Bread of Life
Jesus is the Bread of Life. Just as bread
nourishes our physical bodies, Jesus gives and sustains eternal life
to all believers.
The day after He had miraculously fed five
thousand men, the Jews sought Him eagerly, but their motives were
all wrong. They only cared about physical needs. Jesus tells them
that He came down from heaven to give eternal life, and that they
could have this life by believing in Him. “I am the bread of life.
He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me
shall never thirst” (John 6:35).
As He was accustomed, Jesus used figurative language to emphasize
these great spiritual truths. “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.” However the Jews and many of His followers
did not believe that He was the Son of God. They could not
understand how He came down from heaven; they knew, or thought they
knew, His father. "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose
father and mother we know? How is it then that He says, ‘I have
come down from heaven’?” (John 6:42).
Nor could they understand how He could give us His
flesh to eat. Because of their unbelief, they misunderstood His
words, as if He was going to literally give them His flesh to eat
and His blood to drink. The Jews along with some of His disciples were offended and left Him.
Jesus exposes their unbelieving hearts (6:64). On the
other hand, the apostles rightly understood, and Peter, speaking on
behalf of the apostolic group, confessed their faith in Him.
Jesus explains the sense of the entire passage when He
says, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing.
The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.”
(John 6:63). The literal interpretation is absurd and revolting,
leading to cannibalism and the drinking of blood contrary to the
commandment of God. No eating of any flesh can give spiritual life.
The spiritual sense is full of light and sweetness. By faith we
partake of Christ, and the benefits of His bodily sacrifice on the
cross and the merits of His shed blood, receiving and enjoying
Eating and drinking is not with the mouth and the digestive
organs of our bodies, but the reception of God’s grace by
believing in Christ, as He makes abundantly clear by repeating the
same truths both in metaphoric and plain language. Compare for
example the following two verses:
“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has
everlasting life” (v47).
“He who eats this bread will live forever” (v58).
“He who believes” in Christ is equivalent to “he who eats
this bread” because the result is the same, eternal life. The
parallel is even more striking between verses 40 and 54:
“Everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have
everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day”
“Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life,
and I will raise him up at the last day” (v54).
Seeing and believing in Christ is equivalent to eating and
drinking His flesh and blood, for the result is the same: possession
of eternal life and resurrection at the last day. We would not be
mistaken if we follow Jesus' own explanation of what it means to eat
and drink - Jesus teaches us to believe in Him, the Messiah, the Son
of God sent from heaven by the Father for our salvation.
There is an obvious similarity between the
discourse in John 6 and the Eucharist. Jesus speaks of eating His
flesh and drinking His blood, which is similar to eating the bread
and drinking the wine at the Lord's Supper.
However, Jesus' discourse is not primarily a
reference to the Eucharist, but to His sacrifice on the cross. He
says, "I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If
anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that
I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the
world." This expression is similar to others in John's gospel
(3:15,16; 10:11,17,18; 12:24), all of which undoubtedly refer to His
death on the cross. This explains the resemblance between Jesus'
discourse on the bread of life and the Eucharist, which is a
proclamation of His death. Both of them are pointing to the one
momentous event of our redemption, the sacrifice of the cross.
Moreover, in John 6 the Lord Jesus underlines the
necessity of feeding on Him by faith to have eternal life; similarly
the Eucharist represents the communion of the Believers in His body
and blood. John 6 points to the spiritual reality the Lord's Supper
also signifies - our participation in Christ by faith, and the
benefits of His redemption, eternal life, through Him.
However it would be a mistake to see the
fulfillment of this passage in the Eucharist rather than in the
sacrifice of Christ, as if one can only feed on Christ by partaking
of the Eucharistic bread and wine rather than by believing in Him.
For Jesus declares this eating and drinking to be absolutely
necessary for salvation, but not even Roman Catholics believe this
to be true of the Eucharist.
Moreover, if eating flesh and drinking blood
means taking the Eucharistic elements, as Catholics assert, then
eternal life is received by participating in the sacrament, for
Jesus said, "Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has
eternal life" (John 6:54). If this interpretation is correct,
we would expect that the author of the gospel to give due prominence
to the Lord's Supper, especially since his stated purpose for
writing was to teach us how we may have eternal life (John20:30,31).
It is therefore highly significant that of the four evangelists,
only John does not include an account of the institution of the
Eucharist in his gospel. In the light of this conspicuous omission,
one should reconsider whether eternal life is obtained in some way
other than the Eucharist.
John states, “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the
presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but
these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the
Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name”
(John 20:30,31). The feeding of the five thousand, along with the
other signs, was recorded so that we may believe that Jesus is the
divine Messiah, and that through this faith we might have eternal life.
This agrees perfectly with Jesus’ explanation of eating His flesh
and drinking His blood – “I am the bread of 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” (John 6:35, 47).
We do not belittle the importance of the Eucharist in the
Christian experience, yet we must assert the primary importance of
faith in Christ for eternal life. That is the biblical emphasis.
Rebutting Catholic Arguments - with a little help from
Was Jesus speaking figuratively?
