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Simon Jooste on the Real Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper: The Spirit as Bond Uniting us to the Vivifying Humanity of Christ

30 January, 2008

Jooste family

The Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (Part 1 of 3)

There are few doctrines freighted with such conceptual profundity and existential rapture as the church’s participation in the Eucharist. Accordingly, there are few teachings that have attracted more controversy. There is much at stake. The Lord’s Supper carries the weight of dominical institution, Apostolic witness, and rich confessional history. In Lk. 22:19, Jesus said: “This is my body, which is given for you…” Paul proclaims the bread and cup to be a koinonia in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16). The Shorter Catechism calls this sacrament one of the “outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption” (WSC 88). And the Confession of Faith comments more particularly when it reads: “[in the Supper] Christians receive and feed upon Christ crucified and all the benefits of his death” (WCF, XXIX.7).

The study of the Eucharist is vast and varieties of interpretations abound. For my purposes here, I attempt to tackle what is arguably the heart of the matter: the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Putting more practical issues of administration aside, the concern at hand is what the believer feeds upon in the Supper and how is this made possible?[1]

Here I argue that by the operation of the Holy Spirit, through faith, the believer feeds upon the true, proper, and natural body of Christ offered in the Eucharist. While Christ’s humanity remains truly, really, and locally present in heaven, the Holy Spirit raises the believer up to partake of his body and blood, and thus receives all the benefits of his death. Vital to the successful defense of this thesis is a proper understanding of the role of the Spirit in making Christ present in the Supper. God’s Spirit makes the actual body and blood of Jesus real to the believer by: (1) acting as the bond of union between believer and the humanity of Christ, (2) sacramentally uniting the elemental signs of the Eucharist to that which they signify, and (3) raising the believer up to feed on the incarnate Christ.

Spirit as bond: uniting us to the vivifying humanity of Christ

For those who are effectually called, where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is vital union with the incarnate Christ.[2] This truth has tremendous import for understanding our communion with the real presence of Christ in the Supper. Not only is a proper theological rendering contingent upon union with Christ, but the Supper sensibly declares and assures us of this reality. In our spiritual union, the Spirit brings us into intimate fellowship with the vivifying incarnate Christ. Thus, what follows is a consideration of the incarnation as mediator of divine life to the believer, made possible by the Spirit as bond. Special attention will be given to the Bread of Life discourse in John 6 as having implicit, if not explicit, sacramental overtones.

Incarnation of Jesus as source of life

The incarnate condescension of Jesus Christ has made a way for dead and estranged sinners to have life. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). Being in very nature God (Phil. 2:6), the eternal Son of God became man so that we might be reconciled to the Father and have life in him (1 Jn. 5:20).[3] To be one with Christ and partake of his incarnate nature is to share in his life. And this is made possible when we are engrafted, by faith, into the body of Christ. For Christ does not infuse life into us unless he is our head.[4]

So intimate is the church’s union with Jesus that Paul wrote, “we are members of his body” (Eph. 5:30). Paul then proceeds to liken this union to the most intimate of human relationships, the wedding of husband and wife, in which the two become one flesh (5:31). By this intercourse with Christ we share in his substance and unite into one body. We become members and partakers of his flesh and bones.[5] Like a husband who nurtures his wife as his own body, likewise Christ nourishes and cherishes his church, unto eternal life (5:28-29). Jesus said: “Because I live, you also will live” (Jn. 14:19) and “I am the bread of life” (Jn. 6:35).[6]

Bread of Life: The body of Christ as mediator of divine life

If Christ’s incarnation is the source of eternal life, his body can be spoken of as the mediator of divine life. With the support of John 6, an argument will be made that the flesh of Jesus is the conveyer or channel “through which the divine life is poured into those who are in union with him.”[7]

John’s gospel is the only one that lacks an explicit account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. However, a closer examination of the context and content of John 6 begs for Eucharistic consideration. On the heels of the miraculous feeding of the five thousand (Jn. 6:1-15), Jesus recounts the supernatural feeding of the Israelites in the wilderness by Yahweh, and goes on to assert that he fulfils this event. Jesus claims to be the bread of life, provided by the Father for the sustenance of his people through their earthly pilgrimage (Jn. 6:25-40).[8] Like their forefathers in the wilderness, the Jews grumbled at the words of Jesus. Jesus then goes on to proclaim in no uncertain terms that faith is a gift from God, dispensed at his sovereign prerogative (Jn. 6:41-47). What follows in John 6:48-58 is at the very least an indirect reference to the Eucharist and helps further explicate and buttress the claim for the real presence of Christ in the same.[9]

Robert Letham asserts that what we have here is the Johannine account of the Lord’s Supper. In arguing against a mere figurative interpretation of the passage, he makes a number of arguments for this account being a recounting of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. First, and among his more compelling arguments, attention is drawn to the fact that while the institution of the Lord’s Supper did not come until after the events described, John wrote the fourth Gospel looking back over the life and ministry of Jesus. John thus saw the words of Jesus as a direct correlation to the later introduction of the sacrament and therefore sharing in the same reality.[10]

Second, the preceding narrative of the feeding of the five thousand bears close resemblance to Eucharistic language in the Synoptics. [11] At the Last Supper Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and distributed it (cf. Lk. 22:19; Matt. 26:26-27; Mk. 14:22-23; Jn. 6:11).

