Jesus is not the perishable manna that their descendants ate in the wilderness—He is the eternal bread of life that lives forever. Only by partaking in His everlasting life can we hope to live with Him forever. This contrast strengthens His main message, where Jesus says, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life” (vs. 47). Notice, Jesus said that as soon as we believe in Him we have—present tense—eternal life. It is not something we aim at or hope we might attain in the future, but rather, something we receive immediately upon accepting Him by faith.
Master of Sigena,
Jesus Amongst the Doctors of the Law (1519)
In other words, taking Christ’s words literally here would apparently violate the letter of the Law. Does this prove that Christ was speaking metaphorically, as Oakland suggests? Not remotely.When Jesus said these words, He was in the synagogue in Capernaum, and He had neither bread nor wine. Therefore Jesus was either commanding cannibalism, or He was speaking figuratively. If He was speaking literally, then He would be directly contradicting God the Father: “But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat” (Genesis 9:4). Therefore, because Jesus Himself said, “[T]he scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35), He must be speaking metaphorically.
Christ comes to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17), but He doesn’t do this by following it in a legalistic manner. That’s because that’s not how the Law was meant to be followed. This is the central heresy of the Pharisees: they obsess over the letter of the Law so much that they miss the spirit of the Law. St. Paul shows, in Romans 2:29, that the Jewish Law is fulfilled in the heart, by obeying the spirit of the Law, rather than in Pharisaic legalism. This is exactly what we see Christ doing: fulfilling the Law by obeying (and revealing) the spirit of the Law, the purpose for why the Law exists. Three examples will illustrate how this is so.
I. The Son of Man and the Sabbath
This is made explicit in Mark 2:23-28:
Note: although Christ is declaring Himself Lord of the Sabbath, He’s still not violating the Law (or else, He failed His mission, as described in Matthew 5:17). Rather, He goes against the letter of the Law, in order to fulfill the spirit of the Law. The spirit of the Law was a call to rest, and in idly plucking heads of grains, the Apostles are doing a better job of resting on the Sabbath than the Pharisees. The Pharisees become so concerned about accidental violations of the Sabbath Law that they are unable to actually rest: ironically, resulting in them violating the spirit of the very Sabbath that they were trying to protect. So to fulfill the Law, Christ violates the letter of the Law.One sabbath he [Jesus] was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath.”
II. The Disciples and the Washing of Hands
A second clear example is from Matthew 15:1-3, in which the Pharisees criticize the Disciples for not washing their hands before eating:
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”Jesus has a two-part answer: He first shows that the Pharisees violate both the letter and spirit of the Law (Mt. 15:3-9). But then, in v. 10-11, Jesus gathers the crowd to explain what this was all for:
And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.”In other words, the ritual washing laws existed for a particular reason: to remind the people of the need to be spiritually clean. But it is the Pharisees, and not the Disciples, who have missed this. While fulfilling the letter of the Law, the Pharisees have emptied it of any meaning. By transgressing the letter of the Law, Jesus and His Disciples are shocking the people into understanding why the Law existed to begin with.
III. The Eucharist and the Drinking of Blood
Having established the pattern from the last two examples, look to the institution of the Eucharist (Matthew 26:26-28):
|Pascal Adolphe Dagnan-Bouveret, The Last Supper (1896)|
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins."
Once again, Christ is transgressing the letter of the Law in order to preserve and fulfill the spirit of that same Law. How so? Go back to the passage that forbids the drinking of the blood. Why is the drinking of blood forbidden? Genesis 9:3-5:
Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man's brother I will require the life of man.
The blood represented a creature’s life. That’s because even ancient cultures could recognize the vitality of blood in preserving life: bleed out too much, and you die. So to consume an animal’s blood would be to go beyond simply eating its flesh. It would be partaking of its very life. And this, of course, is why Jesus calls us to drink His Blood. Because we’re supposed to partake of His very life, so that we can share in eternal life with Him (John 6:51, 54).
There’s a very neat parallel here with Deuteronomy 21:22-23, which (on the surface) would seem to make even the Crucifixion a violation of the Law, by placing a curse on anyone who is hung upon a tree. St. Paul directly addresses this in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us--for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree.’” In other words, the very reason that the Law forbade being hung from a tree is the very reason Christ consented to it: He voluntarily took the penalties upon Himself. The same thing happens in the Eucharist: the very reason that the Law forbade drinking an animal’s blood is the reason that we are supposed to drink Christ’s.
For more on why Genesis 9:4 points towards (rather than away from) the Eucharist, I’d suggest Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers’ The Mass in Sacred Scripture.
IV. How the Law’s Prohibition Disproves the Protestant View of the Eucharist
Christ Preaching at Capernaum (1879)
As a bonus, this very feature of the Law is one of several ways that we can know that the Protestant
interpretation of the Eucharist is wrong. Why? Because Protestants take this bit about drinking Christ’s blood as a figure of speech. Given serious thought, that interpretation is already a stretch: while certain Scriptural phrases have obvious analogical meanings, this one doesn’t. We can easily understand what the imagery of Jesus being “the Gate” means, or His being “the Good Shepherd, but what’s the metaphorical meaning Jesus means to convey by telling us to drink His Blood?
It’s even more of a stretch when compared to the Last Supper. Here in John 6, the claim is that the Flesh and Blood is literal, while the eating and drinking is figurative. At the Last Supper, where Jesus repeats His message, the claim is that the eating and drinking is literal, while the Flesh and Blood is figurative. But if “eat my Flesh” is tied to the merely-symbolic bread and wine, it’s striking that (as Oakland acknowledges, above) there’s no bread or wine around when Jesus says this. We know this because Jesus was in the synagogue, a point that the Apostle John makes sure to include after describing Jesus’ Eucharistic discourse (John 6:59).
So even before we get to the Law, the metaphoric theory is already weak. But the already-strained metaphorical interpretation becomes unsustainable in the Jewish context. There’s a reason, within Judaism, that you don’t encounter positive pork-related figures of speech like “bringing home the bacon,” or why phrases like “pearls before swine” (Mt. 7:6) has distinctively negative connotations: handling or consuming pork was a serious violation of the Jewish Law. But this is true of drinking Blood, too. Look at how Scripture uses the imagery of drinking blood:
- “For I lift up my hand to heaven, and swear, As I live for ever, if I whet my glittering sword, and my hand takes hold on judgment, I will take vengeance on my adversaries, and will requite those who hate me. I will make my arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh--with the blood of the slain and the captives, from the long-haired heads of the enemy.'” (Deut. 32:40-42)
William Blake, Whore of Babylon (1809)
- “That day is the day of the Lord GOD of hosts, a day of vengeance, to avenge himself on his foes. The sword shall devour and be sated, and drink its fill of their blood. For the Lord GOD of hosts holds a sacrifice in the north country by the river Euphrates.” (Jer. 46:10)
- “As for you, son of man, thus says the Lord GOD: Speak to the birds of every sort and to all beasts of the field, 'Assemble and come, gather from all sides to the sacrificial feast which I am preparing for you, a great sacrificial feast upon the mountains of Israel, and you shall eat flesh and drink blood. You shall eat the flesh of the mighty, and drink the blood of the princes of the earth--of rams, of lambs, and of goats, of bulls, all of them fatlings of Bashan. And you shall eat fat till you are filled, and drink blood till you are drunk, at the sacrificial feast which I am preparing for you.” (Ezekiel 39:17-19)
- “And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and bedecked with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; and on her forehead was written a name of mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth's abominations.’ And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. When I saw her I marveled greatly.” (Revelation 17:3-6).
All of these passages share a common connotation: to drink of another’s blood is an expression meaning to kill them. When God threatens to make His arrows drunk on the blood of His adversaries in Deut. 32:40-42, He’s not threatening to make His arrows believe in His adversaries. He’s threatening to lay them low. Same with the three passages following. And in the final passage, Babylon drinks the blood of the Saints and the martyrs of Jesus. That doesn’t mean she believes in them. It means the opposite: that she murders them. Needless to say, this interpretation of the words of institution makes no sense. Why would Christ be ordering His Apostles to murder Him, in remembrance of Him?
In the end, then, there are two basic ways of interpreting Christ’s words at the Last Supper. You can take them literally, as His earliest followers did, in which case He’s fulfilling the spirit of the Law (even while transgressing the Letter), literally fulfilling the Law in His own Person, and inviting us into Communion with His very life. Or you can take Him metaphorically, in which case He’s apparently inviting us to repeatedly murder Him, every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.