The topic of this brief examination has been a highly misunderstood and twisted teaching that has resulted in false doctrines. Among the most dangerous of these include the false teaching of transubstantiation, whose adherents believe that the bread and wine/beverage taken in communion (the Eucharist as some like to call it) turn into Christ’s literal body and blood. This misunderstanding often stems from John 6:53-59 where Jesus states in verse fifty-four, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” However, what is often missed or purposefully ignored is the following verses in the same context where our Lord states in verse sixty-three, “The Spirit gives life, the flesh profits nothing.” Jesus spoke figuratively to the crowds to describe how a person receives salvation by faith through grace. No one can or has to be physically reborn to be saved (John 3:3), just as no one has to literally and physically eat the body and blood of the Lord. No single verse in the Bible supports this idea that the elements we partake of in communion turn into these things. To suggest such an idea is to argue from silence and requires proof, the burden of which lies on those who propose and propagate this false teaching.
The spiritual death of Christ versus the physical- The purpose and symbolism of the blood
Let’s now examine the main topic of this study. Many within the church believe that the physical blood of Jesus paid for our sins. So the question is, was it the Lord’s physical blood that granted us forgiveness or His spiritual death that He experienced while on the cross? The Bible does answer these questions for us with enough evidence pointing toward the latter. The truth is that Christ’s spiritual death bore all the sins of the world for all time. Christ’s literal blood was (as with the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament and part of the New) symbolic of the spiritual death Jesus had to undergo for our reconciliation and redemption to occur (although they are more than that, as we will explain further below). So when we read verses like 1 John 1:7, the statement “And the blood of Jesus, His (the Father’s) Son purifies/cleanses us from all sin,” we are to understand this as the spiritual death of Christ, which has accomplished this. This is how we should interpret all the other passages in Scripture which teach the same thing. Verses include but are not limited to Matthew 26:28, Hebrews 9:14, Ephesians 1:7, Revelation 12:11, etc. The point is that Christ’s literal/physical blood was not the direct payment for the world’s sins. We will give reasons for this below.
Proof that Christ’s spiritual death is what paid for our sins
The above teaching in no way contradicts Hebrews 9:22 (there is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood) because the physical death of our Lord was the confirmation (you could think of it as a receipt) that He had died spiritually. That is to say, Jesus did not die from blood loss (which would be necessary if it was His physical blood that paid for our sins). Jesus retained blood in His body (He would have already been long dead before that if He hadn’t) mainly because John 19:34 confirms this when it says, “One of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.” Jesus died spiritually before He died physically.
50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
Our Lord’s spiritual and physical death was unique in that He could give up His spirit before dying physically. For this reason, He was able to say right before exhaling/surrendering His Spirit, “It is finished,” which can only mean that our sins were paid for before our Lord died physically. The blood which Christ shed for us on the cross symbolized the spiritual death He had to undergo to pay for our sins. But He needed a physical body to house a spirit so that He could die spiritually. That is why we have the incarnation. Christ could not have paid for our sins had He not died physically. Simply put, our Lord’s spiritual and physical death go hand in hand (or hand in glove).
28 After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, “I thirst!” 29 Now a vessel full of sour wine was sitting there; and they filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on hyssop, and put it to His mouth. 30 So when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.
The above scenario is also what we have with the death and resurrection of Christ. We may well ask, “If it was our Lord’s spiritual death on the cross which paid for our sins, how do we explain 1 Corinthians 15:14-19 which puts so much importance on the resurrection?”
14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
The explanation for this passage right above is what we have given for the relationship between Christ’s physical and spiritual death. The resurrection was proof (think of a receipt of a purchase, as one writer puts it) or confirmation that Jesus’s spiritual death on the cross was acceptable to the Father. If the Lord had not risen from the dead, that would indicate His spiritual death were for naught and found insufficient and unacceptable to the Father. Had that been the case, we would all, as our passage clarifies, be lost and without hope. But, thankfully, verse twenty confirms that Christ did indeed rise from the dead. Jesus said, “It is finished” on the cross because He knew His work of reconciliation and redemption was complete (which would empower the justification, sanctification, and glorification for all believers of all time afterward, not to mention the salvation of all pre-cross believers who died before Calvary).
So, to summarize, although the spiritual death of God’s Son paid for our sins, His physical death was part of the process as an inseparable necessity required to confirm and make possible the spiritual death of our Lord. Therefore, we should not see this as an “either-or” situation. Both aspects of our Lord’s death were required for our salvation. For this reason, there can be no redemption and forgiveness without the shedding of blood (which means that Christ’s physical death was more than symbolic- it was necessary to confirm His spiritual death). If Christ had not died physically, then He would have never died spiritually.
The Lord’s blood, in and of itself, had no magical saving power (exactly what I am pushing back against here). It is also worth noting that Jesus instituted the ritual we know as communion BEFORE His death on the cross. That is to say, it is not Christ’s literal and physical blood that magically “cleanses us from all sin.” Scripture uses it as a metaphor to describe His spiritual death. The same also goes for His body. The Lord’s body symbolizes His humanity. His blood represents His spiritual death and our redemption as a result of that. That is what the elements in communion mean. Jesus could not have given up His Spirit and shed His blood without a physical body, which explains why He became the Godman (the incarnation). That is why 1 Peter 2:24 and other passages mention that Christ bore our sins in His body on the tree (He needed a physical body to house His spirit in order to die spiritually). Others include Ephesians 2:14-16, Colossians 1:21-22, 1 Peter 3:18, etc.
How and why did the Father “forsake” the Son and where did Jesus descend and why after His death on the cross?
As a final quick aside, although not entirely related (though close enough since it involves our Lord’s death on the cross) is the question(s) of whether the Father actually temporarily forsook Jesus and whether He (Jesus) descended to Hell and suffered there for three days (two and a half actually). The Father temporarily broke fellowship with the Son (Jesus Christ) because a righteous God can have nothing to do with sin (my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34). This explains why Abraham’s bosom existed before the cross, to temporarily house the interim bodies of all the believers that died before Christ’s death. Since humanity’s sins had not yet been paid for, no believer had access to the throne within the third heaven as we do today (or as all believers did after the cross). Again, that was because God the Father could not be near any hint or tint of sin whatsoever until they were all paid for by the Son. But after His death, Jesus went down and proclaimed His victory to all the believers in Abraham’s bosom (see the true story of the rich man and Lazarus for reference on Abraham’s bosom Luke 16:19-31) to bring them up to the third heaven to be in fellowship with the Father. It was because the “Lamb’s” (a symbolic metaphor to symbolize our Lord’s sacrifice) sacrifice was acceptable to the Father that this was made possible (which explains the splitting of the veil in two within the temple, making access to God the Father’s throne, represented by the holy of holies, a new reality). Once the payment made by our Lord for our sins was complete, the Father and Son were reunited in fellowship. The spiritual death of bearing all the sins of all people of all time and temporarily being separated (out of fellowship) from the Father was the most difficult period our Savior had to endure during all thirty-three years of His life here on earth.
7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8 This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” 9 (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)
And, of course, it was also during this time when Christ descended to the lower reaches of the earth that He proclaimed His victory to the imprisoned fallen angels responsible for the attack on the human race resulting in the Nephilim (Genesis 6).
18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all time, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; 19 in which He also went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who once were disobedient when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.
4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; 5 if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly
6 And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.
And as we can glean from all we have written above, Jesus did not descend into Hell and suffer (burn) there for those three days. We have already explained the purpose of His descent into the lower reaches of the earth above. Therefore, there is no scriptural basis for such an unbiblical position.