Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 33: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part III, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
MATTHEW 26:26-30; MARK 14:22-26;
26. And while they were eating, Jesus took bread; and when he had given thanks, broke it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. 27. And having taken the cup and given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, Drink you all of it. 28. For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. 29. And I tell you, I will not henceforth drink 185 of the fruit of the vine, till that day when I shall drink it new with you in the kingdom of my father. 30. And when they had sung a hymn, they went out into the mountain of Olives.
22. And while they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had blessed, 186 he broke it, and gave it to them, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. 23. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. 24. And he said to them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for you. 25. Verily I tell you, henceforth I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, till that day when I shall drink it new in the kingdom of God. 26. And when they had sung a hymn, they went out into the mountain of Olives.
17. And he took the cup, and gave thanks and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves. 18. For I tell you, that I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come. 19. And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave it to them, saying, This is my body, which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me. 20. In like manner also the cup, 187 after that he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.
As Luke mentions that the cup was twice presented by Christ, we must inquire, in the first place, if it be a repetition, (as the Evangelists are wont frequently to say the same thing twice,) or if Christ, after having tasted the cup, repeated the same thing a second time. This latter conjecture appears to me to be probable; for we know that the holy fathers, during sacrifices, observed the solemn rite of tasting the cup; 188 and hence those words of the Psalmist,
I will take the cup of salvation,
and will call on the name of the Lord, (Ps 116:13.)
I have no doubt, therefore, that Christ, according to the ancient custom, tasted the cup in the holy feast, which otherwise could not have been correctly observed; and Luke expressly mentions this, before coming to give an account of the new mystery, which was a totally different institution from the paschal lamb. It was in compliance also with received and ordinary custom, that he is expressly said to have given thanks, after having taken the cup. For at the commencement of the supper, I have no doubt, he prayed, as he was accustomed never to sit down at table without calling on God; but now he wished to discharge once more the same duty, that he might not leave out a ceremony which, I have just now shown, was connected with the sacred act of taking the cup and tasting it. 189
Matthew 26:26. And while they were eating, Jesus took bread. I do not understand these words to mean that with the paschal supper was mixed this new and more excellent supper, but rather that an end was then put to the former banquet. This is still more clearly expressed by Luke, when he says that, Christ gave the cup after that he had supped; for it would have been absurd that one and the same mystery should be broken off by an interval of time. And therefore I have no doubt that, in immediate succession, after having distributed the bread, he added the cup; and what Luke relates particularly respecting the cup, I regard as including also the bread. While they were eating, therefore, Christ took bread, to invite them to partake of a new supper. 190 The thanksgiving was a sort of preparation and transition to consider the mystery. Thus when the supper was ended, they tasted the sacred bread and wine; because Christ had previously aroused them from their indifference, that they might be all alive to so lofty a mystery. And, indeed, the nature of the case demands that this clear testimony of the spiritual life should be distinguished from the ancient shadow.
Jesus took bread. It is uncertain if the custom which is now observed among the Jews was at that time in use: for the master of the house breaks off a portion of a common loaf, hides it under the table-cloth, and afterwards distributes a part of it to, each member of the family. But as this is a human tradition not founded on any commandment of God, we need not toil with excessive eagerness to investigate its origin; and it is possible that it may have been afterwards contrived, by a trick of Satan, for the purpose of obscuring the mystery of the Lord’s Supper. And even if this ceremony was at that time in use among the Jews, Christ followed the ordinary custom in such a manner as to draw away the minds of his followers to another object, by changing the use of the bread for a different purpose. This, at least, ought to be considered as beyond all controversy, that Christ, at this time, abolished the figures of the Law, and instituted a new Sacrament.
