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The Eucharist and John 6: A Former Protestant’s Perspective


By Jack Morgan, Auburn University

One of the dividing issues between Protestants and Catholics consists in what we believe takes place during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Catholics — and all other ancient Christian sects for that matter — have always upheld belief in the “Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.” That is, during Communion, the bread and wine become the actual Body and Blood of Christ. It is no longer simply bread and wine. It is, as Christ Himself says in the Last Supper, “(His) body” and “(His) blood” (Mt 26:26-28; Mk 14:22-24; Lk 22:19-20; 1 Cor 11:24-25). This explains why St. Paul poses this question in 1 Corinthians 10:16: “The cup that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?

However, Protestants have historically opposed the doctrine as unbiblical. Having come from a Protestant community who upheld that communion was merely a symbol, saying communion was the literal body and blood of Christ was the equivalent of blasphemy and idolatry. However, as I studied Scripture and the early Church, I began to realize that not only was I wrong about the Eucharist, but it is — as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states—the “source and summit of our faith.” That is, from the dawn of Christianity, the Eucharist has been the center of Christian worship. In a Catholic Mass, the center of worship is Holy Communion, not a human being’s exposition of the Word of God. It is the Eucharist, the Word himself. Everything in the Catholic Mass— all the responses, kneeling, etc. — is designed to prepare you to receive the Eucharist, because it is the Lord Himself you are receiving. Moreover, it is through the Eucharist that Christ most intimately shares His love for His bride (the Church) and fulfills to her the promise He made to be with her always (Matthew 28:20).

Belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is rooted in Scripture. To be more specific, Catholic Eucharistic theology draws heavily upon the Jewish Passover meal and its fulfillment in the New Testament by Christ, who is the (Passover) Lamb of God. The most extensive passage supporting Catholic belief in the Real Presence of Christ is the “Bread of Life” discourse in John 6:22-63 during which Christ exhorts a crowd of followers to “eat (His) flesh and drink (His) blood”.

For context, it is important to note two things: First, the central point John is attempting to drive home through his gospel is that Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world (Jn 1:29).” This is a reference to the Old Testament story of the Exodus. During the story of the Passover in Exodus, God commanded the Israelites to select an unblemished lamb (Ex 12:5), “and the whole congregation of Israel shall kill the lamb in the evening then take the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel houses in which they eat them. They shall eat the flesh of the lamb that night, roasted; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs” (Ex 12:5-8). As a result of consuming the flesh of the lamb and the sprinkling of the lamb’s blood over their doorposts, death passed over the Israelites’ houses during the tenth plague of the Exodus.

The second point to note is that Jesus chose to give this teaching about “eating his flesh and drinking his blood” (in order to have eternal life) during the Passover celebration (Jn 6:4). This was not a coincidence.

Beginning in Jn 6:22, we find that a crowd had followed Jesus to Capernaum. This crowd, having been present for the feeding of the 5,000, seems to have followed Jesus because they wanted more bread. Christ then says to them, “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you.” After, there is a brief exchange regarding the manna which God the Father gave to the Israelites during their wandering in the wilderness toward the Promised Land. This manna was bread which came miraculously down from heaven. Christ says “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world…. I am the bread of life.” John has already identified Christ as the Passover Lamb, and now Christ has identified himself with, and as the fulfillment of, the manna which came down from heaven to nourish the Israelites during their wanderings in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. This is important, and we will come back to it at the end. Jesus then says, “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh (Jn 6:51).”

