Living Bread: death or life

living-breadMorris [335] offers this: “There is, moreover, a reference to the death of Christ, as we saw on verse 51. Flesh and blood in separation point to death. The words, then, are a cryptic allusion to the atoning death that Jesus would die, together with a challenge to enter the closest and most intimate relation with him.134 They are to be interpreted in the light of verse 47.” While most would accept the intuition of Jesus’ atoning death are implied, there are few who argue that is a major theme. Yet Morris strains against established biblical meaning. In Hebrew, the double formula “flesh and blood” emphasizes the reality and corporeality of human existence.

Not apart from the atoning death of Jesus, but v.53 builds upon the fulfillment of the promise made in 6:27 (Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life). The flesh and blood of the Son of Man are the food that endures for eternal life. The Son of Man is the one who has descended from heaven to give his life for the salvation of the world (3:13, 16). The gift of his flesh and blood belongs to that saving work; it is the food that gives eternal life.

To this point in the Johannine narrative, death has not been a focal point. Outside and especially within John 6, the focus is on the gift of life. O’Day [608] makes this clear:

“The syntax of v. 53 (‘unless …’) makes clear that eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of Man is a condition for receiving the gift of life. That Jesus’ words focus on life should not surprise the reader; Jesus as the source of life has been a central theme of the first six chapters of the Gospel. What is new is the explicit linkage of participation in the eucharist to this gift of life. The strong emphasis on the eucharist reflects a shift in the primary audience to whom the Fourth Evangelist understands these words of Jesus to be addressed. The primary audience is no longer the audience in the story (the Jewish crowd), but the readers in John’s own time. Such a shift is a regular part of the literary strategy of Fourth Evangelist (3:31–36; 6:60–71; 9:18–23). The Fourth Gospel narrative frequently plays itself out on a ‘two-level stage,’ so that the events in Jesus’ life and the events in the life of the Evangelist’s community are presented simultaneously.”

“The insistence in v. 53 on both the fullness of the incarnation and the participation in the eucharist may be the Evangelist’s attempt to counter developing docetic or gnostic tendencies within his community that wanted to deny the bodily aspects of Christ and of Christian experience. In that regard, it is noteworthy that nowhere in vv. 53–59 are the eucharistic elements of bread and wine mentioned. The Fourth Evangelist’s focus remains on the flesh and blood of Jesus, not their sacramental representations, in order to underscore Jesus’ gift of his whole self, which is enacted in the eucharist (cf. 6:51).”

Promises

55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

Earlier in v.53 it was stated that not eating/drinking means one does not have life within them. Verse 54 states it positively that whoever eats/drinks will be raised on the last day. Verse 55 states succinctly Jesus’ flesh and blood are the true source of life. Jesus’ flesh and blood thus fulfills the promise in 6:35 of food and drink that will end hunger and thirst.

Stated positively, negatively, or flat out – all these verses and all that has come before them in John 6 are building to an important aspect in Johannine Eucharistic theology: being in deep spiritual, full-bodied relationship with Jesus. At the heart of v. 56 is the verb “to abide” (menō). This verb is used in John 15:4 – “Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.” There is expresses the interrelationship of Jesus and the believer; the interrelationship that is the source of the believer’s life now and in life everafter. Yet the interrelationship of Jesus and the believer is actually an extension of the interrelationship of God and Jesus (6:57). Verse 57 builds on the claims of 5:21, 26–27: God shares God’s life with Jesus. The one who eats Jesus (also the one who feeds on me – note the substitution of “me” for flesh and blood) receives life because that person shares in the life-giving relationship of God and Jesus (cf. 1:4). Johannine eucharistic theology is one of relationship and presence (O’Day 608).

This verse serves as the conclusion to the whole bread of life discourse, tying together themes that have run throughout the discourse (e.g., 6:31, 37, 49–51b) with its final restatement of the life one receives from eating the bread from heaven.

It does not seem right to have written this much and not offer something from the great Johannine scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown. Brown [292-93] writes: “And so it is that, while the Synoptic Gospels record the institution of the Eucharist, it is John who explains what the Eucharist does for the Christian.” What does it do? The text itself speaks to the benefits:

  • You have life in yourself (v. 53 — present tense)
  • You have eternal life (v. 54 — present tense)
  • You will be raised by Jesus on the last day (v. 54 — future tense)
  • You remain in Jesus and he in you (v. 56 — present tense)
  • You will live through Jesus (v. 57 — future tense)
  • You will live forever (v. 58 — future tense)

NOTES

John 6:55 true food…true drink: The Greek used for true is alēthēs – as opposed to the Greek alēthinos. This latter word (meaning “the only real”) is used to distinguish the heavenly reality from its earthly counterpart – and in scripture to distinguish the NT reality from its OT counterpart. Alēthinos would thus be out of place as Jesus is not contrasting his flesh with any natural or OT counterpart. Rather, Jesus is insisting on the genuine value of his flesh and blood as food and drink.

John 6:57 the living Father: The concentration on the theme of “life” and its communication from Father to Son to believer produces the expression “the living Father” (ho zōn pater).

John 6:58 bread that came down from heaven…whoever eats this bread will live forever: As Brown and Moloney [225] point out, there seems to be very little middle ground – scholars either believe the entire John 6 is metaphoric or they believe it is Eucharistic/sacramental. As they point out, many commentators write along their denominational beliefs, but scholars, despite their denominational professions, hold that John 6:51-58c is unavoidably Eucharistic.

SOURCES

K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007).

Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29a in The Anchor Bible, eds. William Albright and David Freeman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966) 281-94

Neal M. Flanagan, John in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989). 991-92

Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).

Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, vol. 4 in Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998) 220-25

Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995). 333-37

John J. McPolin, John, vol. 6 of the New Testament Message, eds. Wilfred Harrington and Donald Senior (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989)

Gail R. O’Day, John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996) 607-09

Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources, available at www.crossmarks.com/brian/

Dictionaries

Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)

Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990) –

The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, Gary A. Herion, David F. Graf, John David Pleins and Astrid B. Beck (New York: Doubleday, 1996).

Scripture – Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970 at http://www.usccb.org/bible/index.cfm

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