John 6 and Jesus’ teaching about his body and blood and bread and manna from heaven is very symbolic. How should we interpret it, as it relates to the Eucharist or the Lord’s Table or Communion?
This post is taken from my ongoing project of translating and commenting on the NT.
The translation is mine. If you would like to see others, please go to biblegateway.com.
John 6:47-59, 63:
47 I tell you the firm truth: The one who believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and died. 50 This is the one who is the bread coming down from heaven, so that anyone may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread coming down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever, and the bread which I will give is my flesh, on behalf of the life of the world.
52 Then the Jews began to quarrel with each other, saying, “How can this one give his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, I tell you the firm truth: unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves. 54 The one eating my flesh and drinking my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is the true food and my blood is the true drink. 56 The one eating my flesh and drinking my blood dwells in me and I in him. 57 Just as the living Father has sent me, so I also live because of the Father, and the one feeding on me—that one will also live because of me. 58 This is the bread coming down from heaven, not like the bread which your ancestors ate and died. The one eating this bread will live forever. 59 He said these things in the synagogue, teaching in Capernaum.
63 The Spirit gives life, the flesh profits nothing. The words which I have spoken to you are Spirit and are life. (John 6:47-59, 63)
Let’s take things verse by verse.
In v. 47 the people have to respond in faith. So God’s love draws people, and some people’s hearts open up and receive the Son by faith, and other people walk away. The drawing of the Father can be ignored. People do it all the time. We have to be careful at this juncture about making the theological leap towards concluding that God has not offered salvation to everyone; he does offer it to everyone, but the problem is that not everyone receives it in faith. And we have to be really careful about claiming that God himself has shut the door in people’s hearts and minds, as if he causes their refusal. No, they decide—they refuse—on their own. Human free will is God’s sovereign gift to humanity, and God temporarily respects his gift to them, but here will come a day when his sovereignty will be fully exerted and reject those who have resisted his offer of salvation.
“Faith is not a onetime event that covers all exigencies of the future but an ongoing trust in God that transforms the life and conduct of the believer in the here and now. Everlasting life belongs to those who are allowing faith to become the controlling factor of their existence” (Mounce, comments on vv. 47-48).
Jesus makes his proclamation once again (see vv. 34-35). He is the bread of life or the bread that gives life. He is spiritual bread, and the one who feasts on it has life. Once again, we feed on his “person” to indicate that this is his presence and Spirit, not his physical body. Even when Jesus talks about his flesh and blood, he means it symbolically. This feasting is done by faith and in the power of the Spirit (v. 63). It is important to note at this stage that people feast on it. He will expand the metaphor in v. 51 and 53-57 to say that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood, spiritually or symbolically. The fact that he introduces the metaphor right now tells us not to take the symbolism too far when he introduces his flesh and blood.
Jesus contrasts eating the manna from heaven with his being the bread of life. The people who ate the physical manna-bread died, though it too came down from heaven. In contrast, the true bread coming down from heaven can be eaten, and then people will not die spiritually, but live forever spiritually. Yes, they will die physically, so that explains why Jesus has kept saying he will raise them—their bodies—up on the last day (39, 40, 44, 54). But those who belong to him will never die in their soul and spirit. They have eternal life.
Jesus repeats the theology and spiritual reality which the Jews inside the synagogue had such a difficulty in understanding. “I am the bread of life.” Recall vv. 19-20. In Greek he literally says, “I AM.” In Exod. 3:14, in the Septuagint (pronounced sep-too-ah-gent, a third-to-second century BC translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek), the Greek reads “I am.” Jesus may be referring to this language, indicating that he is God in the flesh. In any case it is a sure thing that he means “I am” the bread coming down from heaven, and whoever eats of it will live forever. This is in contrast to the ancient Israelites who died after they ate the manna.
