Meditating on the Word: Feeding on the Bread of Life
Presbyterians put great stock in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as an ordinary means of grace. In it, believers feed upon Christ by his Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father. But the Lord’s Supper is not a bare naked, self-interpreting sign. It’s rich meaning and deep significance derive from its institution by the Lord Jesus Christ himself and its subordination to the Word of God. The Word of God can stand upon its own but the sacraments must be accompanied by the explanatory Word. Many theologians going all the way back to the great Augustine of Hippo refer to the sacraments in general, and the Lord’s Supper in particular, as a visible Word. The Lord’s Supper is only one of two divinely sanctioned visual aids. The Word of God stands over the sacraments. Not only is this true during the observance of the ceremony (which accounts for why there ought to be an explanation of what the Lord’s Supper is all about at the time of its celebration) but also as we prepare ourselves for the celebration prior to receiving the bread and wine and afterwards as we meditate upon the meaning and significance of the Lord’s Supper for our daily walk with Christ. To put it another way, the Lord’s Supper is inextricably tied to the Word.
The Lord’s Supper is the New Testament analogue of the Passover celebration in the Old Testament, which ties it to such things as the sacrificial system, to the Aaronic and Melchizedekian priesthood, the tabernacle and temple, to the Mosaic Law, the gathered people of God (i.e., the congregation, the church), the kingdom of God, the return of Christ, the marriage supper of the Lamb, etc. We could turn almost anywhere in the Bible to profitably prepare for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. If we turn around within the pages of the Bible we would find ourselves bumping up against something or other related to the ordinance of communion.
I have selected John 6:22-71 because it is a controversial passage in relation to the Lord’s Supper. Ancient and Medieval exegetes and preachers would often connect Jesus’ “bread of life” discourse with the Lord’s Supper, but this automatic connection has fallen out of favor in many church settings. This is unfortunate since our Lord’s teaching on feeding on his body and blood does relate to the Lord’s Supper if not quite as directly as some have thought and some still do. This does not make the connection any less real nor does it make it tenuous. Rather, I hope to show the real rock-solid basis for connecting the bread of life discourse in John 6 with the Lord’s Supper.
The Westminster Assembly of divines tell us that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper involves more than just a subjective call to remembrance of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross:
Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive, and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses. (Westminster Confession of Faith 29.7).
Following the insight of John Calvin that the Lord’s Supper is a feeding of the saints upon the body and blood of Christ spiritually (that is, by the ministry of the Holy Spirit), we may see that John 6 does indeed relate to the Lord’s Supper.
We are not saying that the Lord’s Supper was in the mind of our Lord or in the mind of the Apostle John but the spiritual reality that the ceremony signifies was in the mind of both our Lord and his apostle. Among other things, the Lord’s Supper signifies our feeding upon Christ and this feeding Jesus describes in terms of the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood in John 6. Jesus was not encouraging cannibalism. That appears to be what some thought he was doing in the account as many turned away from him from that point on. Rather, our Lord was using vivid, visual language to describe what we more prosaically refer to as union with Christ. Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus will talk about this same reality as an abiding in him using the arboreal imagery of a vine and its branches.
Once again we are reminded about the interweaving nature of one part of Scripture with another. Looking at John 6 in connection with the Lord’s Supper leads us to John 15 and the vine and branches pictorial language. And this word picture connects us with ancient Israel as a vine planted in the harrowing wilderness (we find this imagery in the Psalms, and in Isaiah among other places). Now our celebration of the Lord’s Supper will have richer and deeper significance for us as we think on Christ’s sacrificial death for us and our salvation. Meditating upon Scripture enables us to derive greater benefit from the Lord’s Supper because the Word of God rightly and richly explains it in ever-deepening and expanding ways.
I would encourage you to prepare yourself for the Lord’s Supper by meditating on Scriptures such as John 6 and in the midst the celebration allow your pastor’s meditation to direct your thinking about the feast that Christ has spread for his people. And afterwards as you think back over the Supper and how your faith is strengthened by the rite, remember that it is subordinate to and explained by and intertwined with the Word of God. It cannot be otherwise as it was the Word made flesh who instituted the Lord’s Supper in the first place.
Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum. Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.