Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Roman Catholic Apologetics: Street Level (#2)
08/06/2006 - James White
Read john chapter 6 if you are Protestant and then TRY to tell anyone that you don't believe the words of Jesus! Tell me that Protestants aren't like all those disciples of Jesus that fell away from him because He has given them "a hard teaching". Will you also go away to grape juice and crackers like they did in John 6:66 and reject the very FLESH and BLOOD that Jesus redeemed you with and also COMMANDED you to Eat?
Nearly every Roman apologist bases his defense of the concept of transubstantiation and the Eucharist upon Jesus’ words in John chapter 6, specifically verses 53 through 57. Indeed, it is commonly said that here the Roman Catholic Church “takes the Bible for what it says” while Protestants are somehow seeking to avoid the “clear” teaching of the Lord Jesus. Is this so?
The specific utterance of the Lord Jesus under discussion is to be found in John 6:53-57:
So Jesus said to them, “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 yourselves.  “He who eats My flesh and 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.  “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, he also will live because of Me.The Roman Catholic Church claims that any understanding that does not take these words literally (which would mean that this could only refer to the Eucharist as taught by Roman Catholicism), is engaging in “spiritualizing the text” so as to avoid an unwanted conclusion. Is the literal meaning of the text supportive of Roman Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist? Does a person literally have to eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood to have life in himself?
First, we must point out that the literal meaning of the text is obviously not always the clear meaning. The term “literal” is capable of quite a range of definition. If it is pushed to mean absurd literalism, and we are forced to use this understanding of the text, then obviously the whole Bible is full of complete nonsense. Jesus claimed to be the door of the sheep in John 10; literally this means Jesus is a door, replete with hinges, knob, and maybe even a lock! And, of course, this would also have to mean that only sheep will be saved, not human beings, for He is the door of the sheep. No one misunderstands the most basic elements of language so completely as this. Everyone understands that Jesus is speaking figuratively, and in fact the obvious and hence the literal meaning of the passage is the one which recognizes the symbolism of the language used. Hence, if the passage itself shows us that the terms used by the speaker are meant to be taken in a figurative or symbolic way, the truly literal interpretation will take this into consideration.
John loved to pick up on the different ways the Lord Jesus used to communicate a point. He differs in this from the other gospel writers, for in John the same teaching will be presented in numerous different ways. Jesus is “the light of the world,” (8:12), the “good Shepherd” (10:11), and the “true vine” (15:1). Jesus is not literally the sun in the sky, a shepherd of sheep, or a living vine. Yet, each of these descriptions tell us something about Jesus, when they are taken according to the plain intention of the text: as symbols. So, too, John likes to use different phrases to say the same thing. One which is important in John 6 is his use of the phrases “have eternal life” and “shall be raised up on the last day.” It would be an obvious mistake to differentiate between these two phrases. They mean the same thing, and are used in parallel to one another.
With these things in mind, we come to the longest chapter in the Gospel of John, chapter 6. John begins by narrating the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 with the five barley loaves and two fishes. The people respond to this by saying, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” (6:14). Jesus perceives that they are about to attempt to make Him king by force, so He goes away into the mountain by Himself. This is followed by the miracle of Christ’s walking upon the water and calming the storm, which brings Him and His disciples to shore near Capernaum. The crowd, which has stayed the night near the place of their miraculous feeding, comes to Capernaum also, seeking Jesus. When they find Him, they ask Him how He got there, but the Lord brushes their question aside and gets to the heart of the matter. Jesus goes directly to their motivation for seeking Him. Remember that the night before they were going to make Him king by force. They are obviously mistaken about who Jesus is. The dialogue that follows will center on the person of Christ and His role in salvation. He turns their thoughts away from a secular kingdom onto His person, and the importance of their relationship to Him. Pressing the claims of Christ will result in many turning away from Him, but this is necessary to dispel false followers who are seeking nothing but their own benefit.
Drawing from the miracle performed the day before, Jesus in verse 27 says, “Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.” The crowd was looking for a meal, but Jesus was directing them to Himself, the bread “which endures to eternal life.” The crowd does not fully follow His meaning, and asks what they should do to “work the works of God.” Jesus’ reply is that the work of God is to believe in the One whom God has sent, namely, Himself. This is quite a claim, of course, and the crowd demands a sign as evidence of His authority. They, too, grasp the aforementioned miracle, and assert that Moses had given them bread from heaven to eat. Can Jesus do the same? Moses had managed it for a long period of time, while Jesus did so only once. Can He do it again?
Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. “For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world (vs. 32-33).The quotation from Psalm 78:24 which is given by the people specifically identifies Yahweh as the “He” who gave them bread in the wilderness. Possibly they were referring this to Moses either directly or by implication, and hence Jesus corrects them. Either this or they are making the comparison between Him (whom some had said “this is truly the Prophet...”) and Moses, and Jesus is correcting their misunderstanding of His person. Rather, the one source of the “true bread” is the Father—He gave the manna in the wilderness, but is now giving (present tense) the “true bread from heaven” which is not a perishable food but rather a person—“the one coming down from heaven.” Here, in the first mention of Jesus as the bread from heaven, the emphasis is upon the present. That is, the institution of the Supper in the future is not the focus of the chapter: the present reality of the living Christ standing before them is.
