What are the Sacraments?
Updated: May 29, 2021
By Luke Lancaster
God does not only communicate with us invisibly. He made us with five senses, which we use to take in information. So, God makes sure to speak to us through physical, material things. Think of a sign alerting you of falling rocks. If there was no sign, then many people would be unaware of the falling rocks. God created the world "good" in Genesis, and God chooses to work through it. God does not only work invisibly, rather He works through what human beings can understand, as seen throughout Scripture.
God has always interacted with humanity through physical things. For instance, God commanded the Israelites to get circumcised as a seal of the Covenant in Genesis 17. If you did not get circumcised, you'd be cut off from the community! God did not say to only have a spiritual, invisible faith in God. Rather, that faith had to be accompanied by circumcision, which was God's channel or pipe for His Grace. God takes this very seriously, as seen when Moses was almost killed by God in Exodus 4:24-26 because he had not circumcised his son! Divine grace was tied to a physical, sacred rite.
God commanded the Israelites to smear the blood of a lamb on their doorposts in Exodus 12 so that they would be spared death. Why didn't God just pass over those who had faith? Why did He require the physical sign of blood? It is because God wanted to work through the earth, through material things that humans would understand.
In Exodus 14:21, God worked through Moses's hands and staff to part the Red Sea. This could have been done by an invisible act of faith. Yet God knew that physical beings understand things through physical things.
Moses killed a bull and sprinkled its blood on the people, calling it the "blood of the Covenant" (Exodus 24:8). Why? So that there would be a physical indication that a Covenant had been ratified!
One of the things Aaron and his sons were consecrated to the priesthood with was oil (Exodus 30:30). They needed a special religious rite that signified the invisible reality. The oil differentiated them from everybody else. They were priests.
In Numbers 5:11-31, there were people suspected of adultery. To find out if they truly did commit the sin or not, they had to drink the holy water of the Tabernacle mixed with dust. Instead of God revealing the truth of the matter invisibly, God worked visibly. He did not have to do this, but what's new? He likes to work through matter.
When the Jews were complaining against the Lord, He sent them snakes as a punishment (Numbers 21:9). While they were getting bitten by the snake bites, they wanted a way to get healed from their wounds. For healing, God had Moses create a solid, bronze serpent. When the people gazed upon it, their physical wounds were healed. Instead of healing be received through invisible faith in their hearts, God wanted them to look physically with their eyes upon a physical object. His Grace worked through matter.
The prophets and kings of Israel were filled with the Holy Spirit when they were physically anointed with oil. Why with oil and not just invisibly? It was so that the people knew what was happening! How else would they know who was king (see 1 Sam. 10:1)? How else would they know if somebody possessed God's Spirit (see 1 Sam. 16:13)? Yet again a physical sign was used for an inward Grace.
In 2 Kings 2:8, Elijah's mantle parts the water in half. God worked through a cloth! Elijah's follower named Elisha was even able to part the water in half with Elijah's mantle.
Naaman the Syrian was healed by washing with water seven times in the Jordan River (2 Kings 5:14). Hmmm, God healed through water... Sounds like one of the Sacraments used today, hmm?
In 2 Kings 13:21, a dead man was thrown into the grave of Elijah. And what happened? The dead man came in contact with Elijah's bones, and God worked through his bones to bring the dead man back to life. Yet again, God worked through His earth.
God Himself didn't want to communicate invisibly with us always, but became man like us so we could experience Him with our five senses. This was the greatest "Sacrament" ever!
Consider the instance of Jesus and the blind man in John 9. In this scene, Jesus did not just say "be healed." Rather, He spat into the dirt, picked up the mud-like substance, and rubbed it onto the eyes of the man. When that man physically cleansed the dirt from his eyes, he was healed. Just as dirt was taken from his eyes, so his lack of vision was taken from his eyes. Jesus did not have to do this long, drawn out process with matter. Yet He did, for He knew that humans needed physical things to understand.
This happened for the woman who was hemorrhaging for twelve years (Mark 5:25-34). She touched physically the hem of Jesus' garment, and was instantly healed. This woman used her five senses to experience God, and God's Grace was channeled through a piece of cloth!
God continues to act through matter even today. When somebody is dunked under water in the sacrament of baptism, it unites them to Jesus's death and burial. Then they rise up out of the water, it unites them to Jesus's Resurrection from the dead.
Sacraments are, therefore, symbolic actions or ceremonies that help people understand what God is doing spiritually. Just as people are physically nourished with bread, so God spiritually nourishes them with Christ's Body and Blood. Jesus did not just want people to be spiritually nourished in a sort of intellectual knowledge only. He wanted people to truly understand what He was doing, and comes down to the level of the five senses. That is what a sacrament is.