Twice More to John 6: An Analysis of the Sacramental Interpretation

Twice More to John 6:

An Analysis of the Sacramental Interpretation

Rev. Philip Hale – St. Paul, Bancroft and St. John, Lyons NE


John 6 is a controversial touchstone because it is here that different understandings and methods of interpretation meet so concretely.  Both Charles Gieschen and David Scaer, from their essays in the January/April 2014 CTQ, have similar views of the text, though they argue in different ways [Gieschen, “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the Gospel of John,” 23-45; Scaer, “Once More to John 6,” 47-62].  The result appears to be in line with Lutheran theology, but the interpretation itself is not historically Lutheran.  This is due to modern assumptions and approaches to Scripture and the interpretive task.  This essay seeks only to analyze the arguments, not to present a full understanding of the text.

A sacramental reading of John 6 is not too dangerous in itself.  Many laymen have mistakenly thought the same, just by hearing the words “eat,” “drink,” “flesh [though not body],” and “blood.”   That is not doing solid theology or taking Scripture seriously as a doctrinal foundation though.   But what is perplexing is that many fail to see a radically different understanding of Scripture behind the now commonplace view of John 6.  It really is a much bigger issue than a few verses or a chapter.   There is a reason no orthodox Lutheran theologian saw John 6 as sacramental before the acceptance of historical criticism in the 1800’s.  What is the reason behind this powerful fact?  They read Scripture differently.

The underlying assumptions are what drive the differing interpretations.  What are the presuppositions of the sacramental reading?  “If one understands Jesus’ discourses in this gospel as sermons that John delivered to the post-Easter church that was baptized and celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly, then it is easier to understand how these discourses communicate about the sacraments” [25].  The argument that  John 6 is about the Supper is extra-biblical, not from the text itself.  It is presupposed that  “the Gospels are not diaries but post-resurrection, interpretive, theological commentaries” [54].  But, since all the words in the text are attributed to Jesus, at what point does the different audience come in at?   While this interpretation is reasonable to many, they fail to see why modern scholars press the issue so hard.  It  has emerged as the test case for their critical view of Scripture.  A sermon or commentary is an application or reflection on the Word of God.  But is not all Scripture the Word of God?

In both essays a radically different view of Scripture is assumed.  An “episode or statement of Jesus was deliberately chosen in order to call these sacraments to mind” [25].   This refers to the redactor [editor] of the gospel, and this type of interpretation is called redaction criticism.  The gospels especially came to be seen in the 1960’s as narrow theological documents (“sermons” or “commentaries”) of a theologian, rather than the universal Word of God.  The context of Scripture was severely limited.  Scholars insisted they were written by sophisticated writers, not necessarily by the Spirit for all times, addressing a very specific historical context (1st century), apart from which they cannot be understood.  So it is not that the early Lutherans were “cutting their losses” [49].  Rather, they actually took the words at face value and submitted to the text as to God, apart from any assumed context or historical criticism.

Modern readers ostensibly determined to find the sacraments in every passage fail to read the whole chapter as a coherent historical narrative.  There is a theological unity between John 6 and the Lord’s Supper, for it speaks of Christ’s divinity and atonement of mankind.  The same Christ who died and rose gives His body and blood in the Supper.  All doctrine is related dogmatically.  But careless exegesis short circuits the theological task by looking for code words pointing outside the text itself.   This critical method, though not necessarily its conclusions, devalue the words given by God and the authority of our doctrine by simply assuming the truth.  If the Scriptures are mere commentaries on God’s Word, how are they also that very Word?  A presumed distinction is made between the “direct Word of God” and apostolic commentary on that Word of God [Scaer, Apostolic Scriptures, (CPH 1971), 51.]

Redaktionsgeschichte [Redaction criticism] puts the emphasis on the writer[s] [redactors of the materials]” … “who deliberately set forth their material in such a way as to teach a given theological position” [Apostolic Scriptures, 62].  Exegesis then becomes an excavation of individual (previously assumed) themes and emphases from the redactor’s theological and historical  context, rather than a drawing out of all teaching from the single source of God’s Word.  While the results in the LCMS have not been as caustic or un-theological as for the liberal scholars, this approach does undermine Scripture as the basis for all doctrine.

This new view of the Bible allows for hidden or novel interpretations, not provable by the text itself.   Words like “symbolic” or “undertones” are used.  Conjecture and speculation are then objectified and “scriptural,” so the actual text itself is seen as unstable and indefinite.  The reasoning goes: a few words of John 6:52-58 sound like the sacramental words, therefore they must be about the Sacrament. The focus is on key words and extra-biblical data, so that the meaning is obvious even apart from the context.  The basic argument is that the context of John 6 is the early church, not the words or history given in the text.  Luther went to the text and saw an accurate reporting of Jesus’ dialogue with unbelieving Jews who merely wanted bread from Jesus.  These two CTQ articles barely address the text, the content of John 6.  How can one disprove what is not there for sure in the first place? The sacramental view deals with the scriptural meaning as shadows and images, not the plain truth of Christ—the bread of life who died for all men.

So John 6 addresses a hypothetical problem of the early Church, but one not mentioned by the text.   “Could John have confronted a similar problem: Christians denying the Son of God in the flesh by abstaining from the Lord’s Supper and then leaving?”  [43].  Did Jesus feed the 5000 and address the Jews’ unbelief in rather harsh words to speak to later Christians about avoiding communion?   Only if John is more a creative author than a simple narrator who is concerned about historical accuracy.  Luther’s chronological argument (that the Supper was not yet instituted) assumed that John 6 was reliable history in every sense.  This novel approach raises the question: Did John forge Jesus’ words to give this “secret” message about the Supper?  It is contrary to the idea of a historical narrative.  If a newspaper article was written with hidden undertones of the truth in this manner, we would call it a lie.  But God does not lie or deceive—men do.

