John 6:63 - The flesh profits nothing?


I believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation, but I’m hung up a little on exactly how John 6:63 fits into Catholic apologetics. Jesus has just told his crowd of followers that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life. Protestants say that verse 63 is where Jesus clarifies that he was speaking figuratively, not literally, because he says “it is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”(NRSV) So I hunted down some Catholic commentary on this verse, but it would be helpful to hear it in someone’s own words.

Here’s what I’ve found…

From the Geneva Study Bible on

[font=Arial, Helvetica][size=2]6:63 14 It is the x spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, [they] are spirit, and [they] are life.
[/size][/font][font=Arial, Helvetica][size=2]
(14) The flesh of Christ therefore quickens us, because he that is man is God: and this mystery is only comprehended by faith, which is the gift of God, found only in the elect.
(x) Spirit, that is, that power which flows from the Godhead causes the flesh of Christ (which is oth[/size][/font][font=Arial, Helvetica][size=2]erwise nothing but flesh) both to live in itself and to give life to us.
[/size][/font]And under the topic Transubstantiation in the Catholic Encyclopedia at entire scene of the discourse and murmurings against it proves that the Zwinglian and Anglican interpretation of the passage, “It is the spirit that quickeneth”, etc., in the sense of a glossing over or retractation, is wholly inadmissible. For in spite of these words the Disciples severed their connection with Jesus, while the Twelve accepted with simple faith a mystery which as yet they did not understand. Nor did Christ say: “My flesh is spirit”, i.e. to be understood in a figurative sense, but: “My words are spirit and life”. There are two views regarding the sense in which this text is to be interpreted. Many of the Fathers declare that the true Flesh of Jesus (sarx) is not to be understood as separated from His Divinity (spiritus), and hence not in a cannibalistic sense, but as belonging entirely to the supernatural economy. The second and more scientific explanation asserts that in the Scriptural opposition of “flesh and blood” to “spirit”, the former always signifies carnal-mindedness, the latter mental perception illumined by faith, so that it was the intention of Jesus in this passage to give prominence to the fact that the sublime mystery of the Eucharist can be grasped in the light of supernatural faith alone, whereas it cannot be understood by the carnal-minded, who are weighed down under the burden of sin. Under such circumstances it is not to be wondered at that the Fathers and several Ecumenical councils (Ephesus, 431; Nicæa, 787) adopted the literal sense of the words, though it was not dogmatically defined (cf. Council of Trent, Sess. XXI, c. i).
The Geneva Study Bible notes sound totally contradictory, but I’m guessing that it’s just outdated wording or maybe not the best modernized translation.

Now, one Protestant perspective I read said that Jesus’ spiritual metaphor didn’t make sense to his followers because they were used to thinking in physical terms, but today’s Christians are sometimes confused by the metaphor because we are used to thinking in spiritual terms. I don’t agree with their conclusion, but I think there is something to the argument, especially since Protestants are groomed to see spiritual metaphors where Catholics see a literal truth.

By the way, it’s interesting to see that the New Living Translation of verse 63 tends to support transubstantiation. It reads, “It is the Spirit who gives eternal life. Human effort accomplishes nothing.”


Here is what St John Chrysostom said here:
Ver. 63. “It is the Spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing.”

His meaning is, “Ye must hear spiritually what relateth to Me, for he who heareth carnally is not profited, nor gathereth any advantage.” It was carnal to question how He came down from heaven, to deem that He was the son of Joseph, to ask, “How can he give us His flesh to eat?” All this was carnal, when they ought to have understood the matter in a mystical and spiritual sense. “But,” saith some one, “how could they understand what the `eating flesh’ might mean?” Then it was their duty to wait for the proper time and enquire, and not to abandon Him.

“The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life.”

That is, they are divine and spiritual, have nothing carnal about them, are not subject to the laws of physical consequence, but are free from any such necessity, are even set above the laws appointed for this world, and have also another and a different meaning. Now as in this passage He said “spirit,” instead of “spiritual,” so when He speaketh of “flesh,” He meant not “carnal things,” but “carnally hearing,” and alluding at the same time to them, because they ever desired carnal things when they ought to have desired spiritual. For if a man receives them carnally, he profits nothing. “What then, is not His flesh, flesh?” Most certainly. “How then saith He, that the flesh profiteth nothing?” He speaketh not of His own flesh, (God forbid!) but of those who received His words in a carnal manner. But what is “understanding carnally”? It is looking merely to what is before our eyes, without imagining anything beyond. This is understanding carnally. But we must not judge thus by sight, but must look into all mysteries with the eyes within. This is seeing spiritually. He that eateth not His flesh, and drinketh not His blood, hath no life in him. How then doth “the flesh profit nothing,” if without it we cannot live? Seest thou that the words, “the flesh profiteth nothing,” are spoken not of His own flesh, but of carnal hearing?


