How does Jesus challenge our fickle faith? One way he does this is by speaking hard truths. Jesus knew that some of his followers were only there for the benefits they received from following him. They were wowed by his miracles and diligently sought him only to get their “fill of the loaves” (Jn. 6:26). Jesus challenges their fixation on bread by providing a bread metaphor of his own, one that would leave most of them perplexed, hardened, and offended by his “hard saying” (Jn. 6:60). Let’s look at this “hard saying” of Jesus and see how he used this to draw out his loyal followers from among those who were only looking for another meal.

We adapted these notes on this hard saying for this article from the Holman Commentary. The Holman Commentary is a 32-volume commentary covering every book of the Bible.

Hard Saying #1: Eating the Bread of Life

I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 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.”

John 6:48-51

Jesus offered the gospel of himself through the bread-eating metaphor. Israelites who ate the manna in the desert died; it was only physical bread designed to sustain their lives on earth a bit longer. But the living bread is not like that; it provides eternal life. And then the bombshell: This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. Certainly this is not a reference to the Lord’s supper for there was no “Lord’s Supper” as yet. Furthermore, participating in any religious ritual does not produce eternal life; only faith in Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection can accomplish that.

Jesus was speaking of spiritual appropriation, the voluntary and personal application of Christ’s death to oneself. Yes, the manna came from God, but it was temporary, and those who ate of it still died. Spiritual appropriation of the life of Jesus leads to eternal life—and that is what they should have been seeking, not another free lunch.

The constant repetition of the concept of bread as life seems to roll upon the shores of our minds like breakers from the sea. Surely the Holy Spirit intends John to repeat in print what Jesus emphasized in word. We need constant reminders that an eternal relationship with God surpasses any food necessary for physical life.

This Bread is My Flesh

Imagine the shock verse 51 must have had on the ears and minds of the hearers that day in Capernaum. One can talk in general terms about eating the bread of life; it is quite another matter to say, this bread is my flesh. The word for flesh is different from body or self because it focuses on physical death and clearly points to the cross. There the bread of life was offered by Jesus universally—for the life of the world.

Jesus claimed that his death and its atonement for sin are effective only when people reach out and apply that substitutionary sacrifice to themselves in a spiritual sense.

It is interesting that a short verse like this can consist of three complete sentences. And there is an order or design to the sentences. The first states the source of the living bread; the second discusses the manner in which the life is received when one eats the living bread; and the third focuses on how that eating is available through the vicarious death of Christ on the cross.

It is a strong word and one bound to attract attention. It’s almost crude forcefulness rivets attention on the historical fact that Christ did give Himself for man. He is not speaking simply of a moving idea. . . The last words of the verse bring before us once more the truth that the mission of Jesus is universal. He had not come to minister to the Jews only. When he gave his flesh it would be ‘for the life of the world.’”

Leon Morris

SUPPORTING IDEA: The eternal life which is in us who believe comes from the appropriation of the death of Jesus for our salvation. Those who feed on Christ will live forever.

Hard Saying #2: Eating My Flesh, Drinking My Blood

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 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. 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.

John 6:52-55

Still focused on earthly interpretations of spiritual realities (the same problem that troubled Nicodemus in chapter 3), the crowd pondered a very human and earthbound question: How can this man give us his flesh to eat? The word translated argue sharply is emachonto, which describes a debate. The indication seems to be that some favored what Jesus was saying while others opposed him. What follows is a paragraph which must be understood spiritually. It tells us first that spiritual appropriation provides initial life. Without the careful textual approach, we can end up with some kind of theological cannibalism. Jesus was talking about the cross—the spiritual act whereby we accept his death on our behalf in order to gain access to his offer of eternal life. In the spiritual sense, that is the real food and the real drink.

Jesus’ Death is True Food and Drink

These verses focus on the exclusive character of the atonement. The Jews were divided over the process of receiving the gift of Christ’s death on man’s behalf. But rather than tone down his language, Jesus issued a fourth double amen. Then to the eating of his flesh, he added the drinking of his blood—an idea especially abhorrent to the Jews when taken in its literal and physical sense (Gen. 9:4). Both verbs appear in the Greek aorist tense, indicating that spiritual appropriation is done only once.

The Law of Moses had forbidden any drinking of blood on penalty of being cut off from the nation (Lev. 17:10-14). Yet no fewer than three times in the context of this passage our Lord spoke of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Some interpreters believe the Lord referred to participating in what we call “communion” when he told people to do these things. But there was no such ordinance before the night before his crucifixion. Furthermore, partaking of the elements in the Lord’s Supper does not provide eternal life.

Feeding, Drinking, and Abiding

Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 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.

John 6:56-57

The Lord emphasized that spiritual appropriation provides abiding life. These verses sound like John 15 with their emphasis on remaining in the Lord after initial faith. We eat by trusting the Savior for regeneration; we abide by feeding on him on a regular basis. Eating becomes a metaphor of faith. Greene says, “We know that food and drink keep the physical body alive and cause it to grow, and our food and drink become part of the body. The same is true in the spiritual sense: when we receive the Word of God, the living word, we are appropriating Christ and he becomes part of us, the new creation (II Cor. 5:17)” (Greene).

Jesus began talking about the Father in verse 27 and he continued throughout this entire discourse. John would not allow his readers to forget that Jesus had a mission and was, therefore, a “missionary.” He was sent by the Father to the world. The terminology of verse 57 changes just a bit to speak no longer of flesh and blood, but just of eating Christ—the present tense feel of chapter 15. We might paraphrase Jesus’ words as, “The one who keeps on feeding on me will live because I live within him.”

Summary of the Hard Saying: True Bread and Living Forever

This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.

John 6:58-59

The real bread that came down from heaven was not manna but the life of God’s Son given on our behalf. Eating the physical bread of the Old Testament ultimately led to death. But eating the spiritual bread of the New Testament, participating in Christ’s death at Calvary, provides eternal life.

The invitation has been open from that day to this. The spiritual appropriation of the life of Christ is available to everyone who trusts him, who believes that Christ’s death on the cross paid the penalty for the sin of humankind. Boice sums it up with great clarity:

Do you understand the illustration? That is what faith is. That is what it means to eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood. It is to commit yourself to him. It is to accept his promise and pledge on your behalf and to repeat his promise, vowing to be his for eternity. If you have done that, you have done the most important thing there is to be done in this life, regardless of what you may already have accomplished or may yet accomplish. If you have not, you should know that today is the day of salvation. Today is the day of your union with Christ, if you will have it so.”

James Boice

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1 Comment

  1. Andrew James Patton Reply

    Why do you try to avoid the obvious? Did Jesus only figuratively give His Flesh for the life of the world, or did He literally give His Flesh for the life of the world? If you confess that Jesus gave His Flesh for the life of the world on the Cross, why would you doubt He also gives you His Flesh to eat and His Blood to drink in order to draw life from Him?

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