3-Part Series On The Eucharist (Part 2: St. Paul and the Eucharist)

This article is an exegesis of 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, which states, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?  The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?  Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” 

Using Paul’s instructions on food offered to idols, other Bible passages and the early church fathers, this article sets out to prove that Paul understood Communion to be an actual partaking of the body and blood of Christ, which is the source of Christian unity.

1 Corinthians 8

In 1 Cor 8 (RSV-CE), Paul discusses the importance of abstaining from food offered to idols, because it could cause another to fall.  This instruction is important because Corinth was a city of numerous religions, including those that engaged in idol worship.  It was also a center of trade and, therefore, would have been traversed by countless people from numerous backgrounds.[1] 

Because a Christian’s actions would have been observed by all kinds of people and could cause those without knowledge of the truth to fall, abstaining from food offered to idols would have been necessary.  Paul gives the example of a Christian (“man of knowledge”), who knows that food offered to an idol is nothing, being seen eating food offered to an idol by one who is weak (one without knowledge). 

The weak man, he says, might fall into sin because of the Christian’s actions.  The Christian knows an idol is nothing and, therefore, eats the food offered to an idol without violating his conscience.  However, if a weak man observes this behavior, not knowing what the Christian knows, he might interpret the Christian’s behavior as tacit approval for eating food offered to idols.  Not knowing that an idol is nothing, the weak man would believe that the food offered to an idol is something, i.e., “food as really offered to an idol” (vs. 7). 

“Therefore,” Paul says, “if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall” (vs. 13).  Paul’s teaching here shows that there were brothers who believed eating food offered to idols was participation in idolatry.  This is an important background for understanding 1 Cor 10.

1 Corinthians 10

In 1 Cor 10:1-14, Paul resumes his discussion on food offered to idols and contrasts this with food offered to God.  He begins with a reminder of how the Jews fell into idol worship and were “overthrown in the desert” (vs. 5).  He then commands the Corinthians to “shun the worship of idols” (vs. 14).  In verse 15, he transitions by way of a brief statement about their participation in the body and blood of Christ and calls for sensible judgment. 

In verse 16, Paul says that drinking from the cup of blessing is a participation, or communion (Gk: Koinonia), in the blood of Christ and that eating the bread which is blessed is a participation (Gk: Koinonia) in Christ’s body.  In verse 17, he emphasizes the fact that partaking of this one bread, forms them into one body.

We should pause here for a moment.  In 1 Cor 8, we see how an unenlightened man can fall into sin by eating food that has been offered to an idol, because he believes the idol is real.  Therefore, by eating this food, the unenlightened man believes one somehow joins oneself to the idol.  In 1 Cor 10:16-17, Paul says eating the bread and drinking the cup that has been blessed joins us to Christ.  In verse 18, he clarifies this by telling the Corinthians to consider the Jews, who are “partners in the alter” by the sacrifices they eat. 

In verse 20, he goes on to explain that food offered to demons makes pagans “partners with the demons.”  In verse 21, he says, “You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”  The table of the Lord and the table of demons are incompatible with one another because Christians believe that partaking of the bread and cup is a participation in Christ, while pagans believed that partaking in food offered to idols or demons is partnering with the demon.  By eating the food offered, both groups believe they are becoming one with the entity worshiped.

In 1 Cor 10:16-17, Paul uses his teaching on the bread and cup being a participation in Jesus’ body and blood to illustrate how those without knowledge could conclude that a Christian who eats food offered to an idol becomes one with the idol and, thus, approves of this activity.  In this passage, joining oneself to Jesus through eating the consecrated bread and drinking of the consecrated cup is explicit.  Therefore, some real joining is happening here. 

Consuming Jesus’ Body and Blood

Up to this point, however, this article has only demonstrated (by using St. Paul’s words) our participation in Christ through the Eucharist, but it has not yet proven that the Eucharist is Jesus’ body and blood. To prove that the cup of blessing and the bread become Jesus’ body and blood, we must consider what/who the sacrifice is and Paul’s teaching in the very next chapter of First Corinthians. 

Unlike pagan and Jewish sacrifices, which were non-divine sacrifices, Jesus is God and, therefore, the divine sacrifice. The Jews and pagans believed that eating food sacrificed to God (Jewish) or gods (pagan) somehow joined them to the deity to which they offered sacrifice (a type of communion) but they did not believe they were eating the deity. In the case of Jesus, however, the sacrifice is the deity.

Now, reflect on Paul’s words for a moment: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” Notice that Paul does not say the cup and bread are a general participation in Christ. Rather, he points out a specific participation in Jesus’ body and blood.

Additionally, Paul refers to Jesus as “our Paschal Lamb” who “has been sacrificed” in 1 Corinthians 5:7. Remember, the Jews did not simply eat the Passover lamb, they had to eat the lamb, (Exodus 12:8) and they were instructed by God to keep the Passover feast “forever” (Exodus 12:14). Therefore, the participation about which Paul speaks is a literal eating of Christ’s body and blood.

