One of the strangest things Jesus ever said is recorded in chapter six of John’s Gospel, where Jesus stated that his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood.
These words are disturbing. Almost everyone, including his most loyal disciples, misunderstood them at the time. Many disciples stopped following him after he said them (verse 66). They have been the subjects of much debate for centuries in the church. And because of them, Christians have even been accused of cannibalism by participating in the Lord’s Supper.
But what did Jesus really mean? If we pay close attention, it’s not that difficult to understand. But we must examine the context carefully and recognize Jesus’s clues.
The Context: Feeding the Five Thousand
The day before Jesus said these things, he had fed a crowd of 5,000 people with a few loaves and fish. In this miracle, the crowd recognized that the Prophet like Moses had been raised up (John 6:14; Deuteronomy 18:15). Not since the days of manna had a prophet provided miracle bread like that. They were ready to make Jesus king right there.
The crowd was right that Jesus was the Prophet. But Jesus knew that they didn’t yet understand his mission. So he evaded the premature coronation and went to Capernaum (via a nighttime stroll across the Sea of Galilee). But the enthusiastic crowd tracked him down there.
Excitement Over the Wrong Bread
Jesus decided it was time to expose why their enthusiasm was wrongheaded. So he said to them,
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)
This crowd had seen Jesus do all sorts of miracles and likely knew at least some of his claims of authority (John 6:2; see John chapter 5). But what made them want to make Jesus king was the miracle bread. Their excitement was that Jesus could take away their hunger, not that he had come to take away their sins (1 John 3:5). For them the miracle bread had become the gospel.
What Jesus was telling them here was that the bread was not the gospel, his message of salvation from sin was the gospel (John 3:17). He had come to not save them from starvation but from damnation.
The True Bread
At this point the tension began to rise. They asked what work was required to get eternal life bread, and Jesus answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (verse 29).
Here the crowd began to hedge. They did not believe in everything Jesus was claiming. They demanded more signs — in fact, more “bread from heaven” would be a good start (verses 30–31).
So to expose just how little they believed in him, Jesus declared, “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven . . . and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (verse 51).
This sounded bizarre. The crowd recoiled. And then Jesus delivered the knockout:
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 crowd melted away shaking their heads. The miracle-working prophet was a lunatic who wanted them to eat his flesh!
The Clues to What Jesus Meant
So what did Jesus really mean by these disturbing statements? The clues are sprinkled throughout John 6:22–71:
How does one work for the food that endures to eternal life? Believe in Jesus (verses 27, 29).
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me [believing] shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (verse 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” (verse 40).
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life” (verse 47).
Do you see it?
“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (verse 54).
“Whoever believes has eternal life” (verse 47).
Eating Is Believing
For Jesus, eating was believing; drinking was believing. These words were “spirit and life” (verse 63). Jesus promised eternal life not to those who eat and drink from his broken body, but to those who believe in why his body was broken — to pay in full the penalty for their sin and to freely give them his perfect righteousness in exchange for their unrighteousness. That is the gospel of the New Testament. It is the priceless promise of John 3:16.
So the next time you gather with the brothers and sisters in your local church to share in the simplest yet most profound of all meals, the Lord’s Supper, remember: eating is believing; drinking is believing. The meal celebrates and proclaims belief. Jesus instituted it so that all of his disciples throughout all of history would remember and proclaim what they believe about his death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:24–26).
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