Let’s talk about the Bread of Life discourse in John 6:22-70. The Catholic interpretation makes sense, but it’s a shocking one. We think that this lengthy passage is about the Eucharist, and that Jesus Christ literally means that we eat His Flesh and drink His Blood in Communion. This teaching, radical to twenty first-century ears, was no less radical to first-century ears, and even many of Jesus’ own disciples stopped following Him upon hearing it.
Protestants typically disagree with this interpretation, arguing that Jesus’ commands that we should eat His Flesh and drink His Blood are just metaphors. Often, both sides are so busy debating the credibility of the Catholic interpretation that neither stop to seriously ask, “Does the Protestant interpretation make any sense?” The obvious question is if Jesus is speaking metaphorically, what’s it a metaphor for? What is Jesus actually saying?
Remember that Jesus’ words spark a strong reaction: “Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” […] After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.” (John 6:61, 66). So whatever Jesus is saying here is so shocking that it’s actually costing Him disciples. To my knowledge, this is the only time we hear of Him losing disciples over something that He’s said. So just what was this shocking teaching?
The Protestant answer is usually something along the lines of: “believe in Me.” So, for example, Matthew Henry’s commentary on John 6:52-59 says,
The flesh and blood of the Son of man, denote the Redeemer in the nature of man; Christ and him crucified, and the redemption wrought out by him, with all the precious benefits of redemption; pardon of sin, acceptance with God, the way to the throne of grace, the promises of the covenant, and eternal life. These are called the flesh and blood of Christ, because they are purchased by the breaking his body, and the shedding of his blood. Also, because they are meat and drink to our souls. Eating this flesh and drinking this blood mean believing in Christ. We partake of Christ and his benefits by faith. The soul that rightly knows its state and wants, finds whatever can calm the conscience, and promote true holiness, in the redeemer, God manifest in the flesh.
Is that a plausible interpretation?
Remember, we’re talking about disciples here, not casual listeners who are tuning in for the first time. And this account in John 6 comes directly on the heels of some other shocking teachings from Jesus. For example, take John 5:15-18
The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews persecuted Jesus, because he did this on the sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working still, and I am working.” This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God.
Jesus goes on to declare Himself the One who will judge the world at the end of time, and talks about the necessity of believing in Him for salvation (John 5:21-23):
For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.
Jesus then explains that He’s the one that the Bible is about: “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. […] If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.” (John 5:39-40, 46).
And we’re to believe that these disciples were okay with the claims to divinity, to the breaking the Sabbath, to the declarations of equality with God, to the claim to be the Eternal Judge, but then heard a generic “believe in Me” message, and suddenly freaked out?
So, instead, you end up with Protestant exegetes explaining that it wasn’t really a hard teaching. Rather, people just left Christ because they misunderstood Him. When Jesus’ disciples declare His a “hard teaching,” Calvin says:
On the contrary, it was in their hearts, and not in the saying, that the harshness lay. But out of the word of God the reprobate are thus accustomed to form stones to dash themselves upon, and when, by their hardened obstinacy, they rush against Christ, they complain that his saying is harsh, which ought rather to have softened them.
Or take Barclay’s bizarre claim that this wasn’t a hard teaching to Christ’s original listeners, and that they didn’t take Him literally:
To most of us this is a very difficult passage. It speaks in language and moves in a world of ideas which are quite strange to us and which may seem even fantastic and grotesque. But to those who heard it first, it was moving among familiar ideas which went back to the very childhood of the race.
These ideas would be quite normal to anyone brought up in ancient sacrifice. The animal was very seldom burned entire. Usually only a token part was burned on the altar, although the whole animal was offered to the god. Part of the flesh was given to the priests as their perquisite; and part to the worshipper to make a feast for himself and his friends within the temple precincts. At that feast the god himself was held to be a guest. More, once the flesh had been offered to the god, it was held that he had entered into it; and therefore when the worshipper ate it he was literally eating the god. When people rose from such a feast they went out, as they believed, literally god-filled. We may think of it as idolatrous worship, we may think of it as a vast delusion; yet the fact remains these people went out quite certain that in them there was now the dynamic vitality of their god. To people used to that kind of experience a section like this presented no difficulties at all. […] They would not read phrases like eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood with crude and shocked literalism.
That interpretation is, of course, directly contradicted by the shocked reactions of Christ’s original listeners. Likewise, when the Jews objected, “How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?” (John 6:52), the Enduring Word commentary explains it away by saying:
It’s probable that the Jewish leaders willfully misunderstood Jesus at this point. He just explained that the bread was His body that would be given as a sacrifice for the life of the world (John 6:51). They willfully twisted His words to imply a bizarre cannibalism.
But in fact, this wasn’t the crowd’s initial objection. It’s only after Jesus stressed the physicality of His Eucharistic teaching that, on the third time, they finally took Him literally. It wasn’t like they rushed to the most literal interpretation: they interpreted Him metaphorically twice before finally taking Him literally. And it was only the first two interpretations that Christ corrected. The third time, after they take Him literally (John 6:52), Jesus responds with even more graphically literal language (John 6:53-58).
If the crowds were simply mistaken – if Jesus was just saying “believe in Me,” a message He’d presented countless times to His disciples – why would He take absolutely no steps to clarify their confusion, and in fact speak in such a way that seems designed to intentionally mislead them further?
The standard Protestant interpretation just doesn’t work. It doesn’t make a lot of sense of why Jesus would choose the metaphor of bread and then switch halfway through to the metaphor of meat (meataphor?), nor why Jesus seems to correct figurative interpretations of His words, nor why the crowds of His own disciples would revolt at such an innocuous teaching and abandon Him, nor why He would let them go without clarifying that He actually meant something uncontroversial.