"...and drink His blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.” This he said in the synagogue, as he taught at Caper′na-um." (Jn 6:53-59, NRSV-CE). For those who prefer an older translation, compare that to the equally graphic text in the DR or KJV.
To help give the picture of what the Jews heard, take a look at the ancient Greek translation of Christ’s words. The first 2 occurrences of “eat” here are translated to the root “phago”, which carries the same meaning as “eat” in English (verses 53 and 54). But thereafter, Christ uses a different word which translates to “trago” in the Greek. This word is a much more graphic “gnaw/chew”. And not only is Christ telling them, in the most literal language possible, to “eat/gnaw/chew” His Flesh, he has just repeated Himself 7 times in 7 sentences (see v51-59). And to top it all off, He not only says, “For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” (v. 54), but He had just identified “the bread which [He] shall give for the life of the world” with His very “flesh” (v. 51).
It's no wonder the Jews understood Him literally, and expressed their apparent disgust and confusion at His words. The question is, were they right to understand Him literally. Another question is WHY they understood Him literally.
In answering the first, some Protestants say the Jews were NOT correct...that Christ was speaking symbolically. But this doesn't make sense.
First of all, Jesus does not correct their understanding here. Instead, He gets MORE GRAPHIC and confirms their literal understanding...INDEED. He takes it up to a higher and more literal level as soon as they question His words. In verse 51 Christ says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh”. And here they express their literal interpretation: “The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”” (Jn 6:52) Verse 53 continues into the very title of this post: “So Jesus said to them...”
In all the parables where Christ was speaking symbolically or in metaphor, His audience understands exactly that. And in every parable that His audience doesn't completely grasp the message (which seems to be most of them,), He pulls His Disciples aside and explains it to them, either on His own initiative, or prompted by their questions. But there is none of that in John 6. His audience understands Him literally, He clarifies by getting even MORE literal and MORE graphic...repeating Himself 6 more times to clarify...confirming that His Flesh is “food indeed”…and His Disciples understand Him literally. Not once during or after does He explain some symbolism or metaphor, nor does He pull His Disciples aside to explain any symbolism to them. No, He watches many of His Disciples walk away and no longer follow Him (v. 66) , turns to the 12 and says, “...will you also leave? (v. 67)”. And what do they say? Peter, speaking for them, expresses the lack of full understanding they have, yet the trust they have in His Truth, and says, “Lord, to whom shall we go?...You have the words of everlasting life” (Jn 6:68).
Another reason a symbolic interpretation makes no sense is that we DO have examples of Christ speaking figuratively/symbolically of food, where his disciples/Apostles take Him literally, and He corrects them: “Meanwhile the disciples besought him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has any one brought him food?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.” (Jn 4:31-34) We see it likewise in Mt 16:5-12: “When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”…[They think He is speaking about real bread, and He rebukes and corrects them.]…Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Mt 16:5-12)
Still another reason it makes no sense to apply a symbolic meaning to Christ’s words is because eating one’s flesh and drinking his blood, in the symbolic sense, meant “to assault” the person. Ps 14:4, Is 9:18-20, Is 49:26, Mic 3:3, 2Sam 23:15-17, Rev 17:6,16, etc…show this clearly. So, to place a symbolic meaning onto Christ’s words, you have to believe that Christ said, “…unless you assault me, you have no life within you. He who assaults me will have eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day…”. It makes no sense at all to apply a symbolic meaning here.
Keep in mind that the people closest to Jesus, who knew Him personally, followed Him, knew the language and the figures of speech, His Disciples and Apostles and those who ministered to Him daily throughout His public ministry, who heard Him preach and witnessed all His miracles…all took Him literally. Both the people who accepted, AND those who rejected Him understood His literal meaning. In fact, it was that literal meaning which was the dividing line for them, so to speak…the proverbial “line in the sand”: “But there are some of you that do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that should betray him. And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, “Will you also go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (Jn 6:64-69) Did you catch that? Unbelief in Christ’s giving of His Body and Blood, according to their literal understanding, is equated by Christ as unbelief…”you that do not believe”. In verse 66 some choose to abandon Him, to reject Christ, because of this teaching.
Now, some Protestants claim that, although the Jews took Christ literally, that He actually clarifies His symbolic meaning in verse 63. And then, despite His clarification, they STILL misunderstand Him and leave Him nonetheless. This also makes no sense. Christ still allowed them to leave with not so much as 1 sentence to clarify, and said that they “do not believe”. Let’s look at what John records here: “Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at it, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before? 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” (Jn 6:60-63). Notice Christ says, “THE flesh is of no avail”. He does not say, “My Flesh”. And He says the words He has spoken are “spirit and life”. Christ is chastising them for trying to understand in “the flesh” instead of in “the spirit”. Scripture shows us that “the flesh” in this context meant using limited human understanding, as opposed to understanding through God’s limitless Power…relying on “the flesh” instead of “the spirit”. It also referred to our earthly/physical/human nature, as opposed to our spiritual/heavenly life. There are over 50 references in the NT alone in this context, among them: Mt 26:41, Mk 14:38, Jn 1:13, John 3:6, Rom 8:9-13, Rom 9:3, 1Cor 3:1-3, 5:5, Gal 5:17, Phil 1:16, 1Pet chapters 1-4, 1Jn 2:16….
Here are two critical errors Protestants make in claiming verse 63 “proves” a symbolic meaning:
1) They understand Christ to have said “MY flesh is of no avail”. This is unavoidable if one claims v.63 as Christ’s clarification of symbolism. The entire explicit context of the preceding verses was that Christ’s Flesh is true food to be eaten. If, in verse 63, He meant to clarify the symbolic meaning of all that, Protestants must conclude that Christ meant, “My Flesh is of no avail; the words I have spoken…are spirit and life.” The only way around that is to say exactly as I have clarified above…that “the flesh” is in regards to their use of human understanding while trying to grasp something that can only be understood in “the spirit”.
2) They make the Crucifixion of Christ nothing more than a symbol. Remember, Christ equated “the bread I will give for the life of the world” to “my flesh”. How did He give His flesh for the life of the world? He died for us…He was crucified for us. “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one 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) If Christ only symbolically gives us His flesh to eat, then He also only symbolically died on the cross. If it is really only “bread”, and nothing more, that Christ gave us to eat symbolically, then it is only bread, symbolizing His Flesh, which was nailed to the Cross. There is no way around that unfortunate conclusion for Protestants who interpret John 6 symbolically. The truth is, Christ was REALLY nailed to that Cross and gave His REAL Flesh for the world, and gives it to us perpetually and REALLY under the appearance of “bread”.
Finally, on the supposed symbolic explanation in verse 63, the Protestant also has to conclude that the spirit is only symbolic. If “the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” means “symbolic” we have a real problem on our hands from the Protestant point of view. First, there is no Scriptural basis for interpreting “spirit” as “symbolic”. The spirit is shown in Scripture not only to be REAL, but more real than our human physical existence. I am not aware of any occurrence in Scripture of the word “spirit” where it means “symbolic”…and it occurs well over 500 times. I don’t suppose any Protestant is prepared to profess his faith in the “Father, Son, and Holy “symbolic””? No, that makes no sense as Christians. And again, we have to keep in mind the context of Scriptures. To “symbolically” eat one’s flesh and drink one’s blood means “to assault” (cf. Ps 14:4, Is 9:18-20, Is 49:26, Mic 3:3, 2Sam 23:15-17, Rev 17:6,16).
This brings us to the second question: WHY did the Jews understand Christ literally, and why should we also? [...stay tuned for Part 2...]