The Passover led to the Mosaic covenant, which would bind God with his people until the New Covenant in Christ. Several centuries later, Jesus would again establish a covenant, the New Covenant. Just as the blood of the lamb saved the Israelites as they escaped from Egypt, and just as Moses sprinkled blood on the Israelites to mark the Mosaic Covenant, so Christ initiates the New Covenant in his own blood—the blood of his sacrificial death, the blood made present at the Eucharist.
Referring to the wine, Jesus declares it to be “the blood of the new covenant,” a striking reference to Moses’ own words at Sinai in which he, too, declares the blood to be “the blood of the covenant” as he sprinkles it on the people. At the Last Supper, then, Jesus is establishing a new era in salvation history.
Christ connects his sacrificial, saving death to the institution of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is included in Christ’s saving death; and his saving death is included in the Eucharist. Looking back at the Passover, we can decipher what’s going on. During the original Passover and its annual commemoration, a lamb is sacrificed. But that’s not all. The participants must also partake of the lamb.
Christ is the true Lamb of God who offers himself as the saving victim of God’s People. God’s people now partake of this Lamb in the Eucharistic celebration, when Christ’s disciples consume Christ’s very body and blood—albeit mysteriously and under the appearances of bread and wine. The new era of salvation, which is won for us by Christ most notably on the cross, is applied to God’s people in the Eucharist.
Jesus uses sacrificial language at the Last Supper. The bread, declared to be Christ’s body, is “given” for his disciples. The wine, declared to be His blood, is “poured out” for the “forgiveness of sins.” What Christ does here is commanded to be repeated as his memorial sacrifice.
Early Christians understood the Eucharist to be a renewal of Christ’s sacrificial acts. Paul contrasts the Eucharistic “table of the Lord” to Jewish and pagan sacrifices (1 Cor. 10:18). The first Christians expected there to be a continuation of sacrifice. In Malachi, God suggests a time when all people would offer a “pure offering” (Mal. 1:11). Christians interpreted this as a prediction of the Eucharist. 2nd-century Christian Justin Martyr says that the prophecy refers to Christians “who in every place offer sacrifices to him, that is, the bread of the Eucharist” (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew 41).
By this perfect sacrifice of loving obedience on the cross, Christ has made all the bloody sacrifices of the Old Covenant obsolete. He is the true and final Lamb of God. But because Christ is risen and alive, Christ continues to offer himself for us in God’s presence. The epistle to the Hebrews depicts Christ as the final High Priest who enters the sanctuary not “made by human hands,” i.e., Heaven, to “appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” In doing so, Christ “holds his priesthood permanently.” The Eucharist is indeed a sacrifice, but it nonetheless neither adds nor subtracts anything from Christ’s self-giving death on the cross. Rather, the Eucharist is the making-present of Christ’s enduring intercession before the Father.
In the Book of Revelation, the seer sees before God’s throne a lamb standing “as though it had been slain.” Christ the lamb perpetually exists before the Father as the one mediator between God and man. Because of this enduring intercession of Christ, the liturgy can call the Eucharist a “living sacrifice.” It is the re-presentation of Christ’s passion and the application of the fruits of redemption.
“Whoever eats of this bread will live forever,” he says, “and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Here Jesus firmly connects eternal life with the consumption of his very flesh, that is, the reception of his body and blood in the Eucharist: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”
These striking statements scandalized Christ’s original audience, even his own disciples: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (John 6:52, 60). This teaching continues to shock many today. That Jesus wants us to consume his flesh and blood may sound shocking, but it is precisely why Jesus first asks us to have faith Him!
Because his gospel was written last, it is likely that John is using the Bread of Life discourse as the occasion for supplementary material on the Eucharist—a sort of theological commentary. To John’s original audience, the meaning of Christ’s words would have been obvious. Though Christ’s words may have been cryptic to Christ’s immediate audience, to ancient non-Christian readers, and even to modern Christians unfamiliar with the early Church, John’s audience of Christians would have had no interpretive dilemma: They were celebrating the Eucharist before the gospel was even written!
Even more, we have early extra-biblical evidence for how John’s passage was understood. One of the earliest Christian writings comes from Ignatius of Antioch, an acquaintance of John himself. This early bishop contrasts the orthodox belief with the Docetists, who denied Christ’s real flesh. But for apostolic Christians, Ignatius says, the Eucharist is “the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.” Because of this, Ignatius can also say that the Eucharist is the “medicine of immortality.” Notice how this precisely confirms what Christ says about his life-giving flesh and blood. Ignatius illustrates that the first Christians considered the Eucharist to be the way to eternal life, for it is the very means by which Christians eat and drink Christ’s body and blood.
There is abundant reason to think the Bread of Life discourse in John’s gospel teaches Christ’s Eucharistic presence, then. Outside of the four gospels, there is still more evidence in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul identifies the “bread that we break” to be “a sharing in the body of Christ.” When addressing the Corinthians, Paul warns: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27). According to Paul, then, the Eucharist is to be taken very seriously, as if it were Jesus Christ Himself!
Even more, like Ignatius mentioned in the last section, we have an abundance of post-biblical evidence for what the Christians of the first centuries believed.
Classic example comes from the 2nd-century Justin Martyr, a philosopher-turned-Christian who was one of the first major apologists. In his First Apology, Justin clarifies the practice of the Eucharist, which had been misconstrued by the pagan Romans to be cannibalism. Justin is clear that the Eucharist is not mere “common bread or common drink”—no, it is the “flesh and blood of that Jesus who became incarnate.”
Irenaeus, 2nd-century bishop of Lyons in modern-day France, concurs. Because it is the “body and blood of the Lord,” the Eucharist offers us the “gift of God, which is eternal life.” Likewise, the Christian “feeds on the body and blood of Christ,” says the North African Tertullian in the early 200s, so that “the soul likewise may be filled with God” (The Resurrection of the Dead 8). In his Catechetical Lectures, Cyril, fourth-century bishop of Jerusalem, contrasts the Eucharistic elements before and after the consecration: What were before “simple bread and wine” becomes “the body of Christ and the wine the blood of Christ” (Catechetical Lectures 19:7).
The early Christians were not naïve. They realized that, even after the consecration, the bread still looked like bread. Augustine of Hippo confirms that “what you see is the bread and the chalice” but “what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the body of Christ and the chalice is the blood of Christ” (Sermons 272). This early conviction in Christ’s Eucharistic presence was a universal one. Testimony comes from across the Christian world, West and East: from Syrian Christians like Ignatius and Ephrem; North Africans like Tertullian and Cyprian; Egyptian Alexandrians like Clement and Cyril; Romans like Leo and Jerome; other Westerners like Augustine and Ambrose; and Greek Byzantines like Basil and John Chrysostom.
As should be clear, then, the earliest Christians were adamant about the real presence of Christ to the extent that it is no longer meaningful to talk about actual bread and wine at all. Early Christians speak to the fact of Christ’s actual presence, and they equally speak to its salvific significance. The Eucharist is not just a wonderful gift of God’s presence but is the very means of eternal life!