48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread[a] the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus[b] said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.
Symbolism: A means of communication
One of the ways that God communicates to us is through symbolism, imagery, and metaphor. This, God has always done. Think of all the signs and symbols of the Old Covenant, such as the temple was filled with. Think of the imagery given and communicated through the Psalms and prophets, such as Daniel’s prophecy of the Kingdom of God being a small stone that grows into a great mountain that fills the earth. As human beings made in God’s image we have senses like sight. We have imagination, such that illustrative examples can illuminate the mind. This is how God created the world, with symbols, metaphors, and imagery. In order to tell a good story, you need good symbolism; and God is telling a story. This is the way that Jesus spoke and taught, in metaphors and symbols; and of course the many parables. Jesus even prophesied with prophetic imagery such as in Matthew 24 like when he says the stars will fall from heaven; or even closer to home, back in John chapter 2 when Jesus told the Jews, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” He was of course speaking about His body. So understanding symbolism, typology, and metaphor is essential to properly understanding the Bible. Today we have such a passage, as we have seen all throughout John 6, that is filled with metaphor and imagery. We have the idea of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus. And this particular instance would seem obvious to most of us here today, that Jesus is speaking in metaphor, yet that is not so to everyone throughout history, and today.
Exposition of the Text
We begin in verse 48 where Jesus again states that He is the Bread of Life, speaking in metaphor. This is how He again begins to explain how He gives eternal life as is stated in verse 47. Those who believe in Him have eternal life because He is the Bread of Life. Verses 49-51 continue to reiterate this theme, as Jesus contrasts the manna their fathers ate, and it’s results, with the bread that came down from Heaven, and it’s results. Those who ate the manna in the wilderness received sustenance for a day, but they eventually died. It did not give them eternal life. But those who eat of the Bread of Life will live forever. As we have stated before, Jesus shows how He is superior, and how what He provides is superior. In verse 51 He mentions again how He came down from heaven. This of course has been a running theme, that He was sent to do the Father’s will.
Now, I want you to notice the way the imagery is used. Compare verse 47 and 51. Verse 47, “whoever believes has eternal life.” That’s a very simple, cut and dry statement. Now verse 51, “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.” Is this not the same statement enfleshed in our minds with illustrative illumination? What is it to believe? It is to eat of the Bread of Life. So we can begin to see through symbolism what it is to believe. We’ll come back to this.
So if what Jesus is saying is not clear enough or not offensive enough to the Jews, He says it even more explicitly at the end of verse 51, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” This embroils the Jews into more disputing and talking amongst themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they say. Jesus, knowing what they are discussing, pushes the point even further: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” So now Jesus is not only talking about eating His flesh, but also drinking His blood. This of course would have been a shocking thing to the Jews as drinking blood was specifically against the law. And of course the thought of cannibalism was barbarous. Jesus of course is not speaking of cannibalism or literally drinking His blood – it is metaphor. While the Jews may not have taken it quite that literally, it is clear they are confused and offended. The 1st century Jews are a prime example as to why understanding symbolism is so important – they did not see all the symbolism, types, and shadows that Jesus the Messiah fulfilled – as we saw a while back in John 5:39, Jesus told them, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” And then again Jesus says in John 5:46, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.” Along these lines, what Jesus is doing here in the synagogue, is teaching about Himself from the Old Testament Scripture, as He is comparing and contrasting Himself as the Bread of Heaven with the manna in the wilderness.
Since we just recently taught a short series on the Lord’s Supper, I would like to point out that many Transubstantiationists will go to this passage to try and substantiate their view. Transubstantiation is the Roman Catholic view that in Communion, the bread and wine transform into the body and blood of Christ, even though it still appears as bread and wine. We of course do not believe that view can be defended in any part of Scripture, but certainly not here in John 6. For such a view fails to account for the metaphor used by Jesus. Our view of metaphor here in John 6 is backed up by the fact that throughout this chapter, the metaphor has been used interchangeably with straightforward statements, as we compared verse 47 and verse 51 a moment ago. Words like “believe” and “come” are used interchangeably with “eat” and “drink” to help explain one another.
