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Questions & Answers > Questions on tricky passages > What does "eating my flesh" and "drinking my blood" mean in John 6?

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Question:  I was just reading the passage in John 6  where Jesus says "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.  For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him..."

What do you think this really means?  Is it just about 'having communion', or following Jesus and being willing to suffer as he did, or follow his ways?  I'm thinking there must be more to it than this, because it was a 'hard teaching', and many turned away at this time. Surely it was more for them than just misunderstanding him by taking him literally? I am curious! 
(Kim, Jesus Week Oct 2012)

 

Graham replies:  Dear Kim,

A very good question.  The short answer is, I think, that “eating his flesh” represents following his teachings, and that “drinking his blood” represents receiving and being filled with the Holy Spirit.  My reasons are as follows.

They must be symbols, because a literal physical interpretation is impossible for us today.  So what are they symbols of?  The only direct explanation in the passage itself is that Jesus said that he was the bread of life (Jn 6:48) and that “this bread is my flesh” (Jn 6:51).  So his flesh is equated with the bread of life;  but that doesn’t help us much, because bread is itself another symbol, not the real thing. 

There’s a further clue in the passage.  Jesus discusses the "bread of life" (v48) with his disciples, then ends up saying, "The words I say to you are Spirit and life, but there are some of you who do not believe [them]." (Jn 6:63-64 literal). A little later, Peter said to him, "You have the words of eternal life and we have believed [them] and have realised that you are the Anointed one, the son of the living God" (Jn 6:68-69 literal).  There is an association between the bread of life, and Jesus words/teachings which lead to eternal life.  This raises the possibility that Jesus’ words are the bread of life, and that to “eat them” means to believe and act upon them and live by them.

Clues and keys elsewhere tend to support this idea.  Jesus said that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from God's mouth (Mt 4:4), so there's an association between bread and divine words/instructions/teachings.  Jesus warned his disciples to watch out for the “yeast” of the Pharisees, referring to their teachings (Mt 16:5-12);  and although yeast isn't quite the same as bread, it's fairly close, and again the association is with words/teachings.  John talked about Jesus being God’s word becoming flesh (Jn 1:14), which makes another link between Jesus’ flesh and God’s words.

So I think it most likely that eating Jesus’ flesh is a symbol for keeping his words/teachings.  It’s rather graphic, but it does vividly portray the need to consume Jesus’ teachings, live on them, and make them our staple diet as we apply them and live by them.

Next, “drinking his blood” is harder to decode, because John 6 is primarily about the “bread of life” and Jesus’ flesh, and says far less about drinking his blood.  All we know about “drinking his blood” from the passage itself is that it is “real drink”, and that it is essential for eternal life (Jn 6:53-58).

What was “drinking” symbolic of, elsewhere?  Jesus invited people to come to him to drink the Holy Spirit (Jn 7:37-39);  on that occasion he likened the Spirit to water, not to blood, but it is still something which is drunk.

At the last supper, Jesus said the bread was his flesh to be eaten (Mt 26:26), and the wine was his blood to be drunk (Mt 26:27-28), which has a strong parallel to Jn 6;  but these are still symbols and he still didn’t say what the bread/flesh or wine/blood represent.

Although wine was used as a symbol elsewhere in the gospels, it was never explained specifically.  When the disciples were filled with the Spirit at Pentecost, some accused them of being drunk with wine (Acts 2:13);  this is another association between the Spirit and wine/blood, although a weak one.

This particular puzzle was answered for me by a personal revelation I had the day after I got baptised in the Holy Spirit, in 1993.  I'd been in the habit of asking God to cover me with the blood of Jesus each night before I went to sleep, because someone had told me it was a good thing to do! The first night I went to sleep after being baptised in the Spirit, I again prayed my routine prayer, but to my surprise the Holy Spirit's anointing promptly flowed quite tangibly all over my body even down to my fingertips and toes.  I thought, "That's odd—I asked to be covered with the blood of Jesus, and got covered with the Holy Spirit instead!"  Then it dawned upon me:  "The Holy Spirit is the blood of Jesus."  When I stopped to think about it, it made good sense.  Blood is the stuff that flows around a body and gives life to its every part;  and it is the Holy Spirit that flows from Jesus to us and gives us life.  The Holy Spirit is the spiritual reality of the physical emblem of Jesus' blood.  (The vine analogy of John 15 also fits in quite well with this; Jesus said that a branch/person has to remain connected to the vine to bear fruit, and we know that this is dependent upon its sap/circulation;  and while vine sap is neither wine nor blood, it is closely related to both in that it produces wine in the grapes, and it circulates like blood).

So I’m reasonably happy that “drinking his blood” means receiving and being filled with the Spirit.

This would all make sense.  Following his teachings (“eating his flesh”) and receiving the Holy Spirit (“drinking his blood”) are the two things we need in order to gain eternal life, and are represented by the two main elements of the Last Supper.

This analogy would indeed have been hard for Jesus’ disciples at the time in John 6, because they would probably have taken him literally.  Jews were forbidden to consume blood at all (Lev 7:26), let alone human blood;  and the list of animals they were allowed to eat did not include human meat (Lev 11).

 

Symbolism in Jesus’ Teachings

Symbolism is an area where a lot of people go astray, so I have a section devoted to the principles of understanding symbolism in Jesus' teachings.

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