Therefore the Jews were grumbling about Him, because He said, “I am the bread that came down out of heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does He now say, ‘I have come down out of heaven’?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me. Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” (6:41–50)
Because their unbelief kept them from understanding, the Jews (this term has a negative connotation here as it frequently does in John’s gospel [cf. 1:19; 2:18–20; 5:10, 15–16, 18; 7:1; 8:48, 52, 57; 9:18, 22; 10:24, 31, 33; 19:7, 12, 14, 20, 21, 38; 20:19]) were grumbling about Jesus (as their ancestors had grumbled against God; Ex. 16:2, 8–9; Num. 11:4–6). Specifically, they were disturbed by two things He had said. The first was His claim to be the source of eternal life (v. 35). The verb translated grumbling (gogguzō) is an onomatopoetic word that both means and sounds like muttered complaints and whispers of displeasure. They were also outraged at His declaration that He came down out of heaven. They thought of Him merely on the human level, as a fellow Galilean, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother they knew (cf. 4:44; 7:27; Matt. 13:55–57). They also knew that He came from the despised town of Nazareth (cf. 1:46). And so, like the Jews in Judea (5:18), these Galileans hardened their hearts against their Messiah, who called for repentance and faith as a prerequisite to entering His kingdom (Matt. 4:17) and who outrageously, in their view, claimed equality with God.
Those who continually reject the truth may find that God will judicially harden their hearts. For those who refused to believe His teaching, Jesus made the truth more obscure by means of parables. To His disciples’ question, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” (Matt. 13:10) the Lord replied,
To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, “You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive; for the heart of this people has become dull, with their ears they scarcely hear, and they have closed their eyes, otherwise they would see with their eyes, hear with their ears, and understand with their heart and return, and I would heal them.” (vv. 11–15; cf. Isa. 6:10)
John 12:37–40 says of those who rejected Jesus after witnessing His miracles,
But though He had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet which he spoke: “Lord, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” For this reason they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, “He has blinded their eyes and He hardened their heart, so that they would not see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and be converted and I heal them.”
In the end times, those who will “not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved” (2 Thess. 2:10) will find that “God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false” (v. 11). At the present time, there is a partial hardening of Israel (Rom. 11:25), leading to the salvation of the Gentiles (v. 11). But one day, during the future time of tribulation, God will remove Israel’s blindness, and all the believing remnant of the Jewish people will be saved (v. 26; cf. Zech. 12:10–13:1).
Rather than answer their confusion, Jesus commanded the Jews, “Do not grumble among yourselves.” He called for them to stop the mumbling complaints that reflected their rebellious and hard hearts. He had said and done enough, if they had been open and willing. Thus, there was no point in responding to their muttering discontent and disrespect with a detailed defense. They had willfully hardened their hearts, and would have only rejected the truth of His heavenly origin had He elaborated on it.
Then Jesus uttered some very solemn words: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him,” emphasizing man’s helplessness and utter inability to respond to Him apart from God’s sovereign call. Unbelievers are unable to come to Jesus on their own initiative (cf. the discussion of verse 37 above). If God did not irresistibly draw sinners to Christ, no one would ever come to Him.
To explain how lost sinners supposedly have the power to accept or reject the gospel of their own free will, some theologians introduce the concept of prevenient grace. Millard J. Erickson explains,
As generally understood, prevenient grace is grace that is given by God to all men indiscriminately. It is seen in God’s sending the sunshine and the rain upon all. It is also the basis of all the goodness found in men everywhere. Beyond that, it is universally given to counteract the effect of sin.… Since God has given this grace to all, everyone is capable of accepting the offer of salvation; consequently, there is no need for any special application of God’s grace to particular individuals. (Christian Theology [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985], 3:920)
But the Bible indicates that fallen man is unable, of his own volition, to come to Jesus Christ. Unregenerate people are dead in sin (Eph. 2:1; Col. 2:13), slaves to unrighteousness (John 8:34; Rom. 6:6, 17, 20), alienated from God (Col. 1:21), and hostile to Him (Rom. 5:10; 8:7). They are spiritually blind (2 Cor. 4:4) captives (2 Tim. 2:26) trapped in Satan’s kingdom (Col. 1:13), powerless to change their sinful natures (Jer. 13:23; Rom. 5:6), unable to please God (Rom. 8:8), and incapable of understanding spiritual truth (1 Cor. 2:14; cf. John 14:17). Although the human will is involved in coming to Christ (since no one is saved apart from believing the gospel—Mark 1:15; Acts 15:7; Rom. 1:16; 10:9–15; Eph. 1:13), sinners cannot come to Him of their own free will. (Moreover, a comparison of verse 44 with verse 37 shows that God’s drawing cannot apply to all unregenerate people, as proponents of prevenient grace argue, because verse 37 limits it to the redeemed whom God has given to Christ.) God irresistibly, efficaciously draws to Christ only those whom He chose for salvation in eternity past (Eph. 1:4–5, 11).
