In John 6, the Jews are shocked by a statement Jesus made: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (John 6:51). The Jews argued, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (6:52).
The Jews misunderstood Jesus’ teaching by taking his words to mean literal flesh and blood. But context corrects a literal understanding of Jesus’ words. Earlier, in 6:47, Jesus had said, “He who believes has everlasting life.” This is a parallel idea with 6:54: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” If you believe in Jesus, you have everlasting life; if you eat his flesh and drink his blood, you have eternal life. Eating and drinking in 6:54 is parallel (and thus equal to) believing in 6:47.
Augustine rightly said, “Believe, and you have eaten.” Jesus spoke of “eating his flesh” because, on the previous day, he had fed thousands of people with loaves and fish (John 6:1-15). The crowds ate earthly bread, and Jesus was now teaching about “eating” heavenly bread. Jesus was the heavenly bread (6:33, 35). And to believe in Jesus is to eat him.
There is much at stake in how we understand Jesus’ statement about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. For example, Roman Catholicism teaches that the elements of communion turn into the actual flesh and blood of the Lord when they are consumed. Jesus, in their view, is literally eaten and sacrificed each time Catholics take communion.
A literal interpretation of Jesus’ words is truly problematic, though. It ignores the clear parallel with 6:47 (which spoke of “believing” to get eternal life), the context of eating bread (found in John 6:1-15), and the fact that Jesus was calling people to eat him then, before the cross even happened (if one could eat Jesus’ flesh before Jesus actually died, then something other than literal eating is meant).
To take Jesus’ words literally (and thus believe that participating in communion is eating the actual flesh and blood of Jesus) is to follow the Jews’ misunderstanding in 6:52! Think of it: the Jews misunderstood Jesus by thinking he meant literal flesh and blood. So, if we build a doctrine of communion on a literal interpretation of Jesus’ words, we are building that doctrine on the Jews’ misunderstanding! Resacrificing Christ through eating the elements of communion is a horrendous thought anyway. Jesus was sacrificed once, for all, and no other sacrifice is needed (Heb 10:11-14).
In the end, the issue Jesus confronts us with is this: “Do you believe in me? Have you eaten my flesh and drank my blood? Have you partaken of the True Bread from Heaven and received eternal life?” Let’s close with Augustine’s quote: “Believe, and you have eaten.”