Two important Spirit-references in the Gospel of John, reflecting Johannine spiritualism, have been discussed in the most recent articles in this series—the articles on 4:10-15ff (incl. vv. 21-24) and 6:63. Based on the strong spiritualistic language in 4:23-24 and 6:63, it is fair to inquire as to the extent of Johannine spiritualism. A basic feature of Christian spiritualism is the tendency to relativize or downplay the importance of external religious elements—especially as they are manifest in public (corporate) worship and ritual. The essence of worship and ritual is realized spiritually, and does not require any external observance or performance.
The language of 4:23-24 and 6:63 (in the context of 6:51-58) suggests that the Gospel writer (and Jesus as the speaker) is emphasizing just such an inward, spiritual mode of worship, over and against the external observance of any rite. I will begin which the specific relationship between 6:63 and the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper), since the eucharistic language in vv. 51-58 strongly indicates that these verses at least allude to the early Christian rite of the Lord’s Supper.
John 6:63 in relation to the Eucharistic language in vv. 51-58
It is generally agreed that verses 51-58 of the chapter 6 Bread of Life Discourse contain eucharistic language, and that both author and readers would have recognized the language as referring, in some fashion, to the early Christian ritual of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist). However, if this point of reference is intentional, in precisely what sense is it intended to be understood?
I would delineate two broad ways of viewing the matter. The first option is that the author intended to emphasize the physical eating and drinking of Jesus’ “flesh” and “blood” through the sacramental elements (bread and wine) of the Lord’s Supper ritual. Let us call this the ritualistic view. The second option is that the eating/drinking is meant to be understood entirely in a figurative, spiritual sense, and that one partakes of the “flesh” and “blood” of Jesus inwardly, through the Spirit. This we will call the spiritualistic view. While it is certainly possible to posit a hybrid or intermediate view, somewhere between these two interpretive poles, most explanations of vv. 51-58, as reflecting the author’s intention, tend toward one of these two options. This is especially so when we consider the relationship between vv. 51-58 and the Spirit-saying in v. 63 (on which, cf. the recent article in this series).
We must also take into account the critical question of vv. 51-58 in relation to various theories regarding the composition of the Gospel, as there are differences of opinion as to whether vv. 51-58 are an integral part of the original Discourse (and the original version of the Gospel), or whether they represent a secondary (redactional) addition. We may thus outline three possibilities:
- Verses 51-58 are original to the Discourse, and are intended in a ritualistic sense
- They have been added to the Discourse, with a ritualistic emphasis, perhaps intended to counterbalance the (apparent) spiritual emphasis in the rest of the Discourse
- Whether or not the verses are original to the Discourse, they are meant to be understood in a spiritualistic sense
The incompatibility of the ritualistic interpretation with the consistent figurative usage of the idiom of eating/drinking—both in the Discourse proper (esp. verses 35-50) and in the earlier Samaritan Woman Discourse of chapter 4 (vv. 10-15, 32ff)—makes it highly unlikely that there would have been a ritualistic meaning intended for vv. 51-58 if those verses were part of the original Discourse. This is all the more so if we consider the Discourse in terms of the historical tradition—viz. of Jesus as the speaker of such a discourse in a synagogue setting (v. 59). A reference to the early Christian ritual would have been completely incomprehensible to a first-century Jewish audience.
This leaves us with the last two options outlined above. Either vv. 51-58 represent a redactional addition, meant to counterbalance the spiritual emphasis of the Discourse, or they were intended to be understood in a spiritualistic manner. Many commentators (e.g., R. E. Brown, von Wahlde) would hold to some version of the former position—that vv. 51-58 are an addition to the original Discourse-tradition, and are intended to bring out a ritualistic Eucharistic emphasis. In other words, the purpose was to emphasize the need to “eat” (and “drink”) Jesus (i.e., the Bread) in a literal, physical sense—through the “flesh” and “blood” of the sacramental elements. According to some versions of this theory, the Eucharistic language of the ‘words of instution’ by Jesus, set (in the Synoptic tradition) during the Last Supper, have been transferred and relocated to the Bread of Life Discourse, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Given the early Christian tendency to associate the Miraculous Feeding episode (vv. 1-15 par) with the Eucharist, the following Discourse may have seemed like the best place to include reference to the Last Supper tradition.
If this was, indeed, the author/editor’s intent, it must be regarded as a failure. If the goal was to emphasize the Lord’s Supper ritual, this would have been accomplished much more effectively by maintaining the Synoptic connection with the Last Supper. By embedding the Eucharistic reference within the Bread of Life Discourse, any ritualistic emphasis has been thoroughly obscured. As the history of interpretation has demonstrated, with centuries of diverging opinions by commentators, it is by no means clear that vv. 51-58, in context, were intended to be understood in anything like a ritualistic sense.
Thus, serious consideration should be given to the possibility that the verses were, from the beginning (at whatever point they were included in the Discourse), meant to be understood in a spiritualistic sense. The main arguments in support of this have been introduced and elucidated in prior notes. The central point I would make is that, if the idiom of “eating” and “drinking” was used in a figurative, spiritual sense in 4:10-15ff and 6:27-50, then it should be similarly understood the same way here in 6:51-58. Moreover, if the expression “living water” was understood (by the Gospel writer) as referring to the Spirit (7:37-39), then it is fair to assume that “living bread” has a comparable meaning in chapter 6. And, if one “eats” the living bread in a spiritual manner, then a person would “eat” (and “drink”) the flesh/blood of Jesus likewise. Properly speaking, the emphasis in vv. 27-50 is on trusting in Jesus; people eat and drink Jesus when they trust in him (vv. 29, 35-36, 40, 47, cf. also the emphasis in v. 64).
