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In John 6, Jesus states that unless we eat His flesh and drink His blood, we have no life in us:

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever. (John 6:53-58 NIV)

Could this have been a reference to the Passover Lamb of which the Israelites were supposed to eat all of it? What is the common Protestant understanding of this? Do some traditions associate this with Communion?

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Here's the question at BH.SE. The folks on that site give fantastically thorough answers! –  Ray Oct 20 '11 at 23:36
    
Could I suggest removing the "what possible interpretations" bit since that is more throughly addressable on Biblical Hermeneutics and focusing on what various Christian traditions have taught? –  Caleb Apr 12 '12 at 21:04
    
I changed it a bit. Feel free to do more. –  Narnian Apr 12 '12 at 21:06
    
This may be of interest: Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist –  FMS Aug 24 at 5:45
    
Since I have noticed that you have not selected any answer, I will add mine in hopes that it will help to clear up Jesus meaning. –  Bye Sep 3 at 13:25

6 Answers 6

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We often let ourselves get trapped by not searching for other Scriptures which may help to explain what we do not fully understand.

This particular scripture is complicated by the part following which denotes his following lessening, because they did not understand that Jesus was not speaking of literally eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Today after knowing all about his death and resurrection understand that.

Jesus being an eternal being would have seen all of his teachings as if they were one continuous diatribe. Therefore we must consider all of his teaching at once. the following are some of his sayings which give meaning to this particular Scripture.

All Scripture is quoted from the King James translation, unless otherwise noted.

John 6:35 And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.

This Scripture gives meaning to eating his body and drinking his blood, and we need to also remember the reason we eat and drink in the first place. Our reason for eating and drinking is to sustain life. The same is true of our spirit and our eternal life. If we are to remain in consonance with Jesus teachings we need to continue to feed that spirit in order to keep it alive and well.

John 6:32 and 33 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. 33 For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.

It is quite obvious that Jesus is not talking about Worldly bread, as the Manna and quail which Moses asked of God; but is referring to Spiritual bread. All of these saying were in direct response to his disciples.

John 6:28 through 31 Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? 29 Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent. 30 They said therefore unto him, What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work? 31 Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.

It probably frustrated Jesus that they could not put together his teachings to understand, and it must still frustrate him, that we cannot understand; even today with all of his word condensed into the Gospels. Which is probably why he said:

John 14:26 But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.

For them they had been with him during his teaching, however we did not have that privilege, and must study the Scriptures in order to connect all of his teaching.

It would have been necessary that they completely remember and understand his teachings since they would be tasked with passing them on to posterity, in written form.

Hope this helps

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In Eastern Orthodoxy these verses are often read (if other hymns do not supplant or if the verses are not readily available) during the time communicants are coming up and receiving communion. It is also a part of many communion prayers verbatim. We are meant to understand they refer to the Eucharist itself.

Protestants usually say these are not literal but refer to the bread and wine he offers them before his betrayal only, and not to his actual flesh and blood.

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Jesus was speaking about the spiritual world, not about the physical.

When He spoke of Himself as the Bread of Life, He was not speaking of bread that we eat with our mouths, but rather spiritual food which sustains our souls.

So when Jesus says "you must eat my flesh", He means that our souls need Him if we are to continue living after our physical bodies no longer function.

Jesus is the food and drink of our Spirit, He is our only true sustenance. The flesh counts for nothing, for we are spirit, not flesh.

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We are not flesh?? –  Steve Jul 8 at 13:36
    
