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Lesson 36: What Are You Eating? (John 6:48-59)

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November 24, 2013

Perhaps the Sunday before Thanksgiving is not the time to ask, “What are you eating?” The holidays are the most difficult time of the year to stick to a diet. You say, “Ask me in January!”

But that’s the question that our text implicitly wants us to consider: “What are you eating?”—not physically, but spiritually. We hear a lot these days about the importance of a healthy diet. You are what you eat and a lot of Americans eat a lot of junk food, resulting in a lot of serious, but avoidable health problems. Most of us could benefit by being careful about what we eat.

It’s the same spiritually. If you gorge yourself on the latest movies or on the fare that is offered every night on TV, and you seldom feed on the Bible, don’t be surprised if you’re not spiritually healthy. If your spiritual intake consists of a sugary devotional that you grab on the run, like a donut, and an occasional sermon when you aren’t doing something else on Sunday, don’t be surprised if you’re feeling kind of spiritually sluggish. You are what you eat.

In John 6, after He fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish, Jesus repeatedly offers Himself as the spiritual food that gives eternal life and eternal satisfaction to all who eat:

John 6:27: “Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.”

John 6:32: “Jesus then said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven.’”

John 6:33: “For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.”

John 6:35: “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.’”

John 6:48: “I am the bread of life.”

John 6:50: “This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.”

John 6:51: “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.”

In 6:52, the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” Rather than softening the analogy so as to be less offensive, Jesus goes on to make it more offensive! He changes the bread analogy to His flesh and, in a statement that would have grossed out just about every Jew, He added that not only did they need to eat His flesh, but also they needed to drink His blood!

John 6:53-57: “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. He 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. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me.’”

Then He goes back to the bread analogy (John 6:58): “This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.”

Then John mentions (6:59) that Jesus spoke these things (probably from 6:41 on) as He taught in the synagogue in Capernaum. At another time, Jesus lamented of Capernaum (Matt. 11:23-24), “And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.”

That’s an awful warning! It’s going to be worse for Capernaum on the day of judgment than for Sodom because the people of Capernaum did not eat Jesus’ flesh or drink His blood when it was offered freely to them. So we need to be clear about what Jesus means here and we need to take it to heart so that we don’t follow Capernaum into judgment. The lesson is:

Feeding on Jesus by faith is necessary for eternal life, for temporal sustenance, and for temporal and eternal satisfaction.

This is an eternal life or death matter. In 6:50, Jesus says that if you eat of Him as the bread from heaven, you will not die. He states the converse in 6:51, if you eat of this bread, you will live forever. In 6:53, Jesus warns the Jews that unless they eat His flesh and drink His blood, they have no life in themselves. In 6:54, He again states the converse of 6:53, namely that the one who eats His flesh and drinks His blood has eternal life. He reinforces it again in 6:57, “He who eats Me, he also will live because of Me.” And in 6:58 he again contrasts Himself with the manna, which the Israelites ate and died, by saying that the one who eats this bread (probably pointing to Himself) will live forever. Thus …

1. Feeding on Jesus by faith is necessary for eternal life.

Some interpret these verses to refer to partaking of communion, or the Lord’s Supper. The Roman Ca1tholic Church and the Orthodox Church also base their views of transubstantiation (the view that the communion elements actually become the body and blood of Christ) in part on John 6:53, where Jesus says that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood to have eternal life. So before we examine what Jesus means, we need to look at what He does not mean:

A. Eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking His blood do not refer to partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

A. W. Pink (Exposition of John, on monergism.com) gives four reasons that John 6 does not refer to communion. First, communion had not yet been instituted. Jesus instituted it on the night He was betrayed. Second, Jesus was speaking here to unbelievers and communion is for believers. Third, the eating here is unto salvation or eternal life, while eating the Lord’s Supper is for those already saved and points to fellowship. Fourth, the Lord’s Supper does not produce the results that are here attributed to eating and drinking Christ. If Jesus’ words here refer to communion, then you gain eternal life by partaking, which contradicts many other Scriptures that show that salvation is through faith in Christ, not through participating in a ritual. So, as J. C. Ryle puts it (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:393), “We may eat the Lord’s Supper, and yet not eat and drink Christ’s body and blood. We may eat and drink Christ’s body and blood, and yet not eat the Lord’s Supper.”

The main problem with the Catholic and Orthodox view of transubstantiation (the communion elements actually become Christ’s body and blood) is that it takes literally words that were obviously meant as symbolic. True, Jesus said (Matt. 26:26), “This is My body.” But He also said (John 10:9), “I am the door.” John 15:1, “I am the true vine.” Nobody takes those statements literally. Jesus clearly meant them symbolically.

