Brief Commentaries on St. John Chapter Six, Part Three: A Misused Objection is Countered

Christ the Bread of Life

This third part of my commentary on St. John chapter six may seem out of sequence — I should be writing about Christ’s “Bread of Life Discourse” which begins with St. John 6:25. However, I have put things in this order to counter an objection made by evangelicals and others who employ a single verse in their attempt to negate Christ’s own teaching about the Eucharist — that his Body and Blood are real food and drink to be consumed for eternal life and union that is to exist with him and the believer. The verse which they employ is St. John 6: 63, “It is the Spirit which brings life, the flesh counts for nothing: the words which I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” This verse is used by evangelicals, and other Protestants, to state that Jesus did not mean what he said, he was just speaking symbolically, and we do not really consume his Body and Blood in the Eucharist. It is a very weak argument, but much confidence is falsely placed in its usage. Examination of the context of this verse with the whole of St. John’s gospel reveals the exact opposite: those who reject this teaching have only carnal understanding and cannot understand the ways of the spiritual life of faith in Christ.

Let’s first turn to the Prologue of this gospel which is made up of the first 18 verses of the first chapter. (The Prologue’s themes are repeated throughout the entire gospel.)

The Prologue is set up in a chiastic structure, meaning its structure resembles the letter X. At the center of the X is the key point the author is making to his readers. One reads from the top of the X to the center (let’s call it C) — the statements work from point A to point B to C (the key point). From C the reader moves to B’ then to C’. Note that B’ comments on B, and then A’ comments back on A. The Prologue of St. John’s gospel has more than three points, but at its center (its C) is St. John 1:12,

But as many as received him, he gave to them authority to become children of God, to those who believe in his name.

St. John is setting forth the importance of relationship with God as spiritual, adopted children. In the portions of the Prologue surrounding 1:12 we find St. John’s commentary which contrasts the spiritual birth of the children of God to those lacking it:
“He came to his own [the Jewish people], and his own did not receive him (1: 11).” St. John then again contrasts the spiritual origin of God’s children to those born of flesh – i.e., those born from Abraham’s seed. “Those not [begotten] from blood, nor the will of the flesh, nor from the will of a man, but who were begotten of God (1:13).”

St. John again writes chiastically on the necessity of spiritual birth and life a bit later in his gospel. This is where Jesus has a conversation with Nicodemus, a pharisee and a son of Abraham, one begotten of a man:

Jesus answered him and said to him, ‘Truly, truly I say to you, unless someone is begotten/born from above/again [anothen] he is not able to see the Kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus says to him, ‘How is a man able to be begotten/born while being old: is he able to enter into his mother’s womb a second time and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly I say to you unless someone is begotten/born from water and spirit, he is not able to enter the kingdom of God. The one begotten/born from flesh is flesh, and the one begotten/born from the Spirit is spirit (John 3: 3 – 6)

Nicodemus the Righteous

Nicodemus was not yet born from above by water (baptism) and spirit — the decent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost had not yet come. Therefore, Nicodemus can only understand Jesus’ teaching by his own human reasoning and experience. The Jewish people to whom Jesus came rejected him time and time again throughout the Gospels, and throughout the rest of the New Testament. In fact, as we read from the entirety of the Scriptures, we see the Jewish people again, and again reject God. With this stated, we can now make better sense of the sixth chapter of St. John. In that chapter we read of the Jews’ carnal understanding of Jesus’ words:

Therefore, the Jews were grumbling/muttering about him because he said, ‘I am the Bread which came down from heaven,’ and they were saying, ‘Is this not Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he say, I am the Bread which which has come down from heaven?’ (6: 41 – 42).

Those hearing Christ’s words did know his mother,” but did not know his Father. They could only comprehend Jesus by their own common, non-spiritual experiences of the natural world around them. Thus, we now can see why many followers left Jesus, and the meaning of his statement:

Therefore, many of his disciples who heard him said, ‘This is a hard teaching: who is able to hear it.’ But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this [teaching on the Eucharist], said to them, ‘This causes you to stumble? What if you observed the Son of Man ascending to where he was previously? It is the Spirit which brings life, the flesh counts for nothing: the words which I have spoken to you are spirit and are life…no one is able to come to me unless it might be given to him from the Father’ (6: 60 – 63, 65).

By both baptism and faith the Christian is begotten and born anew — begotten and born from above into the “family” of the Trinity. The Christian is a new creation with a new, spiritual perspective. The Christian has a new nature because he and she participate in the divine nature of God. As radically new and spiritual people new Food and Drink are needed to prepare them for the life of the resurrection, and to impart to them union with Christ, the Spirit, and the Father — to secure this familial relationship with God. Thus, the nourishment of Christ’s own Body and Blood are demanded by our Lord to be consumed by faith and spirit. Thus, the truth of the Eucharist is comprehended by faith and the Spirit, not by human reasoning and experience. (And, by the way my evangelical brothers and sisters, Jesus does mean what he says.)

Other commentaries in this series:  Brief Commentaries on St. John Chapter Six, Part Four: The Poetic Parallelism of St. John 6: 50 – 51Brief Commentaries on St. John Chapter Six, Part Two: Walking on WaterBrief Commentaries on St. John Chapter Six, Part One: The Feeding of the 5,000 (6: 1 – 15)

In Christ,
Fr. Irenaeus

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