Also Augustine here:
5. What is it, then, that He adds? “It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing.” Let us say to Him (for He permits us, not contradicting Him, but desiring to know), O Lord, good Master, in what way does the flesh profit nothing, whilst Thou hast said, “Except a man eat my flesh, and drink my blood, he shall not have life in him?” Or does life profit nothing? And why are we what we are, but that we may have eternal life, which Thou dost promise by Thy flesh? Then what means “the flesh profiteth nothing”? It profiteth nothing, but only in the manner in which they understood it. They indeed understood the flesh, just as when cut to pieces in a carcass, or sold in the shambles; not as when it is quickened by the Spirit. Wherefore it is said that “the flesh profiteth nothing,” in the same manner as it is said that “knowledge puffeth up.” Then, ought we at once to hate knowledge? Far from it! And what means “Knowledge puffeth up”? Knowledge alone, without charity. Therefore he added, "but charity edifieth."4 Therefore add thou to knowledge charity, and knowledge will be profitable, not by itself, but through charity. So also here, “the flesh profiteth nothing,” only when alone. Let the Spirit be added to the flesh, as charity is added to knowledge, and it profiteth very much. For if the flesh profiled nothing, the Word would not be made flesh to dwell among us. If through the flesh Christ has greatly profiled us, does the flesh profit nothing? But it is by the flesh that the Spirit has done somewhat for our salvation. Flesh was a vessel; consider what it held, not what it was. The apostles were sent forth; did their flesh profit us nothing? If the apostles’ flesh profited us, could it be that the Lord’s flesh should have profiled us nothing? For how should the sound of the Word come to us except by the voice of the flesh? Whence should writing come to us? All these are operations of the flesh, but only when the spirit moves it, as if it were its organ. 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.


this is simple and really doesn’t need a theological discussion on the subject. If John 6:63 is what protestants say it is, Jesus would have said “it is MY spirit that quickeneth, MY flesh profiteth nothing”.


All I can say about this verse is, “Amen!” If that is what Protestants use to prove Catholics wrong, it backfires on them: it actually proves Transubstantiation. For the bread, by itself, is nothing: but when the priest consecrates it, the Spirit comes down and transforms the bread into the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ–it becomes real flesh, real blood. So no contradiction there at all, but a great affirmation of the Catholic faith.


Well, if you think about it, it is not the flesh that profits, but the Spirit that gives life.

In transubstantiation, the bread is transformed into the Body, The Blood, the Soul, and the Divinity of Jesus.

Jesus had a human body, human blood, and even a human soul. It is not these human elements that sanctify us: rather, it is the Divinity united to them. Thus, it is the Spirit (which is Divine) that gives life, the Flesh profits nothing.

But to receive the Spirit, we must consume the Flesh, since the Spirit is united to the Flesh. So, while the Flesh in and of itself profits nothing, it is necessary, since united to it is the Spirit, and it is the Spirit that gives us supernatural life.


Okay, try this. . .I wrote it a while back, but I think it might help.

Some Protestant teachers say that because Jesus says “the flesh is useless” that it must mean that he is not talking about really eating his flesh in a literal sense. If “the flesh is useless” then it must be a symbol. However, this would not have been the understanding of the early Church and certainly not the meaning of St. John. Here Jesus is contrasting “the flesh” versus “the spirit” to emphasize the faith with which the apostles must accept his teaching. “The flesh” he is speaking of is our human weakness. “The spirit” is God’s grace. We can never understand Christ and his teachings if we depend on our weak human nature. It is only through the Spirit that we are even capable of having faith. We see this teaching elsewhere in the contrast of flesh and spirit: “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41), “When we were in the flesh. . .we bore fruit for death. . .Now we have been released. . .we serve in the new spirit” (Rom.7:5-6), “I hand him over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5), read also 2 Cor. 3:3, 2 Cor. 4:29, 1 Peter 3:18. Whenever we read in the New Testament “the flesh” is opposed to the “spirit” it ALWAYS refers to our fallen human nature versus God’s grace. When Jesus says “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless,” he is simply saying only grace (spirit) can bring one to true faith, our weak, sinful human inclinations (flesh) will never be enough on their own. He did not say the “the flesh is useless” about his own Flesh because we know that his Flesh, beaten and bruised, broken and shared is the source of our very salvation—not useless at all, absolutely NECESSSARY!


