Is the Bread of Life Discourse (John 6), metaphor or sacramental? There are many commentaries and religious traditions that insist on a metaphorical interpretation of “eat” and “drink” and thus “eat” and “drink” as metaphors for belief. There are some Catholic commentators (e.g. LaGrange) who insist there is no metaphor, that the entirety of Jesus’ discourse is sacramental/Eucharistic. As Fr. Raymond Brown and Fr. Francis Moloney point out, the truly Catholic position is “both-and.” What begins in John 6:22-50 as metaphor for belief, is ultimately answered in John 6:51-58 as Eucharist. With that in mind let us consider (a) a “big picture” view of this core question of John 6, but (b) fair warning: it does get a bit technical and dense in places. But give it a go!!
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” 52 The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat?” 53 Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:51-58)
The best way to understand this discourse is to recognize that it centers on one biblical text, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat” (v. 31), and is therefore a conscious demonstration of the truth of 5:39, 46–47 that the Scriptures illuminate the person of Jesus. The pivotal text is a loose, by-memory combination of several possible Old Testament quotations:
- Ex 16:4: “I will now rain down bread from heaven for you”;
- Neh 9:15: “Food from heaven you gave them in their hunger”;
- Ps 78:24: “He rained manna upon them for food and gave them heavenly bread”;
- Ps 105:40: “ … and with bread from heaven he satisfied them.”
All or some of these associated texts have been combined by the Fourth Evangelist into the one amalgam of verse 31. The discourse is broken by the short interruptions of verses which, by introducing live dialogue, pointing out the precise difficulties felt by both the Jews of Jesus’ time and of John’s own later period.
This discourse on a biblical text — what the Jews would call a midrash — follows a phrase-by-phrase order. It will treat in order: He gave; bread from heaven; to eat. Let’s observe this happen.
- He gave (vv. 26–34). In this first section, the emphasis lies on the giving. Jesus will give (vv. 27, 34), not as Moses gave (v. 32) a perishable manna food of mortality, but as the Father, source of eternal life, gives (v. 32). Thus far, Jesus appears as the giver of bread and therefore as the new and superior Moses.
- bread from heaven (vv. 35–47). The insistence now shifts to the bread from heaven that Jesus not only gives but actually is (vv. 35, 38, 41, 42). It is important to note here that the operative verb is “believe.” Jesus as bread from heaven is accepted and consumed through the belief required in verses 35, 36, 40, 47. What this means is that this is a faith nourishment. Jesus is bread from heaven, feeding all believers, in the same sense that Old Testament wisdom nourished all who accepted it (Prov 9:1–5).
- to eat (vv. 48–59). In this final section, the vocabulary changes radically. The significant words are “flesh,” “blood,” “eat, ” “drink.” Note the constant repetition of “eat” in vv.49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 58. “Feed on” (an even more physical verb in the Greek than “eat”) occurs in v.57. These verbs become overwhelmingly insistent, as does the constant reference to flesh and blood, food and drink. The meaning of the discourse has changed. Where in the preceding section Jesus nourished through wisdom-revelation those who believed, the verb “believe” has now completely disappeared and is replaced by “eat,” “feed on.” This is language which clearly speaks of sacramental nourishment, of the food and drink that one eats and feeds upon, of the Eucharistic nourishment provided by the flesh and blood of the Son of Man (v. 53). And has been so understood from the earliest days of the Church as indicated in the writings of the writers of the 2nd through 5th
The “Son of Man” phraseology tells us that this is not the physical flesh and blood of the earthly Jesus and that we are asked to eat and drink but the spiritual, Spirit-filled flesh and blood of the heavenly Son of Man. Verse 58 ties the discourse together by referring back to the central phrase of verse 31.
What this discourse has done, therefore, is to deliver a rich and multi-faceted exposition of the Jesus-as-Bread-of-Life theme. Jesus is first of all the giver of the bread, a new Moses. He is also the bread of wisdom and revelation who nourishes all who come to him in faith. He is, finally, the Eucharistic source of eternal life for all who eat and drink the flesh and blood of the heavenly and glorified Son of Man. Because John uses this Eucharistic material in this Bread of Life homily, it will not be too surprising — yet surprising enough — that the Eucharist will not be mentioned at the Last Supper. Its material has been transferred to this incident. John has also succeeded, with this transfer, to unite in this one chapter the essentials of Christian Eucharist, the word and the bread — the revealing word of vv.35–47 and the sacramental bread of vv.48–59.