There are other reasons for rejecting the view that the communion elements actually become the body and blood of Jesus. But it’s obvious that Jesus’ words in John 6 to these unbelieving Jews, spoken at least one year before He instituted the Lord’s Supper, have nothing to do with that ordinance. True, there are parallels that we can draw between the Lord’s Supper as later instituted and Jesus’ words here. As Colin Brown puts it (The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology [Zondervan], 2:535), “John 6 is not about the Lord’s Supper; rather, the Lord’s Supper is about what is described in John 6.” By comparing parallel verses in John 6, we can determine what Jesus meant by the metaphor of eating His flesh and drinking His blood:

B. Eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking His blood refer to believing in or appropriating personally His death on the cross as your only hope for eternal life.

Note these parallels: In John 6:40, Jesus says, “For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.” The requirement for eternal life is to behold the Son and to believe in Him. The promised results are that a believer has eternal life and Jesus will raise him up on the last day. In 6:54, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” These are exactly the same results as in 6:40, but instead of beholding the Son and believing in Him, Jesus substitutes eating His flesh and drinking His blood. Since things equal to the same thing are equal to each other, eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking His blood refer to believing personally in His death on the cross as your only hope for eternal life.

Why would Jesus use such graphic language as eating His flesh and drinking His blood to describe believing in Him? Perhaps one reason is that He was making it clear to these Jews who wanted Him to be a political Messiah that He wasn’t that kind of Messiah. He came the first time to give His life as an offering for our sins. He will come the second time as the conquering King to rule in power and judge the nations (Rev. 19:15).

But the first time, He was the Passover Lamb of God (John 1:29), offered up so that His blood would protect those who applied it to their lives. The Jews were very familiar with eating the Passover lamb. By shocking them with this graphic language and applying it to Himself, those who were true seekers for eternal life would be jarred into realizing that their main need was not for a Messiah to give them literal bread, but for one to give them the bread of eternal life. They needed Jesus as their Passover Lamb.

In 6:51, Jesus says, “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.” By giving His flesh, Jesus was referring to His upcoming death. No one took His life from Him; rather, He gave it on His own initiative (John 10:18). Also, the bread analogy pictures death. As Jesus says (John 12:24), “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” To make bread, the grain of wheat had to die. Then, the fruit of the grain had to be plucked, crushed, and made into flour before it was baked into bread. Even so, Jesus had to die in order to be the bread that gives eternal life to those who eat it in faith. Pink suggests that “eating” looks back to Adam and Eve. Their eating the forbidden fruit plunged the human race into sin and judgment. Now, eating Christ, the “tree of life,” liberates us from the curse that came on us with Adam’s fall.

Perhaps another reason that Jesus uses the graphic language, especially the part about drinking His blood, is that it puts the offense of the cross in full view. Drinking or eating blood was highly offensive to a Jew (Gen. 9:4; Lev. 7:26-27). But when they start arguing among themselves about how “this man” (probably a derogatory term) can give them His flesh to eat (John 6:52), which was offensive enough, Jesus doesn’t explain it in less offensive terms. Rather, it’s like He pokes them in the eye by adding to eating His flesh the gross picture of drinking His blood!

But the Bible is clear (Heb. 9:22), “Without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” Have you ever thought about how bloody the Jewish religion was, with the slaughter of bulls and goats and rams? We got a little glimpse of that when we visited our daughter and her family in a Muslim area of Central Asia, where they were slaughtering sheep on the sidewalk as we walked by. It isn’t pretty! But to be the complete and final sacrifice for our sin, Jesus’ blood had to be shed. If Jesus is just your moral example, but not your sacrificial Lamb, then He is not your Savior from sin.

So, to be clear: Eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking His blood refer to believing in and personally appropriating His death on the cross as your only hope for eternal life. Thus,

C. Eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking His blood are how you gain eternal life.

This is not just a matter of how to have a happier life. It’s a matter of eternal life or eternal death. In 6:49-51, Jesus contrasts the manna, which only fed the people physically for a while and then they died with Himself as the living bread that came down out of heaven to give eternal life to people through His flesh. Religious rituals cannot not bring eternal life to anyone. Apart from Jesus’ sacrificial death, He cannot be the bread that gives eternal life to us. So to gain eternal life, you must eat Jesus’ flesh and drink His blood, which primarily means, to believe in Him personally.

But let’s think about the eating and drinking analogy further so that we understand what saving faith means (Pink develops some of these points).

First, eating is a necessary response to a felt need. You eat when you feel hungry and you drink when you feel thirsty. If you go long enough without eating or drinking, you will die. But, the world feeds us with all sorts of things that mask our true hunger and thirst. It feeds us with money and possessions and sex under the illusion that these will satisfy us, but those things get left behind at death. Sometimes the world deceives us with legitimately good things, like family and friends, to make us feel full and happy. But the best family and friends will not do us any good when we stand before God at the judgment. Those are not true food. Jesus says (6:55), “For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.” The Holy Spirit has to impress on us the vanity of life apart from God and convict us of our true guilt before God so that we will hunger and thirst for the eternal life that only Jesus can give.