1 Corinthians 11

Turning to 1 Cor 11:17-22, we read about Paul admonishing the Corinthians for abuses at the Lord’s Supper.  Specifically, he addresses the practice of some who eat more than their share and get drunk, while others go hungry.  Immediately following this admonition, he reminds them of something he already “delivered” to them, the Lord’s Supper.   

He then repeats the words of institution (This is my body…. This chalice is the new covenant in my blood…. Do this in remembrance of me) without any hint of symbolism or hyperbole and says, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (verse 26).  Not only do the words of institution clearly communicate that the consecrated bread and cup are the body and blood of Christ, but the very act of ingesting the bread and cup is a proclamation of Jesus’ death. 

Paul’s words illustrate an inextricable connection between the bread/cup and Jesus’ death, a death in which Jesus gave his body and blood for us.  Then Paul unmistakably proves that the bread and wine become Jesus’ body and blood when he says, “Whoever, therefore, 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” (verse 27).  One cannot profane the real thing with something symbolic. 

If I were to desecrate the Statue of Liberty or the Declaration of Independence, the desecration would not have the slightest impact on freedom itself.  No one would like or appreciate this act, but freedom would not be disfigured in any way.  Similarly, if the bread and wine do not become Jesus’ body and blood, our unworthy consumption could in no way profane Jesus’ body and blood.  Rather, Jesus’ body and blood are profaned when one consumes his actual body and blood unworthily. 

St. John Chrysostom

In his commentary on 1 Cor 10:16-17, St. John Chrysostom said, “That which is in the cup is that which flowed from His side, and of that do we partake.  But he called it a cup of blessing, because holding it in our hands, we so exalt Him in our hymn, wondering, astonished at His unspeakable gift, blessing Him, among other things, for the pouring out of this self-same draught that we might not abide in error.”[2] 

Other New Testament Passages

Up to this point, passages from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians have been discussed, but they should be placed in context with other scriptural passages on this topic. In Matthew 26, Mark 14 and Luke 22, Jesus’ words at the Last Supper contain no hint of hyperbole or symbolism.  The argument put forth by some that, “Do this in memory of me,” means the Last Supper is symbolic is untenable.  Jesus is merely clarifying that whenever we “do this,” we do it with him in mind. 

In Luke 24, Jesus walked with two men to Emmaus and, after reaching their destination, he stayed with them.  At supper that evening, “he took the bread and blessed it and broke it and gave it to them.  And their eyes were opened” (vs. 30-31).  “Then they told what happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of bread” (vs. 35). 

This passage is crucial.  These men did not notice Jesus until he broke the bread he had just blessed.  In other words, we come to know Jesus in the breaking of bread and the bread opens our eyes to the Truth.  This is how he builds an intimate relationship with us.  We literally consume him.  We physically receive him into ourselves and he permeates our souls.  Finally, John 6 provides the clearest teaching on this subject.

John 6

In John 6, Jesus preaches to the 5000 and multiplies the loaves and fish for all to eat.  He also preaches about the manna from heaven that the Jews ate in the Old Testament.  Then he says in Jn 6:48-51, “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; AND THE BREAD WHICH I SHALL GIVE FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD IS MY FLESH.” 

First, Christ says he is the bread of (eternal) life.  Second, he talks about how the fathers literally ate the manna in the wilderness.  Third, Christ says he is the true bread that comes down from heaven.  Finally, Christ says the bread he gives is his actual flesh.  We know this because Christ gave his flesh (his very life) on the Cross. 

Therefore, if the fathers literally ate the manna in the desert and the true manna is Christ’s flesh that he gave for the life of the world, then we must truly eat his flesh in order to have eternal life.  Jesus further commands them to eat his flesh and drink his blood five more times.  If they do this, he says, he abides in them and they abide in him (vs. 56). 

After this, a number of his disciples were repulsed by this teaching and subsequently left him (vs. 6:66).  He did not say, “Come back and let me explain that everything I just said was symbolic.”  Instead, he turned to the Twelve and asked if they would also leave him.  There is no symbolism and no hyperbole here.  Rather, the God-man turned to his closest friends and asked if they would leave him too.

Conclusion

Paul’s words in 1 Cor 10:16-17 were understood to be an actual partaking of the body and blood of Christ, the source of Christian unity.  Paul’s words in this passage alone attest to this fact.  Surrounding verses in 1 Cor 8, 10 and 11, further give credence to our participation/unity in Christ’s body and blood in the bread and cup. 

Moving out to other Bible verses and St. John Chrysostom’s words (along with all the other early church fathers who commented on this teaching; too many to cite in this article) regarding the Eucharist, there can be no mistake about Paul’s teaching.  “The cup of blessing which we bless” and “the bread which we break” are truly a participation in the body and blood of Christ because they are the body and blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!


[1] Charles B. Puskas and Mark Reasoner, Letters of St. Paul (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013), 89-91.

[2] St. John Chrysostom, Homily 24 on First Corinthians, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/220124.htm.

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