“The Spirit is the (thing) making (a)live, the flesh does not benefit anything! (and) the utterances which I have spoken to you are Spirit and are Life.”
In some ways, this provocative statement by Jesus captures the essence of Johannine spiritualism better than any other passage in the Gospel. Yet it is arguably the most difficult of the Spirit-passages to interpret. Much of the reason for this is the position of the saying in relation to the “Bread of Life” Discourse in chapter 6, and, in particular, the apparent eucharistic references in vv. 51-58.
Chapter 6 represents a more complex literary structure than the Discourses in chaps. 3-5. Like the discourse in chap. 5, the “Bread of Life” discourse in chap. 6 is related to an established Gospel tradition—a miracle-episode, in this case, the Miraculous Feeding episode (vv. 1-15), an historical tradition also found in the Synoptics (Mark 6:32-44 par); I discuss this episode in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”.
The Discourse proper begins at verse 22, with vv. 22-24 serving as the narrative introduction. There are three sections to the Discourse, each of which follows the Johannine discourse-pattern:
- Principal saying by Jesus
- Reaction/question by the audience
- Exposition/explanation by Jesus
Here is my outline of the Discourse:
Section 1 (vv. 25-34)
- Principal saying by Jesus—verse 27: “Do not work (for) the food th(at is) perishing, but (for) the food remaining into (the) life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life]…”
- [Explanation by Jesus]—v. 29
- Reaction/question by the people—vv. 28-31
- Explanation by Jesus—vv. 32-33
- Theme: transition from the Feeding Miracle (v. 26) to the Passover motif (i.e. the manna, “bread from heaven”, vv. 31-33)
Section 2 (vv. 35-50)
- Saying by Jesus—verse 35: “I am [e)gw/ ei)mi] the Bread of Life—the one coming toward me (no) he will not (ever) hunger, and the one trusting into me (no) he will not ever thirst. …”
- [Explanation by Jesus]—vv. 36-40
- Reaction/question by the people—vv. 41-42
- Explanation by Jesus—vv. 44-50
- Theme: Eating Bread—Jesus as the “Bread of Life”, the Bread come down from Heaven
Section 3 (vv. 51-58)
- Saying by Jesus—verse 51a (parallel to v. 35): “I am [e)gw/ ei)mi] the Living Bread stepping down [i.e. coming down] out of Heaven—if any one should eat out of this bread he will live into the Age (to Come)…”
- [Explanation by Jesus]—v. 51b
- Reaction/question by the people—v. 52
- Explanation by Jesus—vv. 53-58
- Theme: transition from Bread (of Life) to the Eucharist motifs (vv. 53-56ff)
Thematically, the “Bread of Life” discourse follows the Samaritan Woman discourse in chap. 4 (discussed in the previous article), with the expression “the bread of life” (o( a&rto$ th=$ zwh=$) parallel to “living water” (u%dwr zw=n). The expression in v. 51, “living bread” (o( a&rto$ o( zw=n), makes for an even more precise parallel. In chapter 4, Jesus gives (i.e. is the source of) the “living water”, while here in chap. 6, he himself is the “living bread”.
Working from the Miraculous Feeding, and the Passover setting of the miracle (v. 4), Jesus utilizes the motif of bread, drawing upon the Moses/Exodus tradition of the manna—the “bread from heaven”. In good homiletic style, Jesus works from a Scripture reference (v. 31; Exod 16:4, 15, cf. also Psalm 78:24), giving to it a unique theological (and Christological) interpretation. At the historical level, it is possible that the Exodus reference may be following the Synagogue (v. 59) Scripture readings (sedarim) for the Passover season (cf. Brown, pp. 277-80).
The bread motif runs through all three sections of the Discourse; and we can see the expository development at work, moving from the Scriptural motif (“bread out of heaven”) to the Johannine theological expression (“living bread”):
- “bread out of heaven” (vv. 31-34)—Jesus identifies himself with this bread, since he is the one who came from heaven (v. 38; 3:13, 31ff), that is, from God—hence the parallel expression “bread of God” (v. 33)
- “bread of life” (vv. 35, 48)—as the “bread from heaven” (v. 41), sent by God to give life to the world (vv. 32-33, 40; cf. 3:15-16, etc), he is rightly identified further as the bread of life (zwh/, i.e. eternal life)
- “living bread” (vv. 51, 58)—as the “bread of life,” one can also speak of Jesus according to the Johannine theological idiom as “living” (zw=n) bread, parallel to the expression “living water” (4:10-11; 7:38), as noted above.
It is possible to trace this expository development in theological/Christological terms:
- “bread out of heaven” —Jesus is the Son sent from heaven by God the Father
- “bread of life” —he is the source of the Divine/eternal life, which he received from the Father, and gives (in turn) to believers
- “living bread” —referring more properly to the eternal life which he possesses (as the Son), sharing it with the Father (v. 57); as such, this expression alludes more definitely to the presence of the Spirit.
