A Five-Part Test for Your Eucharistic Beliefs

How can you tell if you have the right understanding—the biblical interpretation, Jesus’ interpretation—of the Eucharist?

I’d suggest five things to look for: your beliefs should be strange,sacrificial,serious,sacramental, and shocking.

First, as we’ve already seen, the proper Christian understanding of the Eucharist must be strange, and hard to accept. That’s how it was initially received, and Jesus did nothing to dispel this impression. Why, he was trying to present an easy teaching and was just being misunderstood, why would he not clarify?

And this teaching is not just strange to the world, but even to Jesus’ own followers. John tells us that after the Bread of Life discourse, “many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66). These are people who didn’t leave after Jesus “called God his Father, making himself equal with God” (5:18). Some people who are perfectly willing to embrace the divinity of Christ find his eucharistic teaching too extreme. And Jesus responds to this by challenging even the Twelve, “Will you also go away?” Simon Peter’s response, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” is one of tremendous faith, but Peter doesn’t pretend that even he gets what Jesus means by these strange words (6:67-69). If your eucharistic beliefs aren’t strange, even to other Christians, they’re not the beliefs Jesus taught in John 6.

Second, the proper Christian understanding of the Eucharist must be sacrificial. St. Paul compares the eucharistic sacrifice to the pagan and Jewish sacrifices of his day, pointing out that “those who eat the [Jewish] sacrifices” become “partners in the altar” whereas those who eat the pagan sacrifices become “partners with demons” (1 Cor. 10:18-20). He draws a clear parallel between “the cup of the Lord” and “the cup of demons,” as well as between “the table of the Lord” and “the table of demons.” Read that again: he describes what’s happening in the Eucharist by comparing it with what takes place at demonic altars(v. 21). If your understanding of the Eucharist isn’t a sacrifice comparable to the fleshly sacrifices offered in the Temple in Jerusalem or in pagan rites, then you don’t believe what Paul believed.

Third, the proper Christian understanding of the Eucharist must be serious. Paul recounts for the Corinthians the events of the Last Supper, which he says he “received from the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:23). Paul never met Jesus during his earthly ministry; it seems that what he’s about to relate concerning the Eucharist he learned through a special revelation from him. If that’s right, it speaks to just how seriously Jesus takes the Eucharist. He doesn’t just leave it up to us to figure out how best to commemorate or honor or worship him.

And for those who don’t take the Eucharist seriously? Paul warns that whoever “eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord,” since whoever “eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (vv. 28-29). He even adds that this is why many of his Corinthian readers “are weak and ill, and some have died” (v. 30). If it wouldn’t make sense to say that anyone approaching this mystery unworthily risks damning themselves, then you don’t believe the same thing as Paul, and he received his views from Jesus.

Fourth, the proper Christian understanding of the Eucharist must be sacramental. In his commentary on John 6, the Evangelical biblical scholar D.A. Carson admits that the early Christians understood the Eucharist not merely as a symbol or as a reminder of Jesus’ past action, but as a sacrament. And they believed the sacraments were capable of “conveying grace in and of themselves.” That is, they’re not effective simply because we believe in them, or because they remind us of God, but because God is doing something miraculous through them. Carson points out that even St. Ignatius of Antioch “adopts a sacramentarian stance.” Why does this matter? Because Ignatius seems to have been a disciple of the apostle John, and he’s writing around 107, only about seven years after the death of the apostle. If anyone can shed light on what John 6 means, surely it would be one of John’s own students.

And what’s more, we don’t find any evidence of some kind of early Christian outcry against this teaching—of people telling Ignatius that he’s betraying the theology of John and the other apostles. In fact, as we’ll see later, Ignatius assumes that, in the year 107, a faithful Christian is someone who takes a sacramental view of the Eucharist. If your beliefs about the Eucharist aren’t sacramental, then they’re not compatible with the beliefs of those who knew the apostolic preaching and teaching way better than we do.

Fifth and finally, the proper Christian understanding of the Eucharist must be shocking. The crowd didn’t just find the teaching hard, or strange—they found it repulsive, because they mistook it for cannibalism. And that didn’t stop with John 6. One of the oldest arguments against Christianity from the ancient world is that Christians were engaged in ritual cannibalism, a misconception that seems to have stemmed from misunderstanding the Eucharist. So if your beliefs about the Eucharist aren’t liable to being misunderstood as cannibalism, then they’re not the beliefs held by the earliest Christians.

If we get this right—if we arrive at a view of the Eucharist that’s strange, sacrificial, serious, sacramental, and shocking—more than just the Last Supper or John 6 will make more sense. Suddenly, other surprising and seemingly-unrelated parts of the faith will “click” in a new and meaningful way.

We hope you enjoyed this look at Joe Heschmeyer's best-selling book
The Eucharist is Really Jesus.

Jul 27th 2023 Joe Heschmeyer

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