The day after Jesus performed his largest-scale pre-crucifixion miracle — the feeding of the five thousand — he issued one of his most offensive and misunderstood statements.
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)
Up to this point, the growing crowd had been thrilled with Jesus. After all, he could heal the sick and feed the masses! Was this the long-awaited Prophet? Soon they would want to make him their king (John 6:14–15). But Jesus discerned something defective about their enthusiasm.
They desired more loaves from heaven (John 6:34), but not the bread he had come to give them: himself (John 6:51–52). So, he tested their spiritual discernment with a series of increasingly provocative statements, culminating in the one above. They took offense; it sounded like cannibalism. The “Jesus for King” campaign suddenly evaporated. Turns out he was right about their lack of discernment. They seriously misunderstood what he was saying.
And they wouldn’t be the last. People have misunderstood these verses for the last two thousand years — including Christians. Over time, significant Christian traditions, such as Roman Catholicism, developed Jesus’s words into the doctrine of transubstantiation, the belief “that during the Eucharist, the body of Jesus Christ himself is truly eaten and his blood truly drunk. The bread becomes his actual body, and the wine his actual blood.”
But that’s not what Jesus meant. How do we know this? He gave us plenty of clues.
Spiritual Realities Spiritually Discerned
First, this wasn’t the first time Jesus used metaphors to unveil spiritual reality. A few verses later, he describes the hidden power and meaning of his teaching to his disciples (some of whom were offended along with the crowd):
It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe. (John 6:63–64)
In other words, “No one will understand what I am saying unless the Spirit reveals it.” A similar misunderstanding happens when Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Nicodemus is confused, thinking Jesus is referring to a literal physical birth, but Jesus’s words are “spirit and life” — he is referring to a spiritual birth.
“Again and again, Jesus uses provocative metaphorical language to help people see who he is.”
Again, a chapter later, when Jesus speaks with the Samaritan woman at the well, he offers her living water. Confused, she responds, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” (John 4:10–11). Jesus’s words, however, are “spirit and life.” They mean far more than she realizes, and that meaning can only be spiritually discerned.
Again and again, Jesus uses provocative metaphorical language to help people see who he is and how they might obtain eternal life through him.
What Does It Mean to Feed?
Now, let’s narrow in on the immediate context of John 6 — which was a discussion regarding bread — because it contains more clues to what Jesus meant by, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54). I’ll highlight four of Jesus’s statements in particular, italicizing the key phrases.
“Do not work 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.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:27–29)
“The bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.” (John 6:33–36)
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. (John 6:40)
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. (John 6:47)
“The way we satisfy our spiritual hunger and quench our spiritual thirst is by believing in Jesus.”
What is Jesus’s point in these statements? The way we labor for the food that endures to eternal life is by believing in Jesus. The way we satisfy our spiritual hunger and quench our spiritual thirst is by believing in Jesus. The way to obtain the resurrection from the dead is to believe in Jesus. The way to receive eternal life is to believe in Jesus.
Eating Is Believing
Now, let’s return to Jesus’s provocative flesh-and-blood teaching:
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. . . . 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 6:47–55)
In light of the clues we’ve examined, what is the most likely meaning of eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood? Jesus means eating is believing, drinking is believing, because Jesus promises eternal life to those who believe in him.
Outside of John 6, neither Jesus nor any of the apostles teaches anything that would support transubstantiation. And for John’s part specifically, he doesn’t even record the Lord’s Supper in his Gospel. If he really believed transubstantiation was what Jesus meant by his statements in John 6, wouldn’t he have made that connection by describing the very event through which that doctrine would be applied?
Eating Is Remembering and Proclaiming
The clearest teaching the New Testament provides regarding the Lord’s Supper comes from the apostle Paul.
I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23–26)
Paul teaches his readers to understand the Lord’s Supper as a spiritual eating and drinking that, like baptism, physically symbolizes and mediates a spiritual reality.
Through the meal, we remember that by faith we receive what Jesus has done for us, and in faith we proclaim that reality to others. Receive and proclaim what? What Jesus’s death accomplished for us: his substitutionary death on our behalf — the breaking of his body and spilling of his blood — pays in full the penalty of guilt for our sin (Hebrews 10:12–14), and his perfect righteousness is freely given to us in exchange for our unrighteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is the New Testament’s clear teaching of the Christian gospel.
Based on Jesus’s teaching in John 6 and Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11, the saving grace of what many call the Eucharist resides not in Jesus’s physical presence residing in the elements of bread and wine, but in Jesus’s spiritual presence at the Table by his Spirit and residing in the believer through his faith in what the elements communicate. Which means the significance of the Lord’s Supper is remembering the saving grace we have received through the Lord’s death and proclaiming the offer of that saving grace to our own souls and to others — until he comes.