In the sixth chapter of John, Jesus makes the following statement: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If a man eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Jn 6:51 (all scripture quotations from the NIV)
Just exactly what did Jesus mean when he said, “this bread is my flesh”? Ironically, Protestants who claim that the bible is literally true from Genesis to Revelation refuse to accept the literal meaning of this passage because it conflicts with what they want to believe. However, the true meaning of Jesus’ words can be illustrated from the reaction of the crowd who heard his teaching with their own ears, from the infallible word of God contained in the New Testament, and from the writings and teachings of the early Church.
In John 6:52 we read: “Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” Why were they arguing? If they understood Jesus to be speaking metaphorically, then there would have been hardly an eyebrow raised. For example, on other occasions, Jesus said, “I am the gate for the sheep” (Jn 10:7) and “I am the true vine” (Jn 15:1) but the listeners easily discerned that Jesus was using metaphors in these examples. By contrast, an argument did break out when Jesus said, “this bread is my flesh,” indicating that those in the crowd held different opinions about what he meant. Some said, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat? He’s crazy!” while others may have responded, “Of course he can’t do that…his words must have a symbolic meaning!” The one group rejected Jesus’ ability to give us his body and blood as real food and drink while the other missed his true meaning altogether. Either way, the crowd was divided.
Of course, Jesus knew what they were saying amongst themselves, and if it was merely his intent to draw a symbolic parallel between his flesh and the bread of heaven, he could have put an end to their misunderstanding immediately. Instead, Jesus further clarified and emphasized the true meaning of his words by declaring,
“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. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains 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. Our forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever. He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.” (Jn 6:53-58)
Rather than quieting the crowd which had broken out into arguments about what he had just told them, Jesus pressed his point home even more emphatically: “my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” In fact, whereas he had initially said positively, ”If a man eats of this bread, he will live forever,” now he has just stated the negative result of failing to do so: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Thus, Jesus has clarified his meaning by stating what happens if we do – and do not – eat his flesh and drink his blood.
The next verse is particularly revealing: “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (Jn 6:60) Notice that it was not Jesus’ typical enemies, the Pharisees and Sadducees, who rejected his teaching on this occasion but his disciples – those believers who followed him from place to place and hailed him as the Messiah. They had seen Jesus perform many miracles and heard him teach wondrous things. But this was too much even for them.
“Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said this to them, “Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” Jn 6:61-64
The gospel continues: “From this time, many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Jn 6:66-69
There is a lot going on in these three verses; let’s look at them closely. After hearing Jesus declare that his flesh is real food and his blood is real drink, his disciples, his followers, could not accept his words and no longer followed him. Of course, if they had understood that his body and blood were being used as symbols, they would have had no complaint. It was precisely because they understood exactly what Jesus meant that they refused to follow him any longer. Therefore, there can be no doubt as to what the eyewitnesses understood Jesus to be saying.