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John 6:51-58 Biblical Commentary:
JOHN 6. BACKGROUND
These verses constitute the ending of the Bread of Life Discourse (vv. 22-58), given at the synagogue in Capernaum (v. 59), Jesus’ hometown as an adult (Matthew 4:13). The discourse follows the stories of the feeding of the five thousand (vv. 1-15) and Jesus walking on water (vv. 16-21).
The fact that Jesus delivers this discourse in his hometown makes it especially difficult for his listeners to accept his words—provocative words and claims that appear to be exaggerated. Jesus’ neighbors ask him for a validating sign, and mention Moses’ gift of the manna in the desert as an example of the kind of sign that they expect (v. 31). Jesus corrects them—“It wasn’t Moses who gave you (past tense) the bread out of heaven, but my Father gives you (present tense) the true bread out of heaven” (v. 32). He then identifies himself as the bread of life (v. 35).
Jesus’ listeners complain about his apparent grandiosity. How can this local boy, their neighbor, claim to be bread from heaven (v. 41)? How can his Father give them the true bread from heaven? They know his father, Joseph (v. 42)—an ordinary carpenter—not a baker of heavenly bread.
Jesus responds by making even bolder claims. The Israelites ate manna in the wilderness, but the manna sustained their lives for only a few years—they died long ago. By contrast, Jesus claims to be “the living bread which came down out of heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. Yes, the bread which I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (v. 51). Small wonder that these listeners find his words difficult!
JOHN 6:51-52. I AM THE LIVING BREAD
51“I am the living bread which came down out of heaven. If anyone eats (Greek: phage) of this bread, he will live forever. Yes, the bread which I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (Greek: sarx). 52The Jews therefore contended with one another, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
“I am the living bread which came down out of heaven” (v. 51a). This “living bread” parallels the “living water” that Jesus offered the Samaritan woman (4:10).
“If anyone eats (phage) of this bread, he will live forever” (v. 51b). Phage is the aorist of esthio (to eat), and thus represents a one-time action. To eat of this bread, in this context, means the once-and-for-all action of accepting or believing in Christ.
“Yes, the bread which I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (sarx) (v. 51c). Jesus does not retreat from the offense of his words, but instead adds to it with his mention of flesh (sarx).
• This is sacrificial language. The Torah requires ritual sacrifices of animals, and specifies in detail how they are to be prepared and how their flesh is to be used. Some flesh is to be burned on the altar and other flesh is to be eaten. The gift of one’s flesh is the most personal of all sacrifices that a person can make in behalf of another. In this instance, Jesus makes it in behalf of the world—not just Israel (see also 3:16-17). His sacrifice is both voluntary and vicarious.
• The sacrificial language recalls John the Baptist’s earlier reference to Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29)—which, in turn, brings to mind the Passover lamb sacrificed to save the lives of the Israelites in Egypt (Exodus 11-12), a sacrifice which Israel commemorates annually.
• It also recalls the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, who “bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:13).
“The Jews therefore contended with one another, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?'” (v. 52). This phrase, “the Jews,” refers to the Jewish religious leaders, who are in most cases Jesus’ opponents. “Flesh” is a provocative word, raising the specter of cannibalism. It is especially provocative in a culture that distinguishes so precisely between clean and unclean meat and emphasizes strict observance of dietary laws. The first consideration for any Jew, contemplating the eating of any flesh, would be whether that flesh is permitted or forbidden. No observant Jew would consider eating human flesh.
JOHN 6:53. UNLESS YOU EAT AND DRINK
53Jesus therefore said to them, “Most certainly I tell you, unless you eat (Greek: phagete) the flesh (Greek: sarka—from sarx) of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you don’t have life in yourselves.”
“Most certainly I tell you” (v. 53a). These words make emphatic that which follows.
“unless you eat (phagete) the flesh (sarx) of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you don’t have life in yourselves” (v. 53b). The title that Jesus uses for himself here is Son of Man—the title that he uses in lieu of messiah. It has the advantage of having none of the militaristic connotations associated with the title, messiah. People expect the messiah to raise an army, to drive out the Romans, and to re-establish the great Davidic kingdom. They have no such expectations regarding the Son of Man.
