After feeding the 5,000 with loaves and fishes Jesus delivered one of His most pointed and powerful sermons on “the food that endures for eternal life” (John 6:27). It is in this sermon that Jesus stated: “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:53-54). Could there be a statement more important than this? It separates those who have eternal life from those who do not; it divides the saved from the lost. Unfortunately, many have limited the application of our Lord’s discourse in John chapter six to the celebration of the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper). There is so much more involved! Let’s take a closer look at John 6:53.
NOT A LITERAL EATING AND DRINKING
Some of the argumentative religious leaders (“the Jews”) thought Jesus was suggesting Christian cannabilism (verse 52). They came away with the wrong idea. He did not offer His literal flesh to those who heard Him that day. What Jesus was talking about was much more profound; it had a deeper meaning.
There is a parallel passage to John 6:54 (“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day”) in John 6:40: “Everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” Both verses speak of gaining eternal life; both focus on Jesus raising us up at the last day. One verse speaks of eating His flesh and drinking His blood; the other of looking to the Son and believing in Him. These phrases are parallel because the subject is the same. “Eating” Christ’s flesh and “drinking” His blood is accomplished by “looking to the Son” and “believing in HIm.” It is a spiritual “eating” to which Jesus refers.
NOT A LITERAL FLESH AND BLOOD
Earlier in this very same discourse, Jesus said: “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). In contrast with literal food which brings no lasting satisfaction, one who eats of the Bread of life will never go hungry again; he will never be thirsty again (John 6:35). Spiritually, one who eats of his Bread “will not die,” but will “live forever” (John 6:50, 58). Jesus is the “living Bread” (John 6:51). He is not speaking of literal bread. His words will make the difference in where we spend eternity. His words are “spirit and they are life” (John 6:63). The disciples of Jesus must allow Him to come into their hearts by listening to His teachings, receiving His words and obeying His commands. In the words of Simon Peter, “Lord … you have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Everyone is invited to this spiritual banquet. Everyone is invited to let Jesus come into his heart, to receive Him and His words, to commit his life to doing His will. This is the food we must eat, the commitment we must make, if we would receive eternal life. No mediocre, half-hearted relationship with Jesus will do!
The Roman Catholic doctrine of “transubstantiation” took many centuries to develop. According to Wikipedia, “The earliest known use of the term “transubstantiation” to describe the change from bread and wine to body and blood of Christ was by Hildebert de Lavardin, Archbishop of Tours (died 1133), in about 1079. (Sermones xciii; PL CLXXI, 776).”
Regardless of the controversial development of the man-made doctrine of transubstantiation, we need to recognize that in John 6:53-54 Jesus is not discussing the subject of Communion. The “eating,” the “bread” and “blood” in this passage are spiritual, not physical.
Early Christians did not believe something magical or mystical happened to the bread and wine of Communion when it was blessed in prayer. They bought into no superstition that if one spilled the wine, drops of the blood of Christ hit the floor. (Church leaders in the 14th century were so concerned about this possibility that they enacted a decree which forbade common people from taking the Communion wine.) They created no ecclesiastical rules for how to mash or chew the bread as if they were actually eating His real flesh. To the early Christians the Lord’s Supper was a memorial feast, symbolizing the crucified body and blood of the One who died for their sins.
Just as we understand that when Jesus said: “I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10:7), or “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11) or “I am the vine” (John 15:5) He did not mean that He was literally a gate or a shepherd or a vine, but that each of these represented the spiritual role of Christ in our salvation, so when He said: “This is my body” (Matthew 26:26) He meant that this feast represents His body and blood. We are absolutely without Biblical justification for thinking the bread and wine literally change its substance into the physical flesh and blood of Christ.
As we partake of the Lord’s Supper each and every Sunday our minds need to go back to the cross where the Lamb of God shed His blood for our salvation. We need to remember His agony, His words of sweet forgiveness, His atonement to make sinners right with God. Each time we partake of Communion, we “proclaim the Lord’s death” (1 Corinthians 11:26). The Lord’s Supper symbolizes the most important day in human history. We partake “in memory” of Him who loved us so much (1 Corinthians 11:24), but the bread and wine remain bread and wine.
THE CONTEXT: ITS ALL ABOUT PRIORITIES
What then, is the primary lesson to be learned from John chapter six? Surely it is that our Lord expects us to be committed to Him without reservation and with no strings attached. The only religion that matters is one in which Jesus comes first. His words bring life which is life indeed. His words make the difference where each of us spends eternity. His words endure to eternal life. As a physical body depends on proper nourishment for health and survival, so our spiritual selves depend on taking Christ into our hearts for life which is life indeed. Nothing short of whole hearted surrender to Him will do. He deserves to determine our leisure, our family priorities, our goals, our ambitions. In the words of the poet: “Higher than the highest mountain, deeper than the deepest sea, Lord at last Thy love has conquered, “None of self and all of Thee!”