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Would those hearing Jesus' words concerning communion have considered them as a commandment? Did the 1st century Christian church consider taking communion a requirement for eternal life?

John 6:53-58 (NIV)
53Jesus said to them, “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. 54Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. 55For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. 57Just 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. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”

Taking communion in the wrong way could lead to illness and death. Will not taking communion at all have negative consequences as well?

1 Corinthians 11:29-30 (KJV)
For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.

I am going to add this. Communion appears to be a continuation of the Jewish Passover.

Exodus 23:15 ESV You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread. As I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. None shall appear before me empty-handed.

During the Last Supper—a Passover celebration—Jesus took a loaf of bread and gave thanks to God. As He broke it and gave it to His disciples, He said, “‘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 22:19-21). https://www.gotquestions.org/communion-Christian.html

Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 1 Corinthians 5:7

  • A requirement for what? Certainly not salvation but only for celebration of Jesus' sacrifice. – user25930 Mar 18 at 8:11
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    I've added wording to the question to match the passage. I think this is what he is asking. My bias is to answer the question no, but this passage has raised this question in my mind. This passage in John most directly addresses the question. – Perry Webb Mar 18 at 23:45
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    While it may be difficult, this question can be answered without being opinion based. – Perry Webb Mar 19 at 8:57
  • I added somewhat to the question Bagpipes in an attempt to illuminate that it is a Hermeneutics oriented discussion. – Dan Mar 19 at 14:28
  • If eating Jesus flesh, and drinking his blood, has a symbolic meaning, then that symbolic meaning could easily be understood to be nothing more than a metaphor for a spiritual reality. And, if so, then one should be able to partake of communion without actually physically eating it. – Constantthin Aug 29 at 10:02
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DISCLAIMER: This answer comes from a viewpoint that communion is a picture only, a memorial of Christ's work, without any efficacious aspect to it for salvation. That view is too much to work to defend fully in this answer, but some aspects of it will be apparent.


The Meaning of the Passage in John

The passage in John 6:53-58 is not a communion passage (though it is setting up the picture of what communion will celebrate). Rather, that passage needs to be understood in light of the prior verses, in which v.26 is a reasonable start point (all Scripture from NKJV; bold added for further discussion):

26 Jesus answered them and said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. 27 Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.” 28 Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.”

In these verses, Jesus begins to set up the idea that a person's "work" ought not be for earthly food, but some type of food that "endures to everlasting life." They ask, what is it they need to work (labor) then for the work of God, to which Jesus replies "believe in Him whom [God the Father] sent." Then the passage continues:

30 Therefore they said to Him, “What sign will You perform then, that we may see it and believe You? What work will You do? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” 32 Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 Then they said to Him, “Lord, give us this bread always.” 35 And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen Me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. 39 This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. 40 And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”

In this next section, they seek to know what Christ's "work" will be that they may believe. The reply is the He is the bread from God and in essence, His work is to feed those who come to him in faith (v.35), which is doing the Father's will (v.38), and it is what brings everlasting life (v.40).

41 The Jews then complained about Him, because He said, “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” 42 And they said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that He says, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus therefore answered and said to them, “Do not murmur among yourselves. 44 No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father, except He who is from God; He has seen the Father. 47 Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. 50 This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” 52 The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?”

The Jews are taken aback by Jesus's statement of being the bread and having come from heaven (v.41), but Jesus reiterates that belief is central to everlasting life (v.47), and He as the "bread of life" (v.48), the "bread ... from heaven" (v.50, 51), "the living bread" (v.51) involves that bread, which "is My flesh," being given "for the life of the world" (this is the "work" that Christ does in "giving" of Himself; that is, His coming crucifixion). So when He says in v.51 "if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever," He has already made the parallel that "eating" is symbolic of partaking of the bread, partaking of His flesh, i.e. believing in Him and His work. So the parallel picture set up is:

believe in Him --> everlasting life
eating of His flesh --> live forever

Eating symbolizes belief in the passage; the willingness to partake of Who Christ is and what He has done. The Jews did not get this, and question what Jesus means (v.52). The explanation is given in the OPs original passage, vv.53-58, which says:

53 Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. 56 He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. 58 This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.”

Jesus expands the point purely in the symbolism. He is purposefully keeping the Jews in the dark about the meaning if they could not grasp it before (much as he does with his parables; though the answer was right before them in the eating = believing parallel). He adds a second part that it is not just a partaking of His flesh, but also of His blood that is needed (vv.53-56, though blood can be contained within the initial idea of "flesh" in the prior verses, and in the final wrap up in v.58, I think there are reasons not made apparent here why he split it out here as flesh and blood, but in part it is going to "mesh" with the communion picture later instituted).

So "feeding" on Christ (v.57) is a picture of partaking in Who Christ is and what He has done (sacrifice His flesh, shed His blood).

The Communion Passage Parallels

So then the communion passages that speak to partaking of the bread and wine (which, as the OP correctly notes, happened during the Passover celebration) set up the picture that the earthly bread represents the flesh of Christ and the earthly wine (itself represented by the "cup") the blood of Christ:

Luke 22:19 And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” 20 Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.

