The meaning of the “spiritual presence” concerning the Lord’s Supper is that Jesus is spiritually (but not physically) present at communion. The view can perhaps best be seen in distinction from other views regarding the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.
The traditional Roman Catholic view is that of transubstantiation or sometimes called the “real presence” view. According to this view, when the priest pronounces the words “this is my body” over the bread and elevates the cup, the elements are actually changed into the physical body and blood of the Lord. This change is not discernable to the senses; in other words, the bread and wine still look and taste like bread and wine, but they really are the body and blood of the Lord and are to be honored as such.
Martin Luther held to a position called consubstantiation; that is, the body and blood are physically present with the elements. The elements do not change, and the body and blood cannot be recognized by taste, but in some real, physical way the body and blood of Christ are present.
Most Protestants today hold to the spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The elements do not change or become the body and blood of the Lord in any way. The elements are symbols of His body and blood. While Jesus did say, “This is my body” and “This is my blood,” it was in the context of a Passover meal in which every element had a symbolic meaning. It would have been entirely out of context for the disciples to suddenly interpret these two items literally—especially since Jesus had not yet been crucified.
When we partake of the elements of communion today, we recognize that they are more than just symbols of something that happened a long time ago. Whenever we gather together to observe the Lord’s Supper, Christ is present with us spiritually. It is not just the memory of Him that is present; He is in the midst of the congregation. The emphasis is upon His presence within the worshiping body, not within the elements of the table. The believer communes with the Lord through the act of remembrance and worship.
First Corinthians 11:23–26: “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: that the Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘This is My body, which is for you; a do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way, after supper He took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”