Catholic apologists assert that Jesus was speaking literally
when He spoke of eating His flesh and drinking His blood. This
is evidently not so. Jesus was using figurative language as He
usually did. In John’s Gospel, Jesus referred to His body as
the temple (2:19); He called Himself the Light of the world
(8:12), and we are called to follow Him; He is “the door”
(10:9) through whom we enter for salvation; He is the “good
shepherd” (10:11) and “the true vine” (15:1) and the
disciples are compared to sheep and branches. That Jesus is the
bread of life and that we should feed on Him is but a similar
figurative expression illustrating the great spiritual truth
that Jesus is the Divine Messiah who gives eternal life to all
A Catholic apologist presents this argument: “The Greek word
he used for ‘eats’ (tragon) is very blunt and has the
sense of ‘chewing’ and ‘gnawing.’ This is not the
language of metaphor.” Well, why not? Metaphors are intended
to be graphic and impressive. Trogo stresses the slow
process of eating. In the New Testament it is also used for
ordinary eating (see Matthew 24:38; John 13:18; etc). Moreover,
Jesus also uses the ordinary word for eating (phago) in
the same passage (verses 50,51,53 etc). Since the two terms are
used to make the same point – e.g. compare verse 53 (phago)
and verse 54 (trogo) – they are practically equivalent.
In his discussion on the interpretation of figurative
expressions, Augustine uses “eating flesh and drinking blood”
as a typical example of a metaphor! He explains: “If the
sentence is one of command, either forbidding a crime or vice,
or enjoining an act of prudence or benevolence, it is not
figurative. If, however, it seems to enjoin a crime or vice, or
to forbid an act of prudence or benevolence, it is figurative.
"Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man," says
Christ, "and drink His blood, ye have no life in you."
This seems to enjoin a crime or a vice; it is therefore a
figure, enjoining that we should have a share in the
sufferings of our Lord, and that we should retain a sweet and
profitable memory of the fact that His flesh was wounded and
crucified for us” (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, III).
Did the Jews understand literally and correctly? Would not Jesus
have corrected them if they had misunderstood?
Initially Jesus spoke plainly about the necessity of believing
in Him. Yet the Jews would not believe. They were seeking Jesus
for carnal motives. They asked Him for a sign even when their
stomachs were still full of the miraculous bread he had fed them
the day before. They objected that He could not have “come
down from heaven” as they knew (or thought they knew) His
father. Jesus never corrected them. Later on He spoke to them in
veiled speech as He used to do in the case of unbelief and
reasserted His claims in bold language. Knowing that the
disciples grumbled among themselves, Jesus warned them not to
think carnally, but spiritually – He foretold His ascension
into heaven (and therefore He was not speaking about literal
flesh eating). His words are spirit and life. He accused them of
unbelief and exposed their hardness of heart stating that no-one
would come to Him unless drawn by the Father. At that point,
many of his followers left. The underlying reason was unbelief
and not some innocent misunderstanding. Externally they were “disciples”
– inwardly they were unbelievers like the other Jews. Jesus
knew their heart: “Jesus knew from the beginning who they were
who did not believe.”
The following quotations prove that Augustine taught that the
Jews did not understand correctly:
The Jews, therefore, strove among themselves, saying,
"How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" They
strove, and that among themselves, since they understood not…
(Augustine, Tractate 26).
Therefore ‘it is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh
profiteth nothing,’ as they understood the flesh, but
not so do I give my flesh to be eaten (Augustine, Tractate
For they supposed that He was going to deal out His body to
them; but He said that He was to ascend into heaven, of
course, whole: "when ye shall see the Son of man
ascending where He was before;" certainly then, at least,
you will see that not in the manner you suppose does He
dispense His body; certainly then, at least, you will
understand that His grace is not consumed by tooth-biting
(Augustine, Tractate 27).
They understood not who believed not…they were offended
through their understanding spiritual things in a carnal sense
(Augustine, Tractate 27).
It seemed unto them hard that He said, ‘Except ye eat the
flesh of the Son of Man, ye have no life in you:’ they
received it foolishly, they thought of it carnally, and
imagined that the Lord would cut off parts from His body, and
give unto them; and they said, ‘This is a hard saying.’ It
was they who were hard, not the saying… (Augustine, Psalm
In other words, the Jews understood literally…but wrongly and
foolishly! Moreover, Jesus corrected their crass literalism but
their hearts were hard and they would not listen.
Could “eating flesh” be a figure of something positive?
Catholic apologists argue that the figurative meaning of
eating flesh and drinking blood as used by the Jews is always
negative, implying inflicting injury, calumny or false
accusation. Therefore in John 6 eating and drinking cannot be
taken figuratively and must be understood literally.
There is no doubt that figurative “eating flesh” is used
negatively, but the conclusion that it can never be used in a
positive sense is absurd. Depending on the context, the same
figure is often used to express opposites. Augustine writes: “For
things that signify now one thing and now another…They signify
contraries, for example, when they are used metaphorically at
one time in a good sense, at another in a bad…Bread is used in
a good sense, ‘I am the living bread which came down from
heaven;’ in a bad, ‘Bread eaten in secret is pleasant.’
And so in a great many other case” (Augustine, On Christian
Doctrine). We know that eating flesh could mean a physical
injury or a false accusation by looking at the context in which
it is used. Similarly, if we examine the context of John 6, it
is hard to miss Jesus’ explanation that eating flesh and
drinking blood should be understood spiritually as coming and
believing on Him.
Augustine corrects the literal interpretation and affirms that
“eating” is a positive metaphor for believing.
This is then to eat the meat, not that which perisheth, but
that which endureth unto eternal life. To what purpose dost
thou make ready teeth and stomach? Believe, and thou hast
eaten already (Augustine, Tractate 25).
For to believe on Him is to eat the living bread. He that
believes eats; he is sated invisibly, because invisibly is he
born again (Augustine, Tractate 26).
John 6 does not afford any support to the Catholic doctrine of
transubstantiation. On the contrary, it is an emphatic statement on
the primacy of faith as the means by which we receive the grace of
God. Jesus is the Bread of Life; we eat of Him and are satisfied
when we believe in Him.
Jesus challenged the apostles, and He challenges
us today: "Do you also want to go away?”
our response by like Peter's. “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 Christ, the Son of the living God.” (John 6:68,69).