Jesus’ most controversial discourse stuns, shocks, offends, and has lots of other signs of good teaching.
Jesus has often been called a master teacher, and the book of John illustrates the truth of that label. Good teachers do not merely tell their students the material; they show them. John 6 begins with Jesus teaching a multitude of people on a hillside on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee in spring. He taught for hours and when the disciples advised Jesus to let the people go to find food, He miraculously fed all of them, possibly more than 15,000 people. The parallels between Moses giving manna to the Israelites (Exodus 16:1-21), Elisha’s feeding of 100 men (2 Kings 4:42-44), the Lord hosting a magnificent banquet (Isaiah 25:6), and Jesus feeding the multitude were striking to the Jews, hungry as they were for a political Messiah to lead them out of bondage to Rome (6:14). As a result, they tried to make Him king (6:15). Jesus escaped and allowed time for the fervor to abate.
The next morning Jesus gave His famous, to some infamous, Bread of Life discourse. With the amazing miracle of the prior day, Jesus had shown the people, and His disciples, that He could provide bread for those who followed Him. Now Jesus intended to teach them about greater bread. The greater bread is not the bread that perishes with the eating, but that which lasts forever. It comes from God, and ultimately the bread, that which nourishes the people of God for eternity, is Jesus Christ Himself. After showing the people His ability to provide physically for those who followed Him, He had then described how He Himself was the ultimate bread. Finally, Jesus finished the lesson telling His listeners that they needed to “eat His flesh” and “drink His blood” to have eternal life (6:53-58).
What a shocker! Jesus was using a powerful metaphor to communicate that He was the Bread of Life (eternal), but the very image of cannibalism and the drinking of blood was deeply offensive to Jews and absolutely forbidden in the Law (Genesis 9:4, Leviticus 19:26). The primary association of blood in the Old Testament was with violent death, not life. The Jews were not likely to forget this message, but they were also not likely to accept it. Jesus had many disciples at the time, more than His hand-selected twelve, but most of them struggled so much with this “hard saying” that they abandoned Him (6:66). The Twelve remained (6:67-69).
Western Gentile Christians still find imagery of the discourse unsettling, but we recognize it as a metaphor, powerfully communicating that believers must take Christ’s mind, His character, and His love into us in order to be sanctified in our Christian lives. Humans are sinners, irrevocably separated from God, and the salvation process (justification, sanctification and glorification) involves us gradually becoming like Our Lord. Because it is true, this is the best approach when explaining the passage to modern readers.
It takes little imagination to see the Lord’s Supper in this discourse. On His last night, Jesus told His disciples to eat the bread, representing His body, and to drink the wine, representing His blood (Luke 22:14-20). These instructions would immediately bring to mind the Bread of Life discourse in John 6, spoken just a few months before. Some see the bread and the wine as more than merely a representation of His body, but as elements that actually becoming body. This is the doctrine of transubstantiation, part of what the Roman Catholics would refer to as the Eucharist.
Carson, D. A. The Gospel according to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990.
Kostenberger, Andreas J. Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999.