"Take and eat; this is my body." (Matthew 26:26)

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body." (Matthew 26:26)

Did Jesus want them to eat his body?

Jesus is sitting down with some of his followers at what is popularly known as the "last supper." He is surrounded by his disciples, and he is passing out the bread.

Yet we know from Jesus' statement that the bread that Jesus broke and handed out to his disciples was not ordinary bread. What did Jesus do to the bread to make it so special?
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks ... (Matthew 26:26)
This means that giving thanks was a critical event that took place during this meal.

The Greek verse is clear that they were already eating when Jesus took the bread. The Greek word is ἐσθίω (esthiō), and this communicates they were already eating. The translation appropriately says:
"While they were eating...."
Then the verse says Jesus "took the bread." "Took" here is being translated from λαμβάνω (lambanō) which means, according to the lexicon, 'to take with the hand,' or 'lay hold of.' This means that Jesus reached over and took the bread into his hands.

After he took the bread into his hands, the English translation says:
"he gave thanks...."

Did he really 'give thanks'?

Not exactly. The Greek word being translated into "gave thanks" is εὐλογέω (eulogeō). This means, according to the lexicon:
1) to praise, celebrate with praises
2) to invoke blessings
3) to consecrate a thing with solemn prayers
a) to ask God's blessing on a thing
b) pray God to bless it to one's use
c) pronounce a consecratory blessing on

Where, in this definition does it say εὐλογέω means to give thanks?

To "give thanks," as some suggest, is to say something like, "Thank you Lord for the food we have before us..." This is usually followed by "....and [all the other things] You have given us..."

This is usually extended with a listing of the various things the person is thankful for, such as a family, a good job, or money, or some kind of award received.

It is certainly nice to thank God for everything received. But such prayers lead to the premise that it is God's job to deliver the stuff we ask for, and our job is to graciously receive it all and thank Him for it.

This assumes a relationship between us and God (or Jesus, as many preach) that God (or Jesus) is our servant. He is there to give us whatever we want, as long as we ask for it with prayer. This assumption is diametrically opposed to Jesus' teachings.

As we apply Jesus' teaching about loving God and doing the will of God, another element emerges. This allows us to appropriately understand what Jesus was doing with the bread, as he εὐλογέω (eulogeō) with it:

Jesus was offering the bread to God.

Offering food and gifts to God while praising Him had been a long-cherished method of worshiping God - one that had been handed down from teacher to teacher for thousands of years. It was practiced by Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, Samuel, Solomon, Eli, and all the other teachers that formed the lineage that Jesus was a part of:
"There he [Abraham] built an altar to the LORD and called on the Name of the LORD." (Genesis 12:8)
All the Israelite men and women who were willing brought to the LORD freewill offerings.... (Exodus 35:29)
"The rest of the grain offering belongs to Aaron and his sons; it is a most holy part of the offerings made to the LORD by fire." (Lev. 2:3)
And what was the purpose of these offerings? The purpose of making offerings to God - "fellowship offerings" or "freewill offerings" as they are called in the Old Testament - is to establish a relationship with God.

Or do we think that Jesus would honor the Prophets and quote many of their teachings yet abandon the venerated process of making offerings to God?

So what did Jesus mean by 'this is my body'?

At this 'last supper' with his disciples, Jesus first made a private personal offering to God with the bread. Then he broke the bread and handed it out to his followers. As he did this, he said, "Take and eat; this is my body."

Was Jesus talking about his physical body? Certainly not, since he was handing out the bread, not his body. His physical body sat in the chair while the bread was being handed out.

This means that there was something about the bread that Jesus connected as his body. What was it?

It was the bread that was offered to God. The bread that was offered symbolized Jesus' offering of himself to God.

The word "body" in this verse is translated from the Greek word, σῶμα (sōma). This can certainly mean body, either practically or virtually. But it can also mean, according to Thayer's lexicon, "the instrument of the soul."

Since the bread was an offering to God, and Jesus is saying the offering is his "instrument," Jesus is suggesting that they consider Jesus' life to be an offering to God.

Jesus was saying to his followers that his life was an offering to God.

What about the communion ritual?

Today we find some institutions conduct a ritual where a cracker or piece of bread is put in the mouth of each person while a prayer is read.

Practitioners believe this ritual provides purification. Certainly, they are not literally eating Jesus' body. Rather, the ritual should theoretically commemorate the idea that Jesus had offered himself to God.

Was Jesus doing some mystical ritual so that his disciples would be purified of their sins once they ate the bread? Rather, Jesus was teaching them by example how to live their lives. And doing so would naturally lead to their purification - a change of heart.

Jesus was teaching them with metaphorical terms. He was connecting the offered food with his body because he was suggesting metaphorically that his whole life - his teachings, his example and his miracles - were all offerings to God. And he was handing out that bread to symbolize that they could partake in that offering by following his example.

In other words, Jesus was saying that he considered his very life to be an offering to God, and they could too. This is why Jesus also taught:
"For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.'" (Luke 4:8 and Matt. 4:10)

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." (Matt. 7:21)

"For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother." (Matt 12:50)

"For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of Him who sent me." (John 6:38)
This is also evidenced by what occurred a few days later, as Jesus laid down the life of his physical body as an offering to the Supreme Being. Jesus was illustrating, by not resisting being arrested, and by allowing his body to be murdered because of his teachings, that Jesus was God's servant and Jesus' life was an offering to God.

And yes, realizing this has the ability to save us. Not with some kind of magical "eating of the body of Christ" ritual, but from the simple realization that Jesus was trying to teach us to love God with all our hearts, all our minds - our whole life and being.

This is evidenced by the real teachings of Jesus, specifically his most important one:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment." (Matthew 22:37-38)