(The following has been excerpted from my e-book "On the Lord's Table")
Now, with the ready availability of the Scriptures to the ordinary people in their own languages came a wonderful thing! No longer were priests and popes the sole interpreters of Scripture, but Scripture alone was to be its own interpreter!
'The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture, (which is not manifold, but one,) it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.' Westminster Confession of Faith 1:9.
I’d like to use this system of interpretation as we look at what was a very controversial piece of Scripture at the time of the Reformation. It’s found in Matthew 26:26, in the second half of verse 26 where it says that Jesus said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.’
As He was instituting the Lord’s Supper Jesus gave His disciple bread to eat. Now, there are variations of these words in the three synoptic Gospel accounts and of course in the 1 Corinthians 11 account given by the Apostle Paul. However, each of these four accounts just mentioned contain the words, ‘This is My body.’
Now as we go, I’d like us to keep in mind the great wrestling match that went on over these words. What exactly does Jesus mean when He says, ‘This is My body’? There’s the Roman Catholic view, the Lutheran view, the so-called Zwinglian view. Then there’s the view of Calvin.
It was really only at the time of the Reformation beginning in 1517 that the Roman Catholic view was successfully challenged from Scripture. However, Calvin held that, ‘Among the early Christians, there was no contention as to the Lord’s Supper... They all understood Christ’s words figuratively... Augustine... terms it a foul affair to eat the flesh of Christ corporeally!’ (From Francis Nigel Lee).
It wasn’t until the 10th and 11th centuries that the doctrine of Transubstantiation really began to take hold. It was first referred to as Transubstantiation in the 12th century. The Roman Catholic view, is that the bread and the wine in the Lord’s Supper Transubstantiate, ie, change into the actual body and blood of Christ.
The technicality of what Rome is saying is that while the substance changes, the accidents remain the same. Talk about double-speak! But whatever way you look at it, Rome teaches that you are physically eating the actual flesh and blood of Christ when you partake of its Mass. Which is to say that Rome believes that when Jesus said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body’ He was feeding His disciples chunks of His own flesh!
The Reformers of course begged (if begged is the right word!) to differ on this! But on what basis? Well, this is where the Scriptures come in. The supposed change to the bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Christ was supposedly brought about by a priest uttering the words, ‘hoc enim est corpus meum.’ This is Latin for ‘This is my body’ and is probably where the term hocus-pocus comes from.
But where in Scripture do we get the notion that the bread and wine were going to Transubstantiate? That’s the point! There is no solid Scriptural basis for the Doctrine of Transubstantiation! And if bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ, then inevitably people will end up worshipping the elements!
So, what did Jesus actually have in mind when He said, ‘This is My body’ as He instituted the Lord’s Supper? We’ve already noted that the early Church understood the words Jesus spoke as figurative. Which is to say that they believed that the bread and wine symbolized Christ’s body and blood.
However, the great Reformer Luther sailed close to the Romish wind, eventually coming up with what is commonly known as the Doctrine of Consubstantiation. Lutheran Consubstantiation differs from Roman Catholic Transubstantiation in that it is a view that somehow Christ is present bodily in, under and through the bread and wine.
Rome says that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Lutheranism says that the body and blood of Christ become present in the bread and the wine.
There is not a tremendously great difference between these two views – at least as I’ve stated them! But both Zwingli and Calvin had a massive problem with the Roman and the Lutheran view.
So, what’s the main problem with Christ somehow being humanly present in the bread and the wine or the bread and wine becoming Christ’s flesh and blood? Well, it’s all to do with the physical body of Christ!
Where in Scripture does it teach the human ubiquity of Christ? In other words, where are we taught that Christ’s body can be everywhere at once?
Zwingli overcame this problem by concluding that the words of institution were figurative. So Zwingli at least had something in common with the early Church fathers. Zwingli rejected the physical presence of Christ in the Supper, but, it should be noted that he didn’t deny that Christ was spiritually present to believers.