Matthew 26:26 And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” 27 Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. 29 But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.”

Mk 14:22 And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” 23 Then He took the cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, and they all drank from it. 24 And He said to them, “This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many. 25 Assuredly, I say to you, I will no longer drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

Luke's text, v.19, states this ritual of communion was specifically for "remembrance" purposes, a memorial of what Christ was about to do on the cross. But these passages are "reversing" the symbolism of the John 6 passage. In John 6, Jesus was using the idea of actual bread and drink to symbolize the reality of partaking by faith in His flesh and blood sacrifice; in the communion passages, He is taking the reality of bread and wine to symbolize the believers partaking by their faith in the idea of what Christ has actually done through His flesh and blood.

So in 1 Cor 11:23-34, the symbolism is still being carried on in churches, but a warning is given:

23 For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; 24 and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” 25 In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.

Notice the emphasis still on remembrance and that this ritual is a way for those participating to "proclaim the Lord's death" until His second coming. Then the warning:

27 Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. 28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. 30 For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. 31 For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world. 33 Therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. 34 But if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgment. And the rest I will set in order when I come.

Eating in an "unworthy manner" is tied to "not discerning the Lord's body." In other words, not believing that Christ actually was the bread of life and actually did the sacrificial work on the cross that He said He did for them. They are partaking in the earthly symbol (per the Gospels institution of communion) without having partaken (believed) in the reality the symbol points to (per the John passage). In so doing, one is self-deceptively celebrating "judgment to himself" (v.29; they are already under judgement by unbelief [Mk 16:16, Jn 3:18]; here they are inadvertently celebrating that), rather than celebrating Christ (vv.24-26), so a person needs to "examine himself" (v.28) to see where their faith really resides and why they are partaking of this communion memorial; to fail to do so because of their faith in Christ makes them "guilty" (v.27) of the additional sin of partaking in the communion for all the wrong reasons. And yes, the passage indicates that this additional guilt can manifest in such unbelievers among them being weak, sick, and even dying for doing so (v.30; I believe stages may occur, as God gives grace for even such a person to come to faith and join rightly into the communion, so these who are judged, who did not judge themselves [v.31], experience a time of chastening in hopes that they come to faith and so avoid condemnation with the rest of the world). So the final exhortation is to not partake of the communion for purposes of just getting some food (v.33-34), as that is clearly the wrong focus for this memorial service.

The Passover Picture

Briefly, it is worth noting that the Passover meal was also a picture memorializing the salvation God made for the people of Israel at the time of the Exodus by the death of a lamb and the application of the blood over the house to keep those who partook of that sacrifice from being judged as God passed over Egypt and brought physical death to the firstborn. So the parallel to communion is clear in that it memorializes the salvation God made for all people through by the death of the Lamb (Jn 1:29, 1 Cor 5:7, 1 Pet 1:19, Rev 5:6 et al.) and the application of His blood to keep those partaking in His sacrifice from being judged as God condemns the unbelieving during the second death (eternal death), the casting into the lake of fire (Rev 20:14-15).

Conclusion

Partaking or not of communion has no bearing on a believer's having everlasting life. They may partake "as often" as they choose (1 Cor 11:25-26); however, it is expected under normal circumstances to partake at times, for Christ does command to "do this in remembrance" (Lk 22:19); but there is no judgment associated with not following through on that. Per the points above, Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 gives the clearest testimony that the 1st Century church did not consider communion a requirement for eternal life, but a memorial of that life gained in Christ.

But partaking of it at any time as an unbeliever can hasten their passing in life from this earth and hasten their coming to judgment if they do not come to faith before it is too late.

  • This interpretation of yours in foreign to the early church. Are you saying they were wrong for the first 1500 years? They unanimously interpreted john 6 as communion and eating the flesh and blood of Christ as absolutely necessary. – diego b Aug 28 at 15:45
  • @diegob First, I always put the Bible's words above any tradition (traditions can be wrong, and can be wrong for hundreds of years). Second, "unanimously" does not match history. Philip Schaff in his History of the Christian Church notes (§ 69: The Doctrine of the Eucharist) at least three ancient views that he categorizes by locality: "an Oriental, a North-African, and an Alexandrian," which in order roughly correspond to (1) becomes/is body/blood, (2) is symbolic of body/blood, and (3) is the spiritual body/blood (which is also in a way symbolic). – ScottS Aug 28 at 21:07
  • @ScottS That distinction relies on a fallacy of viewing the different theological schools and philosophical terminology and way of speaking with a fundamental difference in theology. It completely ignores that these men claimed to belong to the same Church. Not three different Churches. Something Protestants seem to ignore when this objection is raised. I don't know how credible one can be taken in claiming the Church didn't know the true meaning of something as fundamental as the Eucharist for 1500 years, which, to be clear, is what this answer asserts implicitly. – Sola Gratia Aug 28 at 21:17
  • For example, all three are still held by Catholics today. The bread and wine symbolize flesh and blood, in addition to becoming them in substance not form; the the Eucharist is spiritual, not bodily food ("the flesh profits nothing"). Creating a trichotomy is purely contrived, especially given that, again, these men claimed to be part of the Catholic Church, a single body with one faith throughout the world. – Sola Gratia Aug 28 at 21:19
  • @SolaGratia I'm not denying people can write in different contexts and so may hold a combined view (like modern Catholics). But the scant evidence we have is merely that ancient writers stated differing ideas, whether they viewed themselves as part of "the same Church" or not. Many great doctrinal disputes occurred by those who considered themselves in "the same Church" because people can belong to the same church, yet differ on doctrinal views. – ScottS Aug 28 at 22:14
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Salvation is the same as to have the life of Christ in yourself, to the effect that unless you have this life, you are not saved.

