Bible Question:

Is John 6:53-56 about the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion?

Bible Answer:

Many wonder what Jesus meant by, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood . . .” That leads to the question, “Is John 6:53 about the Lord’s Supper?” Some say the answer is, “Yes!” But the question still remains, “Was Jesus referring to the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist or Holy Communion?” This short study answers these questions.

Is John 6:53 About the Lord's Supper?

Is John 6:53 about the Lord’s Supper?

When Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves,” in John 6:53 He was speaking to a large group of His disciples.

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.” John 6:53 (NASB)

A literal understanding of Jesus’ words means that every believer must eat His flesh and drink His blood. Those who find Jesus’ statement to be unacceptable are not alone, because the disciples who heard these words found them unacceptable also! Listen to John 6:60,

Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this said, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” John 6:60 (NASB)

Therefore, the immediate question we must ask is simple, “Is Jesus being literal or figurative?” What follows is an explanation of the meaning of the statement, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood.”

Jesus Was Not Speaking Literally

If Jesus was being literal, then that means a person must eat Jesus’ body and drink His blood in order to have life—eternal life. That is, those who believe in Jesus must be eaters of human flesh and blood—Jesus’ flesh and blood.  John 6:60 reveals that the disciples who heard His words thought that was what Jesus was saying.

But the truth is that believers have never have been able to and still are not able to actually “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood.” It is obvious that since Jesus ascended back to heaven after His resurrection that believers today cannot eat His flesh and drink His blood since He died on the cross and ascended back to heaven. The disciples never actually ate part of Jesus flesh or drank some of His blood. Therefore, we must conclude that Jesus was not speaking literally.

Meaning of “Unless You Eat My Body and Drink My Blood”

This leaves us with the only other logical possibility. Jesus was speaking figuratively. There are two major figurative meanings given by theologians to Jesus’ statement, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood.” These two views are explained next.

First View — Statement Refers to the Eucharist

The first view is that the statement, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood,” figuratively refers to the Lord’ Supper, which is also called Communion or the Eucharist. Those who hold to the Transubstantiation view of the Lord’s Supper believe that the bread literally becomes Jesus’ flesh and the wine becomes His blood when the priest blesses the elements and says, “This is My body.” That is, during the Eucharist the worshiper actually eats Jesus’ flesh and drinks His blood. Therefore, those who hold to the Transubstantiation View of the Lord’s Supper believe that Jesus’ statement, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood” refers to taking the Lord’s Supper, also called the Eucharist.

Those who hold to the Consubstantiation View of the Lord’s Supper do not believe that the bread and wine actually become Jesus’ body. Instead, they believe Jesus is present in the elements (i.e. bread and wine) at the time the Eucharist is celebrated. That is their explanation of His statement.

But both views have serious problems since they ignore the verb tenses of “eat” and “drink” and do not explain why Jesus added, “you have no life in yourselves” at the end of His statement, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood.” The next view explains these important points.

Second View — Statement Refers to Saving Faith in Christ

The second view is that the statement figuratively refers to believing in Christ for salvation. This is the correct view. There are two reasons why this is the correct view.

The first reason is that Jesus’ warning to the disciples that they would not have life in themselves must not be ignored if we want to  properly understand “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood.” Here is verse 53 again.

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.” John 6:53 (NASB)

The life to which Jesus was referrin was eternal life, for 1 John 5:11-13 teaches that only believers have life or eternal life and eternal life is given only to those who believe in Jesus.

And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. 1 John 5:11-13 (NASB)

John 3:16 also teaches that eternal life is only granted to those who believe in Jesus.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16 (NASB)

Many other passages in the New Testament teach that only believers in Jesus have life or eternal life (John 3:36; 5:24; 6:40, 47; 1 Timothy 1:16). That is, one must believe in Jesus in order to have life or eternal life.