so Jesus's incarnation doesn't mean anything? –  Grasper Sep 3 at 14:46

What did Jesus mean when He said that we must eat His Flesh and drink His Blood? Jesus meant that we must eat His Flesh and drink His Blood. Jesus' followers said "This is a hard saying." Many of them left because they could not believe it was possible and Jesus did not call them back to say He did not mean that they were to eat His Flesh and drink His Blood. He asked His disciples if they were going to leave too because they did not believe Him. However, Peter answered, "Where else can we go? You have the Words of Eternal Life." Thereby signifying that they believed exactly what Jesus said. They came to experience eating Jesus Flesh and drinking His Blood when Jesus served them Communion at "His Passover" (not The Passover of the Jews). Jesus Blessed the bread and broke it and told them, "Take and eat This is My Body..." and blessed the wine saying, "Take and drink, This is My Blood..." As His Disciples ate of the bread, believing it was Christ's Body and drank of the wine, believing it was Christ's Blood, then instead of just digesting bread and wine which would become a part of their body; Christ's Body and Blood assimilated them and they became a part of Christ's Body. They became Flesh of His Flesh and Bone of His Bone. They were then, by God's Grace and the Power of The Holy Spirit, able to fulfill their part of the continuing Ministry of Jesus Christ in this world. If any follower of Christ goes to the Lords Table believing that the bread which they eat is Christ's Body and the wine that they drink is Christ's Blood, then Jesus' Body and Blood will make them a Member of Christ's Body, His Church. Then Jesus will always be with them to help them, heal them, provide for their needs, Love them, and give them the Peace of God which passes all understanding.

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Jesus' followers said "This is a hard saying." It was a hard saying, to those who understood it literally as though applicable to physical matters. Nikodemos was also puzzled when Jesus said he must be born again. Rather than understanding it in its spiritual sense, Nikodemos thought Jesus meant that he, an old man, had to literally re-enter his mother's womb a second time and then be born again. Ah, yes...a hard saying indeed for those who understand things carnally...but, rest assured, Jesus did not intend for it to be understood so...not in John 6, and not when he spoke to Nikodemos. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 May 1 at 0:31
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To @H3br3wHamm3r81 : When Nicodemus understood literally and expressed his concern, Jesus corrected him. Why didn't he do the same here with his disciples too? Rather than explaining that it is not literal, Jesus asks them, “Does this offend you?" and goes on to reaffirm it by saying they ll see greater things than this (John 6:61-62). isn't that strange? Why did he do that if it is not literal? Why didn't he care enough to correct them? (Also I hope you received my email reply to your message thru my website) –  Jayarathina Madharasan May 1 at 13:30

No, Hammer, man is BOTH spirit and flesh. It is a rank falsity to say "we are spirit, not flesh". If that were so, Jesus would have had no need to be incarnated, nor would the Word have been made FLESH to dwell among us.

And, because we are spirit and flesh - with the latter in its fallen state subject to death and corruption - God feeds us with His own (living and incorruptible) Flesh and Blood, so that we might have Life (Who is Jesus Himself), and have it TO THE FULL. What Jesus meant when He said, "you must eat my flesh" is exactly what those words mean: "you must eat my flesh" if you are to have life within you. Yes, He was INDEED speaking of the Living Bread "that we eat with our mouths".

It is IMPOSSIBLE that Jesus was speaking metaphorically when He said, “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you shall not have LIFE in you…” (John 6:54).

It CANNOT be the case, because the expressions to “eat flesh” and to “drink blood” already had a long and well established metaphorical meaning for Jews - and, given what they meant (metaphorically), just about every person listening to Jesus in John 6 would’ve known that He couldn’t POSSIBLY be speaking METAPHORICALLY about their need to eat His body and drink His blood!

You see, the metaphorical meaning of those expressions (“eat flesh” and “drink blood”), for Jews (and for Arabs - even to this day), is to wage war against a person (“eat his flesh”) and do harm to that person (“drink his blood”).

So if Jesus was speaking METAPHORICALLY, He would’ve been talking absolute NONSENSE! He would’ve been saying, “Unless you wage war against me and do harm to me, you will suffer eternal death!” That’s how ABSURD His words would’ve been!

Indeed, there are numerous verses in Scripture itself – containing words spoken by GOD HIMSELF - which amply demonstrate the METAPHORICAL meaning of “eating flesh” and “drinking blood”. Below are a few.


Isaiah 9 (Judgments upon Israel for their sins.) 9:19. By the wrath of the Lord of hosts the land is troubled, and the people shall be as fuel for the fire: no man shall spare his brother. 9:20. And he shall turn to the right hand, and shall be hungry: and shall eat on the left hand, and shall not be filled: every one shall eat the flesh of his own arm: Manasses Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasses, and they together shall be against Juda. (Meaning: they’ll fight against each other, but also fight simultaneously against Juda).