Sacramental View of John 6:48-59 Refuted
Furthermore, there is no contextual basis to bring communion into this passage. The Lord’s Supper is not what is being discussed here. You have to read the Lord’s Supper back into the text in order to make it address the subject, for that is not what Jesus is addressing. Not only that, but the Lord’s Supper had not even been instituted yet at this point. And so we have no reason to believe Jesus is alluding to something not yet introduced.
The Experiential Religion of Jesus in John 6:48-59
I believe that when we understand the context and the metaphor, the meaning of this passage is pretty straightforward. Jesus Christ is the life of the world, sent by the Father to accomplish His will, perfectly saving a people for Himself such that He raises them up on the last day, so that all those who believe in Him will have eternal life. It is a straightforward message that is enfleshed in images of bread, and eating flesh and drinking blood. These images give us a greater understanding of what is meant in the straightforward message. What does it mean to believe in Jesus Christ and to come to Him? It means that we eat His flesh and drink His blood, for He is the Bread of Life. It is in the eating and drinking that we see what it is to believe. There is a certain view of faith here that Jesus sets forth. Playing off some of the Puritans I like to call it “experiential religion.” Or even better: “Reformed Experiential Religion.” So Jesus here is setting forth a view of experiential religion. In other words, believing in Jesus is a partaking of Jesus. It is a participation in Christ.
I am going to paraphrase a few thoughts from A. W. Pink and fuse them with my own to show how the metaphor of eating teaches us the experiential nature of believing in Christ.
First, eating is a necessity of life. If we do not eat, we will not live for very long. We will die. This is one of Jesus’ points. He is the Bread of Life – of eternal life – and you must eat of Him if you are to have eternal life, otherwise you will die. It is necessary that we eat. If we are to derive any benefit from food, if we are to receive any bodily nourishment from bread, it does us no good to examine the bread, or philosophize about the meaning of bread, or to analyze how it is made. It will do us no good to handle the bread and appreciate its texture and quality. If we are to receive its intended benefit, we must actually partake of the bread. We must eat the bread. So it is with Christ. We can study, observe, analyze, philosophize, theologize, but if we do not actually partake of Him by faith, we have not gained His benefits of eternal life, but will yet perish in our sins. Note the necessity of participation with Christ.
Is that where you are today? Are you quite the scientist of Christ, yet have not partook of Him and received His benefits for yourself? If so, all of your scientific endeavors of Christ will only be for your own condemnation. But know that you must come to Jesus Christ for yourself and eat of Him by faith, and He will never cast you away.
Second, when we eat physical food, we are responding to a felt need. We feel a rumbling in our tummies, a hunger in bellies, and so we respond to that need by eating food. The more hungry we are, the more promptly we are going to eat and the less picky we will be. So it is with our spiritual food, as A. W. Pink puts it, “Once a sinner is awakened to his lost condition; once he is truly conscious of his deep, deep need, once he becomes aware of the fact that without Christ he will perish eternally; then, whatever intellectual difficulties may have previously troubled him, however much he may have procrastinated in the past, now he will need no urging, but promptly and gladly will he receive Christ as his own.” When we feel a true sense of the holiness of God, we will then see our sin for what it is, and thus be compelled by faith, drawn by God, unto Christ, for pardon and peace. Judgement, wrath, law – one big purpose of those is to take us to Christ. So don’t take those things away, don’t take the sinner’s sin away, leave Christ to do that. For it is this desperate spiritual felt need of hunger that drives us to Christ to eat His flesh and drink His blood.
Are you desperately hungry today? Are you empty and needy? Do you feel the weight of your sin and God’s judgment, yet you are without food to quiet it? If so, it may be the drawing of God, and you must not quench the Holy Spirit, but come to Jesus Christ today.
You know that you can come to Him and He will receive you for He is the Bread of Heaven, who gives life unto the world. He is able to meet your need of forgiveness, and pardon, and peace, and eternal life. He is able to satisfy your every spiritual hunger, and calm the reckless and anxious seas of your heart. He is able to satisfy and spring up an eternal well of joy up in you. He is able to give peace that passes all understanding. He is the Bread of Heaven who came down to sinners like us. He tasted death for us. Then death spit Him out, for it could not keep the Bread of Life down. Christ then ascended again to Heaven, that we would be brought up with Him and seated in the Heavenly places in Christ Jesus. So while we are here we might optimistically pray and joyfully work that His kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Would you come and partake of Him today, that you might be a participant in Christ?
