to be bread and fruit of the vine exactly as before. This is called "transubstantiation."
So the mass is the same sacrifice that occurred when Jesus died on the cross, except that it is unbloody. This sacrifice was first performed by Jesus on the night when He instituted the communion. He then passed on the power to perform this miracle to the apostles who in turn passed it on to priests through the years to today. (Only Catholic priests are empowered to accomplish this miracle. So you need a priest to properly partake of communion.)
What does the Bible teach?
Hebrews 7:26,27; 9:24-28 - Old Testament priests offered sacrifices repeatedly, but Jesus does not need to offer daily sacrifices. He offered Himself once for all.
Hebrews 10:1-4,9,10,12,18 - Animal sacrifices had to be repeated because they could not really take away sins. If they could take away sins, they would have ceased to be offered. Jesus finally offered the one sacrifice that can take away sins, so it ceased to be offered.
The doctrine of transubstantiation, however, has Jesus being sacrificed repeatedly. This flatly contradicts the Bible. It also implies that Jesus' sacrifice was not adequate to take away sins. The reason animal sacrifices had to be repeated was that they could not take away sins. If Jesus' sacrifice needs to be repeated, then it must be because it cannot take away sins. (Catholics do not accept this conclusion, yet it follows from their doctrine.)
[Some may respond that the mass is repeated in an unbloody way. If so, then the cup must not be the real, physical blood of Jesus! If it is His physical blood, how can it be an unbloody sacrifice?]
[Further, if it is unbloody, then it is not the same sacrifice. And finally, there is no value in an unbloody sacrifice, for without the shedding of blood there is no remission - Heb. 9:22. Where is the Bible authority for us to offer an unbloody sacrifice of Jesus?]
[Cf. Heb. 9:11,12; 1 Pet. 3:18]
Hebrews 8:4 - If He were on earth, Jesus would not be a priest. Yet Catholicism alleges that Jesus acted as priest on earth.
Hebrews 7:12-14 - Jesus could not be a priest while the Old Law was in effect since He was of the wrong tribe (He was of Judah, instead of Levi). For Him to be a priest, the law had to change, but this did not happen until He died (9:15,16; Col. 2:14; etc.).
So Catholicism claims Jesus acted as priest to offer the first sacrifice of the mass when He instituted the Lord's Supper. But He could not have been priest then because He was on earth under the Old Law.
For Jesus to have changed the bread and cup into His physical body and blood, even as His body physically sat in their presence, would have required Him to do a miracle (which is what the Catholics say He did). Likewise for priests today to change literal bread and wine into literal flesh and blood would take a miracle. However, consider the characteristics of true miracles.
People were never asked to believe that a miracle had occurred contrary to the evidence of their physical senses. On the contrary, any true miracle required that people be able, by their physical senses, to observe that an event impossible by natural law had really occurred. This was essential in order to accomplish the purpose of miracles.
For example, in John 2:1-11 Jesus turned water into wine (this is one of the closest Bible examples of a miracle like transubstantiation). But the wine that resulted had all the physical characteristics of wine. It no longer had the characteristics of water. In this way people could observe that a miracle had occurred. The same principle applies to all Bible miracles. (Compare also Moses' turning water to blood.)
Yet in the mass we are asked to believe that bread and fruit of the vine have literally become flesh and blood, despite the fact that in every way they admittedly appear to still be bread and fruit of the vine. This contradicts the nature and purpose of true miracles.
Before the Bible had been completed, the Holy Spirit directly guided inspired men to reveal the message that was then recorded in Scripture. Miracles occurred to confirm the truth being revealed through these prophets (Mark 16:20; Acts 14:3; Heb. 2:3,4; John 20:30f; etc.). When the message had been fully revealed and the Scriptures had all been written, the miraculous powers ceased because they were no longer needed (1 Cor. 13:8-13). This happened in the lifetime of the original apostles (John 16:13; 14:26; Jude 3; James 1:25).
So the Catholic concept of the mass requires miracles to exist throughout history till today, but the Bible says that miracles long ago ceased.
If Jesus had performed the miracle of the mass, then His disciples would have been drinking His literal blood while the Old Testament was still in effect.
Leviticus 17:6-14 - But under that law, the blood of sacrifices had to be poured out. People were absolutely forbidden to drink blood. Had the apostles any idea that they were drinking literal blood, they would surely have objected.
Acts 15:29 - Drinking literal blood still violates God's law, so it is still forbidden today.
