8. Eating His Flesh, Drinking His Blood (John 6:53-57)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
http://www.jesuswalk.com/lords-supper/8_john6.htm
Audio (26:38)
http://www.jesuswalk.com/mp3files/lords-supper/8_john6.mp3


Joos van Cleve (Dutch artist, 1485-1540), detail "The Last Supper," oil on wood, full size 45 x 206 cm,  Musée du Louvre, Paris, Predella of "Altarpiece of the Lamentation" (c. 1530). Larger image.

Of the four gospels, only the Gospel of John omits the Words of Institution of the Lord's Supper. But only John includes Jesus' extended teaching on Jesus as the Bread of Life (6:25-71). When he included it, I believe John knew that his readers would understand it in light of the Lord's Supper -- these words especially:

"53Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. 57Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me." (John 6:53-57)

This is an important passage to meditate on and understand, since it sheds light on the meaning of the Lord's Supper.

Context, Themes, and Parables

This is one of the more difficult passages in the New Testament, so don't be surprised if you're confused at first. To begin, let's consider the Bread of Life discourse (or teaching) as a whole.

Context: The Bread of Life discourse (6:25-71) was immediately preceded by Jesus' feeding of the 5000 (6:1-24), which prompted Jesus' followers to be interested in the concept of "bread." The discussion and the teaching that Jesus gave seem to begin at lakeside (6:25) and then continue on to teaching in synagogue in Capernaum (6:59).

Outline: This discourse can be divided into four general sections:

  1. Jesus, the True Manna (6:27-34)
  2. Jesus, the Bread of Life (6:35-51)
  3. Partaking of the Son of Man (6:52-59)
  4. Reactions to Jesus' Teaching (6:60-71)

But Jesus doesn't really use an outline. Rather this is a running dialog between Jesus and his hearers.

Themes: Throughout the discourse Jesus interweaves two related themes in and out. The first of these we'll be focusing on in this chapter:

  1. Believing on and continuing to trust in Jesus will bring a person to eternal life and ultimate resurrection in the Last Day (6:39-40, 47, 57, 63, etc.).
  2. But this is entirely from God, since no one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him, and Jesus will not lose any of them (6:44-46, 65).

Metaphors or Parables: Jesus uses three parables or analogies or illustrations to teach these themes:

  • Manna, "bread from heaven." (6:31-34, 38, 41-42, 49-50, 58)
  • Bread of Life, that is, bread that brings about eternal life. (6:35-42, 51, 58)
  • Flesh and blood as "food." (6:51b-56)

These metaphors are related in that they all refer to eating and nourishing. These are the elements Jesus uses to weave a beautiful and powerful teaching on faith and eternal life.

1. Jesus, the True Manna (6:27-34)

In verses 27-29 Jesus establishes two things about salvation:

  • The Son of Man (a title Jesus uses to refer to himself) will give you food that will sustain you not just for a few hours, but into the life to come (eternal life).
  • We can't work for eternal life, we receive it by believing in Jesus.

Then he turns the discussion of manna from heaven to focus on the eternal life that he offers them:

"... it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." (John 6:32b-33)

Jesus' hearers respond, "Sir, from now on give us this bread" (6:34), similar to the response of the Woman at the Well of Samaria: "Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water" (John 4:15).

2. Jesus, the Bread of Life (6:35-51)

Now Jesus begins the first of the seven "I AM" passages in John (6:35; 8:12; 10:9; 10:11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1). "I am" of course is a rather unveiled reference to the name by which God revealed himself to Moses as Yahweh -- "I AM THAT I AM" (Exodus 3:14).

"35Then Jesus declared, 'I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. 36But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe....'" (John 6:35-36)

In what way is Jesus like bread? His followers will never go hungry or be thirsty. Of course, he is speaking spiritually here, not physically, following the tradition of Isaiah 49:10 and 55:1-2. Jesus had used similar language with the woman at the well of Samaria:

"Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (John 4:13-14)

In John 6:35-51 Jesus teaches that:

  • Faith in him results in the possession of eternal life right now! (6:47)
  • Jesus is the Bread of Life, who, using the manna analogy, came down from heaven. (6:51)
  • The Bread of Life brings eternal life to those who eat it. (6:50-51a)