Luther did not just take a polemical stance on this text.  He preached extensively and positively on it.   To accuse him of doing otherwise is dishonest.   He could say, “Thus saith the Lord.”  But here in these two articles we have “if’s” and hypotheses and unproved “rules of interpretation.”  For Luther the text was bigger than him.  It was not an academic question, but God’s own Word that dare not be played with as a “chessboard” [62].  Luther was not “cutting his losses” or equivocating due to ecumenical concerns [49].  His hand was not forced by anything other than God’s Word.  Luther was not the compromising type.  Scripture is bigger than us and our desire for a clearer and more direct word—it is God’s speech to us.

Luther, when he makes his “either-or” argument about John 6 being sacramental, is accused of being “purely Zwinglian.”  This disrespect of Luther is shameful.  Luther was not backed into a corner by this text, rather his exegetical position on John 6 was firmly fixed from 1520, before the sacramentarian controversy [52; The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, LW 36:19].  He preached many sermons on it over decades.  They were positive, Gospel-filled sermons, not simply polemical diatribes.   “In a different situation the reformer may have allowed his intuition to follow his instincts to develop a eucharistic interpretation of John 6. His situation did not allow him this luxury.  Ours does.” [62].  How can anyone know Luther’s supposed exegetical intuition, when he spoke so vehemently against what these articles propose?  This is a poor way of arguing and no words of Luther are even enlisted.

The root of this sacramental interpretation is actually a modern, historical-critical method of interpreting the Word of God.  But Luther had no such sophistication—clear Scripture was the basis for his doctrine.  This is the real reason Luther held to his view on John 6, despite the disparagement of modern scholars: Luther was compelled by the text.  In stark contrast, modern “interpreters of this discourse must be aware that they are interpreting not only what the original speaker (i.e, Jesus) was communicating to the original audience (i.e., Jews and disciples of Jesus), but primarily what the author (i.e., John) was communicating to his readers (i.e., post-Easter Christians)” [37].  The question of authorship is the issue.  Did John “author” Jesus’ words, that is, falsify them?  Did John modify Jesus’ quotations for his secondary context thereby changing their meaning?  How can they still be Jesus’ words if his original words were edited or redacted to say something contrary to their original sense?

Historic Lutheranism took the words at face value.  Jesus was speaking to Jews before the Supper was instituted.  The text attributes all the speech to Jesus and none to John.  Did John overlay the words with symbolic meaning?  Redaction criticism claims that he did by changing the original discourses and words, as though he were a theological author in his own right.  While it allows for more creativity in interpretation, it is also an indefensibly low view of Scripture.  This critical view has been a boon to scholars bored with rigid doctrinal theology and the clear Word of God, but it is dangerous and deceiving when its results are pressed upon the Church.

The real question should be: Is John 6 a plain historical narrative or something else, not indicated by the text?  The result of this interpretation is confusion, not clarity:  “The earliest church reflections on the Lord’s Supper are seen to resemble closely what later became the classical Reformed view of a symbolical meal.  Texts in their final form, as we have them in the Bible, were encrusted with views now associated with Lutherans and Catholics. Because the Gospels preserve both earlier and later reflections on the Last Supper, Lutherans and Reformed justified their accommodation as biblical with each other on the Lord’s Supper in the Formula of Agreement”  [Scaer,  “Reformed Exegesis and Lutheran Sacraments: Worlds in Conflict,” CTQ 64 (Jan.\ 2000), no. 1:18-19].  This is a very different underlying view of Scripture, that there are high-level strands or themes woven into the true history and words of Jesus, addressing an unlisted audience.  Such a view renders the text uncertain and likely conflicting.

If the Scriptures are a priori about the sacramental rites, then of course, any “eating” or “drinking” is sacramental, apart from the context in which those words occur.  Must every lunch we digest also be sacramental if we “take it” and “give thanks” via the common table prayer?  But how does that help proclamation or faith?  The truth is that simply pointing to the outward work of receiving communion is not the Gospel.  It fails to do the hard work of telling us why we should want Christ’s body and blood.  John 6 does proclaim Christ’s atonement and self-giving for the world.  But Communion is not open for all (especially the unbelieving Jews to whom Jesus directs His words) to receive, as is the Gospel.  It is the preacher’s job to connect the text and its context to people and then direct them to the Supper in faith, so they desire the forgiveness it offers.  This a much more difficult task than simply ripping John 6:53 out of its context by an exegetical sleight of hand.

Contra the misleading argument, John 6 is still figurative, even if it is sacramental [58].  Eating Jesus’ “flesh” is cannibalism, not the Supper, if the text is taken literally.  If taking “eating” and “drinking” as faith is “spiritualizing” the text or “allegorical,”  so is making it about the Lord’s Supper [57].   The purely physical eating of John 6 is cannibalism, which does not give life.  The Lutheran Confessions label this literal view of the Jews in John 6 “the Capernaitic eating” and deny that it is the Supper instituted by Jesus.  “Hence we hereby utterly reject and condemn the Capernaitic eating of the body of Christ, as though we taught that His flesh were rent with the teeth, and digested like other food” [FC Ep VII:42].  So the sacramental reading still takes a figurative, half-allegorical approach, while also leaving behind the stated context (Jews) and the theme (faith) of Jesus’ prior words.   It is a forced and inaccurate argument.   Eating Jesus’ big toe like an apple is not the same as receiving the Supper for forgiveness.  The Lutheran confessions are clear on this, whereas the sacramental-redactionists are vague and equivocating.