Once again, Jesus repeated the wonderful promise that all whom the Father chooses will be drawn, will come, will be received, and He will raise them on the last day (vv. 39–40, 54). Everyone who comes to Christ will be kept by Him; there is no possibility that even one elect person given to Him by the Father will be lost (see the discussion of v. 39 above).
In verse 45 the Lord paraphrased Isaiah 54:13 to emphasize that His teaching was consistent with the Old Testament. What was written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught of God,” restates the truth of verse 44 in different terms. Those who come to saving faith do so because they are supernaturally instructed by God. Drawing and teaching are merely different aspects of God’s sovereign call to salvation; it is through the truth of His Word that God draws people to embrace His Son (Rom. 10:14, 17; cf. 1 Peter 1:23–25). As a result, everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Christ. Jesus’ statement was also a subtle rebuke of His Jewish opponents, who prided themselves on their knowledge of Scripture. But had they truly understood the Old Testament, they would have eagerly embraced Him (5:39).
As the only way to God (John 14:6), Jesus hastened to add that no one has seen the Father (1:18; 5:37; Ex. 33:20; 1 Tim. 6:16) except the One who is from God. Because He was eternally in heaven one with the Father, and then sent to earth by the Father, the Son can speak authoritatively about the Father (cf. Heb. 1:2). No one else can rightly make such a claim. Thus, only the Son is qualified to speak firsthand about the expectations of the Father and the truth of salvation.
Jesus’ solemn statement, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life” (cf. v. 40; 3:15–16, 36; 5:24) sums up the importance of trusting God’s self-revelation in Christ. Those who believe in Jesus not only have the hope of eternal life in the future, but also enjoy the possession of that life even now, as the present tense of pisteuō (believes) indicates.
The Lord concluded this portion of His sermon by restating the truth that He is the bread of life (cf. v. 35). He then contrasted Himself as the true bread of heaven (cf. v. 33) with the manna (cf. v. 31) that the Hebrew fathers ate … in the wilderness. Although it was miraculously provided by God to sustain the Israelites’ physical life, the manna could not impart eternal life, since the fathers who ate the manna … died (Heb. 3:17; cf. Jude 5). Jesus, however, is the true bread which comes down out of heaven (vv. 33, 35), so that one may eat of it and not die. Eat refers metaphorically to believing savingly in Jesus, which alone rescues sinners from eternal death (cf. 3:16; 11:26). Appropriating Jesus as the Bread of Life is the theme of the next section of this sermon.
The Two Mannas
“I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Several years ago I heard a story about a Scotsman who was coming to America. He had purchased passage on one of the great ocean liners. He did not have much money, so he decided to save on food by stocking up on crackers, cheese, and fruit before his departure. The ship sailed, and he began to eat his Spartan meals. This went fairly well for the first four or five days. But as the ship drew closer to New York the crackers became increasingly stale, the cheese became moldy, and the fruit spoiled. Finally there was nothing left that was fit to eat. The Scotsman decided that he would go to the dining room and have one last, good meal before the liner docked in Manhattan and he went ashore. Imagine his surprise to discover that nothing in the dining room cost anything and that all that he could ever have eaten had already been included in the price of his ticket before he left the British Isles!
