Eating Christ, Part 1


The Initial Confrontation

Among sacerdotalists and some sacramentalists, John 6 is considered to be the dernier mot. They see it as the definitive proof text that irrefutably demonstrates the bodily presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharistic elements. They insist that in the Eucharist, people actually eat Jesus’ flesh and drink Jesus’ blood (Jn 6:53-56).

What does the passage teach? The early part of the chapter narrates the story about Jesus feeding five thousand men (the text does not say whether women or children were present). This story includes the so-called “miracle of the loaves” in which Jesus multiplies a few loaves of bread to be able to feed the crowd.

In view of the miracle, the crowd tried to take Jesus and force Him to become their king, probably because they saw an opportunity for a government welfare program. Jesus, however, slipped away quietly. The disciples took boats and began to row to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. When they were hindered by weather, Jesus performed His miracle of walking out to the boat across the water. The story ends with their boat arriving suddenly, and apparently miraculously, near Capernaum.

In the meanwhile, the crowd was trying to figure out what had happened to Jesus. They saw the disciples leave, and they knew that Jesus was not with them. They waited for a while, but when they discerned that Jesus was gone, they decided to follow the disciples. They took boats and came to Capernaum, where they found Jesus and the disciples. Perplexed, they asked Jesus, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

Jesus ignored their question. Knowing that the crowd consisted mainly of day-laborers (people who would do a day’s work for a day’s food), He told them to stop working for “food that perishes,” but to work for food that “remains to eternal life.” The point of this saying is that feeding the body does not satisfy the hunger of the soul, and the feeding of the soul is the more important of the two. These people were so impressed with a free meal that they had followed Jesus across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus wanted them to exhibit as much concern for their eternal wellbeing as for their temporal satisfaction.

In response to Jesus’ statement, the crowd asked a question: “What shall we do that we may work the works of God?” This question implies that they understood their relationship with God to be defined by the works that they would do. If they could do enough of the right things, God would be impressed.

Jesus’ reply exposes their misunderstanding. He states that the “work” that God wanted from them was simply to believe on the one whom God sent. Obviously, this was no work at all, at least not in the sense that they were thinking of the “works of God.” It was also tantamount to a messianic claim on Jesus’ part. Indeed, He had already made such a claim when He said that the “Son of man” (a messianic title) was the one who would give them food that would remain to eternal life.

To this point, what Jesus was doing was to confront the crowd with His personal claims. Effectively, He was claiming two things. First, He was claiming to be the Messiah. Second, He was claiming to have the authority to save (as the one who distributes bread that remains to eternal life). Belief in Him was the only thing that God required.

The crowd responded to these claims by asking for a sign. This request is astonishing in its effrontery. Before Jesus was the same crowd that had witnessed the miracle of the loaves. It was the same crowd that tried to force Him to become king. Now, in reaction to His own claims, the people suddenly reversed themselves and insisted upon a sign. Their demand was tantamount to a confession of unbelief.

The crowd, however, did not stop there. Having as good as professed their unbelief, the people went on to specify the kind of sign that they would find convincing: “Our fathers ate manna in the wilderness—he gave them bread out of heaven.” Amazingly, these people were angling for more free meals. They were trying to manipulate Jesus into acting like the kind of Messiah they wanted, rather than the Messiah whom God sent Him to be.

In order to expose their duplicity, Jesus lured the crowd on. He stated that the manna given by Moses was not the real bread out of heaven. There was something better than manna, something that came down out of heaven, something that was true bread from God.

The crowd was still thinking in terms of free meals. They understood everything that Jesus said in terms of temporal hunger and temporal eating—just as Jesus knew they would. As He expected, they responded, “Evermore give us this bread!” Their request could be paraphrased, “Yeah, yeah. Give us the real stuff!”

At this point, Jesus had the crowd exactly where He wanted them. The stage was now set for the confrontation which unfolds in the following verses. In order to understand that confrontation, the following points must be kept in mind.

First, Jesus has drawn a contrast between temporal hunger and eternal hunger, between the needs of the body and the needs of the soul. A meal can satisfy the body, but the soul needs something different. The soul needs eternal life.

Second, Jesus wants people to be as concerned about their eternal needs as they are their temporal needs. He does not simply dismiss or ignore the needs of the body—after all, He has just fed five thousand men miraculously. He does insist, however, that the needs of the soul are more important. A time will come when the needs of the body will no longer be an issue, but the needs of the soul last forever.

Third, Jesus claims that God can satisfy the hunger of the soul. Only God provides food that remains to eternal life. To feast with God and to enjoy His company is the very thing that will satisfy the soul. Joining that feast is the most important thing that any soul can do.

Fourth, Jesus defines the central issue as faith, and, specifically, as faith in Him. He is the sole distributor of the food that remains to eternal life. To receive that food means to believe on Him. This is the crucial issue: for Jesus, eating equals believing. Trusting Him is precisely what it means to eat the bread that comes down from heaven. This is a point that Jesus will emphasize in the coming verses.

The Incomprehensible

Isaac Watts (1674–1748)

Far in the Heavens my God retires:
My God, the mark of my desires,
And hides His lovely face;
When He descends within my view,
He charms my reason to pursue,
But leaves it tired and fainting in th’ unequal chase.

Or if I reach unusual height
Till near His presence brought,
There floods of glory check my flight
Cramp the bold pinions of my wit,
And all untune my thought;
Plunged in a sea of light I roll,
Where wisdom, justice, mercy, shines;
Infinite rays in crossing lines
Beat thick confusion on my sight, and overwhelm my soul.

Great God! behold my reason lies
Adoring: yet my love would rise
On pinions not her own:
Faith shall direct her humble flight,
Through all the trackless seas of light,
To Thee, th’ Eternal Fair, the Infinite Unknown.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.


I am just wondering how Dr. Bauder defines the terms “sacerdotalist” and “sacramentalist.” There is a third term (“sacramentarian”) which Lutherans applied to Zwinglians in the controversies over the efficacy of the sacraments.

Magister Reformatus Classicusque

I’m assuming that “sacerdotalist” refers to those who see the sacraments as imparting grace ex opere operato (by the power of the one performing), whereas “sacramentalist” applies to those who see them as imparting grace by faith.

My Blog:

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

I see that if you change your definition of “sacramentalist” to “those who see the sacraments as means by which the Holy Spirit imparts the grace of Christ received by faith,” then I am a “sacramentalist.” I think I’m in good company, though: the Apostle Paul, Augustine of Hippo, and the Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin.

Magister Reformatus Classicusque

I agree with you. However, Bauder comes short of condemning “sacramentalism” in this article. At the beginning, he says “sacerdotalists and some sacramentalists” and goes on to refute the idea of bodily presence. He holds the Regulative Principle, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he also held some sacramental notion of the Supper. I don’t know, though.

I too disavow bodily presence, while I affirm real presence.

My Blog:

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

I think that a “bodily” or “corporeal” presence of our Lord at His Table in His Supper violates both the letter and the spirit of Chalcedonian Christology (i.e., Biblical orthodoxy on the Person of Christ). The Holy Spirit mediates the real presence of our Lord in His Sacrament through His Word, as Augustine of Hippo affirmed: “Verbum accedet elementum, fit sacramentum” (“Let the Word come to the element, and it becomes a sacrament”). It is the Word of Christ, not the pronouncement of a “priest” that rules.

By the way, the Confessional Lutherans, who affirm a corporeal presence of Christ in the sacrament, specifically disawow that John 6 is about the Lord’s Supper.

I am reminded of Duns Scotus’ aphorism: “In the sacrament, we receive Christ mentally, not dentally.”

Magister Reformatus Classicusque