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The "Bread of Life" discourse in John 6:22-59 seems to have all the components of a good discussion on the Lord's Supper (or Eucharist, or communion, or whatever your tradition calls it): Jesus is talking about bread (John 6:32, et. al.) relating it to his flesh (John 6:51) and tells the disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:52-58).

Yet not everyone agrees that this discourse is sacramental. For example, it is anachronistic, and missing some of the usual sacramental language found elsewhere in scripture. Such would seems a bit out of place for John, and it could a bit anachronistic in any case, since the last supper won't occur yet for a number of chapters.

So, is this discourse intended to be sacramental, or is the language of eating and drinking of Jesus's flesh meant to be more a metaphor for something else, like faith in his work on the cross?

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It's hard to imagine that anyone familiar with Christian practice could read the words in 52-58 especially and not think of the Lord's Supper. That said, it seems best to understand this passage not as primarily referring to the sacrament itself, but as primarily referring to that to which the Eucharist also points.

In support of this view, Carson in his commentary on John (PNTC) makes two arguments by examining verse 40 and verse 54 together.

40For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.

54Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.

First, he notes that the verses are similar in structure such that "looks to the Son and believes" in 40 could stand in for "eats my flesh and drinks my blood" in 54 (and vice-versa). Based on this, he concludes that the words in verse 54 are a metaphorical way of referring to the words in verse 40.

Second, he argues that because the language in verse 54 is so unqualified in its promise that if it is understood to primarily refer to the Eucharist, one must conclude in contradiction of verse 40 that the Eucharist alone is sufficient for eternal life.

John Calvin also latches on the unqualied nature of this promise and makes his own argument from the words "And I will raise him up at the last day":

From these words, it plainly appears that the whole of this passage is improperly explained, as applied to the Lord’s Supper. For if it were true that all who present themselves at the holy table of the Lord are made partakers of his flesh and blood, all will, in like manner, obtain life; but we know that there are many who partake of it to their condemnation.

Lastly, John's gospel rather surprisingly omits Jesus' establishment of the practice, which the Synoptics record. If John meant for his readers to understand that eternal life came through the sacrament, it would seem strange for him to add this discourse and not also add Jesus' words during the Passover meal in order to give his readers an understanding of the actual practice.

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In addition to the helpful answers already here, I'd add the following.

The generally excellent exegete Calvin agrees with your charge of anachronism: "it would have been foolish and unreasonable [for Jesus] to discourse about the Lord’s Supper, before he had instituted it. It is certain, then, that he now speaks of the perpetual and ordinary manner of eating the flesh of Christ, which is done by faith only."

Excursus: Perhaps our c. 1880s translation is leading us astray on Calvin's meaning, as it seems rather impious and out of character for him to call Jesus "foolish and unreasonable." In his defense, he actually said, "Et certe ineptum fuisset ac intempestivum, de Coena tunc disserere, quam nondum instituerat" (italics mine). The former word can mean foolish in the sense of silly but is also the negative form of the adjective aptum meaning apt or suitable and can mean simply unsuitable. The second word, as you may note has tempus (time) embedded in it, and also means untimely or, we might say, anachronistic. I'm no scholar of the Latin of this period, but it may be possible (or more probable, granting the benefit of the doubt and given the seriousness of the words here) to translate the offending words "unsuitable" and "anachronistic."

Even so, I agree that foreshadowing is in play. Calvin's argument is that there is in fact more going on here than just the Eucharist -- that is, it's not merely an advanced discussion of a future institution. It's talking about more general spiritual feeding that yields eternal life. "The one who feeds on me will live because of me" is not speaking specifically of the Eucharist, for instance. According to Calvin, Catholics et al. have proven too much if they take this to be mainly about the supper.

Michael Bird did a series on the Eucharist recently, and part 2 is relevant to the discussion here. He discusses the Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, and Zwinglian views on the Eucharist, majoring on the Reformed view which he says has the most explanatory power. Here's a quote on John 6 (paragraphs and bold added):

On top of that, one can grant the clearly Eucharistic sub-text to John 6 with its references to eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood (esp. vv. 51-58). However, John’s Gospel is decidedly asacramental since Jesus is never baptized and he never institutes the Eucharist in the narrative. The big emphasis in the Fourth Gospel is on faith, believing, and trusting in the Father and the Son (e.g., John 5:24; 20:31).

The discourse in John 6 is largely metaphorical for believing in Jesus Christ as the one who takes away the sins of the world. Still it’s hard not to think about the Eucharist when one reads this. Calvin saw an “intimation” of the Eucharist in John 6 because it teaches that Christ is the bread of life, we believe in him for that, and we express our faith in him by feeding on him at the Eucharist.

For Calvin, Jesus is teaching that our salvation is treasured up in our faith, but there is also a real communication of him that takes place in his body and blood. So I would say that John 6 is not about the Eucharist, but it certainly foreshadows it. Consequently: “This means that if John 6 is not about the eucharist, the eucharist is undoubtedly about John 6.”

That summary quote at the end is from "Eating is Believing? On Midrash and the Mixing of Metaphors in John 6" by David Gibson, who gives a more technical discussion of John 6.

Here's the ecumenical ending of Bird's post, which I appreciate (paragraph added):

In light of all of this, we need some Eucharistic charity, as all Chrisitans traditions share something in common by affirming the memory, proclamation, and presence of Jesus with his people in the Eucharist. As a possible consensus statement, the Leuenberg Agreement, a joint ecumenical statement between Lutheran and Reformed churches composed in 1973, states: “In the Lord’s Supper the risen Jesus Christ imparts himself in his body and blood, given for all, through his word of promise with bread and wine. He thus gives himself unreservedly to all who receive the bread and wine; faith receives the Lord’s Supper for salvation, unfaith for judgment” (III.1.18).

In addition, it is humbling as it is unifying if we chose to remain in a common awe at the mystery of the Eucharist however differently we may understand it. It is a mysterious and miraculous communion with the flesh and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ to unite us, not divide us. Ultimately it is beyond our understanding as to how we meet Jesus in bread and wine and how the Spirit blesses us through it. We would do well to be like Calvin and insist that the Eucharist is something we would “rather experience than understand”.

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+1 useful and well researched answer: long time no see though, would you consider contributing here again? –  Jack Douglas Jan 17 '13 at 18:01
    
Thanks, I happen to have researched this topic a bit for a discussion I was having with some friends (indeed, this was virtually a copy and paste of my email to them). I don't often have that much information at the ready, but I'll pop in from time to time just in case I can contribute. :-) –  metal Jan 23 '13 at 18:03
    
My highest upvoted answer on the Christianity site is also pretty much a copy and paste from previous research. –  fredsbend Jul 8 at 23:55

To answer the question, we must first determine what genre the gospel of John actually is. Unlike the synoptic gospels, John doesn't seem overly concerned with chronology. It doesn't seem be a Greek-style biography or history. Instead, commentators often speculate John to be a series of discourses or a thematically-arraigned work compiled over many years. For instance, Jesus drove the money changers and sacrificial-offering vendors out of the temple at the start of his ministry rather than the end as in the Synoptic tradition. John's account seems unlikely as this act must have been a major contributing factor to Jesus' crucifixion and would be hard for the Jewish religious leaders to overlook for several years. But cleaning up corrupt Jewish practice does fit in well thematically for John as it helps establish the claim that "grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (John 1:17 ESV)

Since John is willing to juggle the timeline in order to build upon a theme, we should look at the gospel's account of the Last Supper to see why this material wasn't placed there. After washing his disciples's feet, Jesus turns to the matter of his betrayal in John 13:18-27 (ESV):

I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”

After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus' side, so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.”

All three Synoptics mention the prediction that someone at the meal will become a betrayer, but none of them quote Psalm 41, which makes specific mention of bread. Mark agrees with John that the betrayer will dip bread, Matthew rephrases it to be dipping his hand, and Luke says the hand of the betrayer is at the table without referencing dipping at all.1 It's possible that both Luke and Matthew deemphasized the bread's connection to Judas to avoid clouding the picture when Jesus introduced the sacramental usage of bread. John seems intent on bringing in the prophesy callback to Psalm 41 and so he needed to put bread in Judas' hand. His solution to the confusion over bread is to move the sacramental meaning to much earlier in the story.

Going back to John 6, the context is the miraculous feeding of 5,000 men. As in Mark and Matthew (but not Luke), Jesus immediately orders his disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee and then follows them by walking on the water. Unlike the other gospels, John picks up the theme of the Jews looking for a messianic king. Apparently, the people who had been fed realized how very useful such power would be in military situations and were prepared to set Jesus up as king. As usual in John, Jesus is insistent that his work on earth isn't primarily to solve physical or practical problems2, but to solve spiritual problems.

At this point, John records one of Jesus' I am speeches. According to Wikipedia the are:

  • "the bread of life"[6:35]
  • "the light of the world"[8:12]
  • "the gate of the sheep"[10:7]
  • "the good shepherd"[10:11]
  • "the resurrection and the life"[11:25]
  • "the way, the truth, and the life"[14:6] and
  • "the real vine"[15:1]

Each of these speeches develop a different aspect of Jesus' divine claims and are therefore important themes of the Gospel. When Jesus claims to be "the bread of life", John finds an ideal time to insert the material concerning eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Interestingly, John does hint at the original context of the words. John 6:64 (ESV):

But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.)

Now many commentators feel John was among the very last New Testament books produced and it was certainly written after the Sacrament of the bread and wine was being practiced regularly by the church. Certainly, Paul wrote as if the practice were firmly established in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (ESV)

For 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.

So I'd suggest that John is throwing a different light on the already established practice of remembering Jesus via bread and wine rather than instituting or giving the historical justification for the sacrament.

John mentions bread one other time: during his resurrection appearance to the fishermen. Jesus prepares fish and bread to feed his disciples for breakfast. After the meal, he extorts Peter three times to feed his sheep3. It's hard to dismiss the idea that Jesus is referring back to both the "bread of life" speech and to the prophetic reveling of his betrayer. Here Jesus helps Peter get off the hook for his previous denial of Christ and to point him in the right direction as he takes over the leadership of the church.


Footnotes:

  1. As always, the different emphasis of each gospel corresponds to the authors' differing purposes. I wonder if Luke's audience would be confused by the communal Passover meal and decided to simplify the story.

  2. See his interaction with the Samaritan woman two chapters earlier.

  3. Techincally, the second time Jesus tells Peter to "tend" his sheep, but the practical meaning seems to be the same.

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A note on your second sentence: Craig Blomberg argues for Johannine primacy in the historical timeline of events in The Historical Reliability John’s Gospel, which is summarized in his book on the reliability of the gospels in general. –  metal Dec 31 '13 at 15:10
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@metal: Thanks for the pointer. I have not noted Dr. Blomberg yet; I'll look into his work. (And thanks for stopping by the site again. I reread your answer here and appreciated it again a great deal.) –  Jon Ericson Dec 31 '13 at 15:21

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