During the Last Supper when Jesus and His disciples were eating a Passover meal together the night of His betrayal, Jesus took bread and said, “This is my body, broken for you.” The statement is recorded four times in the New Testament:
“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matthew 26:26–28).
“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take it; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,’ he said to them” (Mark 14:22–24).
“And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you’” (Luke 22:19–20).
“The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me’” (1 Corinthians 11:24–26).
Jesus’ statement This is my body is the primary basis for the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which teaches that the body of Christ is actually present in the element of the bread. However, interpreting Jesus’ words in this passage literally is an error. When He called the bread His body, Jesus was physically present with His disciples, His body unbroken. How could He have been offering His broken body to His disciples the night before He died? Jesus often spoke in metaphors, calling Himself the door, the shepherd, the vine, etc. He was speaking metaphorically on this occasion, as well.
Additionally, the context of the Passover meal is thoroughly symbolic. Almost every element of the meal stood for (or “was”) something else. Jesus took two of those elements and infused them with a new symbolic meaning as He was the fulfillment of everything that Passover stood for. From then on, whenever Jewish believers observed a Passover meal, they would think of the new meaning that Jesus had given to the bread and the final cup. And Gentile believers, who had never been partakers of a Passover meal, would observe the “Lord’s Supper” as part of a “love feast” that the whole church ate together (1 Corinthians 11). Later, the Lord’s Supper (also called communion or the Eucharist) became a separate ceremony all by itself.
Further evidence that Jesus was speaking symbolically is found in John, the only gospel that does not record Jesus’ statement This is my body. In John 6:53–58, Jesus says to a multitude, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
When Jesus spoke of eating His flesh in John 6, He had already given the crowd an indication that He was has speaking figuratively. Earlier, in verses 32–35, Jesus had called Himself bread, comparing Himself with the manna in the wilderness: “‘Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘always give us this bread.’ Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’” As if to clear up any misunderstanding, Jesus then distinguishes the physical from the spiritual: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63, ESV).
When Jesus spoke of His “broken” body at the Last Supper, He was referring to His sacrifice on the cross. His body was broken, and His blood was shed. According to John 6:35, one can “eat” Jesus’ broken body by “coming” to Him and “drink” His blood by believing in Him. Jesus also emphasizes faith (which the eating only symbolizes) in verses 36, 40, and 47.
Again, the whole context of the Last Supper is symbolic. We do not partake of Jesus by physically eating His body. “The flesh counts for nothing” (John 6:63). Rather, we partake of Jesus by coming to Him in faith, trusting that His broken body (and shed blood) is sufficient to pay for our sins. The elements of bread and wine commemorate His broken body and shed blood, and when we eat them, we affirm our faith and fellowship in Christ.