Third, John makes deliberate usage of sa¿rx (instead of sw◊ma in the Synoptics) to draw the attention of the hearers from the spiritual realm of hearing and believing to the earthly act of chewing and swallowing (cf. Jn. 6:51c, 53a). The response of disgust by the Jewish crowd is appropriate (6:52), considering the OT prohibition against consuming animal, let alone human, blood (cf. Gen. 9:4; Lev. 3:17; Deut. 12:23).[12]

Fourth, and to support the very physical nature of the eating being referenced here, there is a significant change of verb in John 6:54. Up until this point he has used the aorist verb fa¿ghØ (cf. v. 50), which simply means to eat. He proceeds, however, to use trw¿gwnØ, which connotes the far from ethereal act of chewing, gnawing, or biting audibly (cf. vv 56-57).[13]

Fifth, there appears to be a parallel between the apostate spirit of many of Jesus’ followers in the wake of his bread of life discourse (cf. vv. 60-71) and Judas at the last Supper. Finally, the only way for one to understand the ‘eating and drinking’ of the Son of Man is in a Eucharistic light. It is no wonder that the early church were accused of being cannibals.[14]

In summary, Letham argues for a Eucharistic/ sacramental solution to this controversial passage, thus steering clear of dualistic extremes. In effect, Jesus shows that he is the bread of life offered in the Supper and the one to be fed on by faith. The result for the believer is union and communion with Christ by the Holy Spirit (v. 56), fellowship with the Triune God (v. 57) and nourishment unto eternal life (vv. 48-51a, 51b, 53-54, 58).[15]

In contrast to Letham there are those commentators who argue against a sacramental reading of John 6:48-58. Such include the likes of D.A. Carson and Leon Morris.[16] Most evangelical and some Reformed commentators have followed suit.[17] However, at the same time, both Carson and Morris concede a secondary reference to the Eucharist.[18] Carson admits that while John 6 does not speak directly of the Eucharist, it “does expose the true meaning of the Supper as clearly as any passage in Scripture.”[19]

Such remarks better approximate the more nuanced language employed by Reformed theologians such as Calvin and Herman Ridderbos. Borrowing from St. Augustine, Calvin believed John 6 to be referring indirectly to the Lord’s Supper.[20] Ridderbos held essentially the same view.[21] Even if only indirectly, the strong and vivid language used in John 6:53-56 bolsters the Calvinistic formulation of Christ’s presence in the supper. For Jesus to say that life comes through nourishment on his body as “real food” and “real drink” is in keeping with the aforementioned vivifying nature of the incarnate Son. The Spirit as bond makes this wondrous exchange possible: “Christ takes upon himself what is ours, and transfers to us what is His own.”[22] Upon his ascension, Christ sent the Spirit to bring believers into communion with the physically absent redeemer (Jn. 14:26; 16:13-14).[23]

Stay tuned for more….


[1] OT typological precedence for the Supper is assumed. In addition, Calvin’s view of the presence of Christ in the Supper is assumed to coincide with the thesis being argued here.[2] Cf. Eph. 2:14-18; 4:1-6; 1 Cor. 12; WCF IX.4. Other references to our union with Christ: 2 Cor. 4:10; Gal. 2:20; Col. 1:18; Col. 1:29; Col. 3:3-4.

[3] Cf. Jn. 1:1; Gal. 4:4; Heb. 2:14; WCF VIII.2.

[4] Kieth A. Mathison, Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2002), 16.

[5] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XXI, Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 323.

[6] Jesus is spoken of elsewhere as the life-giving vine (Jn. 15) and one in whom and through whom we live, breathe, and have our being (Col. 3:4; 1 Cor. 8:6).

[7] Mathison, Given for You, 21.

[8] Robert Letham, The Lord’s Supper: Eternal Word in Broken Bread (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2001), 10.

[9] “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not as the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever” (Jn. 6:48-58, emphasis mine.)

[10] Another solution to the anachronistic knot found in arguing for a sacramental reading of John 6 is that there are other instances in the Gospels in which Jesus references events before they happen (Letham, The Lord’s Supper, 8-9.)

[11] He also notes that a common theme in early Christian art was the association of the Eucharist with the theme of multiplication and in turn directly with this feeding miracle (Letham, The Lord’s Supper, 9.)

[12] Letham, The Lord’s Supper, 12.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Letham, The Lord’s Supper, 12.

[15] Letham, The Lord’s Supper, 13-15.

[16] Carson observes that a comparison between verse 54 and verse 40 reveals a parallel between eating and drinking on the one hand, and seeing and believing, on the other: both resulting in eternal life and resurrection on the last day. This would make the Eucharist absolutely necessary for salvation (D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1991), 288-289.)

[17] It is worth noting that there are those such as Ulrich Zwingli, who in arguing against the real presence of Christ in the Supper, take the use of “flesh” in verse 63 to be contrasting the Holy Spirit and the flesh of Christ. In arguing for the untenable nature of this position, Ridderbos posits that “flesh” in verse 63 should be in taken in a different sense from its usage in verses 48-58; and verses 60-63 should be linked to (and understood in light of) verses 35-50 (Herman N. Riddernos, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 246-247)

[18] D.A. Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, ed. by Frank E. Gaebelein, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 297, and Leon Morris, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. by F.F. Bruce, The Gospel According to John, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 354.

[19] Carson, The Gospel According to John, 298.

[20] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XVII, Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 265.

[21] Ridderbos citing F.L. Godet’s explanation: “[I]t must not be said, then, that the discourse alludes to the Holy Supper; but it does have to be said that the Holy Supper and the discourse refer to one and the same divine reality, expressed here by a metaphor and there by an emblem” (Ridderbos, The Gospel of John, 237-238, n. 146.)

[22] Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of Word and Sacrament (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1953), 147. Elsewhere, Calvin likens the Spirit to “a channel through which all that Christ himself is and has is conveyed to us” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1989), 565.

[23] Michael S. Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2006), 164.

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2 Comments
  1. 1 February, 2008 1:47 am

    As always from Simon…thoroughly enjoyable. Very edifying stuff. Makes me wish to partake of the supper weekly as a matter of fact.

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