Isaiah 49 49:26. And I will feed thy enemies with their own flesh: and they shall be made drunk with their own blood, as with new wine: (Meaning: they’ll fight and harm/kill each other) and all flesh shall know, that I am the Lord that save thee, and thy Redeemer the Mighty One of Jacob.


Jeremiah 19 (Prophecy of desolation for the Jews) 19:9. And I will feed them with the flesh of their sons, and with the flesh of their daughters: and they shall eat every one the flesh of his friend (Meaning: they’ll turn on each other) in the siege, and in the distress wherewith their enemies, and they that seek their lives, shall straiten them.


Baruch 2 2:2. That the Lord would bring upon us great evils, such as never happened under heaven, as they have come to pass in Jerusalem, according to the things that are written in the law of Moses: 2:3. That a man should eat the flesh of his own son, and the flesh of his own daughter. (Just like Jesus has prophesied for our own times, that over matters of the faith a man will turn against his father, and daughter against her mother, etc… Matt 10:35).


Ezekiel 39 39:17. And thou, O son of man, saith the Lord God, say to every fowl, and to all the birds, and to all the beasts of the field: Assemble yourselves, make haste, come together from every side to my victim, which I slay for you, a great victim upon the mountains of Israel: to eat flesh, and drink blood. 39:18. You shall eat the flesh of the mighty, and you shall drink the blood of the princes of the earth, of rams, and of lambs, and of he goats, and bullocks, and of all that are well fed and fat.


Daniel Chapter 7 (Daniel's vision of the four beasts, signifying four kingdoms: of God sitting on his throne: and of the opposite kingdoms of Christ and Antichrist.) 7:1. In the first year of Baltasar, king of Babylon, Daniel saw a dream: and the vision of his head was upon his bed: and writing the dream, he comprehended it in a few words: and relating the sum of it in short, he said: 7:2. I saw in my vision by night, and behold the four winds of the heavens strove upon the great sea. 7:3. And four great beasts, different one from another, came up out of the sea. (Four great beasts. . .Viz., the Chaldean, Persian, Grecian, and Roman empires.) 7:4. The first was like a lioness, and had the wings of an eagle: I beheld till her wings were plucked off, and she was lifted up from the earth, and stood upon her feet as a man, and the heart of a man was given to her. 7:5. And behold another beast, like a bear, stood up on one side: and there were three rows in the mouth thereof, and in the teeth thereof, and thus they said to it: Arise, devour much flesh (Meaning: wage war on these four godless empires).


Micah 3 (For the sins of the rich oppressing the poor, of false prophets flattering for lucre, and of judges perverting justice, Jerusalem and the temple shall be destroyed.) 3:1. And I said: Hear, O ye princes of Jacob, and ye chiefs of the house of Israel: Is it not your part to know judgment, 3:2. You that hate good, and love evil: that violently pluck off their skins from them and their flesh from their bones? 3:3. Who have eaten the flesh of my people (Meaning: persecuted them), and have flayed their skin off them: and have broken, and chopped their bones as for the kettle, and as flesh in the midst of the pot.


Zechariah 11 11:9. And I said: I will not feed you: that which dieth, let it die: and that which is cut off, let it be cut off: and let the rest devour every one the flesh of his neighbour. 11:16. For behold I will raise up a shepherd in the land, who shall not visit what is forsaken, nor seek what is scattered, nor heal what is broken, nor nourish that which standeth, and he shall eat the flesh of the fat ones, and break their hoofs.


Romans 14 14:21. It is good not to eat flesh and not to drink wine (Meaning: have dissensions among yourselves, slander, attack or do harm to each other): nor any thing whereby thy brother is offended or scandalized or made weak.


James 5 (A woe to the rich that oppress the poor. Exhortations to patience and to avoid swearing. Of the anointing the sick, confession of sins and fervour in prayer.) 5:1. Go to now, ye rich men: weep and howl in your miseries, which shall come upon you. 5:2. Your riches are corrupted: and your garments are motheaten. 5:3. Your gold and silver is cankered: and the rust of them shall be for a testimony against you and shall eat your flesh like fire (Meaning: harm you). You have stored up to yourselves wrath against the last days.


