After redeeming Israel from slavery, God fed them with manna. God tested them, they sinned against God in different occasions, even rejecting the manna because they were tired of it. In Deuteronomy, Moses tells Israel that “He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of YHWH.” (Deuteronomy 8:3). The people of Israel had a need that was greater than a need of food or drink. God let them go hungry so that they might understand their true need, and God fed them with manna so that they might understand that it is God who provides through His Word for that need. What kind of need? The key is in the manna itself. The manna points to something greater. We know this from the New Testament.
We go to John 6 and we find the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. The people ate the bread and the fish that Jesus had multiplied, and they wanted to take Him by force to make Him king. They saw Jesus as a king who would make sure that their stomachs were always full. They didn’t want Jesus for who He is, not even for what He did; they wanted Him for the food. Jesus, who knows the hearts of men, knew this was the case. “Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.'” (v. 26). Jesus continues: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on Him God the Father has set His seal.” (v. 27). Jesus reminds the Jews who were there that their true need was not physical food, but eternal life which only the Son of Man can give because only He has been sealed by the Father for this purpose.
The Jews asked for a sign, most probably expecting something comparable to the manna, since that is what they say afterwards: “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness.” (v. 31). Jesus tells them that “it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (vv. 32-33) The people who were following Him wanted bread to fill their stomachs, but Jesus said they needed the bread of life to fill their souls. “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to Me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (v. 35). In Jesus we find true satisfaction for our hunger and thirst. Now the question is this: Hunger and thirst for what? Jesus says, “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.” (vv. 53-55; emphasis added). What does it mean to feed on His flesh and drink His blood?
Jesus came into the world as a man, as the Second Adam, to fulfill the covenant of works that the first Adam failed to keep. Jesus came to fulfill all righteousness as our representative, that His sacrifice might be accepted by God the Father, and that the righteousness that He has earned for us might be ours by faith. On that cross, “For our sake [God the Father] made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is important for us to understand what it means to eat His flesh and drink His blood. When we eat or drink something, our digestive system absorbs the nutrients that our body needs to function. To eat Jesus’ flesh and to drink His blood is to eat and drink righteousness and eternal life: righteousness because He has earned it on our behalf by keeping the Law that Adam and his descendants broke; and eternal life because He is the resurrection and the life (see John 11:25-26), and because after He was crucified, dead and buried, He rose from the dead, and He will surely return to raise His people from the dead to eternal blessedness. This is what we receive in His flesh and blood. How do we receive this righteousness and eternal life? By grace, through faith (see Ephesians 2:8-9). I mentioned in my first article that faith rests on union with Christ. Christ Himself presents the picture when He says that “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on Me, he also will live because of Me.” (John 6:56-57). It is through faith alone that we receive Christ and all His benefits, and it is how we are united to Christ. If we believe in Christ, we abide in Him, and He in us.
That is the same picture that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper presents, as the bread is called the body of Christ and the wine is called the blood of Christ. The Lord’s Supper, though, is more than just a picture. We truly receive the flesh and blood of Jesus, but it is through faith, not through the elements of the bread and wine. As it says in Article 35 of the Belgic Confession:
…we err not when we say that what is eaten and drunk by us is the proper and natural body and the proper blood of Christ. But the manner of our partaking of the same is not by the mouth, but by the Spirit through faith. […] This feast is a spiritual table at which Christ communicates Himself with all His benefits to us, and gives us there to enjoy both Himself and the merits of His sufferings and death, nourishing, strengthening, and comforting our poor comfortless souls by the eating of His flesh, quickening and refreshing them by the drinking of His blood.
In other words, each time we participate in the Lord’s Supper, we are being reassured by Christ through the Holy Spirit of all the promises of the Gospel, and these promises are being presented and given to us again. In this sacrament we confess our union with Christ and, in a sense, renew our vows; and the Spirit preaches the Gospel and its promises to us through the senses of sight, touch, smell, and taste, as we take the bread and wine. This is why we cannot take the Lord’s Supper lightly. Remember this each time you participate of this sacrament. In it we receive not just bread and wine, we spiritually receive and enjoy Christ and the merits of His sufferings and death. This sacrament is not merely a symbol, and neither is it some sort of magic. When we reduce the Lord’s Supper to a mere symbol, and when we confuse the sign with the thing signified, we miss what God is really doing for His people through this sacrament.
Truly, Christ is true food and true drink. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says these words: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matthew 5:6). Today, many people reject the true manna, the bread of life, Jesus Christ. That is because they do not hunger and thirst for Him who is righteousness. They are deceived into thinking that they do not need this righteousness. We all once were in this condition. We were empty of righteousness and full of sin, but the Holy Spirit came through the Word and showed us our need. Just like God let the people of Israel hunger in the wilderness and fed them with manna, so He did to us. God made us aware of our sin, and gave us a hunger and thirst for righteousness. Not only did He do that, but He provided what we needed to satisfy our hunger and thirst: He gave us Christ who is our righteousness, and we ate His flesh and drank His blood.