Things really become difficult, because he now says that this bread is his flesh, which is “for” or “in behalf of” or “on behalf of” (the Greek preposition huper can mean all three things) the life of the world. The kosmos (the “world”) in John’s Gospel is the dark place where God must invade and rescue it. (See vv. 32-33 for more comments.) So Jesus will give his flesh for or in behalf or on behalf of the world’s life. So the offer is broad. If the world would only believe and receive, but many do not. Regardless of their reception or refusal, the offer is made to the world, and his bread—his flesh, his sacrificial death on the cross—provides eternal life for the world.
Yes, there really is the doctrine of substitutionary atonement in this verse. He stands in for the world, in behalf of the world, for the sake or benefit of the world. He substitutes for us on the cross, offering his flesh for the life of the dark and needy world.
Bruce explains this verse perfectly:
The reader of John’s record can recognize this language as sacrificial, remembering, for example the Baptist’s designation of Jesus as ‘the Lamb of, that takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). To give one’s flesh can scarcely mean anything other than death, and the wording here points to a death which is both voluntary (‘I will give’) and vicarious ‘for the life of the world’). When we recall the apt description of this Gospel as ‘the gospel of fulfilment,’ we may think of the voluntary and vicarious self-offering of the Servant of the Lord in Isa. 53:13-53:12). The Servant’s death was to bring blessing to ‘the many’ (Isa. 53:11), from Israel and Gentiles alike (cf. Isa. 49:6). So Jesus takes the widest view of those who are to benefit by his death: he will give his flesh ‘for the life of the world.’ The worldwide scope of his saving work has been emphasized already in this Gospel: the Son of God was sent ‘that the world should be saved through him’ (John 3:17); he is, as the Samaritans confessed, ‘the Saviour of the world.’ (John 4:42). (comment on v. 51)
The preposition for is found repeatedly in the Fourth Gospel in a sacrificial context: 10:11, 15; 11:51-52; 15:13; 17:19; 18:14 and 13:37-48. Recall that Jesus was always proclaimed the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29, 36). “Jesus himself is the one who gives his flesh: his sacrifice is voluntary (cf. Heb. 9:13-14). And since it is for the life of the world, his sacrifice is vicarious [substitutionary or stands in for us]. It is hard not to think of the Suffering Servant (Is. 52:13-53:12), the more so since Isaiah 54 has just been quoted (John 6:45) and becomes quite central to the thought of John 12. Isaiah’s ‘Servant’ reaches out to Jews and Gentiles alike (Is. 49:6); the same emphasis is struck here, in that Jesus gives himself for the life of the world (cf. 3:15-17; 4:42)” (Carson, comments on v. 51).
Now the Jews—presumably the synagogue leaders—launch into a debate about how Jesus can give his flesh to be eaten. Who can blame them, on a superficial level? They think literally, while Jesus is speaking symbolically. I, too, if I lived in their culture and were listening to him in a synagogue, would have had a difficult time with such symbolism. But Jesus takes things more deeply and more symbolically, in the next verses.
However, for us today, Beasley-Murray observes how well acquainted we are with the metaphors of consuming and ingesting: we “devour” books, “drink in” a lecture, “swallow” a story (if we “swallow” an insult we forbear to reply) we “ruminate” (chew cud) on an idea or poem, we “chew over” a matter, we “stomach” something said, and we sometimes have to eat our own words! (p. 99). We can therefore understand these difficult symbolic images.
Now Jesus speaks in hard-hitting symbolism. So let’s use the diagram to see how we can understand him, to be read from the bottom up.
2.. What Does It or He Symbolize?
1.. Physical Object or Person
Now let’s fill it in:
2.. Complete union with Christ
1.. Eating his flesh and drinking his blood
So eating his flesh and drinking his bread symbolizes intimate and complete union in Christ. We are not to take the eating and drinking literally. Of course not.
Now the question become: how symbolically do we take the imagery? All the way to transubstantiation or constantiation or symbols without deeper meaning than the above diagram allows (see v. 56)?
Let’s briefly leave the original context and discuss how various churches may understand this verse and vv. 54-57 in the context of the Eucharist or communion.
Go to this link:
Scroll down to “Church Traditions.”
See v. 63 for more discussion.
