Jesus is the Bread of Life. Just as bread nourishes our physical bodies, Jesus gives and sustains eternal life to all believers.
The day after He had miraculously fed five thousand men, the Jews sought Him eagerly, but their motives were all wrong. They only cared about physical needs. Jesus tells them that He came down from heaven to give eternal life, and that they could have this life by believing in Him. “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).
As He was accustomed, Jesus used figurative language to emphasize these great spiritual truths. “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” However the Jews and many of His followers did not believe that He was the Son of God. They could not understand how He came down from heaven; they knew, or thought they knew, His father. “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that He says, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6:42).
Nor could they understand how He could give us His flesh to eat. Because of their unbelief, they misunderstood His words, as if He was going to literally give them His flesh to eat and His blood to drink. The Jews along with some of His disciples were offended and left Him. Jesus exposes their unbelieving hearts (6:64). On the other hand, the apostles rightly understood, and Peter, speaking on behalf of the apostolic group, confessed their faith in Him.
Jesus explains the sense of the entire passage when He says, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.” (John 6:63). The literal interpretation is absurd and revolting, leading to cannibalism and the drinking of blood contrary to the commandment of God. No eating of any flesh can give spiritual life. The spiritual sense is full of light and sweetness. By faith we partake of Christ, and the benefits of His bodily sacrifice on the cross and the merits of His shed blood, receiving and enjoying eternal life.
Eating and drinking is not with the mouth and the digestive organs of our bodies, but the reception of God’s grace by believing in Christ, as He makes abundantly clear by repeating the same truths both in metaphoric and plain language. Compare for example the following two verses:
- “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life” (v47).
- “He who eats this bread will live forever” (v58).
“He who believes” in Christ is equivalent to “he who eats this bread” because the result is the same, eternal life. The parallel is even more striking between verses 40 and 54:
- “Everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (v40).
- “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (v54).
Seeing and believing in Christ is equivalent to eating and drinking His flesh and blood, for the result is the same: possession of eternal life and resurrection at the last day. We would not be mistaken if we follow Jesus’ own explanation of what it means to eat and drink – Jesus teaches us to believe in Him, the Messiah, the Son of God sent from heaven by the Father for our salvation.
There is an obvious similarity between the discourse in John 6 and the Eucharist. Jesus speaks of eating His flesh and drinking His blood, which is similar to eating the bread and drinking the wine at the Lord’s Supper.
However, Jesus’ discourse is not primarily a reference to the Eucharist, but to His sacrifice on the cross. He says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” This expression is similar to others in John’s gospel (3:15,16; 10:11,17,18; 12:24), all of which undoubtedly refer to His death on the cross. This explains the resemblance between Jesus’ discourse on the bread of life and the Eucharist, which is a proclamation of His death. Both of them are pointing to the one momentous event of our redemption, the sacrifice of the cross.
Moreover, in John 6 the Lord Jesus underlines the necessity of feeding on Him by faith to have eternal life; similarly the Eucharist represents the communion of the Believers in His body and blood. John 6 points to the spiritual reality the Lord’s Supper also signifies – our participation in Christ by faith, and the benefits of His redemption, eternal life, through Him.
However it would be a mistake to see the fulfillment of this passage in the Eucharist rather than in the sacrifice of Christ, as if one can only feed on Christ by partaking of the Eucharistic bread and wine rather than by believing in Him. For Jesus declares this eating and drinking to be absolutely necessary for salvation, but not even Roman Catholics believe this to be true of the Eucharist.
Moreover, if eating flesh and drinking blood means taking the Eucharistic elements, as Catholics assert, then eternal life is received by participating in the sacrament, for Jesus said, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life” (John 6:54). If this interpretation is correct, we would expect that the author of the gospel to give due prominence to the Lord’s Supper, especially since his stated purpose for writing was to teach us how we may have eternal life (John20:30,31). It is therefore highly significant that of the four evangelists, only John does not include an account of the institution of the Eucharist in his gospel. In the light of this conspicuous omission, one should reconsider whether eternal life is obtained in some way other than the Eucharist.
John states, “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30,31). The feeding of the five thousand, along with the other signs, was recorded so that we may believe that Jesus is the divine Messiah, and that through this faith we might have eternal life. This agrees perfectly with Jesus’ explanation of eating His flesh and drinking His blood – “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst…Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life” (John 6:35, 47).
We do not belittle the importance of the Eucharist in the Christian experience, yet we must assert the primary importance of faith in Christ for eternal life. That is the biblical emphasis.
Rebutting Catholic Arguments – with a little help from Augustine
Was Jesus speaking figuratively?
- Catholic apologists assert that Jesus was speaking literally when He spoke of eating His flesh and drinking His blood. This is evidently not so. Jesus was using figurative language as He usually did. In John’s Gospel, Jesus referred to His body as the temple (2:19); He called Himself the Light of the world (8:12), and we are called to follow Him; He is “the door” (10:9) through whom we enter for salvation; He is the “good shepherd” (10:11) and “the true vine” (15:1) and the disciples are compared to sheep and branches. That Jesus is the bread of life and that we should feed on Him is but a similar figurative expression illustrating the great spiritual truth that Jesus is the Divine Messiah who gives eternal life to all who believe.