But lets us look in more detail…
Jesus gives his flesh to eat. The question that emerges from the dispute among “the Jews” is a rejection of Jesus’ outrageous suggestion: “How (ōs) can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v. 52). But it allows Jesus to conclude his discourse on his perfection of the Mosaic gift of bread from heaven through his gift of himself as the true bread from heaven. Unable to go beyond the physical, “the Jews” by their question misunderstand Jesus’ promise. Jesus insists on a gift of flesh and blood for life by stating negatively (v.53) and positively (v.54) that whoever eats the flesh and drinks the blood of Jesus, the Son of Man, has eternal life now and will be raised up on the last day. The midrashic play on the verb “to eat” provided by the Exodus passage in v. 31 has reached its high point. “Flesh” and “blood” emphasize that it is the incarnate life and very real death of the Son that are life giving food. Only the physical body of a human being produces flesh and blood. The argument of vv. 25-51 continues into vv. 52-59, especially in Jesus’ words that point to the resolution of a series of promises (cf. vv. 12-13, 27, 35, 51c). Jesus will provide a food for the life of the world, and that food is his flesh and blood. As the ancestors of Israel were nourished by the gift of the Torah, Jesus will nourish the whole world with the gift of himself. The people of Israel were nourished by eating the manna, perennially recalled in the nourishment provided for them by their total receptivity to and absorption of the Law. Now “the Jews” are told of the absolute need to eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man. Unless they eat the flesh and drink the blood (ean me phagete . . kai piete) of the Son of Man they have no life (v. 53); whoever eats the flesh and drinks the blood (ho treigōn . kai pinon) of Jesus has eternal life (v. 54). The shift from the more respectable verb “to eat” (phagein) to another verb that indicates the physical crunching with the teeth (trōgein) accentuates that Jesus refers to a real experience of eating. Hints of the Eucharist continue to insinuate themselves into the words of Jesus (see below). Flesh is to be broken and blood is to be spilled. Violence has been in the air since Jesus’ behavior on the Sabbath led “the Jews” to initiate a process that would lead to his death (5:16-18).
Jesus now associates the separation of flesh and blood in a violent death as the moment of total giving of himself. Jesus, the Son of Man, will give of his whole self for the life of the world (6:51c) by means of a violent encounter between himself and his enemies (1:5, 11; 2:18-20; 3:14; 5:16-18) in which his body will be broken and his blood will be poured out (6:53-54). This is the ongoing presence of Jesus in the gathered klasmata (vv. 12-13), the enduring gift that the Son of Man will give, the food that will not perish (v. 27) but will forever satisfy all hunger and thirst (v. 35).
The Passover context must not be forgotten. As once Israel ate of the manna in the desert and was nourished by adhesion to the Law given at Sinai, so now the world is summoned to accept the further revelation of God in the broken body and spilled blood of the Son of Man. In this way all will have life, now and hereafter (vv. 53-54). These claims are further developed through vv. 55-57. Earlier parts of the discourse are recalled as Jesus insists that his flesh really is food (alethes estin brōsis) and his blood really is drink (alethes estin posis). This play on words recalls Jesus’ promise of the brōsis (food) that the Son of Man would give (v. 27), and his claim that over against all other bread from heaven, and especially the gift of the Law from heaven, the Father gives “the true bread from heaven” (v. 32: ton arton ek tou ouranou alethinon). Jesus is the true bread from heaven (v. 35). On the basis of the entire discourse Jesus lays claim to his flesh and blood as authentically (aletheis) food and drink. The midrashic explanation of v. 31 continues: through a total absorption (trōgein is again used) of the revelation of God made available through the bloody death of Jesus, believers will come to a mutuality in which they live in Jesus and Jesus lives in them (v. 56). This mutual indwelling (menein is used; cf. 15:4-7) flows from the union that exists between the Father and the Son (v. 57). Jesus’ words play on the verb “to live” (zōein). He refers to the Father as “the living Father” (ho zōn pater) who has sent his Son who has life in him because of the intimacy between the Father and the Son. If the one who sends is “living,” then the one who is sent lives because of the one who sent him (kagō zo dia ton patera). He thus has authority to pass on life to those who accept the revelation of the Father in the Son (v. 57). The idea of the reception of the revelation of God in and through the Son is not new (cf., for example, 3:11-21, 31-36), but the imagery has been changed by the Passover context. No longer does Jesus speak of “belief in” (cf. 3:12, 15, 18, 36), but of “the one who eats me” (v. 57b: ho trōgdn me). The expressions are parallel. As throughout the Gospel, unconditional commitment to the revelation of God in and through Jesus leads to life here and hereafter: the one who eats the flesh of Jesus will live because of him (v. 57b: kakeinos zēsei di’eme). As Jesus lives because of the Father (v. 57a), the believer lives and will live because of Jesus (v. 57b).
