What Jesus Meant When He Said “You Must Eat My Flesh”

The day before, Jesus had fed 5,000 people with a few loaves and fish. Then that night he walked miles across the Sea of Galilee before catching up with his disciples in their boat. The crowd had seen him send his disciples away in the only boat available. So the next day, when they found him in Capernaum, they knew he could have only got there miraculously. They wanted him to be their king.

Then he went and ruined everything. To his adoring fans Jesus said,

Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal (John 6:26-27).

Confused, they asked him how they could work to please God. He replied, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). (God isn’t looking for workers. He’s looking for believers.)

Jesus was a hero to the crowd because he had fed them. But Jesus discerned something very wrong about their enthusiasm. They wanted more “bread from heaven.”

But wanting the blessings Jesus provides is not the same thing as believing in him. Indeed, Jesus had come to give them bread from heaven. But not that kind of bread.

So to test them he began to make statements that sounded very strange. He told them that he was the true bread from heaven that gives life to the world and whoever eats this bread would live forever.

Then he said, “And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (v. 51).  This sounded like cannibalism. His listeners balked. He pressed it 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 (John 6:53-55).

The “Jesus for King” campaign evaporated. The people walked away shaking their heads. The crazy man wants us to eat his flesh! They completely misunderstood what Jesus was saying.

So what did he mean? Here are the clues:

  • How do you labor for the food that endures to eternal life? Believe in me! (v. 27, 29)
  • “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me [in faith] shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (v. 35)
  • “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (v. 40)
  • “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.” (v. 47)

For Jesus eating is believing; drinking is believing. He promises eternal life to those who believe in him. Believe what?

Believe that his death—the breaking of his body and spilling of his blood—pays in full the penalty for our sin and that his perfect righteousness is freely given to us in exchange for our unrighteousness.

Believing this is how we “eat” Jesus’ flesh and “drink” his blood. This is why he instituted the Lord’s Supper: he did not want us to forget the very core of what we believe.

When the crowd took offense at his gruesome talk, Jesus exposed their unbelief: “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe” (vv. 63-64).

Let’s you and I be like Peter. He didn’t walk away, but instead said to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God” (vv. 68-69).

Jon Bloom (@Bloom_Jon) is the author of Not by Sight: A Fresh Look at Old Stories of Walking by Faith and serves as the President of Desiring God, which he and John Piper launched together in 1994. He lives in the Twin Cities with his wife, Pam, their five children, and one naughty dog.