So what does the metaphorical language "eating" the "Bread of Life" mean? Put verses 47 and 51a side by side and you can see clearly:

verse 47

He who believes

has eternal life

verse 51a

If anyone eats of this (living) bread

he will live forever

It's quite clear that "believing in Jesus" corresponds to "eating the Bread of Life," since these are used as parallel statements in the same context and with the same result -- everlasting life. This theme weaves itself through this discourse, and is said first one way and then another throughout the passage (6:39-40, 47, 57, 63, etc.). St. Augustine put it this way: "For to believe on Him is to eat the living bread. He that believes eats; he is sated invisibly...."1

Q1. (John 6:35-51) What does the metaphor of "eating the Bread of Life" mean in practical terms? To extend the same metaphor, what do you think might be the difference between nibbling and actually making a meal of it?
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Flesh Given for the Life of the World (6:51b)

Jesus now moves from the analogy of the Bread of Life to a new analogy: the sacrifice of his body on the cross. This is the transition verse:

"This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." (John 6:51b)

We've seen these words before in chapters 1 and 4, but not put quite this way:

"flesh"

sarx

"body, physical body."2

"give, given"

didōmi

"to dedicate oneself for some purpose or cause, give up, sacrifice."3

"for"

huper

"in behalf of, for the sake of someone or something."4

The purpose of Jesus' gift of his body is "the life of the world," that is eternal life, the theme Jesus keeps coming back to in this passage. Now compare this verse in John to the Words of Institution in Luke:

Luke 22:19b

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, This is

my body (sōma)

given

for

you...

John 6:51b

This bread is

my flesh
(sarx)

which I will give

for

the life of the world.

It's pretty clear to me that Jesus has the same thought in mind, even though these sayings were given at different times. Jesus' teaching on the Bread of Life serves as a kind of parallel teaching to the Words of Institution.

Q2. (John 6:51b) What is Jesus referring to when he says, "This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world"? What similarities do you see with Jesus' teaching at the Last Supper in Luke 22:19b?
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3. Partaking of the Son of Man (6:52-59)

Jesus' metaphor has now shifted from eating bread to eating flesh. There is an immediate reaction to Jesus' words, due to a revulsion in Judaism and most other cultures against cannibalism:5

"52Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, 'How can this man give us his flesh to eat?'
53Jesus said to them, 'I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. 57Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.' 59He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum." (John 6:52-59)

The listeners take his words literally and are deeply offended, as Jesus undoubtedly knew they would be. But it seems as if Jesus purposely carries the idea farther yet, so that, if it is to be taken literally, it becomes more offensive yet.6 Though some believe he is speaking literally of his own flesh and blood in the Eucharist, I see this as an example of Jesus' use of hyperbole to make his point powerful and unforgettable (Matthew 5:29-30; 19:24; Luke 6:41-42; 14:26; 1 Corinthians 9:27).

Arguments for Taking the Passage Literally of the Eucharist

Let's examine arguments for taking this passage literally, of the Eucharistic flesh of Jesus. Nineteenth century German Catholic theologian Joseph Pohle says, "Nothing hinders our interpreting the first part (6:26-48) metaphorically and understanding by 'bread of heaven' Christ Himself as the object of faith, to be received in a figurative sense as a spiritual food by the mouth of faith. Such a figurative explanation of the second part of the discourse (6:52-72), however, is not only unusual but absolutely impossible."7

Pohle's argument for impossibility, affirmed by the late Catholic New Testament scholar Raymond E. Brown,8 is that since the metaphor for eating one's flesh is used as a metaphor for "hostile action" (Psalm 14:4; 27:2; 53:4; Zechariah 9:9) and drinking of blood was forbidden by God's law (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 3:17; Deuteronomy 12:23; Acts 15:20)9, therefore his words can't have a favorable meaning unless they refer to the Eucharist. However, it is clear to me that we are not required to go as far back as the Old Testament for the metaphor, just a few verses back where he speaks of eating the Bread of Life (6:50-51a). This is a continuation and intensification of that same metaphor.

On the other hand, Jesus clearly meant the Bread of Life portion of the discourse which preceded this to be taken figuratively. To take one section of the discourse figuratively and the other literally would be very strange indeed, especially since Jesus sums it up in verse 58 with a reference back to his previous words about the Bread of Life:

"This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever." (6:58)

What Does Jesus Mean about Eating His Flesh, Drinking His Blood?

If this is figurative language, as I believe it is, then what is Jesus saying? Observe in 6:53-59 the consequences of eating Jesus' flesh and drinking his blood. Let's look at these one by one:

Reference

Consequence

Similar sayings elsewhere

6:53

Having life in oneself

The consequence of believing is to have life in his name, according to John 20:31. In 1 John 5:10-12, having life is associated with believing in the Son of God.

