John 6: 25-59 is a fascinating exchange between Jesus and some of his Jewish interlocutors. It is a magisterial and mysterious passage. Some have suggested that Jesus’s words here are intended to convey an understanding of the Lord’s Supper. That is, they believe, Jesus not only has the Eucharist in view, but also desires to teach about its meaning and interpretation in this passage. This is called the sacramental interpretation of the passage (the Eucharist usually being listed as a sacrament).
I realize not one person in a thousand is probably interested in this. Yet with the internet, even 1/100thof potential people is enough to make it worthwhile for me to post this. So, for what it’s worth, here is my take on this question.
First, read the passage in question.
Arguments for a sacramental view.
- Jesus speaks of himself as the bread of heaven, and insists that eternal life comes from eating this bread. The allusion would make sense of the Lord’s Supper, where we are told that we eat of bread that is the body of Christ.
- Jesus says in verse 51, “This bread is my flesh”. Similar to the words used his descriptions of the Lord’s Supper in the synoptic gospels.
- In verse 53, Jesus expands the idea to not only eating his flesh, but also drinking his blood. Here both elements of the Eucharist (or Lord’s Supper) are brought together.
- Verse 54 seems to mirror the idea of a sacramental view of the Lord’s Supper: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day”.
- In verse 55, Jesus insists that “my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink”. These words can be interpreted as saying that the elements of the Lord’s Supper are transformed (in some way) into the literal body and blood of the Lord.
- From verse 54 on, the Greek verb which is translated “to eat” or “eating” is a different verb than in the previous section. In the early part of the chapter, the verb is esthio (or its aorist stem, phag–; after verse 54 it is trogo. The latter verb, some have argued, has a more literal or bodily dimension to it (think of the word “chewing” or “munching” as opposed to the more generic “eating”).
Arguments against a sacramental view:
1. Jesus does indeed speak of himself as the bread of heaven. But the context means that this is the fulfillment of the manna, and this context makes perfect sense of the metaphor without importing the idea of the Lord’s Supper.
2. Jesus says “this bread is my flesh [sarx]”, not “this bread is my body [soma]”. This is not a minor difference, for the words have quite different uses in the New Testament. In addition, all the references to the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament use soma, and not sarx. If John had desired to point us to the Eucharist here he would have chosen the word used at the Last Supper.
3. Verse 53 adds the idea of blood not to fill out the elements of the Eucharist, but to fill out the fullness of the work of Christ that we are to put our faith into. Blood symbolizes not life, but violent death, and to readers familiar with John’s symbolic use of the Old Testament, this would immediately call to mind the idea of blood sacrifice for the sins of another.
4. Verse 54 is best interpreted in its literary context before we try to interpret it theologically. In this case, the interpretation is clear: It is a rather obvious parallel to verse 40.
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.
6:54: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.
The only difference is that one verse speaks of believing in Jesus, while the other speaks of eating his flesh and blood. Both bring the same result: eternal life and resurrection. The most obvious interpretation of the verse from the context, then, is that verse 54 is a metaphorical way of talking about believing in the Son.
5. About verse 55, we note first that while the ancient manuscripts are divided between the use of the adjective alethes (“true” or “real”) and the adverb alethos (“truly” or “really”), in statements like these (with symbolic predicates) John never uses the adverb. What does it mean, then, to say that Jesus’ flesh is “true” or “real” food? The sacramental view would interpret this as something like “actual” or “literal” as opposed to spiritually or metaphorically. But an examination of the way John uses this word in similar sentences should make us wary of that interpretation:
- 1:9: The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.
- 1:47: Here [Nathaniel] is a true Israelite
- 4:23: The true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth
- 15:1: I am the true vine, and my father is the gardener
- 17:1 That they may know You, the only true God
I believe these are the only other passages in John where this word in a similar way. It is clear that the interpretation as “actual” or “literal” (as opposed to “spiritual” or “metaphorically”) would not work. In fact, in several of these passages, the idea seems almost the opposite: Jesus is not literally glowing, but is light is a good metaphor or symbol of what his truth is. He is not an actual, physical vine, but He is what the vine metaphor points to. So it seems the adjective “true” in John is better understood to mean either “genuine” (as opposed to fake) or to “true” in the sense of being the archetype or the ideal, which the symbol or metaphor points to. The last interpretation seems most clearly in line with the parallels in 1:9 and 15:1. In either case, an interpretation as “actual” or “literal” (in opposition to “metaphorically”) seems unsustainable.
6. The change of verbs is a rather weak argument, since there are not parallels to these words carrying distinctive theological weight elsewhere. In any case, New Testament scholar D. A. Carson notes, “It is far more likely that John injects no new meaning by selecting this verb, but prefers this verb when he opts for the Greek present tense (similarly in 13:18)”.
In addition, a non-sacramental understanding of John 6 is further seen by these points.
7. John, alone among the gospel writers, does not include an account of the Lord’s Supper, in spite of the fact that he devotes (by far) the most verses to discussing the dinner in which the Last Supper occurred (chapters 13-18). This would be odd if the sacraments were deeply involved in his thought. In fact, many scholars have suggested the omission must have been a deliberate attempt by John to de-emphasize the focus on the Lord’s Supper.
8. The whole context of the passage (and indeed, of the book) is that of the need to place belief in Jesus. The word believe (or its cognates) occurs over 90 times in the book including 9 times in the last half of chapter 6. Indeed, the whole discussion of “bread” begins as a response to the words of Jesus: “the work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (verses 29-31). As Augustine put it: Crede, et manducasti (“Believe, and you have eaten”) [In Johan. Tract.xxvi.1].
9. One of the first rules of the grammatical-historical interpretation of scripture is that we must limit our interpretations (or at least base them on) what the first hearers (the original audience) would have understood. For the sacramental view to be valid, this would mean that we should reasonably expect the Jewish audience Jesus was addressing in John 6 to have enough background of the Lord’s Supper to understand Jesus’ words to be referring to that. But I have never seen that established, and indeed, it would seem difficult or impossible to do so, for the Lord’s Supper was instituted after this discourse.
10. The sacramental view, lastly, not only neglects the context of the passage, but distorts the previously revealed truth in the passage. As Carson writes: “Moreover, the language of 53-54 is so completely unqualified that if its primary reference is to the Eucharist, we must conclude that the one thing necessary for eternal life is participation in the Lord’s supper. This interpretation of course actually contradicts the earlier parts of the discourse, not least verse 40. The only reasonable alternative is to understand these verses as a repetition of the earlier truth, but now in metaphorical form.” [Emphasis his].
Therefore, I do not think the passage is pointing to the Lord’s Supper. Having said that, it is also true that the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper is foreshadowed in an indirect way. That is, the words of Jesus here point toward and find fulfillment in the future act of the Cross and the communion with Jesus which the cross brings. When we participate in Holy Communion, it points toward and finds fulfillment in the past action of the Cross and our continuing communion with Jesus through the Holy Spirit. They use the same imagery because they point toward the same truth.
“Believe, and you have eaten” indeed.