We usually refer to the Zwinglian view of the Lord’s Supper as the symbolic view. Zwingli held that the Lord’s Supper is primarily a memorial of Christ’s sacrifice. However, keep in mind Zwingli held that there was a spiritual benefit to be had by believers.
'Indeed it would have been foolish and unreasonable to discourse about the Lord’s Supper, before He had instituted it. It is certain, then, that He now speaks of the perpetual and ordinary manner of eating the flesh of Christ, which is done by faith only. And yet, at the same time, I acknowledge that there is nothing said here that is not figuratively represented, and actually bestowed on believers, in the Lord’s Supper; and Christ even intended that the holy Supper should be, as it were, a seal and confirmation of this sermon.'
Calvin says, ‘The doctrine which is here taught is sealed in the Lord’s Supper.’ So, believers eat and drink the flesh and blood of Christ. They do it by faith – they do it spiritually. So the real difference between Calvin and the Roman Catholic and the Lutheran view of the Lord’s Supper has to do with the present existence of Christ’s body.
Romanism and Lutheranism believe in the ubiquity of Christ’s body. But Calvin does not believe that Scripture teaches the omnipresence of Christ’s humanity. Christ is in Heaven – bodily, until He returns. So, when Jesus says, ‘Take, eat, this is My body’ He is saying that the bread represents His body. However, by eating the bread you are spiritually feeding on Christ’s physical body. And, because Christ has ascended to Heaven bodily, the Holy Spirit accommodates this.
So, the bottom line is this: How can Jesus be bodily present as or in the bread and wine when He is bodily in Heaven?
As God He can be everywhere at once. But Christ is also fully Man. As a Man He increased in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52). As God He knows all things and is all wise and infinite. But as a Man He doesn’t know all things and has to increase in wisdom. Therefore as a human being He’s finite. We must not confound the two natures of Christ. He is fully God and fully Man at the same time. He has two distinct natures but is one Divine Person forever. We must keep each nature distinct from the other.
'Two whole, perfect and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one Person, without conversion, composition, or confusion, Which Person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.' Westminster Confession of Faith 8:2
Transubstantiation and Consubstantiation confuse the two natures of Christ. They make His humanity ubiquitous or Omnipresent. In other words they ascribe Christ human nature divine attributes. God is everywhere at once, but a true human being cannot be everywhere at once. In other words, ubiquity or omnipresence go against the true nature of a human being.
Christ is fully Man. After His resurrection Jesus went to some lengths to illustrate that He was still fully human. We read about Jesus after His resurrection in Luke 24:36ff. His disciples are all together and the two men who just met Jesus on the road to Emmaus were telling them that they had met the resurrected Christ when He appeared in their midst.
Luke 24:36, ‘Now as they said these things, Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, “Peace to you.” But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit. And He said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have”’ Luke 24:36-39.
Notice that Jesus invites them to handle Him to prove He’s not a spirit! The Lord invited Doubting Thomas to handle Him as proof it was the self-same body that was nailed to the cross that was resurrected from the dead! In other words, though Christ is fully God He remains also fully Man.
John in 1 John 1:1 speaks of a Christ who remains a solid Man. ‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, which we have handled, concerning the Word of life’ 1 John 1:1.
In the Luke 24 passage notice one of the things that Jesus did to verify to His disciples that He wasn’t just some wispy apparition or manifestation. He invited them to handle Him and He also ate food in their presence. Luke 24:41b, “‘Have you any food here?” So they gave Him a piece of broiled fish and some honeycomb. And He took it and ate in their presence’ Luke 24:41b.
Calvin comments on this verse,
'During the whole course of His life, He had subjected Himself to the necessity of eating and drinking; and now, though relieved from that necessity, He eats for the purpose of convincing His disciples of the certainty of His resurrection.'
Jesus, to Calvin, is as solid as a rock after His resurrection as He was before He was dead and raised. In other words, Calvin held that Jesus, as to His humanity, could only be in one place at a time.
Now, some people have the notion that the resurrected Jesus put His humanity aside from time to time to take on different forms. For example, Mark in Mark 16:12 says that, ‘He appeared in another form to two of them as they walked and went into the country.’