Jesus explains what he means by his flesh and blood. His flesh is the true food, and his blood is the true drink. Klink translates the word as “real food” and “real drink.” Either way, it contrasts with food and drink which spoils and cannot lead to eternal life.
Let’s fill in our diagram again:
2.. True food and true drink
1.. His flesh and his blood
So what does he mean by “true”? He means something that does not spoil (v. 12) because it lasts forever. The true bread and the true blood are spiritual which lead to eternal life. In v. 63 he will reveal that his words—the words he is speaking now—are Spirit and life. They symbolically and spiritually mean his flesh and blood, which further means that they lead to new life, once a believer partakes of it by faith and in worship of him in Spirit and truth (John 4:23-24). That is the true food and true drink.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me not producing fruit—he removes it. And every branch producing fruit—he prunes it so that it produces more fruit. … I am the vine, and you are the branches. The one remaining in me and I in him—he produces much fruit because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:1, 5)
It is clear that we do not literally eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus, but symbolically.
Finally, we have the deeper interpretation, which agrees with the diagram under vv. 53-54. Partaking of his flesh and blood = complete union with him. The partaker lives in him, and he in him. Our union with him is like the Son’s union with the Father. “Note here that the eating and drinking is put in the present tense, which stresses its continuing quality. Those who make a practice of eating and drinking the flesh and blood of Jesus sustain that personal relationship. This makes possible the reciprocal indwelling of Christ in the believer and ‘I in him’” (Mounce, comment on v. 56).
“For believing in Christ and keeping his commandments are two things which cannot be separated; there is no true faith without obedience, no true obedience without faith. Moreover, there can be neither true faith nor true obedience without true love, as appears especially in the upper-room discourses later in this Gospel (13:31-33), where the implications of the mutual indwelling of Christ and believers are further developed” (Bruce, comment on v. 56).
So now we have the dependence of the Son on the Father, during the Son’s incarnation. The Father sent Jesus, and Jesus now minister and lives on earth because of the Father. So we have a lifeline between the Father and the Son, while the Son was on earth. The Son is in complete union with the Father. Now when we eat Jesus symbolically, we will live because of him. So we have the same (or similar) union with Jesus that Jesus has with the Father. He is our lifeline.
Here is Matthew’s version:
25 At that time, Jesus answered and said, “I acknowledge to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the ‘wise’ and ‘understanding’ and revealed them to infants. 26 Yes, Father, because in this way it was well pleasing to you. 27 All these things have been given to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father and anyone to whom the son of Man decides to reveal him.” (Matt. 11:25-27)
Jesus repeats what he said in vv. 49-50. The ancient Israelites ate manna from heaven, but they died. So their manna did not give eternal life; it was literal but without spiritual power to give eternal life.
Now let’s complete the diagram:
2.. Jesus’s coming down from heaven (his incarnation)
1.. Bread or manna coming down from heaven
The first level did not last forever but got spoiled; that’s why the ancient Israelites gathered it daily, in a specific amount. If they did not eat it all and before the next day, it spoiled. And even after eating it daily, they eventually died.
16 This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Everyone is to gather as much as they need. Take an omer [3 pounds or about 1.4 kilograms] for each person you have in your tent.’”
17 The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. 18 And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.
19 Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.”
20 However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. (Exod. 16:16-20, NIV)
But the second level of the diagram teaches us that the bread of heaven is Jesus, and this bread never spoils, and we can partake of him as much as we want, without limit. Partaking of him will give eternal life. This partaking puts us in union with him, as he is in union with the Father.
We now learn that Jesus was saying these things in the synagogue. His teaching blew their minds and limited cultural reference. In the next major pericope (vv. 60-71), distant and uncommitted disciples will abandon him because of this metaphorically charged teaching. They will probably abandon him also because they were not going to get any literal bread in an endless supply of miraculous feedings. What will the twelve disciples do?
