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Does John 6 Speak about the Lord’s Supper?

22 Aug

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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”.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

 
 

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  1. Miguel

    08/24/2013 at 1:53 pm

    Not 1 in 1000 Evangelicals may be interested, but the rest of Christianity cares deeply about this subject. The gauntlet has been thrown!

    Luther actually agrees with your take on this passage. However, I (and most Lutherans) disagree strongly. It seems to me that most of your reasoning is a bit circular: you refer to “obvious conclusions” which take leaps of logic based on your presuppositions. How you understand the Words of Institution filters how you read the rest of Scripture, and this needs to be accounted for in your hermeneutic, imo. At the end of the day, I really don’t think this needs to be an either/or. “This is my body” is where Lutherans hang their hat for our eucharistic theology, our system still stands without this verse. But I don’t see why it can’t still be a literary allusion to what was at the time a commonly held understanding. As the last of the Gospels, there would be little need for St. John to repeat the account of the Lord’s Supper, especially considering it was also given by St. Paul.

    Great post, I’d love to interact with it more, but my thoughts would go far beyond the scope of a comment. I may even put up my own post as a response. I’ll send you the link if I get to it.

     
    • Daniel

      08/26/2013 at 11:51 am

      Hi Miguel. Thanks for you comment. I always appreciate interacting with you.

      I agree and disagree with your thought here. I agree that it is very possible to hold a Lutheran view of the Lord’s Supper whether John 6 comes into play or not. Obviously, the main question is whether “this is my body” should be understood as a statement of representation or identification, and that is best answered by seeing how Jesus uses other such statements in the gospels.

      You have not convinced me that my argument is circular. To do so, you would have to show a specific way that I have imported the conclusion of my argument into its premise. Yes, I realize that how I understand the nature of the Lord’s Supper colors how I read passages like this, but surely you are not naïve enough to think that is not true of all of us.

      Could it be a literary allusion to what was a common understanding? Well, anything is possible, but this must be proven, not asserted. In particular, you would have to prove that:
      1. The first readers of John were people already familiar with the synoptics
      2. That John and the synoptics had the same understanding of the Lord’s Supper
      3. That John was written not to solicit belief from non-believers (contra 20:31) but to solidify the already established Christian community
      4. That John was not accurately reporting Jesus’ words to the Jews of chapter 6 as much as John was shaping his words to fit the understanding of a later Christian community

      Looking at that, and glancing up to the 10 points listed above, don’t you think it better to follow Augustine’s and Luther’s path and see John 6 as not directly referring to the Lord’s Supper?

       
      • Miguel

        08/27/2013 at 1:11 am

        Well, I’m really gonna have to write my own post in order to offer anything close to an adequate challenge to your points. I’ll try to do it soon, but it will probably be after a while. Heck, it’s even possible some Lutherans could talk me into your view of the passage. I’ll try to keep my debate on the specific passage in question and not our theology of the Lord’s Supper generally, but that is going to be challenging.

        BUT REAL QUICK, since I can’t resist:
        1. Does not need to be proven. The last supper is given by Paul in Corinthians as well. Also, did you realize that the Words of Institution from the historic liturgy actually predates all four gospels in composition? Some mistakenly think it is a conflation of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Corinthians, but it is actually more likely that the other four drew their accounts from it. Now, the liturgical use of the Words of Institution may have come about much later, they were originally for catechetical use. Therefore, it is likely, or at least possible there was a common understanding or Eucharist if the first readers of John were not familiar with the synoptics.
        2. Are you proposing that the gospel writers actually did not agree on the nature of the Lord’s Supper? I can see how multiple views could be compatible, but when one view rules out another as being outright incorrect, between both sides, at least one must be incorrect. Lutherans can affirm what Baptists teach about the symbolic nature of the Lord’s Supper, though we insist there’s more to it, but Baptists categorically reject everybody else’s understanding.
        3. Your understanding of the evangelistic nature of the Gospel of John seems to indicate a misunderstanding of the nature of evangelism generally. The Gospel is not just for unbelievers while those who are born-again move on to the deeper things of God. The Gospel is the beginning and end of the Christian life, and believers, IMO, spend the rest of their lives going deeper into it. Therefore, it need not be mutually exclusive whether John was written to proselytize or edify the saints.
        4. This assumes that a potentially sacramental understanding of the early Christian community is not what God meant to communicate in scripture. Assuming for the sake of argument that the Lutheran understanding of the sacraments WAS the correct interpretation of scripture intended by God, then Jesus own original words wouldn’t have to be changed to fit the understanding of the early Christian community: it would be the SOURCE of said understanding.

