Bread and Wine (Symbolism)

Without a doubt, everyone who gives an interpretation of the Bible will say they are only saying what the Bible says. But, as I like to say, words are a funny thing. Two people can read the exact same words and come away with two different meanings. The difference is not in the words, but rather in the way the words are read and the method used to interpret them.

Words are not things themselves, but stand in place of something else. When I write "blood" the word is not itself blood, but should cause us to think of blood when we see the word. That's what is meant by representation. Another example: the word "is" can be very confusing. I can take you to my house and say, "This is my house." I can also show you a picture of my house and say, "This is my house." In one case "is" means this is the thing itself. In another case "is" means this is a representation of the thing.

Likewise, we can use one thing to represent another thing. In that case, we say that the thing is symbolic. When we talk of one thing, the mind should be thinking about the other thing that is represented.

The question is the same in both examples: how do we know when a word or a thing is being used to represent something else or is being used of itself? Sometimes it is obvious. In the example of the house, no one would take the picture itself to be my house. When it isn't obvious, we need some reliable way to discern the difference.

First, if the person speaking explains that they are using the thing symbolically, then we should take the symbolic meaning they give as the only meaning. That is the case when Jesus told His disciples to beware the leaven of the Pharisees, and also, in the parable of the sower. Because Jesus explains the symbolism, any other interpretation would be incorrect. In the case where the speaker doesn't explain the symbol, we have to use another method. That other method is to look at the context in which the thing is being used.

In John chapter six, we have both context and an explicit interpretation: "It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life." In that case, there can be no argument since Jesus tells us what "blood and flesh" refers to. From that, we know that to partake of those things means to receive His spirit and words and from those to have life.

We also have to be aware that a symbol can stand for different things at different times and places. The cross was used by many religions and can mean different things. To pagans it would represent the sun. To Christians it represents the crucifixion of Jesus. The symbol does not have to have a single meaning, and in most cases, will have many meanings. The meaning is determined by usage and so we look to the intent of the person using the symbol. Thus, in the case of the Lord's Supper, wine and bread can be used in a different way than other sayings of Jesus. We shouldn't assume they are the same, but study carefully what Jesus said:

"And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins." (Mat 26:26-28 )

"And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come." (1Co 11:24-26 )

The description in Matthew (and Mark and Luke) is expanded slightly in Paul's letter. However, in all cases the basic elements are the same. When Jesus took the bread and wine and gave to His disciples, His body was not yet broken and His blood was still running in His veins. The pouring out of His blood for the remission of sins had not yet happened. To me, that makes it explicit. The "is" should be understood in the sense of a metaphor, "is like unto", and not literally. To take it literally would be to go beyond the text when there is no need to. The meaning of the symbols should be clear as well. The wine symbolizes blood that is shed for propitiation, and the bread symbolizes the body broken for healing. In both cases it fulfills the requirement that "for sin comes death." Because of our sin, death is required. Both blood and body represent life, spiritual and physical.

Paul's extension adds another dimension. "This do in remembrance of me" adds to the symbolic, representational usage of the wine and bread. It makes it explicit that the purpose of consuming the wine and bread is to call to memory the crucified body of Jesus. The bread and wine are symbols that serve the purpose of focusing the mind onto what Jesus did. They also simultaneously "shew the Lord's death till he come" and by that act, we put the Gospel on display. We do not literally crucify Jesus again and again. When we eat the bread and drink the wine, we call to remembrance what was done once and for all. When we taste the wine and bread and call to remembrance what Jesus did, we have "discerned the body" that was crucified.

What Paul was complaining about to the Corinthians is explained a few verses earlier. "For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken." (1Co 11:21) The Corinthians were having a drunken feast where some were left out and calling it the "Lord's Supper". That is what Paul is complaining about. They did not use the sharing of wine and bread to call to remembrance what Jesus had done. In so doing, they dishonored what Jesus had established.

This subject of "symbol" vs. "literal" is something that has intrigued me for many years. I will probably keep rambling on about it for some time to come. But, I'll stop for now.


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