One is to receive the living bread by “eating” it, just as one “drinks” the living water that Jesus gives. Interestingly, in the third section, the idiom of eating is expanded to eating and drinking, even though the idea of drinking does not fit the bread motif. It is just here that the ‘eucharistic’ aspect of the imagery comes into view, as is clear from the initial wording in verse 51:
“I am the living bread, (hav)ing stepped [i.e. come] down out of heaven; if any(one) should eat this bread, he shall live into the Age—and, indeed, the bread which I shall give is my flesh, (given) over the life of the world.”
Jesus expounds this statement in vv. 53-56, following the reaction by the people in v. 52; in particular the central declaration of v. 51 is expounded—first negatively, then positively:
- “if any(one) should eat this bread, he shall live into the Age”
- “if you should not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not hold life in yourselves” (v. 53)
- “the (one) eating my flesh and drinking my blood holds (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]” (v. 54)
Clearly, “bread” is explained as Jesus’ “flesh” and “blood”, which one must eat and drink (v. 55). The apparent eucharistic language in vv. 53-54 (Mk 14:22-24 par) is further expounded in the Johannine theological idiom, in verse 56:
“the (one) eating my flesh and drinking my blood remains [me/nei] in me, and I in him”
The statement that follows in verse 57, often neglected in discussions on this passage, is vital for a proper understanding of vv. 51-58 in context; again the wording follows the Johannine mode of theological expression:
“Just as the living [zw=n] Father sent me forth, and I live [zw=] through the Father, (so) also the (one) eating me, that (one) also shall live [zh/sei] through me.”
The verb za/w (“[to] live”) is used three times, and the specific forms have theological significance, in terms of expressing the chain of relation between Father, Son, and believer(s):
- zw=n (“living”)—present participle, as an attribute of God (the Father), referring to the Divine/eternal life which He possesses, and by which He is the ultimate source of life.
- zw= (“I live”)—present indicative (first person), expressing the active reality of the life which Jesus (the Son) receives from the Father
- zh/sei (“he shall life”)—future indicative (third person), referring to the life which the believer receives from the Son, which includes the promise of future eternal life.
Based on the earlier statements in 3:34-35, we can identify this Divine/eternal life with the Spirit. As we saw, the “living water” that Jesus gives to the believer is also identified with the Spirit, and it is fair to assume that the same is true for the “living bread” here in 6:51ff. We find confirmation of this line of interpretation in the section that immediately follows (vv. 60-71) the end of the Discourse proper (in v. 59).
In verse 60, we finally hear the disciples’ reaction to the Discourse (especially vv. 51-58):
“This word [lo/go$] is hard—who is able to hear it?”
To what, precisely, does “this word” refer? In terms of the Discourse as a whole, as it has come down to us, we can discern three levels to the reference:
- The principal saying, presented with variation in each section of the Discourse, by which Jesus identifies himself as the “bread from heaven” (vv. 32-33, 35 and 48, 51)
- The idea, as developed by Jesus, that one must “eat” him (v. 50); according to some commentators, in the original form of the Gospel, verse 60 would have immediately followed v. 50, with vv. 51-58 representing a subsequent addition
- The specific (eucharistic) idea in vv. 51-58 that one must eat and drink Jesus’ flesh and blood in order to have life.
The disciples naturally find all of this difficult to understand (and accept). This reaction reflects the regular discourse-feature of misunderstanding by Jesus’ hearers. The implication seems to be that the disciples are reacting in a manner similar to that of the other people (in v. 52), whereby they understand Jesus to be speaking at the ordinary, material level, referring to his actual (physical) flesh and blood. As we saw in both the Nicodemus and Samaritan Woman discourses, this is basic to the failure of Jesus’ hearers to understand the true meaning of his words. For he is not speaking on the material level—i.e., of ordinary flesh and blood, etc—but on the spiritual level. Just as he was not speaking of an ordinary physical birth in chapter 3, nor of ordinary water in chap. 4, so here in chap. 6 he is speaking neither of ordinary bread nor of his physical flesh and blood.
Responding to the disciples’ frustration, Jesus asks them simply: “Does this trip you up?” (v. 61), and follows this with another question: “Then (what) if you should look (and behold) the Son of Man stepping up (back to) where he was (at) the first?” (v. 62). Commentators continue to debate the force of the Son of Man saying in v. 62; the main significance, however, surely is to the divine/heavenly origin of Jesus (the Son). The saying forms both a promise and a challenge to his disciples—they must confront the truth regarding Jesus’ identity as the Son of God come to earth from heaven. Moreover, it is only after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and return to the Father, that the disciples will be able to receive the Spirit. Their understanding will remain incomplete until the Spirit dwells within them.
In the previous study, we saw how “drinking” the living water Jesus gives essentially means trusting in him. The same is true regarding the idea of “eating” the living bread Jesus gives. However, there are two additional components to the imagery here which broaden and deepen the theological significance of the eating/drinking idiom. First, Jesus does not only give the living bread—he is the bread (v. 51). This essential predication specifies that trust in Jesus means trust in his identity (who he is), as the Son come from the Father in heaven. Second, by eating this ‘bread’, we are eating and drinking Jesus’ flesh and blood, which is symbolic (eucharistic) language signifying the sacrificial death of Jesus. Thus, trust in Jesus also entails, fundamentally, belief in the atoning and life-giving power of his death.
