John 6:51-58; 1 John 5:6-8
One of the most peculiar features of the Passion Narrative in the Gospel of John is the lack of any mention of the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper, the bread and cup) in the Last Supper scene (chap. 13). Many critical commentators believe that this detail has been transferred to an earlier location in the Gospel (the Bread of Life Discourse, 6:51-58), the precise reason for which remains uncertain. This interpretation is easier to maintain for critical scholars who tend to view the Discourses, etc, as primarily the product of early Christians, rather than representing the authentic words/sayings of Jesus himself. At the historical level indicated by the narrative setting of the Bread of Life discourse, for example, allusions to the Eucharist, while obvious to early Christian readers, would have been completely unintelligible for Jesus’ Galilean contemporaries (the people with whom he is said to be speaking in the Discourse). The same is true of the supposed references to (Christian) baptism in 3:5ff, and so forth.
There is certainly a similarity between 6:51ff and the words of institution in the Synoptic Lord’s Supper tradition; the saying in v. 51 forms the core statement of Jesus in the sub-discourse of vv. 51-58:
“I am the living bread, the (bread hav)ing stepped down out of heaven; if any (one) should eat out of this bread, he shall live into the Age, and the bread, indeed, which I will give is my flesh, over [u(pe/r] the life of the world.”
The reaction (misunderstanding) of the crowd follows immediately in verse 52, and the exposition by Jesus comes in vv. 53-57, along with a restatement of the initial saying in the closing v. 58, bringing it line with the context of the discourse as a whole:
“This is the bread (hav)ing stepped [i.e. come] down out of heaven, not as the fathers ate and (then) died off—the (one) munching this bread will live into the Age.”
By combining the italicized portion of v. 51 above with the basic idiom of the exposition in vv. 53ff (i.e. eating and drinking Jesus’ flesh and blood) we can approximate the Eucharistic tradition of Mark 14:22-24 par:
“And (with) their eating, (hav)ing taken bread…he gave (it) to them and said ‘Take, [eat,] this is my body’. And, (hav)ing taken the drinking-cup…he gave (it) to them and they all drank out of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood…th(at is) being poured out over [u(pe/r] many’.”
The force of the instruction in Jn 6:53-57 involves a contrast between those who eat/drink Jesus’ flesh/blood and those who do not:
“Then Yeshua said to them: ‘Amen, amen, I relate to you (that), if you should not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not hold life in yourself’.” (v. 53)
“The (one) munching [i.e. eating] my flesh and drinking my blood holds (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]…” (v. 54)
“The (one) munching [i.e. eating] my flesh and drinking my blood remains [me/nei] in me, and I in him.” (v. 56)
Clearly, “holding life” is here synonymous with “remaining” in Jesus, both idioms being essential to the Johannine theological vocabulary and found repeatedly in the Gospel (and Letters). The verb me/nw (“remain”) is of special significance in the way that it defines the identity of the believer in Christ.
Some commentators would view the Vine instruction/illustration in 15:1-8 as a similar Eucharistic reference, with the vine (i.e. wine/cup) as a complement to the bread in the chap. 6 discourse. In point of fact, however, the main parallel between 6:51-58 and 15:1-8 lies in the use of the verb me/nw, and the idea of “remaining” in Jesus. Consider the words of Jesus in 15:4:
“You must remain [mei/nate] in me, and I in you. Even as the br(anch) broken (off) is not able to bear fruit from itself, if it should not remain [me/nh|] in the vine, so also you (can)not if you should not remain [me/nhte] in me.”
The same language is repeated in vv. 5-7, and again, by way of exposition, in vv. 9-10. According to a sacramental (eucharistic) interpretation of these passages, the believer initially comes to Jesus through faith/trust in him, but remains in relationship with Jesus (his life-giving power, etc) by partaking in the ritual meal (sacrament of the bread and wine). While this would make perfect sense, I am sure, to many early Christians, there is precious little support for it in the Johannine Gospel (or Letters). The basis for “remaining” in Jesus, from the standpoint of the Johannine theology (and Christology), is two-fold:
- Trust in Jesus—that he is the Son who manifests God the Father, and
- Union with him—being united with both Son and Father—through the Spirit
This is further reflected in the two essential characteristics marking the true believer in Christ:
- Obedience to the dual-command: of trust and love
- The abiding and guiding presence of the Spirit
The former is clearly expressed in 15:9-10, where the “remaining in Jesus” of the vine-illustration, is explained precisely in terms of the ‘command’ (e)ntolh/) of trust/love (for an explicit definition of this dual-command, cf. 1 John 3:23-24). As for the presence of the Spirit, while this is central to the entire Last Discourse (chaps. 14-16), it applies more directly to the eucharistic language in 6:51-58. Indeed, in the explanation of Jesus that follows in vv. 61ff, we read:
“Does this trip you (up)? Then if you could look at the Son of Man stepping up (to) where he was (at) first, (would that help)? The Spirit is the (thing) making [i.e. bringing] life; the flesh is not useful, not (for) one (thing)—(and) the utterances that I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life. But there are some out of you that do not trust.”