Revelations 19 19:16. And he hath on his garment and on his thigh written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. 19:17. And I saw an angel standing in the sun: and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all the birds that did fly through the midst of heaven: Come, gather yourselves together to the great supper of God: 19:18. That you may eat the flesh of kings and the flesh of tribunes and the flesh of mighty men and the flesh of horses and of them that sit on them: and the flesh of all freemen and bondmen and of little and of great. 19:19. And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies, gathered together to make war with him that sat upon the horse and with his army. 19:20. And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet who wrought signs before him, wherewith he seduced them who received the character of the beast and who adored his image. These two were cast alive into the pool of fire burning with brimstone. 19:21. And the rest were slain by the sword of him that sitteth upon the horse, which proceedeth out of his mouth: and all the birds were filled with their flesh.  

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You present some good arguments about what the metaphorical interpretation of “eat flesh” and “drink blood” would have meant, but it would better if you didn't say that it is IMPOSSIBLE that Jesus was speaking metaphorically, because many interpreters disagree! Additionally, can you show any other interpreters who take your position? –  curiousdannii Jul 7 at 4:47

Catholic understanding

Food noun

  1. any nourishing substance that is eaten, drunk, or otherwise taken into the bbody to sustain life,provide energy, promote growth, etc.
  2. more or less solid nourishment, as distinguished from liquids.
  3. a particular kind of solid nourishment: a breakfast food; dog food.
  4. whatever supplies nourishment to organisms: plant food.
  5. anything serving for consumption or use: food for thought.

So when Jesus says For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed [cf. Jn 6:55], he really means that his flesh is food [for us] as we understand it. So there is living body and food that nourishes that body except in Holy Communion, there is a paradox, for while we are nourished,

"Ordinary food is consumed and becomes that which consumes it. In the Eucharist, we consume God and become that which we consume." cf. The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist: The Eucharist and Its Effects (2000-2012), James H. Dobbins, citing the work This Tremendous Lover (1989), by Dom Eugene Boylan.

The Body we are turned into is none other than to be in an ever increasing communion with the Church, which is the [Mystical] Body of Christ, His Bride:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation [communion] in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? [1 Cor 10: 16-17]

This brings us to 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 you [cf. Jn 6:53]. That life in us is Christ’s own:

it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me [cf. Gal 2:20]

Returning to the Church, the Body of Christ, being the Bride of Christ. Groom and Bride become one body [flesh] when they marry(cf. Gn 2:24 and Mt 19: 5-6).

Could this have been a reference to the Passover Lamb of which the Israelites were supposed to eat all of it? What is the common Protestant understanding of this? Do some traditions associate this with Communion?:

A. The symbolism is not opposed to the Catholic position but it is not its explanation.

Explanation from THE SACRED PASCHAL TRIDUUM (cf. Daily Roman Missal According to the Roman Missal, Third Edition)

THE MASS OF THE LORD'S SUPPER (HOLY THURSDAY)

At this supper on the night he was betrayed, the LORD Jesus, loving those who were his own in the world even to the end, offered his body and blood to the Father under the appearances of bread and wine, gave them to the apostles to eat and drink, then enjoined the apostles and their successors in the priesthood to offer them in return.

This Mass is, first of all, the memorial of the institution of the Eucharist, that is of the LORD's Passover, by which under sacramental signs he perpetuated among us the sacrifice of the New Law

CELEBRATION OF THE LORD'S PASSION (GOOD FRIDAY)

On this day when "Christ our Paschal Lamb was sacrificed" (1 Cor 5:7), what had long been promised in signs and figures was at last revealed and brought to fulfillment. The true lamb replaced the symbolic lamb, and many offerings of the past gave way to the single sacrifice of Christ.

Summary of the Catholic position: while the LORD is the true Paschal Lamb [of God] replacing the symbolic lamb of the LORD's Passover, his body (flesh) and blood that we eat and drink is not flesh and blood because of the symbolism with the Passover of the LORD's lamb, but actually his body and blood under the [appearances/] sacramental signs of [the consecrated] bread and wine.

Concluding, just as flesh the lamb of the LORD's Passover was eaten, the body of the true Paschal Lamb is to be eaten.The symbolism is not opposed to the Catholic position but it is not its explanation.

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