From the Johannine theological standpoint, to trust in Jesus specifically means believing that he is the Son sent to earth (from heaven) by God the Father, and that he was sent to give life to the world. This last point is expressed clearly at several key, climactic moments in the Discourse (vv. 40, 50-51, 57). While “life” (zwh/) is communicated by Jesus through the Spirit, it entails the life-giving power of his sacrificial death. I have discussed this principle, which I believe is central to the Johannine theology, in recent notes (cf. most recently on 1 Jn 1:7ff and 5:6-8). This is the reason and purpose for the eucharistic language and imagery in vv. 51-58, as it provided the only meaningful way for early Christians to express the idea of the communication of the power and efficacy of Jesus’ death through the idiom of eating and drinking.
What role, then, did the Lord’s Supper rite itself have in the Johannine congregations? The complete lack of any reference to the tradition of the institution of the Supper (as a rite to be performed)—and, specifically, in the context of the Last Supper (cf. chapter 13)—suggests that it may not have been particularly important in the Johannine religious milieu. In its place, at least within the Last Supper narrative, a very different ritual (the Foot-washing) is emphasized (vv. 4-20), to a much greater extent than the Supper ritual is correspondingly emphasized in the Synoptic narrative. Unfortunately, we have no information in the Letters regarding Johannine worship practice, so there is no way to form even a prelimary conclusion regarding the place of either the Eucharist or the Foot-washing in the life of those congregations. However, the spiritualistic emphasis, in both the Gospel and the First Letter (to be discussed), raises at least the possibility that the Johannine churches would have downplayed the importance of the Supper ritual, even if they themselves observed it, to some extent.
In this regard, we might mention Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Christians in Smyrna, written sometime in the early 2nd century (c. 110-115?). He refers to opponents who seem to have certain features in common with the opponents mentioned in 1-2 John. In chapter 7, Ignatius claims that these people “hold themselves away” from the Eucharist, apparently refusing to accept that the sacramental elements truly embody the “flesh” of Jesus, and thus (presumably) there is no need for physical consumption of them. Ignatius probably wrote his letter not all that many years after 1-2 John were written; moreover, Smyrna is located in region of Asia (Minor), centered around Ephesus, that is often thought to represent the geographic hub of the Johannine churches. All of this suggests that the opponents Ignatius mentions could have derived from the wider Johannine Community, having perhaps adopted a more extreme version of the kind of spiritualistic views that are expressed in the Gospel and Letters of John.
The Principle Expressed in John 4:23-24
“…an hour comes, and is now (here), when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth, for indeed the Father seeks such (people) worshiping Him. God is Spirit, and (for) the (one)s worshiping Him, it is necessary to worship in Spirit and in truth.”
This extended declaration by Jesus was discussed in the earlier article (on 4:10-15ff). It has a remarkably spiritualistic ring to it, and yet most commentators are unwilling to go very far down that line of interpretation. R. E. Brown (p. 180), in his comments on vv. 23-24, can serve to summarize the prevailing opinion:
“An ideal of purely internal worship ill fits the NT scene with its eucharistic gatherings, hymn singing, baptism in water, etc. (unless one assumes that John’s theology is markedly different from that of the Church at large).”
His assumptions about “the Church at large” are far-sized, if understandable; in actual fact, we have very little information regarding worship practice (and the associated beliefs) in first-century churches. It is quite precarious to assume that Johannine congregations would have shared, broadly, the ideas and practices mentioned, for example, by Paul in 1 Corinthians, or in the so-called “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” (Didache). Brown’s caveat (in parentheses above) at least admits the possibility that Johannine congregations might have held to a more spiritualistic view regarding the nature and purpose of worship.
In the Discourse, Jesus specifically relativizes the location of worship, beginning in verse 21:
“…an hour comes when, neither on this mountain [i.e. Gerizim] nor in Yerushalaim, shall you worship the Father”
The distinction between Gerizim and Jerusalem is particular to the religious differences between Samaritans and Jews. In spite of Jesus’ words in v. 22, the implication is that such differences no longer matter. More than this, the expression “on this mountain” can be generalized to mean “in this particular location”. It would be natural (and logical) to extend this principle to emphasize that worship does not depend on any particular location; this would include any particular congregational setting.
The location for worship is no longer spatial or geographical, but is located “in the Spirit” (e)n pneu/mati). It is possible to understand pneu=ma here in terms of the inward/internal aspect of the human spirit, but this would be quite out of keeping with the overall Johannine usage; moreover, it is contradicted by the emphasis in v. 24, with the declaration that “God is Spirit”. Jesus is clearly referring in v. 23 to the Spirit of God, a point confirmed by the repeated connection between the Spirit and truth (a)lh/qeia)—cf. 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 Jn 4:6; 5:6. To worship “in truth” (a)lhqei/a| [preposition implied]) essentially means the same as worshiping “in the Spirit”.
What does all of this mean for the practice of worship, and the realization of it within the Johannine congregations? We simply do not have enough information to draw any conclusions. There may have been an ideal of spiritual worship which the congregations sought to maintain in some fashion, without completely dispensing with common traditions and ritual practices. This question will be explored further in the upcoming articles in this series dealing with the evidence from First John. Indeed, a key theme of that letter (or tract) is the need to balance and moderate a Spirit-centered communal experience, by retaining contact with established lines of tradition.