- A Catholic apologist presents this argument: “The Greek word he used for ‘eats’ (tragon) is very blunt and has the sense of ‘chewing’ and ‘gnawing.’ This is not the language of metaphor.” Well, why not? Metaphors are intended to be graphic and impressive. Trogo stresses the slow process of eating. In the New Testament it is also used for ordinary eating (see Matthew 24:38; John 13:18; etc). Moreover, Jesus also uses the ordinary word for eating (phago) in the same passage (verses 50,51,53 etc). Since the two terms are used to make the same point – e.g. compare verse 53 (phago) and verse 54 (trogo) – they are practically equivalent.
- In his discussion on the interpretation of figurative expressions, Augustine uses “eating flesh and drinking blood” as a typical example of a metaphor! He explains: “If the sentence is one of command, either forbidding a crime or vice, or enjoining an act of prudence or benevolence, it is not figurative. If, however, it seems to enjoin a crime or vice, or to forbid an act of prudence or benevolence, it is figurative. “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man,” says Christ, “and drink His blood, ye have no life in you.” This seems to enjoin a crime or a vice; it is therefore a figure, enjoining that we should have a share in the sufferings of our Lord, and that we should retain a sweet and profitable memory of the fact that His flesh was wounded and crucified for us” (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, III).
Did the Jews understand literally and correctly? Would not Jesus have corrected them if they had misunderstood?
- Initially Jesus spoke plainly about the necessity of believing in Him. Yet the Jews would not believe. They were seeking Jesus for carnal motives. They asked Him for a sign even when their stomachs were still full of the miraculous bread he had fed them the day before. They objected that He could not have “come down from heaven” as they knew (or thought they knew) His father. Jesus never corrected them. Later on He spoke to them in veiled speech as He used to do in the case of unbelief and reasserted His claims in bold language. Knowing that the disciples grumbled among themselves, Jesus warned them not to think carnally, but spiritually – He foretold His ascension into heaven (and therefore He was not speaking about literal flesh eating). His words are spirit and life. He accused them of unbelief and exposed their hardness of heart stating that no-one would come to Him unless drawn by the Father. At that point, many of his followers left. The underlying reason was unbelief and not some innocent misunderstanding. Externally they were “disciples” – inwardly they were unbelievers like the other Jews. Jesus knew their heart: “Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe.”
- The following quotations prove that Augustine taught that the Jews did not understand correctly:
- The Jews, therefore, strove among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” They strove, and that among themselves, since they understood not… (Augustine, Tractate 26).
- Therefore ‘it is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing,’ as they understood the flesh, but not so do I give my flesh to be eaten (Augustine, Tractate 27).
- For they supposed that He was going to deal out His body to them; but He said that He was to ascend into heaven, of course, whole: “when ye shall see the Son of man ascending where He was before;” certainly then, at least, you will see that not in the manner you suppose does He dispense His body; certainly then, at least, you will understand that His grace is not consumed by tooth-biting (Augustine, Tractate 27).
- They understood not who believed not…they were offended through their understanding spiritual things in a carnal sense (Augustine, Tractate 27).
- It seemed unto them hard that He said, ‘Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, ye have no life in you:’ they received it foolishly, they thought of it carnally, and imagined that the Lord would cut off parts from His body, and give unto them; and they said, ‘This is a hard saying.’ It was they who were hard, not the saying… (Augustine, Psalm 99).
In other words, the Jews understood literally…but wrongly and foolishly! Moreover, Jesus corrected their crass literalism but their hearts were hard and they would not listen.
Could “eating flesh” be a figure of something positive?
- Catholic apologists argue that the figurative meaning of eating flesh and drinking blood as used by the Jews is always negative, implying inflicting injury, calumny or false accusation. Therefore in John 6 eating and drinking cannot be taken figuratively and must be understood literally.
- There is no doubt that figurative “eating flesh” is used negatively, but the conclusion that it can never be used in a positive sense is absurd. Depending on the context, the same figure is often used to express opposites. Augustine writes: “For things that signify now one thing and now another…They signify contraries, for example, when they are used metaphorically at one time in a good sense, at another in a bad…Bread is used in a good sense, ‘I am the living bread which came down from heaven;’ in a bad, ‘Bread eaten in secret is pleasant.’ And so in a great many other case” (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine). We know that eating flesh could mean a physical injury or a false accusation by looking at the context in which it is used. Similarly, if we examine the context of John 6, it is hard to miss Jesus’ explanation that eating flesh and drinking blood should be understood spiritually as coming and believing on Him.
- Augustine corrects the literal interpretation and affirms that “eating” is a positive metaphor for believing.
- This is then to eat the meat, not that which perisheth, but that which endureth unto eternal life. To what purpose dost thou make ready teeth and stomach? Believe, and thou hast eaten already (Augustine, Tractate 25).
- For to believe on Him is to eat the living bread. He that believes eats; he is sated invisibly, because invisibly is he born again (Augustine, Tractate 26).
John 6 does not afford any support to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. On the contrary, it is an emphatic statement on the primacy of faith as the means by which we receive the grace of God. Jesus is the Bread of Life; we eat of Him and are satisfied when we believe in Him.
Jesus challenged the apostles, and He challenges us today: “Do you also want to go away?”
May our response by like Peter’s. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (John 6:68,69).
© Dr Joseph Mizzi. Permission is given to reproduce and distribute this article in any format, provided that the wording is not altered and that no fee is charged. Please include the following statement on distributed copies:
© Dr Joseph Mizzi. Website: http://www.justforcatholics.org. Used by permission.