When he had given thanks. Matthew and Mark employ the word εὐλογήσας 191 (having blessed;) but as Luke employs, instead of it, the word εὐχαριστήσας (having given thanks,) there can be no doubt as to the meaning; and as they afterwards use the word thanksgiving in reference to the cup, they expound with sufficient clearness the former term. So much the more ridiculous is the ignorance of the Papists, who express the blessing by the sign of the cross, as if Christ had practiced some kind of exorcising. But we must recollect what I lately noticed, that this thanksgiving is connected with a spiritual mystery. While it is true that believers are commanded to give thanks to God, because he supports them in this fading life, Christ did not merely refer to ordinary eating, but directed his view to the holy action, in order to thank God for the eternal salvation of the human race. For if the food which descends into the belly ought to persuade and arouse us to praise the fatherly kindness of God, how much more powerfully does it excite and even inflame, us to this act of piety, when he feeds our souls spiritually?
Take, eat. That I may not be too tedious, I shall only explain briefly what is the nature of our Lord’s institution, and what it contains; and, next, what is its end and us so far as it may be learned from the Evangelists. And, first of all, it strikes us, that Christ instituted a supper, which the disciples partake in company with each other. Hence it follows, that it is a diabolical invention, that a man, separating himself from the rest of the company, eats his supper apart. For what two things could be more inconsistent than that the bread should be distributed among them all, and that a single individual should swallow it alone? Although then the Papists boast, that in their masses they have the substance of the Lord’s Supper, yet it is evident from the nature of the case, that whenever they celebrate private masses, they are so many trophies erected by the devil for burying the Lord’s Supper.
The same words teach us what sort of sacrifice it is that Christ recommends to us in the Supper. He bids his disciples take; and therefore it is himself alone that offers. What the Papists contrive, as to Christ’s offering himself in the Supper, proceeded from an opposite author. And certainly it is a strange inversion, (ἀναστροφὴ,) when a mortal man, who is commanded to take the body of Christ, claims the office of offering it; and thus a priest, who has been appointed by himself, sacrifices to God his own Son. I do not at present inquire with how many acts of sacrilege their pretended offering abounds. It is sufficient for my purpose, that it is so far from approaching to Christ’s institution, that it is directly opposed to it.
This is my body. As to the opinion entertained by some, that by those words the bread was consecrated, so as to become the symbol of the flesh of Christ, I do not find fault with it, provided that the word consecrated be understood aright, and in a proper sense. So then, the bread, which had been appointed for the nourishment of the body, is chosen and sanctified by Christ to a different use, so as to begin to be spiritual food. And this is the conversion 192 which is spoken of by the ancient doctors 193 of the Church. But we must at the same time hold, that bread is not consecrated by whispering and breathing, but by the clear doctrine of faith. And certainly it is a piece of magic and sorcery, when the consecration is addressed to the dead element; for the bread is made not to itself, but to us, a symbol of the body of Christ. In short, consecration is nothing else than a solemn testimony, by which the Lord appoints to us for a spiritual use an earthly and corruptible sign; which cannot take place, unless his command and promise are distinctly heard for the edification of faith; from which again it is evident, that the low whispering and breathing of the Papists are a wicked profanation of the mystery. Now if Christ consecrates the bread, when he declares to us that it is his body, we must not suppose that there is any change of the substance, but must only believe that it is applied to a new purpose. And if the world had not been long ago so bewitched by the subtlety of the devil, that, when the monster of transubstantiation had once been introduced, it will not now admit any light of true interpretation on these words, it would be superfluous to spend any more time in investigating their meaning.
Christ declares that the bread is his body. These words relate to a sacrament; and it must be acknowledged, that a sacrament consists of a visible sign, with which is connected the thing signified, which is the reality of it. It must be well known, on the other hand, that the name of the thing signified is transferred to the sign; and therefore, no person who is tolerably well acquainted with Scripture will deny that a sacramental mode of expression ought to be taken metonymically. 194 I pass by general figures, which occur frequently in Scripture, and only say this: whenever an outward sign is said to be that which it represents, it is universally agreed to be an instance of metonymy. If baptism be called the laver of regeneration, (Titus in. 5;) if the rock, from which water flowed to the Fathers in the wilderness, be called Christ, (1Co 10:4;) if a dove be called the Holy Spirit, (Joh 1:32;) no man will question but the signs receive the name of the things which they represent. How comes it, then, that persons who profess to entertain a veneration for the words of the Lord will not permit us to apply to the Lord’s Supper what is common to all the sacraments?