Does the flesh/blood of Jesus in 6:51-58 refer primarily to the Eucharist or to trust in Jesus? The explanation in verses 61ff, within the overall setting of the Johannine theology, clearly indicates the latter. It is our trust in the revelatory message about Jesus—who he is (Son of God the Father) and what he does (his sacrificial death)—which allows us to “hold” life within ourselves and to “remain” in him. Moreover, this message is identified with the Spirit, which is the source of the life we hold, and the presence of the Spirit is what unites us with Jesus the Son (and God the Father).
However, the message of Jesus does center upon his sacrificial death, which brings us around to the Passion setting of the eucharistic language. The “bread”, further described as the “body and blood” of Jesus, which he gives, is given “over the life of the world” (6:51; Mk 14:24 par “…over many”). This alludes to the covenant context of the ritual in Exodus 24:5-8—particularly the action involving the blood in verse 8 (parallel to v. 6). Blood is thrown on (i.e. over) the people as part of the ratification of the covenant (note the declaration of faith/obedience to the covenant in v. 7). Obedience to the covenant leads to life and blessing for Israel.
This idea is taken much further in early Christian thought. As a result of Jesus’ sacrificial death (and resurrection) those who believe in him are freed from the power of sin and evil, and rescued from the coming Judgment of God on the wickedness/evil in the world. We are never told exactly how this is accomplished, though the symbolism and imagery involved offer some clues. Paul, in his letters, provides rather more theological exposition in this regard, but ultimately it remains one of the great mysteries of Christian faith. Jesus’ death brings (eternal) life to all who believe (“…the life of the world”, cp. Jn 3:16 etc).
1 John 5:6-8
Within the Johannine congregations, there was apparently some controversy over the place of Jesus’ death in the Gospel message. The author of 1 John refers to ‘false’ believers (whom he calls a)nti/xristo$, “against the Anointed”, i.e. antichrist), who, by their (erroneous) view of Jesus, effectively deny him as the Messiah and Son of God. The details of their Christology are difficult to determine (I discuss the matter at length in several recent Saturday Series studies), but it can be pieced together, to some extent, by a careful examination of the main passages (2:18-27; 4:1-6; 5:1-12; 2 Jn 7-11). I would maintain that the key is found in 5:6-8. A true/proper belief in Jesus (as the Anointed and Son of God) entails an affirmation that
“This is the (one hav)ing come through water and blood—Yeshua (the) Anointed—not through the water only, but through the water and the blood; and the Spirit is the (one) giving witness, (in) that the Spirit is the truth. (For it is) that the (one)s giving witness are three: the Spirit, and the water, and the blood—and the three are into the one.”
This is a most challenging passage, which commentators have sought to interpret in various ways. I discuss it in several earlier notes and articles (most recently in a Saturday Series study). In my view, “the water” refers primarily to Jesus’ birth and life as a human being, while “the blood” refers to his death (as a human being). The importance the author gives to affirming that Jesus came both “in the water” and “in the blood” strongly suggests that the ‘false’ believers, in some sense, denied the second portion—the reality of Jesus’ death, and/or the significance of it. Certainly, the Johannine Gospel tends to downplay the human suffering of Jesus (compare the Passion narrative and crucifixion scene with that in the Synoptics), and some in the Community may have distorted or exaggerated this aspect of the Gospel portrait of Jesus.
Be that as it may, the central theological point in 1 Jn 5:6-8 is that the Spirit conveys the meaning (and reality) of both Jesus’ human life (“water”) and death (“blood”) for believers—uniting both aspects together into a single, life-giving power. This very symbolism is expressed in the Gospel, following the death of Jesus, when “blood and water” came out of him (19:34), parallel with the earlier notice that, at the moment of his death, he “gave along the Spirit” (v. 30). This will be discussed further in the next daily note, the second for Good Friday.