Who can accept: Spirit, Flesh, and Life

Trinity63 It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life

John 6:63 is often a verse that one arguing against any Eucharistic interpretation of the whole of John 6 brings forward. The logic goes like this: “Jesus is saying things that are confusing. His disciples think he’s being literal. Jesus clears it up by saying “No not at all. I’m not saying that you should eat my flesh. My flesh profits nothing! I’m speaking with Spirit and life, which is metaphorical in nature.” That is more of a “hand waving” argument, but the scholarly argument proceeds along similar lines. Scholars who don’t hold the Bread of Life discourse as Eucharistic present but secondary at best also use the words of v. 63 to buttress their position. How, they argue, could Jesus advocate giving and eating his flesh in vv. 51–58 and reject the value of flesh here? Verses 51–58 thus cannot belong to the core of Jesus’ teaching in chap. 6, and the disciples in vv.60–71 can only be understood as protesting Jesus’ words in 6:35–50, not those in 6:51–58. (In case you miss the subtle of this train of thought, these scholars are arguing vv.51-58 are not part of the original Discourse but were added in later.)

But that does not make any sense. The flesh (sarx) on v.63 only appears in vv.51-58. Why would Jesus correct a misunderstanding about the significance of “flesh” if he had not taught about flesh in the “original text?” I would suggest the “not part of the original Discourse” argument is based on making sure there is no Eucharistic understanding of any part of the discourse. It required later text insertions and modifications of earlier texts. The simpler answer is that the teaching to which many of the disciples take offense (vv. 60–61a), and which Jesus addresses in v. 63, is indeed the teaching about eating Jesus’ flesh. And we are still left with understanding “while the flesh is of no avail.

Do v.63 say Jesus’ flesh had no value? The whole of the Gospel of John is pretty fleshy – incarnation, life, passion, and death. Surely one is not arguing that these fleshy events have no value. Actually this is exactly what some Gnostics argued – only the spiritual offering was of value. Docetism will take it further and explain that you only see a “ghostly representation” of earthly events. These early and oft-repeated heresies are from the earliest days of the church. These heresies considered Jesus’ flesh as separated from the divinity and the Holy Spirit, offering that it did not have power or glory different from any other flesh. But all Christians accept that bodily death was real, fleshy, and redemptive – far from “no avail.” As many Catholic thinkers from the earliest age have noted if the flesh is united to the Spirit and the divinity, it profits many, because it makes those who receive Jesus’ flesh and blood abide in Christ through the Spirit of love (1 John 4:13). [Thomas Aquinas]

Things indeed are confusing for the disciples who have stumbled over his words. But consider that John has already juxtapositions the Spirit and flesh in John 3:6 where Nicodemus is told that he must be born anōthen (“again” or “from above”) in order to see the Kingdom of God. Now in 6:63 Jesus again brings together the topic of flesh and Spirit in the context of ascending to heaven (v.62). Continuity suggests that Jesus is saying to the disciples that in and of themselves, as people of the flesh, they can never experience eternal life. Only the Spirit (of God) can give life. He then indicated the way the Spirit normally mediates life to people: “The words [emphasis added] I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” It is because Jesus had been endowed with the Spirit that he could speak the words of God (3:34), and these words mediated eternal life to those who believed (5:24). There is no-one else whose words have this power (v.68). It is worth noting that one cannot believe in Jesus without believing his words. And the problem is not the Word, or the words, but how the hearer perceives Jesus. The disciples certainly see Jesus in the flesh standing before them. But do they see the Word made Flesh (1:14). Verse 63 echoes 1:13 and 3:4–8. A new life born of flesh and spirit is possible to those who believe, but if one limits one’s understanding of life to one’s preconceptions of what is possible in the flesh, one will receive nothing. Spirit and flesh must be held together; this is the heart of the incarnation.

O’Day [610] also offers that v.63 “counters the notion that the eucharist as a rite in and of itself has almost magical qualities, that the eucharistic elements themselves contain the key to eternal life…John 6:63 affirms that the flesh has salvific power only because it is inseparably bound to the life-giving, Spirit-filled words of Jesus. Jesus is not asking his disciples to eat flesh and drink blood; he is asking them to eat the Spirit-filled flesh and blood of the Son of Man (cf. 6:27).”


John 6:63 Spirit…flesh: probably not a reference to the eucharistic body of Jesus but to the supernatural and the natural, as in John 3:6. Spirit and life: all Jesus said about the bread of life is the revelation of the Spirit. no avail: ouk ophelei ouden – literally, “not of use none.” The middle word carries the meaning “benefit, help or use.”


  • Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995). 337-46
  • Gail R. O’Day, John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996) 609-13
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990) –
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970 at http://www.usccb.org/bible/index.cfm

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