They are delighted with the plain and literal sense. Why then shall not the same rule apply to all the sacraments? Certainly, if they do not admit that the Rock was actually Christ, the calumny with which they load us is mere affectation. If we explain that the bread is called his body, because it is the symbol of his body, they allege that the whole doctrine of Scripture is overturned. For this principle of language has not been recently forged by us, but has been handed down by Augustine on the authority of the ancients, and embraced by all, that the names of spiritual things are improperly ascribed to signs, and that all the passages of Scripture, in which the sacraments are mentioned, ought to be explained in this manner. When we bring forward a principle which has been universally admitted, what purpose does it serve to raise a loud clamor, as if it were something new and strange? But let obstinate people cry out as they please, all men of sound judgment and modesty will admit, that in these words of Christ there is a sacramental form of expression. Hence it follows, that the bread is called his body, because it is a symbol of the body of Christ.
Now there are two classes of men that rise up against us. The Papists, deceived by their transubstantiation, maintain that what we see is not bread, because it is only the appearance that remains without the reality. But their absurd fancy is refuted by Paul, who asserts that
the bread which we break is the communion of the body of Christ,
Besides, their notion is at variance with the very nature of a sacrament, which will not possess all that is essential to it, if there be not a true outward symbol. For whence shall we learn that our souls feed on the flesh of Christ, if what is placed before our eyes be not bread, but an empty form? Besides, what will they say about the other symbol? For Christ does not say, This is my blood, but, this cup is the new testament in my blood. According to their view, therefore, not only the wine, but also the materials of which the cup is composed, must be transubstantiated into blood. Again, the words related by Matthew — I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine — plainly show that what he delivered to the disciples to drink was wine; so that in every way the ignorance of the Papists is fully exposed.
But there are others who reject the figure, and, like madmen, unsay what they had just said. According to them, bread is truly and properly body; for they disapprove of transubstantiation, as wholly devoid of reason and plausibility. But when the question is put to them, if Christ be bread and wine, they reply that the bread is called body, because under it and along with it the body is received in the Lord’s Supper. But from this reply it may be readily concluded, that the word body is improperly applied to the bread, which is a sign of it. And since those men have constantly in their mouth, that Christ spoke thus in reference to a sacramental union, it is strange that they do not consider what they say. For what is the nature of a sacramental union between a thing and its sign? Is it not because the Lord, by the secret power of his Spirit, fulfills what he promises? So then those later instructions about the letter are not less absurd than the Papists.
Hitherto I have pointed out the simple exposition of the words of our Lord. But now I must add, that it is not an empty or unmeaning sign which is held out to us, but those who receive this promise by faith are actually made partakers of his flesh and blood. For in vain would the Lord command his people to eat bread, declaring that it is his body, if the effect were not truly added to the figure. Nor must it be supposed that we dispute this point, whether it is in reality, or only by signification, that Christ presents himself to be enjoyed by us in the Lord’s Supper; for, though we perceive nothing in it but bread, yet he does not disappoint or mock us, when he undertakes to nourish our souls by his flesh. The true eating of the flesh of Christ, therefore, is not only pointed out by the sign, but is likewise exhibited in reality.
