Question and Answer
A Catholic friend and I were debating the proper intentions of communion or as they call it the holy Eucharist. I seemed to have an answer for most every argument he proposed except for John 6:53-55, where Christ appears to literally support the Catholics' idea of the Eucharist. What is our Protestant response to such a difficult passage? How can we argue that Christ was not speaking literally? Thank you for any help that you can offer.
Excellent question, brings back memories of the four years I lived in college with a Roman Catholic roommate.
"What is our protestant response to such a difficult passage?" Well, our "Protestant" responseà la sola Scripturamust be that the passage is true and the question is, what does the text mean? We look to the text itself and not to the "sacred tradition" of the Church for our answer. We need to look to the text in its larger context and compare it with other related Scriptures.
To whom is our Lord speaking in John 6:53-55? He is not speaking to his church gathered for worship. He is speaking to a crowd of Jews who have witnessed his miracle of feeding the 5,000 and want more such miracles. But when he tells them that that miracle, like the manna in the wilderness, was a sign pointing to himself as the living bread sent by the Father from heaven to give life to the world (v. 33), they are offended. There is no sacrament of the Lord's Supper before them (that was still future); there is Jesus, the Son of God come down from heaven.
"Bread" here is metaphorical. The Baptist said, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." Is Jesus literally a lamb? No, he is the reality fulfilling the types and shadows of Old Testament sacrifices of lambs and bulls. On the cross he will offer himself to God as the final, all-sufficient and truly atoning sacrifice for sin. In John 10 he says that he is "the door to the sheepfold," and "the good shepherd." Again, these are metaphorspictures of what he came to do. He is not literally a door. He is not walking about the pastures of this world with a crook in his hand, herding literal sheep.
How are people to receive and eat this bread that they might have life? He answers that question repeatedly in the passage. To receive eternal life, they must believe in him (v. 35), come to him (v. 37), behold him and believe in him (v. 40), come to him, drawn by the Father (v. 44), hear and learn from the Father and come to him (v. 45 ), believe (v. 46). It is Christ himself whom they must receive, and they must receive him by faith in him.
When his hearers continue to be offended, our Lord aggravates the offenseas he so often didby speaking in terms that are more starkly offensive to them. "I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is my flesh" (v. 51). They take him literally and argue, offended over what he could mean. And so he restates it even more baldly: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves.... my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink..." (vv. 53-55)
The background for this language is clearly the Old Testament language of sacrifice for sin, such as Leviticus 17:11: "For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement by reason of the life."
Our Lord is not speaking of a sacrament, but of the offering he will make of himself on the cross (and notice how Hebrews emphasizes the once-for-all character of that atoning sacrifice: 7:27, 9:12, 26, 28, 10:10). Eating and drinking means fully appropriating that sacrifice and its saving benefits (again, many of the O.T. sacrifices, after being burnt on the altar and their blood poured out, were eaten by priests and worshipers, signifying their union with the sacrificial animal and their receiving the life-giving benefit of its [ritually and symbolically] atoning death).
How may our Lord's hearers receive and benefit from his atoning sacrifice? He has already answered that question in the earlier verses: believe in him, come to him for who he is, receive him by faith.
If our Lord truly were to mean that sinners must literally eat his flesh and drink his blood, and this were truly a reference to eating bread and wine that have been supernaturally transformed into his actual body and blood in a sacrament of the (future) church, then he would be saying that only those who receive Roman Catholic communion can receive eternal life. "UNLESS you eat the flesh of the Son of Man ... you have NO life in yourselves" (v. 53).
This would be saying that partaking of the sacramental altar is necessary to salvation, but that would be adding to the work of Christ on the cross, received by faith, a further requirement for salvation. That is the Galatian heresy (adding ritual requirements to the work of Christ), of which the apostle Paul says, "If we or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!" (Gal. 1:8).
In fact, there is nothing in the passage of John 6 that refers to communion. It is all about his sacrifice of himself on the cross received by faith in him.
It is true that communion sacramentally points to the same cross. The bread and wine represent our Lord's body, broken in death, and his blood, offered in atoning sacrifice, in that same way that Old Testament sacrifices represented his future sacrifice on the cross. When our Lord first said of the bread, "This is my body," he was standing (or reclining?) with his disciples in the upper room, still in his body, whole and intact; the bread was clearly metaphoric and symbolic.
So, when faithful churches gather for communion and we hear the words, "This is my body," we understand that our Lord is present in our midst as he promised to be, by the Holy Spirit, telling us to consider his body broken on the cross and his blood poured out on the cross, and to renew our faith in his saving work.
The supper does not proclaim eternal life through bread and wine, but through the sacrifice of the Son of God once for all on the cross. When we hear the word (Scripture proclaiming Christ) and see the word (sacrament portraying Christ) and receive the word by faith, trusting in Christ and his atoning work, his salvation is sealed to us, our union with our living Savior is enlivened, our faith is strengthened, and we are sanctified by his Spirit to serve him more faithfully.
There is an interesting parallel between John 6 and John 3 in regard to the sacraments. In John 3 our Lord proclaims the necessity of new birth "by water and the Spirit." Catholics have taken this to be a reference to baptism. But the language is the language of Old Testament promise (Ezek. 36:26f., Isa. 44:1-5, etc.) in which the symbol (cleansing and life-giving water, cf. Isa. 32:13-20, 35:1-10) and the reality (the Spirit's life-giving and cleansing work) are mentioned together.
Our Lord expects Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel, to understand these things (v. 10), so the reference cannot be to Christian baptism which is years in the future, but to the fulfillment of O.T. promises with the coming, presence, and work of Christto which baptism does point with the symbol of water.
I have given you what I think is an answer to your question from the Scripture. It is also a "Protestant" answer. If you want to do further reading, I suggest the commentaries on John by William Hendriksen (Baker) and by Leon Morris (Eerdmans)both are excellent, but especially Morris (whose footnotes also suggest further reading). John Calvin refers to and discusses these verses repeatedly in his treatment of "The Sacred Supper of Christ, and What It Brings to Us" (Institutes, Book IV, Chap. 17, esp. sections 4, 6, 7, 8, 32-34). Calvin's whole treatment of the Lord's Supper is marvelous.
I hope I have given you the help you seek. Please feel free to follow up with further questions, even disagreement (!). I pray the Lord will use you to open your friend's eyes to the truth of the word and embrace the glory of salvation through Christ alone, received by faith alone.
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