What does a sacramental vision of John 6 add to proclamation?  Nothing.  It merely shows they have found the sacraments that they assumed  were there (from the unwritten context).  So everything can be “sacramental,” but it will be a generic meaning as presented: “Christians are to see how this meal teaches them about the ongoing presence of the risen Lord, who now prepares and serves his church with the miraculous food of his flesh and blood.”  That is exactly the assumed context in the first place:   Early Christians are gathered around the Supper!  It removes the work of wrestling with faith and the Gospel, as if Christianity were simply a matter of eating and drinking in outward observance at the right spot. This method of doing theology is inferior to Luther’s.

It is boldly stated:  “The prologue necessitates that one adopt a sacramental consciousness in order to understand the theology of this Gospel” [59].  But the prologue does not mention the sacraments or any sort of consciousness.  The beautiful words of John which speak of the incarnation of our Lord are not a license for a game of hermeneutical “Where’s Waldo.”  Many allusions, encrustments, and themes related to the Sacrament do not profit faith.  Firm promises of Christ do, which is what Luther sought.   The thesis is unproved, yet it is  required of us to “uncover a sacramental interpretation in the very fiber of John’s Gospel” [61].  How vague and reductionistic.  The logic is: “It must be, even though it doesn’t explicitly say, so it really is.”It reeks of modern biblical scholasticism, as opposed to the Spirit who leads into certain truth.

“Eucharistic clues,” or redaction-critical “droppings” we might say, are seen by those with the correct sacramental “consciousness” [60, 61].   So anything that can remotely be twisted to be about the sacraments is about the sacraments, by theological fiat.  No careful reading of Scripture is needed!   No wonder we cannot even discuss this passage rationally—the discussion is not about the passage at all.To follow Luther’s reasoning is to render these modern Lutherans “amused” and “baffled” [54].   The authority and unity of Scripture is really at stake.  The presumed fact that John 6 is so “obviously” about the Sacrament and useful for us today, does not make it true or faithful to the Word of God.

No one can say that John 6 is not about faith.  To do so is to call God a liar.  The text speaks clearly.   v29: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  v35-36:  “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. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.”  v40:  “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”  v47-48:  “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.  I am the bread of life.”   There is no break in the text—Jesus continues the sermon to speak of eating His flesh, since He is the bread of life.  He escalates the bread of life metaphor for faith in the face of the Jews’ offense at Him (so the Gospel becomes the savor of death to them). Contra Luther and the text itself: “There is a distinct shift in the discourse at John 6:51” [38].  Is this from John the “author” or from Jesus the author?  How are we to know?  Luther’s reading of it, available in LW 23 and many sermons in English, demonstrates a more careful attention to the inspired words.

The contrary perspective, as argued, is less forthright and actually somewhat deceiving.  It insults Luther, while not revealing its own playful understanding of this text.  It fails to admit that words can be used in many ways.  A homily is not strict interpretation.  Exegesis is not dogmatics.  In Christian freedom, we can use the words of John 6 in ways Jesus did not intend or sanction at all, as long as we don’t contradict the Scriptures or change their meaning.  We are not bound to speak just like Jesus.

These arguments dismiss Luther and psychoanalyze him as to the reason he could not really be “Lutheran” and read John 6 as sacramental.  It is so obvious from this perspective that Luther must have been forced by severe circumstances to be so “Zwinglian.”  But maybe such scholars in Luther’s shoes have not surpassed the master.   Luther rebuts: “I now remind you that these words are not to be misconstrued and made to refer to the Sacrament of the Altar; whoever so  interprets them does violence to this Gospel text.  There is not a letter in it that refers to the Lord’s Supper”  [Church Postil 2.1:402].

Again, what is gained by a sacramental reading of John 6?  Besides being natural and easy (and requiring almost no interpretive work), what does it contribute to our knowledge?  That we should have communion with fish or nothing instead of wine?  That Baptism is not enough for infants?  Errors have crept in due to emphasizing this misreading of the text, which does not talk about the Lord’s Supper at all.  It does not say anything definitive about the Supper, even according to the opposition.  But what do allusions contribute to faith?  They are not solid promises to rely on, but only intellectual hooks upon which to hang what we already know and assume.  So John 6 (or really only a few verses) is merely the jumping off point for those who understand the sacramental clues.  The real context of it, the feeding of the 5000, the Manna, the Jews wanting a bread-king and not a Savior, become irrelevant.   After all, some would argue: “A chronological approach to the Gospel may provide a distorted interpretation” [55].  That is a strange guideline and impossible to prove.  While the Gospels are not history books, we must assume that they are accurate where they imply chronological accuracy, if we are to consider them true at all.

Scripture is at stake.  This  recent sacramental reading of John 6 demands a context outside of Scripture, an unwritten one we can never be sure of.  How can we know if we have arrived at a “fuller” reading of the “sacramental overtones,” if they are not plainly stated [45]?  What if we have faith in Christ for forgiveness, but not the correct sacramental consciousness?  Is that the same as the Spirit, who is required to understand Scripture and believe in Christ who is Lord?  This redaction-critical method  turns the clear and plain Scriptures, which explicitly testify of Christ, into hidden messages containing subtle, unstated themes, which cannot be a reliable foundation for Christ’s sure, saving teaching.  It obfuscates the Word of God.  Not only that, it denies by implication Sola Scriptura and its perspicuity, by necessitating an unknown 1st century context.  This disagreement is not over a verse or chapter, but the nature of Scripture and how it should be viewed as authoritative today.


Twice More to John 6: An Analysis of the Sacramental Interpretation — 41 Comments

  1. I appreciate your concern for Scripture.

    However, I think you are wrong regarding these articles and John 6. The presupposition is not redaction criticism, which supposes a textual transmission and editing process. Instead the authors of the articles consider that although the original words of Jesus were directed toward the Jews, that the audience of John’s gospel is also relevant. Neither professor would argue that the context of Jesus’ audience is irrelevant. You may fault their writings for a lack of attention to the full context of the feeding of the 5000, walking on water, or whatever you think is lacking, if you like. However, just because they believe John 6 refers to the Supper doesn’t make them higher critics any more than that charge can be leveled against countless writers from the patristic and medieval era.

