Well, there’s been a number of comments on this topic, so I’d best man up and let you all know what I’m thinking. Sorry, nothing spectacular, just the naked Bible.
The synoptic gospel references (Matthew, Mark, Luke) are straightforward enough. What needs to be covered are John 6:22-65, 1 Cor 10, and 1 Cor 11. Let’s start with John 6 in this post, breaking this long passage up into manageable morsels (pardon the pun) and underlining some key ideas.
22 On the next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. 23 Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24 So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus. 25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
Notice a few things:
- Jesus links the idea of food that endures to eternal life to himself and to belief (belief in him).
- Our “job” is to BELIEVE on Jesus-the food that endures eternal life. You could say that our job is not to eat, it was to believe. Believing was the eating-not the other way around.
- The bread that is the point of analogy to Jesus isn’t what gives life to the world-it is Jesus, the one who comes down from heaven. What gets people to heaven is belief in Jesus, not the bread that represents Jesus, or belief in the bread that represents Jesus, or belief that the bread represents Jesus. In other words, the object of faith is a WHO, not a WHAT.
35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
A few thoughts:
- Jesus calls himself the bread of life.
- Jesus says he was “sent” by God; this is a reference (no surprise) to the incarnation, where he came as a HUMAN BEING. I know this is obvious-that Jesus came in human flesh-but it will become important in a bit.
- Verse 38’s “I have come down from heaven” is a link back to v.33-that is, God’s plan of salvation focused on a person who is analogized to the bread/manna, not bread that “becomes” or “is” a person. The latter has the cart before the horse.
- The way to salvation is again belief in Jesus, not belief in anything else, or doing anything other than believing in Jesus.
41 So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me- 46 not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “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 you. 54 Whoever feeds on 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 Whoever feeds on 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 whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.
Here’s where the confusion usually starts, but it’s not hard to parse what Jesus is saying here if we do two things: (1) allow what is written/said earlier to inform this section-as opposed to starting with this section and then reading IT back into what was said earlier; and (2) filtering what is said here by what Jesus says afterward. What he says afterward is completely consistent with what he said before this section. So the key interpretive issue is, are you going to start with the “eating flesh” language and use it as a guide to comment on Jesus’ preceding and following explanations, or are you going to let Jesus’ explanations be the guide to the “eating flesh” language?
If you let Jesus’ preceding and following explanations actually explain this middle part, it’s easy. If you don’t, you end up thinking bread becomes flesh, and then having to explain why you never poop that out, since Jesus says that he (his flesh and blood”) abides in whoever takes it. Supernatural constipation? I don’t think so.
Here we go . . . In light of Jesus’ preceding explanation that sets up the “eating flesh” language, it’s obvious Jesus doesn’t want people to think the following:
- That he is literal bread
- That he’ll become literal bread
- That literal bread will become him
- That what’s flowing through his veins is wine, or that it will become wine, or that wine will become his blood.
- Does Jesus assert any of these ideas in the passage? No-there is no declaration that any of these things is going to happen. There’s a running analogy going on, but Jesus has made clear that what gets you to heaven is the one (the person) that came down from heaven. This is made clear again from verse 57 – As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.
- “whoever feeds on me will live” – you have three options for understanding this:
- (1) Whoever literally eats Jesus’ literal flesh will live. At least some of the Jews thought Jesus was saying something this nutty, which is why Jesus corrects this perception in what follows (see below). Besides, the OT law forbade the consumption of human flesh (Lev. 26:29) and blood (Lev. 3:17; 19:26).
- (2) Whoever eats some literal bread that I will give him will live. Now for a lesson on the obvious, but something hidden in plain sight apparently: Notice that Jesus never hands out any bread-in fact, John 6 is NOT the Last Supper scene.1 In all three synoptic gospels the Last Supper, upon which the Lord’s Supper is based (at least according to Paul!), Jesus does two things after he has made the connection between his broken body and the bread, and his blood, the wine, and the new covenant: (A) he washes the feet of the disciples, and (B) he tells them one among them will betray him. John doesn’t record the Last Supper like the synoptic gospels do, and the synoptic gospels don’t have the footwashing-but ALL four gospels have the announcement of the betrayal, and in John it comes in John 13:21-20, completely disconnected from John 6. Frankly, there is good reason to exclude the passage from the communion / Lord’s Supper issue entirely. This is actually my preference, since none of the actual Last Supper passages have any language like this (eating flesh, drinking blood) and this passage is not John’s version of the Last Supper scene. It’s totally unrelated, at least if we care about context and the flow of the life of Jesus in the gospels. I included it here because I’d be expected. But in reality, it’s just part of the mythology that has defined the Lord’s Supper. We KNOW absolutely what is behind the Lord’s Supper since Paul tells us (“the same night in which he was betrayed he took bread ….”). That ain’t happening in John 6, so this #2 option doesn’t work either.
- (3) Whoever feeds on me = whoever believes in me. This is precisely what Jesus has been saying up to this point. He isn’t talking about literally eating ANYTHING at any time; he’s talking about believing in him.
60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
- It is the Spirit that gives life, and has not said ANYWHERE in John 6 that one gets the spirit by eating literal bread or flesh.
- Jesus says, “What I’ve just told you (my words) are spirit and life.” This is easy to reconcile with what he said before-that all of this is an analogy. It’s a little harder to reconcile if one thinks Jesus has been speaking on literal terms.
- When Jesus says that there are some that don’t believe (v. 64). His concern is that people will believe on him (see v. 40), not that they won’t believe the bread turns into him, or believe anything about bread and wine. This belief is connected to the Father drawing people to believe on Jesus (see vv. 44-45)-not the Father drawing people to take communion.
On to 1 Corinthians 10-11 in the next post…
- John 6:22 begins, “on the next day…” which chronologically disconnects the “I am the bread of life” event from the feeding of the 5000 at the beginning of the chapter, where Jesus did distribute bread. The point that John 6 is not the Last Supper and thus isn’t connected to the Lord’s Supper still stands, even with respect to the feeding of the 5000, since the chronology presented by the gospels has the Last Supper happening AFTER the feeding of the 5000. As a result, the feeding of the 5000 can’t be echoing the Last Supper (and hence the Lord’s Supper / communion, since the latter had not yet taken place. One could suppose that the writer (writing after all these events) or later editors of the gospels wanted to suggest a connection, but that would be an argument based on psychologizing an author/editor. In other words, it would be an argument based on one’s imagination of the writing process, hardly a secure argument. ↩