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Unless You Eat The Flesh of The Son of Man and Drink His Blood

So Jesus said to them, “I assure you: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life in yourselves. Anyone who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day, because My flesh is real food and My blood is real drink. The one who eats My flesh and drinks My blood lives in Me, and I in him. Just 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. This is the bread that came down from heaven; it is not like the manna your fathers ate—and they died. The one who eats this bread will live forever.”
-John 6:53-58

This is the original "hard saying" of Jesus.(1)  After saying this, some disciples remarked that this was a hard teaching, and, "many of his disciples turned back and no longer accompanied (followed) him."(vs. 66)  

Today, this saying is still a hard saying, because it is either hard to understand or is something we don't want to do.(2)  Obeying Jesus is hard and impossible, without God's help and our total surrender.

He is the bread of life.  We must take him into our lives and assimilate his life in ours.  This is another way of saying the same thing as, "You must be born again".  Eternal life comes from his life in our lives.

John 6 begins with the feeding of the five thousand, where Jesus miraculously multiplied the bread and fish.  People remembered the manna and quail that came from God, during Moses time, and perhaps expected the Messiah to feed them like that.

John 6 is not about the Eucharist, the Lord's Supper, or Communion.  The earliest exegetical interpreters, such as Clement, Origen, and Eusebius interpreted the whole Bread of Life Discourse (John 6:22-66) spiritually.(3)  

Here is what Jesus said just before he said, "Unless you eat":
“I assure you: Anyone who believes has eternal life.  I am the bread of life.  Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.  This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that anyone may eat of it and not die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.”
-John 6:47-51
Jesus has been speaking about receiving eternal life from him by faith, in his words to the people, in John chapter 6.  His coming down, came down, is a single act.  When he states, "Anyone may eat", and, "If anyone eats", it is also a single act. (Morris, p. 331, explains the aoist tense in the Greek.)

Eating this bread causes one to not die, but to live forever.  This is the bread of everlasting life.  Once you eat it, you will never be hungry and the one who believes will never be thirsty again (vs. 35).  "The bread that I will give for the life of the world", looks to the gift that would soon be made at Calvary (Morris, p. 331).  "I will give", is a one time, single act.  We receive this gift of life, given through the cross, once.

The context of The Bread of Life discourse, in John 6, is Christ.  The bread that came down from heaven is Christ.  Eating and drinking Christ is the means of bringing eternal life.  We must assimilate and appropriate Christ.

Once we partake of him, we are forever changed.  Our hunger and thirst are taken away.  Now that we have him, we want more of him.  The unbeliever struggles with the whole concept of assimilating and appropriating Christ, because they have not done this and still have that unsatisfied hunger and thirst.

They can see Christ, but not believe (vs. 36).  When Jesus was on the cross, people looked at him and did not believe.  One of the men next to him looked at him and believed, while the second one did not.  It is the same way today.

At that, the Jews argued among themselves, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?”
So Jesus said to them, “I assure you: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life in yourselves. Anyone who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day,  because My flesh is real food and My blood is real drink. The one who eats My flesh and drinks My blood lives in Me, and I in him.  Just 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.  This is the bread that came down from heaven; it is not like the manna your fathers ate—and they died. The one who eats this bread will live forever.”
-John 6:52-8
The people did not understand what Jesus said.  They argued, verbally fought.  They still took his words too literally.  "How can this man be incorporated into us?", they might have said.

Jesus is more direct here and it is interesting that he says "flesh", which calls attention to his physical, historical, human body.  Jesus was a real person, flesh and blood, who felt pain.  It was not all an illusion, but the incarnation really happened.  That, I think, is the idea encapsulated in the stark word "flesh":

"The Word became flesh", writes John (1:14).  "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man", calls to mind the incarnation, and the fact that Jesus was born and lived as a man, in order to redeem mankind.  This is one of the glorious aspects of the gospel.

The flesh and blood of the Son is laid down (sacrificed) for the life of the world.  This is a repeated idea in John's Gospel (cf. 10:11, 15; 11:51-2, 15:13, 17:19, 18:14).  Jesus is the Suffering Servant that Isaiah wrote about (Is. 52:13-53:12, 49:6).

Jesus is both from heaven, "I am the bread that came down from heaven" (John 6:32, 33, 37, 41-42, 50-1, 58), and a man, the one man, the Son of Man.  "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man", means that to gain eternal life we must eat, take in, assimilate, or appropriate the real flesh and blood (6:32, 55) of the Son, who is the one whom God sets his seal of approval on (6:27), who descended and ascends 'to where he was before' (6:62).  The Son of man is the man where God is supremely revealed.(4)
"The one who feeds on Me will live because of Me.  This is the bread that came down from heaven; it is not like the manna your fathers ate—and they died. The one who eats this bread will live forever.”
We never have spiritual life in ourselves, but only in Christ.  There is no genuine spiritual life outside of Jesus.(5)



Debunking The Notion That John 6 is About The Eucharist

First, some notes about The Lord's Supper.  There are several helpful articles on The Lord's Supper, at the bottom of this post.

The word Eucharist is not in the Bible.  It comes from the verb that means "give thanks" (1 Cor. 11:24)  The application of that thanksgiving is when we give thanks for our food or "say grace" before a meal.