Therefore the expression “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" (John 6:53) says absolutely unequivocally that this eating and drinking is necessary, and not optional, for salvation, that is to say, for having life of Christ in oneself.

Other question is, how, for instance, the robber repenting on the Cross was saved without either having been baptised or having partaken the body and blood of Christ? The answer would be that ways of God's infinite love are inscrutable and paradoxical, but this does not mean that Jesus is not categorical in His command to be baptised or to take communion of His body and blood.

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This answer does not dispute ScottS’s answer, but supplements it. Jesus spoke with much symbolism as recorded in the Gospel of John. Living water in John 4 is how the Torah describes fresh running water. Before the Last Supper, Jesus said,

If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. (John 13:14, ESV)

Yet very few Christian take Jesus’ statement to mean that we are to literally wash one another’s feet. We see it as a call to servitude. No matter how one interprets communion, one needs to see the symbolism in Jesus’ statements in John 6:53-58. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, after discussing the implications of Jesus’ statements as the Jews listening would view them in relation to the Torah, summarizes this symbolism as follows:

Animal blood was symbolically poured on the altar of the Jerusalem Temple to make atonement for the Israelites. It was meant for God. It was meant to be consumed by Him and by Him alone. This may sound strange to modern ears, but this is exactly how the ancients thought of sacrifice. The ancient Israelites were not exceptional in this understanding of sacrifice. They offered God food for holy consumption.[ 39] Did Israel’s God need sacrifices in order to survive? Did he need the flesh and the blood of animals? Of course not! But in the ancient mind, the slaughtered sacrifice was meant to symbolize a fully dedicated life offered to the deity worshipped. No questions asked.

So, what is happening here? I think it is something like this – Jesus says: “Now the tables will be turned. It is God’s turn to offer you all that He is. Just as you offer him the sacrifices symbolizing the whole life, so is he offering you Himself in the person of his Son.” Paul also will say something similar: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8: 32)

Therefore, when Jesus referred to his body and blood, he meant the bread and wine should become, in the minds and hearts of his followers, fully associated with him in the entire spectrum of his life – his person, his teachings and his works. In other words, Jesus expected to be fully understood and received through active participation by faith. By faith in Him, the believer would partake of salvation, which is found in Jesus alone and is offered freely to all.

So let me summarize. Jesus’ statement about his body and blood is true and no other picture could have made it clearer. His flesh and his blood, meaning Jesus Himself – the whole Jesus – is the only thing that can sustain a human being to life everlasting. (Jn. 1: 1, 14)

Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Eli. The Jewish Gospel of John: Discovering Jesus, King of All Israel (pp. 105-106). Jewish Studies for Christians. Kindle Edition.

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I have had this question on my behalf. I have it answered, when I read about ancient customs of Cabalistic origin. One of them had to do with drinking blood. Apparently, in the old testament, Jahvech, forbids Jewish from drinking blood, although, studying further, it seems that most of them had kept this custom through the years until Jesus era. I would prefer not to provide my resources even risking downvoting my answer as, these texts can be very controversial and most religious circles consider them non-canonical. So I'd prefer each individual do a small research and read from each resource they think more appropriate.

  • George-What's your answer to Dan's question? "Jesus said to take Communion. Is partaking of Communion a requirement for eternal life or is it optional for Believers?" – John Martin Sep 3 at 17:27
  • Hello John, my answer is that communion goes way back in religious history than the last supper. Many students all around the world were attending a ceremony that had a cultural as well as a spiritual importance. the cultural was that, the student was accepted as an equal and trust worthy from the teacher to eat on the same table, the same food and spiritual, to share the same energy on that moment. – george Sep 18 at 9:39
  • There are references, that some cults, were using blood (common in black magic) having the theory that it would create a bond between the consumer and the innocent victim. This explains, why Yahve, specifically borbid the Jews from consuming blood (more about the custom can be found in teachings of Camballa). I believe (haven't found a proof so far although there are other people from the past decades who share this belief of mine), that Christ gave back this ritual, for them to follow him wherever he goes, like he said to Peter, you can't follow me yet, where I go. – george Sep 18 at 9:39
  • However, he established the blessed, red wine, to take the place of his blood from then on, for every worthy believer to follow him. Sorry for the long answer but yes, I believe that a worthy person taking communion will find his place next to Christ, however, eternal life can be acquired following all other preachings of Christ, but in my mind, eternal life is more than just going to paradise and has many stages. Being where Christ is, is the ultimate joy for every soul – george Sep 18 at 9:43

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