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 or 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. They were offended and left Him. On the
other hand, the apostles rightly understood, and Peter, speaking on
behalf of the apostolic group, confessed their faith in Him.
Jesus Himself 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
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 eternal life.
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”
“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
“Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood
has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (v54).
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.
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 one great event, the sacrifice of the cross.
However it would be a great 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 the evangelist John does not even
include an account of the institution of the 'Eucharist'.
In the light of this conspicuous omission, one should reconsider
whether eternal life is obtained in some way other than the
Eucharist, and hence if Jesus’ words should be understood
spiritually rather than literally.
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 through this faith we may 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
the Christian experience, yet we must assert the primary importance
of faith in Christ for eternal life.
Catholic arguments -
with a little help from Augustine
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 who believe.
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
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
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 27).
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 99).
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
Could “eating flesh” be a figure of
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.
Print this page | Back