John 6:51; Luke 22:19f
Today, in commemoration of Corpus Christi (originally for Memorial Day), I wish to return to the declaration by Jesus in John 6:51, part of the great Bread of Life discourse (cf. the previous note and the earlier Saturday Series discussion), especially as it relates to the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist). Here is verse 51, with the main points for comparison given in italics:
“I am the Living Bread th(at) is stepping [i.e. coming] down out of heaven—if any one should eat out of this bread, he will live into the Age; and the bread which I will give is even my flesh, (given) over the life of the world.”
The form of the words of institution (in the Synoptic tradition), closest to the language here, is found in the Gospel of Luke:
“And taking bread (and) giving (thanks to God) for (his) favor, broke (it) and gave (it) to them, saying: ‘This is my body th(at is) being given over you—do this unto my remembrance’.” (Lk 22:19)
The last phrase is unique to the Lukan version, but Paul has similar wording in 1 Cor 11:23-25, except that the phrase “do this unto my remembrance” is applied to both the bread and the cup.
It is interesting to consider the differences in the object of the preposition (u(pe/r, “over”) between the Lukan and parallel Synoptic versions, as well as here in Jn 6:51:
The Lukan version is straightforward—Jesus is referring to his disciples (believers). The references in Mark/Matt and John 6:51 are more difficult. Who are the “many” in Mk 14:24 par? There is a similar expression in Mk 10:45 (par Matt 20:28), in which Jesus says:
“For the Son of Man also did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his soul [i.e. life] in exchange for (the) many [a)nti\ pollw=n], as a means of loosing (them from bondage).”
In both passages, Jesus is almost certainly alluding to Isaiah 53:11-12:
- “by his knowledge my [righteous] Servant will cause righteousness (to be established) for the many [<yB!r^l*]” (v. 11)
- “…and he carried/lifted the sin of (the) many [<yB!r^]” (v. 12b)
There is strong sacrificial language used in Isa 53:10-12, including the offering for sin/guilt (<v*a*, v. 10), which relates to the suffering and/or death of the Servant. This made the passage an obvious Scripture to apply to the sacrificial death of Jesus, an association which was recognized already by the earliest Christians (Acts 8:30-35, etc). However, there is some question whether “(the) many” should be understood in the generic sense (i.e. many people), or in a specific religious sense, as the assembly (of God’s people). While Christians typically read the passage in the former sense, an increasing number of commentators feel that it is really the latter which is in view. The same would apply to the use of <yB!r^(h*) in Daniel 11:33; 12:3.
The basis for this specific denotation of the word <yB!r^ is found in the texts associated with the Qumran Community, where the the word is used repeatedly as a title for the Community, especially in the Damascus Document (CD) 13-15 and the “Community Rule” (1QS) 6-8. The members of that Community viewed themselves as the Elect of Israel, the ones remaining faithful to the ancient covenant, who will see (and play a central role in) the coming Messianic Age. The Anointed One(s) will deliver and lead the Community. This involves a decidedly sectarian identity of the people of God—not the entire Israelite/Jewish population, but only a portion, the elect who, when assembled together in the Community, represent “the Many”. There is a clear application and development of the “remnant” image from the Prophets.