Likewise, eating Jesus' literal flesh would be cannibalism. It fact, it would require people to eat their own God! Who can imagine a God that can be eaten and still be God? Even heathen do not defend such a practice.
To offer a sacrifice one must be a priest. Catholicism claims that the apostles passed on to their priests the power to offer the sacrifice of the mass today. But the Bible teaches there is no such special priesthood today.
1 Peter 2:5,9; Revelation 1:6; Hebrews 13:15 - All Christians are priests, who offer spiritual sacrifices.
1 Timothy 2:5 - There is only one mediator between God and man, and that mediator is Jesus. No mere human stands as priest through whom we must worship God today.
The apostles handed down authority in only two ways:
(1) Acts 8:14-24 - They gave people miraculous powers by laying hands on them. But those who received these powers could not in turn pass them on to others. Since there are no apostles today (Acts 1:21,22), this power has ceased.
(2) 2 Tim. 3:16,17 - The apostles revealed God's word handed down to us in the Scriptures. This authority continues today, but it requires no special priesthood, since all can read and obey it (Acts 17:11).
So the doctrine of transubstantiation requires the existence of a special priesthood today, but the Bible teaches that no such special priesthood exists.
In Matthew 26:28 Jesus said "This is my blood." Catholicism says this means the fruit of the vine immediately became His literal blood. But afterward v29 calls it "this fruit of the vine." This contradicts transubstantiation which says it is no longer fruit of the vine but Jesus' blood.
Similarly in 1 Corinthians 11, after saying the bread and cup had been blessed (vv 23-25), Paul repeatedly referred to them as "bread and cup" (vv 26-28). So what we eat is still "bread."
So in contradiction to the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Bible clearly identified the elements to be fruit of the vine and bread even after Jesus said, "This is my body, this is my blood." The only explanation must be that Jesus' statement "This is my body. This is my blood" was not meant to be taken literally.
1 Corinthians 10:16 says that in the bread and cup we commune with Jesus' body and blood. But the context describes parallel acts showing that this communion is spiritual, not physical.
V18 compares this to Israel eating sacrifices under the Old Testament. This is called partaking of ("communion with" - ASV) the altar. But this "communion" did not involve eating the literal altar. Literally they ate animals, but this was spiritual communion with the altar.
V20 says people who ate meat offered to idols had fellowship ("communion" - ASV) with demons. But were they literally eating the demons? No. Physically they ate meat, but spiritually they communed with the demons (idols).
Since these are parallel examples to the Lord's Supper, it follows that v16 must mean that, in the Lord's Supper, we eat literal bread and fruit of the vine; but in so doing we spiritually commune with Jesus' body and blood (more on this later). We are not literally eating Jesus' body and blood, just as in the other examples people were not literally eating the altar or the demons.
We have proved that the bread and fruit of the vine do not literally become Jesus' body and blood. So what is the real meaning of the elements? They are memorials that spiritually remind us of His body and blood.
In many Bible expressions one thing is said to "be" another thing. These are not meant to be taken literally, but are expressions in which the one thing is symbolic of another.
Genesis 41:26,27 - In explaining Pharaoh's dreams, Joseph said the seven good cows and the seven good ears of grain "are" seven years of plenty, and the seven thin cows and the seven blighted ears of grain "are" seven years of famine. Was this literally true? No, these were symbols signifying or representing years.
John 15:1,5; 10:7,9 - Jesus said, "I am the vine," "My Father is the vinedresser," and "you [disciples] are the branches." Again, "I am the door of the sheep." Are these statements literal? No, but these physical items serve as symbols that have the spiritual meaning Jesus described. The lessons He taught are true, but the meaning is spiritual, not physical.
All these Bible statements are similar to Jesus' statements in instituting the Lord's Supper, but the meaning in each case is spiritual, not literal.
The kind of language we are studying is common in memorials, especially in the institution of memorials, both in the Bible and outside it.
Exodus 12:11-14 - Speaking of the lamb that was slain and eaten in the feast, Moses said, "It is the Lord's Passover." But was this literal? No, the literal Passover was God's act of passing over the firstborn of the Israelites, not slaying then when He slew the firstborn of the Egyptians. The eating of the lamb was an annual feast to remember God's act of passing over the firstborn. But Moses said of the lamb, "It is the Passover."
This language is typical in memorials and is exactly what Jesus did in the Lord's Supper. This example is especially useful, because Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper when He and His disciples were keeping the Passover. The disciples were familiar with the language of the Passover. So when Jesus said, "This is my body. This is my blood," they understood that it was not literally His body and blood - they saw Him literally sitting in front of them. He was instituting a memorial of His body and blood.