From the CAtholic Answers tract Christ in the Eucharist:

For Fundamentalist writers, the scriptural argument is capped by an appeal to John 6:63: “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” They say this means that eating real flesh is a waste. But does this make sense?

Are we to understand that Christ had just commanded his disciples to eat his flesh, then said their doing so would be pointless? Is that what “the flesh is of no avail” means? “Eat my flesh, but you’ll find it’s a waste of time”—is that what he was saying? Hardly.

The fact is that Christ’s flesh avails much! If it were of no avail, then the Son of God incarnated for no reason, he died for no reason, and he rose from the dead for no reason. Christ’s flesh profits us more than anyone else’s in the world. If it profits us nothing, so that the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ are of no avail, then “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (1 Cor. 15:17b–18).

In John 6:63 “flesh profits nothing” refers to mankind’s inclination to think using only what their natural human reason would tell them rather than what God would tell them. Thus in John 8:15–16 Jesus tells his opponents: “You judge according to the flesh, I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone that judge, but I and he who sent me.” So natural human judgment, unaided by God’s grace, is unreliable; but God’s judgment is always true.

And were the disciples to understand the line “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life” as nothing but a circumlocution (and a very clumsy one at that) for “symbolic”? No one can come up with such interpretations unless he first holds to the Fundamentalist position and thinks it necessary to find a rationale, no matter how forced, for evading the Catholic interpretation. In John 6:63 “flesh” does not refer to Christ’s own flesh—the context makes this clear—but to mankind’s inclination to think on a natural, human level. “The words I have spoken to you are spirit” does not mean “What I have just said is symbolic.” The word “spirit” is never used that way in the Bible. The line means that what Christ has said will be understood only through faith; only by the power of the Spirit and the drawing of the Father (cf. John 6:37, 44–45, 65).

To see entire tract:


Here’s my :twocents:…

I think John 6:63 is best understood in light of what St. Paul said:

12Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. 13And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit.
14The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:12-14)

As the remaining verses in chapter 6 of John indicate, the topic of John 6:63 is belief, of having faith in Jesus and faith in what he said, of looking beyond outward appearances and “human wisdom” (“the flesh”) to the hidden realities or “spiritual truths” (“the spirit”) of Jesus Christ and his Sacraments.

To all outward appearances, Jesus was just an ordinary man but, to those with the Spirit’s gift of faith who see beyond outward appearances, Jesus is really God incarnate. Recognizing this hidden reality about Jesus through faith and living accordingly leads to eternal life.

To all outward appearances, the Sacraments are nothing extraordinary: some water, olive oil, wheat bread and grape wine, imposed hands, etc. However, to those with the Spirit’s gift of faith who see beyond outward appearances, the Sacraments are really channels of God’s grace. Recognizing this hidden reality about the Sacraments through faith and receiving them leads to eternal life.

For example, to all outward appearances, a baptized person is no different than before, except a little wetter. However, to the faithful who see beyond outward appearances to the hidden reality, the baptized person through the washing of water has really had all his past sins forgiven and has been born again and become a new creation, an adopted child of God, a temple of the Holy Spirit, and an heir to eternal life.

Similarly, to all outward appearances, the bread and wine consecrated by a priest at Mass are no different than before. However, to the faithful who see beyond outward apparances to the hidden reality, the bread and wine over which a priest has spoken the words of Jesus, “This is my body…This is my blood,” really becomes the adorable, risen and glorified Lord Jesus Christ himself.


Compare John 6:63 with the words of Christ to Peter: "“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”

The flesh in both cases refers to human intelligence, understanding, reason, effort. Humans cannot by their own devices know these spiritual truths. They can only know them when they have been revealed by God.


Thanks everyone for your replies! I found them helpful in understanding this verse. I’ll have to return sometime next week when I have time to read this thread more carefully and absorb it, but putting verse 63 in the context of other NT comparisons of the flesh versus the Spirit and 1 Corinthians 2:12-14 is very helpful.


DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit