14

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?

11

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.

8

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-arranged work compiled over many years. For instance, Jesus drove the moneychangers 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' 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 prophecy 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 problems,2 but to solve spiritual problems.

At this point, John records one of Jesus' I am speeches, which are the following:

  • "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 exhorts 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 revelation 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. Technically, the second time Jesus tells Peter to "tend" his sheep, but the practical meaning seems to be the same.

6

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”.

  • +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. – 2055 Jul 8 '14 at 23:55
1

Question restated:

...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?

I find that John's mention that the Passover was at hand is intended to establish context for what he will present next.

He intends to link Jesus and the Paschal animal and the seder cup of blessing, and Jesus' death will also be identified as the ratification of the new covenant (never a "testament").

What is lost on most is the fact that the Passover is a perpetual festival that predates the giving of the Torah:

Jer_31:31  Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah

Heb_8:8  For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah

The gospel of John is writing in the final days of the Jewish theocracy (before the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem) predicted in Matthew 24. Aware of the impending doom he sees Jesus as bringing the new covenant and a new hope.

For me the clincher that he has in mind the seder is the fact that eating of the flesh of the lamb was required:

Joh 6:53  Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.

This, especially at Passover, would only really connect to one Jewish tradition:

The Home Ceremony. The first group stationed itself on the mount of the Temple, the second group in the "ḥel," the space between the Temple wall and the Temple hall, while the third group remained in the Temple court, thus awaiting the evening, when they took their lambs home and roasted them on a spit of pomegranate-wood. No bones might be broken either during the cooking or during the eating. The lamb was set on the table at the evening banquet (see Seder), and was eaten by the assembled company after all had satisfied their appetites with the ḥagigah or other food. The sacrifice had to be consumed entirely that same evening, nothing being allowed to remain overnight. While eating it, the entire company of those who partook was obliged to remain together, and every participant had to take a piece of the lamb at least as large as an olive. Women and girls also might take part in the banquet and eat of the sacrifice. The following benediction was pronounced before eating the lamb: "Blessed be Thou, the Eternal, our God, the King of the world, who hast sanctified us by Thy commands, and hast ordained that we should eat the Passover." The "Hallel" was recited during the meal, and when the lamb had been eaten the meaning of the custom was explained, and the story of the Exodus was told (see Seder)...

from http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/11926-paschal-sacrifice

The synoptics also associate his flesh and blood with the Seder:

Mat_26:26  And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.

Mar_14:22  And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body.

So yes there is sacramentalism but only for Jews.

However and most importantly, Jesus' final comments in John 6 clearly indicate that the significance is not in the Seder per se but in the new covenant that Jesus died to ratify.

How was Jesus "broken"?

None of the bones of the Passover lamb were to be broken. Jesus' bones were not broken. So I think it is safe to say that John is not saying that Jesus' physical body was broken.

Nor is their any reason to connect "broken body" liturgically with the Jews or the Church.

I tentatively think that Jesus links himself to the Afikomen. The bread of the Seder is unleavened, is broken, "buried" and revealed later. So this becomes the picture of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. So one can eat all the bread and all the lamb and drink all the wine but unless you see in the Seder his redemption through death and resurrection. For the Jews, he was the mediator of their new covenant which provided forgiveness of sins.

I had considered the possibility that the broken pieces of the Afikomen were to be regarded as Christ's body, broken as the animals of the Abrahamic covenant were broken and the parties passed through the pieces. That would make the Afikomen a new covenant symbol.

KJV unless otherwise noted

0

There are two additional aspects to the sacramental nature of the Bread of Life Discourse which are not brought out in other answers:

  • Jesus is the one who provides the Bread.
  • The inefficacy of the meal without belief.

The One Who Provides the Bread
J. H. Bernard saw the discourse as composed of three sections. In the third Jesus promises He will give bread in the future which the early church understood as sacramental feeding:

The first section tells of the Bread from heaven which God gives to those who believe in Jesus, and it announces that Jesus is, Himself, the Bread of Life. The second section is introduced by objections raised by "the Jews," and speaks further of Jesus as the Bread of Life, but does not say explicitly that this Bread is the gift of the Father...In the third section the terminology is changed, and not only the terminology but the doctrine as well. For Jesus speaks now, not of Himself as the heavenly Bread continually given by the Father to believers, but of the Bread which He is, Himself, to give them in the future (δώσω, v. 51). This gift is described as His flesh and His blood, which He will give for the life of the world, and which when appropriated by the believer will be the source and the guarantee of eternal life.1

No one would deny that there may be ways of "eating the flesh and drinking the blood" of Christ in a spiritual manner which do not involve sacramental feeding. But the language is sacramental, and was so understood throughout the second century.2

The initial act of providing Himself as bread came at the Last Supper. When He said "this is my body" He was presiding over the meal and giving bread which He said was Himself.