After this, the crowd of Jews grumble amongst themselves questioning Jesus because it seemed preposterous for Christ to be able to give them his flesh (Jn 6:52). There is no question as to whether or not the Jews understood Christ’s words as to be taken literally or not. One can discern from the trajectory of the dialogue that the Jewish crowd became more and more offended at Christ’s words. Here it is important to understand that the command of Jesus to eat his flesh and drink his blood would have been absolutely scandalous to Jews of his time, because Mosaic Law had forbidden it (Dt 12:23). As Old Testament scholar Brant Pitre has noted in his book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, “The Jewish people were not to consume blood because ‘the life’ or ‘the soul’ (Hebrew ‘nephesh’) of the animal is in the blood. As Leviticus 17:11 states, ‘it is the blood that makes atonement, by the power of its life.’ While scholars continue to debate exactly what this means, one thing is clear: in the ancient world, the Jewish people were known for their refusal to consume blood.” Jesus knew that what he was saying would be taken as blasphemy and invoking them to break the Mosaic Law. Because of the scandalous nature of his words, many people left (Jn 6:66). If He were speaking metaphorically, Jesus could have easily corrected them for misinterpreting His teaching. There is precedent for this, because Christ actually did this several times in the Gospels, including Matthew 16:5-12, when the disciples took His words literally about the leaven of the Pharisees when He was using a metaphor to refer to the teaching and unbelief of the Pharisees.

 Yet, Christ persisted in His teaching saying: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink (Jn 6:53-55).” As we consider the language used here, a literal interpretation—however disturbing or offensive—becomes more obvious. In John 6:50-53, we encounter several different forms of the Greek verb phago, which means “eating.” However, after the Jews began to express incredulity at the idea of eating the flesh of Christ, Jesus intensified his language. In verse 54, John begins to use trogo instead of phago. Trogo is a decidedly more vivid term, meaning “to chew on” or “to gnaw on”—as when an animal is ripping apart its prey. Christ is teaching his followers that they must literally eat his flesh and blood, which is true food and true drink.

As I was studying John 6, I discovered the ‘Apostolic Fathers’. These are a group of early Church leaders who were disciples of the Apostles and were charged with zealously defending the faith in the first and second centuries. The most influential of the Apostolic Fathers in my conversion was Ignatius of Antioch who was a disciple of John the Evangelist (author of John 6). For context, Ignatius was Bishop of Antioch which would have made him one of the highest ranking leaders in the Church. On his way to be condemned to death in Rome for being a Christian, he wrote seven letters to Christians in Ephesus, Phillipi, Rome, Magnesia and Smyrna. In his letter to the Smyrneans, he warns them:

“Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110]).”

Here, Ignatius is specifically warning the Smyrneans about the Docetists and Gnostics, two heretical groups who did not believe Christ came in the flesh. They believed he only appeared to have flesh and Christ’s body was purely spiritual. We hear about them in one of John’s epistles:

“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 Jn 7).

However, to remind them that Christ did indeed come in the flesh and took on a human nature, Ignatius appeals to the Eucharist instead of Scripture. That is, Ignatius reminds them Christ truly came in the flesh because the Eucharist is His flesh.

In his letter to the Romans, he also alludes to Jesus’s command in John 6 to not “labor for the food which perishes (Jn 6:27):

“I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible” (Letter to the Romans 7:3 [A.D. 110]).

And he also calls the Eucharist the “medicine of immortality” in his letter to the Ephesians:

“So that you obey the bishop…with an undivided mind, breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live forever in Jesus Christ.”

Justin Martyr, who is considered by many to be the first “apologist” for Christianity, also attests to Christian teaching on the Eucharist in the mid-second century:

“We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration [i.e., has received baptism] and is thereby living as Christ enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus” (First Apology 66 [A.D. 151]).

Irenaeus of Lyons, another Apostolic Father, also affirms the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, saying:

“These two then receive the Word of God and become the Eucharist, which is the Body and Blood of Christ” (Five Books [A.D. 180]).

We can ascertain from these early witnesses that the second and third generations of Christians were certainly taught by the Apostles to believe the Eucharist was the Body and Blood of Christ.

Nevertheless, there are millions of Protestants who reject belief in the Real Presence, typically pointing to verse 63 in an attempt to disprove the traditional interpretation of this passage. Here Christ says “it is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail, the words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” Does this verse teach that Jesus is speaking metaphorically because he says the flesh is of no avail? That is, is he teaching his flesh is of no avail? Not in the slightest. For one, the assumption being made here is that the phrase “the flesh” applies to Christ’s flesh, as in His body and blood. However, Christ never says “my flesh is of no avail”, he says the flesh is of no avail. In the New Testament, this phrase is used in reference to human nature apart from the grace of God (i.e., apart from the life of the Spirit).