        If you’re gonna pit me against Augustine and Luther, keep in mind you’re using them to argue against their own dogmatic systems here. :P More thoughts to come, I promise to send you the link.

         
        • Daniel

          08/27/2013 at 11:46 am

          Hi Miguel. Thanks for your input.

          It seems we are down to what is essentially a subpoint, and, so that we do not lose the forest for the trees, I want to back up and survey the argument as a whole.

          I listed ten reasons why I do not think John 6 points directly to the Lord’s supper. You choose not to engage with these, but suggested circular reasoning. I challenged you to show how which of the points were circular and how exactly I had imported the conclusion into the premise, but thankfully it seems you have dropped this charge.

          Your only other argument was that John was using words which reflected the words and understanding of the later Christian community. That is, it was a “literary allusion to what was at the time a commonly held understanding.” Your argument seems to be the following (and please correct my syllogism if I got this wrong):

          Premise 1: The Christian community (by the time John wrote) had the words of the Lord ’s Supper through the synoptics, Paul, and an early liturgy.

          Premise 2: John felt he could safely delete the Lord’s supper in his gospel (even though he devotes the most pages of all the gospels to that night) because his readers would already be so familiar with it.

          Premise 3: John was writing to instruct this early Christian community in a fuller understanding of what it means to believe in Jesus

          Conclusion: Therefore, Jesus meant for his words to be understood as pointing (in meaning) to the Lord’s Supper.

          I will make the following points about this argument.

          First, the first premise has been asserted, but not justified. I think it is possible that this premise is true, but many scholars would dispute the idea.

          Second, the second premise seems to be similarly not justified. Many scholars have argued that John deletes the Lord’s Supper because he was anti-sacramentarian (he also seems to minimize baptism, they say). Others argue that John was concerned that some in the early church were already adopting a ritualistic view of the Lord’s Supper and were elevating it above its intended place. The point is not necessarily that these scholars are correct, but that it is a debatable point. It must be proven, not assumed.

          A larger problem is with premise 3. I don’t believe this can be justified from the gospel itself. John Himself says that he wrote the gospel, “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ [the Messiah], the son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name”. Nor can this be subverted by an appeal to the fact that Christians also need to grow deeper into the gospel. D. A. Carson is arguable the greatest scholar on John now working in English. He writes the following about this statement in the gospel:

          “This means that the fundamental question being addressed by the Evangelist is not, ‘who is Jesus?’ which might be asked by either Christians or non-Christians, if with slightly different emphases; but ‘who is the Messiah?’ If that is understood as an identity question, as it must be, Christians would not ask it because they already knew the answer. Those who would ask it be unconverted Jews, along with [Jewish] proselytes and god-fearers, for the category ‘Messiah’ was important to them, and the concern to identify him would be of great interest.” [emphasis his]

          That is why Carson concludes elsewhere that “John’s gospel is not only evangelistic in purpose…but aims in particular to evangelize Jews and Jewish proselytes.”

          Finally, even if the premises were all justified (and remember, in a deductive syllogism you must have all of them) the conclusion does not follow. For John is recording not his own thoughts, but the words of Jesus. He is not summarizing or interpreting Jesus; he is quoting Jesus. And Jesus’s words, then, must be understood in their historical context.

          This brings us, then, back to the fundamental question: Who were the original recipients of these words of Jesus? Answer: It was the “crowd” of Jews who had been a part the feeding of the five thousand (6:22, 25). Would they have a sacramental view of the Lord’s Supper, or some “commonly held understanding” of what it meant. Of course not! The Lord’s Supper had not even occurred yet!

          In any case, even if one did hold (in spite of the above) that John was appealing to a “commonly held understanding”, it would still be necessary to see if and how that could be true, granted the ten points of the original post.

          Finally, yes, I am trying to pit you against Luther. I figured I could cut the ground out from you appealing to authority if I emphasized that on this particular point you were departing from the source and namesake of the church tradition you have chosen to follow. That is all :-)

          Sorry for the long response. I’m not online much, so take the verbosity as a mark of my respect for you. I mean that sincerely.
          Daniel

           
 
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