Unfortunately, this is the way in which thousands of men and women act toward the true bread of life that is offered to us without price in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is there for all. But the sad fact is that many would rather feed upon the dry crackers of human philosophy or the spoiled fruit of good works than come to him.
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (John 6:48–51). We will enter into the full meaning of these verses when we recognize that in them Jesus Christ voices a great claim, makes a requirement, and offers a wonderful promise.
The claim that the Lord Jesus makes in these verses is, quite simply, to be the “bread of life.” It is the second time in this chapter that he has described himself by this image, and the image itself constitutes the first of the great “I am” sayings that are a characteristic of this Gospel. Here Jesus is portrayed as the bread of life. Later he will say: “I am the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5), “I am the gate” (10:7, 9), “I am the good shepherd” (10:11, 14), “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25), “I am the way and the truth and the life” (14:6), “I am the true vine” (15:1, 5). By these images he shows that he is all that men and women need and that he is the sole way to come to God the Father.
Another way of setting the context for this saying is to notice that it is the third great Old Testament image that has been appropriated as a description of who Jesus Christ is and what he does. In chapter 1 Jesus has used the figure of Jacob’s ladder upon which the angels of God were ascending and descending from heaven. This suggests that Jesus is the One through whom God the Father is revealed to men. In chapter 3 he is the brazen serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness. Here the crucifixion is portrayed, that work by which men and women are healed from the serpent bite of sin. Now he is the bread of life, the new manna, by which the new people of God are fed during the years of their desert wandering. There are two mannas, of course. There is the manna upon which the Jewish people fed in the wilderness under the direction of Moses. This manna sustained physical life for a time; but even this physical life did not go on forever, and eventually all who had eaten this literal manna died. There is also the manna that Jesus gives. This bread imparts and sustains that kind of life that will go on forever.
What does it mean when Jesus claims to be the bread of life? It means that he is able to satisfy the deepest needs and longings of the human soul. He is able to satisfy your needs, your longings, whatever they may be.
This does not mean that Jesus is going to satisfy every want or desire you may have or think you have. It means that he will satisfy that which you most deeply need. You say, “But aren’t those two the same thing?” No, I do not think so. Let me give an example. Take a child who is beginning to grow up with a highly sharpened sense of what he “needs,” as most children do. He thinks he needs candy—about every hour or so throughout the day. He thinks he needs to stay up to watch the late, late show on television. He thinks he needs to be able to set his own schedule—get up when he wants to, go in and out with his friends when he wants to, come to dinner when he wants to. He thinks he needs leisure time, particularly when he is asked to straighten up his room or help his mother with the dishes. All these items are “needs” from the child’s point of view. But if the parent indulges the child in these, all he will produce is an unruly and obnoxious brat. What is more, when he grows up the child will attempt to inflict his unrestrained desires on everyone else and may well end up in jail.
What is it that the child needs? It is not what the child thinks he needs. Actually, the child needs discipline. He needs a standard of right and wrong conduct and someone to insist on that standard. He needs to be loved, to have goals, guidance, and encouragement.
In the same way, our real needs often differ from our imagined needs, and it is our real needs for which Jesus Christ is the answer. We find salvation in him. In him we have eternal life. We also are loved, receive goals and guidance, and are encouraged in life. “I am the bread of life,” said Jesus. The implication is that we should feed upon him and grow.
In this chapter Jesus gives what would be called in theology a “progressive revelation” of himself as the bread. It is as though he held the mystery of himself as the bread in his hand and then slowly opened his hand one finger at a time so that those who were listening to him would see the truth gradually. First, he spoke of a bread from heaven that the Father gives to men (v. 32). This was the opening of the first finger. After the curiosity of the crowd had been aroused Jesus opened another finger by pointing out that he was the bread about which he was speaking (vv. 35, 48). Finally, in the verses that we are considering, he opens his hand the whole way and shows that the bread is his body that will be given up in death for men and women. He says, “And the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (v. 51).