There are numerous examples of this contrasting of the Spirit and the flesh in Paul’s letters (Rom 8:5; Gal 3:3, 5:16-25, 6:7-8). Moreover, Christ is not implying a dichotomy between the physical and spiritual realms. He is instead saying that our nature apart from His grace and the life of the Spirit is of no avail. Second, and more importantly, the context of the passage is important. Christ is responding to the unbelief of those in the crowds. They are rejecting His words and taking offense at them because they are relying on their own understanding (i.e. the flesh). In return, Christ says His words are “full of Spirit and life”, meaning His teaching (pertaining to eating his literal flesh and blood) is full of the same Spirit which gives life. This is opposed to the crowd’s own understanding.

Another objection posed by Protestants is as follows: A human body can only be in one place at a time. Christ’s body is in heaven; therefore, it is not possible for Him to be present in the Eucharist. This objection, which was popularized by the Protestant Reformers Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, is common among Reformed Protestants. That is, his divinity is present, but his glorified body and blood are not. As the late R.C. Sproul said, “Reformed theology rejects (the Real Presence of Christ’s humanity) as compromising biblical Christology. Christ possesses a true human nature with a true human body, and a true human body cannot be present in more than one place at a time. The Roman Catholic view of the supper makes the physical body of Jesus present in many places simultaneously.” However, the underlying assumption here is that Christ’s resurrected body has the same limitations as our bodies.

There is nowhere in the Bible where the human body is said to be limited to being in one place at a time, and we know from Paul that Christ’s resurrected body is enlivened by the Spirit as opposed to our mortal bodies. If Christ is God Himself, the truly infinite, and His resurrected body is animated by the Holy Spirit, should we be surprised that Jesus can do something miraculous regarding his otherwise limited human nature? After all, Jesus was able to feed the multitudes—including 5,000 men—with only five loaves and two fish, a miraculous account presented in all four of the Gospels (Matt. 14, Mark 6, Luke 9 and John 6). If Christ can wondrously overcome the finitude of mere bread and fish, why can’t he overcome the apparent limits of the body? Especially since, as we have seen, Scripture reveals Jesus as the Passover Lamb of the New Covenant (Jn 1:29; 1 Cor 5:7), and the Passover lamb was not only to be offered but also eaten in a sacrificial communion (Ex 12:5). If the Eucharist were purely a symbol, would that not make the “Lord’s Supper” a rather anticlimactic fulfillment of its Old Covenant precursor? (1 Cor 11:17-34).

As we end our discussion, it is important to consider why Christ being present in the Eucharist matters. A good friend once asked me, “even if Jesus is present in the Eucharist, why does it matter?” First, it matters because Christ says we must “eat (His) flesh and drink (His) blood” to have eternal life (Jn 6:54). However, to show why the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist matters, let us return to Christ’s identifying Himself as the fulfillment of the manna from the Exodus story. In order to understand the significance of the manna with reference to Christ’s words in John 6, we must understand typology. A type is a person or thing in the Old Testament which foreshadows a person or thing in the New Testament. According to Paul, Adam was a ‘type’ of the one to come, that is, Christ. In Exodus 16, after God led His people through the Red Sea (a type of baptism) and into the wilderness, He gave the people miraculous bread from heaven (manna) to sustain them on their journey to the Promised Land. In Exodus 16:31, we find out that the manna tasted like wafers made with honey and it was white like milk. The Promised Land, Canaan, was a place flowing with ‘milk and honey’. The Promised Land is a type of Heaven, the wilderness (and the Israelite’s journey to the Promised Land) is a type of the Christian pilgrimage on Earth, and the manna is a type of the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper.

What this means is this: As Christians, we are taken through the waters of Baptism (Red Sea) as we are freed from the oppression and slavery of sin (Egypt). After this, we travel through our lives (the wilderness) being sustained by the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ (the manna) which tastes like our ultimate destination, Heaven, which is union with God through Christ (the Promised Land). As we sojourn through this world, Christ has chosen to sustain His bride with His own Body and Blood so that, like the Israelites during the Passover, death might pass by us and we might reach our true home, the Promised Land of Heaven.

Edited by: Paul Gillett

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