This may be the most important blog post I ever write. If you are a Christian, I wrote it for you. And it’s my sincere hope that my Evangelical friends and family might understand that my spiritual journey has been one of careful biblical study. My purpose here is to efficiently refute a common argument, thereby helping lead people toward a better understanding of John 6 and ultimately a more biblically-accurate Christian faith.
Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, is an important part of Christian beliefs. It is based on the Last Supper that Jesus shared with His disciples before His crucifixion. The average Christian is probably familiar with this verse:
“And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” -Luke 22:19
As followers of Christ, the command to “do this” is sufficient to convince us that it must be done, and so Christians everywhere agree that Communion in some form or another is important. But what is the reason why Jesus gave such a clear command?
Is there some deeper essential significance to this that we may not see?
This is where John chapter 6 comes in, where Jesus delivers His Bread of Life Discourse:
“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” -John 6:51
“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; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.’” –John 6:53,54
“‘For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.’” –John 6:55
“After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer walked with him. Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘Will you also go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life…’” –John 6:66-68a
As Christians, what do we do with those verses? Well, for Christians who have a more liturgical approach to worship, and believe that bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ during Communion, these verses can easily be taken literally.
However, there are many Christians today who prefer a sort of symbolic Communion. They are content with eating crackers and drinking grape juice simply “in remembrance”. They do not believe that they must eat Christ’s flesh and drink His blood, regardless of His words. When asked about John 6:53-55 (“he who eats my flesh… has eternal life…for my flesh is food indeed”), these self-labeled “Bible-believers” often just say “well, I don’t believe He meant that.”
Those who have studied the chapter inevitably base a defense of symbolic Communion on verse 63, where Jesus said,
“It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.” –John 6:63
Basically, they say “See? You have to read the whole chapter in context! In verse 63 Jesus clears it up by explaining how His earlier words were symbolic, or figurative, like a sort of parable. His main purpose is to speak spiritually of Himself as the source of salvation, but not that He literally wants us to eat His flesh. To make it extra clear He even says that ‘the flesh is of no avail.’”
Here are six reasons why that common argument doesn’t actually work. Take your time.
- In the Bible do we ever see a parable begin with “truly truly” (or “amen amen” or “verily verily” depending on your translation)? Jesus says those words when He wants to be extremely clear. Verses 53-55 are obviously intended to cut through any attempt to dodge His literal meaning.
- When John wrote his Gospel, he had an opportunity to say “Jesus was speaking symbolically” here, but he did not say that.
- Note that in verse 66, which follows the “clarification” in verse 63, people still leave Jesus over this, and He makes no attempt to stop them to clear up a misunderstanding.
- Are we as Christians supposed to understand everything spiritual in a figurative way? Is the word “Spirit” in Scripture to be taken as “symbolic”? I hope not.
- Note the obvious difference between “my flesh” (v. 55) and “the flesh” (v. 63). “The flesh” can be seen as carnal thinking or sinful nature in the following verses:
- Would Jesus declare His own flesh to be “of no avail”? No way! Not if His death on the cross was going to be a sufficient sacrifice.
So, “the flesh” in verse 63 is not the same as Jesus’ flesh, which he says is indeed the food that gives us life. So what is the meaning behind verse 63? Well, it makes sense that the people listening would not understand without the Spirit opening their eyes to the life-giving truth. Peter admitted that he didn’t understand yet… but Peter and those who trusted Jesus stayed anyway. Many others chose not to believe, and went their own way.
Since verse 63 does not offer a symbolic escape hatch, we must take verses 53-55 literally.
“…he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…”
The significance of this is monumental for anyone who wants to be part of a church that has sound doctrine. If your church has a merely symbolic Communion, do not let this subject rest on excuses or popular preference. Ensure that you are a part of the truly biblical, authentic Christian faith.
“The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” -1 Cor. 10:16,17