I am glad that Jesus went on to speak of the cross, because Christ without the cross is of no use to us. We can look to his example, to the way he led his life. We can admire it. But the life alone does not help. We can admire the life, but we cannot live it. Besides, we are condemned by that life, for it is the standard of what God would require of us as his creatures. A Christ without the cross is of no use to us. He condemns us. Fortunately, there is more. For Jesus went on to speak of the cross and eventually to die upon it and rise again. Now there is hope. He died for our sin. The chastisement of our peace is upon him, and with his stripes we are healed. In his resurrection life we now have life. In his righteousness, through his death, we are now reckoned righteous in the sight of a holy and loving God.
To understand these things is to understand not only why Christ is truly the bread that came down from heaven but also why he is necessary for spiritual life.
These verses not only contain Christ’s claim, which is a great claim; they also make a requirement. The requirement is that we feed upon him. This means to believe on Jesus, commit your life to him, take him into yourself so that he becomes a part of you and you of him. It is precisely the same act that is spoken of in verse 37, where we are encouraged to “come” to Christ, knowing that those who come to him will never be cast out. Have you come? I do not mean, do you know about Christ? Many people know about Christ but have never come to him. The devil knows about him but hates him. I mean, have you committed your life to him so that now your life, properly speaking, belongs to Jesus? If not, you need to say, “Lord Jesus Christ, I want you to know that I accept all the things said in Scripture about my sin and my need of you. I know that I am not holy. I recognize that I cannot please you by my own efforts. At the same time, I recognize that you died for me on the cross two thousand years ago, and I want that death to stand for my death. I want to be yours. Receive me now as one of your followers, as your child.”
Men and women have used many different words as they have prayed along these lines. Many who read this have come in different ways and have said different words as they have come. Still, at its heart the experience is the same. It is the experience of letting go of anything that you might present, in order that your hands might be empty to receive that righteousness that Jesus Christ gives. There is no substitute for that. If you have not done that, you are not a Christian, no matter how much you may know about the Christian faith. On the other hand, if you have done that, then you are already a Christian and know that God has placed his eternal life within you and will keep you until the last day.
What I have been saying is born out in a forceful way by this imagery of eating. Think what eating involves. First, it is necessary. Other things are necessary too, but not to the same degree. A person might argue that exercise is necessary. Yes, it is good for you. But if you do not eat, before long you are not going to be able to do your exercises. Someone else might argue that the life of the mind is necessary. I agree. But if you fail to eat, pretty soon you will not even be able to sit up and read or think clearly. You must eat to live. So, spiritually, you must eat of the Lord Jesus Christ if you are to come to life spiritually and grow strong.
How do you feed upon Christ? It is through studying the Bible. That is one reason why I place such a strong emphasis upon a systematic study of the Word of God on the Bible Study Hour. It is why in my church I comment upon the Scripture readings at each of the services, as well as preach the sermon. It is why I encourage area Bible studies in which people can meet informally to learn and grow together as they eat and digest the Word. These are tools by which you and I can feed upon Jesus. There is no substitute for them.
If we use the Word, God will bring us into contact with Jesus. He will use it to bring to our minds what we most need to know; he will reveal sin in us and correct it; and he will most certainly lead us in the way that we should go.
Then, too, eating is always a response to a need that is felt. In physical terms the need is for nourishment and the feeling of the need for nourishment is hunger. It is the same spiritually. When does a person come to the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior or for daily feeding after he has believed on him initially? It is when he has recognized his need. If you consider yourself all-sufficient spiritually—sufficient for this life and for the next—then it is not likely that you will come to the Lord Jesus Christ. However, if you have tried the allurements of this world and have found them to be empty, as many have, then there will be within you that sense of inner need and hunger that will drive you toward Jesus. If you have been reading the Bible, God will show you that need for holiness that will turn you to him.
At one point in my ministry I was talking with a number of young people who had seen other young people turn to sexual indulgences as a means of satisfying the hunger they felt in their hearts. It had a hold upon them, as sin always does. They enjoyed it. They did not see how they could possibly stay away from this style of life. It was everything to them. But the interesting thing is that they were not happy. They were miserable. There is an old saying, “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” We could also say, “If sex is the way, why aren’t you happy?” These young people needed to recognize that any way that is not God’s way—that is divorced from Jesus Christ—is empty. They needed to see that Jesus is the bread that satisfies.