But there are three mistakes against which it is here necessary to be on our guard; first, not to confound the spiritual blessing with the sign; secondly, not to seek Christ on earth, or under earthly elements; thirdly, not to imagine any other kind of eating than that which draws into us the life of Christ by the secret power of the Spirit, and which we obtain by faith alone. First, as I have said, let us always keep in view the distinction between the sign and the thing signified, if we do not wish to overturn every thing; for otherwise we shall derive no advantage from the sacrament, if it do not, according to the measure of our small capacity, lead us from the contemplation of the earthly element to the heavenly mystery. And therefore, whoever will not distinguish the body of Christ from the bread, and the blood from the wine, will never understand what is meant by the Lord’s Supper, or for what purpose believers use these symbols.
Secondly, we must attend to the proper method of seeking Christ; that is, our minds must not be fixed on the earth, but must ascend upwards to the heavenly glory in which he dwells. For the body of Christ did not, by clothing itself with an incorruptible life, lay aside its own nature; and hence it follows that it is finite. 195 But he has now ascended above the heavens, that no gross imagination may keep us occupied with earthly things. And certainly, if this mystery is heavenly, nothing could be more unreasonable than to draw down Christ to the earth, when, on the contrary, he calls us upwards to himself.
The last point which, I said, claimed our attention, is the kind of eating. We must not dream that his substance passes, in a natural manner, into our souls; but we cat his flesh, when, by means of it, we receive life. For we must attend to the analogy or resemblance between bread and flesh, which teaches us, that our souls feed on Christ’s own flesh in precisely the same manner as bread imparts vigor to our bodies. The flesh of Christ, therefore, is spiritual nourishment, because it gives life to us. Now it gives life, because the Holy Spirit pours into us the life which dwells in it. And though the act of eating the flesh of Christ is different from believing on him, yet we ought to know that it is impossible to feed on Christ in any other way than by faith, because the eating itself is a consequence of faith.
29. But I tell you. This sentence is put by Matthew and Mark immediately after the Holy Supper, when Christ had given the symbol of his blood in the cup; from which some infer that Luke relates here the same thing which we shall find him repeating shortly afterwards. But this difficulty is easily obviated, because it is of little importance in itself at what precise moment Christ said this. All that the Evangelists intend to state by it is, that the disciples were warned both of their Master’s approaching death, and of the new and heavenly life: for the more nearly the hour of his death approached, there was the greater necessity for them to be confirmed, that they might not altogether fall away. Again, as he intended to place his death before their eyes in the Holy Supper, as in a mirror, it was not without reason that he again declared that he was now leaving the world. But as this intelligence was full of sadness, a consolation is immediately added, that they have no occasion for shrinking from the thought of his death, which will be followed by a better life. As if he had said: “It is true, indeed, that I am now hastening to my death, but it is in order that I may pass from it to a blessed immortality, not to live alone without you in the kingdom of God, but to have you associated with me in the same life.” Thus we see how Christ leads his disciples by the hand to the cross, and thence raises them to. the hope of the resurrection. And as it was necessary that they should be directed to the cross of Christ, that by that ladder they might ascend to heaven; so now, since Christ has died and been received into heaven, we ought to be led from the contemplation of the cross to heaven, that death and the restoration of life may be found to agree.
Till that day when I shall drink it new with you. It is plain from these words that he promises to them a glory which they will share with himself. The objection made by some —that meat and drink are not applicable to the kingdom of God—is frivolous; for Christ means nothing more than that his disciples will soon be deprived of his presence, and that he will not henceforth eat with them, until they enjoy together the heavenly life. As he points out their being associated in that life, which needs not the aids of meat and drink, he says that there will then be a new kind of drinking; by which term we are taught that he is speaking allegorically. Accordingly, Luke simply says, until the kingdom of God come. In short, Christ recommends to us the fruit and effect of the redemption which he procured by his death.