Joachim Jeremias detailed the connection between the Bread of Life Discourse and Paul's instructions from Jesus on the Eucharist:

The fact that in John 6.51c-58 traditional eucharistic material has been used is confirmed by an observation made by J.H. Bernard in 1928. He recognized that we have in John 6.51c an independent version of Jesus' word of interpretation over the bread. One needs only to set John 6.51c and 1 Cor. 11.24b side by side to be convinced of the correctness of this insight:

John 6.51c                    1 Cor. 11.24b
the bread which I will give   this
is my flesh                   is my body
for the life of the world     which is for you

It can be seen that the structure and content of the sentence is the same in both cases. John has only expanded it paraphrastically at the beginning and at the end.3

For Jeremias, the Bread of Life Discourse is liturgical, having the elements and the homily:

The whole sequence of thought in the discourse on the bread of life now becomes clearer: its conclusion (6.53-58) is a eucharistic homily, the theme of which is introduced by the word of interpretation to the bread (6.51c). John therefore, although he does not mention the institution of the Lord's Supper, introduces the word of interpretation to the bread in the context of a discourse by Jesus, without it thereby (as the history of the research shows) becoming immediately evident as such...the point is that in John 6.51c, 53-58 we meet with a sequence of word of interpretation and its exposition. For here, we may assume, we have an example of the way in which the 'proclamation of the death of the Lord' was carried out at the celebration of the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11.26).4

Inefficacy from Unbelief
C.K. Barrett notes what is implied in the actions of Jesus at the Last Supper, is found explicitly stated in the Bread of Life Discourse:

The discourse as a whole is simple, and contains few distinct thoughts; the details on the other hand are often allusive and obscure. It is related both to the synoptic narrative of the feeding of the five thousand (see above, p. 226) and to the eucharistic events of the last supper (Mark 14.22-5; Matt. 26.26-9; Luke 22.14-20), which John does not record. These two meals were probably intended to represent anticipations of the banquet of the kingdom of God, in which the redeemed would enjoy eternal fellowship with their Redeemer. In John's treatment of the theme Jesus takes an even more significant place. Not merely does he miraculously create and distribute the food men need, he is that food, and gives himself, his flesh and blood, for the life of the world. This thought is implicit in the acts of Jesus at the last supper; it becomes explicit in the present discourse.5

Barrett offers a different insight into the overall tenor of the passage which he says shows John assumes and knows his readers will assume the eucharist:

It is perhaps too much to call the discourse a "sacramental" discourse. John is less ready than some of his commentators to argue about the eucharist; he assumes it, and knows that his readers will assume it, while he also knows that except in the context of the fulfillment of God's purpose in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus it is a meaningless ceremony.6

Barrett sees the emphasis on the importance of belief Jesus fulfilled God's purpose to avoid a meaningless ceremony. This antithetic element would be the fourth division, or the conclusion to the Bread of Life Discourse:

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.) (John 6:64)

John's account of the Last Supper which lacks the words of institution, includes a unique aspect of the betrayal, which also parallels Paul:

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. (John 13:18-19)

…the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread...Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Corinthians 11:23, 27-29)

"He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me," had been predicted at the end of the Bread of Life Discourse and highlights the inefficacy of eating without believing. This detail illuminates the opening and closing of Paul's instructions as Judas ate the bread in an unworthy manner not discerning the Lord's body and brought judgment on himself.

John ends the betrayal with, "...believe that I am he." That is, "believe I am He who is gives Himself as the Bread of Life." Catrin H. Williams states of this "I am:"

Jesus, by pronouncing ἐγώ εἰμι, emphasizes that he has been sent as God's representative (cf. v. 3: ὅτι ἀπὸ Θεοῦ ἐξῆλθεν) to make eschatological salvation a reality for believers. This is confirmed by the 'Synoptic' logion included in v. 20 (cf. Matt. 10:40; Luke 10:16), which despite no obvious links with the earlier announcement of betrayal, stresses that the union between Jesus and his disciples is a reflection of his union with the Father (τὸν πέμψαντά με).7

The Passover meal is a family event presided over by the father. At the Last Supper Jesus has assumed the father's position in order to observe the meal with His future family (cf. John 1:12) and to provide Himself as the bread.


Notes:
1. J. H. Bernard, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, Vol 1 p. clxvii
2. Ibid., p clxix
3. Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, Translated by Norman Perrin, SCM Press Ltd, Trinity Press International, 1966, p. 107-108
4. Ibid., p. 108
5.C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, S●P●C●K, 1962, p. 236
6. Ibid.
7. Catrin H. Williams, I Am He, Mohr Siebeck, 2000, pp. 286-287
8. Barrett, p. 228

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