6:54a

Has eternal life

Eternal life is the consequence of believing in John 6:40a, as well as in John 3:15-16; 3:36; 5:24; 1 Timothy 1:16; 1 John 5:13; etc.

6:54b

Resurrection on the last day

Resurrection on the last day is the consequence of believing according to John 6:40b. Jesus also connects believing in him with resurrection and eternal life in the raising of Lazarus (John 11:25-26)

6:56

Remains or abides in Jesus

This is also a consequence of believing Jesus' words according to John 15:7. His word remaining or abiding in us is connected with eternal life (1 John 2:23-25), being true disciples (John 8:31-32), and bearing fruit (John 15:5).

6:57

Live because of me

The consequence of believing in the "I am the resurrection and the life" passage, John 11:25-26

6:58

Live forever

"Live forever" is the consequence of eating of the "living bread" in John 6:51b above. It is another way of saying one "has eternal life" (see 6:54a above). In John 11:26 Jesus connects believing in him with never dying.

It is pretty clear that the consequences of putting one's faith in Jesus -- believing in Jesus -- are the same as "eating his flesh and drinking his blood." This is a strong, even extreme, metaphor for faith. As F.F. Bruce puts it: "To believe in Christ is not only to give credence to what he says; it is to be united to him by faith, to participate in his life."10

4. Reactions to the Teaching (6:60-71)

The metaphor was so vivid, so extreme, in fact, that it caused an uproar. Many "disciples" left and no longer followed Jesus. Here is an example of the secrets of the Kingdom being given in parables to reveal the truth to true disciples and obscure it from those who follow the crowds only (Mark 4:11-12).

In this passage also, Peter voices the faith of the Twelve: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.'" (John 6:68-69). It is striking to me that this defection by many disciples is an illustration of Jesus' teaching about belief:

"To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, 'If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'" (John 8:31-32)

There are some "hard sayings" in life that cause the faint of heart to let go. There are those who assent to Jesus' words, but when there is a crisis of faith, those who continue to feed on Jesus, who continue to believe, who abide in him, are his true disciples; the others walk away. This entire passage is about Jesus having "the words of eternal life," that is, the words, which, when believed, result in eternal life.

Q3. (John 6:53-71) If to eat Jesus' flesh and drink his blood is a strong expression for "to believe," why does Jesus emphasize this so strongly? What was the difference between the Twelve and the crowd of "disciples" that turned away from Jesus? What is the mark of true disciples according to John 8:31-32?
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The Spirit Gives Life, the Flesh Counts for Nothing (6:63)

Jesus continues:

"The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life." (John 6:63)

There has been lots of controversy about the exact meaning of this verse. The central question is what does "flesh" (sarx) refer to?

  1. The most natural reference would be back to Jesus' previous paragraph -- eating his flesh and drinking his blood. If we take "eating my flesh" figuratively as "believing in Jesus," as I have argued, the meaning would be: The Spirit give life, believing in me counts for nothing. But that doesn't make any sense. This is rather a contrast between Spirit and flesh.
  2. If we take "eating my flesh" literally of the Eucharist, the meaning would be: The Spirit gives life, eating the sacramental flesh counts for nothing. Zwingli argued along this line against Luther's view of the Real Presence. But this assumes that Jesus in this discourse in Capernaum was speaking directly concerning the Lord's Supper which would take place later, an assumption we just don't have evidence to make.
  3. More likely then, Jesus is not referring to the flesh of 6:53-56, but rather contrasting flesh and Spirit, much as he did in his discussion with Nicodemus in John 3:6: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." In this case "flesh" would mean, "the natural principle in man which cannot give eternal life."11 So the meaning of Jesus' words in 6:63 is probably: The Spirit gives life; what man can understand and achieve on his own counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you -- spiritually discerned and believed -- bring spiritual life, eternal life.

The Bread of Life Passage and the Lord's Supper

As indicated earlier, while I don't believe Jesus deliberately gave this teaching with reference to the Sacrament of the Eucharist, I do believe that St. John, as he composed the Fourth Gospel, included this discourse knowing that his readers would read it with the Lord's Supper in mind. The Bread of Life passage and the Lord's Supper have parallel teachings.

