"I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh." (John 6:51)
What did Jesus mean when He talked about eating His flesh and drinking His blood?
Sometimes Jesus made statements that are difficult to understand. One of those was in connection with His feeding of 5,000 with a mere five barley loaves and two fish (John 6:1-14). When the people saw the miraculous sign Jesus had performed, they said, "This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world" (John 6:14). Jesus knew this statement by the people had Messianic implications. He perceived that they wanted to make Him their king, so He deliberately prevented that by disappearing alone upon the mountain (John 6:15).
The next day the crowd searched for Him and found Him. Jesus immediately uncovered their real motive. He said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled" (John 6:26). He continued, "Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal" (John 6:27).
The crowd asked an appropriate question, "What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?" (John 6:28). To which Jesus gave an exceedingly important answer: "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent" (John 6:29). [May I comment here that Jesus utterly downplayed the importance of the physical act of eating bread, and strikingly underscored the importance of believing in Him. That should be a beacon light that guides us through our discussion of Jesus as the Bread of Life and the true significance of the Eucharist.]
Unbelievably, the people next asked what I can only characterize as an exceedingly stupid question. After having witnessed Jesus feed 5,000 with a mere five barley loaves and two fish, they asked, "What then do You do for a sign, so that we may see and believe You? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'HE GAVE THEM BREAD OUT OF HEAVEN TO EAT'" (John 6:30-31). Jesus understood they were comparing Him with Moses, and had concluded that Jesus did not measure up to the famed Law-giver. So Jesus responded, "Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world" (John 6:32-33). What Jesus meant was that He Himself was the "true bread out of heaven." But that interpretation went right over the peoples' collective heads. At least the people did respond appropriately. "Then they said to Him, 'Lord, always give us this bread'" (John 6:34).
Jesus' answer was profound and life-changing. He replied in part, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst" (John 6:35). Let me pause to make an application. Was Jesus talking about literally eating Him, as one would eat a loaf of bread? In the context, the idea is absurd. Rather, Jesus is talking about an individual coming to Him and believing in Him. That is profound, and it must not be misunderstood.
Then, in rapid fire succession, Jesus made the following points: (1) His listeners did not believe in Him (John 6:36). (2) Only those whom the Father gave to Jesus would actually come to Him, and He would certainly not reject them (John 6:37). (3) This is true because Jesus came down from heaven only to do His Father's will (John 6:38). (4) This is God's will, that of all God had given Jesus, He would not lose a single one, but rather raise him up on the last day (John 6:39). (5) He concluded by saying, "For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I myself will raise him up on the last day" (John 6:40).
The people began to grumble about Jesus' statement that He was the bread that came down from heaven (John 6:41). After all, they knew who He was! The knew his father and mother! He was merely the son of Joseph (John 6:42)! Jesus told them to stop grumbling. Then He explained why they were so unwilling to believe in Him – the Father obviously was not drawing them to Him! He said, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day" (John 6:43-44). He continued by looking ahead, through the eyes of the prophets, into the future, when all would know God, and, by implication, all believe in Him! He said, "It is written in the prophets, "And they shall all be taught of God' (Isa. 54:13; Jer. 31:34). Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me" (John 6:45).
Then Jesus resumed His previous emphasis: "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life" (John 6:47-48). Then He presented Himself as being infinitely superior to the bread that God sent, under the aegis of Moses, to the early sons of Israel in the wilderness. He said, "Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died" (John 6:49). Then, speaking of Himself, He said, "this is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die (John 6:50). Then He uttered the clarion declaration that amounted to an invitation to partake, "I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh" (John 6:51).
Here I wish to make a crucial point. Jesus is about to use a metaphor of eating His flesh. It is a very appropriate metaphor, because it fits right into the context. They ancient Israelis ate of the manna and died. Jesus has just implied that if His listeners "eat" Him, they will live forever. He is going to make a statement to that effect momentarily. But He is using a metaphor. He doesn't expect them literally to eat his flesh and drink His blood. That is preposterous! What does He mean? To answer that question we must acknowledge the main focus of Jesus' comments throughout this discourse. His main focus has been that people need to believe in Him! In this chapter alone, Jesus refers to believing (pisteśō, 4100) nine times! Some form of the word "believe" appears in John 6:29, 30, 35, 36, 40, 47, 64, 64, 69. What Jesus means by eating his flesh and drinking His blood is believing in Him. If we are going to reduce what Jesus said here, and what He said about the Eucharist before His death, to a mere physical eating and drinking, we have completely missed Jesus point!
Let us continue discussing the narrative in John 6:51. What did Jesus mean when He said (1) that He was "the living bread that came down from heaven," (2) that "if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever," and (3) that "the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh" (John 6:51)? He meant (1) that He was the all-important necessary ingredient for eternal survival, and that He had, indeed, originated from heaven; (2) that if anyone embraced him by faith, i.e. believed in Him, He would have eternal life; and (3) that He would die so that the sins of the entire world might be paid for in God's Divine arena of justice.
