In John 6:25-71, we read the famous incident in the Capernaum synagogue in which Jesus announces His identity as the “Bread of Life,” and instructs the congregation that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life. His “hard teaching,” (6:61) produced no shortage of grumbling and confusion among both the gathered crowd (6:41-43, 52) and his own followers (6:60-65). The sad result was that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him,” (6:66). Imagine the newspaper headline: “Eat Me”: Jesus Offends Hometown Seekers and Followers
Though Jesus’ words confused then – and continue to confuse today – among those who interpret them literally (as is all too typical of Jesus’ listeners, see 2:19-22; 3:3-10; 4:31-38; etc.), it is plain that the command to, “Eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood,” is understood figuratively. Just as the life Jesus offers the Samaritan woman at the well (4:10-14), or the crowds in Jerusalem (7:37-39), was not to be literally received by the physical action of drinking, so it is the case here in the figure of eating and drinking. This is all the more plain in our passage, since Jesus spells out how this consumption of his flesh and blood takes place: “come to” and “believe” on Him (see vv. 29, 35-37, 40, 43-48). St. Augustine famously commented on this text:
“What shall we do?” [the crowds] ask; “by observing what, shall we be able to fulfill this precept?” Jesus answered and said unto them, “This is the work of God, that you believe on Him whom He has sent.” This is then to eat the meat, not that which perishes, but that which endures to eternal life. To what purpose do you make ready teeth and stomach? Believe, and you have eaten already. …For to believe on Him is to eat the living bread. He that believes eats; he is sated invisibly, (Tractate 26).
In sum, Christ is calling us to “come” and “believe” in him (vv. 29, 35-37, 40, 47) who, through His death, gives life to the world (v.51). And this is the heart of the offense: Christ crucified. The stumbling block in the “blood and guts” of Jesus’ gruesome speech is the self-offering of the Son of Man (note Leviticus 17:10-14).
But, as Jesus explained, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe … This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (vv. 63-65).
It is the necessity of faith, as divinely imparted gift, that is in fact the theme of this passage (see vv.26-29, 36-40, 43-46, 61-65 – hence Judas’s presence is noted among the Twelve in vv. 70-71 as one who did not believe).
With this faith our eyes are opened to see and understand the spiritual reality that is here indicated, beyond the physical or corporeal. Augustine carefully distinguishes these dimensions:
Understand what I (Jesus) have said spiritually. You are not going to eat this body which you see, nor are you going to drink the blood which those who will crucify me are going to shed. (Exposition on the Psalms [99:8])
Through this faith we further understand that Christ Himself is the supreme object of faith. Jesus not only grants the bread that yields immortality; he is this bread. Our faith is directed entirely toward him, as our sufficient meat and drink for everlasting life, and not on any physical sustenance. If we do spiritually feed at the Lord’s Table, our focus does not rest on the bread and the cup, but on the Crucified and Resurrected One.
And so, through this faith, we truly consume the Bread of Life. Believing is eating.
But there is another “hard teaching” in Jesus’ discourse that continues to divide. The required faith is itself a gift of God. As Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him,” (v.44). Or again, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me,” (v.45). And when “many disciples” could no longer follow Jesus, he explained, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” Jesus insisted that only those, and all of those, whom the Father draws to the Son will be saved – and finally raised to everlasting life (see vv. 37-40, 44-51).
The apostle Paul articulated the same “hard teaching,” though he used the technical term of “calling,”
God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Cor.1:9)
According to Paul, God calls us into fellowship with the Son through the gospel of Christ crucified:
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. …For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor.1:18-23)
The gospel cannot be understood – let alone received – by “the flesh.” It is required that the Spirit of God first grant a spiritual enlightenment to the hearer (1 Corinthians 2:6-16; see also John 3:3-10). This “preceding grace” doesn’t end there. It is an “amazing grace” that takes us home. All who are so “called” believe; and all who believe, as Jesus promised, are saved – both now and forever:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Rom.8:28-30)
Despite popular conceptions to the contrary, the sovereignty of God in salvation isn’t a limitation to us. It is an empowerment. Jesus’ securing eternal life for “those the Father has given” him doesn’t restrict. It makes possible. More than possible, it makes salvation certain. It makes the gospel not only powerful but omnipotent to save. It makes our prayers for opened eyes and changed hearts more than expressions of vain hope. It renders our work of making disciples a fruitful labor of joyful anticipation. Because God calls men into fellowship with the Son through the gospel, we preach with Paul’s confidence, believing that the gospel is “the power of God for salvation.” We know that faith comes by hearing, and so we make sure men hear! We pray with eager and patient hope. We know God can answer our audacious prayers for salvation, and that He delights to do so! And we give exuberant thanks and praise for salvation as the incredible gift of God – both for those we’ve had the privilege to serve (see 1 Cor.1:4-9) and for our own.
And because of [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1Cor.1:30-31)