John 6:60-63, 66 (MSGV)

John 6:60-63 Therefore, many of His disciples, when they heard this, said “This is a hard saying; who can uncerstand it? When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, “Does this offend you?” What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? Anyway, I was just jerkin’ around with you with that “eat my body, drink my blood” stuff. It’s all figurative. Y’all know, don’t ya, that Christianity will be all about angels’n’feelin’ good about yourself? … From that time, many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. (More Spiritual than God Version)

I’m just a layman, who knows little Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic. But I have a recessive gene for contentiousness, and I’m ready for a little dustup this snowy afternoon about one of the prolonged passages of scripture that no Evangelical seems ever to have underlined.

Let me say in advance that I probably engaged in the dodge I’m attacking in this post. I don’t distinctly remember doing so, but I’m pretty sure I occasionally used “when Christ says He’s ‘the door,’ does He mean He’s a 78 x 32 x 1.5 piece of wood?! [Imagine the sound of Beavis and Butthead braying here.]”

I hope I was using that door thingy to criticize selective “literalism” about the Bible (I early on discerned that the “conservative” hermeneutical maxim, “when possible, literal,” was unsound), but I wouldn’t bet on that, because I absolutely know that I did not take John 6:43-60 seriously enough. And I’ve heard the door thingy repeatedly used to insist, in essence, that “Jesus was just joshin’ about ‘body and blood.'”

I don’t remember anyone in the first 48 years of my life challenging me on what I made of this passage. I wish they had. Once my heart was open to the possibility that the historic Church was right and I had been wrong, it was pretty obvious that on the eucharist (communion), that was exactly the case. My intention in throwing down this gauntlet is to do for any Zwinglian readers (there are few eucharistic Calvinists left in America) what nobody did for me for so very, very long.

Now, let’s step back and take a look at the context and the arc of the passage from John 6:43 through 6:66.

Immediately before, in verse 42, the Jews questioned His saying that He was “the bread which came down from heaven,” inasumuch as they knew His parents. Jesus responded, noting their murmuring and responding, saying that “the Father” had sent Him, and that if they were taught by God, and drawn by God, they would come to Him. He then said that to believe in Him is to have everlasting life, and reinforced: “I am the bread of life … that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever, and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”

That wasn’t exactly what they wanted to hear, and it certainly was not a retreat from what He had earlier said. Indeed, it was an intensification, and now His hearers quarreled about how He could give His flesh to eat.

Jesus again declined to retreat: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you … For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed ….” Then even His disciples complained at the hardness of the saying, and the difficulty of understanding it.

<sarcasm>Then, relief, ah!, blessed relief! An enigmatic statement from the Lord that “It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh profiteth nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.” Woohoo! Or as the MSGV has it, “I was just jerkin’ around with you with that ‘eat my body, drink my blood’ stuff. It’s all figurative. Y’all know, don’t ya, that Christianity will be all about angels’n’feelin’ good about yourself?”</sarcasm>

Now, what’s really going on here?

  • Did Jesus really ratchet things up rhetorically just to drive some weaklings away, when all along he really knew, and would eventually divulge, that it’s only His words that matter?
  • If so, why did some cease walking with Him (verse 66) after he backed off and supposedly spiritualized all that He had just said (verse 63)?
  • Why would some get sick and even die for communing unworthily (I Cor. 11:28-30)?
  • Why were the early Christians accused of being cannibals?
  • Why did the 4th Century John “Golden Mouth” Chrysostom, perhaps the greatest preacher who ever lived, sermonize on this passage thus: “Worthy of awe is that which is said to-day. How it is so, hear. “Verily I say unto you, Except a man eat My flesh, and drink My blood, he hath not eternal life in him.” Since the Jews had before asserted that this was impossible, He showeth not only that it is not impossible, but that it is absolutely  necessary. Wherefore He addeth, “He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood, hath eternal life.”
  • Why did every Christian until the Reformation believe that He meant what He said about eating His body and drinking his blood?
  • Why did Zwingli accuse even Martin Luther of putting “the chief point of salvation in the bodily eating of the body of Christ”?
  • Why is it said that “The high esteem of Holy Communion on the tradition of John Calvin and John Knox and the Reformed church of that day in France and Scotland was much more ‘high church'”?
  • Why did it take a Dutch humanist, Cornelius Henrici Hoen, to plant the idea in Ulrich Zwingli’s mind that communion was merely symbolic?
  • Why are most of today’s “Calvinists” really “Zwinglians” on the eucharist?

I suppose it’s a fair question back at me, and one that I would expect if anybody responds critically at all, just what verse 63 does mean if Christ isn’t finally retreating and “spiritualizing away” his former words.

Like I say, I’m just a layman. So I’m going to resort to John Chrysostom again. (Remember: this is 4th Century):

“It is the Spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing.”
His meaning is, “Ye must hear spiritually what relateth to Me, for he who heareth carnally is not profiled, nor gathereth any advantage.” It was carnal to question how He came down from heaven, to deem that He was the son of Joseph, to ask, “How can he give us His flesh to eat?” All this was carnal, when they ought to have understood the matter in a mystical and spiritual sense. “But,” saith some one, “how could they understand what the ‘eating flesh might mean?” Then it was their duty to wait for the proper time and inquire, and not to abandon Him.
“The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life.”
That is, they are divine and spiritual, have nothing carnal about them, are not subject to the laws of physical consequence, but are free from any such necessity, are even set above the laws appointed for this world, and have also another and a different meaning. Now as it, this passage He said “spirit,” instead of” spiritual,” so when He speaketh of “flesh,” He meant not “carnal things,” but “carnally hearing,” and alluding at the same time to them, because they ever desired carnal things when they ought to have desired spiritual. For if a man receives them carnally, he profits nothing. “What then, is not His flesh, flesh?” Most certainly. “How then saith He, that the flesh profiteth nothing?” He speaketh not of His own flesh, (God forbid!) but of those who received His words in a carnal manner. But what is “understanding carnally”? It is looking merely to what is before our eyes, without imagining anything beyond. This is understanding carnally. But we must not judge thus by sight, but must look into all mysteries with the eyes within. This is seeing spiritually. He that eateth not His flesh, and drinketh not His blood, hath no life in him. How then doth “the flesh profit nothing,” if without it we cannot live? Seest thou that the words,“the flesh profiteth nothing,” are spoken not of His own flesh, but of carnal hearing?

Anyone want to defend the Zwinglian view of the Eucharist? Anyone ashamed that they’ve been entirely too rationalist, joining those who “walked with Him no more” because of the scandal of God being so “unspiritual”?