Q. In your study on Revelation 2 & 3, specifically the section on the letter to the church at Thyatira, you have pointed out that Catholics (yes, I am Catholic) believe that the communion bread and wine are the actual and spiritual body and blood of Jesus. Is this not supported by scripture such as John 6:51-59? What are your thoughts on this?
A. In John 6:51-59 Jesus was speaking figuratively. He never intended that they eat His flesh or drink His blood in the literal sense, but that they symbolically “partake” of His death in order to gain life. He had made the transition from literal to figurative speech when He compared Himself to the manna their forefathers had eaten in the desert in verses 48-49. The manna had sustained their forefathers’ temporal lives, but He would sustain their eternal lives.
There is good reason for those who take the Bible literally to read this passage figuratively. First, if Jesus was speaking literally, He would have been counseling His followers to break the Law, something He couldn’t have done. Even the ingestion of animal blood was forbidden, how much more so human blood. (Genesis 9:4, Leviticus 17:12)
Second, there’s simply no evidence at all that the early church read this passage literally, but instead saw it as looking forward to the institution of the Lord’s Supper, where bread symbolizes His body, and wine His blood. The idea of the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ came into the Catholic Church several hundred years later at the Council of Trent.
Third, the Bible makes clear in many places that belief by faith is the basis for eternal life, not the eating of flesh and the drinking of blood. Two of those places are found earlier in the same chapter of John, in the Lord’s own words and in the same context as the passage you cited (John 6:29 & John 6:40). No one attains eternal life by merely celebrating communion.
And finally, when He ordained the celebration of communion, He made it clear that the bread and wine of communion symbolize His body and blood. He never said they become it.
So the notion of transubstantiation passes none of the three basic laws of hermeneutics. Jesus didn’t teach it, the Scriptures don’t say it, and the apostles didn’t practice it.