It is possible that a similar background of thought applies to the earliest Christians and Jesus’ own use of the expression “(the) many” in Mk 10:45; 14:24 par (cf. also Rom 5:15-19; Heb 9:28). In other words, he is not saying that he gives his body/life for people generally “many people”, but for “the Many” who are his followers. Certainly the fundamental idea of the covenant (diaqh/kh) God established with Israel is present in the Last Supper scene. While it is described as a new covenant (cf. Jer 31:31ff), the basic imagery is derived from the sacrificial ritual by which the covenant between God and Israel was established (Exod 24:4-8). There is thus a dual meaning to the preposition u(pe/r (“over”):
- the concrete sense of blood being poured (or sprinkled) over the altar and on the people
- the more abstract meaning “on behalf of”, “for (the sake of)”
If “the many” designates the disciples of Jesus as the new covenant Community within Israel, then it corresponds with the the plural pronoun (“you”) in the Lukan version (22:19-20):
“this is my body th(at is) being given over you“
“this cup (is) the new covenant [diaqh/kh] in my blood being poured out over you“
What of the expression in Jn 6:51, “over the life of the world”? We are accustomed to seeing this in the more general (universalist) sense—i.e., Jesus died on behalf of all people in the world. This would seem to be supported by 3:16-17 (cf. also 4:42; 12:47), in which the desire is expressed that the world (i.e. the people in it) should not be destroyed, but saved. Yet, elsewhere in the Gospel, there is a strong negative connotation (and denotation) to the word ko/smo$ (“world”), where it more literally signifies the world order—the current order and arrangement of things, dominated and governed by sin and darkness. The imagery is fundamentally dualistic—the “world” is opposed to God and his Spirit, to Jesus and his disciples (believers). The basic Johannine construct may be summarized as follows:
- The “world” has rejected God’s Word and is dominated by sin and darkness
- God sends Jesus (the Son and Living Word) into the world, to bring light, truth, etc, and salvation to it—that is, to believers—the elect who are in the world, but do not belong to it
- Jesus (the Son) returns to God the Father and will bring believers with him—he has called them out of the world
The work of Jesus in the world is centered upon his self-sacrificial act—laying down his life, giving his (human) life for the sake of the world. Yet we must be careful to preserve his distinctive wording in 6:51 (and earlier in v. 33):
- “for the Bread of Life is th(at which is) stepping [i.e. coming] down out of heaven and giving Life to the world” (v. 33)
- “and the Bread which I will give is even my flesh (given) over the life of the world” (v. 51)
There is here a parallel to Creation, as expressed in the Prologue: Jesus (the Living Word) brings light and life to the world, but those who belong to the darkness do not receive the light—only those who belong to the light are able to receive it. Thus, we should probably not read the expression “life of the world”, as ‘for the sake of the world’, but, rather, in the more precise theological sense found in the Johannine discourses, etc—of Jesus as “the Life of the world”. This would be almost exactly parallel with the expression “Light of the world” in 8:12, which I will be discussing in an upcoming note. We also find the expression “Light of Life” in that same verse. This Light (and Life) is found in Jesus’ own person (in the world), and believers come to hold this Light/Life (in the world).
I would conclude this note with the one element which is unique to the Lukan (and Pauline) version of the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper. While it is stated that Jesus gives his body and blood “over you”—that is, over believers—who are also “the many” whom God has called out of the world, an additional directive is given to us (who are believers):
“do this [i.e. this same thing] unto my remembrance [ei)$ th\n e)mh\n a)na/mnhsin]”
We are thus called to repeat Jesus’ action as a memorial, in memory of what he has done. This should be understood on two levels. First, in terms of repeating the ritual/symbolic act—i.e. the consecrated “Lord’s Supper”. This is certainly how Paul understands it in 1 Cor 11. However, second, and even more important: we are to follow Jesus’ own example of self-sacrifice, on behalf of others (and esp. our fellow believers)—not as a mere repetition of ritual, but as a way of life and thought. This comes through abundantly clear in the foot-washing scene in the Gospel of John (Jn 13:4-17), which effectively takes the place of the Lord’s Supper institution in the narrative. As expressed by the love command (13:34-35), it also becomes the central theme of the great Last Discourse (chaps. 14-16, and the prayer-discourse of chap. 17).
“The fine (shep)herd sets (down) his soul over the sheep…and I set (down) my soul over the sheep”
(Jn 10:11, 14)
(Peter): “I will set (down) my soul over you”
(Jesus): “Will you (indeed) set (down) your soul over me?”
“No one holds greater love than this—that one should set (down) his soul over his dear (friend)s”