Eating and Drinking with Jesus

by Arthur C. Cochrane

Dr. Cochrane is professor of systematic theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. His article is a summarization of his book Eating and Drinking with Jesus: An Ethical and Biblical Inquiry, was published in 1974 by Westminster Press.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 10, 1974, pp. 392-396. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author challenges traditional Christian thinking about the Lord’s supper as a "sacrament" to be set apart from secular eating and drinking.

If there is anywhere a separation between the kingdoms of the sacred and the secular, it is in the doctrine and practice of the Lord’s Supper. That so-called sacrament as it is celebrated in our churches has little or no relevance for modern man, precisely because it has little or nothing to do with eating and drinking outside church walls. It has little or nothing to do with the problems of poverty and hunger which oppress all people in their daily lives. The Lord’s Supper has no relation to their work, their economics and their politics.

Today there is an urgent need to give clear expression to the gospel in the language of the world; that is, in relation to what people experience and suffer. Therefore we begin not with the Lord’s Supper but with the meaning of eating and drinking in general. We ask three questions: Why, and what, and how may and must we eat and drink?


The usual answer to the question, Why must we eat and drink? is: in order to live and because we derive pleasure from eating and drinking. But according to the biblical witness, man does not exist under a cruel law of self-preservation, nor is pleasure the goal of his life. We are not to eat and drink in order to satisfy our appetites. "For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own belly" (Rom. 16:18) ; "their god is their belly" (Phil. 3: 19). No, man may and must eat in obedience to God’s commandment. The commandment frees him to eat and drink and gives him joy in doing it.

With the possible exception of Genesis, there is no book in the Bible that so expressly stresses a joyful freedom to eat and drink as Ecclesiastes. "Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart" (9:7) , not merely because "bread is made for laughter, and wine gladdens life" (10:19) , but because "God has already approved what you do." It is a theme that runs through the whole book. "It is God’s gift to man that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil" (3:15). That scholars have equated this divine permission and commandment with Epicureanism is incomprehensible, for in his second chapter the Preacher rejects all crude and refined forms of Epicureanism as vanity. He teaches that joy in eating and drinking cannot be sought; it can only be found. It is "a gift of God," it comes "from the hand of God" (2:24-26). Without God’s gracious authorization and justification man cannot find enjoyment in eating and drinking.

The commandment rests upon God’s gracious permission. He provides us with food and drink. "He satisfies him who is thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things" (Ps. 107:9). The manna in the wilderness and the water from the rock were extraordinary signs that God is the Giver of all nourishment (Exod. 16-17). In the New Testament the commandment is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. On the one hand, he is revealed as the Giver of food and drink and as the One who commands us to eat and drink. (Recall the Feedings of the Multitudes and the Wedding Feast at Cana.) On the other hand, he is depicted as a hungry and thirsty man who eats and drinks in trust in his heavenly Father. He is at once the commanding God and the obedient man who eats and drinks in gratitude. Moreover, Jesus himself becomes the bread of life and the giver of the water of life solely because he dies of hunger and thirst. On the cross he cried: "I thirst." He is the justification and sanctification of all eating and drinking, and not merely of an eating and drinking at the Lord’s Supper. He -- he alone -- is the answer to the question why we may and must joyfully eat and drink.


What may and must we eat and drink? Paul’s general answer is: "Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving" (I Tim. 4:4). Yet the Apostle did not regard this as an eternally valid principle. There are special times and circumstances in which the commandment is limited and conditioned.

It is by no means obvious that we may eat meat. It was not the case at the beginning and it will not be the case at the end of the world. According to the first two chapters of the Bible and the 11th chapter of Isaiah, a vegetarian diet was ordained. It was only after the Fall and the flood that man was permitted to eat meat. The time of natural history -- that is, the time between the creation and the consummation -- is the time in which peace between God and man, between man and his fellow man, and among animals, has been shattered. During this time man may be carnivorous -- but only as he appeals’ to the reconciling grace of God. Wellhausen, Kraus, Rowley and other Old Testament scholars have shown that the flesh of animals was not intended to be eaten, but to be, first, a sacrifice to God. Karl Barth explains the matter thus:

A meal which includes meat is a sacrificial meal. It signifies a participation in the reconciling effect of the animal sacrifice commanded and accepted by God as a sign. It presupposes, therefore, that God demands and will accept the surrender of the life of the animal for that of man as a substitutionary sign, and mans participation in the reconciliation [namely, reconciliation through the death of God’s Son as a lamb slain] thereby signified [Church Dogmatics III, 1, p. 210].