    A major argument you make is that the fact that the original conversation occurred before the institution of the Supper means Jesus couldn’t have been referring to the sacrament. But you presumably believe that John 3 refers to baptism?

    There are countless quibbles I have with your own assumptions, but I don’t mean to be argumentative. I simply hope to ease your mind with respect to the articles in question and direct the conversation about John 6 away from straw-man assertions about higher criticism and towards the content of Holy Scripture.

    Blessings on your ministry

  2. George (or Pastor?),

    Basing an interpretation on John’s audience and their supposedly sacramental expectations is basing an interpretation on an uncertain foundation. That’s Pastor Hale’s point. We don’t know that the expectations of John’s audience were to find the sacraments in everything Jesus said. We know what the text tells us and we know what Acts and the Apostles tell us, and we have to let this be our context, not historical conjectures.

  3. Elizabeth,

    I agree with your general point. But Acts and the epistles, and even the gospels reveal to us much about the situation in the church. John himself says that “many other things” happened in Jesus’ life. The ones that were written (by inspiration of the Holy Spirit) were chosen for a reason. It’s not speculative to say that the church knew about the Lord’s supper and the eating of Jesus’ body and drinking of His blood. If you have to be convinced from Scripture about that point, then I Corinthians is very clear.

    So, if the audience of John’s gospel knew of the Lord’s Supper (which they certainly did) then it’s reasonable to think that Jesus, knowing what was coming later, would refer to it beforehand, even if the apostles themselves wouldn’t understand until after the resurrection. Several other instances in John are like that. One such is John 3, a baptismal proof-text. Also, the evangelist is clear about this regarding the rebuilding of the temple of Jesus’ body. They didn’t get it until later — but after the resurrection it became clear to them.

    All I’m really calling for is to dial down the rhetoric of “higher critic” and to step back and seriously look at the text.


  4. Thanks George.

    I agree that we can know from Scripture that John’s audience partakes of the Lord’s Supper and have received Baptism. This is why it would not be surprising if John chose, by the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, to include a speech of Jesus wherein he makes an allusion to the Sacrament that he will soon institute. I think that Gieschen’s point about John 6 being about faith in the flesh and blood Jesus is right on in this context. It makes sense for a hearer or reader of John 6 to move from this statement of Jesus to think about receiving Christ’ body and blood in faith in the Sacrament. The words of Jesus, however, are – as Gieschen says – about receiving Christ in faith. This is, as it were, the “literal” sense. When we understand him to be speaking of the sacrament, we need to understand this flowing from this foundation.

    Thanks again for your post.

  5. First time post here after reading forever. Yay!

    I’ve read much of the Sacramental nature of John 6, and respect much either way. I know I don’t know enough to comment one way or the other. Leave that to the experts here. 🙂 I have to admit, thinking through this article kind of made me think of John 6 more outside of a sacramental context again, rolling back to Luther’s thoughts.

    That said, my mind when considering this again today went to the baptism in John 3 – thinking about the “not instituted yet” like the supper in John 6. Pondering on this a bit more, I did realize Jesus himself was baptized in John 1 before this point in John 3.

    Not sure if this makes any sense, but curious if while the “great commission” institution of baptism wasn’t given yet, that adds a pretense to John 3 with regards to baptism which John 6 does not have for the sacramental supper.

    Hope that makes sense, never pondered that before until comparing John 3/6 again with this post.

    Thanks for all you all do!

  6. @George #1
    Well said, George.

    We obviously wouldn’t be accusing the countless Church Fathers who saw a direct sacramental link in John 6, of the modern innovation of higher criticism.

    I also like the imagery of John’s Gospel, laid alongside the Synoptics. I’ve heard some Evangelicals argue that John’s Gospel is not Sacramental but symbolical, and therefore de-emphasizes the Sacraments which are so clearly established in the other Gospels. However, when we stand back and look at Johns Gospel as a whole, we see clearly the Sacramental image for Baptism in John 3, Eucharist in John 6, and Absolution in John 20. The Gospels show a wonderful unity, brought about by the inspiration of the Spirit who led the authors to pen them.

  7. My $0.02: Accedit verbum ad elementum, et fit sacramentum. No bread, no sacrament here in John 6. Simultaneously, the passage exalts the real presence of Christ in the sacrament given on the night he was betrayed.

  8. After this many of His disciples turned back and no longer walked with Him. … At which point Jesus ran after them saying, “Wait, fellas! You’ve misunderstood Me. It was all symbolic. When I said, “eat my flesh,” I meant “believe in Me.” You’re thinking about this “capernaitically,” but I only mean it “spiritually.” Fellas, fellas, please! This isn’t really THAT hard of a saying – I’ve been saying the same thing this whole time – just believe in me! My bad for making this so confusing with all that “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood” stuff – just never mind, okay! … And after this many of His disciples returned and walked with Him and Huldrych Zwingli into the sunset.

  9. @diesirae #8

    This is precisely the sort of unhelpful mockery that makes traditional Lutherans react. You know, of course, that Luther argued for a spiritual eating against Ulrich Zwingli? Instead of leveling simplistic mockery of the well-established position of the Lutheran Confessions as regards John 6, maybe you could speak respectfully and not assume the people you’re arguing with are total morons.

    Thanks Day of Wrath!

  10. re: John 3 and the baptism of our Lord….

    It’s true that baptism was an established practice, at least by John the Baptist. But the idea that it is connected to rebirth and the gift of the Holy Spirit is new, and Calvinists universally (at least what I’ve read and talked to) assert that therefore John 3 is non-sacramental.

