“The Jews therefore began to argue with one another, saying, ‘How can this man give us His flesh to eat?’ Jesus therefore said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat 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. 56He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. 57As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also shall live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate, and died, he who eats this bread shall live forever.’ 59These things He said in the syna- gogue, as He taught in Capernaum.” John 6:52-59
John 6:52-59 is held to be the fundamental passage on the sacra- ment of communion. From these verses the doctrine of transub- stantiation is built. This is the teaching that the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ literally. This supposedly occurs when the priest elevates the host between earth and heaven. If the mass is in Latin, the priest says, “Hoc corpus meus est,” at which moment transubstantiation occurs. In Catholicism, this is a “must believe” doctrine.
Jesus was speaking in the synagogue at Capernaum. The crowd was made up of strong opponents and lukewarm disciples. We may always assume that Jesus teaches with a view to being understood. Since the institution of the Lord’s supper lay well into the future, references to it could do nothing but mystify those who heard.
John 6:53 says, “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.” The language is absolute with no qualification insert- ed. If Jesus is referring to the Lord’s supper, then it and it alone is required for salvation. This is a concept that cannot be harmonized with the rest of the word of God.
That eating and drinking produce the same result as believing may be discovered in the very same context and within the very same discourse. With this in mind, we may move in three possible direc- tions. First, one may say eternal life is received by believing and the Lord’s supper. This interpretation would assume that neither the “believing” nor the “eating and drinking” statements are absolute— neither is an adequate statement of truth by itself. Second, one could take the“ eating and drinking” statements as absolute, but the “believing” statements are not. Third, both the “eating and drinking” and the “believing” statements are absolute and mean the same thing: Eternal life is obtained and sustained by our rela- tionship to Christ.
One always teaches in language understood by one’s contempo- raries. The metaphor of eating and drinking was common among the Jews. It pointed to the taking in of something to one’s inner- most being. The key idea was appropriation of divine provision. It was used of blessings God’s people would receive in the promised land (Deuteronomy 8:7-10, 11:11-15, and Nehemiah 9:36). Eating and drinking was also used metaphorically for the reception of spiritual blessing as in Jeremiah 15:16, Ezekiel 2:8; 3:1, and Isaiah 55:1-3. The idea of fellowship was conveyed in passages such as Exodus 24:9-11, Deuteronomy 12:7; 15:19-20, 27:6-7, Ezra 6:21, and I Corinthians 5:8 in the New Testament.
The sacrament of communion duplicates and replicates the cross. The Lord’s supper is a remembrance, not a repetition. The death of Christ, on the other hand, is a once-for-all matter (Hebrews 10:10). The once-for-all act of eating and drinking is followed by unbroken eating and drinking. With verse 53, a new verb for eating is intro- duced; esthio, which emphasizes the act, is dropped, and the new verb trogo is introduced, emphasizing the pleasure of eating and drinking. We appropriate salvation in the person of Christ and enjoy it thereafter forever. All eating and drinking spoken of in verse 53 is in the present tense.