This verse unlocks the long, symbolically charged pericope. Literally the Greek reads: “The Spirit is the lifemaker.” His words are intended to speak of spiritual things, for the Spirit alone gives life. We are called to receive the life of the Spirit by symbolically and by faith eating his flesh and symbolically and by symbolically and by faith drinking his blood. This deep union with the Son is empowered by the Spirit and by our faith.
“There is also a hearing of the inner person. To hear in this way is to take the next step and actually commit oneself to the message. When this happens, it is the Spirit giving life through the words of Jesus. This same phenomenon is true today. To read God’s Word and find one’s heart ‘strangely warm (as John Wesley put it) is to discover oneself in actual communication with the Sprit, whose role is to illumine the believing heart” (Mounce, comment on v. 63).
“The concept of flesh is not to be simply imported from the apostle Paul, for in John “flesh is merely the body and its limitations. The point is quite simple: ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’ are different spheres of reality, each producing offspring like itself. ‘Neither can take to itself the capacity of the other’” (Klink, comment on v. 63, quoting another commentator, Hoskyns).
“The history not only of the apostolic age but of the whole Christian era shows what regenerative power resides in the words of his who spoke as no other ever did. But if his words do not ‘meet with faith in the hearers’ (Heb. 4:2), they cannot do them the good they otherwise would; and so it was with those ‘disciples’” (Bruce, comments on vv. 61-64).
Carson points out that the clause “the flesh profits nothing” denies the sacramental interpretation of the entire passage (comment on v. 63). However, Catholics and high church Protestants would claim that Jesus is speaking of a spiritual meaning, into which they insert the miraculous transubstantiation or the real presence of Christ in, under and around the elements.
I can sure see why the Catholics and high church Protestants see deeper meaning in the section about eating his flesh and drinking his blood; however, I still remain unconvinced of a miraculous transubstantiation under the appearances or his presence in, under, and around the two elements (so Carson was right, in the previous paragraph).
I do not believe that Jesus had in mind the Aristotelian and Thomist doctrine of “substance” when he symbolized his body and blood. That interpretation takes the original context and symbolism a step too far.
Yet, I will not quarrel with Roman Catholics and high church Protestants to try to convince them that their article of faith on communion or the Eucharist—an article which cannot be verified empirically (by our five senses)—is obviously wrong. For the rest of us, we believe that the Spirit gives meaning to the elements of bread and wine, in the hearts of the partakers (v. 63).
The main point is that life in the Spirit is the whole project and new way that God grants to people in the New Covenant (Luke 24:49; John 20:22; entire book of Acts; Rom. 8; Gal. 5). People of the Old Covenant did not have life in the Spirit, in the same way, both extensive and intensive, as do people of the New. So the Spirit is involved in our partaking of the two elements. Thus, hopefully these verses take away the objection that importing the Spirit into the passages about Lord’s Supper, which do not bring up the Spirit in the Synoptics, is eisegesis.
I prefer streamlined simplicity in my interpretation of Scripture, and the Spirit gives life to my heart when I symbolically partake of the two elements.
For for a longer conclusion, please click here and scroll down to the Conclusion section:
Offsite: James M. Arcadi. “‘This Is My Body’ Broken into Three Views of Communion.” Christianity Today, 9 Mar. 2022. Excellent brief overview. If the link goes dead, just copy and paste the key words in a search engine.
Beasley-Murray George R. John. Word Biblical Commentary. Rev. ed. Zondervan, 1999.
Borchert, Gerald L. John 1-11. New American Commentary. Vol. 25a. Broadman and Holman, 1996.
Bruce, F. F. The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, and Notes. Eerdmans, 1983.
Carson, D. A. The Gospel according to John. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Eerdmans, 1991.
The Greek New Testament. Fifth Revised Edition by Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger (United Bible Society, 2014).
Novakovic, Lidija. John 1-10: A Handbook on the Greek Text. A Handbook on the Greek Text. Baylor UP, 2020.
Klink, Edward W. John. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Zondervan, 2016.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel according to John. Rev. ed. Eerdmans, 1995.
Mounce, Robert H. John. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Rev. ed. Zondervan, 2007.