    On the other hand, I think the primary referent for John 6 is the passover. The opening of the chapter puts it in that context, and the words “flesh” and “blood” are sacrificial language primarily. I think that if you carefully look at the connection between Leviticus 17 and John 6 you will see that Jesus is defining the eating in terms of the sacrificial system (cf. I Corinthians 10). His point is that if you don’t eat the sacrifice, you’re not a participant. However, if you eat the sacrifice of Christ then you truly have life because He is life (cf. John 1).

    Let’s continue to look deeply at the text. Exegesis isn’t done by dogmatic or historical assumption. Dogmatics help the exegete not go against the rule of faith and history helps the exegete to see how the text was used by other Christians, and perhaps diffiiculties unforseen. But primarily we must allow Scripture to interpret Scripture.

  11. @Elizabeth Peters #9


    Instead of “reacting” to the above as if it were mockery, an alternative would be to consider the point being made.

    If “eat my flesh,” “drink my blood,” “my flesh is true food,” my blood is true drink,” and all the rest simply means “believe in me,” then where is the scandal that causes so many to depart after this specific homily? Evidently Jesus’ hearers thought He meant what He said, so, why didn’t Jesus just correct their misunderstanding?

    For the record, I’m not “assuming” you or anyone else here are “total morons.” That’s not a kind assertion for you to make.

    Recordare, Jesu pie,
    quod sum causa tuae viae;
    ne me perdas illa die.

    In Christ,

  12. @diesirae #11

    Day of Wrath,

    To deny that what you wrote is mockery is disingenuous. What you wrote belongs to a genre. It’s called satire. And satire is by very definition mockery. This isn’t a matter of subjective impressions.

    As to the point at issue, are you a Christian and yet do not know that faith in Jesus is the greatest scandal, the greatest offense, imaginable? How many times does Paul say that faith in Christ is an offense to the Jews? Or must we now interpret Paul sacramentally, so that when he says the Gospel is an offense, or Christ crucified is an offense, he really means that the Lord’s Supper is an offense?

    Asking why Jesus didn’t just explain himself better is like asking why God doesn’t come down with a loud speaker from heaven and convert everyone. This is a question for Richard Dawkins, not for pious Christians.

    Wonderful verse, by the way – my favorite part of that hymn.

  13. Here are some of the notes from TLSB, pages 1792, 1793. For John 6:51-58 –

    ‘Not an obvious reference to the Lord’s Supper: the words of institution are not recorded, no wine is present, Jesus speaks of “flesh” and not “body,” and the crowd is generally hostile and unbelieving. However, John records many veiled references to Jesus’ future service, such as His work on the cross (1:50; 2:4, 19-22; 4:32; 6:62; 12:32). Whereas the other Gospel writers collected Jesus’ parables, John collected Jesus’ enigmatic, or riddlelike, sayings. His wording anticipates the blessings of the Sacrament.’

    6:54 – “There is a twofold eating of Christ’s flesh. One is spiritual, which Christ describes especially in John 6:54. This ‘eating’ happens in no other way than with the Spirit and faith, in preaching and meditation on the Gospel, as well as in the Lord’s Supper” (FC SD VII 61).

    6:55 – Only through faith in Christ crucified do people have what they really need for eternal life, a life with God that earthly food and drink cannot provide. “His flesh is a truly life-giving food and His blood a truly life-giving drink” (FC SD VIII 76).’

  14. @Elizabeth Peters #12

    You called my first post “unhelpful mockery” and “simplistic mockery.” You accused me of speaking disrespectfully and accused me of assuming that you are all total morons.

    You’ve now accused me of being “disingenuous.” Followed up by, “are you a Christian and yet do not know that faith in Jesus is the greatest scandal, the greatest offense, imaginable?” You further put me down by writing, “This is a question for Richard Dawkins, not for pious Christians.”

    Then, after all your love, you salute the gospel.

    Nevermind John 6. I’ll concede the argument. Elizabeth, what’s going on in your heart that you dialogue with people this way?

  15. @diesirae #14
    Nevermind John 6. I’ll concede the argument.

    Aggressive people shouldn’t be allowed to “win” with a few rude names.
    Come on back, diesirae! You’ve got company.

    I’ve seen this argument run to 100’s of posts on LQ.
    [No, I didn’t read them all. After a bit, they resembled Elizabeth’s: name calling; no new information.]

    @Diane #13

    …Whereas the other Gospel writers collected Jesus’ parables, John collected Jesus’ enigmatic, or riddlelike, sayings. His wording anticipates the blessings of the Sacrament.’

    Thanks for the quotes, Diane

    @george #10
    Let’s continue to look deeply at the text. Exegesis isn’t done by dogmatic or historical assumption. Dogmatics help the exegete not go against the rule of faith and history helps the exegete to see how the text was used by other Christians, and perhaps difficulties unforeseen. But primarily we must allow Scripture to interpret Scripture.

    And thank you, George!

  16. @diesirae #14

    I urge you to reread your original post, trying your best to be sympathetic to those who hold the traditional Lutheran view. Then, I ask you to read my posts in response as my loving correction of you. That’s how my mother talked to me when I said bad and hurtful things. It was an act of love. And that’s what’s going on in my heart.

  17. @Elizabeth Peters #12

    @diesirae #14

    There is plenty of room for discussion in John 6, but I will say two things:

    It’s weird to see Lutherans insisting that those who cling to the clear simple words of scripture have to prove they aren’t “Biblical Liberals” just because Luther held to a figurative interpretation. Using Luther’s own exegetical methods, the burden of proof lies w/ those who assert the figurative meaning of “believe” when given the clear simple present tense verbs “eat” and “drink” in John 6:53. Luther can occasionally be wrong, and higher criticism is not required to read John 6 sacramentally.