How I wish I could make that clear! Jesus is the only One who satisfies. You will never have to go far to find those who say the opposite. Madison Avenue exists for no other reason than to say the opposite. It says it all the time. Buy a car; you’ll be happy. Take this vacation; you’ll be happy. Use a detergent; you’ll be happy. But it is not so. Do not permit yourself to be sold a bill of goods spiritually. Real joy comes from knowing the great God of the universe in Jesus Christ and from glorifying him forever.
Third, eating involves appropriation. Knowledge is not enough. It is possible to sit down at a banquet and identify all the dishes and even be able to address them by their French names—all the way from the potage de légumes to the crêpes suzette. But if you do not or will not eat of them, they do you no good whatsoever. In the same way, it is possible to understand Christian doctrine so well that you can tell where everyone else is wrong—where Barth is wrong, where Brunner is wrong, where Boice is wrong—but you are still lost unless you appropriate Jesus Christ personally.
That, of course, leads to the last significant point about eating. It must be personal. You must eat. No one else can do it for you. It also is true in regard to your relationship to the Lord Jesus. You cannot get along by saying, “Well, my husband believes … my wife believes … my children or my parents believe.” The question is: Do you believe? Are you feeding on Jesus? I hope that you will never cheat your wife or husband or children or parents by asking them to do something that you refuse to do personally, but rather will give them the best of yourself by allowing God to make you into the kind of person he has always planned for you to be.
Life or Death
The last point is involved in all that has been said previously. It has to do with believing or not believing in Jesus. What are the issues? They are “life” and “death.” It is not just a matter of a little bit of happiness versus more happiness or partial satisfaction versus greater satisfaction. It is life versus death. To know Jesus is to live—now and eternally. To refuse him is suicide.
There is no greater issue to be faced by anyone in the course of a normal human existence. Will you have life? God is the source of life; he gives it abundantly. Or will you choose that eternal death that comes from making yourself, rather than your Creator and Redeemer, the center of your spiritual horizons?
Do not do what the prodigal son did. He thought that he was going to find life when he left his father to enjoy himself in the city. We would say in today’s jargon that he was determined to “live it up.” So he took his inheritance and squandered it on riotous living. Did he find life? No, he found a life that to a Jew was a symbol of death. He was feeding unclean animals. When did life begin for the prodigal? Only when he saw his need, left his willful past behind him, and returned to his father. I covet that for you if you are one who has never really surrendered your will to Jesus and returned to him. Will you not come to him? Jesus is wonderful. He really is. He wants the best for you. Why do you not walk in that way willingly?
Flesh and Blood
“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:54)
It seems that almost every year brings some miracle drug. Not only does the human race benefit from new cures, but researchers are hard at work to reduce even the effects of aging. One treatment involves the enzyme telomerase, which may combat the degradation of human DNA. Research suggests that human cells grow older as their telomeres shorten; telomerase is designed to impede this process and extend our life span. If this science is developed, we can imagine starting the day with our telomerase milkshake, seeking the elusive eternal life for which mankind longs.
But God is far ahead of the scientists! Long ago, he sent his Son into the world to offer eternal life. Jesus gives not some miracle drug, but his own flesh and blood. He said, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54).
The Bread of Life
Eternal life is the topic of Jesus’ teaching in John 6. The chapter began with Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the five thousand, and in his subsequent teaching Jesus sought to elevate his hearers from earthly to heavenly bread. This chapter contains the first of Jesus’ “I am” sayings: “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35, 48). His Jewish audience connected this claim with the manna that had fed the exodus generation in the time of Moses—bread that fell from heaven. Jesus wanted them to see that he is not only a new Moses, but a greater Savior than Moses ever was. The people, however, struggled to understand and grumbled against his words.
Starting in John 6:48, Jesus continues his teaching, pointing out a significant difference between the bread that he gives versus the manna of Moses’ day. Whereas the ancient manna sustained physical life for just a day at a time, the bread that he offers gives so much more: “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die” (6:48–50).
This makes some important points. First, it reminds Jesus’ hearers of how the Israelites of the exodus complained about their manna and revolted against Moses. Jesus’ present hearers were making the same mistake. Second, as a result of their sin, the exodus generation was judged by God, so that none but the few believers ever left the desert. The entire generation that witnessed the great miracles of the exodus—miracles such as the ten plagues on Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea—subsequently died in the desert because of their sin.