If this explanation is correct, then all eating of meat is a sign and a proclamation that we live only from the death of the Lamb of God, and thus the Lord’s Supper is not to be regarded as the only sign.

Nor is it by any means obvious that man may eat all things. Leviticus and Deuteronomy distinguish between clean animals, which may be eaten, and unclean animals, which are forbidden. The distinction is abolished in Acts (10-11, 15) on the ground that what God has cleansed in Jesus Christ is no longer impure. Through his blood Christ has broken down the wall of separation between Jews and gentiles and has made possible a table fellowship between them and among all races and peoples. When, therefore, Paul asserts that nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, he does not mean a thanksgiving for food, but a thanksgiving for Christ, in whom we may eat all things.

That does not imply, of course, that one may eat and drink as much as one desires. Gluttony and drunkenness are strictly forbidden throughout Scripture. The commandment requires moderation and self-control. Nevertheless, the Nazarites and the Rechabites in the Old Testament were a witness that there is also a freedom to be abstinent. In all ages of the church there have been ascetic and monastic movements whose members have voluntarily taken vows of abstinence, celibacy, chastity, poverty and anonymity. These movements have often been, rightly, accused of quietism, otherworldliness, legalism and work-righteousness. Yet their special witness in the face of the world and a worldly church is salutary and frequently necessary.

The presence of such groups in the New Testament congregations was an occasion for conflict between the "strong" and the "weak." According to Paul, the freedom of the "strong" to eat and drink all things is limited by love. This could become a burning issue today if the "strong" were to maintain that all kinds of food and drink may be eaten and drunk at the Lord’s Supper while the "weak" declared that only a little consecrated bread and wine may be taken. Possibly the "weak" would not go so far as to assert that elements consecrated by an ordained priest or minister are necessary for salvation. But they would probably believe that these are a means of grace, that they possess a sacramental efficacy, and that they are at least an aid, a support and a prop for faith. Then the "strong" would indeed be obliged to bear the infirmities of the "weak." But that does not mean that the "strong" would have to compromise their freedom. Paul abides by his conviction: "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself" (Rom. 14:14).


Nevertheless, there is one thing that is strictly forbidden in both the Testaments: "... you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood" (Gen. 9:4; cf. Acts 15:29). Yet according to John’s Gospel, Jesus said: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life" (6:53 f.). His blood is his life, and it becomes our eternal life when it is drunk. But how? Most commentaries (not all) speak of a sacramental eating and drinking of the body and blood of Christ. Since the time of Ignatius and Justin Martyr there has persisted a belief in the mysterion or sacramentum of Christ’s body and blood. Although there have been various views as to how Christ’s body and blood are eaten and drunk, almost all churches agree that Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper and is somehow eaten. Outstanding exceptions among theologians have been Ulrich Zwingli and Karl Barth, both of whom rejected the notion that the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament and a means of grace.

We cannot here deal with the theory, first advanced by Hans Lietzmann and then by Oscar Cullmann, of two types of Eucharist in the New Testament: a joyful meal with the risen Christ, and a sorrowful meal in which the crucified Christ is eaten. Nor can we go into the historical problem of the rise of sacramentalism under the influence of the Hellenistic mystery religions. Let me say only that in my opinion John 6 is to be understood purely christologically. Jesus is speaking of the death which he must suffer and about the effect of his dying. Man will live only from the once-and-for-all shed blood of Christ, not from his blood in a sacrament. The offense of the gospel is not merely an offense to reason over the "mystery" of the presence of flesh and blood in or with bread and wine; no, it is the scandal of the cross. "We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and folly to Gentiles" (I Cor. 1:23). Through the sacrifice of his flesh Christ has become the bread of life, not merely for the elect or for believers or for those who partake of the Lord’s Supper, but for the world (John 6:51). He is the one sacrament, the only means of grace. From now on all eating and drinking are a witness, a parable, and a proclamation of the death of Jesus. Jesus called the feeding of the 5,000 a sign, but he gave no intimation that in, with and under the bread and the fishes his flesh was eaten.