The Jewish peoples' argument among one another was predictable. They made the same mistake that Roman Catholics (and Lutherans also, I might add) make. They were trying to take Jesus' words too literally. They did not understand He was emphasizing the importance of believing in Him. They queried, "How can this man give us His flesh to eat?" (John 6:52).
Jesus did not fully explain what He meant. He doubled down on the metaphor. He did so, I believe, to separate out from among his listeners those who would truly believe in Him and those who would not. He already knew that most of His audience did not believe in Him (John 6:36). On the other hand, He was confident that all whom the Father had given Him would understand and would believe (John 6:37, 44). Here is what He said (John 6:53-58):
53 ... "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. 54 "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 "For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. 56 "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. 57 "As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. 58 "This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever."
Here is what Jesus meant:
(1) (John 6:53): You have to depend (believe) in Jesus, whose body was flogged and crucified to pay for your sins; and you have to depend (believe) in Jesus, whose blood was shed to pay for your sins. If you do not believe in Jesus and His death on your behalf, you do not have eternal life. Jesus was not talking about eating a communion wafer and drinking communion wine and depending on them. That is not in the context, and to import that idea is a case of eisegesis, reading into the text a meaning that is not there. Note that The New American Bible's footnote 17, appearing on the Vatican website and commenting on John 6:51-58 makes this mistake. The text of the footnote reads, "Up to John 6:50 'bread of life' is a figure for God's revelation in Jesus [JTB - that is correct]; in John 6:51-58, the eucharistic theme comes to the fore [JTB - that is incorrect eisegesis]. There may thus be a break between John 6:50-51." [JTB - that is an incorrect textual manipulation to make the Biblical text conform to Vatican theology.]
(2) (John 6:54): Every person who places his trust in Jesus flesh and blood has eternal life, and Jesus will raise him up to the resurrection of life on the last day.
(3) (John 6:55): Faith in Jesus' broken body and shed blood provides true, eternal life, something merely eating manna could never provide for the ancient Israelis.
(4) (John 6:56): He who embraces Jesus' crucifixion on his behalf, to pay for his sins remains in Jesus, and Jesus remains in him.
(5) (John 6:57): Just as the living Father sent Jesus, and He lives because He is dependent on the Father, so he embraces Jesus as his own will live eternally because of Him.
(6) (John 6:58): Thus, Jesus (unlike manna) is the true bread who came down from heaven. Unlike the Israeli fathers, who ate mere manna and died, he who places his trust in Jesus and thus partakes of Him and His life will live forever.
We are informed that Jesus taught these truths in the synagogue at Capernaum (John 6:59). What were the results of Jesus' proclaiming of Himself to be the Bread of Life? I have no doubt that even those disciples who believed in Him did not grasp the full significance of what He was teaching until after His death and resurrection.
But we are given a window into the reactions of many of Jesus' disciples. We read, "Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, 'This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?'" (John 6:60). "But Jesus, conscious that His disciples grumbled at this, said to them," (John 6:61-64a)
Does this cause you to stumble? What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.
Once again, Jesus hammered home His main thrust. It is imperative for all people that they believe in Jesus and that they believe His words (John 6:64). The difficulty was that Jesus knew from the very beginning who the ones were who did not believe in Him, and He knew who would betray Him (John 6:64).
Moreover, Jesus repeated, "For this reason I have said to you, that no one comes to Me unless it has been granted him from My Father" (John 6:65).
What happened next? The text tells us, "As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore" (John 6:66). In all honesty, I am afraid I would have run after these disciples, begging them to return. Jesus did not do that. Instead, He turned to the twelve and asked, very directly, "You do not want to go away also, do you?" (John 6:67).
Simon Peter answered, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God" (John 6:68-69).
Jesus concluded, "Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?" (John 6:70). By this, of course, Jesus was speaking of Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, because he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray Him (John 6:71)
Jesus had succeeded in winnowing out the merely curious disciples from the convinced disciples, the Twelve, minus Judas.
It should be self-evident that Jesus was not talking about literally eating His flesh and drinking His blood. Instead, He was talking about faith in and corresponding commitment to Himself. There are many who call themselves "disciples" (i.e. "learners") who are not committed followers of Jesus. Only those whom the Father has given to Jesus (John 6:39) and whom the Father draws to Jesus (John 6:44), will truly trust in Him and remain in Him.
Do not get side-tracked into thinking that you can partake of the Eucharist and save yourself. No mere rite can save you, and that is not what Jesus had in mind here. You have to decide and determine to trust in Jesus completely, and in Him alone. If you do so, you are eating His flesh, crucified for you and your sins; and you are drinking His blood, shed on the cross to pay for you and your sins.
Will you place your trust in Jesus? Or will you place your trust in a wafer and a chalice of wine? The choice is up to you, and it will make an eternal difference.