Soul Food and Spiritual Drink
Humans are complex creatures, consisting of body and soul. God formed us out of the dust of the ground (Gen. 2:7a). He gave us bodies, making us physical creatures. And He nourishes our bodies with physical things. The Lord provides food to satisfy our hunger and drink to quench our thirst.
But that's only one aspect of the person. God also breathed into us the breath of life (Gen. 2:7b). He gave us souls, making us spiritual creatures. So if He provides physical things for our bodies, how does He nourish our souls?
For many Christians, the answer is obvious: God nourishes our souls with His word. In the Old Testament, listening to the Bible was equated with eating and drinking (Isa. 55:1-2). Jesus also spoke this way in his earthly ministry. As he was tempted in the wilderness, he quoted an ancient truth: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Mt. 4:4, cf. Deut. 8:3). Clearly, the Bible is food for the soul, drink for the spirit.
Yet God offers a full course meal for his people. Besides the word, the sacrament of the Lord's Supper also nourishes our souls. In the story of the Last Supper, Jesus instituted His sacrament in a most unforgettable way. It's told in three gospels (Mt. 26:26-29, Mk. 14:22-25, Lk. 22:14-20) and mentioned in one epistle (1 Cor. 11:23-26). All four accounts speak of a connection between sensory things (bread and wine) and spiritual realities (Christ's body and blood). They share the provocative statements: "this is by body" and "this is my blood of the covenant." Luke and 1 Corinthians also include the language "new covenant in my blood" and the command "Do this in remembrance of me".
These words have led people to different conclusions. Some view the sacrament as a mere symbol pointing back to Christ's words and historical actions. Others see something deeper. Rather than a bare remembrance, they argue for a real presence. They regard the Supper as soul food and spiritual drink. This post will explore this deeper, spiritual notion by analyzing some key Biblical texts: Melchizedek's ceremony (Genesis 14:18-20), the Passover/Last Supper rituals (Exodus chapter 12, synoptic gospel accounts), the manna/bread of life discourse (Exodus chapter 16, John chapter 6), and the contrasting spiritual/demonic tables (1 Corinthians chapter 10).
In Genesis 14:18-20, we're introduced to the mysterious figure of Melchizedek. We know he was an important person by his titles: King of Salem and Priest of God Most High. Melchizedek came out to meet Abraham after the patriarch's victory over the eastern kings, and he didn't come empty-handed. He brought a blessing from God Most High (vv. 19-20), the same God that Abraham worshiped. And along with blessing, he brought bread and wine (v. 18). The text even links these things. The blessing (the word of God Most High) was accompanied by the meal (the sacrament of God Most High).
Moreover, the blessing and meal administered by a priest-king of God Most High indicates divine participation. One could even say that Abraham was eating and drinking with God. Rather than a banquet for a victorious servant, this was a worship service led by a priest-king. Abraham was receiving God's blessing through the bread and the wine.
Such a mysterious character, this Melchizedek! As the Old Testament unfolds, he fades into the background. Yet he's anything but trivial. Melchizedek the priest-king ends up foreshadowing a greater priest-king, Jesus Christ. Hebrews chapter 7 explains this connection. First, Melchizedek remains a priest "forever", because he has no traceable genealogy (vv. 2-3). Thus, he foreshadows the priest-king who has always existed forever (v. 17, cf. Ps. 110:4). Second, Melchizedek blessed Abraham through word and meal. In a similar way, Jesus blessed His disciples with his words in the context of a meal. In the Lord's Supper, He continues to bless His people (Abraham's descendants by faith) through word and sacrament.
The Passover and Last Supper Rituals
While bread and wine are prominent in the Melchizedek story, they're best known for their connection to the Passover ritual. The story is told in Exodus chapter 12. Each household needed to sacrifice an unblemished lamb (v.5), roast the meat (v. 8), eat in haste (v. 11), and mark the entrances of their homes with the blood (v. 7). The meal celebrated their deliverance from Egyptian bondage, as the blood covered them from God's wrath upon the Egyptian households. After the Israelites gained their freedom, God commanded the Passover to be a lasting ordinance (v. 14).
While the Passover lamb was the main course, it wasn't the only food served. Chapter 12 also mentions unleavened bread, representing the swiftness of God's deliverance. The exodus wouldn't allow time for any leavening (v. 39). Moreover, this part of the meal was so important that the festival accompanying the Passover would be called by its name. It would become the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Yet the bread was only part of the equation; the meal also included wine. While Exodus 12 doesn't mention any wine, Jesus assumed its inclusion. He spoke of it during the most famous Passover of all: The Last Supper.
The Last Supper narratives present the Passover in broad brushstrokes. The gospel writers made no mention of the lamb, but focused entirely on the bread and wine. Even though Jesus was the fulfillment of the Passover lamb who takes away the sin of the world (1 Cor. 5:7; Jn. 1:29; Rev. 5:6), he associated his sacrifice with bread and wine.
Let's begin with the bread. The disciples were devout Jews who celebrated the Passover their entire lives. Imagine the shock of seeing their master hold the bread and proclaim, "This is my body." It must have been astonishing.He took the unleavened bread of a practiced liturgy fixed in Israel's consciousness and solemnly proclaimed its fulfillment.
Redemptive history was etched even deeper when Jesus lifted the cup and connected it with the new covenant in His blood. While it was a departure from the Passover liturgy, His statement wasn't without precedent. Wine was sometimes associated with blood in the Old Testament (Gen. 49:11; Deut. 32:14; Isa. 63:3, 6). Of these texts, Genesis 49:11 was specifically concerned with the Messianic seed from the offspring of Judah, who "washed his garments in wine, and his vesture in the blood of grapes."
