Paul teaches his readers to understand the Lord’s Supper as a spiritual eating and drinking that, like baptism, physically symbolizes and mediates a spiritual reality. Through the meal, we remember that by faith we receive what Jesus has done for us, and in faith we proclaim that reality to others. Receive and proclaim what? What Jesus’s death accomplished for us: his substitutionary death on our behalf — the breaking of his body and spilling of his blood — pays in full the penalty of guilt for our sin (Hebrews 10:12–14), and his perfect righteousness is freely given to us in exchange for our unrighteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is the New Testament’s clear teaching of the Christian gospel.
The day after Jesus performed his largest-scale pre-crucifixion miracle — the feeding of the five thousand — he issued one of his most offensive and misunderstood statements.
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. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. (John 6:53–55)
Up to this point, the growing crowd had been thrilled with Jesus. After all, he could heal the sick and feed the masses! Was this the long-awaited Prophet? Soon they would want to make him their king (John 6:14–15). But Jesus discerned something defective about their enthusiasm.
They desired more loaves from heaven (John 6:34), but not the bread he had come to give them: himself (John 6:51–52). So, he tested their spiritual discernment with a series of increasingly provocative statements, culminating in the one above. They took offense; it sounded like cannibalism. The “Jesus for King” campaign suddenly evaporated. Turns out he was right about their lack of discernment. They seriously misunderstood what he was saying.
And they wouldn’t be the last. People have misunderstood these verses for the last two thousand years — including Christians. Over time, significant Christian traditions, such as Roman Catholicism, developed Jesus’s words into the doctrine of transubstantiation, the belief “that during the Eucharist, the body of Jesus Christ himself is truly eaten and his blood truly drunk. The bread becomes his actual body, and the wine his actual blood.”
But that’s not what Jesus meant. How do we know this? He gave us plenty of clues.
Spiritual Realities Spiritually Discerned
First, this wasn’t the first time Jesus used metaphors to unveil spiritual reality. A few verses later, he describes the hidden power and meaning of his teaching to his disciples (some of whom were offended along with the crowd):
It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe. (John 6:63–64)
In other words, “No one will understand what I am saying unless the Spirit reveals it.” A similar misunderstanding happens when Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Nicodemus is confused, thinking Jesus is referring to a literal physical birth, but Jesus’s words are “spirit and life” — he is referring to a spiritual birth.
Again, a chapter later, when Jesus speaks with the Samaritan woman at the well, he offers her living water. Confused, she responds, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” (John 4:10–11). Jesus’s words, however, are “spirit and life.” They mean far more than she realizes, and that meaning can only be spiritually discerned.
Again and again, Jesus uses provocative metaphorical language to help people see who he is and how they might obtain eternal life through him.
What Does It Mean to Feed?
Now, let’s narrow in on the immediate context of John 6 — which was a discussion regarding bread — because it contains more clues to what Jesus meant by, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54).