Gospel of John, Chapter Six
The sixth chapter of the Gospel of John is generally considered by Catholics to be ‘The Chapter’ which expounds on their belief about the bread and the wine being the actual Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Dissenters claim Jesus’ own words in 6:63 ‘clarify’ that Jesus means the food and drink He will give is “spirit and life”.
In studying Catholic apologetics this chapter comes up several times. Of course, I had read it for myself, but when I decided to re-read the Gospel of John, Chapter 6 became a profound chapter for me. So much so that I spent three days slowly reading it and recording my thoughts on it. They are transcribed below. (It might be helpful to have your Bible open to chapter 6 so that you can follow along with what I’m saying.)
JOHN CHAPTER 6
(my own thoughts)
In the beginning of the chapter Jesus seems to be trying to get his followers to focus not on the temporal sustenance of life because it won’t last. Jesus wants to focus them on something that will give them eternal life: Himself. Why? Because He’s from Heaven sent by God Himself. By focusing His disciples on the spiritual side of His teaching, He takes their mind off of temporal bread that doesn’t profit a man’s eternal soul (v 27). i.e. – the manna, even though from God in Heaven was not for the profit of the eternal soul. It was only temporary sustenance. (Hence, the verse where Jesus says, “they ate the manna yet still died” [v 49].) He is also chastising them for seeking the temporal bread He had provided them the day before with the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, for which they are seeking him out again (v 26). He was not there to be a duplication of the miracle of manna, to be their source of daily bread on a temporal level. (Hence, the, you’re chasing me because I fed you. Don’t seek what is on earth.) Once He gets their minds to a point of telling them to seek the heavenly things, He introduces them to the crux of the matter. In verse 50 jesus introduces an idea to them that He has, up and to this point, not said. He gives a directive in verse 50 by saying, “Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” Jesus has not said anything before this point about eating bread as a directive going forward. Up to this point He’s only tried to get them to understand that they should seek Him because He offers eternal life as the “true bread that comes down from heaven” (v 50). Now he’s saying that they have to eat this bread to live forever and in case there is any doubt, Jesus makes clear that the bread He is offering won’t be provided through Him for their eternal souls (like the manna or the multiplication of bread). He makes a clear statement in the next verse what this bread shall be, “and the bread that I will give (“will” because He hasn’t performed the Last Supper yet) is my flesh” (v 51)
Jesus is not referring to giving His “flesh for the life of the world” here as His Crucifixion because then there would be no reason to speak of eating His flesh in the previous verse. The Jews do not understand His statement that way either because of their response in the next verse where they quarrel about what He’d just said and they question it. They say, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v 52) At this point, as it is in every gospel account when Jesus is referring to His crucifixion, He could have explained that He was referring to His death on the cross. Jesus never hid this fact from His followers or spoke symbolically or metaphorically about the crucifixion. Instead of off-setting their quarrelling and their disbelief at having to eat His flesh by explaining the idea away with its meaning being a symbol in reference to His crucifixion, He reiterates the flesh idea and includes His blood this time no less that four times in a row. From verses 53 – 56 Jesus explicitly states four times, “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood”; “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood”. Not only is He not trying to dispel their misconception, He explicitly drives the idea home to them by continually using the phrase over and over.
The three benefits to eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking His blood are: They are true food and true drink (v 55), the remain in Him and He in them (v 56), and they have eternal life and will be raised up on the last day (v 54). not only does He makes an outrageous statement four more times, but He lists three incredible results or conditions of His flesh and blood, when consumed, as being beneficial. The result of not eating His flesh and drinking His blood is that you do not have life within you (v 53). Furthermore, the eating of Jesus flesh and drinking of His blood is not conditional. There is no other option that can be created that is valid. Either you eat His flesh and drink His blood and have eternal life because of it or you don’t have his true food and true drink and you have no life within you. A straight reading of this text is quite stark and presents in no uncertain terms – eat it: have life. Don’t eat it: no life.
If understood in the straightforward manner with which it is presented the response of Jesus disciples is understood. “this is a hard saying. Who can accept it?” only the disciples understanding Jesus in a very stark straightforward manner would react this way. If they had understood Him to be speaking symbolically or metaphorically their response would not have been the same one we read. As Fr. John A. O’Brian explains, “The phrase ‘to eat the flesh and drink the blood,’ when used figuratively among the Jews, (as it is among the Arabs of today) meant to inflict upon a person some serious injury, especially by calumny or by false accusation. To interpret the phrase figuratively then would be to make our Lord promise life everlasting to the culprit for slandering and hating him, which would reduce the whole passage to utter nonsense.” (O’Brian The Faith of Millions, 215) Even after their response, Jesus does not try to “clarify” or explain the meaning any differently. he encourages it by saying, “Does this shock you?” (v 61) He then follows by explaining to them that trying to understand this by “logically/mental” human reasoning through the senses of the flesh is not going to help them understand. “The flesh profits nothing” (v 63). Their reasoning in that way avails them nothing. What Jesus is trying to say to them is something they must understand on a spiritual level. It is a matter of faith. The words He is speaking to them “are spirit and life.” (v 63) No mind/senses (flesh) reasoning will work. It cannot help one here. “The flesh avails nothing.” The spirit (understanding by faith) will give you life. That is why He also states, “but there are some of you who do not believe.” (v 64) To misinterpret this verse is to state that Jesus was speaking symbolically the entire time and that His flesh is not what He’s actually speaking of, because it won’t profit you anything makes too much of that statement. If that were true, then there would have been no reason for Jesus to have been born into the flesh in the first place. It wouldn’t have profited us anything. One has to receive His words on faith and with the spiritual mind because the senses of the flesh will not aid you. For this reason He emphasises that one comes to Him by the faith given by the Father.
This revelation by Jesus was so much for his disciples to bear and understand that “many of them returned home” and would not follow Him anymore. Never in the gospels did anyone abandon Jesus because of something He’d taught them. Only in this passage when He talks about them eating His flesh and drinking His blood did they leave. It would have been a moral imperative for Jesus to recall his disciples to Himself and to correct His disciples misunderstanding by providing them with instructions clarifying this teaching as symbolism. Throughout the gospels Jesus is usually at pains to continue to explain to His disciples exactly what he’s talking about with them until they understand it. This is particularly shown in the Gospel of John when Jesus is at pains to explain things to them until they finally understand Him. (John 16:29,30) Instead of helping them to see this message symbolically, Jesus keeps “needling” the point of eating flesh and drinking blood until they reject Him and abandon His teaching. This is the moment He turns to his Apostles and asks them if they’re going to leave too. They reaffirm their belief in Him and the words He spoke to them despite probably not fully comprehending it themselves.
Later in the Bible we see this viewpoint emphasised by Paul in 1 Corinthians. He states:
“The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in (Greek: κοινωνία – “koinōnia” which means ‘to partake’ [of]) the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Cor. 10:16) Therefore, whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the lord… for anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.” (1 Cor. 11: 27, 29)
To answer for the “body and blood” of someone meant to be guilty of a crime as serious as homicide. How could eating mere bread and wine “unworthily” be so serious? Because to be guilty of someone’s body and blood is to commit a crime against his body and blood, not just against symbols of them. Profaning the Eucharist was so serious that the stakes could be life and death. In verse 30 Paul states, “That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying.”
The literal meaning can’t be avoided except through violence to the text and through the rejection of the universal understanding of the early Christian centuries.