51 I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” 52 Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” 53 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. 54 He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. 56 He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. 57 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. 58 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.” (Jn6:52-58 NASB)
I have chosen the New American Standard Bible’s translation of this passage for unlike some versions it is faithful to what John actually scribed in the Greek language. Some other translations attempt to tone down Jesus’ reference to Himself being food and drink (especially v57: “He who eats Me shall live because of Me”). They prefer we should understand it in a metaphorical or figurative sense of “feeding upon” Christ, as one might feed upon the works of Shakespeare for entertainment or inspiration or feed upon someone’s insecurities: so (they believe) one might figuratively speaking feed upon Christ by reading the Bible or through prayerful contemplation. FACT: Τρώγω utilised in vv56,57 and 58 literally means to gnaw, munch or crunch and as you will see from Bible-hub’s Greek concordance HERE is never used metaphorically in the New Testament. That is what so shocked Jesus’ listeners: “How can this man possibly give us His flesh to eat?” (v52). So those (like myself in the past) who take the bread and wine of the Eucharist to be purely symbolic have a problem, especially in view of verses 54 and 56. Feeding on Christ’s flesh and drinking His blood in the sense that Jesus/John intended determines whether or not one is “in Christ” (v56), whether or not one will be raised at the last day (v54b) and as considered in my last post whether or not one possesses Life of an eternal quality (v54a).
So can we be sure what Jesus really meant by eating His flesh and drinking His blood? I have already shown it cannot be passed off as purely figurative, but nor can it be absolutely literal in the sense of “Here I am, take and eat Me like a bunch of cannibals”. There is obviously a mystical element, but in some meaningful sense the flesh of the Son of Man must be consumed and His blood drunk. Neither does the process have to be explained scientifically anymore than the feeding of the 5000 from a few loaves and fishes can be explained scientifically: it simply cannot – such is the nature of miracles and the work of the Holy Spirit. But I adduce in my book that from these words of Jesus recorded by John and crucially from the evidence we have from the writings of the earliest Christian writers, some of whom were the immediate successors or students of the twelve disciples, the understanding was that the bread and wine they consumed at the Eucharist (at the least) contained or actually became the flesh and blood of Christ. Quoting from my book:
“Moving backwards from the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem understood the Eucharist to be the means by which a Christian may become “concorporeal and consanguineous with Christ”30; Clement (3rd century) declared: “Those who partake (of the Eucharist) are sanctified in body and soul; by the will of the Father, man is mystically united to the Spirit and to the Word”31. From the 2nd century, Justin Martyr speaks of the bread and wine offered at the altar as “that from which our blood and flesh are nourished through its transformation, which is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh”32. From the end of the first century, St Ignatius having been tutored by the apostle John refers to the heretics of his day: “they abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ who suffered for our sins. Those who speak against this gift of God incur death”33a the bread of the altar being “the medicine of immortality and the antidote to death33b. In terms of the Eucharist as sacrifice, Augustine, thoroughly orthodox in this area regarded the Mass as the “highest and true sacrifice…, Christ being at the same time Priest and Victim”34. Even in the oldest post-Biblical authentic writing available (the Didache c. xiv approx. AD96), the “breaking of bread” is referred to as a sacrifice and is explicitly related with the prophecy in Malachi (1:11) to the pure offering with incense being offered by the Gentiles. The Malachi prophecy was understood by the early Fathers to be foretelling the universal and perpetuated daily sacrifice35 to be provided under the New Dispensation. Moving to the present day, the Eastern Orthodox Church whom we have observed was a relatively stable element in the sixteenth century debacle has historically regarded the Divine Liturgy as “the awesome sacrifice entrusted to the Church to be re-enacted and given to the faithful for the nourishment of their faith and forgiveness of their sins”36.
These essential matters were never intended to be delineated from Scripture alone but were part of the sacred Tradition passed on from the apostles to their successors within the Church, being the sole depository of apostolic doctrine and the pillar and ground of the truth (1Tim3:15).[Quote from “Fellowship of the Secret” – Chapter One]
30. Cyril of Jerusalem: Mystagogical Catechesis IV,3
31. Clement: “The instructor of children” – “Faith of the early Fathers” Vol 1:410 (W Jurgens)