This means Jesus did not declare that in order to have life the disciples had to eat His flesh and drink His blood, because only those who are believing in Jesus have eternal life. Also, repeatedly the New Testament teaches that salvation is not earned by doing good works (Romans 3:28; 4:2; 9:16; 11:6; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5). Romans 3:12 states that no one does anything good enough to earn salvation.

ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS;
THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD,
THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE.
Romans 3:12 (NASB)

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8-9 (NASB)

That is, a person cannot earn heaven by doing good deeds. A person does not have eternal life if they eat His flesh and drink His blood. Taking the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist does not give a person life or eternal life. So, there is another meaning to the statement, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood.”

This helps us understand that to “eat His flesh and drink His blood” was a figurative statement meaning “to believe in Jesus” for the forgiveness of one’s sins or to have “saving faith.” Only those who believe in Jesus have life or eternal life. That is the first reason “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood,” does not refer to the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist.

The second reason “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood” does not refer to the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist is that when Jesus said, “eat” and “drink,” He used the aorist tense for both verbs.  This is significant because the Greek aorist refers to completed action. He in effect said people only had to “eat” and “drink” once in order to have life or eternal life. This is significant because it means that Jesus clearly taught that salvation was a one-time event. That agrees with the rest of the New Testament teaching about salvation. Believers are saved once and then true believers will continue believing.  This is another reason to reject the view that, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood” refers to the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. Jesus did not teach that regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist results in life or eternal life.

What Is the Meaning of John 6:54?

Another series of reasons that reveals “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood” refers to faith in Jesus are verses 54-58. After Jesus said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves,” He then said,

He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. John 6:54 (NASB)

Now it is clear that when Jesus said “life” in verse 53, He was referring to eternal life. Further, His statement that “I will raise him up on the last day,” which refers to the future resurrection, is only for those who believe in Jesus. Once again, this means “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood” refers to faith in Jesus.

What Is the Meaning of John 6:56?

Verses 55-56 also reinforce this understanding of “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood.”

For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” John 6:55-56 (NASB)

Jesus makes three important statements in these two verses that must not be missed. The first is that Jesus referred to “true food” and “true drink.” We will learn more about these two statements in verse 58. The third important point is the word “abides.” In John 6:56 the root Greek word for “abides” is meno, which means “to remain. That is, those who are believing in Jesus will remain in Jesus. They will never lose their salvation. That is why Jesus promised in verse 54 that He will raise up those who believe in Him on the last day. Once again,  “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood” refers to faith in Jesus.

What Is the Meaning of John 6:57-58?

John 6:57-58 also reinforce the conclusion that “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood” refers to faith in Jesus. Verse 57 says,

As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. John 6:57 (NASB)

Once again, Jesus connects “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood”  to a person having life. Then in verse 58, He added,

This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever. John 6:58 (NASB)

This verse is easily explained by John 6:33-35.

“For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.” Then they said to Him, “Lord, always give us this bread.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.” John 6:33-35 (NASB)

Here Jesus clearly states that He is the “bread of God” and “I am the bread of life.” Then He connects hunger and thirst with believing in Him. He made this statement before His comments in John 6:53-57. This helps us understand that Jesus has been using figurative illustrations to connect the act of believing in Jesus with eternal life.

Conclusion:

Therefore, Jesus’ figurative statement in John 6:53 about “eat my flesh and drink my blood” is a symbolical reference to faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of one’s sins. He was not referring to the Lord’s Supper. One additional point is that He did not institute the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, or the Eucharist until the night before His death on the cross. Therefore, if He had been referring to the Lord’s Supper, the group of disciples would not have understood His comment as a reference to the Lord’s Supper which had not even yet been instituted.

The important point for all of us, is that Jesus clearly taught that 1) a person must believe in Him to have life or eternal life, and 2) only those who believe in Him have eternal life. Salvation is only found in Him and no one else (Acts 4:12).

And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:12 (NASB)

Suggested Links:

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Bread of Life, part 2