Updated: Feb 2
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. For it would be a subtle Gnosticism to suggest that God only worked invisibly, rather than through matter.
It is a common theme throughout Scripture that God has 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 plumbing for His Grace. I mean, Moses was almost killed by God in Exodus 4:24-26 since 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's because God wanted to work through the earth, through material things that we would understand.
In Exodus 14:21, God worked through Moses's hands and staff to part the Red Sea. Couldn't this have been done by an invisible act of faith? Of course! Yet, God knew we were physical beings that understood physical things.
In Exodus 24:8, Moses sprinkles the blood of the Covenant on the people. Why? So that there would be a physical indication that a Covenant had been ratified!
In Exodus 30:30, Aaron and his sons were consecrated to the priesthood with oil. For without oil, how would we know if they were priests? They needed a special religious rite that signified the invisible reality.
In Numbers 5:11-31, those who were suspected of adultery were revealed as adulterers or not by drinking the holy water of the Tabernacle mixed with dust. God did not have to do this, but what's new? He likes to work through matter.
In Numbers 21:9, the Jews were getting bitten by snakes as punishment for complaining against the Lord. But how were they healed of their snake bites? By physically looking with their eyes at a bronze serpent. Grace through matter.
The prophets and kings of Israel were filled with the Holy Spirit when they were physically annointed with oil. Why with oil and not just invisibly? It was so we knew what was happening! How else would we know who was king (see 1 Sam. 10:1)? How else would we know if somebody possessed God's Spirit (see 1 Sam. 16:13)? Yet again we see a physical sign for an inward Grace.
In 2 Kings 2:8, Elijah's mantle parts the water in half. Grace came through cloth! 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 we have 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 also the instance of Jesus and the blind man in John 9. In this scene, Jesus does not just say "be healed." Rather, He spits into the dirt, picks us the mud-like substance, and rubs it on the eyes of the man. When that man then physically cleanses the dirt from his eyes, he is healed. Just as dirt was taken from his eyes, so his lack of vision was taken from his eyes.
This is how Jesus heals us even today. He takes material things to be symbolic of what He is accomplishing, using them as channels of His grace.
This happened for the woman who was hemorrhaging for twelve years as well (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!
Consider baptism. As we bathe and dirt is washed from our bodies, so we go under water to cleanse ourselves of the dirtiness of our souls.
Sacraments are, therefore, symbolic actions or ceremonies that help us understand what God is doing to us spiritually. Just as we are physically nourished with bread, so we are spiritually nourished with Christ's Body and Blood. Jesus did not just want us to be spiritually nourished in a sort of intellectual knowledge only. He wanted us to truly understand what He was doing, and comes down to our level of our five senses. That is what a sacrament is.