This brings us to the saying in verse 63, where Jesus makes clear that he is not talking about eating ordinary physical flesh (nor drinking actual blood)—these things take place in a spiritual way, at the level of the Spirit. Moreover, Jesus declares that the words (lit. utterances, r(h/mata) of his discourse “are spirit and are life”. As the living Word (lo/go$) of God, who possesses the eternal Life and Spirit from God the Father, the words which Jesus (the Son) speaks are God’s own. And, since God is Spirit (4:24), His words are also Spirit, and must be received (and understood) in a spiritual way, through the Spirit; and, since God’s words have life-giving power, so also do Jesus’ words. This is certainly true of the words given by Jesus here in vv. 51-58.
What, then, of the eucharistic language in vv. 51-58? Is the Gospel writer (to say nothing of Jesus as the speaker) referring to the ritual of the Lord’s supper? And, if so, how does this relate to the rest of the Bread of Life discourse, and to the Spirit-saying of Jesus here in v. 63? If the essence and significance of the words are spiritual, if the concrete physical aspect (“flesh”) of the idea expressed in vv. 51-58 is not of any use, then how should the eucharistic language be understood?
Some commentators (e.g., Brown, pp. 299-300) would claim that the term “flesh” (sa/rc) here in v. 63 has a fundamentally different meaning than it does in vv. 51ff; and, as such, Jesus’ statement does not refer to the same eucharistic emphasis of vv. 51-58. For many Christians, this is the only way that the apparent eucharistic focus in vv. 51-58 can be maintained within the context of the Discourse. After all, how can Jesus say that a person needs to eat his flesh (in the ritual sense of actually eating the physical bread of the Supper), and then go on to say that the “flesh” is of no benefit?
Taken on its own, the statement in v. 63 is fundamentally spiritualistic, providing a clear contrast—between the Spirit (pneu=ma) and the flesh (sa/rc). As we have seen, such dualism is a common feature of Paul’s letters, where he uses it repeatedly—cf. especially Romans 8:4-6ff; Gal 3:3; 4:29; 5:16-17; 6:8; Phil 3:3. It is much less common in the Johannine writings, but may be found in Jn 3:6 (cf. the prior study), and a negative connotation to the term “flesh”, as something contrary or inferior to God, is present in 8:15 and 1 John 2:16. Usually, this negative aspect is expressed by “(the) world” (ko/smo$). Here, in verse 63, the contrast is especially pronounced—not only does the flesh not give life, but it offers no benefit at all! This harsh statement must be understood properly, in terms of the comparison of the flesh with the Spirit. Compared with the Spirit, which gives everything (Life), the flesh offers nothing.
Through trust in Jesus’ words—his teaching and witness as to who he is (the Son come from the Father in heaven)—one receives from Jesus the life-giving Spirit; similarly, we also receive, through the Spirit, the life-giving power of his sacrificial death. Our participation in his death (and resurrection) is described symbolically as “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood”. Even if the Gospel writer (and the Johannine ‘Community’) still deemed important the partaking of the ritual meal (the Eucharist/Supper), the emphasis is clearly on participation in Jesus’ death in a spiritual manner, through the presence of the Spirit.
The scandalous nature of this language was not lost on Jesus’ hearers, neither the people at large nor his disciples (who call the message “hard/harsh” [sklhro/$], v. 60). After all, in Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the imagery of eating flesh and drinking blood refers to hostile and violent action (cf. Deut 32:42; Psalm 27:2; Isa 49:26; Ezek 39:17-18; Jer 46:10; Zech 11:9). Even the very juxtaposition of flesh/blood can designate violence and slaughter (e.g., Psalm 79:2-3; Ezek 32:5-6; Zeph 1:17; 4 Macc 6:6). And, of course, the idea of ingesting blood (along with flesh [meat]), a fundamental violation of the Torah regulations, would have been abhorrent to any devout Israelite or Jew (Gen 9:4; Lev 3:17; 19:26; Deut 12:23; Ezek 33:25; Acts 15:20). Cf. Brown, p. 284.
It is easy to see how Jesus’ words would “trip up” and offend even his close disciples. In addition to the difficult concept of Jesus (in his person) as the “bread from heaven” that one must ‘eat’, he adds the particularly offensive idea of eating/drinking his flesh/blood. All of this, however, must be understood in a spiritual way, in terms of the life-giving Spirit. To “eat the flesh” and “drink the blood” of Jesus means to trust in the message of who Jesus is (the Son of God come from heaven), and to be united with him (to “remain” in him) through the Spirit.
In a supplemental note, I will discuss the Spirit-sayings, here in 6:63 and in 4:23-24, in relation to more developed (and extreme) forms of Christian spiritualism, whereby any external ritual or worship observance is deemed unnecessary, since the essence of all religious experience is realized entirely through the Spirit. Since Jesus’ statements in 4:23-24 and 6:63 (in connection with the Eucharist, vv. 51-58) could be read and interpreted in this light, it is worth giving some consideration to the extent of Johannine spiritualism.
References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Gospel According to John I-XII, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 29 (1966).