    My assumption is that anyone who uses a person’s tone as an argument against their position doesn’t have much of a position of their own. We’re more convincing when we stick to the content than when we talk about our own hurt feelings. In general, we bluff when we don’t have a good hand to play.

    Pax Christi+,
    -Matt Mills

  18. @Elizabeth Peters #16

    I read through all of the posts again at your request, Elizabeth. I’ve not once insulted you. You’ve done little but insult me. And at #16 your lovelessness you call love. The record is above and it is objective. I’m not going to bother with this further.

    To the rest of the forum:

    In many places Jesus preaches the gospel (which, yes, is offensive) and yet, there is not the mass rejection and departure that we see in John 6:60-61, 65-66. There is something unusual going on here. There is something in Jesus’ words in this particular homily that causes even His *disciples* to say “this is a hard saying; who can understand it?” If Jesus’ sermon in John 6 is simply “believe in Me,” why would his *disciples* respond this way?

  19. @diesirae #18

    No, you’ve insulted everyone who holds the position of Luther and the Lutheran fathers by satirizing their position and associating them with Zwingli, i.e. a heretic. But no matter, when I called you on it, your feelings were hurt, and that’s the important thing. Perhaps you’ll be more careful next time you set out to mock the Lutheran heritage.

  20. @ Elizabeth Peters #19


    To the rest of the forum:

    Jesus said, “Take, eat. This is my body. … Take drink this is my blood.” And the disciples remembered Jesus’ previous homily, where eating his flesh and drinking his blood simply meant, “believing in him.” So they realized this supper was nothing more than Jesus’ rather bizarre way of talking about faith. They ate and drank knowing that “eat my flesh” does not mean “eat my flesh,” anymore than “eat my body,” means “eat my body.” Why Jesus, in the “bread of life discourse” of all places, talked about drinking his blood – and, here, this Thursday night repeated the same – remained a mystery for them.

  21. It is Jesus who interprets his own words. In verse 35 Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall never hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” It is Jesus who teaches us that the eating and drinking of which he speaks in John 6 is not the oral eating and drinking of the sacramental elements, but the eating and drinking of faith.

    What is particularly scandalous about Christ’s claims in John 6 and what caused many to leave him was his claim that apart from faith in him nobody has any life in him. To eat and drink the flesh and blood of the Son of man = to come to him and to believe in him. This is the interpretation that Jesus provides for his own words if we let the immediate context guide us. The exclusive claims of Christ to be the only way to heaven is as offensive today as it was back when Jesus said it. And he says it again and again in St. John’s Gospel.

  22. Father Preus wins the internet for actually addressing the content of my question and giving very thoughtful answer. Sincerely, thank you.

    Two follow up questions:

    Could Jesus not be referring to a spiritual eating in the first part of his sermon, and a spiritual & sacramental eating by the end. The gospel (and exclusivity of Jesus) into the gospel in its most “concrete” form (the New Testament in my blood)?

    Would you address Scaer’s argument (paraphrase) that if John 6 isn’t about the lords supper, then john 3 isn’t about baptism?

    Thanks in advance!

  23. Pastor Preus,

    I also appreciate your attention to the text. I wonder, though, why the (false) disciples’ complaint was specifically directed at the eating of Jesus’ flesh. I agree with you that faith in Jesus as the only-begotten son of the Father is what receives all of God’s gifts and rejection of the same rejects all of His gifts. However, there is something more specific here, just as in John 3. Particularly the atonement and Jesus as the sacrificial offering in which we participate (through faith!) by eating His flesh and drinking His blood are the immediate context and direct referent of the Jew’s questioning and leaving.

    thank you,

  24. I’ve always been disappointed that John, who plays such a large role in the institution of the sacrament, doesn’t give his account of it. I expect his account would be as insightful and unique as the rest of his Gospel. I’m actually annoyed with him over this. He skips right over it, going from the high priestly prayer to the arrest in the garden. What gives with that? If John 6 doesn’t refer to the sacrament, then does John not cover it at all?

  25. dieserae, it appears that the subject matter remains the same throughout the discourse, as he begins and ends with referring to himself as the bread of life. As far as the linking of John 6 and John 3 is concerned, John 3 teaches baptismal regeneration and the necessity of baptism for salvation. John 3:5 clearly teaches this. We confess this in AC IX, in the Large Catechism on baptism, and elsewhere. Baptism is necessary for salvation. This is one reason why we baptize babies. If we say that John 6:53 refers to the oral eating and drinking, we are teaching that receiving the Lord’s Supper is necessary for salvation, but Lutherans don’t teach this. If we did, we would commune babies as the Orthodox do, but we don’t. We do baptize babies because we teach that baptism is necessary for salvation. I don’t think it is an accident that the hermeneutical change that has resulted in an understanding of John 6 at variance with the teaching of the Lutheran fathers has been accompanied by Lutherans advocating such Eastern Orthodox practices as infant Communion.

    George, take a close look at the verses before and after verse 60 and I think you will see that the false disciples’ complaint was not directed specifically at the eating of Christ’s flesh. It was directed most specifically against the incarnation and Christ’s claim to give eternal life.

    I don’t think that we need to exclude any kind of sacramental application of Christ’s words in John 6. Surely, the spiritual eating and drinking of Christ’s flesh and blood by faith accompanies the oral eating and drinking of Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion.

  26. @diesirae #22

    >> Could Jesus not be referring to a spiritual eating in the first part of his sermon, and a spiritual & sacramental eating by the end.

    Are you suggesting “both and”!?