But the word "blood" shouldn't be separated from the phrase in which it appears. The Old Testament writers commonly associated blood with covenant making. Exodus 24:1-8 serves as a case in point. In ratifying the Sinai Covenant, the blood of countless sacrifices was shed on the altar and sprinkled on the people, symbolizing forgiveness and oath-binding. Immediately following the ritual, the leaders of Israel ascended the mountain and partook of a meal. Verse 9 says, "They beheld God, and ate and drank." Details aren't given, but the connection between blood sacrifice and divine communion is unmistakable.
Yet Christ's words instituting the Lord's Supper didn't renew the old covenant for God's people. The fact that Jesus identified the cup as "my blood of the covenant" reveals that He was conscious of His impending death. This death would inaugurate a new covenant with His people. And He would use the wine as a means of connecting His people with the new covenant.
The Manna/Bread of Life Discourse
After the exodus from Egypt, Israel had good reason to be grateful. But as they made their way through the wilderness, God's people proved to have short memories. They grumbled about the lack of food and drink. They even desired to return to Egypt! Yet God was patient. He provided manna, bread from heaven. The story is told in Exodus chapter 16. Despite their rebellious desire for Egyptian bread, God gave them bread that was both flavorful (v. 31) and plenty (vv. 17-18). He used the manna to test Israel, to see if His people would keep His law (v. 4). Even though they didn't (vv. 20, 27), God continued to provide manna until they entered the Promised Land (v. 35). While it satisfied their physical hunger, something greater would be needed for their spiritual hunger.
The fulfillment would come in John chapter 6. The feeding of the five thousand had just taken place (vv. 1-13), but the crowd misunderstood the miracle. Their bellies were full, but their souls were still famished! This greater hunger could only be satisfied by the fulfillment of the bread: Communion with Jesus Christ. In the conversation that followed, Jesus referred to Himself as the true manna who gives life to the world (vv. 31-35). When they asked for this bread, he replied, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst" (v. 35). This caused them to grumble like the original generation that received the manna! And then the imagery took a radical turn:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him (vv. 53‑56).
His hearers were scandalized by these words. They thought he was talking about cannibalism! Moreover, the Old Testament prohibited the eating or drinking of blood because it represented the life of the creature (Lev. 17:14; Deut. 12:23). So how are we supposed to understand this saying?
There are two answers to this question, one primary and the other secondary. The primary answer comes by comparing vv. 40 and 54. In doing so, we discover similar language:
For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day (v. 40, emphasis mine).
Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day (v. 54, emphasis mine)
The primary answer is that feeding comes through believing. Jesus' opponents didn't believe His words, so they couldn't feed upon His flesh and drink His blood. But that doesn't exhaust the meaning of His words. Jesus also mentioned his body and blood in the Last Supper. The sacrament requires faith, but it also requires chewing and swallowing. So even though we eat and drink Christ by believing, we also eat and drink Christ by partaking. That's the secondary answer to the question.
Spiritual and Demonic Tables
Some would question the need for extra feeding. "If faith is enough," they would say, "why do we need the sacrament?" The answer is found in 1 Corinthians 10:1-16. Here, the Apostle Paul contrasted two types of food and drink: spiritual and demonic. The first contrast came from the Old Testament. Verses 3-4 refer to the manna (cf. Ex. 16:13-15) and the water from the rock (cf. Ex. 17:1-7) as "spiritual food" and "spiritual drink". In this context, spiritual meant "of the Holy Spirit"rather than non-physical. The manna and water did satisfy physical needs, but they also had greater goal, a spiritual purpose: God used this food and drink to nurture a dependence upon Him!
Regrettably, the wilderness generation resisted God's purpose. They craved a different kind of food and drink, and became malnourished on idolatry (v. 7). Here, the apostle had something specific in mind: the infamous golden calf episode. He cited Exodus 32:6: "the people sat down to eat and drink and rose to play," which described the feasting that went along with the idol worship. Rather than causing the people to become closer to God, this food and drink drove them further way.
Paul then applied this contrast to his day. As he did with the Israelites of old, the apostle connected the idolatry of the Corinthian culture with eating and drinking. "You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons." Paul didn't mince words. He connected idolatry with a table of demons--creatures who cause spiritual harm! And he contrasted this table of demons with the table of the Lord. What's he referring to? Certainly not the manna and the water from the rock. Those were for the old Israel in her wilderness sojourn. This table is for the "Israel of God" (Gal. 6:16)--the Church of Jesus Christ--as she perseveres in the wilderness of this world. The table Paul was referring to is the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.
In describing this table, the apostle posed two rhetorical questions: "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?" "The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?" (1 Cor. 10:16) The answers, of course, are yes! The word translated "participation" is koinonia, which elsewhere means "fellowship", "sharing", or "communion." This is the language of an active relationship. The bread is really communion with the body of Christ. The cup is truly communion with the blood of Christ.
Melchizedek's ceremony, the Passover/Last Supper rituals, the manna/bread of life discourse, and the contrasting spiritual/demonic tables all share a common theme: They teach the idea of physical food being connected to a spiritual reality. In doing so, they find their ultimate expression in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, a meal that offers soul food and spiritual drink for the people of God.
Ken Golden is the organizing pastor at Sovereign Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Davenport, Iowa. He is also the author of Entering God's Rest: The Sabbath from Genesis to Revelation--And What It Means for You and Presbytopia: What It Means to Be Presbyterian.
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