Letting Scripture interpret Scripture Calvin uses Luke 24:16 to interpret the meaning of this verse. Speaking of the two men on the road to Emmaus Luke in Luke 24:16 says, ‘But their eyes were restrained, so that they did not know Him.’
So, Calvin commenting on Luke 24:16 and Mark 16:12 says,
'The Evangelist expressly states this, lest any one should think that the aspect of Christ’s body was changed, and that the features of His countenance were different from what they had formerly been. For though Christ remained like Himself, He was not recognized, because the eyes of the beholders were held; and this takes away all suspicion of a phantom or false imagination.'
As the bread and the wine remain bread and wine throughout the Lord’s Supper, so Christ remains fully human after His resurrection. Now, to be sure, the resurrected Christ has taken on qualities that He didn’t have before. Calvin has already alluded to the fact that Jesus no longer needs to eat to sustain His physicality. However, glorification is a far cry from Jesus morphing from one shape to another.
Calvin commenting on Luke 24:28 says, 'Christ for the time threw a veil over the eyes of those with whom He was conversing, so that He had assumed a different character, and was regarded by them all as an ordinary stranger.'
So, just as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, so it was the eyes of the beholders that were prevented from recognizing Jesus. In other words, Jesus wasn’t changing His shape or form, rather it was their eyes that were prevented from recognizing Jesus. For we see in Luke 24:31, ‘For their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight.'
Calvin is consistent when he comments on this verse, saying,
'By these words, we are taught that there was not in Christ any metamorphosis, or variety of forms, by which He might impose on the eyes of men, but that, on the contrary, the eyes of the beholders were mistaken, because they were covered; just as, shortly afterwards, He vanished from the eyes of those very persons, not because His body was in itself invisible, but because God, by withdrawing their rigor, blunted their acuteness.'
It was the same when Mary did not recognize the resurrected Saviour where it says in John 20:14b that she ‘Saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus.’
Commenting on this verse Calvin says,
'It may be asked, Whence arose this mistake, that Mary does not recognize Jesus, with whom she must have been intimately acquainted? Some think that He appeared in a different form, but I think that the fault lay rather in the eyes of the women, as Luke (Luke 24:16) says of the two disciples, their eyes were withheld from knowing him. We will not say, therefore, that Christ was continually assuming new shapes, but that it is in the power of God, who gave eyes to men, to lessen their sharpness of vision whenever He thinks proper, that seeing they may not see.
'In Mary we have an example of the mistakes into which the human mind frequently falls. Though Christ presents Himself to our view, yet we imagine that He assumes various shapes, so that our senses conceive of any thing rather than of the true Christ; for not only are our powers of understanding liable to be deceived, but they are also bewitched by the world and by Satan, that they may have no perception of the truth.'
And finally, perhaps the passage of Scripture used most by those who believe in a Transubstantiated and Consubstantiated Jesus is found in John 20. It’s the issue of resurrected Jesus appearing in the midst of His disciples while the doors were shut. Again, we’ll let the great Reformer answer this,
'We ought to believe that Christ did not enter without a miracle, in order to give a demonstration of his Divinity, by which He might stimulate the attention of His disciples; and yet I am far from admitting the truth of what the Papists assert, that the body of Christ passed through the shut doors.
In the Lord’s Supper where Jesus says, ‘This is My body,’ He doesn’t mean that He transforms His body into a piece of bread. Nor is He suggesting that He is able to walk though solid walls and doors bodily! For this is to confuse the two natures of Christ. It is to ascribe divine attributes to His humanity! Therefore Christ’s physical body is not ubiquitous.
Our Lord is in Heaven bodily. Yes, as God He is omnipresent, but as a Man He remains in Heaven. Yes, the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper are symbols, but they are more than symbols. They are the means by which we spiritually feed on Christ’s flesh and blood through faith. In the Lord’s Supper the Holy Spirit lifts the believer’s heart so that the believer’s faith may feed on our Lord’s flesh and blood in Heaven.