One of the several themes and structures in the Gospel of John is his constant use of metaphors to represent Jesus' teaching. The other evangelists do this as well but John uses them far more. See the appendix below. In all these metaphors there is constant dispute between Jesus and the Jews who appear to insist on taking the metaphors literally while Jesus intends them as spiritual teaching tools.
In John 6 Jesus is teaching the crowds and using several closely related metaphors that include:
- Manna/bread in the desert represented Jesus' body which, in turn, represented Jesus' teaching about eternal life
- Eating (the flesh/bread) and drinking (Jesus blood) represents trust and believing that teaching about eternal life.
Jesus provides these metaphors about His flesh and blood to deliberately make Himself the center and substance of the plan of salvation. That is, we may believe what we like but if we do not have Jesus, we have nothing. Jesus provided a pithy summary of this withing this discourse by saying (John 6:47-51):
"Truly, truly, I tell you, he who believes has eternal life. I am
the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, yet
they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that
anyone 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
this bread, which I will give for the life of the world, is My flesh.”
In 1 John 5:11, 12, we have something very similar:
And this is that testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this
life is in His Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not
have the Son of God does not have life.
This was the hard/difficult (Σκληρός) saying. The literalistic Jews had become highly legalistic (the two often go together) so they asked two significant questions that betrayed they incredulous mind-set:
- John 6:28 - “What must we do to perform the works of God?” And ...
- John 6:52 - “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?”
It appears that they wanted to DO something to earn eternal life [rather than simply believe] and refused to understand Jesus metaphorical teaching. To make matters worse, Jesus was effectively claiming to be superior to Moses by saying He, Jesus, was the means of salvation and not Moses. That was why it was a "hard" saying.
APPENDIX: List of Metaphors in the Gospel of John
- 1:1-14 – Jesus is the “Word” (Greek: “logos” means idea or principle)
- 1:29 – Jesus is the Lamb of God
- 1:51 – Jesus is the ladder between earth and heaven (Gen 28:12)
- 2:19-21 – Jesus’ body is the temple that was to be destroyed and raised in 3 days
- 3:3-12 – Jesus’ disciples must be born from above
- 3:13, 14 – Jesus is the bronze serpent in the wilderness (also 8:27, 12:34 & Num 21:9)
- 4:13, 14 – Jesus’ message becomes a fountain/river of living water flowing out of His disciples (see also 7:38)
- 4:32 – Jesus’ food was not of this world (ie, conversions to discipleship)
- 4:35-38 – Jesus’ disciples must reap the “harvest” of the Gospel
- 5:13, 14 – Our work is to labour for “manna” or “food” that endures (also, 6:27)
- 5:35 – John the Baptist was a lamp preparing for the greater light
- 6:35, 41, 48, 50, 51 – Jesus said, “I am the bread of life”
- 6:53-58 – we must eat Jesus’ flesh and drink His blood
- 8:12 – Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (see also 1:4, 9, 12:46)
- 8:38-47 – Jesus’ disciples are Abraham’s children and children of God, whereas, His enemies are children of the devil.
- 9:39-41 – converted disciples are not blind but those who will not see are blind
- 10:1-18 – Jesus said, “I am the good Shepherd” (v11, 14) and the disciples are sheep
- 10:8 – Jesus said, “I am the gate/door to the sheep”
- 11:25 – Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and life”
- 12:24 – Jesus compares his life to a seed that must die to produce more life
- 14:6 – Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life”
- 14:26 – Holy Spirit is called and advocate (Greek: “parakletos”) (see also 15:26ff)
- 15:1-5 – Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches”
- 16:21, 22 – troubles of this life compared to child birth
- 18:11 – Jesus’ trials likened to a “cup”
- 21:15-17 – Jesus’ followers likened to lambs and sheep (see also 10:1-18)