Eating Jesus' Flesh
Question: In the Gospel of John, chapter 6, Jesus affirms that his flesh is real food and his blood is real drink. The apostles understood this as being the literal body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the true body and blood of Christ.
Answer: Jesus insisted that, in order to have eternal life, it is absolutely necessary to eat His flesh and drink His blood. "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you" (6:53). He stressed that His flesh is food indeed and His blood is drink indeed. There is no question about the need of “feeding” on Him for eternal life; the only question is about the manner of doing so.
It is certainly not by eating Jesus’ body with the mouth and teeth as the Jews wrongly understood. Both Catholics and Protestants reject the revolting idea of cannibalism. Moreover, the Scriptures forbid drinking of blood (Leviticus 17:14; Deuteronomy 12:16,23; Acts 21:25); certainly the Lord would never contradict the precepts of the Law.
How then may we eat and drink? Could Christ be referring to the Eucharist, and in particular to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation? Is the body and blood of Christ received under the appearance of bread and wine? Though this explanation is almost natural to the Catholic mind, I simply want to point out that this idea is extraneous and foreign in this context. The discourse is not about the Eucharist as we shall prove; in fact the apostle John does not even include an account of the Lord’s Supper in his gospel record.
Moreover, “real food” and “real drink” do not refer to the Eucharistic elements. Jesus did not say, “The bread is real flesh and the wine is real blood” as many Catholics seem to misread His words. He speaks of Himself, His flesh and blood, as real food and drink.
Let us take a closer look at the context to discover the meaning of eating and drinking, and the sense in which Jesus is “real” food for our souls.
After Jesus had miraculously fed five thousand men, the Jews attempted to forcefully make Him king but He escaped to a solitary place. They continued seeking until they found Him the following day. Sadly, their motives were wrong. Knowing their heart, the Lord rebukes them: “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled” (6:26). They wanted to crown Him king to secure their physical well-being. They were ignorant of Jesus’ spiritual mission and that He came to give them something much better.
So Jesus told them to sort out their priorities: “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him” (6:27). They should have eagerly sought after eternal life rather than worry about their bodily needs. Moreover He presented Himself as the One who could give them that life. As evidence, Jesus appealed to God who had “set His seal on Him” by the multitude of miracles He performed.
At this point the Jews asked Jesus what God wanted them to do. Jesus answered plainly that God wanted them to believe that He was the Messiah. “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent” (6:29). This is the key thought in John chapter six: Jesus is the Messiah sent by God from Heaven, and He came to give us eternal life.
Sadly, the Jews were unwilling to receive Him. They challenged Him, “What sign will you perform then, that we may see and believe You?” (6:30). Their stomachs must have been still full of the miraculous bread He had fed them hours before, and yet here they are asking for a sign! Such is the hardness of the human heart. Their question makes two things clear: They understood that Jesus was demanding faith in Him; and secondly, they did not accept His claim to be the Messiah.
The Jews were still preoccupied about physical needs; they would not be persuaded unless Jesus provided them with food just as Moses gave their forefathers manna in the desert for a period of forty years. In His response, Jesus presents Himself as the fulfillment of the manna, “Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but my Father give you the true bread from heaven” (6:32). Jesus is the bread that is much better than manna or any physical food which can only sustain physical life for a short time. He gives eternal life. “He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and He who believes in Me shall never thirst...Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life” (6:35, 47). Jesus reminded them that those who ate manna eventually died; He promised that those who eat of the living bread of heaven would live forever. It is in this sense Jesus’ flesh is real food and His blood real drink. He is real food because He gives eternal life. “This is the bread which came down from heaven – not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will life forever” (6:58).
During the conversation, our Lord made it abundantly clear how a person could eat the heavenly bread and have eternal life. From the very beginning Jesus told the Jews that God required them to believe in Him as the God-sent Messiah (6:29). He repeatedly states that those who believe in Him have eternal life (6:35, 40, 47). Sadly, the Jews would not believe in Him. In the face of their obstinate unbelief, Jesus reaffirmed the same truths by graphic and emphatic language, speaking of eating His flesh and drinking His blood to have eternal life (6:53-58)
There is no reason why we should interpret eating and drinking in a different way from Jesus’ earlier explanation. We must participate in the merits of His bodily sacrifice and the blood shed on the cross by believing in Him. That is the only way we can feed and be satisfied with life eternal.
Finally, the Bible also tells us how the apostles understood Jesus’ words. When Jesus asked the apostles whether they wanted to leave Him too, the apostle Peter answered on behalf of the group: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (6:68). They had no thought about the Eucharist, much less that the bread and wine are changed into the flesh and blood of Christ. They had understood well what Jesus meant all the way. He was claiming to be the Messiah; and they confessed their faith in Him. They ate and drank by believing, and Christ gave them eternal life.
Did you eat Jesus’ flesh? Did you drink His blood? Did you feed on Him? In other words, do you genuinely believe in Jesus, the Divine Messiah? If so, you possess eternal life; if not, you’re still dead in your sins and unbelief.
© Dr Joseph Mizzi