"It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.”
Verse 63 of the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel is often referred to by non-Catholics as the explanation for the entire sixth chapter to be understood as symbolic. But I ask you this: By saying that Jesus’ spirit gives us life, how does that negate the total real presence of Christ? Isn’t Christ the Lamb of God? Didn’t Christ equate the Body as food and the Body as a sacrifice in the same sentence? Was He not referring to the same real Body? This entire chapter says that Jesus emphasized time and time again that He meant what He said. Many did not believe, and Jesus re-emphasized the same point over and over again. Does the existence of the Spirit of Jesus negate the totality of the presence? Is it not much more plausible, when this verse is taken within the context of the entire chapter, to understand that Jesus tells us that we need spiritual wisdom and grace to understand His words? Keep in mind that the Greek manuscript changes the words in order to make an emphasis. In verses 23 – 53, “phago” which is a generic Greek word for eat or consume is said nine times. However, in verses 54 – 58, after the disbelief of the Jews, the Greek word used is “trogo” which literally means to “gnaw” or “chew.” Jesus is putting the emphasis on His words. Then, let us examine verse 63 and include the Greek language in order to search for the truth: “It is the Spirit (Pneuma) that gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit (Pneuma), and they are life.” Both references to “Spirit” come from the Greek word “Pneuma” which, according to Strong’s dictionary means:
1: “the third person of the triune God, the Holy Spirit, coequal, coeternal with the Father and the Son
a: sometimes referred to in a way which emphasises his personality and character (the Holy Spirit)
b: sometimes referred to in a way which emphasises his work and power (the Spirit of Truth)
c: never referred to as a depersonalised force”
2: the spirit, i.e. the vital principal by which the body is animated 2a) the rational spirit, the power by which the human being feels, thinks, decides 2b) the soul
Judging by the first definition we could say that “it is the Pneuma (the third Person of the triune God) that gives life; the flesh profits nothing.” This would make sense as Jesus speaks of eternal life throughout this chapter of St. John’s Gospel. The flesh will profit us nothing in eternal life, and that eternal life comes from Pneuma, or the assistance of the Holy Spirit as provided by God the Heavenly Father (Luke 11:13, 12:12). This assistance, of course was not yet realized, as mentioned in John 7:39: “But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” This promise would not become fulfilled until John 20:22 And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” and ultimately during Pentecost (Acts 2:4) And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
As Jesus goes on to say in this verse: “The words that I speak to you are spirit (Pneuma), and they are life.” Here we see the realization of the second definition, the soul. It is as if the existence of the soul as one with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4, 2 Timothy 1:14) is the key to eternal life. The words of Jesus are Spirit and life, eternal life. This is perhaps best explained by the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2766 But Jesus does not give us a formula to repeat mechanically (referring to the Lord’s Prayer). (see note 14) As in every vocal prayer, it is through the Word of God that the Holy Spirit teaches the children of God to pray to their Father. Jesus not only gives us the words of our filial prayer; at the same time he gives us the Spirit by whom these words become in us “spirit and life.” (see note 15) Even more, the proof and possibility of our filial prayer is that the Father “sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (see note 16) Since our prayer sets forth our desires before God, it is again the Father, “he who searches the hearts of men,” who “knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (see note 17) The prayer to Our Father is inserted into the mysterious mission of the Son and of the Spirit.
Note#14 Cf. Mt 6:7; 1 Kings 18:26-29
Note#15 Jn 6:63
Note#16 Gal 4:6
Note#17 Rom 8:27
None of these definitions indicate an allegorical, symbolic or figurative meaning for this entire chapter. If anything, verse 63 strengthens the argument of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist by showing us the reality of the soul living with the Holy Spirit and the Spirit of Christ as a key to eternal life. The words of Jesus are Spirit and life.