The “flesh and blood” references in Christ’s words to the people in John chapter 6 are controversial in that many take the liberty of applying the principles in this passage to their theology of the Lord’s Supper. How might this be true? I took a look at the verses in question and attempted to distill the principles that may have some bearing on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and how it may or may not be a “means of grace.” The following thought process may be a bit tedious reading, but I think you’ll see how I find that there is indeed room to legitimately connect the theology referenced in the passage to the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. And I believe it is part of what helps us conclude that the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace which confirms the promise of God in the gospel to believers while rendering condemnation to unbelievers who partake.
One thing I noticed about this passage is that, while it affirms that those who believe in Christ do feed on his flesh which he gives for the life of the world, no mention is made of how he is to give his flesh for the life of the world. That would be in his death on the cross. Furthermore, there is no explicit reference to engaging in a ritual in which believers actually eat literal bread and drink literal wine. But, of course, Jesus has yet to institute the Lord’s Supper, so why go into that kind of detail here? He discusses the theology of how grace is conveyed to sinners through the means of his body and blood (broken and shed for sinners on the cross), to which he will later add the further means of grace — the preaching of this good news of justification in his death and resurrection, which invisible saving grace is signified by the outward elements of bread and wine which seal the benefits of Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection in glory. I hope this helps you see the chain of means which convey God’s grace to believing sinners.
John 6:27-35 “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.”
Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”
Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. . .”
John 6:47-51 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.
I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
John 6:52-58 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
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 you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on my flesh, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not as the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
Propositions extracted from the above passages:
Don’t only seek physical sustenance from Christ for this temporary life alone. Seek spiritual sustenance which will provide eternal life. (vs. 25-27)
Eternal life comes to those who believe in him whom God has sent (v. 29).
The Old Testament type of God’s giving Israel bread from heaven to eat is fulfilled by the antitype of the Lord Jesus Christ who came down from heaven and gives life to the world (vs. 30-34).
The Lord Jesus Christ is the bread of life (v. 35a).
Whoever comes to Christ in faith will never hunger or thirst (v. 35b).
Whoever believes has eternal life (v. 47).
The true bread comes from heaven so that one may eat of it and not die, but live forever (vs. 48-50).
The bread that the Lord Jesus Christ will give for the life of the world is his flesh (v. 51c).
Whoever does not eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man has no life in him (v. 53).
Whoever eats Christ’s flesh and drinks Christ’s blood will have eternal life and is given hope of resurrection to life at Christ’s return (v. 54).
Christ’s flesh is true food, and Christ’s blood is true drink (v. 55).
Whoever eats Christ’s flesh and drinks his blood abides in Christ, and Christ abides in him (v. 56).
God the Father is the source of Christ’s physical life; whoever feeds on Christ’s flesh will live because of Christ’s life (v. 57).
This boils down to the fact that Christ’s body was broken and his blood was shed and he gave his life and took it again in his resurrection so that dead sinners may receive the free gift of eternal life through faith and the hope of resurrection on the day of Christ’s return. What relevance does this have to the Lord’s Supper? Keith Mathison cites Calvin’s explanation on p. 221 of Given For You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Mathison writes: “Calvin argues that John 6 is not ‘about’ the Lord’s Supper, but he adds, ‘I acknowledge that there is nothing said here that is not figuratively represented, and actually bestowed on believers, in the Lord’s Supper; and Christ even intended that the holy Supper should be, as it were, a seal and confirmation of this sermon.” (Calvin’s Commentary on John 6:54).
God is the ultimate source of life.
God gave life to the flesh and blood of his Son.
God sent his Son to give his flesh and blood for the life of dead sinners.
God’s Son gave his flesh and blood for the life of dead sinners in his crucifixion.
Whoever believes in God’s Son receives eternal life through means of Christ’s broken body and shed blood in his death. This is what Christ means by eating his flesh and drinking his blood.
Christ announced the New Covenant in the broken bread which is his body broken for sinners, and fruit of the vine poured out which is his blood shed for sinners, commanding that this meal be administered in remembrance of the death of the testator (Hebrews 9:16) that those who partake of the broken bread and poured out wine in faith may participate in his sacrifice for their sin (1 Cor. 10:16), and experience fellowship with all those who have life in him (1 Corinthians 10:17).
Christ sent the apostles to preach the good news that Christ died for sin and rose the third day that whoever believes may receive eternal life. Those who believed their message devoted themselves to participating in Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:42).
Therefore . . .
- the body and blood of Christ on the cross is God’s means of grace (the free gift of eternal life received by faith—Romans 3:24-25; 6:23);
- The preaching of the gospel of the death and resurrection of Christ is a means of grace;
- Remembrance of Christ’s broken body and shed blood for our sins by eating bread and wine in conjunction with fellowship, preaching and prayer is a means of grace.