Contrasted with Mere Ritualism
We might contrast this Reformed Experiential Religion with that of mere ritualism. Mere ritualism simply goes through the motions and routines, however good and right the motions and routines may be. Yet while going through the rituals, it does not partake of the benefit they were meant to convey. It is a ritualism without faith that partakes of Christ. We ought to be committed to the ordinary, routine, means of grace, but we must do so in faith, partaking of the grace that is communicated in and through those means of grace. “The righteous shall live by faith” the Scripture says. That doesn’t mean we jump off cliffs blindfolded. It means, for one example, when we come to the Word and when we come to the Lord’s Table, we do so in such a way that we believe Him to be for us. We receive the Word as our bread, humbling ourselves to whatever it says to us. We receive the bread and wine believing we have fellowship with Christ because His body and blood given for sins, was given for us. By faith, we appropriate Christ to ourselves, so to speak.
Contrasted with Emotionalism
We might also contrast Reformed Experiential Religion with emotionalism. By experiential we do not mean emotional, though we also do mean anti-emotional. By experiential we do not mean emotionalism in the sense that our faith is not about or dependent upon these great emotional experiences that we must express in a certain way. It does not mean we are to have a certain warm fuzzy feeling or cry a certain amount of tears. Though we may rightly experience the range of human emotion and feeling at various times, our emotional experiences are not the foundation of our faith, nor the interpreter of our faith, nor the infallible truth of our faith. By experiential we mean that we partake of Christ by faith.
John Gill summarizes well what we mean here, “To eat the flesh, and drink the blood of Christ, is to believe that Chris is come in the flesh, and is truly and really man; that his flesh is given for the life of his people, and his blood is shed for their sins, and this with some view and application to themselves: it is to partake of, and enjoy the several blessings of grace procured by him, such as redemption, pardon, peace, justification and such a feeding upon him as is attended with growth in grace, and in the knowledge of him, and is daily to be repeated, as our corporeal [physical] food is…”
Partaking of Christ Imparts Eternal Life
One of the themes Jesus has continually repeated throughout John 6 is that the life that He gives is eternal life, and that whoever has this eternal life, He will raise up on the last day. He says that partaking of His flesh and blood imparts to us this eternal life. Very briefly I want to give three reasons why there is this emphasis on partaking of His Body. Why this imagery? Why does participation in His body impart eternal life?
- He bore our sins in his body: 1 Peter 2:24 says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.”
- His blood cleanses us from all sin: 1 John 1:7 says, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
- We are crucified with Christ: Galatians 2:20 says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
This puts us in conflict with a culture of death
If indeed we have this participation with Christ, we and our sins have been crucified with Him, and now we live by faith, as Christ now lives in us. This means that if we are surrounded by a culture of death, and make no mistake, we are, we will be in conflict with that culture. Those who love darkness, hate the light. As Proverbs 8:36 tells us, “all who hate me love death.” It is speaking there of wisdom, but we know that Jesus is the embodiment of wisdom, and that Jesus is the wisdom of God. So we can see in our culture how those who hate God, love death. There are many examples we could point to, but the most obvious is the legally protected and tax-funded murder of babies. The shocking thing about this is not that the unbeliever is following the logical conclusions of their hatred of God, but that many professing Christians have become desensitized to it. But you see, the reality of Christ in us and our life in Christ, should put us in conflict with such death. And yes, I mean to use the word conflict. So we fight, not with swords and spears, but with the power of the gospel – a gospel that was made for conflict. It is a gospel that was made for striking down the sinner and raising him a new creation in Christ Jesus, that those in death may come to life. Let us not be afraid of such conflict, for it was from such conflict that we came alive to God in Christ.
This puts us in conflict with our own sin and flesh
Finally, this reality of Christ in us and our participation in His body, puts us into conflict with our own sin and flesh. And yes I mean to use the word conflict. Though we are new creations we still fight the old man while we are here. We are to put to death the deeds of the flesh, and live unto Christ. We are to mortify our sin and flesh, that would seek to have us and kill us, bringing death to us. So we fight with the gospel. We fight with the things of life. We fight with the Word. We fight with bread and wine. And one day we’ll die. But that doesn’t mean we lost. For Jesus tells us that “whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” And that “whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”