The discourse closes as it opened, comparing the bread that Israel’s ancestors ate in the desert and the bread that comes down from heaven (v. 58; cf. vv. 30-33). All former gifts from heaven have been surpassed. Playing upon the two possibilities of life—physical life that the manna could not provide, and eternal life that the true bread of life does give (cf. vv. 49-50)—Jesus points to the death of Israel’s ancestors and promises everlasting life to those who eat of the true bread from heaven. A new possibility has entered the human story. The Law was a gift of God (cf. 1:17), but it has been surpassed by Jesus, the bread from heaven (v. 35), promising his abiding presence (v. 56), communicating the life of the Father to all who consume this true bread (v. 57). On the occasion of the celebration of Passover Jesus announces that there is another bread from heaven that eclipses all the original bread offered to the ancestors of Israel (v. 58). “This he said in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum” (v. 59). Jesus has not moved. The discourse ends where it began: at Capernaum (vv. 24, 59). The narrator closes the discourse with a comment that reminds the reader that Jesus is in a Jewish center of worship during Passover time, uttering a message that presupposes, fulfills, and transcends a Jewish Passover tradition.
The Eucharist . This section is written at two levels. At one level it is an on-going commentary on the verb “to eat” (cf. v. 31) summoning up a rich tradition of Eucharistic language: “bread,” “food,” “flesh,” “blood,” “to eat,” “to drink,” “will give,” “for your sakes.” The discourse, from v. 25 down to v. 59, presents Jesus as the true bread from heaven, replacing the former bread from heaven, the manna of the Law. The believer must accept the revelation of God that will take place in broken flesh and spilled blood (vv. 53-54), a never-failing nourishment (v. 35) that the Son of Man will give (v. 27). But at the end of the first century Johannine readers, and the Christian readers of subsequent centuries, have every right to ask: where do we encounter this revelation of God in the flesh and blood of the Son of Man? The author’s insinuation of eucharistic language into the final section of the discourse provides the answer: one encounters the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharistic celebration. The use of the word klasmata to refer to the bread consigned by Jesus to his disciples (vv. 12-13) has lurked behind the discourse, reminding the reader of such celebrations.
The author is working at two levels. The main thrust of the discourse is to point to Jesus as the revelation of God, the true bread from heaven, perfecting God’s former gift, the bread of the manna. However, the word klasmata in vv. 12-13, the promise in v. 27 of a future gift of food that the Son of Man would give, the reference to the satisfying food and drink in v. 35, and the further promise in v. 51c of the gift of the flesh of Jesus for the life of the world keep the eucharistic question alive. The midrashic unfolding of the verb “to eat” (cf. v. 31) in vv. 49-58 naturally led to the use of eucharistic language to explain the meaning of these verses in the living faith of the early Christian community.
The Eucharist renders concrete, in the Eucharistic practice of the Christian reader, what the author has spelled out throughout the discourse. The Eucharist is a place where one comes to eternal life. Encountering the broken flesh and the spilled blood of Jesus, “lifted up” on a cross (vv. 53-54), the believer is called to make a decision for or against the revelation of God in that encounter (vv. 56-58), gaining or losing life because of it (vv. 53-54).