“The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 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 you.” (John 6:52-53.
You don’t interpret the Bible literally, do you? That question is often asked by people who do not want to accept the Bible’s authority over their lives. They desire an independent and individual truth of their own.
As a pastor, expositor and Bible teacher, I do interpret the Bible literally. However, that does not mean I take everything that is said in the Bible, today’s text for example, as literal. To interpret the Bible literally is to interpret it, recognize it, and understand that it is literature. As such, the Bible contains many characteristics of literature including figures of speech such as similes and metaphors which are respectively direct or indirect comparisons.
Jesus invokes a metaphor in the Bread of Life Discourse by comparing Himself to bread; much as He did in John 4 with living water. Much as bread provides physical nourishment, so Jesus provides spiritual nourishment by being the bread of life.
However, much like the woman at the well in John 4 who took Jesus’ words literally and did not understand the figure of speech, so also were the Jews in their response to Jesus’ words in John 6. “The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” They literally thought Jesus was teaching cannibalism and they began to fight among themselves. The word disputed (μάχομαι; machomai) means to clash severely and to struggle and fight.
Dr. John Walvoord states, “As often happens, Jesus’ teaching was not understood (cf. 2:20; 3:4; 4:15; 6:32–34). A violent argument started in the crowd regarding what He meant. Their perception remained at a materialistic level. They wondered, ‘How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?’”
Dr. R. C. Sproul explains, “We should note that the reference to grumbling disciples was not to the small band of intimate followers who were with Christ for most of His earthly ministry. These disciples had been attracted by Jesus’ words and deeds and were following Him as part of the crowd. They were people who professed some kind of allegiance to Jesus but who did not have true saving faith. We know this to be the case because they are distinguished from the Twelve in verse 67.”
Jesus responds by saying, ““Truly, truly, I say to you.” This is the fourth time Jesus uses this particular phrase in this discourse (cf. vv. 26, 32, 47). Jesus is again invoking and referring to His own authority as God.
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Jesus was neither teaching cannibalism nor was He instituting the Lord’s Supper. What He was doing was illustrating that to come to Him in faith (John 6:35, 44) was compared to eating His flesh and drinking His blood. The reference to His flesh and blood were a respectively future reference to His crucified body and shed blood on the cross.
Dr. Walvoord continues by stating, “The Jews knew the command, “You must not eat … any blood” (Lev. 3:17; cf. Lev. 17:10–14). And yet blood was the means of atonement. It is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life (Lev. 17:11). Jesus’ hearers must have been shocked and puzzled by His enigmatic words. But the puzzle is unlocked by understanding that Jesus was speaking of His making atonement by His death and giving life to those who personally appropriate Him (cf. John 6:63). Faith in Christ’s death brings eternal life (cf. vv. 40, 47, 50–51) and (later) bodily resurrection (cf. vv. 39–40, 44).”
The Bible depicts the saving work by Jesus Christ in many illustrative and symbolic ways. However, we must not misunderstand that trust in, commitment to, dependence upon and worship of Jesus Christ is centered on His person and work in history. His virgin birth, sinless life, substitutionary death on the cross, burial and bodily resurrection must be believed for an individual to be a Christian. This is the truth which saves.
Repent of your sin and receive Jesus Christ today as Lord and Savior.
Soli deo Gloria!