How do protestants understand Jesus' statement that unless we eat the flesh of the Son of Man we will have no life?
John 6:51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any
man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I
will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.
John 6:67-68 Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?
Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast
the words of eternal life.
It seems that Peter also had trouble with this concept.
In John chapter six (the bread chapter) we get a better picture of how bread is used illustratively.
First Jesus criticizes people for only being interested in getting real bread after his feeding of the multitude.
John 6:26 Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto
you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did
eat of the loaves, and were filled.
In their desire to get free bread, the people used Moses as an example. Jesus switches the topic back to the more valuable "bread".
John 6:31-33 Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is
written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat. Then Jesus said unto
them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread
from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven.
For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth
life unto the world.
The people were not happy with the reference to heaven as the origin of Jesus.
John 6:41 The Jews then murmured at him, because he said, I am the
bread which came down from heaven.
Jesus then tells them that it should not be surprising that they do not understand as only those the Father draws can come to him.
John 6:44 No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me
draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.
Jesus clearly distinguishes himself from physical bread.
John 6:47-50 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me
hath everlasting life. I am that bread of life. Your fathers did
eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which
cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die.
Jesus also identifies himself as the means of sustaining eternal life.
We see the listeners almost acting like Nicodemus because the strain at the literal words instead of understanding the metaphor.
John 6:52-54 The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How
can this man give us his flesh to eat? Then Jesus said unto them,
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of
man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my
flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him
up at the last day.
Some of the listeners may have completely rejected Jesus when he added the subject of his "blood" to the illustration. If they couldn't understand Jesus as the bread of life, they would surely not understand that his blood was to cover our sins.
At the last supper when Jesus revealed that the new covenant was being offered to Israel, he used the illustration of bread and blood again. It is at the heart of Christianity that our new life is in Jesus.
Luke 22:19-20 And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and
gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this
do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying,
This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.
The early church observed a practice of having a meal where the death of Jesus is remembered. This has come down to us a various rituals of having wine or grape juice and a wafer or cracker.
Protestants generally see the "bread" in the way Jesus describes it in John chapter six, as symbolic of himself who is the true bread and the life sustaining power of the new life we have in him.