The Apostle Paul identifies or describes the sharing of food, while calling attention to Jesus Christ as "The Lord's Supper" (1 Cor. 11:20), which is a meal (vs. 21).  The background of this meal is that of God enjoying fellowship with humans during meals.  God created Adam and Eve, "For fellowship with himself", so, "Then every meal that Adam and Eve ate would have been a meal or feast in the presence of the Lord".(Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 989)

Is there a basis, found in the OT, for having a meal in the presence of God?  Yes.  For example, Exodus 24:9-11 reads,
"Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and 70 of Israel’s elders, and they saw the God of Israel. Beneath His feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire stone, as clear as the sky itself. God did not harm the Israelite nobles; they saw Him, and they ate and drank"
And, Deut. 12:7 & 14:26b,
"You will eat there in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice with your household in everything you do, because the LORD your God has blessed you." & "You are to feast there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice with your family."
It is also interesting that Jesus said, at The Last Supper, that he looked forward to drinking with his disciples, in the future (Matt. 26:26) and also there will be a great feast of eating with God, called The Marriage Supper of Lamb (Rev. 19:9).  Wayne Grudem writes this in his, "Background in the History of Redemption", section on The Lord's Supper:
From genesis to Revelation, then, God's aim has been to bring his people into fellowship with himself, and one of the great joys of experiencing that fellowship is the fact that we can eat and drink in the presence of the Lord.  It would be healthy for the church today to recapture a more vivid sense of God's presence at the table of the Lord.

Jesus is not talking about the Eucharist, in John 6.

  • The setting is the synagogue in Capernaum.(John 6:59)  Jesus was speaking to a crowd that contained lukewarm opponents.  It would be absurd that Jesus would be speaking about (alluding to) something (Eucharist, communion) that would be only practiced later.  This would be completely mystifying.(6)

  • The strong language that Jesus uses ("Unless you eat") is absolute.  He cannot mean that you must take the Lord's Supper to be saved, because there is no repentance, no conversion, no believing.  It is absurd to think that he is saying you must take the Eucharist to have eternal life.  This cannot be about communion, because he is't saying that if you don't take communion, you cannot be saved.  To say that this verse (John 6:53) is about the Eucharist, and that in the Eucharist we are saved, is to be out of step with the whole NT, which teaches that salvation comes through faith (John 3:16 for example).(7)  

  • The consequences of the eating and drinking here are also spoken of by John in chapter 6, verse 35, "No one who comes to me will ever be hungry and no one who comes to me will ever be thirsty", verse 40, "Everyone who sees the Son and believes on Him may have eternal life , and I will raise him up on the last day", and verse 47, "Anyone who believes has eternal life".(8)  These are not the consequences of taking communion, but of taking Christ into your life.

  • These words, spoken from the first century would have had a metaphorical meaning: taking into one's innermost being.  The language here simply cannot refer to Holy Communion, or even a prophetic teaching about it.  The teaching stands alone, having its own full and consistent meaning in connection with the actual circumstances.(9)

Conclusion

The meaning of Jesus' words, 
"Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life in your selves", 
are, that eating Jesus' flesh and drinking his blood, point to the same central saving act, described in John 3:16.  Jesus speaks of giving his flesh (vs. 51), but we must appropriate this gift by faith (vs. 47). Eating his flesh and drinking his blood is an extraordinary way of saying this.  The Son of Man must be assimilated into the life (the spiritual organism) of the believer.(10)

As Jesus said to Nicodemus,(John 3:3-21) he says here, that we have to take him into our innermost beings to have the life he died to give us.  The emphasis that Jesus makes in these verses is that he himself is the source of eternal life: the incarnate Son "only as given up in death, who is the bread of life."(11)

To somehow misunderstand Jesus words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, to mean the bread and wine of the Eucharist, is to be in the same place as Nicodemus, who's eyes, ears, and mind were on earthly things rather than, the spiritual revelation of Jesus' words.(12)


This verse, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood", "refers to the spiritual appropriation of Christ".(13)  It secondarily shows us how we should receive communion.  The exegete, F.D. Maurice wrote this in 1885:
If you ask me, then, whether he is speaking of the Eucharist here, I would say, 'No'.  If you ask me where I can learn the meaning of the Eucharist, I would say, 'No where so well as here'.(14)
This passage of scripture teaches and John intended it to teach that Christ is present in the everyday life of the believer.  In the ancient church, the bread and the wine, in communion, were not symbols of Jesus' body and blood, but joyful signs of his presence.  They celebrated the resurrection of Jesus and anticipated his return in glory without memorializing his passion and death.(15)  





________________________________________
Footnotes:
1. F.F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of The Bible, p. 498
2. ibid
3. Brown, The Spiritual Gospel, 1960, p. 52
4. D.A Carson, John, p. 296
5. idid, p. 299
6. Morris, John, pp. 312-3
7. ibid
8. ibid
9. Odeberg, The Fourth Gospel, p. 256
10. ibid, p. 239
11. D.G. Dunn, NTS, XVII, (1970-1), pp. 337-8
12. Odeberg, The Fourth Gospel, p. 256
13. Morris, John, pp. 312-3
15. John M. Perry, NTS, 39, (1993), p. 22

Not cited, but consulted:
C.K. Barrett, John

For more information on The Lord's Supper:

Some Considerations Regarding the Lord's Supper Today, by I. Howard Marshall
The Lord’s Supper — A Holy Meal, by Steve Atkerson
Observing The Lord’s Supper, By Brian Anderson


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