Second, eating and drinking only benefit you when you actually eat and drink. It doesn’t do you any good to smell a good meal or to analyze it chemically or to write flowery poems about how wonderful it is. You’ve got to eat it. Also, it must be personal. I can’t eat it for you. Your parents can’t eat it for you. You must eat your own food. In the same way, you have to appropriate Christ for yourself by faith. You must not only believe that He is the Savior. You must believe that He is your Savior. You must trust in His death on the cross as the penalty for your sins. You must receive or appropriate Him into your innermost being, just like you eat food and drink water to live. Feeding on Jesus by faith is necessary for eternal life.

2. Feeding on Jesus by faith is necessary for temporal sustenance.

In 6:56, Jesus states, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” Here Jesus mentions the intimate union that takes place between Him and the one who feeds on him by faith. (He will explain this further to the disciples in 15:1-11.) The Greek verb for “eats” is a present participle, looking at the ongoing, close relationship between Jesus and the one who feeds on Him. When you eat food, it literally becomes a part of you. When you feed on Christ by faith, you become more like Him and you enjoy a close relationship with Him.

Also, in 6:57 Jesus emphasizes the intimacy that we enjoy with Him: “As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me.” J. C. Ryle explains (ibid., 3:404),

It is as though our Lord said: “Just as the Father sent Me into the world to be born of a woman and take the manhood into God—and even though I am among you as man, I live in the closest union and communion with God—even so the man that by faith feeds his soul on my sacrifice for sin shall live in the closest union and communion with Me.” In a word, the union between Christ and the true Christian is as real and true and close and inseparable as the union between God the Father and God the Son.

The implication here is that we should eat often. Most of us eat three meals a day, sometimes with snacks in between. If you were a prisoner of war, you might survive on a cup of rice or a piece of bread and some water every day. But if you survived, you would come out of that camp emaciated, weak, and vulnerable to disease. To be healthy, you have to eat nutritious food several times a day.

Do you feed your soul on Christ every day? “Well, I try to read ‘Our Daily Bread’ once in a while.” Okay, but you need more than that. You need a consistent diet of reading and meditating on God’s Word, praying as you read, “Lord, reveal Yourself to my soul.” Or, as Moses dared to pray, even after all of the amazing miracles that he had seen (Exod. 33:18), “I pray You, show me Your glory!” Feed on Christ often in His Word. Don’t be satisfied with the fact that you ate last week or yesterday. You need manna for your soul today.

Also, it is helpful to eat at regular times. Don’t wait until you’re starving to eat, but eat at set times. Dietary experts say that breakfast is the most important meal not to skip. Likewise, it’s spiritually healthy to spend at least a short time each morning feeding your soul on Christ. I’m not a morning person, so it’s hard for me. But I set my alarm a half hour earlier than I need to and spend that time reading God’s Word and often praying it back to Him.

One final thought: You can’t overeat when it comes to feeding on Jesus! When we sit down to a holiday feast, it all tastes so good that it’s easy to eat more than you should. But with Jesus, you can eat and eat and eat, and it won’t adversely affect your health. In fact, the more of Jesus that you feed on, the healthier you will be!

Thus, feeding on Jesus by faith is necessary for eternal life and for temporal sustenance.

3. Feeding on Jesus by faith is necessary for temporal and eternal satisfaction.

In Matthew’s account (14:20) of the feeding of the 5,000, he says, “And they all ate and were satisfied.” There is a satisfaction factor about eating, isn’t there? That’s why we overeat—because it tastes so good and it’s pleasurable. Good bread nourishes and sustains life, but also it’s enjoyable. To smell bread baking in the oven and then to butter and eat a warm slice—ah! Even so, feeding on Jesus by faith is enjoyable in this life and it will continue in His eternal presence, where, as David exults (Ps. 16:11), “In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.”

Conclusion

Yet, as John Calvin laments (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 261), “How few are there who are satisfied with Christ alone!” How about you? Are you satisfied with Christ alone? Do you feed on His death for you as your only hope of eternal life? Do you feed on Him daily in His Word as nourishment for your soul? Do you enjoy all that He is for you, both now and for eternity? If not, the answer is fairly simple: Change your diet!

Application Questions

  1. Biblically, what is the true meaning of the Lord’s Supper? How can we keep it fresh when we repeat it so often?
  2. A Christian tells you, “I try to read the Bible every day, but it often seems so dry and boring.” How could you help him?
  3. I mentioned two reasons why Jesus may have used such graphic language that He knew would shock His hearers. Can you think of any other reasons?
  4. Discuss: Should you read the Bible and pray as a regular discipline even when you may not feel the delight? How can you keep the “delight” factor burning strong?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Faith, Soteriology (Salvation), Spiritual Life