Genesis 17:9-11 - When God instituted the act of circumcision, He said to Abraham, "This is my covenant." Was circumcision the literal covenant? No, the covenant itself was God's promise to bless Abraham's descendants as described in vv 1-8. Circumcision was the sign (token - ASV) of the covenant - v11; but v10 said of it, "This is my covenant."
Cf. Luke 22:20 - In the Lord's Supper, Jesus said of the cup, "This is the new covenant in my blood." Is this literal? No more so than circumcision was literally the covenant with Abraham. The language means that it was a sign or symbol. Physically it was still fruit of the vine, but it was a spiritual memorial of the covenant.
We often use similar language. In our introduction, I showed you a picture of Abraham Lincoln's statue and said, "This is Abraham Lincoln." But you understood that Abraham Lincoln is not literally a statue made of stone. The statue is a representation - a symbol - that reminds us of Abraham Lincoln. But everyone understands when I say it is Abraham Lincoln, because we understand the concept of memorials.
A memorial is never literally the same thing as that which is being remembered. If you have the real thing, you do not need a memorial. To confuse the memorial with the thing itself is to misunderstand the nature of a memorial.
Proper understanding of God's commands requires us to distinguish outward acts from the inner, spiritual meaning of those acts.
Baptism involves a physical act in a physical element. The physical element is water (Acts 8:35-39; 10:47,48). The physical act is an immersion in water and a resurrection from that water (Acts 8:35-39; Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12; etc.).
The spiritual meaning of this act is that we come into contact with Jesus' death, so our sins are washed away or forgiven by His blood, we die to sin and are raised to walk in a new life (Rom. 6:3-11; Col. 2:12; Acts 2:38,47; 22:16; 1 Pet. 3:21; Mark 16:16; Gal. 3:27).
Should we believe that physical immersion in water literally, physically washes away sins, or that we physically come into contact with Jesus' blood, or that we physically die and are born again? No, the outer act represents or symbolizes what is happening spiritually (1 Pet. 3:21).
Does this belittle the spiritual meaning? If we are not physically washed in Jesus' literal blood, should we conclude that sin is not washed away at all or that we do not die to sin or have a new life at all? No, the sin is really washed away and we really die to sin and have a new life, but that is the spiritual meaning, which is expressed symbolically by the physical act. The inner meaning is true and really happens, but it is spiritual, not physical.
John 3:3-6 - To take the spiritual meaning of baptism and make it physical is to make the mistake Nicodemus made. Jesus said we must be "born again," but had to explain that He meant spiritually, not physically. This is the same mistake Catholicism makes regarding His body and blood in the communion.
Like baptism, the Lord's Supper involves physical acts done with physical elements. The elements are the bread and fruit of the vine, and the acts are eating the bread and drinking the fruit of the vine.
But there are spiritual meanings to these acts. They are a memorial to Jesus' body and blood, a communion with His body and blood, in which we proclaim and discern His death (1 Cor. 11:23-29; 10:16,17; etc.).
Shall we conclude that the elements must literally become Jesus' physical body and blood, and we must physically eat and drink His body and blood? No, that would be as big a mistake as saying that baptism must be a physical washing in Jesus' literal blood. The physical acts of eating bread and drinking fruit of the vine are symbols of the spiritual meaning.
Does this belittle the spiritual meaning? If we do not literally eat and drink Jesus' flesh and blood, shall we conclude we have not done it right? No more so with the parallel in baptism. We are not physically eating flesh and blood in the Lord's Supper any more than we are physically washing in Jesus' blood in baptism. But the spiritual meaning is still real. In the Lord's Supper we are spiritually communing with Jesus' body and blood, just as in baptism we are spiritually being cleansed by the blood.
We must worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23,24). We must sing and pray with the spirit and the understanding (1 Cor. 14:15). We must be baptized with a Scriptural action and the proper spiritual meaning.
Likewise, in the Lord's Supper, we must do the proper outward action, but do it with the proper spiritual meaning. Do you worship God regularly and faithfully in spirit and in truth?
Copyright 1991, 2010, David E. Pratte
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The Church and Worship
Catholicism in Light of Scripture
The Papacy: Was Peter the First Pope?
Divine Authority vs. Human Authority
Tradition as Religious Authority
Preservation of the Bible
Should Babies Be Baptized?
Original Sin and Inherited Depravity
The Bible vs. Denominational Creeds
Can We Understand the Bible?
Observance of Religious Holy Days
How Can You Find & Identify Jesus' Church?
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.