    “It is universally acknowledged today that this chapter deals with the Supper. In earlier times, when the distinctive literary character of this Gospel had not yet been understood, John 6 was seen as containing at most a prophecy of the Supper. Even a theologian of Luther’s caliber disputed the connection of this chapter with the Sacrament of the Altar. It is also universally acknowledged today that the passage breaks down into two clearly distinct sections, the discourse on the bread of life (Jn 6:32-51a), and the discourse on eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ (Jn 6:51b-63)”

    from Christ and the Lord’s Supper, an Essay on the Understanding of the Sacrament of the Altar, Hermann Sasse, 1938. (taken from The Lonely Way-Vol I)

  27. I’m not sure if this is “both” or “and,” but it does come from the Lutheran Confessions, and not merely from Luther’s exegesis:

    Apol. XXIV,75
    “The Fathers, indeed, speak of a two-fold effect, of the comfort of consciences, and of thanksgiving, or praise. The former of these effects pertains to the nature [the right use] of the Sacrament; the latter pertains to the sacrifice. Of consolation Ambrose says: Go to Him and be absolved, because He is the remission of sins. Do you ask who He is? Hear Him when He says, John 6:35: ‘I am the Bread of life; he that cometh to Me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on He shall never thirst.’ This passage testifies that in the Sacrament the remission of sins is offered; it also testifies that this ought to be received by faith.”

  28. John 6:53 says that unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man you have no life — if John 6 is sacramental, then no salvation apart from partaking of the Supper.

    John 6:54 says that whoever eats and drinks His flesh and blood has eternal life — if John 6 is sacramental, then there is no unworthy eating and drinking and all that is required for salvation is the mere act of eating and drinking (not faith).

  29. @Rev. Steven W Bohler #29

    Rev. Steven W Bohler :
    John 6:53 says that unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man you have no life — if John 6 is sacramental, then no salvation apart from partaking of the Supper.

    No, if John 6 is sacramental, then no salvation if one remains in unbelief and thus refuse to partake of the Supper.

    Rev. Steven W Bohler :
    John 6:54 says that whoever eats and drinks His flesh and blood has eternal life — if John 6 is sacramental, then there is no unworthy eating and drinking and all that is required for salvation is the mere act of eating and drinking (not faith).

    No, if John 6 is sacramental, then the promise is connected to eating and drinking in faith.

    Sacramentarians of all ages have, of course, made the same claims:
    1. That if salvation is really given to sinners in the Sacrament, then all who die without having received the Sacrament will be condemned(like children who die prior to Baptism).

    2. That is salvation is really given to sinners in the Sacrament, then all those who reject Christ will be saved if they were once baptised, or if they have come up for Communion.

    Both these claims, however, represent a caricature of Biblical and Lutheran teaching about Sacraments, faith and salvation.

    The denial of salvation to the unbaptised or those who were for some reason or other unable to commune is not a necessary consequence of teaching that salvation is actually given to us in the Sacraments.

    Nor is claiming that those who reject Christ will be saved if they have once been baptised, and if they go to church and come up for Communion, a necessary consequence of teaching that salvation is actually given to sinners in the Sacraments.

  30. In the first discourse [Jn 6:32-51a], Christ is the Logos, the true bread that comes down from heaven. Eating this bread means to believe in him. In John 6:51, the place of Christ as the object of eating is taken by his flesh. The absolute necessity of the sacramental eating and drinking is now taught with strong words. Realism is, so to say, pushed to the limit. It is not in any way retracted by the statement “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail” (John 6:63 [RSV]). These words are patently directed against the error of crass materialism–that is, against that “Capernaitism” which understands the eating of Christ’s flesh in purely physical terms.

    Sasse, immediately continued from the previous snippet (The Lonely Way–Vol I, p 413)

  31. Dear BJS Bloggers,

    I agree with Pastor Rolf Preus in comment #25 when he states: I don’t think that we need to exclude any kind of sacramental application of Christ’s words in John 6. Surely, the spiritual eating and drinking of Christ’s flesh and blood by faith accompanies the oral eating and drinking of Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion.

    I agree with Pastor Preus, because he agrees with the Formula of Concord, SD, Article VII, 61-62–and I can’t think of when I have ever disagreed with him. 🙂

    Johann Gerhard gives an explanation about John 6 that is useful to the present debate. See Johann Gerhard, A Comprehensive Explanation of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (1610), tr. Elmer Hohle, eds. David Berger and James Heiser (German original–Berlin: Gustav Schlawitz, 1868; English trans.–Malone, TX: Repristination Press, 1996).

    In Part II on the Lord’s Supper, chapter 10, Gerhard asks “Why the Lord Christ specifically ordained bread and wine as the external elements of this Sacrament?” (Hohle ed., pp. 254-258). He writes:

    Because these two external elements, bread and wine, can be likened to the body and blood of Christ in many ways . . . It is definitely not improper that one seeks out such symbolism so long as one does not add that therein consists the chief and only officium sacramentale; that is, as long as one does not seek or establish the total essence of the Lord’s Supper in such representations.

    Then Gerhard quotes John 6: 50, 51, and 55 as examples of such symbolism, as well as other bible passages referring to bread and wine.

    At the same time, Gerhard defends the sacramental eating against those who would argue that it is only a spiritual eating based on John 6: 55, 58 (ibid., Part II, chapter 19, pp. 338-354).

    So, to put this in layman’s terms, references to bread and wine (which are nouns) in the Bible–including John 6–may properly be interpreted as representations or symbols pointing to the divine elements in the Lord’s Supper. But the business about “eating” (which is a verb) in John 6, refers to the spiritual eating, as Luther explains it.

    So this is a case of BOTH/AND, if properly understood according to Gerhard’s explanation.

    I keep finding that Johan Gerhard solves our confusions and problems. Budding Lutheran theologians (both clergy and laymen), and older ones too, need to get Johann Gerhard in English in their libraries, and become familiar with his works. We would have many fewer arguments among orthodox Lutherans if they did this. Of course, the same could be said for Chemnitz’s works and Luther’s works.

