Immortality Cookbook or Invitation to the Feast?

Imagine this scenario: You are a widely recognized public figure, considered a sage with overflowing wisdom, a sought-after teacher who is able to gather adoring fans and disciples, and on top of that a worker of miracles. Your notoriety is such that feverish followers have it in their minds to make you their king, even by force if you refuse the crown.

But then you say something so offensive and intolerable, that the ones who were so zealous for you to wear the crown one moment, drop you and walk away the next moment. What words could be so offensive as to drive away a frenzied crowd who wanted to make you king?

This, of course, happened to Jesus in John 6. Here’s what He said: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53)

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing several articles interacting with what are often referred to as the “hard sayings of Jesus.” Jesus was quite literally the best teacher ever, and part of His teaching toolbox was to use figurative and enigmatic language to call listeners to lean in and think harder and wrestle deeper.

After Jesus’ cryptic words—eat My flesh and drink My blood—questions immediately swirled. The crowd was in an uproar and fought among themselves, asking, How can this man serve up his flesh for a meal?” What did Jesus mean? Even some of His closest disciples came to Him and said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”

Who can listen to it? This question likely means that what Jesus said presented a challenge on two levels. On one level, the listener is challenged to understand what the words mean. On another level, once the listener has understood Jesus’ words, the real offense has only just begun.  Will the listener receive Jesus’ message with His choice of gory new vocabulary for inheriting eternal life?


Immortality Cookbook?

We can dismiss some of the cruder interpretations of Jesus’ words. It is clear that no one in the crowd thought Jesus was speaking literally. No one supposed Jesus was seriously advocating for cannibalism and offering Himself as the first meal.[1] This is made even clearer if we note that no disciple who remained with Jesus after this incident ever tried to take a bite out of Him. Nowhere in scripture are we given a hint that followers of Jesus must ingest His actual body to receive His spiritual benefits and receive eternal life.

Still, Jesus claimed that He would offer His flesh to eat.

If we widen the frame to take in all of John 6, the meaning comes into focus. His words are part of a larger discourse with Jewish followers. The topic at hand is “bread,” or more precisely, “living bread.”

The day prior, Jesus performed an incredible miracle. He multiplied a meager offering of five barley loaves and two fish and made it sufficient to feed over five thousand people. The crowd went wild, but Jesus escaped from the frenzy and crossed over the seas to Capernaum with His closest disciples. However, the next day the crowd followed Him, and upon finding Jesus, demanded more bread and another sign in order to believe in Him. They demanded that Jesus be a modern-day Moses. Remember when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, God provided miraculous bread from heaven?

Jesus’ response was so disappointing for those with merely hungry bellies but incredible for all who come to Jesus with hungry hearts: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to Me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in Me shall never thirst (6:35)… I am the bread that came down from heaven (6:42)… Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died … I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (6:49-51).  

This is beautiful. Jesus has pinpointed that the greatest need of any listener. It is not food for the stomach, but a provision, with enough substance to solve the biggest problems of every human being—death and alienation from God and all unfulfilled hungers and thirsts of those who live apart from God.  Jesus is that kind of bread.

Jesus’ own words give us the interpretive key. The means of ingesting heavenly bread is “looking upon the Son of Man and believing in Him.” It’s those who come to Jesus who never hunger. It’s those who believe in Jesus who never thirst again. (6:35) So, we note the significant parallel when Jesus taught about eating and drinking His flesh and blood. It’s those who eat Jesus’ flesh who never hunger. It’s those who drink Jesus’ blood who never thirst again. It’s those who take of this true food and drink who live forever. (6:53-58)

The “eaters” and “drinkers” of His “flesh” are those who come to Him, take in His words, and believe Him.


Invitation to the Feast

So why use the gory, offensive language? Was all that necessary?

I assume we were all appalled when we learned in history class about the Donner-Reed party, a group of American pioneers who migrated to California in a wagon train from the Midwest, who became stranded for the winter in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. We cringe of the tales of those who resorted to cannibalism to survive, primarily eating the bodies of those who had succumbed to starvation or extreme cold.

The original Jewish listeners would have been perhaps even more appalled at the metaphor Jesus chose to use. To “eat someone’s flesh” appears in the Bible as a metaphor for hostile action (Ps 27:2; Zech 11:9).  The drinking of blood was looked on as a horrendous thing forbidden by God’s Law (Gen 6:4; Lev 3:17; Deut 12:23). In Ezekiel’s vision of apocalyptic carnage, he invites scavenging birds to come to the feast and “eat flesh and drink blood” (Ez 39:17).[2]

Yet the person who eats Jesus’ flesh and drinks Jesus’ blood is cast in a favorable light by Jesus.

For Jesus to tap into language so ghastly must mean that He desired His word to bring about a necessary confrontation. His words divided the crowd. We cannot simply shrug our shoulders either. If Jesus is confronting us with His words, then we have to respond to Him.

Jesus, we are told, will give His “flesh” for the life of the world. The words absolutely look ahead in time to the sacrifice Jesus will make on the cross. The flesh and the blood that we must eat are words of Jesus which point to His death as a substitutionary sacrifice. His words point forward to something bloody, horrendous—the cross.

J.C. Ryle’s words are helpful: “The “eating and drinking,” without which there is no life in us, means that reception of Christ’s sacrifice, which takes place when a man believes on Christ crucified for salvation. It is an inward and spiritual act of the heart and has nothing to do with the body. Whenever a man, feeling his own guilt and sinfulness, lays hold on Christ and trusts in the atonement made for him by Christ’s death, at once he “eats the flesh of the Son of man, and drinks His blood.” His soul feeds on Christ’s sacrifice by faith, just as his body would feed on bread.”[3]

 The crucifixion of Jesus is what the scriptures say is a ‘stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). We are left to wrap our minds around how the moment of Jesus’ greatest degradation is the moment of His greatest glory. We are left to wrestle with the depth our own sinfulness—that the Son of God had to die for us. We must ruminate on Jesus’ love that He would gladly give his body to be pierced and punished for our healing. We are left to contemplate the downward way of the cross.

Is the way up really the downward way of the cross? The way to fullness through sacrifice? The way to exaltation through humility? The way to influence through honoring others? The way to endless joy through relinquishing praise to another? The way to gain everything through freely losing everything for Jesus’ sake?

It is this message, the outrageous message of the cross, that we must receive and eat down to the last crumb. We must believe it down to the last sip.

Jesus is a master of metaphors. When we eat and drink something it becomes part of the body, the fuel and energy of life. You become one with what you ingest. Receiving Jesus’ words and receiving Him wholly secures the closest possible bonds to our Savior and opens the floodgates to oceanic depths of satisfaction for all our needs.

Jesus freely offers His flesh for the life of the world. But Jesus is not a short order cook. Many walked away from Jesus then, as they do now, because “what they wanted he would not give; what he offered, they would not receive.”[4] Those who believe that they have demands to make of Jesus, will always find Jesus’ meal and guestlist objectionable.

But to those who hunger and thirst, He says, “Come and feast.”



[1] Don Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary.

[2] Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, Anchor Bible Series.

[3] J.C. Ryle, Gospel of John, Expository Thoughts on the Gospel.

[4] Don Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, 303.