This point would have been all the more poignant since John 6 takes place during the Passover celebration—the main feast that commemorated the exodus! Even though this crowd was fed by Jesus’ miracle, the result of their unbelief would be the same judgment and death experienced by their ancestors.
Third, Jesus makes a contrast between the bread he gives and the manna. His bread conveys life not just for the body but for the soul. His bread overcomes the deadly curse of sin and gives eternal life: “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (John 6:51). A. W. Pink summarizes Jesus’ meaning: “I am that which every sinner needs, and without which he will surely perish.”
The Bread of Christ’s Flesh
As Jesus pressed his points, he continued with some startling language, which seems to have upset his hearers. He said, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).
John notes that this statement incited a great deal of agitation: “The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ ” (John 6:52). Given Jewish food regulations, this was a revolting thought. It was made even worse when Jesus added the idea of drinking his blood: “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” (6:53). The law expressly forbade the drinking of blood; Jews could not even eat meat with the blood still in it (Lev. 17:10–14), yet Jesus spoke to them of eating his flesh and drinking his blood.
The real problem was the people’s lack of spiritual understanding. Just as Nicodemus could not understand how one could be born again, and the woman by the well could not understand how Jesus could give living water, this crowd misunderstood Jesus’ true meaning. It was bad enough, they thought, for Jesus not to give them more of his miraculous bread, but now he spoke in this grotesque manner!
What did Jesus mean? Some interpreters have taken Jesus’ teaching in a mystical manner. An example is William Barclay, who understood the idea of eating Jesus’ flesh as meditating on his incarnate humanity:
It is as if Jesus said: “Feed your heart … on the thought of my manhood. When you are discouraged and in despair … remember I took that life of yours and these struggles of yours on me.” … He was telling us to feed our hearts and souls and minds on his humanity, and to revitalize our lives with his life until we are filled with the life of God.
The problem with this interpretation is that Jesus clearly was not referring to his incarnation. He describes his flesh as “the bread that I will give” (John 6:51), so he is looking to something in the future.
Other Christians interpret Jesus’ words as referring to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, also known as the Eucharist. When Jesus speaks of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, they see a clear reference to the ritual that Jesus would later institute. These verses are used as a proof text for the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which teaches that the Lord’s Supper involves eating the physical flesh and blood of Jesus transubstantiated into the form of a wafer and cup of wine.
But there are at least five reasons why Jesus was not speaking of the Lord’s Supper. First, his original hearers could not possibly have been expected to recognize a sacrament that would not be instituted until a year later, on the night of Jesus’ arrest. Second, if Jesus were teaching that one can be saved only by partaking of the Lord’s Supper, this would contradict his emphasis on salvation through faith in this very chapter (John 6:29, 35, 40, 47), and would rule out the salvation of those who could not receive the sacrament, such as the thief on the cross and infants who die. Third, Jesus never used the word flesh when speaking of the Lord’s Supper, but said, “This is my body” (Matt. 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24). Fourth, in John 6:63, Jesus informs us that his words had a spiritual, not a fleshly, meaning: “The flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”
Finally, it is abundantly clear that Jesus is referring to his substitutionary offering of himself on the cross. His flesh is the bread “that I will give for the life of the world” (John 6:51). This is why Jesus’ words about his “flesh” and “blood” are associated with the Lord’s Supper, since they both point to the same thing: Jesus’ atoning death on the cross. Jesus did not die so that we might be saved by taking the Lord’s Supper, and his teaching in John 6 does not direct us to the blessed sacrament. Rather, both Jesus’ teaching and the Lord’s Supper teach that we are saved only through faith in his death for our sins. The Lord’s Supper serves to strengthen our faith in Christ’s blood, by which alone we are saved.
