Is the language in John 6:54 metaphorical or literal?


Is the language in John 6:54 metaphorical or literal? When we partake of the Lord’s Supper, eating bread and wine, do we literally eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Lord Jesus? 



“I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats from this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I will give for the life of the world also is My flesh.” Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?”  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.  The one 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. The one who eats My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me, and I in him.  Just as the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, the one who eats Me, he also will live because of Me.  This is the bread that came down out of heaven, not as the fathers ate and died; the one who eats this bread will live forever.”(John 6:51-58 NASB)

Verses 35, 48 describe the Lord Jesus who identifies Himself as “the bread of life,” an expression synonymous with “the living bread” of John 6:51. 

“Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; the one who comes to Me will not be hungry, and the one who believes in Me will never be thirsty.”(John 6:35 NASB)

I am the bread of life.  Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.” (John 6:48 NASB)

At first glance, it would seem that John was referring to the Eucharistic institution: “Take it, this is My body. ” (Mark 14:22) But the word “body” used by John in Greek is “sarx” and not “soma,” a word used in the New Testament wherever the institution of the Lord’s Supper is spoken of. 

The word “sarx” is translated as “the physical part of the human being or the external part in contrast to the spiritual part.” This word is used elsewhere in the Gospel of John when the Lord Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about being born again. 

“Jesus responded and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless someone is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a person be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which has been born of the flesh(“sarx”) is flesh(“sarx”), and that which has been born of the Spirit is spirit.”  (John 3:3-6 NASB).

It is also used in John 6:63: 

“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh(“sarx”) provides no benefit; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit, and are life.” (John 6:63 NASB)

The emphasis is on “the flesh provides no benefit”. The language used by John is different from that used by Matthew or Mark and is not used in reference to the institution of the Lord’s Supper. In John 6:51, metaphorically speaking, “and the bread is my body,” which means that Jesus Himself is the principle of life for the salvation and spiritual growth of every Christian.  

Verses 54 and 40 are closely related: “The one who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (v. 54), and “that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.” (v. 40). The only difference between these verses is that they talk about eating flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus, while the other talks about seeking the Son and believing in Him. The conclusion is clear: verse 54 is metaphorical and refers to verse 40. This connection is supported by the structure of the entire passage in John 6. 

Moreover, if we say that verses 53-54 refer to the Eucharist, then the only thing required to have eternal life is to partake of the Lord’s table. This approach to verses 53-54 contradicts the earlier parts of this passage and last but not least verse 40. The only reasonable alternative is to understand these verses as a repetition of the truth stated earlier, but now in a metaphorical form. The verse becomes understood when read carefully in its context. Eating the flesh and drinking the blood shows the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, the violent death with which he would die for the sins of mankind. 

The language of John 6 does not speak directly of the Lord’s Supper. Moreover, through the repeated stress in this discourse of the Lord Jesus, there is no room for a magical understanding of the Lord’s table, that by obeying the ritual, we have eternal life, that is, eating literally from the body and drinking from the blood of Jesus, we have eternal life. Cannibalism is not encouraged by God’s law, nor is it encouraged by the Lord Jesus. Verse 63 emphasizes that the words of Jesus must be taken spiritually and not literally. By the metaphorical language used, the Lord Jesus meant that we have eternal life not as a result of participating in the Lord’s Supper, but only through faith in Him. The text takes us back to Jesus and the meaning of His life and death. 

In this passage, Father Augustine sees a figure of speech, saying, “We rejoice that we also have the sufferings of Christ, and that we should not forget that his body was crucified for our sins.” 

Translated by Nicoleta Vicliuc