How may and must we eat and drink? Paul’s general answer is: "Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (I Cor. 10:31). Not simply the Lord’s Supper but all eating and drinking is to be to the glory of God. And that means to the honor of the Creator, Preserver, Reconciler and Redeemer of all men. Elsewhere Paul explains that we eat and drink to the glory of God when we do so in remembrance of Jesus and when we proclaim the Lord’s death. In remembrance of Jesus? We have clearly to understand that the omnipresence and contemporaneity of Jesus are the presupposition of all eating and drinking with him. Because Jesus is the Lord of space and time, there are no times and no places outside his time and space. "For in him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). Therefore, whether they believe and know it or not, all men eat with Jesus, and thus may render an ignorant and unconscious testimony to Jesus. But Jesus will be specially present to his congregation through his Word and Spirit. The faith and the confession of Christians, their suffering, their prayers, their works, baptism and the Lord’s Supper can and should attest his preserving and saving presence. But only attest it (Barth) ; they cannot represent, realize, repeat or actualize his presence. Jesus does not become present through our recollection and remembrance. On the contrary, because he is present, we may eat in remembrance of him, Although the anamnesis (recollection) occurs in relation to God’s activity, it is altogether a human action. By God’s work in Christ through the Holy Spirit we are made free for a human, ethical decision and act. We are free to eat and drink in remembrance of Jesus without claiming that in, with and under our work of believing, loving and hoping we also have to do God’s work.

How, then, may and must we eat and drink with Jesus? I shall try to give a threefold answer. Eating and drinking become a human, ethical act in remembrance of Jesus when they are an act of faith, love and hope. Such an act is at once a Eucharist, an Agape-feast and a Marriage Supper.

(1) Eating and drinking in remembrance of Jesus are an act of faith. Only with the greatest reserve may we say that faith is a spiritual eating and drinking of the body and blood of Jesus. For faith is not the repetition or realization of the death of Jesus at the hands of men. On the contrary, faith is man’s recognition and acknowledgment that because of man’s sins Christ has offered up his flesh once-and-for-all. Still less will faith regard eating and drinking as a means whereby faith is created and strengthened. Eating and drinking are predominantly and always an act of thanksgiving for what God has done in Christ through the Spirit.

The church has always acknowledged that the Lord’s Supper is an act of gratitude, the "Eucharist." Though in the New Testament the noun eucharistia is never applied either to the Lord’s Supper or to eating and drinking in general, it came into common usage in the postapostolic period. It has its origin in Jesus’ prayers of thanksgiving at the Last Supper and at the Feedings of the Multitudes, but its meaning was soon changed. Whereas in the Didache the Eucharist was a thankoffering for the blessings of creation and redemption, Justin Martyr thought that the bread and wine were consecrated through the repetition of Jesus’ words and thereby became the body and blood of Christ. Perhaps that is why the Lord’s Supper ceased to be a joyous meal. At any rate, in our churches the Lord’s Supper is a somber affair. It evokes sad, mournful, even morbid thoughts of death. More like a fast than a feast, it bears little resemblance to the meal which the father prepared for the lost son. It seems that we are no longer able to partake of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God, as the first Christians did (Acts 2:47).


(2) Much could be said about the restoration of a genuine Eucharist in our congregations. One thing is certain: there can be no genuine Eucharist that is not at the same time an Agape-meal. If it is an act of faith, it is an act of love. The two are inseparable. Without love there is no genuine thanksgiving and no true proclamation of the death of Jesus. Paul told the congregation at Corinth: "When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat"; or, as the NEB has it, "it is impossible for you to eat the Lord’s Supper." Why? "... in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk." One eats and drinks "in an unworthy manner," not because he does not discern the body and the blood in the elements, but because he despises the church of God and humiliates those who have nothing. For that reason he is "guilty of profaning the body and the blood of the Lord" (I Cor. 11:20-22, 27). Here we are bound to raise the most serious questions concerning the doctrine and practice of the Lord’s Supper whereby very early the Agape and the Eucharist were sundered,

The togetherness of Agape and Eucharist rests upon the unity of faith and love in Paul and upon the unity of faith and works in James. What avails in Christ Jesus is "faith working through love" (Gal. 5:6).

Corresponding to God’s love, human love is self-giving love. Eating and drinking become an act of love when there is a common participation in the gifts of the Lord, when they are a matter of mutual giving and receiving. Hence the Lord’s Supper cannot be a love-feast unless it is a diakonia; that is, a service to fellow Christians, to fellow men, and especially to the poor. The root meaning of the Greek diakonein is "to wait on tables." In the New Testament and in the early church diakonia was inseparable from the service of worship. Following the worship service the diakonoi, the "waiters," visited and succored the poor, the widows and those in prison. Later, the Agape and the church’s welfare work were separated from the service of worship. Thereby both suffered: the service of worship became otherworldly and welfare work became worldly.

