A tripping point for many Protestants in accepting the historical doctrine of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist is the explicit teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews on the subject of Christ’s sacrifice. It happened once and that’s it–it cannot be repeated. So, how can His shed flesh and blood be present again without Him being re-sacrificed?
Yet, a Greek Orthodox source claims that Christ’s “awesome sacrifice has been entrusted to the Church to be re-enacted and given to the faithful for the nourishment of their faith and the forgiveness of their sins in remembrance of the Lord.”
Do the Orthodox not know their Bibles? Are they lunatics?
I want to briefly tackle this problem by defending two points. First, the Church, including the Protestant Reformers, has always understood that Christ is present in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Second, the Scriptures are explicit that Christ’s sacrifice was presented before the crucifixion.
1. All Christians used to believe Christ is in the Bread and Wine.
For over 1500 years, the idea that the bread and wine are His flesh and blood would have uncontroversial. After all Jesus said, “This IS My body…this IS My blood.” But, this is “figurative,” right? Well if this was figurative why did a mere few decades after the Last Supper no one understood it this way?
On the Lord’s own day, assemble in common to break bread and offer thanks [literally “Eucharist” in the Greek]; but first confess your sins, so that your sacrifice may be pure. However, no one quarreling with his brother may join your meeting until they are reconciled; your sacrifice must not be defiled. For here we have the saying of the Lord: ‘In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice; for I am a mighty King, says the Lord; and my name spreads terror among the nations (Didache, Chap 14, Est. 75-110 AD).
They do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead (Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, Chap 6, est. 110 AD).
Whatever you do, you do according to God: for there is one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of His Blood; one altar, as there is one bishop with the presbytery and my fellow servants, the deacons (Ignatius, Epistle to the Philadelphians, Chap 3-4, est. 110 AD–see also Heb 13:10).
For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Savior being incarnate by God’s Word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the Word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished, by transformation is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus (Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chap 66, est. 150 AD).
It is of the sacrifices offered to Him in every place by us, the gentiles, that is, of the Bread of the Eucharist and likewise of the cup of the Eucharist, that He speaks at that time; and He says that we glorify His name, while you profane it (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chap 41, est. 150 AD).
For just as the bread which comes from the earth, having received the invocation of God, is no longer ordinary bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly, so our bodies, having received the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, because they have the hope of the resurrection (Irenaeus, AH 4.18, est. 170 AD).
A millennium and a half later the Reformation occurred, but that does not mean the Reformers stopped understanding that Christ was present. Though dropping the language of “sacrifice” (found in several Early Church Fathers within about 100 years of the beginning of Christianity), they did affirm the Real Presence. Luther, though differing with Roman Catholicism over the categorizations of Transubstantiation, fervently defended that the bread and wine were really His flesh and blood, writing a book dedicated to the topic, The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ–Against the Fanatics.
Zwyngli’s fanaticism was soon rejected in Switzerland and by all the Reformers. John Calvin’s “spiritual presence” of Christ is the mode of Real Presence accepted by all Reformed theologians. The argument is that Christ’s human nature cannot descend from heaven, so only His divine nature can. This means bread and wine remain bread and wine, but they are imbued with His divinity invisibly. According to Ligonier ministries, “Calvin repeatedly stated that his argument with the Roman Catholics and with Luther was not over the fact of Christ’s presence, but only over the mode of that presence.”
John Calvin sums up his view as follows:
They are greatly mistaken in imagining that there is no presence of the flesh of Christ in the Supper, unless it be placed in the bread. They thus leave nothing for the secret operation of the Spirit, which unites Christ himself to us…The only question, therefore, is as to the mode, they placing Christ in the bread, while we deem it unlawful to draw him down from heaven. Which of the two is more correct, let the reader judge. Now, should any one ask me as to the mode, I will not be ashamed to confess that it is too high a mystery either for my mind to comprehend or my words to express; and to speak more plainly, I rather feel than understand it. The truth of God, therefore, in which I can safely rest, I here embrace without controversy. He declares that his flesh is the meat, his blood the drink, of my soul; I give my soul to him to be fed with such food (Institutes, Book 4, Chap 17, par 31-32).
More than a hundred years later, even mainline baptists affirmed the Real Presence. The London Baptist Confession in 1689 asserted the following:
Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this ordinance, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death; the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally, but spiritually present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.
