In John 6:53–57, Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” Upon hearing these words, many of Jesus’ followers said, “This is a hard teaching” (verse 60), and many of them actually stopped following Him that day (verse 66).
Jesus’ graphic imagery about eating His flesh and drinking His blood is indeed puzzling at first. Context will help us understand what He is saying. As we consider everything that Jesus said and did in John 6, the meaning of His words becomes clearer.
Earlier in the chapter, Jesus fed the 5,000 (John 6:1–13). The next day, the same multitudes continued to follow Him, seeking another meal. Jesus pointed out their short-sightedness: they were only seeking physical bread, but there was something more important: “Food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (verse 27). At this point, Jesus attempts to turn their perspective away from physical sustenance to their true need, which was spiritual.
This contrast between physical food and spiritual food sets the stage for Jesus’ statement that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood. Jesus explains that it is not physical bread that the world needs, but spiritual bread. Jesus three times identifies Himself as that spiritual bread (John 6:35, 48, 51). And twice He emphasizes faith (a spiritual action) as the key to salvation: “My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life” (verse 40); and “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life” (verse 47).
Jesus then compares and contrasts Himself to the manna that Israel had eaten in the time of Moses: “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die” (John 6:49–50). Like manna, Jesus came down from heaven; and, like manna, Jesus gives life. Unlike manna, the life Jesus gives lasts for eternity (verse 58). In this way, Jesus is greater than Moses (see Hebrews 3:3).
Having established His metaphor (and the fact that He is speaking of faith in Him), Jesus presses the symbolism even further: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and this bread, which I will offer so the world may live, is my flesh. . . . I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you. But anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life. . . . My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. . . . Anyone who feeds on me will live because of me” (John 6:51–56, NLT).
To prevent being misconstrued, Jesus specifies that He has been speaking metaphorically: “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life” (John 6:63). Those who misunderstood Jesus and were offended by His talk about eating His flesh and drinking His blood were stuck in a physical mindset, ignoring the things of the Spirit. They were concerned with getting another physical meal, so Jesus uses the realm of the physical to teach a vital spiritual truth. Those who couldn’t make the jump from the physical to the spiritual turned their backs on Jesus and walked away (verse 66).
At the Last Supper, Jesus gives a similar message and one that complements His words in John 6—when the disciples gather to break bread and drink the cup, they “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). In fact, Jesus said that the bread broken at the table is His body, and the cup they drink is the new covenant in His blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:26–28). Their act of eating and drinking was to be a symbol of their faith in Christ. Just as physical food gives earthly life, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross gives heavenly life.
Some people believe that the bread and wine of communion are somehow transformed into Jesus’ actual flesh and blood, or that Jesus somehow imbues these substances with His real presence. These ideas, called transubstantiation (professed by the Catholic and Orthodox churches) and consubstantiation (held by Lutherans), ignore Jesus’ statement that “the flesh counts for nothing” (John 6:63). The majority of Protestants understand that Jesus was speaking metaphorically about His flesh and blood and hold that the bread and wine are symbolic of the spiritual bond created with Christ through faith.
In the wilderness testing, the devil tempts Jesus with bread, and Jesus answers, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3). The implication is that the bread is God’s Word and that is what sustains us. Jesus is called the Word of God who came to earth and was made flesh (John 1:14). The Word of God is also the Bread of Life (John 6:48).
The book of Hebrews references the way that God uses the physical things of this earth as a way to help us understand and apply spiritual truth. Hebrews 8:5 says that some tangible things are “a copy and shadow of what is in heaven,” and that chapter explains how the Old Covenant, so concerned with physical rites and ceremonies, was replaced by the New Covenant in which God’s laws are written on our hearts (verse 10; cf. Jeremiah 31:33).
Hebrews 9:1–2 says, “The first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand and the table with its consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place.” According to Hebrews 8:5, the consecrated bread, or the “bread of the Presence,” was a physical representation of a spiritual concept, namely, the actual presence of God being continually with us today. The physical tent of meeting has been replaced by a spiritual temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16), and the physical bread of the Presence has become the spiritual bread that abides within us through the Holy Spirit.
When Jesus said we must “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood” (John 6:53), He spoke, as He often did, in parabolic terms. We must receive Him by faith (John 1:12). “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). We understand that we need physical food and drink; Jesus wants us to understand that we also need spiritual food and drink—and that is what His sacrifice provides.