Much could be said also about a restoration of the Agape-meal in our congregations. I want simply to emphasize that the Agape-meal, far from being an end in itself, is the springboard for the church’s mission and service in the world. The church is to serve all people with its words and deeds of love. The Lord’s Supper would not be an act of faith or of love if it did not have this outreach.

When the church goes out into the world with its deeds of love and mercy, it does not cease to eat and drink with Jesus. For Christ is not only present in the church where the Word is truly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered, as the Reformers, taught. Jesus is first and above all outside us and around us, so that when we come out of church we stumble over him. The God who is known and confessed in the church is none other than Jesus, who is secretly but no less really present in the least of his brethren. God in Christ -- the suffering, weeping, oppressed, hungry, lonely God -- is all around us and cries out to us. This is another reason why no absolute distinction can be made between the Lord’s Supper and the eating and drinking of the children of this world.

Moreover, Christians have no monopoly on love and diakonia. We dare not forget that it was a godless Samaritan (read "communist") who was neighbor to the man who had fallen among thieves and been left half-dead, whereas a priest and a Levite (Christians) passed by on the other side. The Samaritan "brought him to an inn, and took care of him." Shall we deny that the Lord’s Supper was secretly held in that inn? Did it not occur in remembrance of Jesus? Was it not an unconscious recollection of the neighbor, of the mercy of God?


(3) No answer to the question about how we may eat and drink with Jesus would be complete which did not speak about hope. Today we hear a good deal about a theology of hope. Through the work of New Testament scholars and systematic theologians. eschatology has become the fashion in our century. But there has not yet been anything like a satisfactory attempt to relate this newly discovered eschatology in a systematic way with a theology of the Eucharist. Theologians are still almost exclusively concerned with the presence of Christ in or with bread and wine; that is, with a realized eschatology in the Lord’s Supper.

I can only indicate how eating and drinking are an act of hope. The hope of the world is Jesus Christ himself. "Surely I am coming soon" (Rev. 22:20; 3:11) ; "The Lord is at hand" (Phil. 4:5). Jesus comes again in the threefold form of his Parousia: in the resurrection from the dead, in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and in the consummation. The coming Jesus is the one who has already come. The Lord’s Supper is not only a Eucharist that celebrates the kingdom that has come; it is a messianic meal which is an antepast, a foretaste of the coming kingdom. According to the Book of Revelation and the Banquet parables of Luke 14 and Matthew 22 and 25, the Lord’s Supper is the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. It celebrates the wedding of the Lamb with his bride.

Jesus is our hope -- the hope that he will come with food and drink for the morrow, and that at the last day he will come to raise the dead. But to hope is a human, ethical endeavor. The congregation cannot hope without believing and loving; and it cannot believe and love without hoping. Faith, love and hope are the three forms or ways of the one act of the remembrance of Jesus, "who is and who was and who is to come (Rev. 1:4) , "the same yesterday and today and forever" (Heb. 13:8).

Because the congregation hopes in Jesus, it is not deceived or disappointed. It is not anxious or worried about tomorrow. It does not ask: "What shall we eat? Or what shall we drink? Or what shall we wear?" It does not need to lay up treasures on earth. It will not hoard its daily bread or squander it in gluttony. Still less will it resort to violence to protect or increase its goods, because it thinks: - ‘My Master is delayed" (Matt. 24:48 f; Luke 12:45) -- what foolish theologians have called the "delay of the Parousia." No. "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me" (Rev. 3:20). In reality eating and drinking are an act of hope when they are a prayer to "give us this day our daily bread" and a prayer that Jesus will one day come so that we can see what now we can only believe; namely, that he is the bread of eternal life. For all our ultimate and penultimate hopes are enclosed in a hope in Jesus. This is the witness which the congregation owes to the world.

Why, what and how may we eat and drink with Jesus? Let me sum up. Because Jesus Christ is present with all people as the Giver of food and drink and as the Bread of life, and because his presence is revealed to his congregation by the Holy Spirit, and because he permits and commands us to eat and, drink, therefore we may and must eat and drink all things with Jesus in faith, love and hope.