* Home

by J. Christian Andrews

On Metaphors and the Words of Institution

The Words of Institution (Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:19, and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26) are commonly interpreted metaphorically. The thought is that Jesus did not literally mean the bread is His body or the cup His blood. A close look, however, at the words Jesus spoke will show that the literary structure of the phrases is not at all metaphorical. To understand how this is the case we need to first know the meaning and purpose of a metaphor, better understand how we use the verb is, and then view the words Jesus spoke in light of how figures of speech are used.

A metaphor is a comparison of an unknown with a known using the verb is. The purpose of the comparison is to help us better understand the unknown. In 1 Samuel 22:2, Samuel quoted David who said, "The LORD is my rock and my fortress..." The LORD (YHWH) is the "unknown." Two knowns are a rock and a fortress. The purpose of the metaphor is to help us better understand the LORD by comparing Him to a rock and a fortress. By applying the metaphor we learn that the LORD is a firm foundation (which may be metaphorical in itself) and a protector. Key to the use of metaphors is beginning with an unknown and then learning from the compared known more about the unknown.

There are two similar figurative forms where this kind of comparison is made. Similes use like or as to make the comparison. Metaphors use is. Referring to the bread, Jesus said, "This is my body." Referring to the cup (it's content being the liquid fruit of the grape vine), Jesus said, "This is my blood..." While is is a key component of a metaphor, metaphors are not the only way to use the verb. As a matter of fact, we use the verb much more often in other ways than in metaphors. The verb is to be. It's forms are am, is, are, was, and were. At it's core, this verb is used to either show existence or to link a predicate noun/nominative or predicate adjective to the subject in order to define the subject. The phrase "It is hot today" tells us the condition or existence of a day in which the temperature is uncomfortably warm. It is not metaphorical. "Mrs. Peterson is a teacher" links teacher to Mrs. Peterson defining that Mrs. Peterson is a teacher. Teacher is not a metaphor. While is is used in metaphors as a linking verb, more often it is used to indicate existence or to define the subject non-metaphorically.

When Jesus took a piece of the Passover Meal unleavened bread, He said, "This is my body (Matthew 26:26)." The disciples knew what bread was. We know what bread is. He also took the cup, and in the Passover Meal setting it would have contained the liquid fruit of the grape vine, and said, "This cup is my blood of the covenant (Matthew 26:28)." The disciples knew what was in the cup. We know what was in the cup. Both the bread and the content of the cup are knowns. Jesus was not trying to expand their knowledge, or ours, about bread and wine. Even though He used the verb is, He was not making a comparison with the purpose giving a better understanding of an unknown. What He did do was use the linking verb to connect His body (a predicate noun) to the bread and His blood (a predicate noun) to the cup. He defined the bread and the cup. The bread is His body. The cup is His blood. (See also 1 Corinthians 10:16 where Paul asserts that sharing the cup is a sharing in the blood of Christ and breaking the bread is a sharing in the body of Christ.)

A metaphor compares an unknown with a known to help us better understand the unknown. The words Jesus spoke when He instituted the Lord's Supper do not fit this form. He began with a known. He did not make a comparison. His intent was not for His disciples to better understand what bread and wine are. In whatever way the Words of Institution are understood, they do not have the form or purpose of a metaphor. They have the subject - linking verb - predicate nominative form and define the bread and the cup as the body and blood of Christ.