There are good reasons to be sure that Jesus was speaking of his coming death on the cross. First, we remember that this chapter takes place at the time of the Jewish Passover (John 6:4). This festival remembered Israel’s deliverance from Egypt when God sent the angel of death to slay the firstborn of Egypt. Only God’s people were spared, by sacrificing a lamb and spreading its blood on their doorposts. The Passover meal consisted of eating the sacrificial lamb. This is a vital theme in John’s Gospel; we remember John the Baptist’s witness to Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29). This is how Jesus meant the Jews to understand “eating” his “flesh.” By eating the Passover lamb, the Israelites identified with the sacrifice for sin offered by the Lamb of God. Jesus wanted his hearers to make the connection between the Passover lamb and his own sacrificial death.
Second, the last sentence in John 6:51 says, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” This would be better rendered as “The bread that I will give on behalf of [or in place of] the life of the world.” John Calvin writes that this “denotes that unique giving which was made on the cross when [Jesus] offered Himself to the Father as a sacrifice. Then He delivered up Himself for the life of men; and now He invites us to receive the fruit of His death.”
The famous theologian Karl Barth was once asked what is the most important word in the Bible. He replied, “Hyper,” the Greek word that Jesus uses in this verse: “for the life of the world.” This is the key to the gospel: Jesus died “for” us, that is, “on our behalf” and “in our place.” Jesus used this same word when he said that the Good Shepherd gives his life “for the sheep” (John 10:11, 15). The high priest Caiaphas justified Jesus’ death by observing that it was necessary that one man die “for the people” (John 11:50). Hyper means “on behalf of” and “in the place of,” and it was in this way that Jesus gave his flesh and blood on the cross to redeem us from our sins.
The Heart of the Gospel
When we understand his meaning, we see that Jesus was presenting his hearers with the very heart of the gospel. He said: “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 feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:53–54). Just as the Israelites received the Passover in faith by spreading the blood on their doors and eating the lamb, Jesus offers salvation to the world through our believing receipt of his death in our place. Eating, therefore, describes our acceptance of Christ in faith. J. C. Ryle says, “Whenever a man, feeling his own guilt and sinfulness, lays hold on Christ, and trusts in the atonement made for him by Christ’s death, at once he ‘eats the flesh of the Son of Man, and drinks His blood.’ ”
This teaching gives us a potent description of saving faith.
First, faith in Christ is necessary. One gains no benefit from bread unless he eats it. Likewise, though Jesus died for “the world”—that is, for everyone who believes—his sacrifice gains us nothing unless we confess our need of forgiveness and trust in his cross. It is not necessary for you to have spiritual highs or perform religious quests, but it is absolutely necessary that you trust in Christ’s death if you would be saved from your sins.
Second, faith in Christ is always personal. Just as no one can eat for you, no one can believe on Christ for you. To be fed, you must pick up the bread, take it into your mouth, chew it, and swallow. Likewise, neither your parents nor your spouse nor the church can believe in Christ for you. You must pick up the Bible (for it is in the Word of God that we “feed” on Jesus), take it into your mind and heart, meditate on its promises, and believe on Christ for your own salvation.
Third, faith in Christ is foremost in his cross. It is not enough for you to admire the story of his birth, to appreciate his lofty teachings, or to praise his perfect example in life. To believe on Jesus is to trust that he died the death that your sins deserved. He suffered on your behalf as an atonement for your sins. He died in your place, as a Substitute provided by God, so that you might be forgiven and saved. Just as we eat when we sense our hunger, we trust in Christ as we recognize that our sins threaten us with damnation, of which the cross is our only escape. Jesus spoke of his “flesh” and “blood” because, as Charles McIlvaine wrote: “It is as having been once offered up on the cross, a propitiatory sacrifice for our sins, that we receive our Saviour.… We must always keep that great sacrifice, of which his flesh and blood were the constituents, in the eye and embrace of our faith.” As Jesus said, “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (John 6:55).
It is possible that scientists will devise ways to lengthen our lives, but only those who believe on the cross of Christ will have eternal life. This is the glorious promise that Jesus makes: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:54).
When Jesus speaks of eternal life, he is referring to a quality of life that only he can give. He says: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:56).