There is also another parallel (but an incomplete one, of course)—just as the manna came down from heaven and provided sustenance for the people of God during their sojourn, so too Jesus has come down out of heaven to be the sustenance of God’s people—and their salvation. Jesus will utilize this kind of dualistic symbolism throughout this discourse—referring to the physical reality of the manna to represent the spiritual reality of faith in Him. Sadly enough, this dualism has been missed by the Roman Catholic church, which reads into this passage the doctrine of transubstantiation in the Mass—and in so doing reverse the very direction the Lord is taking the conversation. They, like the first century listeners, cannot see past the symbol to the reality beyond.
Then they said to Him, “Lord, always give us this bread.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst (v. 34-35).The crowd continues in its blindness, unable to see the real significance of Jesus’ words. In response Jesus gets quite specific—He Himself is this bread. The one who “comes to Me”—a clear reference to faith (as the parallel will show)—will not hunger (hence, the bread is spiritual, not natural) and the one who “believes in Me” will never thirst. The reference to “thirsting” seems somewhat out of place here, given that only food has been in view up to this point; but in actuality there is no difficulty, as Jesus is not referring to actual physical consumption of food. He is referring to spiritual need. Man has a need spiritually (symbol: hunger and thirst) and Jesus meets that need completely and eternally. “Coming” and “believing” will become “eating” and “drinking” in verse 54. There is a clear progression in these terms, and to miss this, or to reject its meaning, is to miss the literal and obvious meaning of the text. What is more, since this is the first time that “hunger” and “thirst” is presented, the definitions assigned to these terms by the Lord Himself (being spiritual and symbolic, not literal and earthly) must be carried on through the rest of the text.
Following this, Jesus moves into demonstrating that no man can come to Him outside of the Father’s drawing (vs. 36-46). He then returns to the symbol of the bread in verses 47 and following.
“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. “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh (vs. 47-51).The one who believes, Jesus says, has (present tense—continuous action) eternal life. Eternal life is not simply duration of life, but quality of life as well - not something just future, but present, too. But what is the person “believing”? Faith in the Bible always has an object—it never exists in a vacuum—faith is not a separate entity with an existence of its own. It seems that, in the context, the main object of faith is the person of Jesus Christ Himself. This is seen in a few ways. First, in verse 46 He speaks of being the “one who is from God.” In verse 48 He speaks of being the bread of life. Both of these statements are assertions about who Jesus is—and hence are fitting objects of faith. The fathers of the exodus ate the manna in the wilderness and died, but the bread which comes down from heaven (Himself) is vastly superior to the manna which was simply a picture of what comes later in Christ. The one who “eats” of this bread will never die. The “eating” here is paralleled with the “believing” of verse 47—any attempt to make this a physical action misses the entire point being made by the Lord. He who believes has eternal life—he who eats of the true bread from heaven will never die. Eating = believing. This is clearly the literal meaning of the text.
This faith is a personal one, because it involves the “eating” of this true bread—which is Jesus Himself (v. 51). The eating of the true bread means eternal life, and this bread, Jesus says, is His flesh “which is given for the life of the world.” It is not Jesus’ flesh, per se, which is the object here. It is His flesh as given in sacrifice which brings eternal life. It is the sacrifice that gives life, not simply the flesh. In His giving of His life, the Son provides life for the world.
Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?”The Jews, continuing to dwell simply on the physical plane, and refusing to follow Jesus above to the spiritual truth underlying the symbol of His words, begin to quarrel among themselves about this. The men ask how Jesus can give His flesh for them to eat. Of course, Jesus is not saying that He is going to do so. He is speaking of His coming sacrifice and the resultant forgiveness of sins and eternal life for all who are united to Him.
So Jesus said to them, “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 yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”Jesus decides to come down to their level in an attempt to bring them up to His. He moves on with the metaphor, already firmly established, of “eating = believing”. The only way to eternal life is through union with the Son of Man. This involves a vital faith relationship with Him, symbolized here by the eating of His flesh and the drinking of His blood. To make the equation complete, Jesus places “eating My flesh and drinking My blood” in the exact same position as hearing His word and believing on Him who sent Jesus in John 5:24, or as being drawn by the Father in 6:44, or as looking to the Son and believing in 6:40, or simply believing in 6:47. The result is the same in each case—eternal life, or being raised up at the last day. Hence, we here have a clear indication of Jesus’ usage of the metaphor of “eating His flesh and drinking His blood” in John 6. Graphically we would have:
|Everyone who beholds the Son and believes (6:40)||“eternal life”|
|Those who are drawn by the Father (6:44)||All Equal =||or|
|He who believes in Christ (6:47)|
|He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood (6:54)||“being raised up”|
Hence, the Roman Catholic interpretation of this passage is left with no foundation at all. Jesus is obviously not speaking of some “sacrament” of the “Eucharist” supposedly established years later. His referring to His body and blood here is paralleled clearly with belief in the Son and the drawing of the Father, the same themes struck above. Consistency of interpretation must lead one to reject a sacramental interpretation of this passage. The literal meaning, given the parallelism already firmly established in this passage, has to refer to the union of the believer by faith with Jesus Christ, not a participation in the Roman Catholic Mass.
[continued in our next installment]