The opinion entertained by some—that these words were fulfilled, when Christ ate with his disciples after his resurrection is foreign to his meaning; for, since that was an intermediate condition between the course of a mortal life and the end of a heavenly life, the kingdom of God had not, at that time, been fully revealed; and therefore Christ said to Mary,
Touch me not, for I have not yet ascended to my Father,
Besides, the disciples had not yet entered into the kingdom of God, so as to drink new wine with Christ, being partakers of the same glory. And when we read that Christ drank after his resurrection, though he declared that he would not do so until he had assembled his disciples in the kingdom of God, the apparent contradiction is easily removed. For it is not exactly of meat and drink that he speaks, but of the intercourse of the present life. Now we know that Christ did not at that time drink for the purpose of invigorating his body by food, or of holding intercourse with his disciples, but only to prove his resurrection—of which they were still doubtful—and thus to raise their minds on high. Let us therefore rest satisfied with the natural meaning, that our Lord promises to his disciples that, having hitherto lived with them on earth as a mortal man, he will hereafter make them his associates in a blessed and immortal life.
Luke 22:19. Which is given for you. The other two Evangelists leave out this clause, which, however, is far from being superfluous; for the reason why the flesh of Christ becomes bread to us is, that by it salvation was once procured for us. And as the crucified flesh itself is of no advantage but to those who eat it by faith, so, on the other hand, the eating of it would be unmeaning, and of hardly any value, were it not in reference to the sacrifice which was once offered. Whoever then desires that the flesh of Christ should afford nourishment to him, let him look at it as having been offered on the cross, that it might be the price of our reconciliation with God. But what Matthew and Mark leave out in reference to the symbol of bread, they express in reference to the cup, saying, that the blood was to be shed for the remission of sins; and this observation must be extended to both clauses. So then, in order that we may feed aright on the flesh of Christ, we must contemplate the sacrifice of it, because it was necessary that it should have been once given for our salvation, that it might every day be given to us.
Matthew 26:27. Drink you all of it. As it was the design of Christ to keep our faith wholly fixed on himself, that we may not seek any thing apart from him, he employed two symbols to show that our life is shut up in him. This body needs to be nourished and supported by meat and drink. Christ, in order to show that he alone is able to discharge perfectly all that is necessary for salvation, says that he supplies the place of meat and drink; by which he gives an astonishing display of his condescension, in thus letting himself down to the feeble capacity of our flesh for the purpose of invigorating our faith. So much the more detestable is the insolence and sacrilege of the Pope, who has not scrupled to break asunder this sacred tie. We learn that the Son of God employed two symbols together, to testify the fullness of life which he bestows on his followers. What right had a mortal man to separate those things which God had joined together?
But it would even appear that the express reason why our Lord commanded all to drink of the cup was in order to prevent this sacrilege from entering into the Church. As to the bread, we read that he simply said, Take, eat. Why does he expressly command them all to drink, and why does Mark explicitly say that they all drank of it, if it were not to guard believers against this wicked novelty? And yet this severe prohibition has not deterred the Pope from venturing to change and violate a law established by the Lord; for he has withheld all the people from using the cup. And to prove that his rage has reason on its side, he alleges that one of the kinds is sufficient, because the flesh includes the blood by concomitancy. 196 On the same pretext they would be at liberty to set aside the whole of the sacrament, because Christ might equally well make us partakers of himself without any external aid. But those childish cavils yield no support to their impiety; for nothing can be more absurd than that believers should, of their own accord, part with the aids which the Lord has given, or allow themselves to be deprived of them; and, therefore, nothing can be more intolerable than this wicked mangling of the mystery.
Mark 14:24. This is my blood. I have already remarked that, when we are told that the blood is to be shed — according to the narrative of Matthew — for the remission of sins, these words direct us to the sacrifice of the death of Christ, without the remembrance of which the Lord’s Supper is never observed in a proper manner. And, indeed, it is impossible for believing souls to be satisfied in any other way than by being assured that God is pacified towards them.