Jesus promises that when you come to him through faith in his cross, you will live in him and he will live in you. The apostle Peter said that believers “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). This does not mean that we become little deities, but rather that we are “born of the Spirit,” as Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3:8). The risen and ascended Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to live within us, conveying “righteousness and peace and joy” (Rom. 14:17). We are made spiritually alive to know God and commune with him through Christ. To abide in Christ and have him abide in us is, Paul wrote, “to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:23–24). What, I ask, has the world to offer in comparison with this?
But the life of God can be received and enjoyed only through an active, feeding faith in Christ. Jesus added, “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me” (John 6:57). This recalls Jesus’ earlier teaching that his own life, though uncreated and eternal, is derived from God the Father. He said, “As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (5:26). But now we are added to this picture. We can receive this overflow of life, with the Father as the fountain and Jesus Christ the Son as the stream. According to Psalm 46:4, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” Jesus is that river, and by trusting in him we drink eternal life.
But how could we really enjoy this if we knew that it someday had to end? This is one of the problems with the joys of this world. Not only do the world’s pleasures pale in comparison to the life that Jesus gives, but they also will have an end. Even if science can extend life, there ultimately is no man-made solution for death. But Jesus spoke not only of the quality of eternal life, but also of its quantity. Believers in Christ do not need telomerase; in Christ, we are the “Forever People.” Jesus said, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:54).
Even death cannot end eternal life. We know from the Bible that when Christians die, our spirits enter immediately into the glory of our heavenly home (2 Cor. 5:8). But even our bodies will participate in eternal life, for Jesus will raise them up. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). So while the bread that came through Moses gave temporary life, Jesus said of himself: “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever” (6:58).
As a preacher, I am instructed and encouraged by the last verse in this passage: “Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum” (John 6:59). At some point, Jesus’ meeting with the crowd had moved into the church, and this was his sermon on that occasion. It was not a sermon that was likely to be popular. This Jewish audience, like so many people today, preferred more worldly food: sermons offering tips for worldly success and happiness. But that is not what Jesus preached. Surely this chapter proves that Jesus did not preach what people wanted to hear or those things that they thought they needed. Jesus preached what he knew they needed, whether they wanted to hear it or not. Above all, he preached his cross. Death because of sin; eternal life through atoning blood: these were the chief themes of Jesus’ preaching. Our preaching today ought to follow his example.
“If Anyone” and “Unless”
Jesus’ teaching was so vital because it presents the greatest invitation. Two phrases in his sermon ought to catch our attention. In John 6:51, he says, “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.” Then in verse 56, he adds, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” “If anyone,” and “Whoever.” This appeals to you, if you have not yet believed on Jesus Christ. He does not say, “If religious people, or if the wealthy, or if the poor, or if those with good backgrounds, or if those who were raised in the church …,” and so on. Jesus said, “If anyone”! “Whoever”! This means that he offers forgiveness of sins and eternal life to everyone who simply accepts him in trusting faith. Jesus offers the most matchless gift, what no money can buy and no scientist can bottle—that you would be received forever as a dearly beloved child into the life and love of God, if only you will believe. Have you confessed your need of Jesus Christ? Have you trusted in his cross? Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (10:10). You—whoever you are—can have eternal life by receiving the Savior Jesus Christ in trusting faith.
But if Jesus’ teaching extends the greatest invitation, it also conveys the direst warning. We should notice two more terms: unless and no life. Jesus said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). The life of this world is not true life, and it cannot last. The life of owning fine possessions, enjoying a pleasurable lifestyle, or feeding your cravings through sin is not the life for which you were made. Such a life will never satisfy your soul. Jesus states this dreadful reality: Unless you trust in him, “you have no life in you.” And when the Christless life comes to its bitter end in death, it will lead you to judgment and eternal condemnation.
The Israelites of Moses’ day received the manna, but because they did not believe, they suffered death. Jesus did not want his hearers to repeat that mistake, and neither should you. “Unless,” he says, “no life.” But out of the great love for which he took up the cross as a Sacrifice for sins, Jesus says to all who hear: “If anyone.” He promises that he is “the bread that came down from heaven.… Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever” (John 6:58).
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). John 1–11 (pp. 251–254). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 517–522). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Phillips, R. D. (2014). John. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (1st ed., Vol. 1, pp. 422–430). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.