The Lord's Supper deliberately uses elements intended to remind us of Jesus' body and blood: chewy bread to remind us of flesh, red wine to remind us of blood. The act of partaking of the Lord's Supper certainly is one of feeding on Jesus -- a physical symbolic act that speaks of a much deeper communion indeed:

  • To feed on the Bread of Life is to believe Jesus' words and trust in him as the source of our life.
  • To eat Jesus' flesh and blood means to utterly depend upon him and the truths he teaches for sustenance and life itself.

When we partake of the Lord's Supper we are commanded to remember Jesus' death for our sins. Our mind also turns to the Spirit of God that raised him from the dead, the same Spirit that gives us spiritual life to us and will ultimately raise our bodies from the dead on the Last Day. The Lord's Supper as an act of remembering, reflecting, believing, trusting -- this indeed reenergizes us as food to our souls and life to our faith. As the Anglican service directs as the bread is given to the recipient:

"Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving."

Feeding on Jesus' words and basking in his presence are the essence of trust, of true belief in him. Yes, partake of his body and blood in the Lord's Supper as a sign that you indeed feed on him in your heart -- and so grow in your faith. Amen.

Q4. How does "eating the Bread of Life" (to use Jesus' metaphor in John 6) nourish our faith? How does partaking of the Lord's Supper build and nourish our faith? What does the main point of the Bread of Life discourse (John 6:25-69) have in common with "Do this in remembrance of me," in Jesus' Words of Institution (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)?
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Lord's Supper: Meditations for Disciples on the Eucharist or Communion
Available as e-book and paperback.

Prayer

Father, so often my devotional life seems dry. Sometimes I partake of the Lord's Supper without really thinking too much about what I am doing. Forgive me. Teach me to truly feed on Jesus in my heart by faith, with thanksgiving. Help me to become less dependent upon my own ways, but wholly dependent upon Him, wholly trusting, wholly walking by faith. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

References

Standard Abbreviations http://www.jesuswalk.com/lords-supper/refs.htm

  1. Augustine, Homilies on John, 26, 1.
  2. Sarx, BDAG 914-916, 2.a.
  3. Didōmi, BDAG 242, 10.
  4. Huper, BDAG 1030-1031.
  5. For Jews to drink blood would have been morally repugnant because of the strong prohibitions against drinking blood (Genesis 9:3; Leviticus 7:26; 17:14; 19:26; Deuteronomy 14:4-5; Acts 15:29). Even the priests who partook of the flesh of the sacrifices in the tabernacle and temple didn't drink the blood. Though Jews could eat the meat of clean animals, to eat human flesh was especially repugnant to them (Talmud, Chulin 92b). The only times we hear of it in the Bible are during wartime sieges that mothers might eat their dead infants in order to keep from starving themselves (Leviticus 26:29; Deuteronomy 28:53-57; Isaiah 9:20; Lamentations 4:10; Ezekiel 5:10), and then with a sense of repugnance and revulsion.
  6. In verse 53, "eat" is the common Greek verb esthiō, "eat." In verse 54 a synonym is used, "eat," trōgō (also at John 13:18; Matthew 24:38), sometimes (though not here) used of animals feeding, "to bite or chew food, eat (audibly)"6 (trōgō, BDAG 1019).
  7. Joseph Pohle, "Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist," Catholic Encyclopedia (Robert Appleton Company, 1909; Online edition ©2003 by K. Knight), vol. V. Dr. Pohle, a professor of dogmatic theology, was an influential author of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
  8. Brown, John 1:284-285. Brown's second argument for taking this passage literally as regarding the Eucharist is: "It is possible that we have preserved in 6:51 the Johannine form of the words of institution." This is speculative at best, as evidenced by his words, "it is possible."
  9. Other Bible references to drinking blood are Isaiah 49:26 and Revelation 16:16.
  10. F.F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus (InterVarsity Press, 1983), p. 21. St. Augustine (354-430) gave guidelines on how to determine whether an expression is to be taken literally or figuratively. On 6:63 he comments: "If the sentence is one of command, either forbidding a crime or vice, or enjoining an act of prudence or benevolence, it is not figurative. If, however, it seems to enjoin a crime or vice, or to forbid an act of prudence or benevolence, it is figurative. 'Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man,' says Christ, 'and drink His blood, ye have no life in you.' This seems to enjoin a crime or a vice; it is therefore a figure, enjoining that we should have a share in the sufferings of our Lord, and that we should retain a sweet and profitable memory of the fact that His flesh was wounded and crucified for us" (On Christian Doctrine, III, 16, 24).
  11. So Brown, John 1:300.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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