The first significant issue here is whether Jesus’ words are Eucharistic (referring to the Lord’s Supper) or simply incarnational/sacrificial (referring to the incarnation and the cross). The question is significant. Is Jesus emphasizing participation in the Eucharist here? Should a sermon based on this text emphasize participation in the Lord’s Supper? Scholars are divided on this question, and raise a number of points for consideration— three of which favor not emphasizing participation in the Eucharist:
• First, the word “flesh” (sarx) in verse 51c is unusual. In all of the accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24), the word is “body” (soma)—not “flesh” (sarx). However, Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek, and the distinction in Aramaic is less than clear cut.
• Second, the word “flesh” brings to mind, not the Lord’s Supper, but the Incarnation—”The Word became flesh, and lived among us” (1:14). It could be that the emphasis of 6:51-58 is incarnational rather than Eucharistic.
• Third, in verse 47, Jesus established belief as the condition for receiving eternal life. In verse 53, his language changes, and eating his flesh and drinking his blood become the condition for receiving eternal life. If we interpret this eating and drinking to be participation in the Eucharist, it sounds as if any person who partakes of the bread and wine is guaranteed salvation regardless of any other consideration, such as belief or baptism. It is difficult, based on our reading of other New Testament passages, to believe that could be the case.
However, other considerations favor a Eucharistic interpretation—suggesting that Jesus is speaking, at least in part, about participation in the Lord’s Supper:
• The crowd’s mention of manna (“bread from heaven”) as the kind of sign that they expect Jesus to perform (v. 31) constitutes the background of 6:51. Jesus responds by identifying himself as “the bread of life” (v. 35) and “the living bread that came down from heaven” (v. 51). He then says, “Yes, the bread which I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (v. 51c). The language seems to become Eucharistic at this point.
• The Gospel of John does not include an account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, but instead tells only the story of the foot washing (13:1-20). Some scholars think of 6:51-58 as the Johannine equivalent of the institution of the Lord’s Supper.
• At the beginning of this Bread of Life discourse, John establishes that the Passover is near (6:4). This is significant, because the Passover ritual involves the sacrifice and eating of the Pascal (Passover) lamb. Earlier in this Gospel, John the Baptist proclaimed Jesus to be “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29), and the Lord’s Supper in the Synoptics is a Passover meal. The Passover context, then, gives Jesus’ words a decidedly Eucharistic flavor.
My conclusion is that incarnational, sacrificial, and Eucharistic emphases are intertwined in 6:51-58, and that the emphasis shifts to favor the Eucharistic at verse 51c. If this is correct, it is appropriate, perhaps even important, to emphasize participation in the Lord’s Supper when preaching from this text.
A second significant issue has to do with the relationship of belief and eating and drinking as requirements for receiving eternal life. Jesus first establishes belief as a requirement (v. 40), and then establishes eating and drinking as a requirement (v. 53). Do these function independently? Are we saved either by belief or by eating/drinking—or are both required? We know that faith is required. In this verse, Jesus states that eating his flesh and drinking his blood are also required.
We should also note two things that were happening at the time of the writing of this Gospel that might have influenced the author to emphasize the eating of Jesus flesh and the drinking of his blood:
• The first was the influence of Docetic and Gnostic heresies, both of which considered flesh to be evil and denied that Christ could have a physical body. 6:53ff. emphasizes the physical nature of his body—perhaps, in part, to counter these heresies.
• The second was Jewish discrimination against Christian believers. Christians who observed the Lord’s Supper were likely to be banned from synagogues. It is possible that, by emphasizing the Lord’s Supper as a requirement for receiving eternal life, the author intends to push fence-straddlers off the fence. Such participation is important, not only for their personal religious lives, but also as a visible witness to their faith. As Paul says, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
JOHN 6:54-55. THOSE WHO EAT AND DRINK HAVE ETERNAL LIFE
54“He who eats (Greek: trogan) my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.”
“He who eats (trogan) my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (v. 54a). Jesus shifts from the polite word for eating (phage) to a much coarser word (trogan) —munch—a word more commonly used for animals munching on their feed. Trogan, like sarx, is provocative—designed to get attention. Jesus will continue to use trogan through the rest of this discourse.
As noted above, observant Jews would find the talk of eating human flesh abhorrent. Leviticus 17:10-14 also prohibits the consumption of blood.
“has eternal life” (v. 54a). The promise is not only eternal life (available now—realized eschatology) but also resurrection (available only later—final eschatology) (Brown, 292).
Jesus flesh and blood are true food and drink, bringing us sustenance at the deepest level of our being, in contrast with manna, which fed only the body.
In our culture, we are bombarded by advertisements for things as diverse as toothpaste and sports cars, each claiming to meet our deepest needs. Such claims are empty, and ultimately disappoint. However, when we believe in Jesus and partake of his flesh and blood, he strengthens and sustains us in ways that nothing else can.