Conclusion to Part 1. To reject the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist appears to be both Biblically untenable (Christ says the bread/wine is His flesh/blood) and historically indefensible. Even the Reformers, who debated over the mode and means in which the Eucharist is His flesh and blood, still did not deny the Real Presence. The modern Protestant view, that the Eucharist is purely figurative, is completely unknown within all of Christianity for almost all of history.
2. The Scriptures Chronologically Allows For Christ’s Sacrifice to Be Presented More Than Once Without That Sacrifice Being Repeated.
It is undeniably true that, “Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many” (Heb 9:28). Does that mean that the Orthodox are wrong in teaching that the Eucharist is “re-enacted and given to the faithful for the nourishment of their faith?”
My argument is that the Orthodox understanding is not wrong, because Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist and His Sacrifice, according to the Scriptures, existed before the crucifixion. If God’s sacrifice occurred in time, but is not bound by time, it makes it possible for His sacrifice to be presented again and again, without Him being sacrificed again and again.
My proof? Read Christ’s institution of the Last Supper: “this [the wine] IS the new covenant IN MY BLOOD, which is SHED for many for the forgiveness of sins!”
Did you catch that? The wine IS the SAME blood that was shed one day later! It is literally the SAME blood which is poured out and atones for sins. This SAME blood was offered BEFORE the crucifixion during the Last Supper!
If simply taking Jesus at His word and interpreting His words the way the Church has always understood them is not good enough, we have other Scriptures that support the same idea. Rev 13:8 makes mention of “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” How is this chronologically possible? There has been many answers (and re-translations) that have attempted to address this chronological oddity, but if “he who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (John 6:56) then in some sense His flesh and blood have always nourished the faithful. After all, “the elders obtained a good testimony” by the same faith we share (Heb 11:2).
One such example we do have is when “Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine,” and broke bread with Abraham as “he was the priest of God Most High” (Gen 14:18). Apparently, the sacrifice he presented was the bread and wine. How did Melchizedek offer the Eucharist 1900 years before Christ’s crucifixion? Christ’s sacrifice occurred in time, yet transcends time.
So, Orthodoxy rejects that Christ is sacrificed again and again. Rather, if you look at the icon at the top of this article, the blood is being collected in cups and is heavenly transported to those partaking in the sacrament. This is apparently referred to in the ancient Liturgy of Saint Chrysostom where before receiving the sacrament the congregation sings, “Let us now lay aside all earthly care: that we may receive the King of all, who comes invisibly upborne by the Angelic Hosts.”
Thus, Orthodoxy teaches that the very same flesh and blood of Christ is transported to all of His people who feed upon Him in the Eucharist in all times and places. Orthodoxy does not teach Christ is sacrificed again and again.
How does this all work? It’s a mystery! Hence, a sacrament [i.e.] of the Church. “This IS [present tense] My blood, which is [present tense] shed [past tense, future tense in light of the crucifixion the next day ;)] shed for many!”
Conclusion to Part 2. Being that the literal words of the Scripture state that the blood shed on Good Friday was present on Thursday, and apparently present to all the faithful for all time, this undoes any notion that the Real Presence necessitates continual sacrificing of Christ.
Conclusion to Parts 1 and 2. In light of the sheer weight of the Scriptures and history, how can any Christian reject the Sacrifice, the sacrament of the Eucharist? The answer is, one cannot without being deliberately rebellious and arrogant in his thinking. How can all of Christianity be wrong from the very beginning, and he be right?
Unless we physically touch and experience Christ’s sacrifice, we have no part in it. This assertion I believe is born out in the Scripture’s treatment of the efficacy of sacrifices.
In ancient Israel, the Priest would get an animal and instruct the person who brought the sacrifice to lay his hand on it. The Scripture says of the priest, “He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, that it may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf” (Lev 1:4). In Lev 16:21-22 the same laying of hands on the animal is explicitly for the purpose of transferring the sin of the people onto it.
So, whatever the significance of the laying of hands (whether it be to dedicate the sacrifice or to transfer sins), after killing the animal it is then eaten. This is how one partakes of the sacrifice and attains its benefits.
When we approach the Lord’s Table by faith, we reach our hands out to the sacrificial Lamb. We grasp His very flesh and blood and then consume it. In so doing we walk in the footsteps of the Israelites that did so with all their sacrifices.
If I did not have faith in Jesus Christ, I would have no desire to lay my hand upon that sacrifice. However, when we place our hands upon the literal sacrifice, this transfers over our sins onto that sacrifice. I don’t know about you, but I want to transfer over my sins to My Savior on that cross!