    CPH is gradually publishing Gerhard’s dogmatics (see Repristination Press is publishing his other works, though the one I cited seems to be presently out-of-print (see ).

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  32. Jesus uses many words in St. John’s Gospel to refer to faith, each of which pertains to different aspects of it: looking, knowing, eating and drinking, hearing, keeping, etc. I cannot think of a more beautiful way of teaching justification through faith alone than the words Jesus uses in John 6 about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. And, of course, nowhere is the central article of justification more clearly or concretely taught than where we kneel at the altar and eat and drink the body and blood by which our sins are forgiven and we are justified. For those who may be interested, here is a paper on justification and the Lord’s Supper:

  33. John 6:51-58 is quite clearly Eucharistic/Sacramental. If Luther were at any point to have disagreed with this, he would be wrong when/if he did so. We look back to the entire witness of the church throughout history on these matters, just as Luther and the other Lutheran fathers did. The Sacramental understanding of the text is not recent, it is quite historic.

  34. FC SD, Article VII, 61-62:

    “There is, therefore, a two-fold eating of the flesh of Christ, one spiritual, of which Christ treats especially John 6:54, which occurs in no other way than with the Spirit and faith, in the preaching and meditation of the Gospel, as well as in the Lord’s Supper, and by itself is useful and salutary, and necessary at all times for salvation to all Christians; without which spiritual participation also the sacramental or oral eating in the Supper is not only not salutary, but even injurious and damning [a cause of condemnation].

    But this spiritual eating is nothing else than faith, namely, to hear God’s Word (wherein Christ, true God and man, is presented to us, together with all benefits which He has purchased for us by His flesh given into death for us, and by His blood shed for us, namely, God’s grace, the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and eternal life), to receive it with faith and appropriate it to ourselves, and in all troubles and temptations firmly to rely, with sure confidence and trust, and to abide in the consolation that we have a gracious God, and eternal salvation on account of the Lord Jesus Christ. [He who hears these things related from the Word of God, and in faith receives and applies; them to himself, and relies entirely upon this consolation (that we have God reconciled and life eternal on account of the Mediator, Jesus Christ),-he, I say, who with true confidence rests in the Word of the Gospel in all troubles and temptations, spiritually eats the body of Christ and drinks His blood.]”

    What bothers me most about this discussion is that, in light of–or in spite of–our Lutheran confessions, we are still debating this issue. What does it mean to be “eucharistic/sacramental?” Does it mean that Jesus is saving people through faithful participation in the sacrament of the altar? If so, then yes! John 6 is sacramental. We teach that when people benefit from the Lord’s Supper, they spiritually eat and drink Christ’s flesh and blood. Does “eucharistic/sacramental” refer to the physical eating and drinking of which even the impious partake? If so, then no! John 6 is referring only to the salutary and beneficial eating and drinking of faith. We reject the manducatio impiorum.

  35. John 6 is a reference to the Lord’s Supper plain and simple. A Eucharistic interpretation of John 6 must be upheld in staying true to the Holy Scriptures of eating Christ’s flesh and drinking Christ’s blood. So quit with all of the fighting and the arguing it leads nowhere. John 6 is of the Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s Supper is of John 6. I love the Lord’s Supper and John 6 speaks of the Lord’s Supper in every way.

  36. @Pastor Adam Carl Salinas #37

    Pastor Salinas,

    With all due respect, the notes for John 6:51-58 in The Lutheran Study Bible, published by CPH, on pages 1792 and 1793 of the large print edition say: ‘Not an obvious reference to the Lord’s Supper: the words of institution are not recorded, no wine is present, Jesus speaks of “flesh” and not “body,” and the crowd is generally hostile and unbelieving’. The notes continue but I’m not going to repeat the rest. I quoted more of the notes in #13. This appears to be the public position of the LCMS. Have you read what Pastors Rolf Preus and David Preus said?

    In Christ,

  37. @David Preus #36
    We teach that when people benefit from the Lord’s Supper, they spiritually eat and drink Christ’s flesh and blood. Does “eucharistic/sacramental” refer to the physical eating and drinking of which even the impious partake? If so, then no! John 6 is referring only to the salutary and beneficial eating and drinking of faith. We reject the manducatio impiorum.

    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    “Manducatio impiorum (“eating by the impious”) or manducatio indignorum (“eating by the unworthy”) is the view, held by Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon, but denied by Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin, that even unbelievers who eat and drink the Eucharist eat and drink the body and blood of Christ.[1] [2] [3] It relates to doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and in particular to the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:27-29:
    Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.”

    I am not putting up “wiki” as an infallible source [I wouldn’t do that for all of LSB’s study notes either] But David, would you,(in English, please) tell me if your statement agrees or disagrees with 1 Corinthians 11:27-29?

    I confess to have gotten lost somewhere along the way.
    When someone insists that our eating and drinking of Christ’s body and blood is “spiritual only”, I wonder about the similarity/difference with regard to the Calvinists’ position. Isn’t “spiritual eating and drinking” their shtick?

  38. @Pastor Adam Carl Salinas #37
    So quit with all of the fighting and the arguing it leads nowhere.

    Now, Pastor, I think this is a friendly discussion! 🙂

    My Pastoral source tells me, “Pieper is to blame for all of this.” [But I probably shouldn’t have started another digression by mentioning Pieper! Possibly nobody will notice.] 😉

    Further quote: “Remember verse numbers without quotations or paraphrases are completely the translator or editors’ subjective decisions. SD VII:61 says “chiefly” but not “solely”. Ap XXIV:75 with its citation of Ambrose seems to affirm John 6 as referring to a physical eating. Rejecting transubstantiation and a strictly-natural physical eating do not require rejecting any sacramental reference by John 6.”
    [I have a whole paper on this if anyone is interested anymore.] 🙂

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