However important the Eucharist might be, it is one of the means by which we experience the presence of God. Other means include the reading of scripture, prayer, Christian fellowship—and many others.
“and I will raise him up at the last day” (v. 54b). The term, “the last day,” is eschatological (having to do with the end of time), and is associated with judgment. Jesus’ promise in this verse is that, “at the last day,” he will raise up the person who eats his flesh and drinks his blood—raise him/her to eternal life.
“for my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” (v. 55). Earlier in this discourse, Jesus told the people who had experienced the feeding of the 5000, “Most certainly I tell you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves, and were filled. Don’t work for the food which perishes, but for the food which remains to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (vv. 24-25). The manna that their ancestors experienced in the wilderness was not true food—did not give them life (v. 49). The bread that Jesus used to feed the 5000 on the mountaintop was something less than true bread, because it satisfied the people’s hunger only momentarily. By way of contrast, Jesus’ flesh and blood are true food because “if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (v. 51)—and “has (present tense) eternal life” (v. 54).
JOHN 6:56. THOSE WHO EAT AND DRINK ABIDE
56“He who eats (Greek: trogon) my flesh and drinks my blood lives (Greek: menei—from meno) in me, and I in him.”
The promise to those who eat and drink is that they abide in Jesus and Jesus in them. This concept of “abiding in” or “dwelling in” (meno) is important in this Gospel:
• Jesus promises the disciples that the Spirit of truth will abide with them and will be in them (14:17).
• He invites the disciples, “Remain in me, and I in you”—likening such abiding to the relationship between vine and branches (15:4-7).
• He says, “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and remain in his love” (15:10).
• In his High Priestly Prayer, he prays for the disciples, “that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that you sent me” (17:21). While the word, meno, is not found in this prayer, the concept of deep relationship is.
• Paul expresses the same idea in different words when he talks about Christians being “in Christ” (Romans 8:1; 1 Corinthians 15:18; 2 Corinthians 5:17, etc.).
JOHN 6:57. WHOEVER EATS ME WILL LIVE BECAUSE OF ME
57“As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father; so he who feeds (Greek: trogon) on me, he will also live because of me.”
The phrase, “living God,” is common in both Old and New Testaments, but this is the only occurrence of “living Father.”
Jesus establishes the life-giving chain of authority. The “living Father” sent him, and he lives because of the Father. In like manner, the person who feeds on him (believes in him/ accepts him/participates in the Eucharist) will live. As the Father gave him life, so he gives us life.
JOHN 6:58. THE ONE WHO EATS THIS BREAD WILL LIVE FOREVER
58“This is the bread which came down out of heaven—not as our fathers (hoi pateres—the fathers—ancestors) ate the manna, and died. He who eats (Greek: trogon) this bread will live forever.”
As noted above, it was Jesus’ listeners who first mentioned manna, referring to it as “bread out of heaven” given by Moses (v. 31). Jesus corrected them. It was not Moses who gave them bread, but God. Manna was not the true bread from heaven, but was only a type (a foreshadowing) of the true bread from heaven. Jesus identified himself as the bread of life (v. 35) and the living bread (v. 51). He has already reminded his listeners that the manna could not be the bread of life, because their ancestors, who ate it, died in the wilderness (v. 49), and he reiterates that thought here.
The death that the ancestors died was a physical death, but some rabbis believed that the wilderness generation had died spiritually and had thus forfeited any claim on eternal life (Brown, 284).
Jesus is promising eternal life (v. 54)—a quality of spiritual life that we can begin enjoying now rather than a continuation into infinity of physical life. In his High Priestly Prayer, Jesus will define eternal life in terms of the relationship of the believer to the Father and the Son: “This is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (17:3).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, “The Gospel of John,” Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1955)
Borchert, Gerald L., New American Commentary: John 1-11, Vol. 25A (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1996)
Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John I-XII (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966)
Bruce, F. F., The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983).
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R. and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Carson, D. A., The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991).
Craddock, Fred R.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Gossip, Arthur John and Howard, Wilbert F., The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1952)
Howard-Brook, Wes, Becoming the Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (New York: Maryknoll, 1994).
Lincoln, Andrew T., Black’s New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Saint John (London: Continuum, 2005)
Morris, Leon, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995).
O’Day, Gail R., The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Sloyan, Gerald, “John,” Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Smith, D. Moody, Jr., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: John (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999)
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