Which is shed for many. By the word many he means not a part of the world only, but the whole human race; for he contrasts many with one; as if he had said, that he will not be the Redeemer of one man only, but will die in order to deliver many from the condemnation of the curse. It must at the same time be observed, however, that by the words for you, as related by Luke — Christ directly addresses the disciples, and exhorts every believer to apply to his own advantage the shedding of blood Therefore, when we approach to the holy table, let us not only remember in general that the world has been redeemed by the blood of Christ, but let every one consider for himself that his own sins have been expiated. 197
Of the new testament. Luke and Paul (1Co 11:25) express it differently, the new testament in my blood, but the meaning is the same; for it is only by a spiritual drinking of blood that this covenant is ratified, so as to be firm and stable. Yet it may easily be inferred from it, how foolishly superstitious the Papists and others of the same stamp are in rigidly adhering to the words; for, with all their bluster, they cannot set aside this exposition of the Holy Spirit, that the cup is called blood, because it is the new testament in blood. But the same argument applies to the bread; from which it will follow that it is called the body; because it is the testament in the body They have no right now to contend that we ought to rely on the simple words of Christ, and shut our ears against expositions from without. It is Christ himself that speaks, and surely they will not deny that he is well qualified to interpret his own words. Now Christ openly declares that he called the bread his body, for no other reason than because he has made with us an everlasting covenant, that, the sacrifice having been once offered, we may now be spiritually fed.
There are two things here which deserve our attention; for from the word testament, or covenant, (διαθήκη,) we infer that a promise is included in the Holy Supper. This refutes the error of those who maintain that faith is not aided, nourished, supported, or increased by the sacraments; for there is always a mutual relation between the covenant of God and the faith of men. By the epithet New he intended to show that the ancient figures now cease, and give way to a firm and everlasting covenant. There is an indirect contrast, therefore, between this mystery and the shadows of the law; from which it is evident how much better our condition is than that of our fathers, since, in consequence of the sacrifice which was completed on the cross, we possess the truth in perfection.
Mark 14:26. When they had sung a hymn. Our three Evangelists leave out those divine discourses, 198 which John relates to have been delivered by our Lord, both in the house and on the road. For, as we have elsewhere stated, their object was rather to embrace the history of our Lord’s actions than his doctrine. They glance only at the fact, that he went out of his own accord where Judas was to come; and their object is to inform us that he made such an arrangement of his time, as willingly to meet him who betrayed him.
“Que de ceste heure je ne boiray de ce fruict de vigne;” — “that from this hour I will not drink of the fruit of the vine.”
“Et apres avoir rendu graces;” — “and after having given thanks.”
“Semblablement aussi leur bailla la coupe;” — “in like manner also he gave them the cup.”
“Que les saincts peres ont observé ceste ceremonie solennelle de prendre la coupe, et gouster un peu de ce qui estoit dedans;” — “that the holy fathers observed this ceremony of taking the cup, and tasting a little of what was within it.”
“De prende la coupe, et en gouster.”
“D’un noveau souper, c’est, à scavoir de la Cene;” — “of a new supper, that is, of the Lord’s Supper.”
In the Greek text, Calvin appears to have followed the ordinary reading, εὐλογήσας, instead of εὐχαριστήσας, for which there appears to be a preponderance of authorities. — Ed.
“La conversion ou changement;” — “the conversion, or change.”
“Les anciens docteurs.”
“Par une figure qui s’appele metonymie; c’est à dire, transmutation de nom;” — “by a figure which is called metonymy; that is, the putting of one name for another.”
“Dont s’ensuit qu’il n’est past infini, mais consiste en quelque certain lieu;” — “whence it follows that it is not infinite, but remains in some particular spot.”
“Per concomitaniam, comme disent ses supposts; c’est à dire, pource que l’un ne peut estre sans l’autre;” — “By concomitancy, as its partisans talk; that is, because the one cannot exist without the other.”
“Que la purgation de ses pechez a esté faite;” — “that satisfaction has been made for his own sins.”
“Ces beaux propos pleins de majest, divine;” — “those beautiful discourses, full of divine majesty.”